Archive for March 2015

Death Penalty Second Thoughts

As a former supporter of the death penalty that has come around strongly in opposition, I enjoyed this piece featuring a former prosecutor trying to apologize for falsely sending a man to death row.  I loved this line in particular

No one should be given the ability to impose a sentence of death in any criminal proceeding. We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death because we are all fallible human beings.

I consider the notion of whether the death penalty is humane or whether we have the moral right to take the life of someone who is guilty of murder to both be red herrings.  The key issue for me is that we can't do it fairly and without errors.  The appeals process is useful, but can't ever be perfect because often the appeals occur in the same time and place as the trial.  Appeals of a black man in 1965 were not of much use, just as appeals of wrongly-convicted day care workers were not of much use in the 1980s and 1990s day care sex scares (even today, Martha Coakely bends over backwards to keep innocent people in jail).  Public choice theory tells us government officials have incentives that are different from mere "public service", and we can see that in spades in this prosecutor's mea culpa.

By the way, we can see similar incentives at work in the Jodi Arias trial, where a lot of public hatred was aimed at the one juror who refused to sentence Arias to death.  You read in this and other stories that the other 11 jurors were truly angry that they were not allowed to kill her.

The Arias trial also illustrates another issue -- there is a huge gender bias in death sentences.  It doesn't get much press, because it hurts men rather than women, but it is really really really hard for a woman to get sentenced to death.

We Still Haven't Figured Out How to Measure Prosperity

The previous chart on beer availability reminds me of an issue I have been thinking about for a while -- that we do no know how to measure prosperity.

GDP growth and unemployment reduction are terrible measures.  Just to give one example, these measures looked fabulous in WWII.  But the average person living in the US had access to almost nothing -- they couldn't buy anything under rationing, they couldn't travel for leisure, etc.   GDP looked great because we were building stuff and then blowing it up, the economic equivilent of digging a hole and filling it in (but worse, because people were dying).  And unemployment looked great because we had drafted everyone and sent them off to get shot.

But median income and net worth numbers fail to measure prosperity as well.  The reason was described in this post here way back in 2007.

The home on the left was owned by Mark Hopkins, railroad millionaire and one of the most powerful men of his age in California.  Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people's access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin's business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

How do we take into account that even if a person has the same income as someone in 1952, they are effectively wealthier in many ways due to access to medical procedures, travel, entertainment, electronic devices, etc?

Somehow we need to measure consumer capability -- not just how much raw money one has but what can one do with the money?  What is the horizon of possibilities?  Deirdre McCloskey tends to eschew the term capitalism in favor of "market-tested innovation."  I think that is a pretty powerful description of our system.  But if it is, we really are only measuring the impact of productivity and cost-reduction innovations.  How do we measure the wealth impact of consumer-empowerment innovations like iPhones?  Essentially, we don't.  Which, by the way, may be one reason our current crappy metrics say we have growing income inequality.  With our current metrics, Steve Jobs' increase in wealth is noted in the metrics, but the metrics don't show the rest of us getting any wealthier by the fact that we can now have iPhones (or the myriad of competitors the iPhone spawned).  The consumer surplus from iPhones undoubtedly dwarfs the money Jobs made, but it doesn't show up in any wealth calculations.

A few years ago I told a youth group that there were still many things left to discover in the mundane world -- by this I meant the everyday world we encounter and not just at the limits of the universe or at the scale of quarks.  The example I gave at the time is that there is a lot of room for better techniques to tease out causality in complex systems -- e.g. how much did the stimulus really affect the economy or how much does CO2 really affect temperatures.  I would add this question of measuring prosperity as a second item in this category.

Where's Coyote

Well, it is time for many of our seasonal operations to open over the next few weeks so I have been running in circles on business issues.  Also, I must confess that blogging is becoming a sort of Groundhog Day (the movie) experience, with the same arguments circling over and over.  How many more times can I write, say, a long article about how minimum wage increases are a terrible anti-poverty program only to get one line emails asking me why I hate poor people.  So blogging will be light as I do real world work and try to recharge.

