Category: Law

The political culture that is China

News from the Middle Kingdom seems to be coming out systematically worse than what you might have been expecting, at least these days.  Here is an update on censorship and content control:

The platform has been designed with a built-in “Xi Study Points” system (学习积分系统) that allows users to accumulate points on the basis of habitual use of the platform, from reading and viewing of content to the posting of comments and other forms of engagement. It has been widely promoted by local governments and ministries and departments across China, and there have also been reports that some work units have ordered employees to attain specified point levels, with disciplinary measures to be imposed for those who fail to comply…

The app defines several periods of activity as “lively intervals,” or huoyue shiduan (活跃时段), during which users engaging with the platform can earn double points — 0.2 for each article or video, 2 points for a full 30 minutes of use, and so on. The intervals are Monday through Friday from 8:30 PM to 10 PM, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 AM to 10:30 AM, and 3:30 PM to 4:30 PM. The system, then, incentivises Party members, once home from the office and done with family dinner, to spend golden hours of otherwise discretionary personal time engaging with “Xi Jinping Thought.”

Interesting and frightening throughout, via Comrade Balding.

Why should blackmail be illegal?

David Henderson raises this question in a recent blog post, and here is Robin Hanson from 2011.  I would suggest a few reasons why blackmail should be against the law in traditional ways:

1. The law serves a primary purpose of publicity, and advertising for a polity, and also the law serves symbolic functions.  People still don’t give Singapore a break for making chewing gum illegal and the like, even though this restriction is not in fact a big source of tyranny there.  I don’t see it as good for the United States and its reputation to make blackmail legal, even if the “legalize blackmail” arguments are perfectly sound in a Steve Landsburg kind of way.  It’s just not worth the bad publicity.

2. As Coase pointed out long ago, blackmail typically involves an exchange setting with bilateral monopoly.  And the material in question is often emotionally fraught, such as knowledge of a crime, of an affair, photos of private body parts, and so on.  The process of the trading is painful and stressful for many people.  Limiting that process could produce welfare gains, or at the very least legalizing that process, and thus producing more of it, won’t involve huge benefits.  When the process of trade and bargaining is itself painful, some of the welfare theorems need to be rethought a bit.  Of course the unilateral release of gossip can be terrible too, but perhaps it involves less potential for drawn-out situations and painful bargaining because the transacting it not allowed in the first place.

3. As Scott Sumner points out: “In practice, I suspect that most blackmail involves issues of sex, gender and drugs. (Soon we’ll have to add race to this list.) I don’t expect to convince others of my views here, but let me just say that I believe that our society is unable to think rationally in these areas. Thus I don’t see any great value in legalizing blackmail.”

4. Sometimes the efficient blackmailers are your immediate family, not strangers.  Outlawing blackmail from outsiders gives them a semi-monopoly for an efficient, do-it-yourself at home, low transactions cost Coasean deal (“Darling, someone needs to take out the garbage…”).  Let’s do blackmail right!  And privately, out of the public eye, to avoid the problems discussed under #1.  And as a matter of justice, shouldn’t it be the aggrieved spouse getting the gains here, not the National Enquirer?

Seven lessons about blackmail

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opening bit:

Every now and then, a few apparently random news events come together and influence how you see the world. My most recent lesson is that blackmail and blackmail risk are a lot more common than I had thought.

And:

…the main villains in these privacy losses are not the big internet companies. While it is murky exactly how the Bezos photos leaked, it seems to have involved old-fashioned spying and the interception of text messages (and possibly a renegade brother). Silicon Valley didn’t sell his data. As for Northam, the yearbook is from the pre-digital era, dug up in a school library. This information was not on the internet, though of course it did play a role in spreading it.

Third, billionaires can be pretty useful. As Bezos asked in his open letter on Medium: “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” In this case, both the billionaire and the medium of communication are the good guys.

Fourth, fears of a new era of blackmail based on Photoshopped images and so-called deep fakes (phony but convincing video) may be overblown, or at least premature. In the cases of both Bezos and Northam, the authenticity of the source material (text messages and photos) is not really being questioned, and both stories are receiving intense scrutiny. Rather, the debate is over the provenance and significance of the information.

There is much more at the link.

My Conversation with Jordan Peterson

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Jordan Peterson joins Tyler to discuss collecting Soviet propaganda, why he’s so drawn to Jung, what the Exodus story can teach us about current events, his marriage and fame, what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong, immigration in America and Canada, his tendency towards depression, Tinder’s revolutionary nature, the lessons from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fixing universities, the skills needed to become a good educator, and much more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Your peers in the Intellectual Dark Web — the best of them — what is it they’re wrong about?

PETERSON: Oh, they’re wrong about all sorts of things. But at least they’re wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I think Sam Harris, for example — I don’t think that he understands. I don’t think that he’s given sufficient credence to the role that religious thinking plays in human cognition.

