Law

Brazil fact of the day

by on September 22, 2017 at 2:03 am in Current Affairs, Law | Permalink

Brazil, for example, has only 1/14th the number of guns per person that the U.S. does, but many more murders.

That is from Noah Smith, mostly about how to reduce crime.

I will be doing a Conversation with Doug in early October, although with no associated public event, just a later podcast and transcript.  Here is Wikipedia on Doug:

Douglas Irwin is the John Sloan Dickey Third Century Professor in the Social Sciences in the Economics Department at Dartmouth College and the author of seven books. He is an expert in both past and present U.S. trade policy, especially policy during the Great Depression. He is frequently sought by media outlets such as The Economist and Wall Street Journal to provide comment and his opinion on current events.[1][2]

Prior to Dartmouth, Irwin was an Associate Professor of Business Economics at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, an economist for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and an economist for the Council of Economic Advisers Executive Office of the President.

Doug has a very exciting new book on the history of trade coming out, which I covered here.  Here is Doug on Twitter.  Here is Doug’s recent WSJ Op-Ed on Steve Bannon, trade, and the history of America’s greatness.

So what should I ask Doug?  Your grace and wisdom are always appreciated and never in short supply.

Japan (America) fact of the day

by on September 20, 2017 at 2:21 am in Law, Medicine | Permalink

So consider the amount of standard daily doses of opioids consumed in Japan. And then double it. And then double it again. And then double it again. And then double it again. And then double it a fifth time. That would make Japan No. 2 in the world, behind the United States.

That is from German Lopez at Vox.

The Color of Law

by on September 19, 2017 at 7:25 am in Books, Economics, History, Law | Permalink

Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is a good history of government discrimination against African-Americans in the housing market. Most notably, the FHA and the VA refused to guarantee mortgage loans or loans to builders unless the neighborhood was segregated. Indeed, the FHA wouldn’t even insure a project if there were too many African Americans living nearby.

In 1940, for example, a Detroit builder was denied FHA insurance for a project that was near an African American neighborhood. He then constructed a half-mile concrete wall, six feed high and a foot thick, separating the two neighborhoods, and the FHA then approved the loan.

Rothstein is no libertarian but to his credit he does acknowledge that one of the few anti-segregation forces in the early twentieth century was the Lochner influenced reasoning of the Supreme Court. In Louisville, Kentucky, wealthy blacks began to buy houses in previously white neighborhoods. In response, the city passed an ordinance making it illegal for blacks to move into majority-white neighborhoods and vice-versa. The NAACP organized a test case. Warley, an African American, agreed to buy a house from Buchanan, if not prevented by law from doing so. Buchanan then argued that the law reduced the value of his house because he could not sell to Warley or other African-Americans. Thus, the ordinance was a taking which violated the 14th Amendment right not to be deprived of property without due process of law.

The State of Kentucky responded with a brief arguing that segregation was divinely ordained and that “negroes carry a blight with them wherever they go.” The racism was sickening but Kentucky also had the great mass of intellectuals behind it because they were asserting the progressive belief that the state’s police powers could and should overrule individual rights, especially property rights. Under Lochner, however, “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract” violated the 14th Amendment. Rothstein writes:

“In 1917, the Supreme Court overturned the racial zoning ordinance of Louisville, Kentucky, where many neighborhoods included both races before twentieth-century segregation….The Court majority was enamored of the idea that the central purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was not to protect the rights of freed slaves but a business rule: “freedom of contract.” Relying on this interpretation, the Court had struck down minimum wage and workplace safety laws on the grounds that they interfered with the right of workers and business owners to negotiate individual employment conditions without government interference. Similarly, the Court ruled that racial zoning ordinances interfered with the right of a property owner to sell to whomever he pleased.”

Sure, it’s a grudging acknowledgment, but most people don’t even do that so give Rothstein credit where credit is due.

Governments evolved other measures to promote segregation such as zoning laws and the white-subsidy systems of the FHA and VA. Nevertheless, Buchanan v. Warley was likely an very important decision. Bill Fischel goes so far as to argue that Buchanan v. Warley prevented apartheid in America.

Addendum: On segregation and Lochner, see David Bernstein’s excellent book Rehabilitating Lochner from which I have also drawn.

The economics of Graham-Cassidy

by on September 19, 2017 at 1:20 am in Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

It is good for forcing some fiscal discipline on health care, but state governments are fiscally too weak to take over America’s public sector health care finance.  That is the message of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

There is another problem with state experimentation in this context. So many health-care problems are on the supply side, namely weak incentives for quality care, barriers to entry and innovation, and regulations that raise costs but don’t improve safety. Ideally policy experimentation could cover all of these dimensions, but almost all of the debate is on the side of financing and insurance coverage. With a more or less fixed set of supply-side institutions, simply pushing more financing decisions into state governments may not produce much, if any, improvement.

