Archive for July 2017

Controlling Window Opacity With A Switch

I have seen companies advertising this sort of switchable privacy glass, but I had never seen it in the wild.  Had this glass in my hotel this weekend.  Really cool.  If they can perfect glass that goes full dark or opaque with a switch, I have a ton of windows I would like to replace (sorry for the small image, playing with Google's new Motion Stills app to make gif's, but it does not seem to have a save to disk function so I had to text it to myself and this was all the resolution I got).

Politicians Will Burn Down Anything That Is Good Just To Get Their Name In The News

Via Zero Hedge:

a group of 12 Democratic Congressman have signed a letter urging the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a more in-depth review of e-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc.'s plan to buy grocer Whole Foods Market Inc., according to Reuters.

Rumblings that Amazon is engaging in monopolistic business practices resurfaced last week when the top Democrat on the House antitrust subcommittee, David Civilline, voiced concerns about Amazon's $13.7 billion plan to buy Whole Foods Market and urged the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing to examine the deal's potential impact on consumers.

Making matters worse for the retailer, Reuters reported earlier this week that the FTC is investigating the company for allegedly misleading customers about its pricing discounts, citing a source close to the probe.

The letter is at least third troubling sign that lawmakers are turning against Amazon, even as President Donald Trump has promised to roll back regulations, presumably making it easier for megamergers like the AMZN-WFM tieup to proceed.

It is difficult even to communicate how much Amazon has improved my life.  I despise going to stores, and Amazon allows me the pick of the world's consumer products delivered to my home for free in 2 days.  I love it.  So of course, politicians now want to burn it down.

I say this because the anti-trust concerns over the Whole Foods merger have absolutely got to be a misdirection.  Whole Foods has a 1.7% share in groceries and Amazon a 0.8%.  Combined they would be the... 7th largest grocery retailer and barely 1/7 the size of market leader Wal-Mart, hardly an anti-trust issue.  So I can only guess that this anti-trust "concern" is merely a pretext for getting a little bit of press for attacking something that has been successful.

The actual letter is sort of hilarious, in it they say in part:

in the letter, the group of Democratic lawmakers – which includes rumored presidential hopeful Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey – worried that the merger could negatively impact low-income communities. By putting other grocers out of business, the Amazon-backed WFM could worsen the problem of “food deserts,” areas where residents may have limited access to fresh groceries.  "While we do not oppose the merger at this time, we are concerned about what this merger could mean for African-American communities across the country already suffering from a lack of affordable healthy food choices from grocers," the letter said on Thursday.

Umm, the Amazon model is being freed from individual geographic locations so that everyone can be served regardless of where they live.  This strikes me as the opposite of "making food deserts worse."  It is possible that Amazon might not deliver everywhere at first, and is more likely to deliver to 90210 than to Compton in the first round of rollouts.  But either they do deliver to a poor neighborhood, and improve choices, or they don't, and thus have a null effect.  And it is really sort of hilarious worrying that new ownership of Whole Foods, of all groceries, is going to somehow devastate poor neighborhoods.

By the way, if I were an Amazon shareholder, I would be tempted to challenge Bezos on his ownership of the Washington Post.  In a free society, he is welcome to own such a business and have that paper take whatever editorial stands he wishes.  However, we do not live in a fully free society.  As shown in this story, politicians like to draw attention to themselves by using legislation and regulation to gut successful companies, particularly ones that tick them off personally.  In this case:

So far, it’s mostly Democrats who are urging the FTC to take “a closer look” at the deal. However, some suspect that Amazon founder Jeff Bezo’s ownership of the Washington Post – a media outlet that has published dozens of embarrassing stories insinuating that Trump and his compatriots colluded with Russia to help defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton – could hurt the company’s chances of successfully completing the merger, as its owner has earned the enmity of president Trump. Similar concerns have dogged CNN-owner Time Warner’s pending merger with telecoms giant AT&T.

 

Movie Special Effects Before CGI

I am a sucker for both 70's disaster movies and well-crafted pre-CGI special effects.  So I enjoyed this article on the special effects techniques in The Towering Inferno.  The 70-foot high model is amazing.