I think that’s a huge mistake for someone who’s an evolutionary biologist because human religious thinking is a human universal. It’s built into our biology. It’s there for a reason. Although Sam is an evolutionary biologist, at least in principle, with regards to his thinking, he’s an Enlightenment rationalist when it comes to discussing the biology of religion, and that’s not acceptable.

It’s the wrong time frame. You don’t criticize religious thinking over a time frame of 200 years. You think about religious thinking over a time frame of 50,000 years, but probably over a far greater time span than that.

COWEN: So if that’s what Sam Harris doesn’t get —

PETERSON: Yeah.

COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?

PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.

Much more than just the usual, including a long segment at the end on Jordan’s plans for higher education, here is one bit from that:

Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.

So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?

Definitely recommended, even if you feel you’ve already heard or read a lot of Jordan Peterson.

The policing culture that is China

Short-video app TikTok has a reputation for being beloved by young people the world over, but it’s also surprisingly popular with Chinese police officers.

In early January, China Police Network, a news portal run by the Ministry of Public Security, announced that 175 new TikTok channels had been created by police stations, SWAT teams, traffic police, and prisons in the month of December, bringing the country’s grand total to nearly 1,200 such accounts. That month, they churned out over 13,000 videos attracting a combined 4.8 billion views.

Since June of last year, China Police Network has kept a monthly tally of the most popular law enforcement accounts and videos on TikTok — or Douyin, as it’s known in China. While police in other countries have plugged into social media and cultivated fan followings on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, their Douyin-loving counterparts in China stand out in terms of scale and the wide range in both quality and content of their videos.

The January post mentions a comedic clip made by an account called Shishou Public Security that received over 800,000 likes. The video depicts a middle-aged woman tearfully describing her myriad contributions to the economic empowerment of women as mournful music plays in the background — before the camera flips to police officers unmasking her as the madame of a brothel.

The article also congratulates Siping Police Affairs for becoming the first police account in China to eclipse 10 million followers and praises the success of police hashtag campaigns such as #SayNoToDrunkDriving.

Since its launch in China in September 2016 and its expansion to international markets as TikTok a year later, Douyin boasts around 800 million downloads worldwide. The platform’s premise is simple: Users create and share 15-second videos, some of which wind up going viral. The police presence on Douyin has yielded a manic mix of content, from humdrum notices of arrests and other official business to reposts of pandas at play to original comic sketches with didactic denouements.

Here is more from Kenrick Davis at Sixth Tone.

Strict ID Laws Don’t Stop Voters: Evidence from a U.S. Nationwide Panel

U.S. states increasingly require identification to vote – an ostensive attempt to deter fraud that prompts complaints of selective disenfranchisement. Using a difference-in-differences design on a 1.3-billion-observations panel, we find the laws have no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation. These results hold through a large number of specifications and cannot be attributed to mobilization against the laws, measured by campaign contributions and self-reported political engagement. ID requirements have no effect on fraud either – actual or perceived. Overall, our results suggest that efforts to reform voter ID laws may not have much impact on elections.

By Enrico Cantoni and Vincent Pons.  Rooftops, shout, mood affiliation, etc.

Do land use restrictions increase restaurant quality and diversity?

Daniel Shoag and Stan Veuger say yes, but I am not so convinced.

It turns out that metrics of land use restrictions are correlated with restaurant quality, across cities.  To cut to the chase, Los Angeles ranks number one on this index, and I can agree with that assessment in terms of food quality and also diversity.  (Other good food cities, such as Miami, also rank high on the index.)  Yet for the metropolitan area near L.A., food is generally best where the land use restrictions are least binding.  Beverly Hills and Santa Monica have some decent fancy restaurants, but the real gems are to be found elsewhere, in fringes such as northeast Hollywood, Silverlake (gentrifying a bit too much these days, however), north Orange County, Monterey Park, and so on.  Pasadena has hardly anywhere excellent to eat.

I would suggest an alternative channel of influence: urban areas with high inequality have both better food (see An Economist Gets Lunch, but basically imagine the wealthier people generating demand and the poorer people supplying cheap labor) and more building restrictions.  The wealthier people decide to do something to keep the poorer people out of their neighborhoods.

I hate to say “correlation does not prove causation,” but…correlation does not prove causation.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Further new results on the marginal rate of income taxation

I study optimal income taxation when human capital investment is imperfectly observable by employers. In my model, Bayesian employer inference about worker productivity drives a wedge between the private and social returns to human capital investment by compressing the wage distribution. The resulting positive externality from worker investment implies lower optimal marginal tax rates, all else being equal. To quantify the significance of this externality for optimal taxation, I calibrate the model to match empirical moments from the United States, including new evidence on how the speed of employer learning about new labor market entrants varies over the worker productivity distribution. Taking into account the spillover from human capital investment introduced by employer inference reduces optimal marginal tax rates by 13 percentage points at around 100,000 dollars of income, with little change in the tails of the income distribution. The welfare gain from this adjustment is equivalent to raising every worker’s consumption by one percent.

That is from the Harvard job market paper of Ashley C. Craig, via Steven Hamilton.

