Friday, January 31, 2014

The Final Piece of the Third Edition of Machinery

The Poverty of Our Circumstances

 In sharp edged lands where many dwell
All things are true or false, and if you try,
A little thought will be enough to tell
My truth from your illusion or your lie.

From which it follows, as the night the day,
Since all of us have use of reason’s tools
That all who disagree with what I say
With certainty are either rogues or fools.

I have not found it so; the world I see
Has honest men with minds as good as mine;
I can find reasons that seem good to me
But proofs beyond dispute are hard to find.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Warning to Travelocity Customers

Recently I went to my Travelocity account to check the details of reservations I had made for a trip to the east coast in a few weeks and was disturbed to be told by the web page that I had no future reservations. I called their help number, eventually got through the phone tree, and was told that the reservations existed but that because they were changing computer systems they did not show up when I did a search for them on the web page. I suggested to the agent that they ought to have a warning on the page used to search for reservations that the results were not at the moment reliable. She seemed uninterested. I asked her to connect me with her supervisor. She said she would do so—and sent me back to the beginning of the phone tree.

Since that was not working, I sent them an email pointing out that they were giving customers frightening false information by telling them that reservations they had made did not exist, and suggested that they add a warning to the web page. I got back a canned response that showed no evidence that anyone had read my email, along with a phone number—which, when I tried it, put me back at the beginning of their phone tree. I responded to that, got back a response apologizing for the difficulty due to the changing computer system and suggesting that I call an agent to get the information on my reservations. The same number. No evidence that anyone had actually read my email or that anything was going to be done about it.

Hence this post. Travelocity customers should be warned that, as of yesterday, the part of their computer system used to tell you what reservations you have does not work and may tell you that reservations you have do not exist. If that happens, you can get information on your reservation by calling their help number, navigating the phone tree, and eventually reaching an agent who can look up your reservation for you.

P.S. a few days later. I received another email, saying that "Your e-mail will be forwarded to our Product Development team for their review and consideration." So it's possible something will be done. Or not.

Me vs Mankiw on Global Warming

A commenter on a old post of mine about global warming points at a response by Greg Mankiw. Both are from 2007. The issues have not changed since then and, while I responded to Mankiw at length by email, I do not think I ever did so publicly.

Mankiw supports a carbon tax. I argued that while a carbon tax might make sense as the answer to the question "what is the best policy for dealing with negative externalities due to global warming," it did not make sense as the answer to the question "what policy should economists support to deal with global warming" since there was no good reason to believe that, if a carbon tax was implemented, it would take the form economists would recommend. Interested readers should probably read both my post and Mankiw's before going on to my response below, which I have copied from my email correspondence with him.


It seems to me that you are making the error that was the norm in textbooks and the profession fifty years ago, before public choice theory. You are evaluating proposals for government policy on the basis of what they could do if optimally implemented not on what one can expect them to do given the incentives of the people making the decisions—what used to be referred to as the philosopher king model of government. It makes no more sense than evaluating the market alternative on the assumption that all the decision makers in that case will act to maximize social welfare rather than in their own interest. The question is not whether an optimal carbon tax designed and enforced by wise and benevolent economists would produce net benefits—very likely it would. It's whether passing a carbon tax designed and implemented as we can best expect it to be would produce net benefits.

Two further points with regard to your original blog post:

1. I wasn't making a slippery slope argument. If I had been, I would have argued that carbon taxes would initially be a good thing but would set the precedent for other bad things. In fact I argued that, as implemented, they would probably be a bad thing. As I made explicit in my post, it was a public choice argument—completely ignored in your response. I plan to send in my complaints to the Society for the Protection of Straw Men just as soon as I can find their email address.

2. My argument is  consistent with my father's views. For evidence, take a look at the discussion of professional licensing in Capitalism and Freedom. The argument is not that professional licensing, applied by wise and benevolent officials, could do no good. It is that we can expect, on grounds of both theory and evidence, that professional licensing will usually be controlled by the profession and used to restrict entry and raise prices.

If you look again at the quote from him you link to, he isn't saying that one should recommend policies independent of how one thinks they will be implemented—consider the "in light of what can be done." Professional licensing that isn't captured can't be done, or at least not reliably done, on the evidence. He is saying that one shouldn't refrain from making a proposal merely because you think it can't be passed.