[Fill in Name of Government Program] Would Have Worked Had the Right Person Been Running It

I have disputed the meme in the post's title on many occasions.  For example:

  • No person running any government agency has access to the same information that millions of individuals might have in making decisions for themselves
  • No person running any government agency can create an optimal solution, because millions of citizens all have different values and make different tradeoffs, so an optimum for one is not going to be an optimum for many others
  • No person running any government agency has the right incentives to make good decisions.  They will always optimize for increasing the size and scope of their organization and signaling virtue over actually being virtuous.

But researchers have found yet another reason:  power causes brain damage

A spate of recent articles corroborate what I already suspected, that holding elected office is the neurological equivalent of getting kicked in the head by a donkey.

"Subjects under the influence of power," Dacher Keltner, a professor atUniversity of California, Berkeleyfound, "acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people's point of view."

In other words, power turns people into sociopaths.

This isn't a huge surprise to the vast majority of us who rant about power on election day and every day afterward. Republicans and Democrats want power and scramble for it, like a football. Classical liberals see power more like Frodo's ring—a corrupting influence better chucked into a volcano. In light of recent studies we ought to consider it a bit more like a concussion.

Keltner, brought into the public spotlight through a recent piece in The Atlantic, likens the accruing of power to actual brain trauma: "My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain's orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior."

A Net Neutrality Parable

I have been frustrated trying to explain to folks why net neutrality is anything but neutral, in fact tilting the playing to the advantage of large content providers.  I thought I would take a lesson from Don Boudreaux, who has spent a lot of time thinking about economics education.  He often works by analogy -- sometimes these analogies work for me and sometimes they don't, but they seem a good way to reach people perhaps when traditional arguments have not worked.

Let's consider two cities we will call Gotham and Metropolis.   One day a private road builder proposes the first major highway between the two cities.  The citizens cheer, but the government places one caveat on them -- the builders must be neutral to all traffic.  Every entity (individuals, corporations, public agencies) should each pay the same fixed amount each year for use of the road and everyone should get equal access to the road, no matter how much they use it.

Things start out pretty much as expected.  The company sets the access charge at $10 a year, and lots of entities pay to put their one or two vehicles on the road from time to time.  The road is a great time saver and the capacity of two lanes in each direction is more than enough for easy, fast travel.

This new road and the faster transportation it allows spawns a number of entrepreneurs who find new uses for the road.  In particular, two companies create new logistics services that cause at first dozens, then hundreds, and then thousands of their trucks to hit the road between the two cities.  Soon, more than half the vehicles on the road are from these two companies, and another 25% of the vehicles on the road are from perhaps a dozen smaller imitators.  But each of these companies, despite using orders of magnitude more of the road's capacity than any other individual, still pay the same flat $10 for access to all their vehicles.   These trucking companies continue to add new services -- such as high demand logistics (HD for short) -- that put more and more trucks on the highway. Traffic explodes.  It turns out that these trucking companies have ways to compress their loads into fewer trucks with little loss to their quality of service, but why bother?  They are not paying for the capacity they are using, so why conserve?

But the resulting congestion from these few companies' trucks is slowing everyone else down.  Congestion reigns.  Instead of blaming the trucking companies, everyone demands the road company add more capacity, which they do.  They spend huge amounts of money to accommodate the traffic from these few companies, but due to neutrality rules the costs get paid by everyone, and the annual fee goes up to $15, $20, then $25.  Finally, a few people begin to observe that their access fees have doubled and tripled all to support vehicles from just a few entities.  Proposals come forward:  Can't these trucks be limited to certain lanes to keep them out of the way of other traffic?  Can't they be limited at certain times of day?  Can't the road company charge them per vehicle, rather than a flat fee, so they pay their fair share of the expansion costs?  Can't the road company give them incentives to compress their loads into fewer trucks?  Can't the trucking companies make a contribution to the capital fund to expand the road?

But nothing happens, because of road neutrality.  The trucking companies repeatedly shout "road neutrality" and conduct a successful campaign to convince everyone else that road neutrality is really in their interest.  They try to scare individuals by saying that an end to road neutrality will cause certain drivers to be excluded just because the road company does not like them, when in fact no such proposal or issue has ever existed. Just to be sure, the trucking companies pack the regulatory boards with their cronies. 

