Tag Archives: Regulation

Classical Music As Tax

Imagine that the government required people to wear a nice suit in public spaces like sidewalks, airports, and parks. Or required a precise haircut (e.g., within the last three days). Or imagine that signs had to be most easily read in latin. Or that Mormon sermons were loudly broadcast. Such policies would reduce the rate of crime and related complaints in public spaces, by imposing higher costs on the sorts of people who commit crimes (and on many others). Is that a good enough reason to implement such policies? Now consider that some public spaces play classical music to push away undesirables:

The Port Authority is one of many public spaces across the country that uses classical music to help control vagrancy: to drive the homeless away. … [In] the mid-1980s … a 7-Eleven began playing music in the parking lot as a deterrent to the crowds of teenagers congregating there. Plenty of stores continue to use the technique. … In 2001, police in West Palm Beach, Fla., blasted Mozart and Beethoven on a crime-ridden street corner and saw incidents dwindle dramatically. In 2010, the transit authority in Portland, Ore., began playing classical music at light-rail stops, and calls to police dropped. When the London Underground started piping classical music into its stations in 2005, physical and verbal abuse by young people declined by 33 percent. … Some sources report that Barry Manilow is as effective as Mozart in driving away unwanted groups of teens. (more)

The basic question: when is it ok for the government to impose costs on some subset of people in public, because that subset contains a higher fraction of those who commit crimes? Should there be any limits on the types of people a government can favor in public spaces?

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Religion Gets Bad Rap

Indonesian police say a civil servant who posted “God does not exist” on Facebook faces a maximum penalty of five years behind bars for blasphemy. … He was attacked by a mob on his way to work. (more)

I’m an atheist, and dislike mistreatment of atheists. But I also have to admit religion often gets a bad rap. For example, I’ve been reading more science fiction than usual lately, some old and some new. I notice that they almost all include the trope of religious folks trying hard to hold back progress, often via terrorism. Perhaps this was once fair, but it doesn’t seem remotely so today. (And I don’t see it listed among other science fiction tropes.)

When religion helped turn foragers into farmers, it paid a lot of attention to sex. So religious folks still care a lot about sex, and have resisted sex-related techs, such as birth control, abortion, and IVF. But those techs are pretty old today, and only abortion remains strongly opposed. Yeah there are stem cell treatments, but that is a pretty tiny fraction of medicine.

A science fiction author from fifty years ago might have imagined strong religious oppositions to VCRs or the internet, because they aided porn. Or to cell phones with cameras because they allow sexting. Or to all sorts of “unnatural” medical techs. But overall, religious folks today seem just as pro-tech as others.

That doesn’t mean we don’t erect social barriers to new techs. But instead of being religious, most barriers today are regulatory and risk-based. As we have grown rich and eager to regulate each other, we have become more risk-averse and made it harder to introduce new disruptive techs. For example, computer-driven car tech is basically here and ready to go, but it will be a long time before we allow it. Same for automated flight and medical diagnosis,

Alas science fiction authors are reluctant to blame over-regulators as their anti-tech villain. Religion makes a safer target – most sf readers like regulation, but few are religious. Also, we tend to overestimate the importance of doctrine and dogma, relative to habits of behavior. Most religious dogma is silly and doesn’t meet our usual intellectual standards. But it also doesn’t much influence behavior. In fact, religious folks tend to have exemplary behavior overall. They work hard, are married and healthy, avoid crime, deal fair, help associates, etc. While it may seem plausible that people with crazy beliefs would do crazy harmful things, the opposite seems to apply in this case.

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Old Money Goes Broke

My last post talked about inequality among sand grains, diamonds, firms, and cities. Specifically, that their sizes are distributed like lognormals, but with thicker power law tails. I noted that firms and cities are distributed quite unequally, with a (Zipf’s law) upper tail power near one.

In this post I’ll focus on wealth. In the 1890s Pareto found that the (upper tail of) wealth and income are distributed as power laws. Recent studies of US and world rich folks

estimate powers of 1.3 to 1.5, similar to Pareto’s original findings. This distributes individual wealth more equally than firm and city sizes.

Consider a simple differential equation model:

w‘ = s*w + c*(1-w)

Here the time rate of change w’ of an individual’s wealth w is given by a zero-mean randomly-fluctuating proportional growth s, and a redistribution c. This equation gives a steady state distribution proportional to:

exp((1-a)/w)*w^(-1-a)

This approaches a power law for large wealth, with power a = 1 + c/s. This model illustrates two key points:

1) While a (Zipf’s law) power of one implies no local net change, as with cities and firms, a power above one implies net local change. In particular, the wealth of individual rich (w>1) folk tends to fall on average, while the wealth of individual poor (w<1) folk tends to rise on average. The numbers of the slowly-getting-poorer rich are only held steady by a large influx of recently poorer folks. On average, old money goes broke, while the poorest bounce back.

