Monday, January 30, 2006

Calling All Dentists

This afternoon I spent an hour in a dentist's chair. It wasn't very painful, thanks to modern technology and professional competence, but it was boring. I have a solution to that problem.

A number of firms produce video headsets aka head-mounted displays--goggles that create a virtual screen in front of the wearer. If my dentist provided me with one, connected to a computer, possibly my own laptop, with a mouse or equivalent where I could reach it, perhaps even a keyboard in my lap… .

I could browse the internet, play a video game, watch a DVD. The headset would be well above the dentist's working area, the controls well below. No longer would I tax the patience of dentist and technician trying to hold a magazine or PDA--I read books on PDA--where it could be seen but would not be in the way. No longer would they tax my patience with long procedures.

And if it did hurt a little, I might not notice--depending on just how absorbing the video game, or Usenet argument, happened to be.

Friday, January 27, 2006

How to Sue the National Security Agency

In a recent post, I pointed out a problem with criminal law. Since the government controls criminal prosecution, crimes the government approves of are unlikely to get prosecuted. Although FISA provides a criminal penalty of up to five years and ten thousand dollars for making warrantless wiretaps under color of law or using the information they produce, there is little chance that either Bush or the NSA employees involved in making the wiretaps will end up in jail–even if the Supreme Court rejects the Administration's arguments for why what they were doing was legal.

In addition to criminal penalties, FISA also provides civil penalties–statutory damages of $1000 for each illegal wiretap. A civil suit does not have to be filed by the government.

In order to sue, you have to show that your phone was tapped. If you send a Freedom Of Information Act query to the NSA asking for a list, they will surely reply that they have good reason not to release the information, since they do not want terrorists to know whether or not they have been discovered.

As people from both the NSA and the FBI have made clear, not all of the leads generated by warrantless wiretaps panned out. Some turned out to be terrorists and are still being watched. Others turned out to have no connection with terrorism and have been crossed off the list. When you sent in your FOIA request, all you ask for are the names that have been crossed out.

The NSA might argue, somewhat less persuasively, that a list of everyone whose name has been crossed out will reveal too much about their procedures--how they are deciding whom to tap. If so, reduce your request. All you want are half--if they insist a quarter or a tenth--of the names crossed off. Surely the NSA can select them to obscure any pattern that the whole list might reveal.

Once you have names--at least one name will do--you can sue. If the court rules in your favor, you ask for the rest of the names. At that point you have established that the NSA is in violation of the law, with anyone responsible subject to criminal penalties, so hiding information in order to be able to continue the program should no longer be an issue.

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. Several colleagues who are saw nothing inherently impossible about my proposal, but that is no guarantee that it would actually work.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Moral Luck: Part IV (and last)

In my previous post (see below) I sketched an argument purporting to show that, if we judged people by what they deserved, everyone deserved the same outcome–a radically egalitarian conclusion–and asked what was wrong with it.

Larry White offered one part of the answer. If every factor on which desert might be based, every characteristic of the individual, is due to some external cause for which that individual deserves neither credit nor blame, then we are all equally undeserving. If we all deserve nothing, any distribution of outcomes is equally just. If I don't deserve to be the particular person I am, don't deserve to be born in the country and century I was, I also don't deserve to be a human being rather than a rock–-and a rock has no claim to a per capita share of the national income.

Jadagul offered the other part. If you say "Adolf Hitler deserves to have bad things happen to him," your statement is about Hitler, not about the fertilized egg that would eventually become Hitler. If desert is applied to an actual human being, it is the characteristics of that human being that determine it–not the characteristics of the potential person, stripped of all accidental characteristics, that in some sense became that actual person. If I am hard working, honest and generous, the fertilized egg that became me, or the potential person that in some sense became that egg, doesn't deserve to have turned out that way. But I, having turned out that way, deserve to have good things happen to me.

I have discussed the question at such length for two different reasons. The first is that I find moral luck to be an interesting puzzle and paradox, only parts of which I can adequately explain away. The second is that, while I doubt there are many people who would be willing to accept the full blown version of radical egalitarianism sketched out in my previous post, the basic argument is an important element in the widespread view that equality of outcome is on the whole a good thing.