I hope the analogy is, while not perfect, at least clear.  Google (via Youtube), Netflix, and Facebook account for over half the bandwidth used on the Internet.  They claim they are worried about ISP's filtering traffic based on political views, but no one has ever provided the smallest shred of evidence that this occurs (and it is incredibly hypocritical since Facebook and Google do exactly this within their platforms).  What they are really worried about is that someone might un-bundle your local Internet service, specifically splitting the high bandwidth using sites from the low.  An ISP might very rationally offer a much lower monthly rate to someone who accepted a plan that did not allow streaming video or which compressed streaming video to conserve bandwidth (oddly, while the Left supports net neutrality, they favor the opposite in cable TV, trying to force unbundling of sites that are cheap for cable companies to provide from those that are expensive (e.g. ESPN).  This is likely Google and Netflix's nightmare.

One way to think about this is a classic vertical supply chain fight.  Suppliers and their channel fight all the time to see who will reap the lion's share of the profits available from selling to the end consumer.  There is a certain amount to be made from selling an incremental streaming movie -- Netflix and your ISP both want a piece, Netflix for the content and the ISP for building the pipe.  In a free market, they would fight it out, and the accommodations between them would likely ebb and flow over time.  What net neutrality does is attempt to impose a resolution of this such that Google and Netflix get 100% of the revenue and the ISP is saddled with 100% of the cost to build the pipe.  Hardly "neutral".

Postscript:  Google is also worried than an ISP might hook up with, say, Netflix and offer Netflix for free to their low-bandwidth products sort of as a preferred provider.  Sort of exactly like what Google does with every one of its own services, given them preferred position in their search engine.  Hypocrites all.

For the Record, I Fear Pure Majoritarian Democracy as Well

One of the themes of Nancy Maclean's new book on James Buchanan as the evil genius behind a conspiracy to unravel democracy in this county.  In critiquing her critique, I meant to also make it clear that whatever Buchanan may have believed on the subject, I am certainly skeptical of pure majoritarian democracy.  For me, protection of individual rights is the role of government, and populist majoritarianism can easily conflict with this goal (this is not a new finding, we pretty much figured this out after Julius Caesar, if not before.  Here was a piece I wrote years ago I will repeat here:

Every Memorial Day, I am assaulted with various quotes from people thanking the military for fighting and dying for our right to vote.  I would bet that a depressing number of people in this country, when asked what their most important freedom was, or what made America great, would answer "the right to vote."

Now, don't get me wrong, the right to vote in a representative democracy is great and has proven a moderately effective (but not perfect) check on creeping statism.  A democracy, however, in and of itself can still be tyrannical.  After all, Hitler was voted into power in Germany, and without checks, majorities in a democracy would be free to vote away anything it wanted from the minority - their property, their liberty, even their life.   Even in the US, majorities vote to curtail the rights of minorities all the time, even when those minorities are not impinging on anyone else.  In the US today, 51% of the population have voted to take money and property of the other 49%.

In my mind, there are at least three founding principles of the United States that are far more important than the right to vote:

  • The Rule of Law. For about 99% of human history, political power has been exercised at the unchecked capricious whim of a few individuals.  The great innovation of western countries like the US, and before it England and the Netherlands, has been to subjugate the power of individuals to the rule of law.  Criminal justice, adjudication of disputes, contracts, etc. all operate based on a set of laws known to all in advance.

Today the rule of law actually faces a number of threats in this country.  One of the most important aspects of the rule of law is that legality (and illegality) can be objectively determined in a repeatable manner from written and well-understood rules.  Unfortunately, the massive regulatory and tax code structure in this country have created a set of rules that are subject to change and interpretation constantly at the whim of the regulatory body.  Every day, hundreds of people and companies find themselves facing penalties due to an arbitrary interpretation of obscure regulations (examples I have seen personally here).