The optimal rate of income taxation

An established view is that the revenue maximizing top tax rate for the US is approximately 73 percent. The revenue maximizing top tax rate is approximately 49 percent in a quantitative human capital model. The key reason for the lower top tax rate is the presence of two new forces not captured by the model underlying the established view. These new forces are strengthened by the endogenous response of top earners’ human capital to a change in the top tax rate.

That is from a recent paper by Badel, Huggett, and Luo, via Scott Winship.

The wealth tax and privacy — from the comments

Despite the unnecessary duplication (FATCA etc), I’m actually in favor of requiring banks to disclose how much income US taxpayers earn on ther accounts in the US and abroad. Unfortunately, if you are going to have an income tax system, you can’t simply rely on everyone voluntarily reporting. But, this also raises serious privacy concerns that need to be balanced. The wealth tax on all or most all assets would significantly alter the current balance between disclosure and privacy. As noted in the article, *everything* would need to be disclosed to the IRS *every year* much like an annual estate tax return. Expect substantial additional reporting requirements on all assets. Think that won’t apply to you? How else are they going to know you don’t have $50 million hidden somewhere? How are *taxpayers* going to know they don’t meet that (or some other) threshold ? Trust me, lawyers and accountants, (legitimately) worrying about their own potential liability, will insist that far more people undergo these audits internally just to make sure they are not above the limit.

These privacy issues also have potentially serious political implications. I suppose Bill and Hillary and Barrack and Michelle (add your own list) would be subject to these annual wealth tax returns. Annual audit by the IRS on everything? Do they really want the Trump administration (or some other) having access to all that? This sounds like a potential special prosecutor on steroids and one that is not always going to be politically neutral. I see the potential here for a lot of political abuse and not just from one side or the other.

That is from Vivian Darkbloom on MR and in the LOC, with other good points in the comment too.

How easy is it to administer a wealth tax?

A third issue is logistical. A wealth tax would be like an estate tax levied every year. Figuring out the tax owed on large estates is complicated, costly and time-consuming. The Internal Revenue Service gives estates a year to file a return, but even then, executors often have to file extensions. And on the other end, auditors go through the returns, which can take years before an estate is settled.

The process requires not just lawyers and accountants but valuation experts who assess the worth of assets like closely held family businesses.

“It would be a highly cumbersome tax return to prepare on an annual basis,” said Jeff Moes, executive vice president and chief fiduciary officer at FineMark National Bank & Trust, which serves high-net-worth clients. “Every federal estate tax goes through an audit, and presumably this would go through an audit as well. They’d have to figure out if the valuation methodology is correct.”

“A billionaire would have a return that would be literally three feet high,” he added. “Our $100 million clients own multiple closely held businesses. All of them would require an expert valuation and five-year financials.”

And then the government would need to have enough auditors to verify everything that was submitted. In 2018, for example, an estimated 4,000 estate tax returns will be filed, with tax owed on 1,900 of them. That’s a tenth the number of tax returns that would be filed under Ms. Warren’s wealth tax plan.

Here is more from Paul Sullivan at the NYT.

Biotech on the Blockchain?

Bloomberg: In a novel approach for the biotechnology industry, small-cap company Agenus Inc. is aiming to raise $50 million to $100 million by issuing digital securities backed by future sales of an experimental cancer drug.

The digital securities will allow investors to bet on future sales of single products and will have a limited impact on shareholders’ equity, the company said. Agenus plans to offer at least 25 million of what it calls biotech electronic security tokens, or BESTs, to certain high-net-worth individuals and institutional investors starting Feb. 15.

I find this puzzling. First, why break out one drug from the rest of the firm? Investors generally want diversification and this is the opposite. Agenus is basically saying the rest of the firm is a value suck. Second, one of the virtues of the blockchain is that it allows for easy trade but the SEC requires that to buy these securities you must be an accredited investor and as such there are typically encumbrances on transfer. Thus, putting the securities on the blockchain doesn’t lower transaction costs, the way it could for other assets.

A lot of assets will be tokenized (i.e. securitized on the blockchain) in the future so this is an area to watch but to succeed tokenization must increase diversification and reduce transaction costs and this tokenization does neither.

The Impact of the Affordable Care Act: Evidence from California’s Hospital Sector

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) authorized the largest expansion of public health insurance in the U.S. since the mid-1960s. We exploit ACA-induced changes in the discontinuity in coverage at age 65 using a regression discontinuity based design to examine effects of the expansion on health insurance coverage, hospital use, and patient health. We then link these changes to effects on hospital finances. We show that a substantial share of the federally-funded Medicaid expansion substituted for existing locally-funded safety net programs. Despite this offset, the expansion produced a substantial increase in hospital revenue and profitability, with larger gains for government hospitals. On the benefits side, we do not detect significant improvements in patient health, although the expansion led to substantially greater hospital and emergency room use, and a reallocation of care from public to private and better-quality hospitals.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Mark Duggan, Atul Gupta, and Emilie Jackson.