Category Archives: Regulation

Tax Unhappiness?

Last week I described how Robert Frank wants to discourage “conspicuous consumption” via big houses, cars, and barbecues, because he thinks they cause large positional (i.e., relative status) harms on others.  After describing our best data on positionality, I asked if Frank would endorse its implication that we tax should beauty aids, education, and sports.

Both Robert Frank and Geoffrey Miller eagerly point out when data shows folks being less happy doing what Frank and Miller dislike, but this doesn’t obviously fit their big theories: it is not obvious why activities that produce positional side effects (Frank), or activities that are inefficient signals (Miller), should make us less happy.

There is a very different argument one could offer however, even if neither Frank nor Miller offer it directly.  One could argue that we should in general tax the activities that make people less happy.  To justify this we’d have to assume that humans tend for some reason to do too little of what makes them happy, but it doesn’t require that we know exactly what that reason is.

Below is Table 6.1, from a 2008 paper on the “net affect” of 45 ways we spent our time.  (Net affect combines six emotions felt during the activity: happy, tired, stress, sad, interested, and pain.)  A simple policy of taxing low affect activities and subsidizing the others would have us subsidize not just parties, doing and spectating sports, exercise, playing with kids, walking dogs, and music, but also subsidize religion, eating out, and shopping.  We would tax not just work, commuting, home maintenance, and most housework, but also tax school and homework, writing by hand, buying medical services, doing personal medical care, and caring for adults.

If you don’t endorse these policies, you must have other policy criteria than just encouraging activities that directly make us happy.  That table:

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Econ Neglects Licensing

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Labor economics is economists studying work and employment.  The latest Econ Journal Watch has an article suggesting distorted priorities in labor econ texts.  In the U.S. now, less than 3% of workers earn the minimum wage, about 12% are in unions, and about 29% are required to hold a state-issued license to do their work.  But here are the priorities of “five undergraduate labor economics textbooks currently in print. … All but one have been published in four or more editions”:

LaborEconTexts

Here is my relevant theory paper, here are some sample licensed jobs,

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Beware Panic Panic

Peter Sandman says it is officials, not citizens, who needlessly panic:

[There are] people who do think avian flu is serious but don't think the public should take it seriously. That's a position held by a number of people in the government and a number of people in a number of governments who argue that, yes, we the government are going to prepare, but for God's sake don't tell the public, because . . . they might get excessively frightened, and that might be bad for their psychology and bad for the economy. God forbid people should be afraid just because they're going to be dead. As the economists earlier on pointed out, it doesn't hurt the economy all that much for a lot of people to die, but if a lot of people get frightened, that's bad for business! So, there's a sense that we dare not frighten people. The other base in this argument says, "It's serious but let's not say so," [because] there's nothing for people to do anyhow. … What I want to do with the rest of my time is rebut those two arguments.

If you ask yourself which was a bigger problem in New Orleans, people so frightened they couldn't think straight, or people insufficiently frightened who didn't get out of town, I think you can make a very strong argument that the latter was a bigger problem than the former. … In the stairwells of the World Trade Center, people were more courteous than New Yorkers usually are, and more organized than New Yorkers usually are, and there were very few signs of panic among those who evacuated the Twin Towers. . . . When you interview the survivors, the vast majority tell you they panicked, but they didn't. They're wrong. They felt like panicking, and they did just fine.

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Future Incompetence

The book Human Enhancement is finally out.  My chapter is second to last, just after a thoughtful one by Daniel Wikler:

It is often observed that mildly or even moderately retarded people do not seem dull to themselves as long as they stay on the farm (rather: certain farms), but become so immediately when they move to the city.  Here the relative difference between a dull or not-very-bright minority and the majority who are just below average, or better, becomes important, and as that majority arranges society to suit themselves, their less-bright peers become incompetent. …

Those who are rendered incompetent in this manner need supervision, and in order to protect them in that now-dangerous environment, their rights are taken away.  Humane regimes strive to protect as uch of their range of free choice as possible, consistent with the need to protect them from serious or irremediable harm (and to protect others), but there is no supposition that everyone has a natural, inalienable right to self-determination  that would rule out all configurations of the social and physical environment that are disadvantageous to the less-talented. …

What, then, would be the effect of selective enhancement of intellectual capacity – that is, enhancement of some, but not all – for the social and political world that we "normals" would inhabit?  Would it erode the foundations of egalitarianism, undermining the claims of many who now hold title ans citizens to that equal status?  Would those made or engineered to be born smart be within their rights to deprive the rest of our rights, presumably with a humanitarian intent?  In a word: yes. … 

Should we be eternally vigilant and suspicious of people who appoint themselves "guardians", profess humanitarian motives, and then take over our lives?  Or do the shoes just hurt because they would be on our feet?