It is also an important element in views of criminal punishment. If criminals are not morally responsible for being the sort of people who commit crimes, then, arguably, punishing them for those crimes is unjust. If you believe punishment is unjust, you are likely to persuade yourself that it is also unnecessary--that crime ought to be dealt with by educating or reeducating people, rather than by punishing them. Few would carry the argument all the way, but I think it has a significant influence on what many people want to believe.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The King's Friends

"One thing that may have become clear during those conflicts was that, if criminal prosecution was controlled by the crown, the King's friends could get away with murder." D. Friedman, Law's Order Chapter 17.

England in the 18th century had neither police nor public prosecutors; any crime could be prosecuted by any Englishman. In practice most criminal cases, like tort cases in our legal system, were prosecuted by the victim or his agent. The quote above suggests one reason why they did it that way, one advantage of a legal system where offenses are privately prosecuted, such as tort law, over a system where prosecution is by the state, such as modern criminal law.

I was reminded of this point by the recent controversy over warrentless wiretaps. FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was created to control such activities, provides for a special court to issue warrants for wiretaps intended to intercept communications by a foreign enemy or "a group engaged in international terrorism or activities in preparation therefor." The National Security Agency, by its own admission, engaged in a large number of such wiretaps without such warrants, in apparent violation of the clear letter of the law.

The administration argues, on grounds that I, at least, find unconvincing, that the acts were legal. Presumably the question will eventually reach the Supreme Court. It is at least possible that the court will reach the same conclusion that I, the Congressional Research Service, and at least some legal scholars have reached.

FISA prescribes penalties for anyone who "engages in electronic surveillance under color of law except as authorized by statute." If the Supreme Court finds the administration's arguments unconvincing, that describes hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people working for the NSA. It also prescribes penalties for anyone who "discloses or uses information obtained under color of law by electronic surveillance, knowing or having reason to know that the information was obtained through electronic surveillance not authorized by statute." That describes any member of the Administration, from the President down, who was aware of the NSA program and used the information it produced.

"An offense described in this section is punishable by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than five years, or both." Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act § 1809. c.

What odds would anyone like to offer that any of the people arguably guilty of that offense will end up spending five years in prison, or paying a $10,000 fine?

My article "Making Sense of English Law Enforcement in the 18th Century"

An examination of the legality of the NSA wiretapping from The Volokh Conspiracy

Moral Luck: Part III

In my previous post (see below) I suggested that most of us use two different sorts of moral systems. One–what Nozick refers to as "entitlement"–is an accounting system. I have injured you, so I owe you damages. I have agreed to give you something, so you are entitled to get it. The other is a measure of what people deserve, based on a judgement of the person. To take an example of Nozick's, if we wager a dollar on the flip of the coin and I win the bet, I am entitled to the dollar. But I don't deserve the dollar–because I didn't deserve to win the bet.

In this post I want to work through an apparent implication of the second approach. My starting point is one simple assumption: What you deserve can depend only on you. Two people may end up with different outcomes because of factors entirely out of their control, such as whether a coin flip came out heads or tails. But such factors cannot determine what each deserves.

One obvious conclusion, and one widely accepted, is that differences in wealth or income due to accidents of birth cannot be deserved. My being born to rich parents or you to poor ones was neither my doing nor yours, so cannot affect what each of us deserves. The argument applies to my genetic inheritance as well. That too was an accident so far as I was concerned, so could not affect what I deserve.

The same is true for other accidents of birth. I did not deserve to be born to loving parents who brought me up to be a generous, honest, productive individual, nor did you deserve to be born to the opposite sorts of parents who brought you up to be the opposite sort of person. The man who ended up a guard in a Nazi concentration camp did not deserve to be born in Germany in 1920, nor did I deserve not to be, so his guilt is in large part, perhaps entirely, undeserved.

The conclusion is radically egalitarian–more radically than most egalitarians would like, since it applies not only to the difference between rich people and poor people but to the difference between good people and bad people as well. Strip off everything external, everything a person is not himself responsible for--genes, wealth, upbringing, nature and nurture both--and it is hard to see what is left on which differences in desert could be based.

