Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Jury Nullification Problem

Recently I was called in for jury duty. When we got to the stage where the case was described, it turned out that it involved someone whose only offenses consisted of concealed carry of a handgun.

I informed the judge that I had been at least peripherally involved in the academic controversy over whether people should be allowed to carry concealed firearms. When the judge asked if I would judge the case according to the law rather than according to my own moral beliefs, I replied (truthfully) that I would not. I was dismissed from that case, sent back to be reassigned and, since they apparently didn't need jurors for any other cases at that point, sent home.

On the one hand, I think my position was correct. Right and wrong are not made by acts of the legislature. I don't have an obligation to help other people defend their rights, but I surely ought not help cause someone to be punished for doing something that I believe he has a right to do.

On the other hand, I am not at all sure that the world would be a better place if my position on the general issue were more widely held. One can easily imagine a world where members of some unpopular group—homosexuals, say, or atheists—were routinely murdered, with the murderers getting off because at least one member of the jury approved of the murder and voted accordingly.

That would not happen if potential jury members who held such views announced them in advance, as I announced mine, and so did not end up on the jury trying that case. But although I chose to volunteer my views on the issue of concealed carry, I do not feel I was morally obliged to do so. I can imagine a more extreme case, one where someone was at risk of execution or life imprisonment for violating what I considered a clearly unjust law, where I would think the proper thing to do would be to conceal my view on the subject in order to get on the jury and there prevent the unjust outcome.

The situation feels paradoxical, since I am both approving of a moral view and suggesting that its widespread acceptance might have seriously bad consequences. But logically speaking, there is no inconsistency. I don't claim to derive my moral views from something like Kant's categorical imperative, some rule requiring that I support those rules that I would like everyone else to follow.

Even the apparent inconsistency depends on the level at which my view is described. If it is "one ought to act according to one's moral views even when they disagree with the law," there is a potential problem. But that problem comes from other people having moral views that I think mistaken. It is only correct moral views—I, of course, think my views are correct, which is what it means to say they are my views—that I think one ought to act according to.

Few people would consider it odd or paradoxical to say that people ought to act morally. But suppose someone believes that it is moral to kill atheists. Having said that I think people ought to act morally, must I also say that people ought to kill atheists? Clearly not. So a better way of stating the situation would be to say that, in my view, widespread acceptance of a single true statement might have bad consequences, as a result of the combined effect of that true statement and other untrue statements.

There is no reason why a statement cannot be both true and dangerous. Indeed, the preceding sentence is such a statement.

Monday, April 28, 2008

FLDS and common law marriage

Googling around, I found a web page from the Travis Country, Texas, Domestic Relations department (bureau? agency?), detailing the requirements for common law marriage in Texas. So far as I can tell, an FLDS couple meets those requirements, provided that the woman was his first wife and old enough to legally marry him. The page claims that being in a common law marriage has the same effect as an ordinary marriage. If so, the assertion by the Texas authorities that the couples were not legally married looks distinctly shaky.

[After I posted this, someone in a Usenet discussion pointed out a provision in the family code that prohibits persons under 18 from entering into a common law marriage. I don't know how that applies to someone who entered into it in another state and then moved to Texas.]

The Texas authorities claim that, out of 53 girls 14-17, 31 either are pregnant or have had at least one child--a way of putting it that obscures the fact that only two are actually pregnant. The age of consent in Texas is 17, so a 17 year old girl can be pregnant without any law having been violated. The minimum legal age for marriage (with parental consent) is 16, so if there was a legitimate marriage, a sixteen year old girl can be pregnant without any law having been violated. It sounds from the page I found as though a common law marriage counts.

The minimum marriage age was raised from 14 to 16 only three years ago. So a woman who is currently 17 might have been legally married at 14 and had one or more children by now.

There is a further point worth making here. A lot of the support for the attack on the FLDS comes from the widely held view that the normal pattern is for girls to be married off to older men shortly after they reach puberty and promptly start having babies. It is hard to see how that can be true if, as the Texas authorities have admitted, only two girls out of 53 in the 14-17 year age group were pregnant. And if that picture is false, that undercuts the whole argument for the extraordinary treatment they have been subjected to.

