Category: Law

A dialogue in Seherli Tandir restaurant, this evening

There are three tables, all close enough to chat, and at them there was TC, a Saudi family with a husband, two kids and a woman in full burkha, and a woman from a fine New York City neighborhood, perhaps 65 years old.  Suddenly, the NYC woman paused from her chat with me:

NYC woman, to Saudi table: (With a strong NYC accent) So where are you all from?

Saudi Man: Saudi Arabia.

NYC woman: Is that your wife in there?

Saudi Man: Yes.

NYC woman: Is she driving yet?

Saudi Man: No

NYC woman: Why not?

Saudi Man: She does not need to.

NYC woman: I was just wondering, because they made such a big deal out of it on TV.  And I was thinking maybe they aren’t all driving yet.

Saudi Man: She does not need to.

NYC woman: But why not?

Saudi Man: Madam, you live in New York City.  Are you driving yet?

What should I ask Bruno Maçães?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Bruno is the author of Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order, published earlier in the United Kingdom but just now in the United States.  It is one of the essential reads of the last few years and was last year a tied favorite for my “Book of the Year.”

On the book:

Well, it turns out there is a book explaining all the recent, strange events in China, Russia, Turkey and the European Union

Here is his excellent recent piece on what the West is becoming, and why.  I also have read he is currently writing a book on China’s “One Belt, One Road.”

On Bruno, here is one bit from Wikipedia:

Bruno Maçães is a Portuguese politician, political scientist, business strategist, and author. He studied at the University of Lisbon and Harvard University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under Harvey Mansfield. He is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington.

My Conversation with Bruno is in fact one reason why I took my August trip to Kiev and Baku — what better and indeed necessary way to prepare for a discussion of Eurasia?

So what should I ask him?

My Conversation with Michael Pollan

I was very happy with how this turned out, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is how the CWTeam summarized it:

Michael Pollan has long been fascinated by nature and the ways we connect and clash with it, with decades of writing covering food, farming, cooking, and architecture. Pollan’s latest fascination? Our widespread and ancient desire to use nature to change our consciousness.

He joins Tyler to discuss his research and experience with psychedelics, including what kinds of people most benefit from them, what it can teach us about profundity, how it can change your personality and political views, the importance of culture in shaping the experience, the proper way to integrate it into mainstream practice, and — most importantly of all — whether it’s any fun.

He argues that LSD is underrated, I think it may be good for depression but for casual use it is rapidly becoming overrated.  Here is one exchange of relevance:

COWEN: Let me try a very philosophical question. Let’s say I could take a pill or a substance, and it would make everything seem profound. My receptivity to finding things profound would go up greatly. I could do very small events, and it would seem profound to me.

Is that, in fact, real profundity that I’m experiencing? Doesn’t real profundity somehow require excavating or experiencing things from actual society? Are psychedelics like taking this pill? They don’t give you real profundity. You just feel that many things are profound, but at the end of the experience, you don’t really have . . .

POLLAN: It depends. If you define profundity or the profound as exceptional, you have a point.

One of the things that’s very interesting about psychedelics is that our brains are tuned for novelty, and for good reason. It’s very adaptive to respond to new things in the environment, changes in your environment, threats in your environment. We’re tuned to disregard the familiar or take it for granted, which is indeed what most of us do.

One of the things that happens on psychedelics, and on cannabis interestingly enough — and there’s some science on it in the case of cannabis; I don’t think we’ve done the science yet with psychedelics — is that the familiar suddenly takes on greater weight, and there’s an appreciation of the familiar. I think a lot of familiar things are profound if looked at in the proper way.

The feelings of love I have for people in my family are profound, but I don’t always feel that profundity. Psychedelics change that balance. I talk in the book about having emotions that could be on Hallmark cards. We don’t think of Hallmark cards as being profound, but in fact, a lot of those sentiments are, properly regarded.

Yes, there are those moments you’ve smoked cannabis, and you’re looking at your hand, and you go, “Man, hands, they’re f — ing incredible.” You’re just taken with this. Is that profound or not? It sounds really goofy, but I think the line between profundity and banality is a lot finer than we think.