  • Sanctity and Protection of Individual Rights.  Laws, though, can be changed.  In a democracy, with a strong rule of law, we could still legally pass a law that said, say, that no one is allowed to criticize or hurt the feelings of a white person.  What prevents such laws from getting passed (except at major universities) is a protection of freedom of speech, or, more broadly, a recognition that individuals have certain rights that no law or vote may take away.  These rights are typically outlined in a Constitution, but are not worth the paper they are written on unless a society has the desire and will, not to mention the political processes in place, to protect these rights and make the Constitution real.

Today, even in the US, we do a pretty mixed job of protecting individual rights, strongly protecting some (like free speech) while letting others, such as property rights or freedom of association, slide.

  • Government is our servant.  The central, really very new concept on which this country was founded is that an individual's rights do not flow from government, but are inherent to man.  That government in fact only makes sense to the extent that it is our servant in the defense of our rights, rather than as the vessel from which these rights grudgingly flow.

Statists of all stripes have tried to challenge this assumption over the last 100 years.   While their exact details have varied, every statist has tried to create some larger entity to which the individual should be subjugated:  the Proletariat, the common good, God, the master race.  They all hold in common that the government's job is to sacrifice one group to another.  A common approach among modern statists is to create a myriad of new non-rights to dilute and replace our fundamental rights as individuals.  These new non-rights, such as the "right" to health care, a job, education, or even recreation, for god sakes, are meaningless in a free society, as they can't exist unless one person is harnessed involuntarily to provide them to another person. These non-rights are the exact opposite of freedom, and in fact require enslavement and sacrifice of one group to another.

I will add that pretty much everyone, including likely Ms. Maclean, opposes majoritarian rule on many issues.  People's fear of dis-empowering the majority tends to be situational on individual issues.

Regulators Are Almost By Definition Anti-Consumer

Free markets are governed and regulated by consumers.  If suppliers offer something, and consumers like it and like how that particular supplier provides it more than other choices they have, the supplier will likely prosper.  If suppliers attempt to offer consumers something they don't want or need, or already have enough of from acceptable sources, the supplier will likely wither and disappear.  That is how free markets work.  Scratch a Bernie Sanders supporter and you will find someone who does not understand this basic fact of consumer sovereignty.

Regulators generally are operating from a theory that says there is some sort of failure in the market, that consumers are not able to make the right choices or are not offered the choices they really want and only the use of force by regulators can fix this failure.  In practice, regulators have no way of mandating a product or service that producers cannot economically or technically provide (see: exit from Obamacare exchanges) and so all they actually do is limit choice by pruning products or services or individual features the regulators don't think consumers should be offered.   They substitute the judgement of a handful of people for the judgement of thousands, or millions, and ignore that there is not some single Platonic ideal of a product out there, but thousands or millions of ideals based on the varied preferences of millions of people.

A reader sends me a fabulous example of this from the Socialist Republic of Cambridge, Mass.

Month after month, in public meeting after public meeting, a trendy pizza mini-chain based in Washington, D.C., hacked its way through a thicket of bureaucratic crimson tape in the hopes of opening up shop in a vacant Harvard Square storefront. But when the chain, called &pizza, arrived at the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal in April, the thicket turned into a jungle.

Harvard Square already has plenty of pizza, board chairman Constantine Alexander declared, and though a majority of the board signed off on &pizza’s plans, approval required a four-vote supermajority. Citing the existence of five supposedly similar pizza joints in the area, as well as concerns about traffic congestion, a potential “change in established neighborhood character,” and even the color of the restaurant’s proposed signage, Alexander and cochair Brendan Sullivan dissented.

“A pizza is a pizza is a pizza,” Alexander said at one point during the April hearing, sounding suspiciously like someone who doesn’t eat much pizza or give much thought to the eating habits of the 22,000 or so college students who live in the city.

A city ordinance dictates that any new fast-food place should be approved only if it “fulfills a need for such a service in the neighborhood or in the city.” But the notion that an unelected city board should be conducting market research using some sort of inscrutable eye test to decide precisely what kind of cuisine is appropriate for Harvard Square stretches that to the point of absurdity.