FLDS and arithmetic


I believe that when I read the original CNN report, it included the fact that two of the girls were actually pregnant. But either I misread it or the story has been revised since--at this point there is no number for pregnant girls, only for the number claimed to be either pregnant or mothers. We'll have to wait and see which is the case. It's a bit odd that they would simply lump the numbers together.

It appears, incidentally, that whether the girls actually are 17 or under is unclear. The Texas authorities seem to be judging age by appearance and refusing to accept birth certificates as evidence, at least according to a news story. Another news story refers to CPS documents claiming three pregnant girls, with at least one of them disputed by an attorney for the FLDS

Further update, uncorrection

The Time magazine story online gives the figure of only two girls pregnant. One might almost suppose that someone in the Texas CPS realized how bad the figure was for their argument and changed the account they gave to CNN.

According to the most recent statement of the Texas authorities, as reported by CNN:

1. 53 girls between 14 and 17 are in custody.

2. 31 of them either have had children or are pregnant

3. 2 are pregnant.

Assuming CNN is accurately reporting the figures, two points are worth noting.

First, the two figures appear inconsistent. If, on average, two girls are pregnant at any one time, they should be producing about ten children in four years--but the authorities claim at least 29 children–more if some of the girls have had more than one child. Even allowing for random variation in the rate of pregnancies, a factor of three is an awfully big discrepency.

[On further consideration this is wrong. At the end of four years, ten children will have been produced by mothers who were 14-17 when the children were born, but only half of those mothers will still be under 18, so only about five children will have been produced by mothers who are still in the 14-17 range. According to the Texas authorities at least 29 were.]

Perhaps I'm unduly suspicious, but it occurs to me that it's easier to prove the state is lying about whether a girl is pregnant than about whether she has had a child. To what extent the latter can be disproved with DNA evidence I don't know–I gather the population is pretty inbred, which may make that harder. The girls are all under state control–it will be interesting to see if doctors selected by the parents are permitted to examine them for evidence that they have or have not had children.

Second, a little googling turned up a teen pregnancy rate in Texas, for girls 15-17, of about 4%. [another source has about 6%] So the number of pregnant teens actually present in the FLDS population is about average. Oddly enough, that wasn't the CNN headline.

I also note that CNN is still saying, of the initial caller, that "That girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether the call was a hoax." They neglect to mention in the story that the identity of the hoaxer has been pretty clearly established, as reported in the London Times a week or so ago. The link that supposedly goes to a video on "who might be behind the calls" actually goes to a video about minors having children, with an outraged woman reporter initially confusing the number who have had children (supposedly 25 in her report) with the number who are pregnant (2). There is a link in small print in the "Don't Miss" sidebar which takes you to a reasonably complete account of the story, but one that scatters the bits of evidence through the piece and never actually comes out and reaches the obvious conclusion.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

In What Sense is Polygamy Currently Illegal?

News stories on the FLDS case refer to them as polygamists but the legal arguments in the case seem to be based on the age of the wives, not their number. This raises an interesting question: In what sense is polygamy itself currently illegal?

The answer, I think, is that in most of the U.S, indeed most of the developed world, it isn't, even where there are laws that say it is. For the most part, restrictions on consensual non-marital sexual relationships between adults either do not exist or are not enforced. The same is true of restrictions on out of wedlock childbirth. So if three or more people want to engage in a long term sexual relationship, they are unlikely to be prosecuted for doing so.

What is illegal is marital fraud–engaging in what claims to be a legal marriage with one person without telling her that you are legally married to another. That, as I understand it, is the real substance of polygamy laws as they are currently enforced. In addition, of course, while a relationship involving more than two people may not be illegal, it also isn't legally marriage. That can matter in contexts such as inheritance, disputes over parental rights, and the like–the sort of contexts where same-sex marriage is still an issue even though same-sex relationships are legal. It also matters in the context of legal restrictions on sex by age, which frequently distinguish between marital and non-marital sex.