And:

COWEN: I’ve never myself tried psychedelics. But I’ve asked the question, if I were to try, how would I think about what is the stopping point?

For my own life, I like, actually, to do the same things over and over again. Read books. Eat food. Spend time with friends. You can just keep on doing them, basically, till you die. I feel I’m in a very good groove on all of those.

If you take it once, and say you find it entrancing or interesting or attractive, what’s the thought process? How do you model what happens next?

POLLAN: That’s one of the really interesting things about them. You have this big experience, often positive, not always though. I had, on balance . . . all the experiences I described in the book, with one notable exception, were very positive experiences.

But I did not have a powerful desire to do it again. It doesn’t have that self-reinforcing quality, the dopamine release, I don’t know what it is, that comes with things that we like doing: eating and sex and sleep, all this kind of stuff. Your first thought after a big psychedelic experience is not “When can I do it again?” It’s like, “Do I ever have to do it again?”

COWEN: It doesn’t sound fun, though. What am I missing?

POLLAN: It’s not fun. For me, it’s not fun. I think there are doses where that might apply — low dose, so-called recreational dose, when people take some mushrooms and go to a concert, and they’re high essentially.

But the kind of experience I’m describing is a lot more — I won’t use the word profound because we’ve charged that one — that is a very internal and difficult journey that has moments of incredible beauty and lucidity, but also has dark moments, moments of contemplating death. Nothing you would describe as recreational except in the actual meaning of the word, which is never used. It’s not addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons.

I did just talk to someone, though, who came up to me at a book signing, a guy probably in his 70s. He said, “I’ve got to tell you about the time I took LSD 16 days in a row.” That was striking. You can meet plenty of people who have marijuana or a drink 16 days in a row. But that was extraordinary. I don’t know why he did it. I’m curious to find out exactly what he got out of it.

In general, there’s a lot of space that passes. For the Grateful Dead, I don’t know. Maybe it was a nightly thing for them. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be.

COWEN: Say I tried it, and I found it fascinating but not fun. Shouldn’t I then think there’s something wrong with me that the fascinating is not fun? Shouldn’t I downgrade my curiosity?

POLLAN: [laughs] Aren’t there many fascinating things that aren’t fun?

COWEN: All the ones I know, I find fun. This is what’s striking to me about your answer. It’s very surprising.

W even talk about LSD and sex, and why a writer’s second book is the key book for understanding that writer.  Toward the end we cover the economics of food, and, of course, the Michael Pollan production function:

COWEN: What skill do you tell them to invest in?

POLLAN: I tell them to read a lot. I’m amazed how many writing students don’t read. It’s criminal. Also, read better writers than you are. In other words, read great fiction. Cultivate your ear. Writing is a form of music, and we don’t pay enough attention to that.

When I’m drafting, there’s a period where I’m reading lots of research, and scientific articles, and history, and undistinguished prose, but as soon as I’m done with that and I’ve started drafting a chapter or an article, I stop reading that kind of stuff.

Before I go to bed, I read a novel every night. I read several pages of really good fiction. That’s because you do a lot of work in your sleep, and I want my brain to be in a rhythm of good prose.

Defininitely recommended, as is Michael’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

*Prohibition: A Concise History*

That is a new and truly excellent book by W.J. Rorabaugh.  It is a perfect 116 pp. of text and a model for what many other books should be.

From 1825 to 1850, the per capita consumption of alcohol in the United States dropped by half, due largely to religious influence.

As late as 1914, alcohol taxes accounted for 35 percent of the revenue of the federal government.

The Russian government moved to prohibition during WWI, and the resulting loss of revenue was a significant factor contributing to the downfall of the regime.

Note that “per capita consumption of alcohol was reduced for a very long time.”  If you were born in 1900, for instance, you could not legally drink until 1933, at the age of thirty-three, a relatively late age for this habit to form.

Today “more than half of Mexican American women are teetotalers.”  And: “African Americans continue to be light drinkers, and more than half of black women do not drink.”

Strongly recommended.  If all books were like this, it would be hard for me to tear myself away from them.

