Month: April 2016

Ambulances too China incentives of the day

The BBC has an interesting report on ambulance services in Beijing.  Up until now, ambulance drivers could decide themselves how much to charge people for their services.  I’m assuming these weren’t listed or known beforehand either.  This seems ripe for abuse given that the patient will be desperately wanting to get to the hospital and in no state for bargaining.  According to the article, most Chinese on social media didn’t even know that ambulances charge at all.  That must come as a big shock then when they get hit up by the driver.

So what did authorities decide to do?  Decree that ambulances “be fitted with taxi-style meters in an effort to allay public concerns about overcharging.”  Hmm, this doesn’t seem to be the most incentive compatible policy either.  As one social media cynic (read: realist) pointed out, “Don’t rule out ambulances taking a detour when using the meter.”  At least when you’re in the backseat of a cab, you can watch where the driver is going.  In the back of an ambulance in an emergency situation, that’s not going to be very feasible!  Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way advocating free ambulance services, but there has to be a better policy than this.

That is from Cherokee Gothic.

Lemonade sentences to ponder

For those of you who just returned from a trip to Mt. Everest, Lemonade is Beyoncé’s latest album, and the lyrics are all about the pain she felt when her husband, music mogul Jay-Z, cheated on her. Or so it’s universally assumed.. many people have pointed out, Lemonade is available for streaming only on Tidal, which is Jay-Z’s company. So that means Beyoncé is helping Jay make a lot of money off his alleged infidelity—and shoring up his faltering streaming service at the same time.

That is from Kevin Drum.  What would Ronald Coase say?

Wednesday assorted links

1. When were the great philosophers?

2. When it comes to the great stagnation, don’t blame the engineers.  A very good post with lots of detail; I say fear the services!

3. Are ravens as clever as chimps?  Paper here.

4. Traffic lights embedded in pavements, in case you cross the street while viewing your smartphone the culture that is Germany.

5. Frequency of Sex Shapes Automatic, but Not Explicit, Partner Evaluations.

6. Noah Smith is leaving academia for full-time at Bloomberg.

7. Why are reactionaries especially unpopular in the United States?

Bathrooms, transgender rights, and should there be a legal definition of transgender?

Here is one summary of the recent brouhaha.  North Carolina made a mistake in signing the new law.  Not just a practical mistake, because of the backlash, but a mistake outright.  I’m not aware there was a problem needing to be solved, and yet new problems have been created.

There is nonetheless a relevant argument for the law which I believe resonates with many Americans:

Cruz’s argument centers on the idea that allowing transgender women to use the women’s restroom would lead to deviants dressing up as women and preying on young girls. His campaign released an ad accusing Trump of capitulating to the “PC police” and asking viewers whether a grown man pretending to be a woman should use a restroom with your daughter or wife.

Whether you agree or not, that argument helps us rephrase the dilemma as follows: should there be a legal definition of who is a transgender person and why?  And should transgender people wish that there were such a legal definition?

If there were such a definition, problem solved, at least in principle.  Transgender individuals could use the bathroom which their legal stipulation entitled them to, or would entitle them to, were a court case to arise.

Women’s colleges of course face a private sector version of this issue (here is one pending change).  Private companies have policies on bathroom use, and gender-specific sporting events must make rulings.

So what to do with the law?  I see at least three options.

#1: The first and most libertarian view is to refuse to offer a legal definition of transgender.

The transgender concept seems so…fluid.  This page from Wikipedia illustrates the underlying legal problems:

These include people whose identities are not exclusively masculine or feminine but may, for example, be androgynous, bigender, pangender or agender — often grouped under the alternative umbrella term genderqueer[5] — and third-gender people (alternatively, some references and some societies conceptualize transgender people as a third gender).[6][7] Although some references define transgender very broadly to include transvestites / cross-dressers,[8] they are usually excluded, as are transvestic fetishists (because they are considered to be expressing a paraphilia rather than a gender identification) and drag kings and drag queens (who are performers and cross-dress for the purpose of entertaining). Intersex people have genitalia or other physical sexual characteristics that do not conform to strict definitions of male or female, but intersex people are not necessarily transgender, since they do not all disagree with their assigned sex. Transgender and intersex issues often overlap, however, because they both challenge the notion of rigid definitions of sex and gender.

Facebook has introduced about fifty different terms related to gender identification.  It is not difficult to argue the current legal system won’t be “getting this one right,” whatever that might mean.  For a start, would you trust the legal system in North Carolina?  (From my understanding, it would indeed be a state matter.)  Probably some people who right now “slip by” would be caught on the wrong side of an unpleasant dragnet.  And what exactly is the final test to be run to determine the right answer to a contested issue concerning a transgender individual?  If there were ever a time for some creative ambiguity in the law, it seems this might be it.