All of which seems to imply that the FLDS could legally conduct something close to their current marital practices if they were just a little more careful to conform to the letter, if not the spirit, of the relevant laws. To start with, they would want to locate in a state where the age of consent for marital sex is low--13 or 14--and not marry any girls younger than that age. They would have to refrain from having more than one wife younger than the age of consent for non-marital sex. A man who wanted to marry a second wife below that age would have to first legally divorce his first wife–but as long as she was at that point old enough to consent to non-marital sex he could continue living with her.

So far as I can tell, this would work, legally speaking. The remaining danger, assuming it were done openly, would come from non-legal objections to the practice which might take legal form. Texas raised its age of consent for marital sex from 14 to 16 only a few years ago. For all I know, that may have been a deliberate attempt to either get the FLDS in trouble or drive them out. And even with no legal changes, the law can be used selectively, as I think is happening in the present case, against a sufficiently unpopular minority.

It long ago occurred to me that there would be a simple way to maintain a low profile polygamous relationship in modern day America. Marry wife A, have a child by her. Divorce wife A, marry wife B, continue to live in the same neighborhood as wife A. If wife A is observed to be frequently in the house of husband and wife B–she would presumably want to maintain a legal residence somewhere else–that is easily explained by the desire of both parents to spend time with their child.

Does anyone know of counterexamples to my legal claim? Have there been people prosecuted for polygamy in recent years as a result of living and having sex with two or more people, where all of them were consenting adults?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Clinton, Obama, Older voters and Gerontocracy

"Another might be to create societies dominated by the attitudes of the old: bossy, cautious, conservative."

(From a discussion in my forthcoming Future Imperfect of possible effects of solving the aging problem)

In Pennsylvania as elsewhere, Hilary Clinton does much better than Barack Obama among older voters. Obama's tentative explanation is that "they've got a track record of voting for not just Sen. Clinton but also her husband."

I have a different theory, one that also helps explain the mirror image problem—the reason so many people dislike Hilary. To me, at least, she comes across as bossy, cautious, conservative, someone who knows what is good for other people and will firmly make them do it, whether or not they want to. The feel, the gestalt, fits my description above of the old. So it isn't surprising if she appeals to many older people.

Obama appeals to young people. Part of the reason may be the impression that he is willing to take risks, to bet on luck and human goodness—the sort of political risks that might heal some of the rifts in modern American society and, in the process, establish a long term Democratic majority. The sort of risks that, if something goes seriously wrong, might snatch electoral defeat from the jaws of victory in what should be a Democratic year.

I am, by the relevant measure, old, but also an optimist. Which may be part of why I find Obama appealing, despite the small detail that he is a liberal Democrat and I an extreme libertarian, and Hilary anything but appealing.

Monday, April 21, 2008

CNN: Lying by Omission

"The raid was prompted by calls made to a family violence shelter, purportedly by a 16-year-old girl who said her 50-year-old husband beat and raped her. That girl has never been identified."

From a CNN story that claims to have been recently updated. There is no mention of the fact that a 33 year old woman from Colorado has been arrested for repeatedly making bogus phone calls to anti-polygamy activists, posing as a pregnant teen FLDS member named Sara. There is a link to a video entitled in small print "watch how a hoax may have prompted the raid," but clicking on that link brings up, as of 2:56 P.M. Pacific time Monday, a video that has nothing at all on the hoax.

Given that clear evidence that the call was bogus and who made it has appeared in various places, including the London Times, I think the final sentence of the CNN story has to be a deliberate lie, or at best a misstatement intended to mislead. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that CNN is deliberately downplaying that part of the story in order to provide a less sympathetic picture of the FLDS.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Addiction Myth

Supporters of the War on Drugs routinely argue as if most or all illegal drugs were addictive in a reasonably strong sense—use them a few time and you are hooked. Some recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show how wildly wrong that belief is.

The figure for heroin, one of the most addictive drugs studied, is that of people who first used heroin from 13 to 24 months prior to the interview, 69.4% didn't use heroin at all during the 12 months before the interview and only 13.4% were dependent on heroin during that year. Of people first using crack during the 13-24 month prior period, over three quarters had not used it in the year before the interview.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

And yet more on the FLDS phone call

Judging by the a recent story in the Deseret News, it now seems almost certain that the phone call was a fake. The story concerns a 33 year old Colorado Springs woman who has repeatedly made phone calls to anti-polygamy activists claiming to be an underage girl in the FLDS named Sarah.

