Automation, transparency, and bad behavior

by on June 30, 2017 at 12:42 am in Law, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

From my email:

Dear Professor Cowen,
In places with weak institutions or corruption, might we want some workers to be so bad at their jobs that we can rest assured they are at least honest? Here’s my anecdote…
In New York I’m frustrated that uber drivers follow google maps so literally. They go crosstown on major boulevards like 23rd Street or 34th Street like Google Maps tells them to, when everyone knows a sidestreet would be quicker. When my driver’s app was glitching out, it took me ten minutes to persuade him that we were going in the wrong direction because he trusted his phone to the death. In NYC I long for old school cabbies who had the whole grid memorized and knew all the tricks.
But yesterday, I had to take an uber from a remote nontourist area of Sao Paulo to the airport, and I was thrilled that my uber driver was as clueless as I was. I don’t speak a word of Portuguese and I was bewildered by the city’s topography, and one hears about kidnappings and coerced tipping from unsavory drivers occasionally. But because this guy was hopeless without google maps, all I had to do to know I could trust him was to glance at his dashboard-mounted tablet and observe whether he was following the directions. That way, I knew very transparently that we were going to the airport not to his secret lair across town. If he was skilled enough to navigate without aid, his trustworthiness would have been, to my detriment, opaque.
Can this remotely be generalized? In situations where public trust is in question, it’s optimal for some workers to be bad at their jobs if it means that they have to observably rely on external guidance? For example, maybe it’s reassuring that in an airline cockpit, the first officer is relatively inexperienced, because our imagination of the captain’s additional “mentorship” role increases our confidence that things will be done by the book, like in a classroom, as opposed to expediently, like in a normal workplace?
As with my prior emails to you, I hope either that this has been interesting, or that stealing a minute of your attention is not as costly as I fear!
Matt Grossman

1 Al June 30, 2017 at 12:51 am

“They go crosstown on major boulevards like 23rd Street or 34th Street like Google Maps tells them to, when everyone knows a sidestreet would be quicker.”

Everyone knows, eh? Everyone has realtime traffic data in their heads? Hmm? Maybe, just maybe, *you* don’t know what you are talking about and those who are “robotically” following the instructions from Google are doing the right thing.

2 mulp June 30, 2017 at 3:35 am

In other words, employees should not be knowledgeable and simply blindly follow orders?

Oh, wait, Uber is not an employer.

Thus you expect every independent subcontract hired to provide services to be total idiots that must follow orders blindly because they merely provide the capital which currently very stupid as chunks of steel and clockwork are.

Just say another article lying about the lack of business startups. It seems Uber churn is constantly creating lots of business startups that fold within a years as unprofitable.

3 bob June 30, 2017 at 7:42 am

Nope. He’s right. It started way before uber as soon as gps was ubiquitous.

4 VJV June 30, 2017 at 11:08 am

Seconded. I can assure you that nobody who knows their way around Manhattan would drive crosstown on one of the two-way streets. It’s madness.

Google Maps frequently sends drivers on weird and nonsensical routings because it seems to make assumptions about speed that do not always hold true in the real world. In general, it underestimates the time it takes to drive places in urban areas (even when it accounts for traffic) and overestimates it in rural areas (because it assumes everyone always abides by the exact speed limit).

That said, it is absolutely useful to have real-time traffic data. The most effective way is to combine Google Maps’ GPS and traffic data with your own local knowledge. I suspect something similar holds true for many technologies.

5 Al June 30, 2017 at 1:38 pm

“because it seems to make assumptions about speed that do not always hold true in the real world” — you couldn’t be more wrong.

6 Steve Sailer June 30, 2017 at 1:06 am

The extremely Israeli app Waze constantly redirects drivers down different side streets in West Los Angeles. It drives homeowners on what had been quiet streets crazy.

7 Steve Sailer June 30, 2017 at 1:10 am

Israel has a culture that believes America is the most powerful country on Earth, so you never know when some information you pick up about America might come in handy, so always be collecting data on Americans: thus Waze, AmDocs phone records, Israeli “art students” pushing their way into American businesses, the dancing Israelis in New Jersey excited over 9/11 that the FBI interrogated for 60 days trying to figure out what they were up, etc.