In this view, yet another problem with the North Carolina bill is that it may end up forcing everyone’s hand on constructing a legal definition of transgender.

If we stick with no legal definition of transgender, let’s tackle the remaining problems directly.  For instance we could significantly increase the penalties for men who abuse women or young girls in or near women’s rooms, if indeed that is an ongoing problem.  You can tax either inputs or outputs and in this case it seems to make sense to place the higher tax on the outputs.

#2: Offer two parallel legal systems for gender.

In one of the parallel systems, you can apply formally for a change of gender status, although I suspect this could not end up handling more than two or three categories, hermaphrodites perhaps being the third.  In the second of the parallel systems, you can decide not to apply for formal legal designation of gender and instead live under creative ambiguity.  The practical import of that ambiguity often will depend on how clearly a person fits traditional social categories of gender in a simple and visible way.  In any case, a person can choose which legal system to live under.

The formal legal designation would matter for which prison you would be assigned to, which bathroom you could visit, and which chess tournaments you can play in, among a variety of other questions.  Here is a brief survey of legal approaches around the world, with some countries opting for versions of the parallel approach.

#3: Use the law to force everybody’s hand.

In this view, the current status quo is not very good for many transgender individuals, so something must be done.  Forcing a legal solution to these issues might raise social consciousness, even if some state rulings on transgender issues are objectionable in the meantime.  Let’s create something to fight over.  With a full legal definition of transgender in place, the logic of individual rights will turn its wheels, as it so often does in America, and eventually transgender individuals would fall under the protection of anti-discriminatory laws.  Perhaps this is better than the parallel legal systems approach, because under the latter too many individuals slide along in a state of creative ambiguity and transgender issues will remain underemphasized.  In this vision, the law — whatever its limitations — is likely to prove the friend of transgender individuals, so things should be sped along as rapidly as possible.

I do not have a good sense of which of these three approaches would be best in the United States.  In any case, it seems to me the question “how should the law deal with or define transgender individuals, if at all?” is more fruitful and fundamental than asking “how should North Carolina regulate bathroom admission policies?”  I would be interested to read a law and economics paper on these issues.

Addendum: Here is a paper on whether LGBT inclusion boosts economic growth in emerging economies, though I doubt if the effects are causal.

Second addendum: Henderson and Cordato make good points, and favor a version of option one.  That said, I don’t think all judgments can be left to markets, given prisons, the continuing existence of public bathrooms, etc.  Here are yet further comments.  Here is a good Jacqueline Rose piece from LRB.

Japan’s negative interest rate policies have not worked

Ten weeks after BoJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda startled both financial markets and parliamentarians with Nirp, the yen has appreciated by some 8 per cent against the dollar. The stock market has rebounded sharply this month, however the Topix bank index remains 11 per cent lower since the advent of Nirp.

Under such a policy, risk assets were supposed to rise, but instead demand for Japanese government bonds rallied, rewarding the risk averse. Meanwhile, even finance ministry officials concede that the deflationary mindset is more entrenched than ever. There is agreement that Nirp has backfired and such an unsustainable monetary policy cannot support growth, let alone help financial asset prices.

That is from Henny Sender at the FT.

The bloating of television?

HBO’s music-industry drama, “Vinyl,” began with a two-hour pilot, directed by Martin Scorsese, that vamped on like the coda to “Freebird.” The series premiere of FX’s drama “Fargo” ran around 97 minutes with ads. “Fargo,” the Coen brothers movie it was based on, ran 98. Episodes of Netflix’s romantic comedy “Love” ambled up to 40 minutes.

As a critic, I’m used to championing greater options for artists. We’re lucky to live in a time when TV creators have freedom from arbitrary constraints. But more and more of my TV watching these days involves starting an episode, looking at the number of minutes on the playback bar and silently cursing.

…Today’s great fattening, like so many trends in TV now, is in part the influence of streaming TV. The only thing limiting the length of a Netflix or Amazon binge show is your ability to sit without cramping. The menu is bigger, and so are the portions.

Every now and then, there is something to be said for appealing to the least common denominator!

That is from James Poniewozik at the NYT.

Police versus Prisons

Here’s a remarkable graph from the Council of Economic Advisers report on incarceration and the criminal justice system. The graph shows that the United States employs many more prison guards per-capita than does the rest of the world. Given our prison population that isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that on a per-capita basis we employ 35% fewer police than the world average. That’s crazy.

polce v prison

Our focus on prisons over police may be crazy but it is consistent with what I called Gary Becker’s Greatest Mistake, the idea that an optimal punishment system combines a low probability of being punished with a harsh punishment if caught. That theory runs counter to what I have called the good parenting theory of punishment in which optimal punishments are quick, clear, and consistent and because of that, need not be harsh.