Which raises an interesting question. Before raiding the FLDS compound, did law enforcement agents make any attempt to determine the origin of the phone call that was the basis for the raid? My understanding is that phone company records show the origin of phone calls, so it shouldn't have been hard to do. If they did check and found that the call was from Colorado, did they tell the judge when applying for a search warrant? If they knew and didn't tell, was the warrant obtained by perjury and so invalid?

It also raises a second question. Perhaps I missed it, but I didn't see any serious discussion in the early stages of the story of whether or not the phone call was real, a question that seemed obvious to me from the beginning. Why?

And, finally, Ms Voss, who seems to be the spokeswoman for the Child Protective People, was quoted as saying that several of the girls seized admitted to knowing Sarah but then wouldn't say anything further. If Sarah really was bogus, then Ms Voss was presumably lying. If she did it in court, under oath, she is guilty of perjury. Any odds on her being charged?

Friday, April 18, 2008

FLDS, Islam, Oneida, age and sex

One point that comes up in both news stories about the FLDS and discussion on my blog is that relatively young women—how young is not yet clear—were having sex with considerably older men. Many people see as obviously a very bad thing. One commenter took it for granted that having sex at twelve or thirteen was something which "99% of the world" would find abhorrent.

That particular claim is clearly wrong. According to Islamic tradition, Mohamed consummated his marriage with Ayesha when she was nine. I doubt that many modern Muslims consummate marriages that early, but I gather that in some communities twelve or thirteen is not unusual. And Mohamed is supposed to be an exemplar for mankind, so if he did it it cannot be abhorrent to a believing Muslim.

This is also relevant to Ms Voss justifying the removal of boys from their parents on the grounds that "I believe that the boys are groomed to be perpetrators." Pretty clearly what she means is that they are being taught a system of beliefs which justifies FLDS marriage patterns. Anyone brought up in traditional muslim beliefs is being taught that both polygamy and marital sex with women well below the current U.S. age of consent are entirely proper. Presumably, if she knew that and was consistent, Ms Voss would want to remove all Muslim children from their parents.

A further interesting point concerns the Oneida commune, also mentioned in an earlier post. They quite deliberately and openly paired up younger women with older men and younger men with older women; I have a brief explanation in a comment to the previous post. The same pattern which lots of moderns see as outrageous they saw as optimal.

Getting back to the question I raised in my comparison of FLDS and Oneida, it occurs to me that the problem FLDS is having may be in part due to the accident of simultaneously offending left and right. The left dislikes them because they are patriarchal, the right because they are not monogamous.

Which leaves almost nobody to defend them.

FLDS Phone Call Postscript

On Thursday, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said on CNN's "American Morning" that "the case really doesn't hinge upon that particular 16-year-old."

Which suggests that they may now suspect the call was a fake. Legally speaking it doesn't matter; the call gave them grounds to search the ranch and they can then act on what they found. But I find it interesting that, so far as I can tell, nobody but the FLDS people has actually raised the issue of whether the call was real.

"It's our belief that these children who are under the age of 17 have engaged in sex with older men, which is a violation of Texas law, which is also a potential violation of the bigamy laws," he said.

Legally speaking I believe he is correct, provided that the older men were not legally married to the "children" or else the latter were under sixteen. On the other hand, a little googling for data on teen sex indicates that, in the U.S., about one sixteen year old in four has had intercourse. So while it may be illegal, it is also common enough to make such a massive response look very much like selective prosecution.

Another interesting quote comes via CNN from Angie Voss, a supervisor for investigation at Texas Child Protective Services, who said that about 130 of the children removed were under the age of 4.

Boys were also removed from the ranch, Voss testified, because "I believe that the boys are groomed to be perpetrators."

Or in other words, bringing up children in their parents' religion is itself child abuse, provided that the doctrines of the religion are sufficiently repugnant.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

FLDS and the Oneida Commune

I teach a seminar on legal systems very different from ours. As it happens, today we will be discussing a student paper from a previous year dealing with the Oneida commune, the famous 19th century group marriage experiment.