8 carlospln June 30, 2017 at 2:24 am
9 carlospln June 30, 2017 at 2:41 am

“Israel has a culture that believes America is the most powerful country on Earth”

Since Israel [AIPAC] runs the United States gov’t, I submit you have the relativity inverted.

10 The Other Jim June 30, 2017 at 8:38 am

You sound very sane.

11 Thomas June 30, 2017 at 12:21 pm

This is the left i remember from GWB, before they became very serious people

12 carlospln June 30, 2017 at 5:01 pm

I’m a Nazi.

Go fuck yourself.

13 Doug June 30, 2017 at 3:04 am

I guarantee you between the NSA and the big five tech giants, America collects more data per Israeli (and everyone else for that matter) than vice versa. Mossad’s just following the playbook the CIA wrote 60 years ago.

14 prior_test3 June 30, 2017 at 6:47 am

Well, easy come, easy go. Let us try to make the point again, without any actual factual examples that apparently are beyond MR’s pale.

Collecting data is one thing, having access to it is another. The NSA and many American companies are actively engaged in collecting as much information as possible, but it is using that information which is the point, not the collecting. If someone can access that information without needing to use any resources to collect it, they have achieved a significant advantage on the backs of those collecting it.

At this point (one hopes this is thoroughly uncontroversial), it is extremely likely that essentially all foreign intelligence agencies (both allied and adversarial) are buying as much data from American data collectors as possible, as many people do not seem to realize both just how extensively such data is collected, and how it can be evaluated for advantage by those opposed to one’s own goals or interests.

One hopes that the Post link was not cause for offense, as this shows how easily this happens when someone willingly broadcasts large amounts of information that in the past was generally kept veiled –

15 James Cox June 30, 2017 at 5:16 pm

Sailer, do you realize that Google, an American company last I checked, bought Waze a couple of years ago?

16 Al June 30, 2017 at 1:57 am

It is simply determining the fastest path between two vertices given the lengths of each edge. If the residents really are unhappy about the traffic they can get the speed limit reduced (and ensure that it is enforced), the traffic will automatically re-route.

Likely they are simply upset that the efficient roads, which only they knew about, are now being used by others.

17 john June 30, 2017 at 7:02 am

or most simply, like one of the towns near where I live, simply draw a law that prevents through traffic during certain hours of the day. Now if they would only do that for all the parents that bring their kids to the school by my house so buses were in great uses than SUVs….

18 Brian Donohue June 30, 2017 at 8:29 am

Yup. I’m familiar with “No right turn, 7-9 AM, 4-6 PM” signs that predate this technology by years.

19 Albigensian June 30, 2017 at 9:57 am

Laws seldom slow motor vehicles down much, but speed bumps do.

20 Kevin June 30, 2017 at 3:25 am

In Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the cities have started declaring certain roads are “local traffic only”. Cops don’t enforce this in person, and the city doesn’t really expect them to. But when Waze directs drivers down a road that is marked local traffic only, the city complains to Waze that this route is breaking the law and has them mark it off-limits. So there are more and more places where app recommendations are in fact not the fastest way to get somewhere.

21 Kris June 30, 2017 at 6:40 am

Does “local traffic” have a legal definition? What happens if I take a wrong turn, or a wrong exit from the freeway, and end up on one of these streets?

22 Miguel Madeira June 30, 2017 at 6:45 am

In Portugal, “local traffic” is “residents only”

23 Anonymous June 30, 2017 at 9:18 am

Google bought Waze in 2013, and has been directing cars down residential streets ever since.

I think Google does have the correct “quickest” based on real time conditions. There is also the public good that drivers are using all roads more effectively. Total throughput is increased.

But Google directed drivers can be dicks. Some mornings they will block my friend in her driveway, and it is a long wait for someone to let her out.

24 Anonymous June 30, 2017 at 9:53 am

BTW, I think we should all be especially solicitous of people trying to leave their driveways.

Perhaps some of you will object that this is virtue signalling, and does nothing for the community as a whole.

25 New Left June 30, 2017 at 12:28 pm

This is selfishness by an entrenched interest wanting to limit access to public goods. These entrenched interests are also disproportionately white, so your pleas are reminiscent of Jim Crow.

