Tuesday, July 23, 2013

De Minimis

By Robert H.

In a post entitled Carney Delenda Est, the normally excellent political reporter David Weigal has made maybe the gravest mistake of his career.  He has forgotten that the gerundive in a passive peraphrastic has to agree with the noun it modifies in case, number, and gender, and so made a hash of his title.  Carney is a man; it should be Carney Delendus Est.

I am not saying this one mistake invalidates a years-long career in journalism, only that it should.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Wealth Taxes Can Be Efficient

By Robert H.

If you tax something, you tend to get less of it.  Tax beer and people start drinking wine, tax imports and they buy local, tax gasoline and people by hybrids.   As consumption shifts, you get less beer less imports less gas guzzlers.  This creates a total loss -- beer drinkers are less happy with wine, and that lost happiness isn't transferred to anyone else.  It's just gone.

But not land!  If you tax just land (ie, not the land plus the improvements on it.  In this world if you build a 200k dollar house on a 60k plot of land, they just tax the 60k plot of land) then you don't get less land.  The supply of land is pretty fixed!  You hurt the landowner because, duh, he has to pay money, but the money isn't lost, it goes to the state!   Economists have known this for a very long time, and so have deemed land taxes relatively awesome.

I bring it up because Tyler Cowen implied in an article today that economists disfavor wealth taxes.  I get why he didn't go into more depth -- space constraints -- but that doesn't change the fact that he was being a little misleading.  There is at least one kind of wealth economists are semi-cool with taxing.

Orwell Was Wrong

By Robert H.

Surveillance is not the cornerstone of a police state.

1984 is a great book, but it has done almost as much harm as good to the English speaking world.  Our greatest, most definitive account of a modern tyranny is written about an authoritarian state that never existed by a man who had never lived in one (unless you count Burma, where he was an oppressor).  Worse, a meditation on what authoritarianism and cults of personality do to the soul and the mind is read as a sort of blueprint for the perfect police state, a how-to guide.  And the end result is that we think the improbable world of 1984 is what tyranny is like, and judge ourselves by that standard.

Here's the problem: the ultimate concern of the state in 1984 is the soul of its citizens.  The elites don't want to neutralize Winston as a threat or as something objectionable in and of itself, they don't want to use him as slave labor, they want to convert him.  So they spend a fortune monitoring him, testing him, learning his weaknesses and ambitions, and finally breaking and brainwashing him.  

Actual police states could care less about identifying or converting their enemies.  That's why they are so awful.  To a tyrant, possible enemies are to be crushed or used and who cares who gets in the way.  Tyrannies make use of surveillance, but it isn't necessary because it's not necessary to only get the right man.  Informer rats someone out, arrest that someone.  Arrest their family too, why not?  The important thing is that we, the leaders, can do what we want and they, the suspected, can suffer for it.  Police states invade your privacy without due process not because monitoring you is the lynchpin of tyranny, but because they don't care about you privacy rights or due process.  Not caring about you or your rights -- that's the police state.  It's the polar opposite of a state so fascinated with you it longs to observe and convert you.

But that isn't what 1984 told us, so we all have a bug up our butt about the state observing us, even when it doesn't violate our privacy.  For example, streets and sidewalks are not private places where you should feel free from observation.  But whenever the government installs cameras to monitor these places, people go crazy and start complaining about big brother.  

This is on my mind because everyone is freaking out about the NSA (try a google news search for NSA and Orwellian), but very few people are freaking out about, say, the casual brutality with which we treat our prisoners (did you know that thousands of California prisoners are on hunger strike right now?).  Top heavy, bureaucratic programs designed to collect arguably public information with insufficient judicial oversight are not the hallmark of a police state.  Marginalizing a whole class of citizens, writing them off as people whose hopes and feelings and rights matter, and brutalizing them is.   

As an aside, the best look at the modern police state isn't 1984, it's The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  It has a lot to recommend it over 1984: Solzhenitsyn is a better writer, his subject is real, and he had personally suffered at its hands.  There is a probably true story in that book about a woman whose husband was disappeared, so she went to the police station to ask after him.  The cops were short on their arrest quota, so when she came in she (and presumably everyone else that day) was arrested, tortured, sentenced for some made-up crime (anti-soviet activities?), and converted into a slave laborer.  Again, that's a police state. No word yet if Stalin also spied on her Facebook photos.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Would Actually Endorse A Sting and the Police State

Young teacher, the subject of warrant-less scrutiny...
By Robert H.

The latest libertarian trend is to claim we live in a police state.  Popehat is doing it here.