In this context, the implication is that one might argue that a specified form of carbon tax would be a good thing and simultaneously that any carbon tax that could be passed would be a bad thing. I don't believe that is your position.

And, again:

Can you see any hint of evidence that the people proposing cap and trade have made any effort to estimate marginal cost of reduction of carbon dioxide, optimal level of emission, or any of the information necessary for a scheme designed to actually produce net benefits?

Isn't that question relevant to how one can expect a carbon tax (or cap and trade) to be implemented, and isn't that relevant to whether one ought to be in favor of it?

Is (insert name of newspaper/blog/TV channel) Biased?

I recently came across a post with the title "Is the New York Times Biased?" My immediate reaction was to ask not what the answer was but what the question meant. There are a lot of stories out there and no newspaper can cover all of them, so how do we judge the selection of what to cover?

One basis for deciding what to cover, common to practically all news sources, is what you think your readers will find interesting, but that was probably not what the author of the post was thinking of. Another is what you see as important and informative. That will, inevitably, depend on your view of the world. If you believe that a lot of policemen are irresponsibly violent, go around smashing down doors, shooting dogs with no good reason and beating unarmed victims to death, you will see an example of such behavior as important—this is a big problem people need to know about—and informative, since it teaches a lesson about the world that you think is true. If you believe that policemen are generally responsible and restrained in their use of force, you may see the same incident as experimental error rather than data, an exception due to a single bad apple—assuming you believe it at all. Probably not worth covering.

Suppose you do cover the incident. You are likely to look for, believe, and report evidence that fits your prior views, be skeptical of evidence that does not. If you are sufficiently honest to report the latter, you will do so only after going to a good deal of trouble to make sure it is true, more trouble than you go to with regard to evidence that supports your beliefs. The result will be a pattern of coverage that tends to support what you already believe.

In order to conclude that the New York Times' selection of stories to cover is biased, I need to compare it with how many stories on each side are out there to be covered and how important and informative they are. My view of that will reflect my own view of the world. In my case, not only does the selection of stories by the New York Times strike me as obviously biased against free markets, so does the selection of stories by the Wall Street Journal. The Journal is more favorable to the market than the Times but not nearly as much more as I am. I conclude that to describe a news source as biased says little more than that its view of the world is substantially different from mine. 

There are two other criteria for judging news sources that are, in my view, both more objective and more useful: honesty and competence. For an example of the first, consider the Huffington Post. Some years back when I was following news stories about how nutty various Tea Party candidates were said to be, one of them dealt with a candidate claimed to be opposed to the separation of church and state. I found a story on him on the Post website. It included a video of the talk the claim was based on from which it was clear that he supported the separation but disagreed with some interpretations of what it implied, and the story was consistent with that. I concluded that while the Post might have a strong left wing bias, it was also honest.

For an example of the other criterion, consider a story I read years ago in the Wall Street Journal dealing with the adoption market. It was described as a situation where the free market did not work, since there was a shortage of babies to be adopted. The article never mentioned that this was a market with price control at a price of zero, it being illegal to pay a mother for permission to adopt her child. It is possible that that occurred to the authors and they decided not to mention it, in which case the article was dishonest. But I think it more likely that, because the authors were not accustomed to thinking like economists, the role of price in equalizing supply to demand simply never occurred to them. In which case the article was incompetent but not dishonest.

To control for bias, get your information from a range of sources. If you want it to be reliable information, try to find sources that are, so far as you can tell, both honest and competent.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bogus Title, Good Story

The title is "How a Math Genius Hacked OK Cupid to Find True Love." There is no evidence in the story that the protagonist is a math genius, merely a doctoral candidate in math at UCLA. But it does describe, in reasonable detail, how he first data mined OK Cupid, a large dating site, and then used statistical techniques to analyze the data in order to figure out how to construct a profile that would attract women he was likely to find of interest—and do it without lying.

It took more than fifty dates to find one that worked. They are now engaged.

Monday, January 27, 2014

More Chapters for the Third Edition of _Machinery_

I have just webbed two more drafts of chapters for the third edition, along with the appendix, which benefited from suggestions made in comments to an earlier post. More comments are welcome. In particular:

Have I left anything out of the appendix that should be there? For the most part I do not include books I have not read, with a few exceptions.

In the second edition, I included addresses for magazines and organizations. This time I replaced them with URL's. Is there any good reason to have both?

A few items in the appendix are shown crossed out, magazines or organizations that I think, but am not certain, no longer exist. Let me know if I am wrong.