So overall the reform doesn’t seem to be feasible.  But here is the part to bug you:

It is a legitimate worry that Graham-Cassidy might cut health-care benefits in an unequal fashion, but the bill may be more egalitarian than it at first appears. Due to the embedded formulas, the bill redistributes resources to red states, in particular states that have not already accepted the Medicaid expansion from Obamacare. Often those are rural states, some of them in economic decline. Favoring such states does have an egalitarian aspect, even if the Republican Party isn’t very effective in explaining the policy in those terms.

The biggest losers from Graham-Cassidy are likely New York and California, two states with very costly Medicaid rolls. That might appear anti-egalitarian, but is it really? The beneficiaries in those states tend to be relatively young, and thus their human capital endowments, in the form of future life enjoyment, are usually quite high. All things considered, a 28-year old lower middle-class immigrant in Los Angeles is arguably better off than a 61-year-old in Nebraska with $100,000 in the bank. Giving a benefit to the red state individual actually may reflect the more egalitarian sentiment, although that’s not usually how health-care policy discussions are framed by either Democrats or Republicans.

Like it or not, the forward-looking perspective is probably the correct one here.  One not altogether illogical response is to treat this as a reductio ad absurdum on egalitarian ideas.  Another response is to base health care policy more on efficiency, and again to discard the egalitarian ideal, which in turn would resurrect some chance of being able to defend redistribution toward the young.  What doesn’t make sense is to invoke egalitarian ideals only selectively, as people are fond of doing.

Here is one proposal:

What if I told you that the credit rating companies already had a system to verify identities before opening new accounts — but, because this would be a minor inconvenience, and a drag on their profits, they only allow this status to last for 90 days for any given account unless a police report can be filed, and furthermore, while they may claim that they’ll do this, it’s not actually a legal requirement? From a Krebs on Security piece from 2015 (as ever, Krebs is two years ahead of the zeitgeist):

“With a fraud alert on your credit file, lenders or service providers should not grant credit in your name without first contacting you to obtain your approval — by phone or whatever other method you specify when you apply for the fraud alert … Fraud alerts only last for 90 days, although you can renew them as often as you like. More importantly, while lenders and service providers are supposed to seek and obtain your approval before granting credit in your name if you have a fraud alert on your file, they’re not legally required to do this.”

That’s right: a solution to the ongoing insane catastrophe which is the American credit system already exists. The infrastructure and process for it is already in place. But thanks to regulatory capture, an inability to understand the scale of data hacks that modern technology enables, or sheer incompetence, it only exists on a case-by-case, opt-in, short-term solution.

Obviously everybody should have this verification — “two-factor authentication,” if you will — turned on and kept on. This would not be a panacea, of course. Security hipsters will loudly protest that phones and email are terrible second authentication factors that no one should even consider using. Phone and email are not ideal, but the point is, universalizing this existing solution would hugely improve matters for a relatively trivial cost.

That is from Jon Evans.  I still would like to know what is the social cost of identity theft.  Furthermore, what is the cost of identity theft as a ratio of the cost of some people simply not paying borrowed money back?

Everyone is all a-flutter on this issue, and attacking Equifax, but I am looking for more reliable information before voicing an opinion.

A City on the Hill

by on September 17, 2017 at 7:43 am in Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

The Redeemed Christian Church of Nigeria has built its own private city.

A 25-megawatt power plant with gas piped in from the Nigerian capital serves the 5,000 private homes on site, 500 of them built by the church’s construction company. New housing estates are springing up every few months where thick palm forests grew just a few years ago. Education is provided, from creche to university level. The Redemption Camp health centre has an emergency unit and a maternity ward.

On Holiness Avenue, a branch of Tantaliser’s fast food chain does a brisk trade. There is an on-site post office, a supermarket, a dozen banks, furniture makers and mechanics’ workshops. An aerodrome and a polytechnic are in the works.

…“If you wait for the government, it won’t get done,” says Olubiyi. So the camp relies on the government for very little – it builds its own roads, collects its own rubbish, and organises its own sewerage systems. And being well out of Lagos, like the other megachurches’ camps, means that it has little to do with municipal authorities. Government officials can check that the church is complying with regulations, but they are expected to report to the camp’s relevant office. Sometimes, according to the head of the power plant, the government sends the technicians running its own stations to learn from them.