One possible response is that we all deserve the same outcome, but giving us what we deserve costs more than it is worth. In a society where outcomes do not depend on what you do, there is no incentive to be honest, productive, or helpful; the result is equal poverty and misery. This may well be true, but I do not think it gets us to where I, and I suspect many of my readers, want to end up. The implication of that argument is that we should have only as much inequality as is necessary for a productive society. Every difference in outcome, on that view, must justify itself as producing enough benefit in increased size of the pie to justify its cost in a less just division.

Another possibility is to reject the concept of desert in favor of entitlement–or at least to argue that entitlement ought to be given some moral weight. The heir does not deserve his inheritance, but it was given voluntarily by someone who legitimately earned it, so he is entitled to get it. While I have a good deal of sympathy with that position, I think it is more interesting to try to deal with the egalitarian conclusion of the argument from moral desert on its own terms.

What, if anything, is wrong with it?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Moral Luck: Part II

In my previous post (see below), I raised the puzzle of moral luck--why it is that, in both law and morality, we judge people in part on the basis of factors over which they had no control. The assassin who hits his target is guilty of a more serious crime than the one who misses--and most of us see him as a worse person.

The assassin who missed might just be a bad shot--but he might also have lost his nerve at the last minute. The drunk driver who didn't quite run down a child might have been a little less drunk, or more careful, than the one who did. Seen from this standpoint, the legal distinction is a consequence of our imperfect knowledge. It is a special case of the general issue of whether we should punish acts by their consequences--ex post--or by what we know of their causes--ex ante. Interested readers can find an extended discussion in a webbed chapter of my Law's Order.

The moral version of the puzzle is more difficult. So far as I can tell, most of us believe simultaneously in two quite different systems of morality.

One system judges the state of a man's soul. The man who tried to commit murder is bad, whether or not he killed anyone. What is essential is what happened inside someone's head. The consequences for the outside world are accidents. As Adam Smith put it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his first book:

"To the intention or affection of the heart, therefore, to the propriety or impropriety, to the beneficence or hurtfulness of the design, all praise or blame, all approbation or disapprobation, of any kind, which can justly be bestowed upon any action, must ultimately belong."

The other approach looks at morality as a system of accounts. Judgements of good or bad are irrelevant--the question is who owes what to whom. If your house has been wrecked, someone is going to have to pay for it. If I am the person responsible--however innocent my motive--I am the one who should pay. If your house has not been damaged then no debt is owed, however much I wanted to wreck it or however hard I tried.

Think of the first approach as the God's eye view of the world. God knows enough to judge who is good and who is bad, who deserves Heaven and who Hell. And God doesn't have to worry about balancing accounts. If a house has been smashed but it is nobody's fault, God can put it back together again--no need for some human to pay damages. Imagining ourselves in the position of God looking down at the world, we judge people by what they are, not by what they did.

The accounting approach makes more sense from the standpoint of a society of equals. My opinion of the state of your soul is worth no more than your opinion of the state of mine. A house has been destroyed and we can, with luck, figure out who did it. Since there is no god available to do repairs, someone has to be stuck with the bill.

The distinction maps, imperfectly, to the difference between criminal law and tort law. Criminal guilt requires intent, and an attempt that does no damage is still a crime. Tort liability does not require intent, and an attempt that does no damage is not a tort. A tort case is a dispute between equals. A criminal case is a dispute between the defendant and the state. States are not gods--but they are (unfortunately) viewed as having a moral status superior to that of the individual.

For Further Reading

I have a longer discussion of the puzzle and its history in part VI of an old law review article. Of particular interest is Adam Smith's extended discussion, where he argues both that our moral intuition is wrong and that its being wrong is a good thing--indeed, evidence of divine benevolence.

And for more on moral luck--specifically, whether or not the argument leads to radically egalitarian conclusions--stay tuned.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Moral Luck: Part I

Two would-be assassins take shots at their intended victims. One hits and is guilty of murder. The other misses and is guilty of attempted murder—a crime, but a less serious one. And, legal distinctions aside, most of us will see the successful murderer as morally tainted by his act—a taint that his failed colleague, by pure chance, escaped.