I will leave you with one note of optimism, from Mark Perry.  I went to college in the nadir (1980) of the American beer industry, where a small oligopoly of mediocre beer producers was protected by government legislation.  It was a classic example of how regulation drives monopoly, consolidation, and loss of choice.  With deregulation, the American beer industry has exploded.

beer1

 

As an aside, my current go-to beer is actually Brazilian, Xingu Black

 

On Displaying the Confederate Battle Flag

The Supremes are going to discuss whether displaying a confederate battle flag on your custom license plate is protected by free speech.

In 1980 when I went up north to school I had a Confederate battle flag on my wall.  I keep calling it the battle flag because in fact the flag you are thinking about (the one on the Dukes of Hazard's car) is not actually the flag of the Confederate nation.  Most folks could not describe the original Confederate flag under torture (here it is).

So the flag you are thinking about, and the Supremes are considering, was actually based on the battle flags of certain state militias, like that of Virginia and Tennessee.  It was also used by the Confederate Navy, and was incorporated into a redesign of the official Confederate flag late in the war.

Anyway, there were a couple of reasons a young Texan might put up this flag in his northern dorm room.  First, it is awesome looking.  There are a lot of bad flags in the world, but this is a great-looking flag.  Second, at the time it represented the southern pride of a lot of us who found ourselves displaced and living in that odd northeastern college culture.  It never represented (at least at the time) anything racist for me.  For southerners (many of us raised, without knowing it, on the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography) it represented pride and pluck and scrappy determination.

Anyway, I don't remember getting any pushback on the flag at the time.  Over the years, though, I came to recognize that the flag was seen by many as a symbol of racism.  Part of that was my increasing awareness but a large part was shifts in society and its perceptions -- remember the Dukes of Hazard was a real, popular network show that could likely never get made today.   I suppose I could have retained the flag as a symbol of what I thought it was a symbol for, and just ignored other peoples' opinion.  But at some point, I realized that other peoples' good opinion of me had value and that I needed to acknowledge how they saw the flag and put it away in a box.

Which brings me back to license plates.  If a state is going to create a license plate program where people can make statements with their license plates, then people should be able to make the statement they want to make.  I know there are folks in the south who honestly still cling to the symbolism I used to attach to the Confederate battle flag.  But let's leave those folks aside.  Let's assume for a moment that everyone who wants to display this symbol on their car is a racist.  Shouldn't we be thrilled if they want to do so?  Here would be a program where racists would voluntarily self-identify to all as a racist (they would even pay extra to do so!)  What would be a greater public service?

I make this same argument when people want to ban speakers from campus.  If people are willing to come forward with evil thoughts and intentions and announce them publicly, why wouldn't we let them?  It's is fine to want to eliminate evil from the Earth, but shilling banning hateful speech doesn't do this -- it only drives evil underground.

Postscript:  I actually started thinking about this driving down I-40 from Knoxville to Nashville yesterday.  In a bend in the road, on a hill, there is a large home.  Their land goes right out to the bend in the highway, and on that bend they have put up a huge flag pole with a big Confederate battle flag.  You can see it from miles in each direction.  I didn't get a picture but there are plenty on the web. From searching for it, there are apparently similar installations on private land in other states.  As I drove, having nothing else to do, I thought a lot about what message they were trying to send.  Was it just southern pride?  Were they really racists?  If they weren't racists, did they know that many would think them as such?  And if so, did they even care -- was this in fact just a giant FU?

 Update:  Fixed the typo in the last line.  Did I mean chilling?  Not even sure.  Banning is what I meant.

Banning Rugby

Via Reason, a college rugby team has been banned because, gasp, they sang boorish songs when drunk:

The University of Mary Washington permanently cancelled its student rugby team after evidence surfaced that team members had engaged in sexist chanting at an off-campus house party. All members of the team were also required to attend sexual assault training.