There is a police station on site, which occasionally deals with a death or the disappearance of a child, but the camp’s security is mostly provided by its small army of private guards in blue uniforms. They direct traffic, deal with crowd control, and stop children who haven’t paid for the wristband from going into Emmanuel Park – home to the aforementioned ferris wheel.

As in Gurgaon, India, where the government fails opportunities are opened for entrepreneurs who think big.

We find that staggering SNAP benefits throughout the month leads to a 32 percent decrease in grocery store theft and reduces monthly cyclicity in grocery store crimes.

That is by Jillian B. Carr and Analisa Packham (pdf), via Alexander Berger.

In 2004 Canada prohibited paying Canadian sperm donors, leading to a tremendous shortage as I had predicted in 2003 (see also my post, The Great Canadian Sperm Shortage). Canadian Peter Jaworski has an update (oddly enough published in USA Today):

Canada used to have a sufficient supply of domestic sperm donors. But in 2004, we passed the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which made it illegal to compensate donors for their sperm. Shortly thereafter, the number of willing donors plummeted, and sperm donor clinics were shuttered. Now, there is basically just one sperm donor clinic in Canada, and 30-70 Canadian men who donate sperm. Since demand far outstrips supply, we turn to you. We import sperm from for-profit companies in the U.S., where compensating sperm donors is both legal and normal.

Note, by the way, that contrary to what you might expect from Titmuss et al. US sperm is considered to be of high quality because it comes with information about the donor.

And sperm isn’t the only precious bodily fluid that Canada imports.

Canada has never had enough domestic blood plasma for plasma-protein products, such as immune globulin. Our demand for those products, however, is increasing. Last year, we collected only enough blood plasma from unremunerated donors to manufacture 17% of the immune globulin demanded. The rest we imported from you, in exchange for $623 million, or $512 million U.S.

Reliance on your blood plasma looked like it might change a little bit when, in 2012, a company called Canadian Plasma Resources announced plans to open clinics in Ontario dedicated to collecting blood plasma. The trouble is that its business model included compensating donors. Almost immediately, groups such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Canadian Health Coalition began to lobby the Ontario government to pass a law to stop CPR from opening clinics. Ontario obliged in 2014, passing the Safeguarding Health Care Integrity Act, which among other things made compensation illegal.

…As for safety, the fact that we import products made with remunerated donors should tell you that it is emphatically not an issue. Health Canada has said that there is no health concern. The CEO of Canadian Blood Services, Graham Sher, took to YouTube to explain that “it is categorically untrue to say, in 2015 or 2016, that plasma-protein products from paid donors are less safe or unsafe. They are not. They are as safe as the products that are manufactured from our non-remunerated or unpaid donors.”

As Jaworski writes:

What Canada should do is legalize compensation for renewable bodily fluids in our own country. It would be the morally right thing to do. It would help make and save more lives, without harming anybody.

Here is the abstract:

Counterfactual experiments show that deregulating existing urban land from 2014 regulation levels back to 1980 levels would have increased US GDP and productivity roughly to their current trend levels. California, New York, and the Mid-Atlantic region expand the most in these counterfactuals, drawing population out of the South and the Rustbelt. General equilibrium effects, particularly the reallocation of capital across states, accounts for much of these gains.

Alternatively, note from the paper that:

…deregulating all of the regions to 1980 levels would raise labor productivity by about 10 percent, and consumption by about 9 percent in the neoclassical economy, and would raise labor productivity by about 16 percent, and consumption by about 11 percent in the economy with the externality.

That is from Herkenhoff, Ohanian, and Prescott.  I’d like to make two broader points about the paper:

1. This is yet another example of real business cycle theory methods proving useful.  There are genuine problems with these approaches, but at least most of the blogosphere critics don’t understand them, and their uses, very well.

2. Sometimes you hear Texas described as a “low-wage” economy, perhaps contrasted with the high wages of California.  But there are some subtle wage effects from the Texas approach that often go unnoticed.  By drawing people out of high-rent areas, Texas keeps the lid on land rents elsewhere, thereby boosting real wages in say San Francisco.  Furthermore, San Francisco employers must pay their workers more, the more attractive is the “move to Texas” option.  So the full positive effect of the Texas model on wages is considerably higher than you can see by looking at Texas wages alone.  Once again, the distinction between the seen and the unseen turns out to be relevant.

Our findings indicate that premiums as a percentage of coverage purchased are regressive: premium shares are larger than income shares for lower-income zip codes. Payouts, however, also as a percentage of coverage purchased, are progressive, meaning lower-income zip codes receive a larger portion of claims paid. Overall net premiums (premiums – payouts) divided by coverage are also regressive.

