Law

1. The subtitle is A New Theory of Chinese History, and volume one has just been translated and published from the Chinese.

2. The author, Dingxin Zhao, now is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago.

3. The book has a curious 19th century air to its intellectual influences.  The main argument uses Herbert Spencer to revise Michael Mann, a 20th century British sociologist who wrote on the sources of power.  Lamarckian ideas are deployed frequently.

4. The Western model has had four independent power sources: states, churches, aristocracy, and the urban bourgeoisie.

5. Neither merchants nor religion had much of a strong, independent role in early Chinese politics.  Only the state and the aristocracy were powerful actors.

6. In the model of this book, the dual forces of competition and institutionalization drive historical change.  More than anything else, individuals maximize power.

7. The empowerment of economic power by ideology is the most fundamental feature of modernity.

8. “Three pivotal institutions of Western Zhou origin exerted an enduring impact on the history of China: the Mandate of Heaven, the kinship-based “feudal” system, and lineage law.” (p.79)

This is not an easy work to parse, but it is a book of substance and it reflects a considerable amount of careful thought.

The break in the prison population’s unremitting growth offers an overdue reprieve and a cause for hope for sustained reversal of the nearly four-decade growth pattern. But any optimism needs to be tempered by the very modest rate of decline, 1.8 percent in the past year. At this rate, it will take until 2101 — 88 years — for the prison population to return to its 1980 level.

And this:

Other developments should also curb our enthusiasm. The population in federal prisons has yet to decline. And even among the states, the trend is not uniformly or unreservedly positive. Most states that trimmed their prison populations in 2012 did so by small amounts — eight registered declines of less than 1 percent. Further, over half of the 2012 prison count reduction comes from the 10 percent decline in California’s prison population, required by a Supreme Court mandate. But even that state’s achievement is partly illusory, as it has been accompanied by increasing county jail admissions.

Three states stand out for making significant cuts in their prison populations in the past decade: New York (19 percent), California (17 percent), and New Jersey (17 percent). The reductions in New York and New Jersey have been in part a function of reduced crime levels, but also changes in policy and practice designed to reduce the number of lower-level drug offenders and parole violators in prison. But the pace of reductions in most other states has been quite modest. Moreover, 22 states still subscribed to an outdated model of prisoner expansion in 2012.

There is more here from Marc Mauer and Nazgol Ghandnoosh.

From Peter A. Petri and Michael G. Plummer (pdf):

This Working Paper estimates the effects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) using a comprehensive, quantitative trade model, updating results reported in Petri, Plummer, and Zhai (2012) with recent data and information from the agreement. The new estimates suggest that the TPP will increase annual real incomes in the United States by $131 billion, or 0.5 percent of GDP, and annual exports by $357 billion, or 9.1 percent of exports, over baseline projections by 2030, when the agreement is nearly fully implemented. Annual income gains by 2030 will be $492 billion for the world. While the United States will be the largest beneficiary of the TPP in absolute terms, the agreement will generate substantial gains for Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam as well, and solid benefits for other members. The agreement will raise US wages but is not projected to change US employment levels; it will slightly increase “job churn” (movements of jobs between firms) and mpose adjustment costs on some workers.

I know plenty of people who don’t like parts of this deal, but not any who have produced a better net estimate of what it will do.

Hat tip goes to the ever-energetic Brad DeLong.

I found this David Segal NYT article difficult to summarize, and surely it was difficult to title, but I found it one of the most interesting pieces I have read in weeks.  Allow me to start in the middle:

To fight lead gens, Google deploys a little-known army of volunteers, called Mappers, many of whom are engaged in a contest that takes wit and stamina. These are people around the world who propose and approve edits to Google Maps, with an assist from Google employees, all in the interest of refining the product and fighting spam — a term that in this context means anything fake and misleading.

It may seem bizarre that people would work gratis for one of the world’s richest companies. But many Mappers turn the job into a calling. For Dan Austin, who lives in Olympia, Wash., it was more like an addiction.

A former truck driver for DHL, he became a Mapper after he was laid off from his job and started fixing mistakes he had noticed on Maps while on the road. By the fall of 2011, Mr. Austin had discovered locksmith spam and was soon spending 10 hours a day, seven days a week, deleting it from Maps.

The premise is this:

The goal of lead gens is to wrest as much money as possible from every customer, according to lawsuits. The typical approach is for a phone representative to offer an estimate [for locksmith work] in the range of $35 to $90. On site, the subcontractor demands three or four times that sum, often claiming that the work was more complicated than expected. Most consumers simply blanch and pay up, in part because they are eager to get into their homes or cars.

Here is another bit from the middle:

Mr. Alverado said those fake buildings were necessary because getting to the first page in Google results now took ingenuity and cunning.

