In 2003 I wrote The Politician and Mechanic Conspire to Rip Me Off in which I cited a study (another here) showing that annual automobile safety inspections do not increase safety but do waste time and money and generate unnecessary repairs. I have continued to rant about these wasteful policies ever since.

Today, however, there is some good news. As vehicle quality is increasing, some states are actually discontinuing these “safety” inspections including the District of Columbia in 2009, New Jersey in 2010, and Mississippi in 2015. Repeal, however, is still hotly contested in many states:

“If [the repeal] is passed,” said Texas Senator Eddie Lucero, Jr., “I am going to have trouble sleeping at night. Why are you willing to place yourself and Texans in danger by passing [this repeal]?” Similarly, Utah Representative Jim Dunnigan claimed that many of his constituents “would drive their car until their brakes fall off and their muffler falls off and their tires fall off” and that an inspection was the only way to ensure that vehicle owners took care of potential safety concerns. These claims are backed by most automobile service stations, who generally profit from performing the inspections and now claim that repealing the inspection program “will definitely result in more accidents.”

That’s from a new paper by Hoagland and Woolley that uses New Jersey, a repeal state, to test whether repeal leads to more accidents. Using a synthetic control methodology and precise data on fatal accident rates from throughout the United States, Hoagland and Woolley conclude that:

…removing the requirements resulted in no significant increases in any of traffic fatalities per capita, traffic fatalities due specifically to car failure per capita, or the frequency of accidents due to car failure. Therefore, we conclude that vehicle safety inspections do not represent an efficient use of government funds, and do not appear to have any significantly mitigating effect on the role of car failure in traffic accidents.

It’s time to ditch the annual safety inspection and either move to no inspection system at all or like Maryland move to a system that requires safety inspections only at transfer. I’m not convinced that is necessary either, since at transfer is precisely when the buyer will run an inspection anyway, but at least that system would reduce the number of inspections significantly.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

But because of the way trade deficits are measured, almost all the value of those components is attributed to China, which exports the final product. Reuters reports that 61 million iPhones were shipped from China to the US in 2017 and suggests that just a single phone—the iPhone 7 model, released in 2016 and on sale for all of last year—accounted for $15.7 billion of the trade deficit, or 4.4%.

Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics research at Oxford Economics, told Reuters if trade deficits were measured to account for the complex nature of global supply chains like the ones used by sophisticated consumer products like smartphones, the US-China trade deficit would be about 36% lower, or $239 billion.

That is from Allison Schraeger.

Prisoners who study prison

by on March 22, 2018 at 12:22 am in Law, Science | Permalink

After leaving prison, some ex-convicts are becoming academics themselves. There is a growing convict criminology group, which has members in countries around the world.

…Stephen Richards spent nine years in prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana, and is now professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

He was arrested while he was a college student, and finished his degree by correspondence while in U.S. federal prison. After he was released from prison, he went directly to graduate school and completed a Master’s degree and a PhD.

“Five years out of prison, I was a professor, and I became one of the first convict criminology professors,” he says.

Richards’s experiences in jail made him want to work to fix the system once he got out.

“Part of being a convict criminologist is realizing that you know something that most academics in the social sciences don’t know. You’ve got inside information about what’s wrong with the criminal justice system — literally, inside. You know what a failure the system is, and you want to do something about it,” he says.

That is from CBC Radio, via Michelle Dawson.  And here is the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons.

German food’s decline “reflects the cultural mix of this country toward more Latin American, Asian and African American culture, and less of the mainstay Germanic culture that influenced this country for many decades,” said Arnim von Friedeburg, an importer of German foods and the founder of “The cultural shift is going on, and German culture has to fight or compete to keep its relevance.”

Here is more from Maura Judkis at WaPo.

Wednesday assorted links

by on March 21, 2018 at 12:06 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The lice culture that is Dutch (America).  Is this representative?

2. A thread on the new Chetty result.

3. Francis Bator was killed by a car with a human driver (NYT obituary).

4. How to stay healthy on a plane?

5. A useful Cambridge Analytica/Facebook story.  Here is the most analytical paragraph: “At its core, according to a former Facebook executive, the problem is really an existential one. The company is very good at dealing with things that happen frequently and have very low stakes. When mistakes happen, they move on. According to the executive, the philosophy of the company has long been “We’re trying to do good things. We’ll make mistakes. But people are good and the world is forgiving.””  And Clickhole on Facebook.

6. 83 days at the Ritz.

SALT LAKE CITY — So-called free-range parenting will soon be the law of the land in Utah after the governor signed what appears to be the country’s first measure to formally legalize allowing kids to do things on their own to foster self-sufficiency.

The bill, which Gov. Gary Herbert announced Friday that he’d signed, specifies that it isn’t neglectful to let kids do things alone like travel to school, explore a playground or stay in the car. The law takes effect May 8.