So I Was Wrong Again -- American Politics and No Way Out

About 30 years ago there was a Kevin Costner movie called "No Way Out".  If you never saw it and ever intend to, there is a major spoiler coming.  Anyway, Costner is a military officer having a fling with a woman played by Sean Young, who is also having a fling with Costner's superior officer.  Sean Young turns up dead (probably a fantasy for the director since every director who worked with her wanted to kill her).  There is some sense that Costner's superior officer may be guilty, and Costner is named by the officer to lead the investigation, but with a twist -- the officer is trying to get the girl's death blamed on a mysterious Russian spy, who may or may not even be real, to divert attention from his adultery and possibly from the fact that he was probably the killer.  Things evolve, and it appears that Costner is going to be framed not only for the girl's death but also as the probably mythical spy.  The movie is about Costner desperately trying to escape this frame, and in the end is successful.  But in the final scene, Costner is seen speaking in Russian to his controller.  He is the spy!  The original accusation was totally without evidence, almost random, meant to divert attention from his superior's likely crimes, but by accident they turned out to be correct.

I feel like that with the Russian election hacking story.  For months I have said the Russian election hacking story was a nothing.  It made little sense and there was pretty much zero evidence.  It was dreamed up within 24 hours of the election by a Clinton campaign trying to divert attention and blame for their stunning loss.  I have called it many times the Obama birth certificate story of this election.

But it turns out that pursuing any Trump connection whatsoever with Russia has turned up some pretty grubby stories.  In particular, seeing a Presidential campaign -- and the President's son -- fawning over unfriendly foreign governments to get their hands on oppo research is just plain ugly.  That the Clinton campaign may have done shady things to get oppo research of their own is irrelevant to the ethics here (and perhaps one good justification for electing Republicans, since the media seems to be more aggressive at holding Republicans to account for such things).

Sorry.  I fell victim to one of the classic blunders - the most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never underestimate the stupidity and ethical flexibility of politicians."

Postscript:  In general, my enforced absence from both twitter and highly partisan blogs is going quite well.  I will write more about it soon, but I have to mention this:  I had a small break in my isolation yesterday when I was scanning around the radio on a business trip.  I landed on Rush Limbaugh, and would have moved on immediately but the first words I heard out of his mouth were "golden showers".  OK, I was intrigued.  He then used that term about 3 more times in the next 60 seconds (apparently he was going with the "everybody does it" defense of Trump by accusing the Clintons of getting oppo research from the Ukraine, or whatever).  Anyway, any issue that has a Conservative talk show host discussing golden showers from Russian hookers can't be all bad.

The Culture That is Ausralia

Australian man successfully checks single can of beer on his flight.

$150 Million in Lost Tax Money Later, Another Sorry Tale Of Government "Investment" Hopefully Comes to An End

Years ago I wrote about the Sheraton hotel the city built:

For some reason, it appears that building hotels next to city convention centers is a honey pot for politicians.  I am not sure why, but my guess is that they spend hundreds of millions or billions on a convention center based on some visitation promises.  When those promises don't pan out, politicians blame it on the lack of a hotel, and then use public money for a hotel.  When that does not pan out, I am not sure what is next.  Probably a sports stadium.  Then light rail.  Then, ?  It just keeps going and going....

When Phoenix leaders opened the Sheraton in 2008, they proclaimed it would be a cornerstone of downtown's comeback. They had one goal in mind: lure big conventions and tourism dollars. Officials argued the city needed the extra hotel beds to support its massive taxpayer-funded convention center a block away.

Finally, we may be at an end, though politicians are still hoping for some sort of solution that better hides what a sorry expenditure of tax money this really was

Phoenix has entered into exclusive negotiations to sell the city-owned Sheraton Grand Phoenix downtown hotel —the largest hotel in Arizona — for $255 million.

The city signed a letter of intent with TLG Phoenix LLC, an investment company based in Florida, to accept the offer and negotiate a purchase contract, city officials announced Tuesday evening.

But the deal faces criticism from some council members concerned about the loss to taxpayers. The city also attempted, unsuccessfully, to sell the hotel to the same buyer for a higher price last year.

If Phoenix ultimately takes the offer, the city's total losses on the taxpayer-funded Sheraton could exceed $100 million.