We need to change what it means to be “tough on crime.” Instead of longer sentences let’s make “tough on crime” mean increasing the probability of capture for those who commit crimes.

Increasing the number of police on the street, for example, would increase capture rates and deter crime and by doing so it would also reduce the prison population. Indeed, in a survey of crime and policing that Jon Klick and I wrote in 2010 we found that a cost-benefit analysis would justify doubling the number of police on the street. We based our calculation not only on our own research from Washington DC but also on the research of many other economists which together provide a remarkably consistent estimate that a 10% increase in policing would reduce crime by 3 to 5%. Using our estimates, as well as those of some more recent papers, the Council of Economic Advisers also estimates big benefits (somewhat larger than ours) from an increase in policing. Moreover, what the CEA makes clear is that a dollar spent on policing is more effective at reducing crime than a dollar spent on imprisoning.

Unfortunately, selling the public on more policing is likely to be difficult. Some of the communities most in need of more police are also communities with some of the worst policing problems. We aren’t likely to get more policing until people are convinced that we have better policing. Moreover, people are right to be skeptical because the type of policing that works is not simply boots on the ground. As the CEA report notes:

Model policing tactics are marked by trust, transparency, and collaborations between police and community stakeholders…

Better policing and more policing complement one another. Greater trust can come with body cameras as well as community oversight and other efforts to bring transparency and accountability. Most importantly, the drug war has eroded trust between police and community and that has led to an endogenous equilibrium in which some communities are rife with both drugs and crime. Fortunately, marijuana decriminalization and legalization have begun to move resources away from the war on drugs. Legalization in states like Colorado does not appear to have increased crime and has likely contributed to a dramatic decline of violence in Mexico. As we move resources away from drug crime, police will have more resources to raise the punishment rate for those traditional crimes like murder, robbery and rape that communities everywhere do want punished.

Addendum: See also Peter Orszag’s column on this issue.

There is a lot wrong with this rant about San Francisco

Nonetheless it is worth reading.  From Tim Redmond, here is one bit:

…let’s remember: San Francisco is already by far the densest city West of the Mississippi, and third in the entire country…

And another:

Seriously: If you take the city’s own studies, which show that every 100 units of market-rate housing create a demand for 30 units of low-income housing (because new rich residents want people to serve them coffee and fine wines and clean their clothes and their toilets and provide security etc., and those new jobs mean new people who need places to live), then any high-end housing that isn’t 30 percent affordable is making the crisis worse. Got that? When you are in a hole, stop digging. If you’re in a crisis, don’t make it worse. And right now, building luxury housing is a net loser for the city.

The same goes for Muni. It costs the city far more to serve new housing than the new housing pays. Which means every time the rest of us pay higher fares for Muni, we are in effect subsidizing market-rate housing developers.

And yet another:

Please: Show me any evidence, any credible evidence at all, that allowing the private market to build, baby, build in San Francisco today (without demolishing hundreds of thousands of rent-controlled units and creating a city like Manhattan or Hong Kong without the social housing, that none of us want to live in) will actually bring down rents and allow the middle class to stay, and I will listen. But as far as I can tell, that evidence doesn’t exist.

In contrast I would stress that we need to count the welfare of the in-migrants.  But I nonetheless hope that market urbanism can do a better job outlining how cheaper housing might be expected to come to San Francisco, and with which complementary regulations if any.

On the limits of restrictive housing policy in San Francisco, this NYT story is also worth reading:

The Chamber of Commerce and the tourist board are calling for harsher measures to improve what is euphemistically called the “condition of the streets,” a term that encompasses the intractable homeless problem, public intravenous drug use, the large population of mentally ill people on the streets and aggressive panhandling. The chamber recently released the results of an opinion poll that showed that homelessness and “street behavior” were the primary concerns of residents here.

It’s funny but also sad how many people attacked me when I predicted this in my book Average is Over:

Visitors come to bask in the Mediterranean climate, stroll through the charming streets and marvel at the sweeping views of the bay and the Pacific. But alongside those views are tent encampments on sidewalks and rag-covered homeless people in front of some of the most expensive real estate in America.

Property crime is up more than sixty percent since 2010.

I say they eventually get cleared out, but to where?  Here is my previous post on market urbanism and whether it is overrated.

Coyotes vs. dogs

The female coyote nurses the pups after they are born, yet they are hard to feed and the mother is not in ideal condition for hunting.  She therefore regurgitates her food regularly for the pups, and furthermore the biological father brings food too.  And yet:

Dogs have evolved a different parental strategy.  Human waste tends to show up at the same place daily and so the dogs, as we have noted, have very low transportation and acquisition costs.