Why the difference? Being a bad shot is not a moral virtue.

For a second example of the same puzzle, consider two drunk drivers, one of whom hit and killed a child, one of whom (barely) missed doing so. Again, to both the law and individual moral feelings, the former is worse than the latter. Actual blood stains, potential blood does not--even if the difference is a matter of pure chance. Why?

For a third example, consider our feelings towards someone who was a Nazi concentration camp guard. Suppose you are convinced that most people in his society, offered the job, would have taken it. Does that make him less guilty? Does it mean that most of his contemporaries are, morally speaking, just as guilty—having escaped only through the good luck of not having the opportunity to commit his crime? Suppose you are convinced that most human beings, probably including yourself, if born and brought up in his society and offered the job would have taken it. Does that mean we are all equally guilty? Nobody I know feels that way, and yet the argument looks convincing. Why should someone’s moral status, praise or blame, depend on factors over which he had no control?

That is the puzzle that philosophers refer to as the problem of moral luck. I do not think I can fairly deal with the puzzle, and my answers, in one post of reasonable length, so will stop here, await comments, and return to the topic in a few days.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Buttons and Bumperstickers

An underappreciated art form--in some ways closer to poetry than to prose. The goods ones make an argument or tell a joke or story in an impossibly small number of words.

Consider one of my favorites: "What If They Had a War and Nobody Came?" Nine words to sketch a profound and debatable point--that there is no "they," that state action always comes down to choices by individuals. Auden did it in eight--"There is no such thing as the state"--but not as well. The same point is, I hope, one of the ideas implicit in the novel I have forthcoming from Baen this spring--but it took me a lot more words.

Or, another favorite of mine, "Don't Commit Suicide: It is Illegal to Destroy Government Property." My wife offers, as a different example of the same art form, the title of an essay by Thomas Sowell: "Pink and Brown People." And, for maximum offensiveness in minimum words: "Nuke the Whales."

Herewith two of mine, both for specialized audiences. One, intended as a button to be sold at events of the Federalist Society: "Lochner v. New York was Rightly Decided." The other, a bumper sticker for those of us who spend too much time in multiplayer online games: "My Alt is a BMW."

Commenters are invited to post their favorites.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

An Externality Exercise

If actions I might take would provide benefits for other people which I am not in a position to charge them for, I have too little incentive to take them. If my actions would imposes costs on other people which I am not required to reimburse them for, I have too much incentive to take them. So let government subsidize or mandate the production of positive externalities, tax or ban the production of negative externalities, thus making us all better off.

There is a practical problem with this widely accepted argument for government interventions in the marketplace. One person's actions are quite likely to affect others in both directions--to impose both positive and negative externalities. Someone constructing an argument for a subsidy is likely to add up all the positive externalities and somehow miss the negative ones. Someone constructing an argument for banning something is likely to do it the other way around.

I first encountered this problem in my first piece of published economics. People worried about overpopulation argued that each additional child, by making the world more crowded, imposed costs on everyone else, and that it would therefore be a good thing if we all had fewer children.

Part of their argument was simply bad economics. A child does not come into the world with a deed to his per capita share of the world's resources clutched in his fist. To the extent that resources are privately owned, he gets them only if he, or his parents, offers something of at least equal value in exchange.

But not all relevant resources are privately owned. My child might pollute the air your child breathes. He might commit crimes against your child. He might use the political system to redistribute in his favor, at your child's cost. All of these are legimate negative externalities.

My child might also invent the cure for your child's disease, write a book that gives your child pleasure, help pay off the national debt, bear part of the burden of taxation for national defense, in any of a variety of ways make your child better off than if mine was not born. When I tried to add up negative and positive externalities, my conclusion was that I could not estimate them accurately enough to sign the result--to figure out whether, on average, the existence of my child made yours better or worse off, whether we should be taxing childbirth or subsidizing it.