Don't bother to tell me that I am inconsistent about the punctuation for article titles, sometimes using single quotes and sometimes double quotes. The previous edition used single quotes, double quotes seem more natural to me, I changed a few then stopped on the theory that my publisher will tell me their style preferences.

Are there any topics I should cover in the new chapters and don't? They should probably be topics I have written on in the past, here or elsewhere. There are a great many other subjects worth discussing, but this is a book, not a library.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Solution to Credit Card Data Theft

There have been a number of recent stories about mass thefts of credit card data, most notably one at Target that may have involved more than a hundred million customers. An obvious response for customers is to pay with cash, but that is inconvenient for large purchases and unworkable online.

A better solution, especially for online purchases, would be some form of ecash, some digital equivalent of currency. The only such currently available is Bitcoin, which is not yet widely accepted by merchants, although that may change— recently announced that it would accept bitcoins. It is not an anonymous currency—I have described it, I think correctly, as the least anonymous currency ever invented—although there are mechanisms that have been proposed to change that. But if your worry is not that other people will know what you are buying but that they will get access to your credit or bank account, Bitcoin looks like a workable solution. 

An alternative, already well established, is Paypal. That does not entirely solve the problem, since Paypal itself has your credit information, but using Paypal for your payments means relying on the security precautions of one firm rather than every firm you deal with. 

A  better solution would be an anonymous digital currency along the lines proposed many years ago by David Chaum, ideally one denominated in dollars—the market value of bitcoins fluctuates widely, which some users would find inconvenient. The disadvantage of that mechanism, in contrast to Bitcoin, is that it require an issuer, a bank that users of the money are willing to trust to redeem it. That probably means a bank in a reasonably stable first world country. The governments of such countries are not eager to permit a form of currency that would make money laundering laws unenforceable. 

But perhaps, if enough people get sufficiently worried about having their credit information stolen, there will be enough political pressure to get some country to either issue its own ecash or allow a bank to do so under its jurisdiction. Alternatively, perhaps some government strapped for cash will decide that issuing the world's first anonymous ecash looks like a good solution to the problem of raising revenue without raising taxes.

It does, of course, have to be a government that people elsewhere will trust not to take the money and run.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Issue of Selective Prosecution

... which brings us to the reason why the D'Souza persecution theory will stick: to its believers, it doesn't matter whether he did it or not.
  (Story about conservative responses to the indictment of Dinesh D'Souza for violating campaign finance rules)
That is one way of putting it, with the obvious implication that the believers are wrong. 

Another is to observe that, according to one recent book, our legal rules have become so complicated that the average American commits several felonies, at least arguable felonies, every day. If that is anywhere close to true, a political faction with control over criminal prosecution could punish its opponents—D'Souza is, among other things, the producer of a film critical of President Obama—without ever prosecuting the innocent, there being few innocents to prosecute.

As long as more illegal acts are committed than are prosecuted, surely the case in any real world legal system, selective prosecution can be an effective tool for suppressing activities those in power disapprove of. Back during prohibition, prosecutors who were unable to convict mobsters of murdering people or selling illegal liquor got them for income tax evasion instead. I have no data, but I suspect there were a lot of other people evading income taxes who attracted less prosecutorial attention.

All of which ties into the recent NSA controversies in two different ways. 

We have the case of the director of national intelligence, who, having by his own admission lied under oath in his congressional testimony, is not being prosecuted for perjury. That is a case not of one political party against another but of a government protecting someone who committed a crime the government approves of.

It seems clear that the metadata being collected from the phone companies is accessed by law enforcement—the DEA, probably the FBI, perhaps others—as well as by the NSA. Analysis of that data—what number called what number when, for essentially all phones in the U.S.—is likely to reveal a good deal of information about what people are doing. Law enforcers with access to that information and their own view of who does or does not deserve punishment could use it to discover illegal acts and prosecute them or to discover acts that are legal but disreputable and leak the information to friendly news media; the pattern of who called whom when might, for example, reveal the marital infidelity of a politician. The ability to expose the crimes and sins of your political opponents and only your opponents could be very useful to any party in power. 