On the face of it, Oneida was guilty of the same offenses the FLDS is charged with. Sex between young women and older men (and young men and older women) was an explicit part of their system and they made no attempt to conceal it. Their marriage pattern was even stranger than polygamy, since everyone was married to everyone. Like the FLDS, they saw their sexual system as an important part of their religion. Like the FLDS, they had a charismatic leader with complete authority. The FLDS is charged with brainwashing its members, Oneida had a well organized system of criticism and indoctrination.

Oneida functioned openly, publishing descriptions of what they were doing and why for a period of decades, and its final collapse seems to have been due more to internal problems—the founder was getting old, there was no well established successor, and the second generation, as with Israeli kibbutzim, was less enthusiastic about the system than the first—than to external pressure, although there was some of that.

The FLDS, on the other hand, functioned only by staying under the radar of the formal legal system. In both its recent collisions with the law, the treatment looks close to a presumption of guilt. The leader was charged and convicted with being an accessory to rape on the grounds that a woman claimed, some considerable time after she was married, that he had helped pressure her into the marriage—a result I find it hard to imagine in an ordinary case. The recent raid seized all of the children and took them away from their parents although the allegations, if true—and very likely they were true, whether or not the phone call that set off the raid was real—were only relevant to a small fraction of the children.

I do not think I have yet read any defense of the FLDS—any public statement arguing that they should be left alone to implement their very odd, and quite likely illegal, pattern of behavior. Yet Oneida, once established, functioned openly, propagandizing for its system, for decades. Why the difference?

Three possibilities occur to me. The first is that nineteenth century America was a more tolerant society than twenty-first century America, at least with regard to issues having to do with young people having sex. The second is that the Oneida commune was supported by the surrounding community, in part because it was an economically successful system providing employment, at its peak, for about 700 of its neighbors. The third is that its more symmetrical sexual arrangements—young men with older women as well as young women with older men—were less offensive.

Comments? Other explanations?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Market for Students

Our college search started me thinking about the economics of the process, in particular about the problem colleges face in using scholarship money to buy students. One question that occurred to me is why colleges care about need.

I've written and webbed a first draft of an article on the subject. What I like about it is that the observed pattern—more money offered to students with poorer parents—comes out of the model without having to be put in. I don't assume that colleges have ideological or public relation reasons to admit poor students, although it's certainly possible—in part because they also have reasons to admit rich students, on the theory that they are more likely to end up as rich alumni. Yet I conclude that, in equilibrium, poorer students will be offered more money, ceteris paribus.

Comments welcome.

Principles of Economics x 2

Listening to my daughter's accounts of economics classes she has visited during her college search, I was struck by the fact that there are two quite different courses one might teach under the label of "Principles of Economics," corresponding to two quite different views of what economics is.

One view of economics is that it is the study of the economy. That suggests that if you are going to take one basic course, it should tell you things about the economy--how big it is, how it is measured, what "inflation rate" and "unemployment rate" and GNP and NNP and such mean. My impression is that most principles texts and courses are designed to do that.

The other view—the one I favor—is that economics is an approach to understanding behavior. It can be used to understand inflation and unemployment but also to understand marriage and divorce, the arguments for strict liability vs negligence, interactions between parents and children or between teachers and students, why tariffs are passed and why armies run away. The applications to the economy have been worked out in somewhat more detail than most of the others, but they are not necessarily the most interesting or useful. Most students will at some point enter the long term contract called "marriage," so a way of understanding the world that helps them to understand marriage is useful. Most of them will never have to make any decision that depends on understanding how GNP is defined.

There are two arguments for designing a principles class around my view of economics. One is that it's more fun, more interesting, then learning lots of facts. The other is that it teaches you more useful things.

There are two arguments for the other approach. One is that it is what most students expect to learn in such a course, because most of them, like most other people, think of economics as the study of the economy. The other is that learning facts and definitions, while it may take just as much time and effort as learning ideas, requires less involvement and less intellectual ability. Hence such a course may be more accessible to a large number of students, most of whom are taking it not because they have any serious interest in economics but either to satisfy a distribution requirement or because they think that in their later careers, whether as executives or reformers, they will have to know the basic facts about the economy.