This is a great test case for paternalists; if you feel that your superior minds justify ruling the lives of others, would do you accept having your life ruled by future folk with greatly enhanced minds?

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Silly Consensus

A new 8min video echos this year old WSJ article:

Imagine you were a state legislator and some folks asked you to pass a law making it a crime to give advice about paint colors and throw pillows without a license. And imagine they told you that the only people qualified to place large pieces of furniture in a room are those who have gotten a college degree in interior design, completed a two-year apprenticeship, and passed a national licensing exam. …

The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) … have waged a 30-year, multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to legislate their competitors out of business. And those absurd restrictions on advice about paint selection, throw pillows and furniture placement represent the actual fruits of lobbying in places like Alabama, Nevada and Illinois  …

Fifty years ago, only 5% of the American workforce was licensed; today it is nearly 30%. We’re not talking about brain surgeons or airline pilots, either. Louisiana requires florists to be licensed (yes, florists), and in several states — including Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia — only licensed funeral directors may sell caskets.

The only supporting argument I could find at the ASID website says:

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Animal experimentation: morally acceptable, or just the way things always have been?

Following the announcement last week that Oxford University’s controversial Biomedical Sciences building is now complete and will be open for business in mid-2009, the ethical issues surrounding the use of animals for scientific experimentation have been revisited in the media—see, for example, here , here, and here.

The number of animals used per year in scientific experiments worldwide has been estimated at 200 million—well in excess of the population of Brazil and over three times that of the United Kingdom. If we take the importance of an ethical issue to depend in part on how many subjects it affects, then, the ethics of animal experimentation at the very least warrants consideration alongside some of the most important issues in this country today, and arguably exceeds them in importance. So, what is being done to address this issue?

In the media, much effort seems to be devoted to discrediting concerns about animal suffering and reassuring people that animals used in science are well cared for, and relatively little effort is spent engaging with the ethical issues. However, it seems likely that no amount of reassurance about primate play areas and germ-controlled environments in Oxford’s new research lab will allay existing concerns about the acceptability of, for example, inducing heart failure in mice or inducing Parkinson’s disease in monkeys—particularly since scientists are not currently required to report exactly how much suffering their experiments cause to animals. Given the suffering involved, are we really sure that experimenting on animals is ethically justifiable?

In attempting to answer this question, it is disturbing to note some inconsistencies in popular views of science. Consider, for example, that by far the most common argument in favour of animal experimentation is that it is an essential part of scientific progress. As Oxford’s oft-quoted Professor Alastair Buchan reminds us, ‘You can’t make a head injury in a dish, you can’t create a stroke in a test tube, you can’t create a heart attack on a chip: it just doesn’t work’. Using animals, we are told, is essential if science is to progress. Since many people are apparently convinced by this argument, they must therefore believe that scientific progress is something worthwhile—that, at the very least, its value outweighs the suffering of experimental animals. And yet, at the same time, we are regularly confronted with the conflicting realisation that, far from viewing science as a highly valuable and worthwhile pursuit, the public is often disillusioned and exasperated with science. Recently, for example, people have expressed bafflement that scientists have spent time and money on seemingly trifling projects—such as working out the best way to swat a fly and discovering why knots form—and on telling us things that we already know: that getting rid of credit cards helps us spend less money, and that listening to very loud music can damage hearing. Why, when the public often seems to despair of science, do so many people appear to be convinced that scientific progress is so important that it justifies the suffering of millions of animals? Continue reading "Animal experimentation: morally acceptable, or just the way things always have been?" »

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Dangerous Species Warnings

For most species, officially declaring them "endangered" makes them worse off:

Ferraro, McIntosh, and Ospina (2007) find that … for a large majority of the species studied, listing under the [U.S. Endangered Species Act] has actually harmed the species’ chances of recovery.