“You have no idea,” he said, sounding a little weary when asked about competition. Israelis were his toughest rivals, he said, and they had instilled a kind of awe in him. “I can tell you point-blank, they are freaking smart,” he said. “I really admire them.”

Every single paragraph is interesting in a different and substantive way, an almost impossible achievement for a piece.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.

As tech firms and law enforcement experiment with radio jammers and net-wielding interceptor drones to take down rogue quadcopters, police in the Netherlands are trialling a simpler solution: eagles. The country’s law enforcement has teamed up with a raptor training company named Guard From Above to see if birds of prey can be used to safely intercept quadcopters.

In the video demonstration above, an eagle is seen easily plucking what looks like a DJI Phantom out of the air. However, it’s not clear how dangerous this is for the bird.

File under “But at a price.”

The article is here, with an excellent video, and for the pointer I thank @alsoyourbrother.

“Unemployment is really hard to handle,” said U Saw Tha Pyae, whose six elephants have been jobless for the past two years. “There is no logging because there are no more trees.”

Myanmar’s leading elephant expert, Daw Khyne U Mar, estimates that there are now 2,500 jobless elephants, many of them here in the jungles of eastern Myanmar, about two and a half hours from the Thai border. That number would put the elephant unemployment rate at around 40 percent, compared with about 4 percent for Myanmar’s people.

“Most of these elephants don’t know what to do,” Ms. Khyne U Mar said. “The owners have a great burden. It’s expensive to keep them.”

Adult elephants, which each weigh about 10,000 pounds, eat 400 pounds of food a day and, other than circuses and logging, have limited job opportunities.

Logging is arduous. But elephant experts say hard work is one reason Myanmar’s elephants have remained relatively healthy. A 2008 study calculated that Myanmar’s logging elephants, which have a strict regimen of work and play, live twice as long as elephants kept in European zoos, a median age of 42 years compared with 19 for zoo animals.

Here is the full NYT story, via Michelle Dawson and Otis Reid.  The story is interesting throughout, you will note the elephants had strong labor law protections:

The military governments adhered to a strict labor code for elephants drawn up in British colonial times: eight-hour work days and five-day weeks, retirement at 55, mandatory maternity leave, summer vacations and good medical care. There are still elephant maternity camps and retirement communities run by the government. In a country where the most basic social protections were absent during the years of dictatorship, elephant labor laws were largely respected.

Interesting throughout — I wonder what is the natural rate of unemployment for elephants in a freer labor market…?

Failing Slower?

by on January 29, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

Fortune: Hiring a new employee, for instance, now takes 63 days, up from 42 in 2010, according to a 2015 study we did with 400 corporate recruiters. Meanwhile the average time to deliver an office IT project increased by more than a month from 2010 to 2015, and now stands at over 10 months from start to delivery—this particular nugget coming from a study we conducted with 2,000 project managers at more than 60 global organizations.

And when companies need to mesh processes, things get even slower. Multiple surveys we did with several thousand stakeholders in the realm of business-to-business sales revealed some striking evidence of institutional delay. The time required for one company to sell something to another, for example, has risen 22% in the past five years, as gaining consensus from one or two buyers has turned into five or more.

More here.

It certainly feels like more people are required to sign off on something than ever before and that fact is slowing things down. The time-series is short, however, and lots of other things are going on. Maybe firms take longer to hire when the growth rate is low. File under speculative.

German Lopez at Vox reports:

If you look at the data, there’s no evidence to support the idea that Europe, in general, has a safer drinking culture than the US.

According to international data from the World Health Organization, European teens ages 15 to 19 tend to report greater levels of binge drinking than American teens.

This continues into adulthood. Total alcohol consumption per person is much higher in most of Europe. Drinkers in several European countries — including the UK, France, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland — are also more likely to report binge drinking than their US counterparts.

Younger teens in Europe appear to drink more, as well. David Jernigan, an alcohol policy expert at Johns Hopkins University, studied survey data, finding that 15- and 16-year-old Americans are less likely to report drinking and getting drunk in the past month than their counterparts in most European countries.

File under Wisdom of the Mormons.

I know that Tyrone, my evil twin brother, has been fairly silent in 2015, but that’s only because he’s been so busy whispering things in my ear.  He’s also been spending his profits from having shorted the Chinese stock marketAnd having shorted the Democrats.

Can you imagine his latest?  Electoral politics once again, his weakest area (not nearly as good as Tyrone the neo-Fisherian).  Well, I scribbled down some notes on a napkin, over lunch, so this is an imperfect rendition of what he really said.  Tyrone in fact didn’t want me to write this post, fearing people would take it the wrong way.  Here goes, here is Tyrone at his mischievous worst:

Tyrone: It is obvious that intellectual Democrats, especially those concerned with climate change, should vote for Donald Trump for President.  Furthermore they should welcome his ascent, as should intellectual Republicans.