But while UMW's rugby team has 46 players, only 8 of them were even in attendance at the party—meaning that not only did a public university punish a few students for engaging in inappropriate (though constitutionally-protected) speech, it also punished other students who had nothing to do with said (again, constitutionally-protected!) speech.

The microaggression unfolded last November at a house party near the Fredericksburg, Virginia, campus, according to Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan. Some students, likely drunk, sang a demeaning song about raping corpses and "wiggling it" inside whores—inappropriate stuff, to be sure, though not really targeted at a specific entity in a threatening way. The chant apparently has its origins in rowdy "pub" songs. It's a curious tradition, though not one intended to inspire actual malice, it seems.

I played rugby for several years (for Harvard Business School, of all places) and never encountered a rugby club that did not have a repertoire of raunchy pub songs.  It was a tradition, which I presume was copied from the mother country, that teams would share in singing of these songs over many drinks after a match.   While often crude and offensive, they were known to all to be so.  I can't remember anyone being somehow confused between what was in those songs and what was a correct way to comport oneself in society.  We sang crude songs for a few hours, and then went back to crafting strategies for water meter manufacturers.

Leaving aside the first amendment issues and whether there is really any harmful behavior here, think for a moment about the nature of crime and punishment here.  College rugby teams have comported themselves as such for literally scores of years without any blowback except for occasional disdain from the blue bloods (the inciting of which is probably half the reason for the exercise in the first place).  No laws or written rules were broken and the team was comporting themselves in a way that had been at least implicitly tolerated for generations.  Then all of a sudden the team is disbanded.  No advance warning, no discussion in advance that such behavior would now be treated in the future as illegal.

Setting Terrible Legal Precedents Just To Hammer on People We Don't Like

First, we got FCC title II regulation of the Internet because a lot of people hate Comcast and saw net neutering as the perfect way to stick it to Comcast.  Now, we get a terrible copyright precedent because people don't like Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke.

The Internet appeared to rejoice that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke lost their lawsuit to the estate of Marvin Gaye over alleged copyright infringements in their mega hit song "Blurred Lines." It's not that the notoriously copyright-unfriendly Internet culture found religion on intellectual property privileges but that the Internet doesn't seem to like Robin Thicke. Fair enough. But as a number of commentators have noted, it's a silly reason to support such an awful ruling. And that ruling is awful even if you believe in relatively expansive intellectual property rights because it wasn't based on any copyright Marvin Gaye's estate owns on paper....

As the author notes, are we going to soon have competing claims (and lawsuits) claiming origination of the four chord progression?

Net Neutering: Isn't It Great That This Old Lady Is Going To Take Us To Her House And Give Us Candy?

I read a number of tech sites like Engadget every day, and am just shocked at the continued happy puppy reactions to the FCC's takeover of the web.  The articles can all be summarized as "Hey, isn't it awesome this old lady is taking us to her house in the woods and giving us free candy?"

Daniel Henninger shares my reaction:

Washington’s seizure of the Internet is one of the great case studies in the annals of political naïveté.

Over several years, leading lights of the Web—among them Netflix,Google and Tumblr—importuned the Obama White House to align itself with the cause of net neutrality.

“Net neutrality,” like so many progressivist-y causes—climate change, health care for all—is a phrase designed to be embraced rather than understood.

But net neutrality had real meaning. Its core idea was that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, a Washington agency whose employees have been regulating communications since 1934, should design and enforce a price mechanism for the Internet. Up to now, nobody did that.

In February the FCC did, and on that day the Little Red Riding Hoods of net neutrality found out what big teeth grandma has. The FCC said its plans to regulate the Web were in a 332-page document, which no one can see until the agency is ready....

Mr. Karp and the rest of the 20-something and 30-something Peter Pans in the app development world should find their way to the 80-something communications lawyers and lobbyists retired in Florida for a tutorial on what it’s like trying to get Washington off your back once it has climbed on. Here’s the tweet-length version: You are going to pay and pay and pay. To save you, Washington will bleed you....