The same problem arises in many other issues. Consider the case of schooling. Those who wish to justify our present system of public schools argue that educating children benefits everyone, and so should be paid for by the state.

I offer the following challenge to readers. List all the positive and negative externalities from educating children. For a second challenge, pick some other public policy commonly defended on externality grounds, and try to list the externalities with the wrong sign--the ones that are an argument for subsidizing what we now tax, or taxing what we now subsidize.

For my views on the issue of schooling, see this piece.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Economics of Vice and Virtue

(Condensed from my Hidden Order)

Suppose I am strong, fierce, and known to have a short temper with people who do not do what I want. I benefit from that reputation; people are careful not to do things that offend me. Beating someone up is expensive; he might fight back, and I might get arrested. But if my reputation is bad enough, I may not have to beat anyone up.

Most of the time I get my own way; once in a while I have to pay for it. I have no monopoly on my strategy; there are other short-tempered people in the world.

I get into a conversation in a bar. The other guy fails to show adequate deference to my opinions. I start pushing. He pushes back. When it is over, one of us is standing there with a broken beer bottle in his hand and a surprised expression on his face. The other is lying dead on the floor.

If almost nobody follows this strategy, such confrontations are unlikely, so on average the strategy pays. Since it pays, other people adopt it. As the number increases, the risk of lethal brawls rises and the payoff to being a bully falls. Equilibrium is reached when the risk from opponents who do not back down just balances the gain from opponents who do, making the alternative strategies–bully and wimp in my story, hawk and dove in the version told by evolutionary biologists–equally profitable.

So far I have assumed an involuntary association between the bully and his victims; he is simply an unpleasant part of their environment. As long as that is the case, there is a payoff to an aggressive personality–provided that there are not too many of them. That is not true for voluntary associations; someone who can choose whether or not to associate with the bully will choose not to. Informing a potential employer that if, having hired you, he fails to treat you right you will beat him up is not likely to get you the job.

In voluntary associations, there is a payoff to a different commitment strategy. Someone known to be considerate, courteous, the sort of person who never takes advantage of other people, who would never steal even if nobody was watching, is a desirable employer, employee, partner, or spouse. To the extent that other people can correctly read your personality, it is in your selfish interest to train yourself to be a nice guy. Hiring honest people saves not only the cost of theft but also the cost of guarding against theft–and that saving will show up in the difference between what honest and dishonest people get paid.

Here again, we would expect something like a hawk-dove equilibrium, although for a different reason. If almost everyone is honest, it is not worth paying much attention to how honest any particular person is, so a strategy of hypocrisy–appearing to be honest but cheating when you think you can get away with it–is profitable. As the number of hypocrites increases, so does the care other people take to identify them. The equilibrium ratio of hypocrites to honest men is reached when the two strategies have the same payoff.

This approach to understanding why people are–or are not–nice has an interesting implication. Being a bad person, an aggressive personality, is profitable in involuntary interactions. Being a good person is profitable in voluntary interactions. We would expect to see nicer people–more honesty and fewer bullies–in a society where most interactions are voluntary than in one where most are involuntary.

Another implication is that crimes of passion, such as the barroom brawl described above, are deterrable. I will leave the argument as an exercise for my readers.

Why Do Gangs Specialize in Crime?

Looking over a review of Freakanomics--I haven't yet read the book--I noticed the very plausible claim that inner city gangs are not all that different from other businesses. That suggests an interesting question: Is there a reason why they have to limit themselves to crime? Gangs may have comparative advantage in illegal activities since they have a structure that does not depend on using courts to enforce contracts and the like, so if there are sufficient opportunities in illegal markets, it is not surprising that they exploit them. But suppose the illegal market vanishes. Suppose we legalize drugs, prostitution, and gambling, as some of us think we should. What then?

One possibility is that gangs can only compete in illegal activities--deprived of their current revenue sources, they will turn to extortion and robbery. Another is that they are a form of social organization that works well at employing resources--inner city youths--that ordinary firms can make little use of. If so, there is no obvious reason why they cannot use them for legal as well as illegal activities.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ottoman Thoughts

The following observations are a result of reading Colin Imber's The Ottoman Empire.