Utah’s law is the first in the country, said Lenore Skenazy, who coined the term free-range parent. A records search by the National Conference of State Legislatures didn’t turn up any similar legislation in other states.

Here is more, bravo.  Via Interfluidity.

That is the topic of my new Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Like drones, driverless cars possess some features of an especially potent scare story. They are a new and exciting technology, and so stories about them get a lot of clicks. We don’t actually know how safe they are, and that uncertainty will spook people above and beyond whatever is the particular level of risk. Most of all, driverless cars by definition involve humans not feeling in direct control. It resembles how a lot of people feel in greater danger when flying than driving a car, even though flying is usually safer. Driverless cars raise a lot of questions about driver control: Should you be allowed to sleep in the backseat? Or must you stay by the wheel? That focuses our minds and feelings on the issue of control all the more.


The recent brouhaha over Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (read here and here) reflects some similar issues. Could most Americans clearly and correctly articulate exactly what went wrong in this episode? Probably not, but people do know that when it comes to social networks, their personal data and algorithms, they don’t exactly feel in control. The murkiness of the events and legal obligations is in fact part of the problem.

When I see a new story or criticism about the tech world, I no longer ask whether the tech companies poll as being popular (they do). I instead wonder whether voters feel in control in a world with North Korean nuclear weapons, an erratic American president and algorithms everywhere. They don’t. Haven’t you wondered why articles about robots putting us all out of work are so popular during a time of full employment?

We are about to enter a new meta-narrative for American society, which I call “re-establishing the feeling of control.” Unfortunately, when you pursue the feeling rather than the actual control, you often end up with neither.

Do read the whole thing.

*Waste of a Nation*

by on March 21, 2018 at 12:08 am in Books, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

The authors are Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey and the subtitle is Garbage and Growth in India, here is one excerpt from this worthy book:

In India, the tool for cleaning teeth and gums had long been a twig usually taken from a neem tree…, which can be plucked each morning, chewed into a teeth-cleaning brush, and then thrown away.  Neem also has medicinal properties.  Tooth powders gained popularity in towns and cities in preindependence times, but in smaller towns as late as the 1960s shops that sold toothpaste had to be searched for.  Consumption of toothpaste was meager.  India’s toothpaste industry in the mid-1970s was estimated to produce about 1,200 metric tons a year for a population of more than 600 million.  An Australian population of 16 million consumed 5,000 metric tons of toothpaste.  By the late 1980s, the Indian market was said to be growing rapidly, but the industry estimated that only 15 percent of the population used toothpaste and that per capita consumption was only 30 grams a year.

…By 2014, a single new factory set up in Gujarat by Colgate-Palmolive was capable of making 15,000 metric tons of toothpaste a year, more than ten times the quantity produced in all of India two generations earlier.


Mr. Sarkozy, 63, was taken into custody in Nanterre, northwest of Paris, after answering a police summons, according to a French judicial official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in line with department policy…

The suspicions behind this case first emerged in 2012, when the investigative news website Mediapart published a report suggesting that Mr. Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign had received up to 50 million euros, or nearly $62 million at current exchange rates, from the regime of Colonel Qaddafi, the longtime Libyan strongman who was killed in 2011. Such support would have violated France’s strict campaign finance laws, which cap spending and prohibit foreign funding.

Here is the NYT account.  Here is my earlier post on Gerhard Schröder.

Tuesday assorted links

by on March 20, 2018 at 12:26 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Sam Harris interviews Robin Hanson.

2. I still find the Cambridge Analytica story confusing.  This article is useful, but it heightens my confusion too.  Who exactly did what wrong?  And I don’t think I agree with the framing of this Michael Dougherty piece, but it does pose some useful questions.  Here is the Bershidsky take.

3. “Ask a child to draw a scientist, and she’s more likely than ever to draw a woman.

4. Megan is skeptical about the greater safety of driverless cars.

A sheriff in Alabama bought a house using money that was budgeted to feed jail inmates. When I saw this headlined a week ago I assumed that this was a run-of-the-mill story about white collar fraud and I ignored it. Yesterday, prodded by new developments, I investigated further. The truth is much worse than I had imagined. What the sheriff did was perfectly legal.

Alabama has a Depression-era law that allows sheriffs to “keep and retain” unspent money from jail food-provision accounts. Sheriffs across the state take excess money as personal income — and, in the event of a shortfall, are personally liable for covering the gap.

Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin told the News that he follows that practice of taking extra money from the fund, saying, “The law says it’s a personal account and that’s the way I’ve always done it.”

Sheriffs across the state do the same thing and have for decades. But the scale of the practice is not clear: “It is presently unknown how much money sheriffs across the state have taken because most do not report it as income on state financial disclosure forms,” the Southern Center for Human Rights wrote in January.

And if that isn’t bonkers enough. It gets worse. The primary source for the story, written by journalist Connor Sheets, was Sheriff Entrekin’s lawnmower, Matt Qualls. Qualls has since been arrested and is now in a jail overseen by Sheriff Entrekin.