Ferraro et al examine two different elements of the ESA’s operation: the impact of listing a species as being endangered, and the effects of species-specific government recovery expenditures. … For the 25 percent of the listed species that garner about 95 percent of all government recovery funding, the ESA seems to have produced improvements in the chances of recovery. But for the other 75 percent of species, those that are largely ignored by the funding process, the ESA has sharply reduced species’ viability, compared to unlisted species that are otherwise similar except for listing status. …

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Ban the Bear

I applaud the SEC’s courageous move to ban short selling.  Isn’t that brilliant?  I wonder why they didn’t think of that during the Great Depression.

However, I feel that this valiant effort does not go far enough.

All selling of stocks should be banned.  Once you buy a stock, you have to hold it forever.

Sure, this might make the market a little less liquid.  But once stock prices can only go up, we’ll all be rich!

Or maybe we should just try something simpler: pass a law making it illegal for stock prices to go down.

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Deafening Silence

Dan Klein harps on a too-rarely-asked question:

Counterparts to the FDA function in other countries. The FDA could adopt a standing policy that drugs permitted in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, etc. automatically become permitted in the US. Why doesn’t the FDA adopt such a policy? Is it because a drug that is safe and effective in Australia, Canada, or France may not be safe and effective in the United States?

Alex Tabarrok, in the office next door, says he often harps on this and has never heard a reasonable counter-argument.  I’m especially fascinated by situations like this, where a devastating argument against a status quo policy is met by complete silence and disinterest.  Why don’t intellectuals feel any need to respond to such arguments?  How can we make such silences more audible to more people?

Kids often analogously complain  "But Billy’s parents let him do X."  And they should add, "What makes you think you know better than Billy’s parents?"  Are we similarly just overconfident in the judgment of "our" regulators? 

Alex also harps on another tough question:

What can we learn about the need for efficacy requirements from the pervasive experience of off-label medicine, which has no FDA efficacy certification? The thrust of Tabarrok’s argument is that off-label seems to work quite well and so why not drop efficacy requirements entirely?

Alex tells me the two best counter arguments are that off-label uses are often similar to on-label uses, and that drug firms have low incentives to run tests near the end of a drug’s patent lifetime.  But then why not approve only similar on-label uses and approve all uses of unpatentable drugs (that have passed safety tests)? 

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‘Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a t**t.’

This week is Big Bang Week at the BBC, with various programmes devoted to the switch-on of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on Wednesday morning.  Many of these programmes are covered in this week’s issue of the Radio Times—the BBC’s listings magazine—which also features a short interview with Professor Brian Cox, chair of particle physics at the University of Manchester. Asked about concerns that the LHC could destroy the earth, he replies:

‘The nonsense you find on the web about “doomsday scenarios” is conspiracy theory rubbish generated by a small group of nutters, primarily on the other side of the Atlantic.  These people also think that the Theory of Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy and that America didn’t land on the Moon.  Both are more likely, by the way, than the LHC destroying the world.  I’m slightly irritated, because this non-story is symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science, particularly in the US, which includes things like intelligent design. [… A]nyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t.’ (Final word censored by Radio Times.) [1]

Who counts as a nutter and a t**t on this reckoning?  It is true that anyone who thinks there is a 100% chance that the LHC will definitely destroy the world is confused—but it’s probably also true that not many people really think this.  On the other hand, if anyone who thinks that it is worth taking seriously the (admittedly very slim) possibility that the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t, then there are many apparently very clever t**ts knocking about in our universities.  Among these are several of my colleagues: Nick Shackel has previously blogged about the risks of turning on the LHC, as has Toby Ord; and Rafaela Hillerbrand, Toby Ord, and Anders Sandberg recently presented on this topic at the recent Future of Humanity Institute-hosted conference on Global Catastrophic Risks. And, despite having chatted to each of these people about the LHC at some point or another, I’ve never heard any of them express sympathy for the view that the Theory or Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy or that nobody landed on the Moon.  So, are they t**ts or not?

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