26 Mark Thorson June 30, 2017 at 1:14 am

That can work both ways, as Matt speculates. For example, in Vegas some cabbies combine competence and dishonesty:

I’d guess competence is weakly correlated with honesty, but not enough so to seek out the incompetent. With the competent, you at least get competence.

27 Adam June 30, 2017 at 1:59 am

Ah. That’s a good point. Framing the described phenomenon as a supplier-side problem (the cabbie part) can only go so far since the question is one of consumer preferences.

There will be people who will have homothetic preference for “not getting kidnapped.” In which case, the Mr. Magoo driver is your best bet.

But everyone is optimizing some different utility function. So, sure, there are different types of cab drivers for the same reason there are different types of cookies.

I’ll say two things:
(1) This phenomenon probably belongs in the domain of high-level location models.

(2) Anything that reduces the minimum level of acceptable competence probably makes it less likely that the industry will be highly regulated.

(A reasonable counter example to (2) might be that someone prefers a young lawyer, because they know the lawyer will look something up if she isn’t sure … and isn’t arrogant and jaded like her more experienced competitors. But that seems easily conflated with other attributes.)

28 Alex FG June 30, 2017 at 5:06 am

@Adam: I’ve tried your example #2. Indeed the young lawyer did his best which was excellent legal work. Problem was, he’s not only lacking experience but also connections. Convincing a justice is so much tougher when he regularly goes to lunch with your opponent’s lawyer and your case is of minor public interest.

29 Doug June 30, 2017 at 3:06 am

34th St is faster crosstown than any of the adjacent side streets. Clock it for yourself.

30 chuck martel June 30, 2017 at 6:28 am

If one route from point A to point B takes 15 minutes less than another route between the two, what becomes of the “saved” 15 minutes? Does it get stuffed into a time piggy bank for use at some point in the future?
If someone mistakenly takes the longer route and “wastes” 15 minutes how long is the effect of that wastage a consideration? How long do people regret having spent an extra 15 minutes caught up in traffic or in a supermarket check-out line? An hour, a day, five years? Can there be a personal accounting at the end of one’s life of time spent productively vs. that frittered away?

31 Rich Berger June 30, 2017 at 6:52 am

Chuck: you may be correct in the greater scheme of things, but New Yorkers do not want to be delayed. Watch how pissed they get at the tourists walking four abreast on the sidewalks, gaping at the sights.

32 Tubbs June 30, 2017 at 8:43 am

100% correct. The side streets get insanely backed up from people trying to turn onto the avenues (and unable to because of pedestrians), construction, and double parking. 34th has a bus lane which keeps the car lanes relatively obstructions I am always surprised when wazes takes me across 34th but it usually ends up being quick. Also google maps seems to take into account traffic these days (they do own waze, after all!).

But the general point is correct, uber/lyft drivers are insanely fixated on their phones. My office building has entrance on two streets and waze always tries to direct you to make some silly turns to get to one of the entrances. Anyone who knows NYC (and knows the building, which is pretty famous) would never try to do that, but I always have to yell at the uber/lyft drivers to go the smart way.

33 Unanimous June 30, 2017 at 3:46 am

Interesting post. Possibly explains some management competence mysteries. Got to apoint people you feel you can trust, and can you trust people who know a lot more than you, even (or particularly) in specialist areas?

34 dearieme June 30, 2017 at 3:47 am

Interesting throughout. Self-recommending. Keep it up, Mr Grossman.

35 Tyler June 30, 2017 at 4:43 am

We’re just in an awkward spot between complete reliance on knowledgeable drivers and complete reliance on automated driving systems. These few years of GPS units and Google Maps combined with human drivers are just a transition period.

36 Roger That June 30, 2017 at 6:42 am

Waze is actually owned by Google, so I wonder how separate it is from Google Maps.

37 Axa June 30, 2017 at 6:46 am

I can’t check since I deleted Uber, but…….I think the trip receipt includes a map where the route the driver actually did.

I think the driver has the incentive to follow the route Uber calculates. This is a burden of proof issue. If the driver follows the app even if the route is not optimal, the client must proof the route choice was bad. If the driver follows a great route but for whatever reason the client feels tricked, the driver gets a bad rating and must prove he did the right choice.