How could one structure a legal system to avoid that danger? One answer is by making criminal prosecution private, in effect expanding tort law to swallow criminal law, an idea I have discussed from time to time under the title "Should We Abolish the Criminal Law?" A video of one such talk, delivered in Warsaw, is webbed here, a more recent one, delivered in Berkeley, here

Of course, the problem would still exist if the private prosecutors on one side had access to better information, telephone metadata, say, than the other. Which is one reason to sharply reduce the ability of government agents to get such information.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Did the NSA Read My 1996 Strong Privacy Article?

Or, alternatively, were they on the Cypherpunks email list?

My article sketched the consequences of a world with a fully developed cryptographic infrastructure, including public key encryption, digital signatures, anonymous ecash and anonymous remailers. It was a world where activity in cyberspace was invisible to third parties, including the government. Some consequences were obviously attractive, such as free speech that did not depend on the current views of the Supreme Court. Some were obviously unattractive, such as making it easy for kidnappers or extortionists to collect their payoff invisibly. Some, such as making government regulation and taxation more difficult, were consequences that some, myself included, would see as attractive but other reasonable people might not.

My guess is that the NSA did not have to read my article. Although they may well have been reading the Cypherpunks list, they probably did not have to do that either. Given the nature of the NSA, they probably had people thinking through these issues for themselves, perhaps even earlier than the rest of us. I suspect that the NSA contained quite a lot of people rather like the Cypherpunks—geeks, sf fans, smart people interested in technology and the future. 

The reason I raise the question is that much of what it turns out that the NSA has been doing, in particular the deliberate sabotaging of widely used encryption software, can be viewed as designed to prevent the world I described in that article from coming into existence. That seems a natural thing for people who saw the potential of the technology and did not like it to want to do. And, for reasons that I discussed almost twenty years ago, there are good reasons not to like it, even if reasons I found ultimately unconvincing.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why is Obama Defending the NSA?

As best I can tell, Obama's proposed reforms to current security practices are mostly window dressing. He has said nothing at all about the NSA's practice of deliberately sabotaging widely used encryption software, its massive interception of text messages, or most of the rest of what it is doing and, arguably, should not be. His main proposal is to maintain a pen register on the entire U.S. population—a record of what number called what number when—while moving it one step further from direct control by the NSA.

This raises an obvious question: why? I can see three plausible answers. Starting with the one most favorable to Obama and ending with the one least favorable:

1. He really believes that the activities of the NSA help protect America from terrorists and that any significant restriction would reduce its ability to do so.

2. He believes that restricting the NSA will make him and his party appear weak on national security issues, losing him votes on the political center, and that the people who would approve of his doing so are for the most part already Democrats.

3. He regards the ability of the government to collect massive amounts of information on ordinary citizens as potentially useful for reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism—in the extreme, as a way of making it possible to blackmail politicians into supporting his policies or damage political opponents by leaking information about their sexual or other misdeeds to friendly media. In a less extreme version, as a way of identifying and prosecuting people who leak information unfavorable to his administration.

If I had to guess, my guess would be number 2, but I am not willing to rule out either of the other alternatives.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Wanted: A Better Way to Egosearch

One of the things I like about the Internet is the ability to spot people talking about me and, if necessary, respond. In the old days of Usenet, I could do it using the DejaNews search engine. I used to describe the situation as the winds of the world blowing any mention of me to my ears and blowing my response back to the ears of everyone who heard the mention—in the form of a post by me on the same thread of the same newsgroup.

Unfortunately, the DejaNews archive was taken over by Google, which proceeded to make its Usenet search engine year by year less workable. At this point, so far as I can tell, the Google Groups engine is almost entirely useless for searching Usenet. That would be a serious problem if Usenet still contained the bulk of the relevant conversations, but it doesn't. What I most want to search now is the web.

Google Internet search engine lets me do that. I can filter out most references to other David Friedmans—it is, unfortunately, a pretty common name—by including in my search string an appropriate collection of ors (Economist OR Libertarian OR Anarchist OR ...) and nots (-Basketball -Concerned -Ironic - ...) . But I am left with hits most of which are to pages with links to my blog, my web page, or YouTube videos of talks I have given. While I am happy to know that people are linking to my material, none of those is a conversation or requires a response.

What I want is some way of doing a search that will ignore my name in links and report only pages where someone is actually saying something about me. Any suggestions from those more expert in the relevant technology than I am?

(And yes, for any Usenet veterans out there, I know that the proper term is kibozing.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Should We Believe the Egyptian Poll Results?