At one of the colleges we visited, I asked someone in the economics department about relative numbers of econ majors and students taking principles. The answer was that the latter was more than ten times the former. That fact helps make sense of why principles is likely to be taught, even by professors for whom economics is interesting, in a way that isn't.

This suggests a real conflict between the two approaches, from the standpoint of the department. An economics course taught as I would want will, I think, attract more majors to the department, since it shows economics as an interesting, flexible, useful set of ideas. But it may also result in lots of students who are not interested in being majors feeling cheated, feeling that instead of teaching them what they want to know the professor has been teaching them what he wants to teach.

The resources that a college or university provides to an academic department typically depend, at least in part, on how many students take their courses. Teaching Principles the way I want it teach may increase the number of majors, which brings in resources—money and faculty slots. It may decrease the number of non-majors taking the course, which costs the department resources.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Wanted: A Silent Alarm Clock

Has anyone yet found a good solution to the problem of two people sharing a bed, only one of whom has to get up a particular time in the morning? Several possibilities occur to me, but I'm not sure if any exist at present:

1. A cross between an alarm clock and a hearing aid or perhaps bluetooth earpiece. The latter would be easy enough to do--just set the alarm on your cell phone. But I'm not sure any of those would be comfortable to wear while sleeping.

2. A vibrating alarm. That's the standard solution for silent ringing on a cell phone. Could one make, or has someone made, a ring or bracelet or something similar that is comfortable enough to wear while sleeping and functions as a vibrating alarm?

3. The low tech solution—something sound muffling worn by the one who doesn't want to be woken up by the alarm.

Other ideas? Actual things out there?

Were 401 children seized on a fake phone call?

There is an intriguing feature of the raid on the FLDS in Texas that I have not yet seen discussed. The local sheriff, by his account, had left the group alone on the reasonable enough grounds that, whatever might be believed about their marital practices, there had been no actual evidence they were doing anything illegal. As he put it: "But there again, this is the United States," he said. "We are going to respect them. We're not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry."

There was then a phone call to a "family violence center" by a caller who said she was a sixteen year old who had been forced into marriage at fifteen to a fifty year old man who had raped and abused her. She gave her name and the name of the man. Law enforcement authorities moved in, searched the property, and seized 401 children and turned them over to Child Protective Services.

So far, however, they seem to have been unable to identify the girl who made the phone call. They did identify the man she accused--who turned out to be in Arizona, said he hadn't been in Texas since 1977, and has not been arrested, which I assume means that the evidence supports his claim.

Which suggests an obvious conjecture—that the phone call was a fake, possibly by someone in law enforcement who wanted an excuse to raid the ranch, possibly by someone else in the area who disapproved of the FLDS and wanted to set off such a raid. I find it surprising that none of the news stories, at least that I have seen, have even mentioned that possibility.

It is also interesting that of the two people who have actually been arrested so far, one was arrested for "
tampering with physical evidence" and the other for "interfering with duties of a public servant." Pretty clearly, both arrests had to do with what happened during the raid, not with any evidence that anyone had been doing anything illegal before the raid.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Health Costs and the Patent Puzzle

I have long been puzzled as to why countries that are primarily consumers of intellectual property choose to enforce patent and copyright laws, thus paying for things they could get for free. The most plausible explanation I can think of is that they do it because countries that are producers of intellectual property also tend to be rich and powerful, and so in a position to bribe or bully them into going along.

Drug patents present an interesting case. As best I can work it out, the reason drugs are more expensive in the U.S. than in many other places is in part ordinary price discrimination by the drug companies, in part their fear that charging the revenue maximizing price elsewhere would result in countries refusing to enforce drug patents. The difference between that case and others is that drugs provide a basis for justifying wholesale violation of patent rights that is, at least, rhetorically, much more persuasive than for other products. It's a lot easier to say "if you don't want to pay for my book, don't read it" than "if you don't want to pay for my drug, die." Hence the risk that the consuming countries will refuse to enforce patent rights is greater in that case.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Global Warming: The Hidden Assumption

On the face of it, there is no obvious reason why making the world a few degrees warmer would be a bad thing. Yet many people regard global warming not merely as a random element that might make things better or worse but as something obviously bad and obviously worth going to a lot of effort to prevent. Part of the reason, I think, is an unstated assumption—that, absent human intervention, climate is stable. Given that assumption it seems natural enough to worry about the destabilizing effect of human action, such as increases in carbon dioxide. We know the present situation is tolerable; who knows what change might bring?