First off, our criminal justice system is terrible and rife with human rights abuses.  It's worse than you think (216,000 prisoners are sexually abused a year!  Most by guards! 30,000 people in a solitary confinement regime that amounts to torture!  Racial bias controlling who goes to jail!  The flashy stuff (NSA spying, Gitmo, secret evidence, etc). It's awful!)  But it's not police state bad.  In a comments section (one I don't particularly recommend reading, the conversation is dull) I explained why I don't think we are a police state.  I am just going to copy and paste that here.  Check out the last paragraph for another fascist libertarian sighting:

Since I was asked, I will rejoin the conversation for one more post.  My dividing line for police state/not police state is "does the rule of law routinely constrain the government's exercise of police power."  In America, it clearly does. 
This is not to say that it always effectively constrains the police power.  There are failures -- too many.  But boy howdy does it *often* constrain police power.  Let's take an example from my criminal defense days (working for a criminal law attorney as a law student.  As an attorney I have never practiced criminal law) and think about a DWI arrest in the city I was then living in.  Does the rule of law constrain how this goes down?  Clearly.   
Things that will happen during the arrest and trial of our DWI defendant which the cops are only doing or allowing because of the rule of law.  IE, shit they do not want to do but will (if this list is too boring, just replace it with the words "lots of things"):
1. Record the entire stop on camera.
2. Not force the defendant to take a breathalyzer test if he refuses.  Alternately, they could pay a judge to stay up all night signing orders that let them force tests on people.  They never did the second option when I was there because it is too costly and judges hate it.
3. If the defendant agrees to a field sobriety test, the cop will call a special officer trained in the field sobriety test, wait for him to show up, and then the new cop will spend a few minutes very carefully giving the test in a way that will stand up to scrutiny (cases got overturned too often when they tried to train every cop in giving the test, so they went to this new system).
4. Stop questioning the defendant if he asks for an attorney (remember, they are on tape).
5. Let the defendant call an attorney.
6. Get the D before a magistrate to make a probable cause determination within 48 hours of the arrest.
7. Give the D a hearing where he can make the case for reasonable bail, with some protections on the setting of bail.
8. Give the defendant access to and a copy of that tape I've been talking about.
9. Give the D a trial.  A jury trial if he asks for it.
10. Give the D time and evidence to prepare for the trial.  Exclude improperly collected evidence from the trial.
11. Give the D a right for his attorney to show up at the trial.
12. Make the trial public.
13. Pay a lawyer to represent the D if he can't afford one.
14. Let the D go if he wins the trial.
15. Let my boss appeal the trial.  This initiates a new trial that is public, itself appeal-able, etc.
16. Let my boss file collateral attacks on the D's imprisonment if he loses the trial and is imprisoned, IE federal habeas motions.
17.  Limit the term of the D's custodial confinement and the amount he can be fined.
18. Etc, etc, etc.

The cops wants to do none of this.  It is a lot easier to just pull someone over, realize they are clearly drunk, get him to a judge when you feel like it, and have the judge assign whatever sentence seems to him fair (or that his political masters tell him to assign). All these other things either make imprisoning my client more costly, harder, or impossible, depending on the facts of the case.  These things let my then boss negotiate or win outcomes the state police and DA don't want.  Even better, if the governor or president decide they don't like this stuff, in most cases they would be shit out of luck.  Or they could stage a military coup, I guess. 
These are also not iron clad protections.  A drunk driver hating cop could pull over the defendant, turn off his dashboard camera, shoot the D, and maybe get off.  But then again, anyone could commit a crime anywhere and maybe get off.  As things stand, the practical upshot of all these legal protections is the state doing things it doesn't like and people spending less time in jail because of it. 
Lots of states don't have most of these protections.  A public trial, a trial so rigorous you have to film yourself if you hope to win it, a right to an attorney, an exclusionary rule, careful monitoring of how cops administer sobriety tests, the ability to refuse the breathalyzer test, etc. etc. etc.   It's just not there.  It's a lot more like the "cop decides you are guilty, judge believes him and gives you the punishment he feels like" procedure.  If there is a judge.  And they bother to give your sentence a definite term. And the cop bothered to see if you were actually guilty of a crime.
So that's the rule of law.