No one can do business until they first run it through the Beltway bosses. For the K Street corridor, it’s the golden age all over again.

As I wrote before, isn't anyone in tech worried that the government used a semi-imaginary problem that perhaps required a flyswatter to address to justify acquiring 16-inch naval guns?

Cronyism, State by State

I get sent a lot of infographics and I generally just delete them but I thought this one was pretty good.  The largest recipients of corporate welfare from state governments.  Perhaps appropriately given the tilt of our economy here, our largest recipient in AZ is a real estate developer.

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The Face of Cronyism

Via Reason:

Billionaire John Catsimatidis is NY: Geraldo Rivera Hosts Wife Erica's 40th Birthday Partyworking to slip a biofuel mandate that would add $150 million to New Yorkers’ heat expenses into the state budget just as a company he owns completes construction of the largest biofuel plant in the region.

The New York Post reports that Catsimatidis’ lobbyists are putting the pressure on State senators to slip a provision that would require all heating oil sold in New York to contain “2 percent or more of soybean oil and/or spent vegetable oils.”

He is a close friend of the Clintons.  Expect a total crony feeding fest should Hillary get elected President,

The Problem with Email is That It's Free

Yeah, I know, free is always supposed to be better.  But the problem of spam is caused entirely by its being free.   Here is an example:

According to the indictments, between 2009 and 2012 Nguyen and Vu hacked at least eight email service providers -- the companies that collect your data under slightly more legitimate circumstances -- to steal marketing data containing over a billion email addresses. After that, they worked with Da Silva to profit from the addresses by sending spam with affiliate links for a company he controlled, Marketbay.com.

At least according to the DoJ, all of that work netted around $2 million in affiliate marketing fees.

We don't have any idea how many emails they sent to each of these billion addresses.  But let's say they sent 10 spams to each (probably a low guess).  That is 10 billion spam emails for a net revenue of $2 million, or around $.0002 per email sent in revenue.

Long ago I proposed that (and I am not sure how to do this technically) emails should cost $0.001, or a tenth of a cent, to send.  For you and I, say if we sent 200 emails a day (an email copied to 5 people would be 5 emails for this purpose) it would cost us 20 cents a day or about $75 a year, not much more than we pay for security software and updates.  But if you could make it work, spam would be reduced drastically.  No way there is any profit in sending an email for $.001 for an expected return of $.0002.

I have no idea in the current structure of the Internet how one would even do this.  The charge would have to come from the receiving end, somehow refusing to deliver it if it does not get payment information.  However, anyone who is going to steal a billion email addresses could likely hack the payment system.

I was going to call this tragedy of the commons, but that is not really quite right.  Tragedy of the commons is sort of related to free public resources, but is more of an issue of lack of property rights than of the zero price.

Scenes from the Last Chapters of Atlas Shrugged

I have always read Atlas Shrugged not as a character story (and thus I don't get bent out of shape by the stiff black and white characters) but as a story about the world itself changing and crashing under socialism and cronyism.  As such, my favorite scene in the book is the hobo's tale of the socialist experiment on the 20th Century Motor Company.

Anyway, the final chapters of the book are full of more and more outrageous state interventions that build to a point that they are hard to believe anyone would actually ever try such things.   Unbelievable, until one looks at Venezuela

Venezuelans soon may need to have their fingerprints scanned before they can buy bread and other staples. This unprecedented step was proposed after Maduro had the brilliant idea of proposing mandatory grocery fingerprinting system to combat food shortages. He said then that "the program will stop people from buying too much of a single item", but did not say when it would take effect.

Privacy concerns aside (clearly Venezuelans have bigger, well, smaller fish to fry) there was hope that this plunge into insanity would be delayed indefinitely, as the last thing Venezuela's strained economy would be able to handle is smuggling of the most basic of necessities: something such a dramatic rationing step would surely lead to.