Carbon taxes and food security

By Tomoko Hasgawa, et.al. in Nature:

Food insecurity can be directly exacerbated by climate change due to crop-production-related impacts of warmer and drier conditions that are expected in important agricultural regions. However, efforts to mitigate climate change through comprehensive, economy-wide GHG emissions reductions may also negatively affect food security, due to indirect impacts on prices and supplies of key agricultural commodities. Here we conduct a multiple model assessment on the combined effects of climate change and climate mitigation efforts on agricultural commodity prices, dietary energy availability and the population at risk of hunger. A robust finding is that by 2050, stringent climate mitigation policy, if implemented evenly across all sectors and regions, would have a greater negative impact on global hunger and food consumption than the direct impacts of climate change. The negative impacts would be most prevalent in vulnerable, low-income regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where food security problems are already acute.

In other words, one needs to be very careful with a carbon tax.  For the pointer, I thank Charles Klingman.

Airplane Maintenance is Offshored

Where are most airplanes fixed? In foreign countries where the price of skilled labor is lower than in the United States.

US Airways and Southwest fly planes to a maintenance facility in El Salvador. Delta sends planes to Mexico. United uses a shop in China. American still does much of its most intensive maintenance in-house in the U.S., but that is likely to change in the aftermath of the company’s merger with US Airways.

Vanity Fair had a piece on this “Disturbing Truth” a few years ago. The VF piece presents a few anecdotes of safety violations at foreign maintenance facilities to stoke up fear. Naturally, no comparison to safety violations at US maintenance facilities is given. More serious data doesn’t bear out the worries of Vanity Fair. Worldwide airline safety is at an all time-high. Consider this amusing bit:

Even engine repairs and overhaul—the highly skilled aircraft-maintenance work that has remained largely in the U.S. and Europe—may follow heavy maintenance to the developing world. Emirates, the airline owned by the Gulf states, is constructing a $120 million state-of-the-art engine-repair-and-overhaul facility in Dubai.

Amusing because the world’s safest airline according to the German JACDEC (Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre) is Emirates based in Dubai. Etihad the UAE’s second largest airline follows up closely. Chinese and South American airlines such as Sichuan Air score above most US airlines and Avianca, the El Salvador-Columbia airline, also scores highly. Of course, crashes are so rare that none of these rankings should be taken very seriously except in the sense that all of these airlines are very safe. Thus, I don’t worry much about where maintenance occurs. Indeed, if maintenance can be done for less we ought to buy more, so less expensive can mean safer.

Rather than fearing the offshoring of airplane maintenance we ought to ask how we can expand the concept. Medical tourism, for example, is growing. If foreign airplane maintenance is good enough for Delta then foreign human maintenance is good enough for me. Why don’t more US health insurance companies pay for medical procedures performed abroad? If a major medical insurer started to test and rate foreign providers and count some of them as in-service this could great alleviate fear increasing demand, lower costs, and put price pressure on US providers. Of course, we could also let in more foreign trained physicians and airplane mechanics.

Hat tip: Connor.

Why does tech have so many political problems?

These are originally derived from written notes, a basis for comments by somebody else, from a closed session on tech.  I have added my own edits:

  1. Most tech leaders aren’t especially personable. Instead, they’re quirky introverts. Or worse.
  2. Most tech leaders don’t care much about the usual policy issues. They care about AI, self-driving cars, and space travel, none of which translate into positive political influence.
  3. Tech leaders are idealistic and don’t intuitively understand the grubby workings of WDC.
  4. People who could be “managers” in tech policy areas (for instance, they understand tech, are good at coalition building, etc.) will probably be pulled into a more lucrative area of tech. Therefore ther is an acute talent shortage in tech policy areas.
  5. The Robespierrean social justice terror blowing through Silicon Valley occupies most of tech leaders’ “political” mental energy. It is hard to find time to focus on more concrete policy issues.
  6. Of the policy issues that people in tech do care about—climate, gay/trans rights, abortion, Trump—they’re misaligned with Republican Party, to say the least. This same Republican party currently rules.
  7. While accusations of deliberate bias against Republicans are overstated, the tech rank-and-file is quite anti-Republican, and increasingly so. This limits the political degrees of freedom of tech leaders. (See the responses to Elon Musk’s Republican donation.)
  8. Several of the big tech companies are de facto monopolies or semi-monopolies. They must spend a lot of their political capital denying this or otherwise minimizing its import.
  9. The media increasingly hates tech. (In part because tech is such a threat, in part because of a deeper C.P. Snow-style cultural mismatch.)
  10. Not only does tech hate Trump… but Trump hates tech.
  11. By nature, tech leaders are disagreeable iconoclasts (with individualistic and believe it or not sometimes megalomaniacal tendencies). That makes them bad at uniting as a coalition.
  12. Major tech companies have meaningful presences in just a few states, which undermines their political influence. Of states where they have a presence — CA, WA, MA, NY — Democrats usually take them for granted, Republicans write them off.  Might Austin, TX someday help here?
  13. US tech companies are increasingly unpopular among governments around the world. For instance, Facebook/WhatsApp struggles in India. Or Google and the EU. Or Visa and Russia. This distracts the companies from focusing on US and that makes them more isolated.
  14. The issues that are challenging for tech companies aren’t arcane questions directly in and of the tech industry (such as copyright mechanics for the music industry or procurement rules for defense). They’re broader and they also encounter very large coalitions coming from other directions: immigration laws, free speech issues on platforms, data privacy questions, and worker classification on marketplaces.
  15. Blockchain may well make the world “crazier” in the next five years. So tech will be seen as driving even more disruption.
  16. The industry is so successful that it’s not very popular among the rest of U.S. companies and it lacks allies. (90%+ of S&P 500 market cap appreciation this year has been driven by tech.) Many other parts of corporate America see tech as a major threat.
  17. Maybe it is hard to find prominent examples of the great good that big tech is doing. Instagram TV. iPhone X. Amazon Echo Dot. Microsoft Surface Pro. Are you impressed? Are these companies golden geese or have they simply appropriated all the gold?

Presumed Consent in Wales Falls Short

In 2003, Johnson and Goldstein published what would become a famous paper in Science, Do Defaults Save Lives? The paper featured a graph which showed organ donor consent rates in opt-in countries versus those in opt-out countries. The graph is striking because it seems to suggest that a simple change in the default rule can create a massive change in organ donor rates and thus save thousands of lives.

The graph, however, does NOT show organ donor rates. It shows that in opt-in countries few people explicitly opt-in and in presumed consent countries few people explicitly opt-out. But when a potential organ donor dies the families of people in opt-in countries who did not opt-in are still asked whether they would like to donate their loved one’s organs and many of them say yes. Similarly, in the presumed consent countries the families of people who did not opt-out are still typically asked whether they would like to donate their loved one’s organs and some of them say no.

The actual difference in organ donation rates between opt-in and presumed consent countries is much smaller than the differences in the graph, as Johnson and Goldstein made clear later in their paper. Nevertheless, the simple story in the graph encouraged many people to put excess weight on presumed consent as the solution to low organ donor rates.

The best estimates of presumed consent suggested that switching to presumed consent might increase organ donor rates by 25%. 25% isn’t bad! But we don’t have many examples of countries that have switched from one system to another so that estimate should be taken with a grain of salt.

The latest evidence comes form Wales which switched to presumed-consent in 2013. Unfortunately, there has been no increase in donation rates.

The most significant analysis of the new system is the Impact Evaluation Report, released by the Welsh Government in November 2017. Whilst focusing on the positives, such as increased understanding among medical staff, the report cannot escape the donation statistics, which clearly show no improvement. Covering the period from January 2010 or January 2011 to September 2017, all donation data show no change since the legislation’s introduction. The 21-month period before the Act came into effect saw 101 deceased donors, whereas the same period after showed 104; an increase, but one that can be properly attributed to expected annual fluctuation.

I still favor presumed consent or better, mandated choice, but I don’t think the binding constraints on organ donation are default rules. More important are preferences and fears about donation, the existence of a professional system using people who are trained to ask for donations, an institutional organization that can use donations when they are available (minimizing waste), and, of course, incentives.

