Tag Archives: Law

Why Allow Lies?

Jonathan Turley wants to keep lies legal:

Alvarez … is a liar. … After his election to a water board in California, he introduced himself at a public meeting as “a retired Marine of 25 years,” a repeatedly wounded warrior and a Medal of Honor recipient. … He was found out, publicly ridiculed and hounded out of office. … [He is] one of the first people prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, … [which] makes it a crime to falsely claim “to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States.” …

The problem with the law they may have broken is not just that it is unnecessary, but that it can be dangerous to criminalize lies. After all, with the power to punish a lie comes the power to define the truth — a risky occupation for any government. … Now the [Alvarez] case will go to the Supreme Court, where the Obama administration will argue that the First Amendment does not protect lies as it does true statements. …

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski balked at the notion that lies can be crimes in a society saturated by untruths. “Saints,” he noted, “may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying.” Kozinski is supported by a host of studies on the human propensity, even necessity, to lie. … The dividing line in the law has always been fraud or related crimes — using lies to gain money or benefits. … But the Stolen Valor Act was designed to address cases in which the individual is not deriving financial gain or other benefits; rather, the law punishes the boast or the brag itself. …

If it is harmful to lie about soldiers, what about lying about being a former police officer or a former firefighter? How about lying about politicians or religion or terrorism? Once we criminalize lies, someone must determine what is a lie and what is harmless embellishment. … The First Amendment protects … the right of everyone to speak, even when they may be called liars. As for our heroes, they are no more diminished by pathetic pretenders than top singers are diminished by bad karoke. We know the real thing when we see it. (more)

Turley’s arguments are surprisingly weak. We needn’t let government set the truth on all topics to outlaw very clear cases of lying. Lies being common in social talk doesn’t require us to legalize all lies. We surely do not all instantly “know they real thing when we see it.” Even if the harm from lies isn’t monetary, it is clearly real harm. And we already outlaw non-monetary lies to the government.

This seems to me more about feeling that a line has been crossed, such as with a sense of appropriate social spheres. In sex and friendship, we seem to prefer that those who are not socially savvy or well-connected suffer from lies by those who are more clever and connected, at least relative to letting law get involved. It is mainly when we see dominance, via money, business, or government, that we want to outlaw lies.

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Status In Law, Finance

I recently suggested that a big part of what management consulting sells is status, to cow firm opponents into submission, and that this helps explain why consulting firms use so many inexperienced recent grads of elite colleges. JustMe commented:

There are basically three things available to graduates of elite colleges that other students, no matter how hard they work, have little or no access to: elite consulting jobs, investment banking, and corporate law.

Kids from elite colleges aren’t much smarter or harder working than those from the next tier, who are cheaper to hire. But elite grads do have much more polish, shine, etc. – in a word, status. If this helps explain an elite school focus in management consulting, can it also help explain a similar focus in investment banking and corporate law?

Corporate law seems easier. If, as I suggested, our inherited sense of who will tend to win a contest in coalition politics uses certain standard status markers, then the status of one’s corporate lawyers can influence attitudes about who will win a court case. So having a high status lawyer can help get folks within an organization to support standing firm, cow lower status opponents into backing down, and influence the verdict of a judge or jury.

For investment banking, a lot of that is about getting folks with deep pockets to open their wallets to back new ventures. The more it seems that important folks associated with a venture are high status, the more others may be willing to affiliate with that venture as customers, suppliers, investors, compliant regulators, etc. So there should be a big premium on having the key person who represents a venture to potential investors be high status.

I remember Bryan Caplan once suggesting that successful real estate agents tend to be the sort of people who were popular in high school, and that house buyers (especially women) prefer to affiliate with a locally popular person as they enter a new community. Investment banking could be similar, but on higher status scale.

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Sex Ratio & Violence

After some prodding by TGGP, I tried to dig into data studies on the relation between violence and sex ratios. Alas this seems to be one of those areas where results are all across the map:

More men make more violence: here, here,

More men make less violence: here, here, here.

Mixed results: here, here.

I quit, and tentatively conclude the evidence is unclear.

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Why Exempt The Hard To Catch?

I often post on why we make some behaviors illegal, while leaving similar behaviors legal. For example, yesterday I posted on why low status jobs get work hour limits, and high status jobs don’t. When I post on such topics, many commenters suggest that the explanation is it is harder to enforce laws against the now-legal behaviors. So I thought it might be worth pointing out how little of our legal variance is explained by difficulty of enforcement.

First, note that we now tolerate huge variations in the ease of catching law violators, without exempting hard-to-catch cases. For example, sales tax must be paid not only when using a credit cared at a chain store, but also for cash purchases at flea markets. Income tax must be paid not only for full-time employees of big firms, but also when paying cash to a transient to do some yard work. It is just as illegal to shoplift a dress from Macy’s as it is to nap a trinket from some’s house you visit. Putting trash in the wrong recycling bin is against the rules even when there’s almost no chance of catching you. Rape can be quite hard to prove, yet few are sympathetic to legalizing rape in the situations where rapists are hardest to catch.