That assumption is contradicted by massive geological evidence. As my geologist wife likes to point out, at various points in the past million years England has gone from being warm enough for hippos to live there to being buried under a mile of ice. And while the major glaciations are spaced out at intervals of about a hundred thousand years, they are separated by multiple smaller swings in climate. Looking at an even shorter time scale, it looks as though more than half of the temperature increase from 1600 to the present, at least in Europe, was merely bringing the temperature back up to where it was in 1100, before the start of the little ice age.

If earth's climate is inherently unstable, with or without human interference, the argument that we should play safe by not interfering looks a lot weaker.

All of which raises a factual question to which I think I know the answer but am not sure. If we consider global warming in the context not of the effect of human action but of past swings in climate, which is more dangerous—the hot or the cold end of the range? Given that the cold end involved glaciers covering much of North America and northern Europe, my guess is that it is worse, but I don't have any very detailed idea of just how hot the hot end got, and where.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A pretty good economist

I have been reading webbed articles by Austan Goolsbee, widely described as Barack Obama's economic advisor. Most of them are pretty good; he's obviously a real economist in the Chicago style, someone who sees economics as a powerful and exciting tool for explaining the world. And he generally favors markets, incentives, and the like.

On the other hand ... . Take a look at his Slate piece on the American health care system. It takes the form of a critique of Michael Moore's proposals but includes Goolsbee's own views of what is wrong and what should be done about it. He writes:

Economists call this "adverse selection" and when there is too much adverse selection—when the health of the people in the uninsured pool is extremely different from the average person in the country—the market may fail completely. Insurance companies may just deny people coverage entirely.

This is a problem at the core of our health care woes. Moore finds scores of examples—people with tumors, heart problems, lost limbs and digits, you name it. And in each case the insurance company finds a way to deny paying for people's illness even though the people actually have health insurance. He also shows people who simply cannot get insurance because they have pre-existing conditions, are too heavy, are too light, and on and on.

Without any rules against cream-skimming, the insurance companies have every incentive to keep dumping the sick people—often retroactively, after they become sick.

This confuses several different issues. One is the failure to enforce insurance contracts, with the result that the insurer who has lost his bet fails to pay off. That may be a serious problem but it has nothing to do with adverse selection or cream skimming.

That case aside, the argument is simply wrong. Insurance companies free to set the price of what they sell have no incentive to avoid insuring people who are bad risks. They can make money insuring good risks at good risk prices and bad risks at bad risk prices.

Adverse selection, as Goolsbee surely knows, requires asymmetric information—a situation where one party to a transaction has information the other does not. If the customer knows more about his health than the insurance company then the decision to buy insurance will be taken as a signal that the purchaser is a worse than average risk, insurance companies will price accordingly, and people who know they are good risks but cannot prove it will be unwilling to buy good risk insurance at a bad risk price. That is the standard problem of adverse selection in insurance and it is the precise opposite of cream skimming. The bad risks end up insured—at a bad risk price—and the good risks uninsured. In Ackerlof's famous sketch of the problem, set in the used car market, lemons sell, cream puffs don't.

All of this assumes that insurers are free to set their prices. Suppose instead that they are required to charge the same price to everyone, or at least restricted in ways that prevent them from charging bad risks the true cost of insuring them. In that situation it will indeed be in the interest of the insurance companies to try to avoid insuring bad risks—to skim the cream off the top. But the problem there is produced not by the market but by price control. The solution is to eliminate the restriction.

What does Goolsbee propose?

Addressing cream-skimming is at the heart of every responsible program for U.S. health-care reform .... These plans take aim at "pooling," for example, by allowing insurance companies to insure an entire state or region as a whole in exchange for serving everyone in that pool—no dropping, no denials, no shenanigans.