The Egyptian authorities claim that their new constitution was approved by 98.5% of those who voted. Even allowing for the effect of some opponents boycotting the election, I don't believe it, any more than I believed similar figures when they came out of elections in the Soviet Union and similar places.

The news stories I have seen seem mostly to take the results for gospel. It's possible that their authors know more than I do about how carefully the voting was monitored by outside observers, but given how easy it is to rig the process at one stage or another when one side is running it, I am skeptical.

Any readers have additional information to add, on either side of the question?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Reality Based Community

Back during the Bush administration, Ron Suskind reported a conversation with an unnamed Bush aide who purportedly described Suskind as part of the reality based community, as opposed to the Bush people who were creating their own reality. The line was picked up and extensively repeated by people hostile to Bush and delighted to identify themselves as part of the reality based community, in contrast to him and his supporters.

It occurred to me at the time that there was a small problem with their position. The only evidence for the quote was the report by Suskind, obviously a hostile source, and he did not even identify the person he claimed to be quoting, making it impossible to check his story. Those who took his account as gospel demonstrated, by doing so, that their beliefs were based on what they wanted to believe, not on what they had good reason to believe. 

Or, in other words, that they were not part of the reality based community.

Someone recently pointed me at a piece by Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of the Slate group and author of a book on the Bush administration, that supports my suspicion. By his account, based mostly on what Suskind wrote more recently about the Obama administration:
at this point, Suskind should no longer be treated as a "controversial" journalist as much as a disreputable one. His fellow journalists no longer trust him. Readers shouldn't either..

P.S. On the subject of whether or not the left half of the U.S. political spectrum is the reality based community, I cannot resist one piece of evidence I recently came across:
"What we do know is the temperature around the globe is increasing faster than was predicted even 10 years ago."
(Obama in 2012 press conference)
The actual data, courtesy of the NOAA

The Internet as the Perfect Place for ADHD

Some years ago I took an online diagnostic test for ADHD, did not quite make the cutoff, but came close. I emailed my father and my elder son with the subject line "We All Have ADHD." My son responded with a learned discourse on the difference between our symptoms and those of ADHD. My father's response was "Your mother has been telling me that for years."

My son also described how a math professor of his at Harvey Mudd, who did have ADHD, dealt with it—by having multiple projects going, switching to another when he lost interest in one. Which struck me at the time as pretty close to the way I normally work.

The Internet provides a wonderful tool for that approach, exemplified by what I have been doing this week. My main project is the third edition of my first book. From time to time, when I get bored with that, I take a look at facebook, where I am likely to be involved in one interesting conversation or another, or one of the surviving Usenet groups I still post to. I recently finished my grading for last semester, but until I did I could always spend a little time rethinking the question of whether a marginal student deserved a pass or a no pass. I have a search string bookmarked on Firefox to find anyone mentioning me in the past 24 hours, in case something is said that I want to respond to. And if all else fails, I can always spend fifteen minutes on the auction house in World of Warcraft in my running war with the local gemstone would be monopolist or on the Timeless Isle doing a daily for a few extra valor points. 

Then back to work.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

If the Republicans Take the Senate

what can or should they do about Obamacare? The current unpopularity of the program is the reason it looks at least possible that they will not only hold the House but get a majority in the Senate. If so, what are their options?

The obvious one is to replace Obamacare with something that moves medical insurance in the opposite direction, towards something more like a free market. One  elements of such a bill would be legalizing interstate sales of medical insurance, another equalizing the tax status of individual plans and employer provided plans, which probably means making expenditure on individual plans deductible. Sponsors could plausibly argue that the savings from abolishing the ACA will more than make up for the lost revenue.

Obama can and presumably will veto any attempt to repeal his pet program. The Republicans will not have enough votes to override a veto, so their only hope would be to get enough Democratic senators and representatives to go along. That is going to be hard, but not necessarily impossible, depending on just how badly Obamacare is doing. One critical actor will be Hilary Clinton. On ideological grounds she should be even more adamantly in favor of preserving the program than Obama—but on political grounds she may be looking for a way of avoiding the political fallout from its failure. Organizing Democratic support for something she can plausibly represent as a compromise might be one way of doing so.

There is another alternative. Suppose the House and Senate pass a spending bill with nothing allocated to continued implementation of the ACA. Obama can veto it and force another government shut down. But it is going to be much harder for him to blame a shut down on the Republicans if both houses have passed a budget and his refusal to sign it is the only remaining obstacle.