Let’s accept the commonly argued premise that climate change, if not quite an existential risk, can drastically lower the quality of life on earth for generations to come.

There is some chance that Trump will in fact support some kind of comprehensive climate change legislation.  After all, he used to be a liberal, but perhaps more importantly he wants to think of himself as a savior.  The chance of this is higher than that of any other Republican, and he is hardly beholden to the standard lobbies.

Most importantly, the chance of Trump “going Nixon” is higher than Hillary’s chance of selling meaningful climate change legislation to an oppositional Republican Congress.  She’ll be unpopular from day one, and the salaries of Dutch kunstmatige land consultants will skyrocket; that would bring a new Dutch disease, not just the one you get in those pretty Amsterdam shop windows.

OK people, let’s say Trump sticks to the mainstream Republican position.  What will happen then?  Won’t greedy capitalists rape the earth, not to mention building that energy-consuming wall?

Well, in the short run, maybe.  (Don’t forget Lennon on the omelette and those broken eggs!)  But we all know how disastrous Trump’s economic ideas would be in practiceThey would lower the growth rate of gdp and impoverish the masses.  Even if you read Trump as a policy moderate, just imagine what his volatile temperament would do to the equity risk premium.  (Then they would have to give Robert Barro a Nobel prize!)  And so, four or maybe eight years later, — or is it two? — what we could expect to find?  A fully Democratic Congress and White House.  (And dear reader, is there any other way to get there?)  And thus would arrive comprehensive climate change legislation, just as we got Obamacare post-2008.  Voila!  That’s way more important than maintaining America’s status as a nice, well-respected, and tolerant country, isn’t it?

So Democrats, if you really care about Bangladesh and Vietnam, and don’t just have this silly mood affiliation fancy that Tyler has fabricated, you should promote the candidacy of Donald Trump.  The more Democratic you are, the better.  The more worried about climate change you are, the better.  Your man has arrived on the national scene.  Finally.

Remember the take of Borges on Judas?  He made the real sacrifice of his reputation, so that the rest of us could be saved by Christ.  It is time for you too to be like Judas…[TC: At this point the absurdities piled up so high I just had to cut Tyrone off.]

trump

Tyler again: Readers, I am so sorry for this.  I receive numerous requests for more Tyrone, but usually I resist.  The only reason I occasionally oblige is to show you all, once again, how crazy he is.  How unreasonable he is.  How subject he is to his own mood affiliations, foibles, and quirks.  How little heritability can explain, once you look get past superficial sibling similarities and look more closely at the details of the intellect.

Tyler’s view — my view — is that good Democrats in fact should support…[at which points Tyrone cuts Tyler off, and the two tumble over the proverbial cliff]…

South Africa’s high court has upheld a decision to legalize domestic sales of rhinoceros horn, a controversial plan that some hope will reduce poaching by creating a legal source of supply, but limited to South Africa, for the endangered animal’s parts.

…John Hume, a rancher in South Africa with more than 1,100 rhinos, made the application with another farmer to overturn the ban. He said he can only afford to keep his farm going if the local horn trade is legalized.

Here is the WSJ story, and here is another useful source.  Note this:

Right now, there are only 29,000 rhinos left on the planet, most of which are in South Africa. It’s an incredible drop from the 500,000 that roamed Earth at the start of the 1900s, and sadly, the majority have been killed as a result of poaching, which increased 9,000 percent (yes, you read that right) between 2007 and 2014.

That means more than 1,000 rhinos are now killed illegally each year for their horns. Most of these end up in Asia, where they can reach up to US$100,000 per kilogram on the black market. Those prices are driven by the fact that many countries see rhino horn as a status symbol, and in Vietnam it’s believed (with no evidence whatsoever) to cure cancer.

Farmers claim they can harvest rhino horn without killing the animals, critics claim that rhinos will be in danger as long as the Asian demand continues, and in essence legalization cannot make supply sufficiently elastic, sufficiently quickly, to solve the problem.

We discussed this at lunch yesterday, here are my predictions:

1. Singapore will have driverless or near driverless neighborhoods in less than five years.  But it will look more like mass transit than many aficionados are expecting.

2. The American courts and regulators will not pin too much liability on the car companies or software architects.  That said, the regulators will move slowly, and for some time will require a human driver stay at the wheel, even though this seems to be more dangerous.

3. Mapping the territory, reliably, will remain the key problem.  Until that is solved, driverless cars will be a form of mass transit — except without the mass — along predesignated routes.

4. A Chinese city will do it before America does, but Singapore first of all.

5. In less than two or three years, you will see some American car dealership advertising “driverless cars,” but in a gimmicky way.  You’ll still have to sit at the wheel and…drive them.  But they’ll park themselves and have super-duper cruise control and the like.

6. The big gains come from everyone having driverless cars and that is more than twenty years away, but well under fifty years away.