Hat tip: Frank McCormick.

Are there more spies than you think?

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

We tend to focus on the cloak and dagger side of the KGB and successor institutions, but they’re also just government agencies trying to boost their budgets and achieve higher status in their home country. In other words, spy agencies play the typical bureaucratic games.

To maintain their status and privileged perch, spy agencies may try to take credit for as many activities as possible. This emphasis of quantity over quality is a typical bureaucratic response to a political system based on imperfect information. It is hard for national leaders to judge how effective their spy agencies are, so the spy agencies want to pass along good numbers, much as a corporation might try to slant its quarterly earnings report.

And:

John Negroponte, former director of national intelligence, admitted in 2006 that the U.S. was deploying about 100,000 spies around the world. Given that the U.S. is the world’s technology and military leader, and yet has a relatively small share of global population, is it so crazy to think the number of people spying on us is larger than that?

Do read the whole thing.

Is Ben Carson underrated?

For his part, Mr. Carson publicly acknowledges the [housing affordability] crisis in most of his speeches. “Alarmingly high numbers of Americans continue to pay more than half of their incomes toward rent,” he told a House panel in October. “Many millions remain mired in poverty, rather than being guided on a path out of it.”

But he is focused less on federal solutions than on prodding local governments to ease barriers to construction. He has ordered his policy staff to come up with proposals to push local governments to reduce zoning restrictions on new projects, especially low-cost manufactured housing. HUD will also begin working with landlords around the country to come up with ways to make housing vouchers more attractive and more inclusive, aides said.

“Subsidies are a piece of the puzzle,” said Raffi Williams, a spokesman for Mr. Carson, “but we must also address the regulatory barriers relative to zoning and land use in higher-cost markets that are preventing the construction of new affordable housing. This is not just a federal problem — it’s everybody’s problem.”

Here is the full NYT story by Glenn Thrush.

Falling corporate tax rates appear to be the equilibrium

The average corporate tax rate globally has fallen by more than half over the past three decades, from 49 percent in 1985 to 24 percent in 2018, the study found.

“Corporate taxes are going to die in 10 to 20 years at this rate,” Ludvig Wier, an economist at the University of Copenhagen and a co-author of the study, said in an interview. “Without drastic collective action, you can see we’re nearing the end of it.”

Here is the full WaPo story by Jeff Stein.

Cross-Mediterranean migration to Europe is falling

Fewer successes, more deaths:

Between 2015 and 2017, according to United Nations data analyzed by The Washington Post, about 95 percent of migrants taking the so-called central Mediterranean route ended up on this continent’s shores.

Last month, however, the success rate was 45 percent — the lowest of any month in at least four years. A large proportion of migrants were intercepted and returned to North Africa. But deaths have spiked. According to the International Organization for Migration, 564 people died in June — or more than 7 percent of those who attempted the crossing. That is the highest percentage in any month since at least 2015. For the year, 3.4 percent have died attempting the journey, compared with 2.1 percent last year.

“Outsourcing” seems to be a major reason for this change:

Many migrants don’t make it to Europe because they don’t make it past the fleet of Libyan patrol vessels. The coast guard, rebuilt with E.U. and Italian funding, has become the most important player in the Mediterranean. Though the unit has been patrolling its coastal waters for more than a year and a half, data suggests it is becoming far more proficient at its job: intercepting migrants, placing them in detention on Libyan shores and keeping them from Europe.

In 2017, the Libyan coast guard managed to catch about 1 in 9 migrants attempting the journey. This year, it is intercepting almost 2 in 5. In June, it intercepted 47 percent.

Here is the full WaPo story by Chico Harlan.

How partisan is local law enforcement for immigration?

That is the topic of a new paper from Daniel M. Thompson, political science at Stanford.  The answer is “not very”:

Is local law enforcement conducted differently based on the party in power? I offer an answer to this question by focusing on a case in which law enforcement is elected and has meaningful independent discretion: sheriff compliance with federal requests to detain unauthorized immigrants. Using a regression discontinuity design in a new dataset of over 3,200 partisan sheriff elections and administrative data on sheriff behavior, I find that Democrats and Republicans comply at nearly the same rate. These results contribute to ongoing research into the role that partisanship plays in local policymaking, indicating that law enforcement officers make similar choices across party lines even when they have broad authority. I also present evidence that sheriffs hold more similar immigration enforcement views across party than the general public, highlighting the role of candidate entry in determining the level of partisan polarization.