That is from a recent paper by Bin, Bishop, and Kousky, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  Here is Politico on the fight to thwart flood insurance reform.

You need to look at ticket prices inclusive of fees, not just fares. Those have continued the long run trend of falling in inflation-adjusted terms, although not every year.

Airline products across carriers have become less variable/more standardized. Price is only one element of competition. There are significant barriers to entry in the airline industry, not least of which is the prohibition on foreign ownership of US airlines. However that is hardly the only one.

The major reason Alaska Airlines purchased Virgin America was access to gates and in some cases slots at major congested airports. You not only have government-owned airports entering long-term leases with incumbent airlines, you frequently have capture of the bureaucrats running those airports by their major incumbent airline tenants. And where you have multiple airports in a metropolitan area, they’re frequently jointly run by the same bureaucracy rather than competing.

Airlines are highly profitable, though not nearly as profitable as two years ago, the biggest delta has been fuel cost tied to the price of oil. Consolidation allowed airlines to capture much of the gains of lower fuel prices for a period of time, but the smaller number of carriers returned to expansion and competition on the basis of price competing away some of those savings-driven prices.

All that said the only monopoly air routes in the US are the ones no one wants to fly and that require government subsidies in order to entice carriers into the market. Which isn’t to say that consumers wouldn’t benefit from more competition than we have today.

That is from Air Genius Gary Leff.

Big Data Surveillance

by on September 3, 2017 at 10:55 am in Law | Permalink

Newly minted sociologist Sarah Brayne spent two and a half years studying the LAPD as it shifted from traditional methods to what she calls big data surveillance.

This article examines the intersection of two structural developments: the growth of surveillance and the rise of “big data.” Drawing on observations and interviews conducted within the Los Angeles Police Department, I offer an empirical account of how the adoption of big data analytics does—and does not—transform police surveillance practices. I argue that the adoption of big data analytics facilitates amplifications of prior surveillance practices and fundamental transformations in surveillance activities. First, discretionary assessments of risk are supplemented and quantified using risk scores. Second, data are used for predictive, rather than reactive or explanatory, purposes. Third, the proliferation of automatic alert systems makes it possible to systematically surveil an unprecedentedly large number of people. Fourth, the threshold for inclusion in law enforcement databases is lower, now including individuals who have not had direct police contact. Fifth, previously separate data systems are merged, facilitating the spread of surveillance into a wide range of institutions. Based on these findings, I develop a theoretical model of big data surveillance that can be applied to institutional domains beyond the criminal justice system. Finally, I highlight the social consequences of big data surveillance for law and social inequality.

Here’s one bit, not far from what one would see on CSI:

For example, after a series of copper wire thefts in the city, the police found the car involved by drawing a radius in Palantir
around the three places the wire was stolen from, setting up time bounds around the time they knew the thefts occurred at each site, and
querying the system for any license plates captured by ALPRs in all three locations during those time periods.

And another:

I encountered several other examples of
law enforcement using external data originally
collected for non–criminal justice purposes,
including data from repossession and collections
agencies; social media, foreclosure, and
electronic toll pass data; and address and
usage information from utility bills. Respondents
also indicated they were working on
integrating hospital, pay parking lot, and
university camera feeds; rebate data such as
address information from contact lens rebates;
and call data from pizza chains, including
names, addresses, and phone numbers from
Papa Johns and Pizza Hut. In some instances,
it is simply easier for law enforcement to purchase
privately collected data than to rely on
in-house data because there are fewer constitutional
protections, reporting requirements,
and appellate checks on private sector surveillance
and data collection (Pasquale 2014).
Moreover, respondents explained, privately
collected data is sometimes more up-to-date.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

A lot of nonsense has been written about the causes of flooding in Houston. Anti-immigration people blame immigration. Anti-development people blame development. Anti-Trump people blame Republicans.

The truth, however, is that Houston has flooded regularly since it was founded. Moreover, unlike Katrina, the flood systems have mostly worked as they are supposed to–diverting water to the highways, for example. The problem has been that there is just a lot of water.

In a superb post, Phil Magness has the details. From here on in this is Magness. I won’t indent.

————

We’ve seen a flurry of commentators in the past few days attributing Houston’s flooding to a litany of pet political causes. Aside from the normal carping about “climate change”… several pundits and journalists have opportunistically seized upon Houston’s famously lax zoning and land use regulations to blame Harvey’s destruction on “sprawl” and call for “SmartGrowth” policies that restrict and heavily regulate future construction in the city.