Here is a related NYT article.  I thank Megan McArdle, Robin Hanson, Alex, and others for their contributions to this conversation.

Addendum: We also talked about whether “Virtual Reality” will be a revolutionary technology.  It will have its fans, but I don’t see it as a major breakthrough.  It makes too many people dizzy, and doesn’t really have a killer app; perhaps it will change sex however.

Too Good to Be True

by on January 21, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

In ancient Israel a court of 23 judges called the Sanhedrin would decide matters of importance such as death penalty cases. The Talmud prescribes a surprising rule for the court. If a majority vote for death then death is imposed except, “If the Sanhedrin unanimously find guilty, he is acquitted.” Why the peculiar rule?

In an excellent new paper, Too Good to Be True, Lachlan J. Gunn et al. show that more evidence can reduce confidence. The basic idea is simple. We expect that in most processes there will normally be some noise so absence of noise suggests a kind of systemic failure. The police are familiar with one type of example. When the eyewitnesses to a crime all report exactly the same story that reduces confidence that the story is true. Eyewitness stories that match too closely suggests not truth but a kind a systemic failure, namely the witnesses have collaborated on telling a lie.

police lineupWhat Gunn et al. show is that the accumulation of consistent (non-noisy) evidence can reverse one’s confidence surprisingly quickly. Consider a police lineup but now consider a more likely cause of systemic failure than witness conspiracy. Suppose that there is a small probability, say 1%, that the police arrange the lineup, either on purpose or by accident, so that the “suspect” is the only one who is close to matching the description of the criminal. Now consider what happens to our rational (Bayesian) probability that the suspect is guilwitnessty as the number of eyewitnesses saying “that’s the guy” increases. The first eyewitness to identify the suspect increases our confidence that the suspect is guilty and our confidence increases when the second and third eyewitness corroborate but when a fourth eyewitness points to the same man our rational confidence should actually
decrease.

Even though the systemic failure rate is only 1%, that small probability starts to weigh more heavily the more consistent (less noisy) the evidence becomes. The red line in the graph at right shows–using a 1% systemic failure rate and realistic probabilities of eyewitness identification–that after 3 witnesses more evidence decreases our confidence and when more than 10 witnesses identify the same suspect we should be less certain of guilt than when one witness identifies the suspect! The yellow line shows how certainty increases when there is no possibility of systemic failure which is what most people imagine is the case. Notice from the green line that even when the probability of systemic failure is tiny (.01%) it begins to dominate the results quite early.

What matters is not that the probability of systemic failure is tiny but how it compares to the probability of consistency which, with any reasonable estimate of noise, is itself getting tinier and tinier as evidence accumulates. In another application, the authors show how even the miniscule probability of a stray cosmic ray flipping a bit in machine code can materially reduce our confidence in common cryptographic procedures.

In summary, the peculiar rule of the Talmud receives support from Bayesian analysis–too much consistency is suspect of failure.

Now, the Israel Antitrust Authority has announced that nine tour operator executives have been arrested on suspicion of running a secret price-fixing ring that was aimed at artificially inflating the cost of trips to former Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz.

At least six tour operators are being investigated on suspicion of involvement in the alleged cartel. In some cases, the homes of company executives were searched and property confiscated. According to the publication Haaretz, one of those detained is also suspected of bribery.

…The Israeli government had given a number of tour operators the tenders for the business of flying high school students to Poland. In theory, these companies would be in competition: The schools were supposed to negotiate among the companies to find the best deal. The investigation found that in practice, however, the prices appeared to be fixed among the companies. Although the operators appeared to offer discounts to schools, investigators say, these discounts were secretly coordinated and there was no real competition.

That is from Adam Taylor, via Otis Reid.

Fragments of note

by on January 19, 2016 at 1:25 pm in Current Affairs, Law, Medicine | Permalink

…OxyContin abuse kills three times more people than gun homicides yearly.

That is from Scott Alexander, USA only, and here is Scott’s earlier post on guns, follow-up here.

Addendum: Do note the comment from GregS, this comparison may not be correct.  Here is an update.

When Cruz was thirteen his father brought him to Rolland Storey, a kindly and charismatic septuagenarian who ran a conservative foundation aimed at teaching youth about economics and government.  Storey educated his pupils about the brightest minds of free market economics: they pored over Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and marveled at Frederic Bastiat’s denunciations of socialism as legal plunder.  A veteran of vaudeville, Storey liked to re-create constitutional conventions and assign students to play delegates in mock debates.  Many of his students were gifted, but none could keep up with Cruz in terms of passion and inherent ability.  Thrust into some of the momentous scenes from world history, the thirteen-year-old was perfectly at home.

That anecdote is from McKay Coppins, The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House, a fun read with lots of background information I did not know.

I will never forget the time Gregory Rehmke took me to meet Rolland Storey in Houston.  But that is a story for another place and time…