Another Economics Joke

I collect economics jokes, not jokes about economics but  jokes that teach economics. It is a very small collection. I had three when I wrote my Price Theory, all of which I included. I later discovered a fourth in a middle eastern cookbook by Claudia Roden:
What is sweeter than honey?

Free vinegar.
I have just found a fifth in Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, following his definition of  frosk as a slap:
"My father was so mad yesterday," said little Morris, "that five separate times he wanted to give me a frosk."

"How do you know it was exactly five time?"

"Because I counted."

"What did you count?"

"The number of times he hit me."

"I thought you said he wanted to hit you."

"I did. Would he have hit me if he hadn't wanted to?"

Monday, January 13, 2014

Request for Help: Machinery of Freedom 3rd Edition Appendix

Appendix 2 of my Machinery of Freedom lists books, magazines, articles and organizations likely to be of interest to my readers. It was last updated (by my friend Jeff Hummel) about fifteen years ago, when the second edition was produced. I am currently working on the third edition, which I hope to have out, probably with my current publisher, sometime this year, and could use help updating the appendix.

If you know of a book, magazine, organization, web page, blog, or anything else along those general lines that you think I should add, let me know, either as a comment here or as an email. To see what is currently in the appendix, some of it doubtless now out of date, you can download the pdf of the book from my web page.

I have also webbed the current drafts of the new chapters for the new edition for comments. Comments pointing out typos are useful, comments on what parts are unclear or seem to be wrong even more useful.

Obama's Failure And College Political Culture

Recent news stories have been commenting on the sharp drop in support for Obama among young voters, disappointed both with his failure to live up to their imaginings and with the reality of policies he supported (Obamacare) or tolerated (NSA). The interesting question, going beyond the next few elections, is what effect if any this will have on their political views.

One thing that struck us when we were visiting colleges our kids were considering and that then struck our kids as college students was the uniformity of left wing views at elite colleges. By our daughter's account, the difference between Oberlin, where she started, and Chicago, which she transferred to, was that while at both schools most students took left wing views for granted, at Chicago they were at least curious as to why someone might disagree. At Oberlin the default assumption was that if you didn't agree you were either stupid or evil.

I expect that students at both schools, indeed at all the schools we looked at, voted and worked for Obama in both his elections. If many now think that was a mistake—according to one poll, nearly half of young voters said they would recall Obama if they could—how will that affect their political views?

One possibility is that it won't. They will conclude that the policies they supported were good ones, they  got fooled this time by a clever politician who pretended to support those policies and will try in the future to find and support politicians who really do support them.

Another is that they will conclude that the policies they supported were good ones but the political system is hopelessly corrupt, so the right response is either to withdraw from politics, try to foment a revolution, or try to change the system in some fundamental way, perhaps by "getting money out of politics." The last is the theme of the "NH Rebellion" that Larry Lessig has been posting about of late.

A final and more optimistic possibility is that they will conclude that they were wrong. If the system works so badly even when their hero is elected with a large majority and (initially) control of both houses of Congress, perhaps more government isn't really the solution to the world's problems after all. If the federal government can't run a web site nearly as well as Amazon, perhaps it isn't competent to run everything. Perhaps, even, we would be better off if it ran less of the world instead of more.

Different students will reach different conclusions, probably including all of those and others I have not thought of. My guess is that the political monoculture of (at least) elite colleges will survive Obama's failure, due if nothing else to the pressures of conformity. But one can hope.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Other Way To Run a Restaurant

A restaurant provides two different products—food and a place to eat it. In two different posts, one recent and one older, I raised the question of why restaurants only charge for the first. Why not have a restaurant which charges separately for the food and the use of a table?

According to a recent news story, there is now a cafe in London that reverses the usual policy. Food and everything else is free—except for the per minute cost of being there. 

The entrepreneur calls it an anti-cafe.

P.S. A commenter points to a post by a prominent restaurant entrepreneur arguing for my system—but I gather he hasn't actually implemented it yet.

Friday, January 10, 2014

007 and the NSA

James Bond, the protagonist of Ian Fleming's popular series of novels and the movies based on them, was number 007 in the British secret service. As was explained in the first book, the 00 number meant that he was licensed to kill. So far as I can remember—I read the books a long time ago—it was never explained exactly what were the limits of the license or under what legal theory it was granted.