Second, note that it usually makes more sense to adapt to hard-to-catch cases by increasing punishments, rather than exempting them from punishment. They hung horse thieves in the old wild west not because horses were more valuable than other items whose theft didn’t induce a death penalty, but because it was much harder to catch horse thieves. Punishment is often reduced for criminals who turn themselves in, as that increase the chance of catching them.

Third, note that we often require changes to common behaviors to make it easier to catch law violators. For example, we require visible license plates on cars, and require publicly traded firms to keep careful accounting records. We do this even when such rules may prevent many related behaviors. So the fact that changes might be required to make it easier to catch violators of some proposed law hardly makes it obvious that we wouldn’t adopt such a law, or those changes.

For example, if we wanted we could limit the number of hours per week that students study for classes. Yes, that rule might be hard to enforce without other supporting changes. But we could require that studying only be done in approved study halls. Or we could increase the punishment for violations. Or we could just accept that the law would be evaded often. But it seems to me far more likely that we don’t actually want to limit student hours per week of study.

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Why Work Hour Limits?

Many laws discourage and limit work hours. Laws require holidays and vacations, limit hours per day and week, and require extra payment for work over these limits. And of course income taxes discourage work more generally. The standard economic explanation for these limits is to prevent inefficient signaling. People motivated to gain relative status, to show their extra dedication to success, and to appear more able, work extra hours, for a net social loss. Work hour limits can reduce such losses. (Academic articles here, here, here, here, here.)

This argument makes some sense, but it would make a lot more sense if we set broader and more consistent limits. Yet we don’t at all limit housework, and place few limits on self-employed work. Furthermore, high status occupations are especially exempt. Doctors, lawyers, managers, financiers, artists, writers, athletes, academics, and software engineers often work crazy hours. Yet the signaling argument would seem to apply nearly as well if not better to such high status work. Why are we so selective in our limits?

One explanation is a battle for relative status between professions and activities. Areas where work hours are limited produce less, and so look less impressive. Ambitious folks who want to show their high abilities then choose other areas, leading to an equilibrium were observers reasonably less respect folks who work in limited areas. On this story, work hour limits were set in manufacturing and manual labor in order to reduce the status of such activities.

A second related explanation is that each society is eager to look good to other societies. So each society prefers to encourage, not discourage, activities that are especially visible to outsiders. When outsiders evaluate societies more on the basis of their athletes than their shop technicians, societies naturally subsidize the former relative to the latter.

Another third explanation is that voters support limits on work hours in some jobs mainly as a way to defy and “stick it to” employers, who are seen as evil and in need of taking down. Firms who employ low status workers may themselves seem lower status and “exploitive,” and thus more acceptable targets of ire. Work hour limits serve as a quantity limit which raises wages and thus employer expenses. Any reduction of signaling losses is nice, but mainly a side effect.

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Consider Exile

Today we mainly punish criminals via prison, which is very expensive. I have previously favored torture (= corporal punishment) and fines paid by competitive debtor prisons. But today, I’d like to sing the praises of exile.

To punish criminals, we could kick them out of the country to whatever other place they choose, among those that will take them. To give them an incentive to get some place to take them, we might offer a modest subsidy, and reserve an especially big punishment if no one will take them.

People worry that fines give governments too strong an incentive to find the innocent guilty (though fines paid to bounty hunters avoid that problem). People worry that torture doesn’t keep criminals off the street, and that it makes us seem cruel. Exile doesn’t have any of these problems! On cruelty, we already prevent most of the world from living here, so how can it be too cruel to prevent a few more?

Some think exile can’t impose small punishments. But you can exile someone for a year, a month, or a week. Some worry that exile can’t impose extreme punishments. But exile doesn’t have to be the whole solution, just part of a solution. For example, to impose punishments bigger than lifetime exile, beat them a bit first.

Some worry about variation in how much people dislike exile. But there is also variation in how much people dislike fines, prison, torture, and public humiliation. The best way to reduce punishment variation is probably to bundle together many kinds of punishment. Maybe fine them some, beat them a little, humiliate them a bit, and then exile them for a while.

In 2006 the US spent $69 billion on corrections, and 2.3 million adults were incarcerated at year-end 2009. A state prisoner cost an average of $24,000 per year in 2005 (source). Why waste all that money?!

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Every Move You Make

Soon the police will always be watching every public move you make:

A vast system that tracks the comings and goings of anyone driving around the District. … More than 250 cameras in the District and its suburbs scan license plates in real time. ..