2) Risk-averse folks (i.e., most everyone) dislike fluctuations s, and would prefer to eliminate them. But when people are forced to suffer larger fluctuations s, the distribution of wealth will spread out, creating more very rich people. Thus policy changes that result in there being more very rich people do not necessarily favor rich people. Policies that induce larger fluctuations s create more very rich but hurt each one of them. In fact, very rich folks are often especially risk averse, investing primarily in bonds. While the US has more very rich folks than other nations, and more than in prior decades, this might be because of policies forcing the rich to suffer more challenges to their positions, and to hold larger stakes in their enterprises.

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Regulatory Differences

I recently discussed a puzzling regulatory difference: our applying work hour limits less to high than low status jobs. Many took me to be advocating fewer limits for low status jobs, and were eager to point out good reasons for work hour limits. But our not having a good reason for putting more work hour limits on high vs. low status jobs can equally well support adding more limits to high status jobs, rather than fewer limits on low status jobs.

John Cochrane similarly discussed a puzzling regulatory difference:

Ken Rogoff put in this little zinger

Medical care … fails to satisfy several of the basic requirements necessary for the price mechanism to produce economic efficiency, beginning with the difficulty that consumers have in assessing the quality of their treatment.

… really, Et tu Ken? It’s hard to know if the car mechanic is doing a good job. Get ready for the Federal takeover of the car industry. I can’t tell B grade exterior from A grade interior plywood, so we need a Federal takeover of home rehab.

Many readers probably take this as an argument for less medical regulation, and are eager to argue for or against that position. But pointing out that we have a similar difficulty assessing car mechanic and doctor quality can equally well argue for regulating car mechanics more, instead of regulating doctors less.

In general, people seem far more eager to collect respectable arguments for or against various specific regulations, than to consider the coherence of a pattern of regulations they endorse. They are satisfied to offer arguments for why janitors should have work hour limits, why musicians should not, why doctors should be highly regulated, and why car mechanics should not, all without much noticing or caring how much they treat similar cases differently.

This suggests that there is a lot of rationalization going on. That is, rather than choosing some principles and then consistently applying them, people instead pick various random policy positions and then search for justifications. There seems to be only weak pressures to even notice much less reduce how they and their arguments treat similar things differently.

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Over-Regulated Flight

Over-regulation is delaying the automation of flight:

Time was when a uniformed man would close a metal gate, throw a switch, and intone, “Second floor- men’s clothing, linens, power tools …” and the carload of people would glide upward. Now each passenger handles the job with a punch of a button and not a hint of white-knuckled hesitation. … And back in the day, every train had an “engineer” in the cab of the locomotive. Then robo-trains took over intra-airport service, and in the past decade they have appeared on subway lines in Copenhagen, Detroit, Tokyo, and other cities. …

Automation … runs oceangoing freighters, the crews of which have shrunk by an order of magnitude in living memory. … Today, the U.S. military trains twice as many ground operators for its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as pilots for its military jets. Its UAVs started off by flying surveillance millions, then took on ground attack; now they are bering readied to move cargo and evacuate wounded soldiers.

In the sphere of commercial flight, too, automation has thinned the cockpit crew from five to just the pilot and copilot, whose jobs it has greatly simplified. Do we even need those two? Many aviation experts think not. ….

Still, UAVs have yet to find a place in even the humblest parts of the aviation business – surveying traffic jams, say, or snooping on celebrity weddings. Such work has not yet been approved for routine purposes, even when the aircraft is small and controlled by a human on the ground. …

Technical problems are hardly the entire explanation. The military has proved this time and again. … For nearly two decades, automatic landing systems have been able to drop and stop a jet on the fog shrouded deck of an aircraft carrier. … “There’s no harder job for a pilot than landing on an aircraft carrier.” …

Pilotless commercial flight is overdue … Civilian UAVs could easily and profitablyt be deployed to survey infrastructure and carry cargo. … Already, … an airliner’s software typically takes over flight secods after takeoff, handles the landing – and most of what happens in between. The pilot just “babysits.” … Global Hawk .. is able to fly itself home and land on its own if it loses its satellite link with its ground station. ..