I do not think it was ever suggested that he was only allowed to kill in self-defense since that, after all, requires no special number. He clearly did not have the hangman's job of executing people who had been convicted of a capital offense. He was not a soldier in a declared war. Off hand, those are the only contexts I can think of in which deliberately killing another human being is legal under the Anglo-American legal system. Which suggests that what Bond had was a license to break the law.

Defenders of the NSA argue that everything it does, with the exception of occasional mistakes, is legal under their interpretation of the relevant law. None of them, so far as I know, have argued that the NSA is entitled to break the law. On the other hand, I have seen no arguments claiming that the Patriot act entitled government officials to lie to Congress under oath, as the Director of National Intelligence has admitted doing. Yet the only calls I have seen for indicting him for perjury have been from people already critical of the NSA. From which I conclude that the defenders of the NSA, from Obama on down, really do believe that government security agents are entitled to break the law without the usual consequences, however unwilling they may be to say so.

As it happens, the same issue comes up in my novel Salamander, although not in our world. The speaker is Prince Kieron, brother and heir of the king and royal official in charge of dealing with magery:
The King is not above the law. Nonetheless, I will not promise never to violate bounds or law myself, nor will I promise to instruct my servants never to do so. Law-breaking is a bad thing, whether by the King's servants or anyone else, but there are worse things, some of which it is my responsibility to deal with. I will promise not to violate bounds or law save in the most extreme circumstances, and to do my best to see that my servants will not, so that incidents such as the two you have described do not occur again. If my people are charged, as Fieras was, I will do my best to see that they get an honest trial. 
The claim that the end does not justify the means cannot be true in general—with enough at stake, all of us are willing to do things we would normally disapprove of. Kieron is not a villain. He is an intelligent, well intentioned, and reasonably honest man trying to deal with what he correctly sees as a terrible threat. Insofar as he is making a mistake, it is not bad moral reasoning. It is being too confident that his judgement is correct, hence that he is entitled, if necessary, to overrule by force or fraud the opinions of other intelligent and well intentioned people who disagree with him. 

Similarly in our world. It is easy enough to come up with hypothetical situations in which an NSA agent is morally justified in tapping a phone without a warrant or a high up intelligence official in lying to Congress. It is much harder to come up with a plausible reason to believe that the willingness of agents or officials to break the law whenever they think doing so is in the national interest is, on net, a good thing.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Only Evidence in Christie's Favor

I do not often comment on current political flaps, but this one is hard to resist. It now seems clear that people close to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie deliberately created a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge on four successive days in order to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, the town on the N.J. side of the bridge, for not supporting Christie's reelection. The only question that remains open is Christie's own role—whether it was done on his orders, not on his orders but with his knowledge, or, as he claims, entirely behind his back.

There is only one piece of evidence that I can see in Christie's favor—the fact that he would have had to be terminally stupid to think he could get away with it. 

Of course, that leaves the conclusion that the two people known to be responsible, a high up Christie aid whom he has just fired and the Port Authority official actually responsible for closing down the lanes who has now resigned, both close to Christie, were terminally stupid as well as criminally irresponsible. Prior to this, Christie was the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. A chief executive, whether governor or president, is not just one man but a team. On the interpretation most favorable to Christie, this shows that he is not competent, indeed dangerously incompetent, at selecting people to help him do his job.

One other point is suggested by the story, not about Christie but about the Port Authority and government actors more generally. Average weekday traffic volume eastbound on the bridge, found with a little googling, is a bit over 150,000 vehicles. Assume a third of them got delayed by the traffic jam for an hour each. Assume their occupants value their time at ten dollars an hour. Assume one person per vehicle. On those very conservative assumptions, a single Port Authority official, acting in effect on a whim, imposed a cost of two million dollars on New York commuters and it took four days for anyone else in the organization to notice and do something about it. More generous assumptions could easily push the number up to five or ten million.

What economists refer to as market failure occurs as a result of individuals taking actions whose net costs or benefits are born by other people. I have long argued that, while market failure is a real problem in ordinary private markets where such situations occasionally occur, it is a much larger problem in political markets, where it represents not the exception but the rule. Take this as a particularly striking example.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Rereading my Blog

I've recently been going through old posts and the associated comment threads for a variety of reasons. Some I had almost entirely forgotten. The overall impression reminds me of the four volumes of Orwell's letters and essays, a work I'm fond of reading and rereading—a mixture of comments on a wide range of subject with a common voice. Orwell did not have a blog or comment threads, but he did have correspondents.