The city still owes $306 million on the hotel and likely would have to pay that off, even after a sale. That would come on top of about $47 million the city has sunk into the hotel, largely when bookings dropped due to the recession.

...

In addition to taking a loss on the building, Phoenix would give the buyer a property-tax break — the city hasn't released a potential value for that incentive — and transfer over a roughly $13 million reserve fund for hotel improvements.

By the way, the hotel -- after just 9 years under city ownership -- will require a $30 to $40 million face lift from the owner.  Why do I suspect that part of the sales price problem is that the government, like with every other asset it owns, did not keep up with its regular maintenance?

Update:  Phoenix is in the top ten US cities in terms of hotel room capacity, so city government of course detects that there is a market failure such that the city ... needs more hotel rooms, so it gets the government in the business of building more.  Good plan.

Why SJW's Are the Worst Mystery Writers (Spoiler Alert: The Culprit is Always Racism)

A while back I wrote "Why haven't we heard any of these concerns?  Because the freaking Left is no longer capable of making any public argument that is not based on race or gender."

A classic example of this is Nancy MacLean's new book Democracy in Chains.  She has apparently detected the great conspiracy behind the modern Right, which according do her is a racist backlash against the civil rights movement.  And the person at the heart of this conspiracy is... economist James Buchanan?

For those who don't know, which is probably most of the folks in this country, Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in economics for his development of public choice theory.  If you are unfamiliar with this body of work, I encourage you to investigate it, but in short it analyzes government officials as self-interested and subject to all the same incentives as ordinary people.   This is in contrast to highly idealized analyses that consider government agents as perfectly serving the public and judges proposed government actions by their stated goals, rather than their likely operations as run by real human beings.  It was developed in part as a reaction to  market critics who would cite real world issues in complex markets and compare them to idealized results of hypothetical government regulations.  It tends to explain things like special interest politics, regulatory capture, cronyism, and rent-seeking much better than traditional, rosier theories of government.  For example

So the Progressive Left tends to hate public choice theory.  They have nearly infinite faith in government action and don't like to hear about its limitations.  So it is not surprising that MacLean would write a thoughtful, scholarly critique of public choice theory, backed by a variety of economic evidence.  HAH!  Just kidding.  This is 2017.  Academics in the social sciences, mostly on the Left, don't operate that way.  The only approach they know to refuting such a theory is to link it with racism.  And so that is what she attempts.  This is part of the summary from Amazon:

“[A] vibrant intellectual history of the radical right . . .” – The Atlantic

“This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream and eventually take the government itself is at the heart of Democracy in Chains. . . . If you're worried about what all this means for America's future, you should be” – NPR

“Riveting” – O, The Oprah Magazine (Top 20 Books to Read This Summer)

An explosive exposé of the right’s relentless campaign to eliminate unions, suppress voting, privatize public education, and change the Constitution.

Behind today’s headlines of billionaires taking over our government is a secretive political establishment with long, deep, and troubling roots. The capitalist radical right has been working not simply to change who rules, but to fundamentally alter the rules of democratic governance. But billionaires did not launch this movement; a white intellectual in the embattled Jim Crow South did. Democracy in Chains names its true architect—the Nobel Prize-winning political economist James McGill Buchanan—and dissects the operation he and his colleagues designed over six decades to alter every branch of government to disempower the majority.

In a brilliant and engrossing narrative, Nancy MacLean shows how Buchanan forged his ideas about government in a last gasp attempt to preserve the white elite’s power in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. In response to the widening of American democracy, he developed a brilliant, if diabolical, plan to undermine the ability of the majority to use its numbers to level the playing field between the rich and powerful and the rest of us.

Corporate donors and their right-wing foundations were only too eager to support Buchanan’s work in teaching others how to divide America into “makers” and “takers.” And when a multibillionaire on a messianic mission to rewrite the social contract of the modern world, Charles Koch, discovered Buchanan, he created a vast, relentless, and multi-armed machine to carry out Buchanan’s strategy.