38 Gordon Mohr June 30, 2017 at 6:55 am

Cryptographer Wei Dai, whose work influenced Bitcoin, links to a couple of game-theoretic examples of “social costs of intelligence” on his home page (

• Why good memory could be bad for you: game theoretic analysis of a monopolist with memory []

• Why cleverness could be bad for you: a game where the smarter players lose []

39 Rich Berger June 30, 2017 at 6:56 am

I drove a cab in NYC in the early 70’s and didn’t know the streets that well. After a few months, I got to know Manhattan pretty well and could get to the airports ok, but Brooklyn and Queens were a mystery to me.

40 Butler T. Reynolds June 30, 2017 at 7:25 am

Interesting question. Speaking of trust, Uber and Lyft drivers have always been happy to follow my suggestions for better routes to my house despite the protestations of their app. You’d think that would make *them* suspicious of me. I guess since I don’t look like trailer trash and they assume that my credit card info is on file, they can safely assume that I’m not a serial killer.

I would not feel comfortable making alternate suggestions to a cab driver who was also using an app to take me home. Why?

41 Sean June 30, 2017 at 8:36 am

There’s a piece of this that lines up with Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto. There’s lots packed inside that simple idea that makes many many things, better at the margin..

42 Todd Townsend June 30, 2017 at 9:18 am

My cousin lives in London and uses both Uber and the black cab app. He chooses Uber for well know destinations that don’t require nuanced knowledge of the city, and black cabs when going to out of the way places where back-street routing and knowledge is paramount. Works beautifully.

43 Floccina June 30, 2017 at 9:24 am

I think/hope that Internet rating could reduce the need of trust and help in low trust societies.

44 Andrew Alexander June 30, 2017 at 10:38 am

In my opinion, it just has nothing to with the intelligence of the operator or employee. Just whether or not you can use external guidelines to judge behavior.


45 Peter Gerdes June 30, 2017 at 10:46 am

While it certainly seems possible this is true in some situations I don’t see a any general principle that makes it particularly likely. I mean I could come up with cases in which almost any particular trait happens to be an impediment to corruption in that case but for it to be a useful explanatory mechanism we want to be assured there is some reason for this to often be the case.

In particular, it seems to me that in almost any situation in which it was both true that incompetence/ignorance decreased the risk of corruption by forcing more explicit reliance on non-corrupt rules AND corruption was a significant problem people would simply institute incentives that force those occupations to explicitly follow the rules. For instance, while the individual who emailed may not have thought of it ahead of time if this is a common concern passengers could simply insist that drivers (competent or not) follow directions. Also it seems useful to note that incompetence is pretty easy to fake so one can’t use it to ensure someone doesn’t have the option to not follow the explicit rules.

However, it may sometimes be useful to ensure certain jobs are sufficiently unattractive that no one capable of performing those duties corruptly takes them but this is still probably pretty rare.

Also, if the emailer didn’t speak the language how did he know his cabbie hadn’t simply told the GPS to give directions to his secret lair? Or was that in a language he understood?

46 Brett June 30, 2017 at 12:23 pm
47 Sume June 30, 2017 at 1:02 pm

Once I had asked Uber driver why he is not using direct route. he replied Uber has insisted that they follow the route given by App.

48 James Cox June 30, 2017 at 5:19 pm

Mr. Grossman conflates, it seems to me, being “bad” at your job with doing your job well but differently than people did it years ago. A guy driving directed by Google Maps is doing things differently than old-time cabbies did, but he isn’t a “bad” driver.

49 Paul ed June 30, 2017 at 6:27 pm

Grossman doesn’t conflate anything. He’s reporting–accurately, in my view–the challenges consumers face as a sector (cabs) undergoes a total transformation. Sure, a lot of cabbies in the days of yore hadn’t totally memorized the grid or the best short-cuts (and how would out-of-town passengers know?); but I guaran-fricking-tee you that GPS is messing with cabbies’ navigational skills in the same way that it’s messing with drivers’ generally. No shortage of research on the way we diminish our navigational skills, or acquire them far less completely, when we use GPS. We’re becoming a nation of drivers who can’t read a map or, more fundamentally, aren’t very good at building mental maps of our surroundings. Which, perversely, forces us to rely even more on GPS. But don’t worry — it ends well.

50 jorod June 30, 2017 at 11:08 pm

Obviously, this guy has never been ripped off by taxi drivers.

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