Unfortunately for the struggling Venezuelan population, the time has arrived and as AP reported over the weekend, Venezuela "will begin installing 20,000 fingerprint scanners at supermarkets nationwide in a bid to stamp out hoarding and panic buying" as of this moment.

The government has been selectively rolling out the rationing system for months at state-run supermarkets along the western border with Colombia where smuggling of price-controlled goods is a major problem.

On Saturday, President Nicolas Maduro said that seven large private retail chains had voluntarily agreed to install the scanners.

Last month the owners of several chains of supermarkets and drugstores were arrested for allegedly artificially creating long queues by not opening enough tills.

It gets better: Maduro also accused Colombian food smugglers of buying up price-controlled goods in state-run supermarkets along the border.

What a mess.  An entirely predictable mess.

Matt Walsh on Net Neutering

Matt Walsh has an epically good article on why we should fear having the same folks who freaked out over Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" running the Interntet

Republicans Are Crazy for Wanting Dynamic Scoring at the CBO

Dynamic scoring of budget proposals has been on the Republican wish list for decades.  They have always been frustrated that tax cut proposals look like such budget losers with static scoring.  In their supply-side bones, Republicans know that tax cuts will stimulate economic activity and thus increase future tax revenues.  Taking this second order effect into account is what they mean by dynamic scoring (see: Laffer Curve).

I have some sympathy for this argument, but in making it Republicans are falling for the "this will work great when our guys are in charge" fallacy  (I need to find a name for that).  Democrats fall into this all the time, expanding government power only to be shocked at what their political enemies do with this power once in charge.

Because it is pretty clear what dynamic scoring will mean in a Democratic Congress.  Remember that stimulus bill?  Democrats all thought that expanded the economy, so its costs would, by their Keynesian assumptions, appear much lower under dynamic scoring.  The Left thinks the auto bailout was stimulative.  They even think that Obamacare was stimulative.  Do you really want some BS Keynesian fudge factor obscuring the true cost of such proposals in the future?

Related:  Greg Mankiw discusses why, if I read him right, dynamic scoring is impossible to do correctly

 

LMAO -- My Kid Learns About the Cold

My Arizona-raised, thin-blooded son was convinced that he had no problem with cold weather when he departed for Amherst College several years ago.  That, of course, was based on exposure to cold via a couple of ski trips.  What he likely underestimated was the impact of cold that lasts for like 6 freaking months.

So it was with good-natured parental fondness for my child that I was LMAO when I read this:

Amherst, MA has coldest February in recorded history.  or here if you hit a paywall.

The average temperature in Amherst in the past month was 11.2 degrees, the lowest average monthly temperature since records were first kept in town in 1835. It broke the previous record of 11.6 degrees set in 1934, according to Michael A. Rawlins, an assistant professor in the department of geosciences and manager of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts.

As it turns out, I have made a climate presentation in Amherst so I actually have historic temperature charts.  It is a good example of two things:

  1. While Amherst has been warming, it was warming as much or more before 1940 (or before the era of substantial CO2 emissions) as much as after
  2. Much of the recent warming has manifested as increases in daily minimum temperatures, rather in an increase in daily maximum temperatures.  This is as predicted by warming models, but poorly communicated and understood.  Possibly because fewer people would be bent out of shape if they knew that warming translated into warmer nights rather than higher highs in the daytime.

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New Business Opportunity: Lolo's Eagle and Waffles Next to Large Solar Plants

From ReWire via Anthony Watts

A test of a solar power tower project in Nevada resulted in injuries to over one hundred birds, the federal government is reporting, though the project's owners say they've fixed the problem.

On January 14, during tests of the 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Tonopah, Nevada, biologists observed 130 birds entering an area of concentrated solar energy and catching fire. That's according to Rudy Evenson, Deputy Chief of Communications for Nevada Bureau of Land Management in Reno.

Evenson suggested that the birds may have been attracted by a glow the concentrated solar energy created above the project's sole tower.

...