With virtually no public debate, police agencies have begun storing the information from the cameras, building databases that document the travels of millions of vehicles. … The District [of Columbia] … has more than one plate-reader per square mile, the highest concentration in the nation. Police in the Washington suburbs have dozens of them as well … creating a comprehensive dragnet that will include all the approaches into the District. … The data are kept for three years in the District. … Police can also plug any license plate number into the database and, as long as it passed a camera, determine where that vehicle has been and when. …

The tag readers … cost about $20,000 each. … The District has 73 readers; 38 of them sit stationary and the rest are attached to police cars. D.C. officials say every police car will have one some day. … The District’s … officers make an average of an arrest a day directly from the plate readers. … There are no laws governing how or when Washington area police can use the tag reader technology. … 37 percent of large police agencies in the United States now use license plate reader technology. (more; also)

As prices rapidly fall, this will be widely deployed. Unless there is a public outcry, which seems unlikely at the moment, within twenty years most traffic intersections will probably have tag readers, neighboring jurisdictions will share databases, and so police will basically track all cars all the time. With this precedent, cameras that track pedestrians and people in cars via their faces and gaits will follow within another decade or two.

If firms tried to set up camera networks to collect and sell similar info, I would expect an outcry and regulations to stop them. But police will be not only be allowed to continue, they’ll probably also usually succeed in intimidating citizens away from recording police interactions with citizens, no matter what the official rules say.

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More Random Hypocrisy

In January I complained that Robert Kurzban’s book on hypocrisy focused most on an accident theory, namely:

The human mind consists of many specialized units. … While these modules sometimes work together seamlessly, they don’t always, resulting in impossibly contradictory beliefs.

Leo Katz has a new book that also explains legal hypocrisy as mainly accidental. He says that when we make decisions based on multiple considerations, each consideration is like a voter in our minds. So just as there can be voting cycles where A beats B beats C beats A, our minds can similarly have non-transitive preferences. As a result our choices depend on how they are framed. When the law does this, it leaves legal loopholes that clever lawyers can exploit.

Katz presents his theory as an alternative to:

The misguided idea … that we have loopholes because it is very hard to get laws right, … that is, … writing them in such a way that the law’s language exactly reflects its underlying purpose. (more)

Katz concludes that lawyers shouldn’t at all feel guilty about taking advantages of legal loopholes that appear to evade the law’s purpose, because, hey, there is no coherent purpose. He also excuses evading the laws of God as well as of men, as apparently one can’t expect God to be any more coherent than men, and he excuses trying to lie to associates indirectly rather than directly. It’s all good he says, no need to feel guilty.

Katz doesn’t even appear to consider the possibility I favor, that we are often designed to be hypocritical, to appear to support and follow social norms while actually evading them. Even so, Katz gives many nice examples of hypocrisy, legal and otherwise: Continue reading "More Random Hypocrisy" »

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It’s Called “Stock”

There’s something the federal government can do right now to help students caught by our terribly unjust higher-education financing system. … Under an income-contingent loan system, … students pay a fixed percentage of their income toward their loans. Payments are automatically deducted from their paychecks by the IRS. .. After an extended time period of 20 or 30 years, any remaining debt is forgiven. … The concept has been proven to work—Australia and Britain have used it for years— and … the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman proposed the idea all the way back in 1955. …

Because student loans can almost never be discharged in bankruptcy, defaulted loans can haunt students for a lifetime. … That is insane. A similar-sounding federal program, called income-based repayment, is now on the books and is scheduled to become somewhat more generous starting in 2014. But the program is administratively complicated, involving income-eligibility caps and requiring students to reapply every year. (more)

Yup, it can be easier to fund investments via “loans” whose repayment amounts are set to be a proportion the venture’s net income. This is usually called “stock,” however, and proposals for private sector stock in individual future income are usually criticized as “slavery.” Especially if such stock claims on income are exempt from the usual bankruptcy evasions. But to most folks the same policy doesn’t seem like slavery if the government does it, just like we refuse to call conscription slavery.

Some argue that the government needs to make student loans because private loan markets fail in this case. But if they fail, it is mainly because we purposely hobble private investors by not allowing them the tools we are allow governments to ensure a return on their investment. This is how a lot of market failures go these days – they are real failures, but failures caused in large part by refusing to allow private actors all the tools we allow governments.

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Municipalize Drug Law

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia isn’t a supporter of legalizing drugs. But he does believe that passing federal laws against them has done harm to the U.S. government. “It was a great mistake to put routine drug offenses into the federal courts,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. … Chief Justice William Rehnquist complained as far back as 1989 that the war on drugs was overwhelming the federal judiciary. (more; HT John Fast)

There’s no way the US will legalize drugs anytime soon, but if drug laws were up to cities or counties, a few places would legalize them, and then everyone else could see if that works out ok. And then maybe more places would legalize. Those of you who saw The Wire may recall that its successful experiment in local drug legalization was shut down by threats from feds.

Back in ’09 I suggested a similar solution on medicine. There’s no way we’ll substantially privatize medicine anytime soon, but if cities were in charge then places that let spending get out of control would decline relative to others that controlled costs more effectively. Losers would learn from winners, to all our benefit.

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