For the requirement that the insurance company serve everyone in the pool to have any teeth, it must include restrictions on the prices insurance companies can charge to those they serve. So Goolsbee's solution to a problem created by price control is—unless I badly misread him—price control.

There is, of course, another problem in the background—but one that has nothing to do with adverse selection. Someone with bad health will, on a free market, end up paying more for health care, directly or through insurance, than someone with good health. Many people, quite possibly including Goolsbee, see that as a bad thing that we should do something about. But it is not a problem that insurance can be expected to solve. Once the dice—for bad health or anything else—have been rolled, it is too late to bet on them.

Unless I am missing something, the analysis in that particular piece is simply bad economics, including the misuse of a technical term that the author surely understands. Nonetheless, my reading of Goolsbee's work leaves me more, not less, favorably inclined to Obama. His economic advisor may get some things wrong, but overall he is an economist and one inclined to favor the market.

Rather like Alfred Kahn, another Democratic economist, to whom we owe airline deregulation.

[Readers interested in a more detailed explanation of adverse selection may want to go to the relevant chapter of my webbed Law's Order and search for "adverse selection."]

Cartoonist Wanted

My daughter has been explaining musical composition, which she knows much more about than I do, to me. At one point in the conversation, trying to make sense of the idea of a line of music, I suggested that her harp could only play one; she pointed out that it could manage two. Which put into my mind a cartoon—something I am entirely incapable of producing, given a complete lack of artistic talent.

The caption is "What do you mean you can't play eight lines on a harp?" The picture shows a harp--being played by an octopus.

The Peril of Global Cooling

I recently heard a talk in which the speaker mentioned that during a period of mildly falling global temperatures in the middle of the twentieth century a number of people, including at least one prominent scientist, speculated that the earth was about to go into another ice age and argued that something should be done to warm it.

The speaker took it for granted that they were wrong, but I'm not so sure. The pattern of warming and cooling associated with ice ages and interglacials is complicated and not very well understood. We are currently in an interglacial, have been in one for a fair while, and it would not be surprising if it ended--five thousand years from now, one thousand years from now, or starting next Friday. The global cooling event that started one such episode about 13,000 years ago, the younger Dryas, seems have occurred over less than a century.

Global temperature over the past century or so have been trending up and that pattern may continue, but given how little we know about the complexity of climate science it is not something we can count on.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that global warming along the lines projected by the IPCC is ten times as likely as global cooling in the form of another ice age. Current projections suggest that global warming may be a serious inconvenience, but with a predicted temperature rise of about two degrees centigrade and a sea level rise of a foot or so over the next century there is little reason to expect it to be a catastrophe.

Not, at least, as contrasted to what we know happened during past ice ages—large parts of North America and northern Europe covered by glaciers, a mile of ice over Chicago. Even if the probability is only a tenth as high, the expected loss—probability times damage—is larger.

So perhaps it is global cooling, not global warming, that we should be worrying about.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Standards of Evidence

Hilary Clinton has been telling, in her speeches, a moving story about a pregnant woman being turned away from a hospital because she wasn't insured and dying as a result. When the hospital where it was supposed to happen denied the account—according to them the woman in question was insured and was not turned away—the campaign responded by announcing that she would stop telling the story. No apology, no suggestion that she had done anything wrong, at least according to the CNN news story.

The New York senator heard the story during a campaign visit to a family's living room in Pomeroy, Ohio, in late February. Bryan Holman was hosting the candidate and told Clinton the story. She has repeated it frequently since then.


Clinton's speech accurately reflects what she was told that day, but the campaign admits they were not able to confirm the account.

Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee said, "She had no reason to doubt his word."

Hillary is a law school graduate and, obviously, an intelligent woman. She surely knows that unsupported hearsay is weak basis for belief. Yet she repeated as fact, without checking it, a story that she had no good reason to believe was true—because it was rhetorically useful.

I don't know if such behavior falls below the usual standards for professional politicians but it is pretty good evidence that the fact she says something is little evidence either that it is true or that she believes it.