According to this argument, Harvey’s floods are a byproduct of unrestricted suburban development in the north and west of the city at the expense of prairies that would supposedly absorb rainwater at sufficient rates to prevent natural disasters and that supposedly served this purpose “naturally” in the past.

There are multiple problems with this line of argument that suggest it is rooted in naked political opportunism rather than actual concern for Houston’s flooding problems.

First, as we’ve established in the preceding history lesson, flooding has been a regular feature of Houston’s landscape since the beginning of recorded history in the region. And catastrophic flooding – including multiple storms in the 19th century and the well-documented flood of December 1935 – predates any of the “sprawl” that has provoked these armchair urban designers’ ire.

Second, the flooding we saw in Harvey is largely a result of creeks and bayous backlogging and spilling over their banks as more water rushes in from upstream. While parking lot and roadway runoff from “sprawl” certainly makes its way into these streams, it is hardly the source of the problem. The slow-moving and windy Brazos river reached record levels as a result of Harvey and spilled over its banks, despite being nowhere near the city’s “sprawl.” The mostly-rural prairie along Interstate 10 to the extreme west of the city recorded some of the worst flooding in terms of water volume due to the Brazos overflow, although fortunately property damage here will be much lower due to being rural.

Third, the very notion that Houston is a giant concrete-laden water retention pond is itself a pernicious myth peddled by unscrupulous urban planning activists and media outlets. In total acres, Houston has more parkland and green space than any other large city in America and ranks third overall to San Diego in park acreage per capita.*

But even more telling is a 2011 study by the Houston-Galveston Area Council that actually measured the ratio of impervious-to-pervious land cover within the city limits (basically the amount of water-blocking concrete vs. water-absorbing green land). The study used an index scale to measure water-absorption land uses. A low score (defined as less than 2.0 on the scale) indicates a high presence of green relative to concrete. A high score (defined as greater than 5.0) indicates high concrete and low levels of greenery and other water-absorbing cover. The result are in the map below, showing the city limits. Gray corresponds to high levels of pervious surfaces (or greenery). Black corresponds to high impervious surface use (basically either concrete or lakes that collect runoff). As the map shows, over 90% of the land in the city limits is gray, indicating more greenery and higher water absorption. Although they did not measure unincorporated Harris County, it also tends to be substantially less dense than the city itself.

Does this mean that impervious land uses are not a problem and do not contribute to floods in any way? No. But to cite them as a principle cause of the destruction witnessed in Harvey is purely a political move aimed at generating support for a long list of intrusive regulatory policies.

Houston’s flood problems are a distinctive feature of its topography and geography, and they long predate any “sprawl.” While steps have been taken over the years to mitigate them and reduce the severity of flooding, a rare but catastrophic event will unavoidably overwhelm even the most sophisticated flood control systems. Harvey was one such event – certainly the highest floodwater event to hit Houston in over 80 years, and possibly the worst deluge in its recorded history. But it is entirely consistent with almost 2 centuries of recorded historical patterns. In the grander scheme of causes for Harvey’s flooding, “sprawl” does not even meaningfully register.

Read the whole thing for more historical background.

*  Earlier version said second which was a typo as source reports third; other sources can differ depending on year and what exactly is counted.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt from the final section:

Greater federal aid to the victims is a likely option. Still, it will not be obvious to many Americans why those who lost homes might end up receiving higher government benefits than people elsewhere who never had homes in the first place, and who may have inferior income prospects, especially if they live in rural areas. Many Texas congressional representatives voted against federal aid when Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in 2012. That sounds cruel, but we also have to guard against the tendency for aid decisions to be driven by media cycles rather than the nation’s most serious structural problems.

One commonly discussed “economist’s solution” is to limit federal bailouts, and get the federal government out of providing flood insurance, in the hope that homes will not be built on risky floodplains. It doesn’t make sense to have $663,000 in payouts sent to one Mississippi home, which has flooded out 34 times in 32 years.

That all makes sense in theory, but it also illustrates the limitations of economics. The homes are already built in precarious places, and in the Houston area the damage has already been incurred. Are we prepared to forgo giving federal aid, just to set a precedent for the future? If anything, acting tough could lead to a backlash against the politicians who do so, and make it all the more clear that future bailouts will be forthcoming. Maybe the best we can do is to price flood insurance more appropriately, in recognition that climate risks are higher now. Over the longer run, as housing stocks turn over, that will help limit homeowner and also fiscal exposure to extreme events.

In other words, doing better in response to storms won’t be that easy.  At least so far, it seems the human logistical preparation and response has gone fairly well — relative to expectations — this time around.