Hah, this is the Progressive Left, so you just knew the Kochs had to be implicated as well.  A couple of thoughts

  • My first response is:  if only.  It would be fabulous if, say, the Republican Party was constructed on top of the work of Buchanan and public choice theory. Alas, it is not
  • The links to racism the books rests on are simply a joke, but typical of the quality of public discourse today.  You see it all the time.  Coyote gave money to the Cato Institute.  Joe Racist and Jane Hatemonger also gave money to Cato.  So Coyote has been "linked" to these bad people, and therefor must believe everything they do.**
  • Yet another in a long line of books about how libertarians are plotting to enslave you by devolving power to the individual and leaving you alone
  • Don Boudreaux has been collecting a lot of links to critiques of the book.  Beyond the silly vast-right-wing-conspiracy level of scholarship, apparently MacLean edited a lot of the key quotes she uses in the book to essentially reverse their meaning.

 

** This is an aspect of Progressive thought today that I think is not discussed enough.  I used to make common cause with folks on the Left and the Right on individual issues.  This is becoming increasingly hard, particularly with the Progressive Left, because they tend to demand conformity with them on issues x, y, z before they will work with you on issue w.  I had to step down from a leadership role in an effort to legalize gay marriage in AZ because I did not agree with groups like HRC on things like climate change.  Progressives then assume everyone else is following this totalitarian principle, so if later I make common cause with the Right, say on school choice, I am branded as being anti-immigration.  That is silly, given what I have written, but to them actual words I have written are irrelevant -- what is important is that I did one thing one time on one issue with someone on the Right, so I am now branded with whatever political baggage the Right might have.

How Scarce Goods Are Allocated In A World Without Prices

I can think of at least two ways goods are allocated when there are no prices

  • By use of force.  In modern societies, use of force is generally limited to the government so in practice this means that goods without prices will tend to flow to those with government power or who are cronies of those in power.  A great example were the special stores in the Soviet Union for party officials, but examples great and small abound today.  Here is one small one.
  • By queuing or time spent searching.  The examples of this are all around us, though they frequently are not strictly of things without prices but of things that have been priced far below their market clearing price.  I think back to my days queuing in physical lines (long before Ticketmaster and the Internet) for concert tickets that were not free but were priced so far below market clearing prices that one had to wait in long lines to get them.  The gasoline lines of the 1970's and the time spent driving around looking for a gas station that had gas is another example.  A more recent example would be long hospital emergency room lines created by people who get care "free" at emergency rooms.

It was in this context that I read this article on finding parking in New York City.  Residential street parking in NYC is an extremely valuable resource for which there is no monetary charge.  So there is a lot more demand than supply.  So people spend scores of hours a year searching and queuing for spaces.

To some extent, this time cost is sort of like a money cost -- when the cost gets too high in relation to the value people assign to having a car, people give up their cars and bring supply and demand in balance.  But while people may vary in the amount they value having a car, one perverse aspect of any queuing system is that it will tend to allocate goods to the people with the lowest marginal value for their time.   The lower the marginal value one assigns to one's time and labor, the more hours one might be willing to queue and search.

This is a large reason why I have always thought price controls during emergencies - e.g. the "no price gouging during hurricanes" sorts of laws - are particularly destructive.  In the aftermath of a disaster like a hurricane there will be those who are mainly just sitting at home waiting things out, wondering how many days they will get off work and school; and there will be those who have a ton to do - roof repairers, tree cutters, etc.  Think about gasoline, where there is often a temporary supply shortfall after a hurricane.  Prices should rise to bring things in balance but laws do not allow this, so queuing results.  Who is most able to afford to sit in these queues - the person who is just sitting around waiting for things to reopen or the person who is totally bombarded with work and needs to be 23 places at once?  Do we really want roof repairers sitting 2 hours in line for gas behind three teenagers** who had nothing else to do so their parents sent them to top of the tank "just in case"?

** Growing up in Houston through several hurricanes, I have been this teenager and assigned exactly this task.

Fixed The Site Performance Problem, I Hope

For reasons I do not fully understand because I really must not fully grasp how CSS works, the white background of the site loads last.  Some of you found the site hard to read because there was a small bit of code, really ancient site meter sort of code from 15 years ago, that was broken and slowing the white background from loading.  I think it is fixed.  Thanks to the readers who let me know.