For much of the early history of the Ottoman Empire, the succession mechanism was fratricide; when a sultan died, there was a civil war among his sons and their supporters, with the winner ending up as the next sultan, the losers dead, imprisoned, or in exile. On the face of it that is an expensive way of choosing a ruler. On the other hand … .

The early sultans commanded in battle, presided over the meetings of the council of state that made policy, played an active role in the running and expansion of the empire. Eventually they abandoned fratricide. Also eventually, the role of the Sultan shifted. The council of state was run by the Grand Vizier, who merely reported to and consulted with the Sultan. The armies were commanded by generals. The Sultan withdrew into luxurious isolation.

The obvious conjecture is that the two changes were linked. Fratricide was expensive--but it selected the claimant best able to win. The result was to put at the head of the empire able, aggressive, politically and militarily competent rulers. Abandon fratricide and eventually the ruler becomes a figurehead.

During the early centuries, when the Ottoman Empire was not engaged in a large war it was engaged in small ones--regular raids across the border to bring back loot. Such raids depopulated, and so weakened, the border territories of nations adjacent to the Empire, making conquest easier. And they gave people living in those regions at least some incentive to want to be conquered, in order to get to the side of the border raids were coming from instead of the side they were going to.

Raiders received tax advantages from the Empire, but were largely motivated by the desire for loot. Poor peasants do not have much worth stealing. But in a slave society, the peasants themselves are worth stealing. Thus the institution of slavery, by helping to make possible a cheap form of military force with which the Ottomans could harass their neighbors, gave a real advantage to an expansionary state.

The Best Revenge: A Platitude

You have been badly wronged. Your wife dumped you, the firm whose success is largely due to your efforts fired you, your friends--you thought they were your friends--turned against you, attacked you, and told nasty lies about you to all and sundry. Now what?

The natural instinct is for revenge--to hurt those who hurt you. If your wife wants a divorce, make the process as long and unpleasant as you can. Badmouth your ex-firm. Tell all and sundry about the wickedness of your false friends.

It's probably a mistake. Strategies of revenge only prolong relations you are already finding unpleasant and humiliating--better to end them. All and sundry are likely to conclude that, whether or not you were wronged by your friends, you have become an unpleasant bore to be avoided.

There is a better solution. Put heart and mind into finding, wooing, winning a wife better suited to you and making this marriage work. Ten years hence your ex-wife, on her third divorce, will realize what a mistake she made. Join another firm, keep a closer eye on its internal politics while working you, and it, to the top, and in time your ex-employers may notice what they threw away. Ignore your ex-friends while making a shining success of your own life. Publish a best-selling novel, write the most-cited article in your field, make a lot of money, succeed in whatever ways matter to you--and them. Whoever it is who wronged you made an implicit judgement of you by doing so. Prove, by your actions, how wrong it was.

It might work as revenge--is at least as likely to as more direct tactics. And if it doesn't, you have used the emotional energy of your anger to do something worth doing. Even if ex-wife, ex-firm, and ex-friends never notice, you have ended up with a happy marriage, a good job, a successful life.

"Living well is the best revenge." George Herbert

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Every Phone in America

A recent post by FuturePundit gave me a distinct feeling of deja vu. The following passage from Future Imperfect, a book manuscript I have had up on the web for several years, has just become topical:


The first step is to ask why, if phone taps are as useful as law enforcement spokesmen claim, there are so few of them and they produce so few convictions. …

The answer is not the reluctance of courts to authorize wiretaps. The National Security Agency, after all, gets its wiretaps authorized by a special court, widely reported to have never turned down a request. The answer is that wiretaps are very expensive. …

That problem has been solved. Software to convert speech into text is now widely available on the market. Using such software, you can have a computer listen, convert the speech to text, search the text for key words and phrases, and notify a human being if it gets a hit. Current commercial software is not very reliable unless it has first been trained by the user to his voice. But an error level that would be intolerable for using a computer to take dictation is more than adequate to pick up key words in a conversation. And the software is getting better.