According to Evenson, workers testing the plant moved approximately a third of the project's ten thousand mirrors to focus sunlight on a point 1,200 feet above the ground, approximately twice the height of the power tower at Crescent Dunes.

The test started at 9:00 a.m. on January 14, Evenson told Rewire. By 10:30, biologists working on the site began noticing what have become known as "streamers," trails of smoke and water vapor caused by birds entering the field of concentrated solar energy (a.k.a. "solar flux") and igniting.

By the time the test ended for the day at 3:00 p.m., biologists had counted 130 such "streamers." A subsequent test on January 15 reduced the number of mirrors aimed at the focal point above the tower, said Evenson, and that apparently ended the injuries to birds.

Oops.  It is amazing how solar gets a pass on things that other industries would be hounded into bankruptcy over.  ExxonMobil was fined by the Feds for 85 bird deaths at the company's natural gas facilities.  These deaths were spread out over 5 states and over 5 years.  This solar plant killed at least 130 birds in one location in 6 hours.  ExxonMobil was fined $7000 per dead bird.  Anyone want to bet on what the solar guys will be fined?  Vegas has set the over-under at zero.

The Dangers of Bipartisanship

The media loves to talk about the joys of bipartisanship, but libertarians run for the hills whenever we hear that word.  Because it means that true legislative suckage is probably on the way.   The horrendous war on drugs is just one example.

Here is another -- freedom to buy alcohol where it is most convenient.  Living in AZ, I have come to expect that I can buy some tequila at my grocery store, but apparently this is a very limited freedom in the US:

AlcoholGroceryStores_Liquor4

There are two reasons.  First, this is where you get one of those left-right coalitions, with Republican social conservatives wanting to limit liquor availability and Democratic big government types wanting to keep sales to a small group that can be tightly regulated (and strip-mined for campaign donations), or even better, to state-run liquor stores.  The second reason is that once any regulation is in place that restricts sales, the beneficiaries of those restrictions (e.g. liquor stores or unionized employees at state-run stores) fight any liberalization tooth and nail to protect their crony rents.

Net Neutering and Innovation -- Would Google Even Exist Under These New Rules?

From Gordon Crovitz at the WSJ 

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler justified Obamanet by saying the Internet is “simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee.” He got it backward: Light-handed regulation made today’s Internet possible.

What if at the beginning of the Web, Washington had opted for Obamanet instead of the open Internet? Yellow Pages publishers could have invoked “harm” and “unjust and unreasonable” competition from online telephone directories. This could have strangled Alta Vista and Excite, the early leaders in search, and relegated Google to a Stanford student project. Newspapers could have lobbied against Craigslist for depriving them of classified advertising. Encyclopedia Britannica could have lobbied against Wikipedia.

Competitors could have objected to the “fast lane” that Amazon got from Sprint at the launch of the Kindle to ensure speedy e-book downloads. The FCC could have blocked Apple from integrating Internet access into the iPhone. Activists could have objected toAOL bundling access to The Wall Street Journal in its early dial-up service.

Among the first targets of the FCC’s “unjust and unreasonable” test are mobile-phone contracts that offer unlimited video or music. Netflix , the biggest lobbyist for utility regulation, could be regulated for how it uses encryption to deliver its content.

Until Congress or the courts block Obamanet, expect less innovation. During a TechFreedom conference last week, dissenting FCC commissioner Ajit Pai asked: “If you were an entrepreneur trying to make a splash in a marketplace that’s already competitive, how are you going to differentiate yourself if you have to build into your equation whether or not regulatory permission is going to be forthcoming from the FCC? According to this, permissionless innovation is a thing of the past.”

This is yet another example of an effect I have observed before -- why is it that the media is willing to raise concerns about an expansion of government power only after that expansion has passed.  We saw it before on ethanol and the stimulus bill, and now I think we are going to start to see it on net neutering.  A cynic might say that the media wants these expansions of power to occur, but also want to be able to point to their own prescience when these expansions inevitably cause problems.