If You Are Jonesing for Game of Thrones...

My wife and I watched a series from a couple of years ago called the White Queen, a drama following the Wars of the Roses based on a novel by Phillipa Gregory.  The series begins with the marriage of Elizabeth Woodville to King Edward and proceeds through the death of Richard III at Bosworth.  After the first episode I was ready to stop because I thought it was going to be yet another historical romance rather than satisfying drama about power and conflict.  But as a series, once is gets past the first episode, it really does become a pretty good watch (though it got only mediocre ratings so caveat emptor).  It has a lot of folks battling for power with the same Game of Thrones "you win or you die" vibe -- which is not surprising as apparently George R R Martin has said that Game of Thrones was partially inspired by the Wars of the Roses.

As one would expect from the author, there are lots of strong and interesting female characters but the whole show is well acted.   It generally followed pretty well with most of the history I learned in school though I would be careful answering any AP history test questions from the plot (Gregory takes some literary license with the disappearance of Edward's two sons in the Tower, but since that remains somewhat of a mystery anyway it felt OK to do so).  The series goes a bit off the rails historically in the second season (the White Princess) as the small license Gregory takes with the sons getting killed in the Tower takes control of the plot.

Business Ethics Discussion Topic -- Public Accommodation and the Sex Offender Registry

My company operates campgrounds on public lands under contract with various public agencies.  Over the past several years, there has been a lot of discussion about public accommodation (e.g. can a private photographer choose not to serve a gay wedding).  This has never really been a big issue for me in my business, both due to my personal tolerance of just about anyone and the fact that we operate on public lands, which gives us an extra responsibility for broad accommodation.

Yesterday a sheriff's deputy in Arizona comes by one of the campgrounds we operate and gave a flyer to our manager.  It says that so-and-so, we will call him Mr. Smith, is in the area and is registered as a level 3 high-risk sex offender ("level 3 is the highest level and considered the highest risk to reoffense").  The deputy lets my folks know that it would be better not to do business with this guy.

Now personally, I have a lot of skepticism for the sex offender registry.  These lists sweep up a lot of people whose crimes are trivial (e.g. teenagers who had sex together or texted pictures with their girlfriends).  They assume high risk of recidivism without evidence.  Their existence dates back to a variety of molestation panics that were grossly exaggerated, and play on what I think are irrational public fears.  They can act as a substantial extra punishment beyond what they might have been charged with in court.  And they can be harsh, making it nearly impossible for someone to try to live a normal life in any community.

So the dilemma arises because this gentleman was staying in our campground at the time we received the notice.  My female manager wanted him out, as did most of my employees.  My guess is that if I polled the guests, most of them would want this guy out.  Because many people in a campground are in tents without any door or lock, they can feel particularly vulnerable.  I had never really thought about this much until we added cabins with locking doors to a campground and the early customers were disproportionately single women and women on their own with their kids.  They liked the lock.

My most telling problem is one of liability.  The state of Arizona has officially notified me that in the state's opinion this person is high-risk (whatever I might suspect his true risk may be).  If some incident were to happen, this notification would be exhibit one in the trial suing me into bankruptcy, arguing that I callously and knowingly allowed this risk to remain when I had it in my power to remove it.  I suppose one could argue that I probably always have people on the sex offender list in one of our campgrounds almost every day since there is no reasonable way to check on such things.  But in this case I have been notified in writing by an agent of the state that this person is considered high risk -- this knowledge gives me added responsibility.

I made my decision already, because part of the joy of running a 24/7/365 service business with 2.5 million customers a year is that I have many decisions like this and I have to make a choice and move on.  But I am curious what your decision would be.  Discuss.

Update:  wow, the discussion here is just tremendously useful.   The commenter who observed that I could probably be sued either way successfully captured the flavor of my frustrations trying to run a business in the modern legal environment.

It struck me later that I might not even have a decision to make.   The Forest Service which owns the land may not even allow such folks to be excluded from public lands.  If this is the case, I can get that in writing and do what I prefer (ie not participate in the further punishment of this gentleman) but have some coverage against legal liability in the future.