Computers work cheap. If we assume that the average American spends half an hour a day on the phone–a number created out of thin air by averaging in two hours for teenagers and ten minutes for everyone else–that gives, on average, about six million phone conversations at any one time. Taking advantage of the wonders of mass production, it should be possible to produce enough dedicated computers to handle all of that for less than a billion dollars.

Every phone in America.

A Legal Digression: My Brief for the Bad Guys

Law enforcement agencies still have to get court orders for all of those wiretaps–and however friendly the courts may be, persuading judges that every phone in the country needs to be tapped, including theirs, might be a problem.

Or perhaps not. A computer wiretap is not really an invasion of privacy–nobody is listening. Why should it require a search warrant? If I were an attorney for the FBI, facing a friendly judiciary, I would argue that a computerized tap is at most equivalent to a pen register, which keeps track of who calls whom and does not currently require a warrant. The tap only rises to the level of a search when a human being listens to the recorded conversation. Before doing so, the human being will, of course, go to a judge, offer the judge the computer's report on key words and phrases detected, and use that evidence to obtain a warrant. Thus law enforcement will be free to tap all our phones without recourse to the court system–until, of course, it finds evidence that we are doing something wrong. If we are doing nothing wrong, only a computer will hear our words–so why worry? What do we have to hide?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

That was fast

Less than three weeks ago, I suggested that Democrats pull libertarian voters out of the Republican party by coming out in favor of medical marijuana. Today comes news that the Rhode Island legislature has just passed a medical marijuana law over the veto of the Republican governor.

I didn't realize blogs were that effective.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Social Scientist’s Dream—As Close as Your Keyboard

Critics of social science have long pointed out–and social scientists regretted–the difficulty of doing proper controlled experiments in their field. An economist can offer arguments to show that price control has bad consequences. He can provide extensive anecdotal evidence to support those arguments. But he cannot take a hundred identical societies, impose price control of fifty of them, and see how average measures of individual welfare compare ten years later.

That problem has now been solved—not, perhaps, for price control, but for a considerable range of propositions in the social sciences. The solution is provided by a relatively new phenomenon in high tech entertainment—Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games.

Consider Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, the MMORG I know best. It has several million customers on several hundred servers. Each server (I simplify slightly) is an identical virtual world, with a population of perhaps ten thousand players, and, since each player may run multiple characters, several tens of thousands of virtual inhabitants. Behind each of those inhabitants—not counting the non-player characters provided by the game—is a human being.

On each of those worlds, characters are making (virtual) stuff, using stuff, buying and selling. Trade occurs at fixed prices between players and non-player characters, at market prices between players, either directly or though an auction house—on which prices and transactions can be freely observed.

The economic experiments you can arrange are by market participants, not legislators or regulators, unless you have an inside line to Blizzard. Working at the market level with quite a modest research budget, you could easily arrange to be a substantial fraction of the supply or demand for a single item out of the many being bought and sold. Ten graduate students running ten characters each on a single server would be sufficient to experiment on elasticity of supply and demand, workability or otherwise of strategies for manipulating the market, and the like. To test various forms of the efficient market hypothesis, try to develop simple rules for buying and selling on the auction house that yield a positive return. The same graduate students can be running other characters on other servers, doing statistical work involving multiple identical worlds.

I am an economist, so my brief examples are economic ones, but there should be opportunities in other fields as well. One respect in which the worlds represented by different servers are not quite identical is in their populations. Servers whose internal clocks are on Pacific Standard Time are populated mainly by people from the west cost of the U.S.—with an occasional Spaniard or Korean. A server on Korean time—I am told the game is very popular in Korea—will have a rather different population. That should make it possible to do extensive studies of differences and similarities in social norms across a wide range of societies—without spending a penny on airline tickets or hotels.

So far as the cost of the game is concerned, a little over a thousand dollars a year—a small fraction of any serious research budget—will buy you a hundred characters each on every server. Most of the cost of such a project would be the time of the researchers—and grad students are not very expensive. If you select them properly you may get a good deal of their time for free, since from their standpoint you are paying the cost of their recreation.

A whole new world of research.

[Any curious WoW players who read this blog can find me and my family on the Feathermoon server.]