As significant as the technical hurdles are, however, by far the biggest impediment to pilotless flight lies in the mind. People who otherwise retain a friendly outlook toward futuristic technologies are quick to declare that they’d never board a plan run by software. (more)

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Em City By Combo Auction

Yesterday I outlined how combinatorial auctions could help our cities better coordinate their land use and utility capacity, without granting great discretion to a central power. But I ended with:

It would be very hard to get agreement to change to this system from today’s system of property rights and regulatory restrictions. I despair of it happening in our comfortable and change-averse cities. So we might have to wait until a big disruption creates lots of other change. (more)

Two years ago I pointed to a big-enough future disruption:

Rich stable nations … feel little inclination to consider big disruptive changes. … This frustrates rich-nation would-be-rebels like me who see our business, legal, political, etc. institutions as far from optimal. … If you long to say “come the revolution,” you might wait three to fifteen decades for the “em rev“, the whole brain emulation revolution. …

Rapid [em] growth will require huge rapid changes in economic organization, and supporting changes to business, legal, and political institutions. … Locations vying to be one of those [first em] centers may be open to big institutional change. … So if you have a favorite radical change you’d like the world to consider, you might give some thought to how your change could support a local em rev. (more)

The first em cities may be especially open to change regarding how cities are run. How might combinatorial auctions help them?

Here are my best guesses about (mid-em-era) em cities. City centers would mainly house computers, mostly running brains, and supporting infrastructure, e.g., power, cooling, structural support, part swapping paths, security, leakage containment, etc.

City centers would mostly house ems in virtual bodies doing office work, meeting often with other city workers. In most meetings, brains would stay put and just send signals; physical movement would be much rarer. Em minds would be sped-up relative to human minds as far as possible, until doubling an em’s mental speed much more than doubled its computing costs.

Outside of city centers there would be more ems in physical bodies, mostly small, helping with physical activities such as mining, harvesting, manufacturing, transportation, dumping, etc. Air cooling in the periphery would give way to water cooling closer in, and perhaps molten salt cooling very close.

All this would put a huge premium on inner city computer speed, density, and bandwidth. Cities would be very 3D, and city center computers would likely have very small physical structures generating lots of heat, making cooling crucial. Also important would be power sources, and physical paths for the replacement of devices and parts.

Today big computing centers are centrally planned, mostly with uniform parts and regular structures. But this level or coordination is may be infeasible for large cities, where diverse organizations make coordination expensive and change hodge-podge. In such a context, combinatorial auction might help improve coordination.

In am em city combinatorial auction, bids for locations could specify:

  1. spatial volume, shape, and orientation
  2. part swapping portal locations and sizes
  3. line of sight to outside, or to specific parties
  4. surface temperature and chemical corrosively limits
  5. amount and form of power and cooling, with price limits
  6. specific chemicals piped in, fluid garbage piped out
  7. communication distance from other particular residents
  8. time delay and expense to move hardware out and in
  9. support force tensors (including weight) get, support can give
  10. max stress-strain to support during earthquake
  11. limits on incoming, outgoing vibration distributions
  12. chances of incoming, limits on outgoing, leakage
  13. chance of explosive destruction, correlation with distant backups
  14. legal rules covering disputes with neighbors
  15. time commitments on each of these, and penalties for violations

As with cities today, winning allocations would say who gets what spaces with what supporting utilities, limits, etc. Competitive utility suppliers could also bid their prices to use particular spaces to supply particular utility amounts to particular locations. and futures markets about future winning bids might help estimate opportunity costs of commitment. Auction revenue could pay for utility fixed costs and repay city investors, and futarchy might choose the basic auction rules.

Yes, there’s a lot we don’t know about the future, and I could get some things wrong here. Even so, it seems worth thinking about what the future might be like, and when big institutional changes might be feasible.

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The Protection Exception

We have many regulations, justified in many ways. One common type of regulation prevents people from making and enforcing certain voluntary agreements, and one common justification for such regulation is that we protect people from hurting themselves via such agreements. For example:

Chief Justice Robert Bauman ruled in favour of the section of the [Canadian] Criminal Code outlawing polygamous unions. … Bauman said while the law does infringe on religious freedom, it is justified given the harm polygamy causes to children, women and society. (more)

However, almost every such protection comes with one huge loophole, big enough to drive many a truck through: we let people emigrate to other countries. For example, we protect you and your kids from the harms of voluntary polygamy agreements, except that you and your kids may move to a nation that allows polygamy. The same applies to pretty much any other regulatory protection we offer, such as protections against buying unsafe products, hiring unlicensed professionals, paying for sex, or selling yourself into slavery. You are allowed to do any of these things as long as you first move to another nation that allows it.