For the pointer I thank Andrew Hall.  And here is Daniel Thompson on Twitter.

Noah Smith and I debate the future of immigration into America

Over at Bloomberg:

Noah Smith: …Your conclusion was that although most Americans might have warm feelings toward immigrants in the abstract, the minority who are intensely anti-immigrant will prevail.

I think there are reasons to doubt this conclusion. The first reason is that illegal immigration and low-skilled immigration — the types that people tend to feel most negatively about — are both way down from a decade ago. Because these unpopular inflows are simply less of an issue, the pressure for restriction might abate quickly. Meanwhile, with U.S. fertility rates low, the U.S. needs skilled immigrants to come in and pay taxes to support the comfortable retirements of the elderly native-born. We might be seeing a situation similar to the mid-1800s, in which the needs of the U.S. economy override a brief bout of nativism.

Tyler Cowen: I still don’t see a renewed dose of immigration increases in America’s immediate or even midterm future. Immigration has become a major issue all around Europe, and pretty uniformly it is helping right-wing parties, not the left. Democrats fear this scenario for the U.S., even if immigration is polling pretty well at the moment. And so Democrats will keep some distance from the issue, more than one might have thought a few years ago.

Democrats also have begun to rethink the demographic-dividend strategy, based on the premise that immigrants will continue to vote for the Democrats in disproportionate numbers. According to one estimate, in 2016 perhaps as many as 28 percent of Latinos voted Republican, more than many observers had been expecting. The very successes of assimilation mean that many immigrants will end up voting Republican. Furthermore, a lot of recent legal arrivals are among the strongest opponents of illegal immigration into this country. I increasingly doubt that Democrats will be willing to bet the farm on a political strategy to boost immigration.

There is much more at the link.

Every law is violent

Stephen Carter’s great column, written after the killing of Eric Garner who was being arrested for selling loose cigarettes, needs to be read and reread and periodically shouted from the rooftops:

…Every law is violent.  We try not to think about this, but we should.  On the first day of law school, I tell my Contracts students never to argue for invoking the power of law except in a cause for which they are willing to kill. They are suitably astonished, and often annoyed. But I point out that even a breach of contract requires a judicial remedy; and if the breacher will not pay damages, the sheriff will sequester his house and goods; and if he resists the forced sale of his property, the sheriff might have to shoot him.

This is by no means an argument against having laws.

It is an argument for a degree of humility as we choose which of the many things we may not like to make illegal. Behind every exercise of law stands the sheriff – or the SWAT team – or if necessary the National Guard. Is this an exaggeration? Ask the family of Eric Garner, who died as a result of a decision to crack down on the sale of untaxed cigarettes. That’s the crime for which he was being arrested. Yes, yes, the police were the proximate cause of his death, but the crackdown was a political decree.

The statute or regulation we like best carries the same risk that some violator will die at the hands of a law enforcement officer who will go too far. And whether that officer acts out of overzealousness, recklessness, or simply the need to make a fast choice to do the job right, the violence inherent in law will be on display. This seems to me the fundamental problem that none of us who do law for a living want to face.

But all of us should.

I thought of this column today after reading about Santa Barbara’s ban on plastic straws:

On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously passed a bill that prohibits restaurants, bars, and other food service businesses from handing out plastic straws to their customers. …Santa Barbara… has banned even compostable straws, permitting only drinking tubes made from nonplastic materials such as paper, metal, or bamboo. The city also has made a second violation* of its straw prohibition both an administrative infraction carrying a $100 fine and a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Each contraband straw or unsolicited plastic stirrer counts as a separate violation, so fines and jail time could stack up quickly.

…Assistant City Attorney Scott Vincent tells me criminal charges would be pursued only after repeat violations and if there were aggravating circumstances.