One interesting old post with a comment thread 170 comments long was sparked by the controversy over the Ron Paul newsletters. It dealt with divisions within the libertarian movement that were more cultural than ideological. The newsletters contained a number of articles that were deliberately and forcefully politically incorrect. Some libertarians strongly disapproved, others had the opposite reaction. As I saw it, the disapproval was from people with friends were  on the left, culturally and politically, who saw it as both rude and counterproductive to deliberately offend their friends and did not want to be identified with those who did so. The approval was coming from people who saw the attempt to keep speech politically correct as offensive and were happy to see it defied and those responsible offended. From the standpoint of the first group the second were boors, from the standpoint of the second the first were wimps. Some in the commenting thread labeled the same division as between cosmolibertarians and paleolibertarians.

One commenter argued, I think correctly, that both groups were wimps and both were boors—with regard to different targets. The people I labeled wimps were perfectly happy to say unkind things about religious fundamentalists, southern admirers of the confederacy and other people they did not know or want to be associated with. The people I labeled boors had friends among those groups and, although they might not agree with them, were disinclined to be rude to them. The first group saw the willingness of the second to tolerate people they did not want tolerated as a fault, and the second group similarly with regard to the first. Almost perfect symmetry.

An interesting discussion, and not the only such in the past eight years of blogging. If only blogs had been invented a few centuries earlier.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Hardwired Tribalism

A few days ago, shopping in a local supermarket, I noticed a stranger and promptly categorized him as one of us. He was (I'm guessing) in his twenties, somewhat overweight, wearing shorts, a T-shirt, a scruffy beard, engaged in animated conversation with two younger companions. Animated conversation aside, none of that describes me. My instinctive reaction reflected the fact that he fit the pattern of people in environments where I am comfortable. He was probably an sf fan, probably a board game or computer game player, possibly a World of Warcraft player, possibly an SCA member.

Like most moderns, I am a member of more than one tribe. Some years back, when we were visiting colleges that one or the other of our children was considering, I took advantage of that fact to find sources of information not funneled through the admissions department. Part was locating members of the local SCA group, if there was one, and talking with them about the school. Part was wandering around the economics department getting into conversations. Economists are more willing to talk freely to a fellow economist than to a random parent, a trait I took advantage of.

For one final and stranger example, I offer my response to seeing someone else driving the same model and color of car I drive. I know nothing else about the driver, but my instinctive reaction is to categorize him as a sort of distant kin.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Twenty Years After

Yesterday's New York Times Sunday Review has an article that describes current plans by a county in Texas to implement an idea from an article that I coauthored in 1993. It was published again in a shorter form aimed at a more general audience in 2010. It was that version that brought it to the attention of someone prepared to try it out.

The idea is quite simple. Under current law, someone who is charged with a felony and cannot afford a lawyer has one provided for him. The system has been extensively criticized as providing very little protection to defendants, mostly on the grounds that the money available is inadequate to fund a serious defense. In some places the lawyer is appointed by the judge, in some there is an office of the public defender. In none does the defendant  have control over the choice of the person who is supposed to represent his interests.

Steve Schulhofer, at the time a professor at the University of Chicago Law School where I was a faculty fellow, came to me with an idea. While one problem with the system might be inadequate resources, another was poor incentives. A lawyer who wanted to be paid to represent indigents did not have to please his "clients," he had to please whoever appointed him. However little he was paid, he could always do less work than that. And one obvious way to please the judge or whoever else was responsible for choosing lawyers to defend the indigent was by persuading the defendant to agree to plead guilty, thus saving everyone else a lot of time and trouble.

Steve's solution was simple: a voucher system. Whatever the state was willing to pay, let the defendant choose the lawyer. For details, see the shorter version of our article. It struck me as an obviously good idea, and we ended up jointly writing the article.

Steve was viewed as on the left wing of the Law School faculty, so our collaboration led to a certain amount of discussion among our colleagues as to which of us was subverting which. I thought the question was adequately answered when we gave a workshop on the paper and I had the pleasure of hearing Steve Schulhofer lecturing Judge Posner, a prominent legal scholar generally, if somewhat inaccurately, viewed as a conservative, on the virtues of the free market.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Double Standards in the White House

The next time the President explains that because Snowden is a criminal he must be punished, somebody should ask him how soon he expects James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, to be indicted for perjury.