Sheets’ initial story was published on Feb. 18. On Feb. 22, Qualls was arrested and charged with drug trafficking after an anonymous call complained of the smell of marijuana from an apartment.

Qualls, who had never been arrested before, faces six charges and is being held on a $55,000 bond, Sheets reports. He is detained in a jail that Entrekin oversees.

…The sheriff’s office denies involvement in Qualls’ case, noting that the landscaper was not arrested or charged by the sheriff’s office. The extra charges were added by the Drug Enforcement Unit, which consist of agents drawn from the sheriff’s department, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

Addendum: You may be reminded of the story that Tyler and I use to open our principles of economics textbook. Ship captains in the 18th century were paid to ship convicts to Australia according to a very similar procedure as used today (!!!) to fund prisoner food in Alabama–and the results were equally predictable.

The 2018 Public Choice Outreach Conference, a crash course in public choice for students planning careers in academia, journalism, law, or public policy will held June 9-10 in Arlington VA. Graduate students and advanced undergraduates are eligible to apply. Students majoring in economics, history, international studies, law, philosophy political science, psychology, public administration, religious studies, and sociology have attended past conferences. Speakers include Robin Hanson, Bryan Caplan, Shruti Rajagopolan and many others.

You can find an application and more information here. If you are a professor please invite your students to apply.

Here are some quotes from past attendees of the Outreach Conference:

It was so useful to hear such varied and intriguing aspects of public choice thought. The other members of the conference were fantastic to meet and now I’m sure we all have so many new paper ideas and updated perspectives on our original interests, thank you!

Clara Jace, Creighton University

 I found the conference insightful into many different topics. What I think was most unique about the conference was the diversity of ideas, theorems and most importantly, ideas for solutions to these prevalent problems. I think my favorite part of the econ conferences is how quick presenters are to say “I don’t know” to questions and proceed to give the analytical reasoning for both sides of the argument instead of giving a BS answer that may or may not be true. Overall, I have loved this conference.

 Jalee Blackwell, West Texas A & M, School of Business

 Wow, this conference was absolutely exceptional. It provided some of the most interesting and thought-provoking Econ lectures and conversations I have ever had the privilege of engaging in. The opportunity to have one on one discussions with some of the world’s leading minds in these fields was truly an eye opening, educational, and inspiring experience that I won’t soon forget.

 Daniel Corley, University of Texas School of Law

I am agnostic on this question, but Jay L. Zagorsky presents the case for no:

First of all, the Mint creates coins in response to demand, and demand for small-denomination coins is soaring. Over the past decade, the Mint roughly doubled the number of pennies and nickels it shipped. Both coins enjoy widespread popular support in opinion polls as well.

It’s true that it costs more to mint these two coins than they are worth. In 2017, it cost the U.S. Mint 1.8 cents to make each penny and 6.6 cents for each nickel. Overall, however, the Mint is a profit machine. In 2017, it earned almost $400 million in profits producing circulating coins. For every dollar’s worth of coins it shipped out, the Mint made 45 cents. That is a profit margin many business owners dream about.

So, think of pennies and nickels as the Mint’s loss leader. They help create demand for more profitable coins in the cash economy. Eliminating pennies and nickels could make people think coins overall aren’t useful. And if we stop using all coins, the Mint will lose $400 million of profit a year.

…Stores and other businesses bothered by small-denomination coins can set prices so the final cost ends up in round numbers that eliminate using pennies or nickels. Food trucks and restaurants have used this kind of flat pricing to speed up checking out.

At the WSJ link, Henry Aaron argues the other side of the issue.  I should note that I have acted privately to abolish pennies (and occasionally nickels) from my own life.  Think of it as unilateral privatization, quite literally an idea for the trash and gutter.

It seems far more likely that Facebook will be directly regulated than Google; arguably this is already the case in Europe with the GDPR. What is worth noting, though, is that regulations like the GDPR entrench incumbents: protecting users from Facebook will, in all likelihood, lock in Facebook’s competitive position.

This episode is a perfect example: an unintended casualty of this weekend’s firestorm is the idea of data portability: I have argued that social networks like Facebook should make it trivial to export your network; it seems far more likely that most social networks will respond to this Cambridge Analytica scandal by locking down data even further. That may be good for privacy, but it’s not so good for competition. Everything is a trade-off.

Here is the link to the longer piece, to get them regularly you have to pay, definitely recommended, now more than ever.

True sentences about SB 827

by on March 19, 2018 at 2:47 pm in Current Affairs, Law | Permalink

California state Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 827 — a sweeping approach to solve California’s housing crisis by having the state government preempt local zoning ordinances and allow for greater density near rapid transit stations and high-frequency bus stops — is one of the most important ideas in American politics today.

Here is more from Matt Yglesias.