The pregnant female village dog can stay by her food source all through pregnancy and lactation.  She can locate her den in the middle of the food source.  frequently, she goes to some quiet place outside the village (but not too far outside).  There are many quiet places in the Mexico City dump.  All over the dump are fat nursing pups.

Regurgitation is occasional rather than regular, and the father is absent altogether.  In evolutionary terms, it seems that is the result of cooperation with humans.

That is all from the new and excellent book What is a Dog?, by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger.  The best parts of this book draw inferences from what is observed in Mexican town dumps.

My conversation with Camille Paglia

Here is the transcript, the video, and the podcast.  We covered a good deal of ground, here is one bit:

COWEN: You once wrote, I quote, “My substitute for LSD was Indian food,” and by that, you meant lamb vindaloo.


COWEN: You stand by this.

PAGLIA: Yes, I’ve been in a rut on lamb vindaloo.

COWEN: A rut, tell us.

PAGLIA: It’s a horrible rut.

COWEN: It’s not a horrible rut, it may be a rut.

PAGLIA: No, it’s a horrible rut. It’s a 40-year rut. Every time I go to an Indian restaurant, I say “Now, I’m going to try something new.” But, no, I must go back to the lamb vindaloo.

All I know is it’s like an ecstasy for me, the lamb vindaloo.

COWEN: Like De Quincey, tell us, what are the effects of lamb vindaloo?

PAGLIA: What can I say? I attain nirvana.

And this:

COWEN: This is Sexual Personae, your best known book, which I recommend to everyone, if you haven’t already read it.

PAGLIA: It took 20 years.

COWEN: Read all of it. My favorite chapter is the Edmund Spenser chapter, by the way.

PAGLIA: Really? Why? How strange.

COWEN: That brought Spenser to life for me.

PAGLIA: Oh, my goodness.

COWEN: I realized it was a wonderful book.

PAGLIA: Oh, my God.

COWEN: I had no idea. I thought of it as old and fusty and stuffy.

PAGLIA: Oh, yes.

COWEN: And 100 percent because of you.

PAGLIA: We should tell them that The Faerie Queene is quite forgotten now, but it had enormous impact, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, on Shakespeare, and on the Romantic poets, and so on, and so forth. The Faerie Queene had been taught in this very moralistic way. But in my chapter, I showed that it was entirely a work of pornography, equal to the Marquis de Sade.

COWEN: [laughs]

PAGLIA: How interesting that you would be drawn to that.

COWEN: Very interesting.


You also can read or hear Camille on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Byrds, Foucault, Suzanne Pleshette vs. Tippi Hendren, dating, Brazil, Silicon Valley, Harold Bloom, LSD, her teaching career, and much, much more.

Typically a Conversation with Tyler is about ten thousand words, this one is closer to fifteen thousand.

Apps vs. bots

By Dan Grover, this is a consistently fun and stimulating piece, and it also comes out in favor of China’s WeChat.  Here is one excerpt:

QR Codes — When I left the US, QR codes were a joke. Putting them on things was a way to tell people you’re a douche, like using lots of hashtags or wearing a Bluetooth headset. They were once this way in China, too, until WeChat doubled-down on them. Now, they’re used for people, group chats, brands, payments, login, and more. They’re in plenty of other apps as well. In a place where everyone has adopted them and knows how to scan them, they’ve become a wonderful, fast way to link the offline and online worlds that saves untold amounts of time. But they have a few downsides. One is that they look like robot barf. The other is that, at least here, if you scan a code in the wrong app, you’ll get a webpage telling you to go install the right app, if not something totally inscrutable. Something that was once defined as an open standard is now non-inoperable. I predict great things for Facebook and Snapchat’s de-uglified take on QR codes. Still, I wish my phone’s OS could scan any such code (or detect them in photos) and do the right thing, but it seems the window of opportunity has passed for this.

And this:

I want the first tab of my OS’s home screen to be a central inbox half as good as my chat app’s inbox. It want it to incorporate all my messengers, emails, news subscriptions, and notifications and give me as great a degree of control in managing it. No more red dots spattered everywhere, no swiping up to see missed notifications. Make them a bit richer and better-integrated with their originating apps. Make them expire and sync between my devices as appropriate. Just fan it all out in front of me and give me a few simple ways to tame them. I’ll spend most of my day on that page, and when I need to go launch Calculator or Infinity Blade, I’ll swipe over. Serve me a tasty info burrito as my main course instead of a series of nachos.

Recommended, including for those of you who don’t see the Chinese as innovators.