This raises an obvious question: why do we allow this huge hole in the “protections” we maintain? It would seem to me more consistent to either:

  1. Prevent people from moving to nations that do not preserve the protections we think important, or
  2. Let locals make voluntary agreements that violate our basic protections, as long they plausibly demonstrate that they are so committed to such arrangements that they’d consider leaving the nation to get them.

Its seems pointless to consistently let people leave the nation to evade our “protections,” since after they leave, they aren’t protected. What gives?

Added 11p: Some responses to comments: Continue reading "The Protection Exception" »

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Japan’s Fat Tax

This has been going on for three years, yet I just learned of it:

In 2008, Japan’s Ministry of Health passed the ‘metabo’ law and declared war against obesity. …

Japanese people are normally envied for their lean physiques. In fact, the OECD ranks them, with only 3% population obesity, one of the least obese developed countries. … Comparing the time periods 1976-1980 and 1996-2000, prevalence of obese boys and girls increased from 6.1% and 7.1% to 11.1% and 10.2%. …

The law mandates that local governments and employers add a waist measurement test to the annual mandatory check up of 40-75 year olds. For men and women who fail the test and exceed the maximum allowed waist length of 33.5 and 35.4 inches, they are required to attend a combination of counseling sessions, monitoring through phone and email correspondence, and motivational support. …

Employers or local government … are required to ensure a minimum of 65% participation, with an overall goal to cut the country’s obesity rates by 25% by year 2015. Failure to meet these goals results in fines of almost 10% of current health payments. (more)

Even before Japanese lawmakers set the waistline limits last year, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) amended its recommended guidelines for the Japanese. The new IDF standard is 90 centimeters (35.4 inches) for men and 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) for women. But the Japanese government has yet to modify its limits. (more; HT Melanie Meng Xue)

Two interesting patterns:

  1. Japanese waist limits are stricter on men, yet since men are taller health-based rules would be stricter on women.
  2. The thinnest rich nation (Japan) passed a big law to make itself thinner just as the biggest medical spending nation (USA) debated a big law (Obamacare) ensuring it would spend more on medicine.

My tentative explanations:

  1. Most societies find it easier to disrespect/mistreat/etc. low status men than low status women.
  2. National policy is more about reaffirming and supporting symbols of national pride than about addressing national needs. The USA is proud of its medicine and Japan is proud of its thinness.

Note that that if you want to regulate health it makes far more sense to regulate weight than medicine, since weight is far more related to health than medicine.

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Alcohol As Placebo

A week ago I had dinner with a respected drug policy expert who disapproves of drug legalization because he sees big negative externalities from alcohol use, and expects legalizing other drugs to make that worse. Which makes some sense. But the picture changes once one realizes that alcohol’s disruptive effects are mostly in our heads:

We Brits believe that alcohol has magical powers – that it causes us to shed our inhibitions and become aggressive, promiscuous, disorderly and even violent.

But we are wrong. In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, “Oi, what you lookin’ at?” and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, “Hey babe, fancy a shag?” and start groping each other.

The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol. There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink alcohol. … In … the vast majority of cultures, … drinking is not associated with these undesirable behaviours … Alcohol is just a morally neutral, normal, integral part of ordinary, everyday life – about on a par with, say, coffee or tea. …

This variation cannot be attributed to different levels of consumption. … Instead the variation is clearly related to different cultural beliefs about alcohol. … This basic fact has been proved time and again … in carefully controlled scientific experiments – double-blind, placebos and all. To put it very simply, the experiments show that when people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol. …

Those who most strongly believe that alcohol causes aggression are the most likely to become aggressive when they think that they have consumed alcohol. … These experiments show that even when people are very drunk, if they are given an incentive (either financial reward or even just social approval) they are perfectly capable of remaining in complete control of their behaviour – of behaving as though they were totally sober. …

If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem. … I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee. I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six “units”) of coffee “can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour”, and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so. (more; HT Rob Wiblin)

Sometimes we want to behave well, and be around others who behave well, and sometimes we want to behave “badly,” and behave around others who behave badly. We also sometimes want to (often hypocritically) signal our disapproval of bad behavior, and pay costs to “do something” about it.

Our culture has coordinated to support all of these options, by coordinating to see alcohol and other “drugs” as inducing bad behavior. Clever eh? While we can signal our disapproval of bad behavior by opposing drugs, including their legalization, it is far less clear how much such actions actually reduce bad behavior. If we completely eliminated the symbolic items by which we now we identify situations where bad behavior is expected and tolerated, I expect we would quickly pick substitute symbols, and continue on with bad behavior. Because the fact is, much as we often want to signal disapproval of bad behavior, we nearly as often really enjoy behaving “badly.”

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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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