In bigger things as well the government is constrained by the rule of law.  Even in Gitmo, a shining example of our system at close to its worst, the defendants have routinely been able to force the executive to do things the executive does not want to do (IE, have congress establish a procedure for the status reviews, stop strip searching detainees before they meet with their lawyers, give detainees meaningful access to federal courts, etc.)  Obviously the rule of law has, in the main, failed at Gitmo.  But it has done way way better than it would in many many other states.   
So again, the state screws up all the time!  Badly!  America perpetrates terrible human rights abuses!  The rule of law does not effectively constrain some state actors at some times!  We are torturing, as you say, tens of thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement at any given time!  That sh-- is f---ing terrible.  But turning away from those abuses to the core of American life, the rule of law is still really active and really powerful here, if not as active and powerful as we would like.  In a police state, that is not true.  Things aren't mostly nice here because we have a mostly nice police state.  Things are mostly nice here because we don't have a police state, and the state's ability to be mean is mostly constrained..
As an aside, my own take on how I came to my views is not that I was brainwashed to love America, because I am not a nationalist and would defend a whole host of other human rights abusing states from the name "police state."  Instead, I would explain it this way: I've studied and worked in the American criminal justice system and I know how  bad it can be.  I also have a passion for international human rights law, and know  just how bad other countries can be.  The rule of law is strong here.  Elsewhere, it is nonexistent.  Those are the police states.  
Finally, if you can indulge a request of mine, please begin your next essay on the American police state by stating your beliefs that 1. America is just as bad as Nazi Germany, and 2. Human rights and the rule of law were respected for everyone in Nazi Germany's core territories except for the Jews.  Those two beliefs are the single most surprising and important things someone could know about your world view before they invest time in reading your essays.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

How Good of a Person Should I Be?

Mother Theresa is a better person than me.  Certainly, I could also be a better person, if I tried.  I don't go around looting store fronts, but I could give more of my time and money to charitable causes.  So how good of a person should I strive to be?

Consider utilitarianism, greatest good for the greatest number, its quite clear that a good utilitarian should give away most of his or her wealth.  After all, there are many quite impoverished people out there and those extra dollars will bring much more happiness in the hands of the very poor.  Yes, there are transaction costs, but there seems little doubt that almost everyone is at a margin, where an extra dollar given adds to aggregate happiness.  Especially if the warm glow of giving adds to your personal happiness.

So the question is, am I at an optimum?  Since I could be a better person and choose not to be,   I can only be at an optimum if I weight myself higher than others.  Of course, I do.  We all do.  But should we?   

Friday, July 5, 2013

Feline Customary Law

Long Tail and Short Tail, Legal Experts
By Robert H.

Over the last year, my two cats have developed a complex, ever changing regime of customary law.  It fascinates me, mainly because many of the laws they've developed clearly aren't instinctual (though instinct plays a huge role, obviously).  For example, there is no instinctual rule determining who gets dominion over toys, instead the cats seem to work out a toy-specific rule within about an hour of a toy being introduced into the apartment, that rule being some function of who is the better fighter, who is the dominant cat, who wants the toy more, and the dumb luck of who first discovers it and/or plays with it more.  In the main, the law governs:

1. Property rights with respect to toys, food, the litter box, and lounging spots.  Most of these things are held in common with the law mediating when both cats want to use something at the same time, but some pieces of property, such as the smaller cat's comfort toy, pretty clearly belong to one cat and one alone.

2. What touchings are permissible, covering when it is permissible to initiate contact (everything from cuddling to starting to a fight) to what kind of contact is permitted (IE, when can can cuddling escalate to wrestling).  So, for examples, it is pretty clearly forbidden to attack a cat when he is drinking water; if a cat is sleeping then you have to lick and nip him awake before you can start a fight; there is some unknown rule by which they determine what fights are play-fights and what fights are more serious; etc.

3.  Some national security law seems to govern how the body politic interacts with outside forces, such as myself, my girlfriend, and strangers.  There actually isn't much joint action when it comes to defending the apartment, the bigger question is what to do when the legal regime is disrupted by those who aren't beholden to it.  This is an especially difficult question when it comes to myself and my girlfriend, since A. It is very important to obey us so that we will keep feeding them and don't punish them, but B. we often force situations where obedience means a transgression of the law.  So, for example, Bucephalus gets precedence when eating the wet food.  What happens if I push him away from the bowl and don't let him access it while repeatedly placing Jean-Luc right beside it? Bucephalus has sole ownership of his comfort toy, what happens if I keep trying to get Jean-Luc to play with it while Bucephalus is stuck in the other room?  The rule here seems to be that you should try to resist the human and obey the law, but after a concerted effort on the human's part you can give in and break the law without the other cat trying to stop you or holding a grudge.


Anyways, it's all interesting stuff (to me), and a useful remedy when you start thinking that the law should be simple, unchanging, and intuitive.  In order to function together, two animals with the IQs of a pocket calculator have been forced to develop a law that is none of those things.  I don't imagine a system of laws designed to regulate millions of humans is ever going to do much better.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why not more betting?

By Charlie Clarke

Tyler Cowen is arguing with his colleagues Bryan Caplan, Alex Taborrok, and Robin Hanson about the efficacy of betting on beliefs.

What I'm struck by though, is why don't Bryan, Alex and Robin bet a lot more with each other?  If they disagree on 100 beliefs and 10% of those beliefs can be formed into bets, they should have 20 bets a piece with each other.

Here are some possible reasons:

The only one I can think of that doesn't undermine their argument for the usefulness of betting is

1)  Bryan, Alex and Robin hardly ever disagree.

      This statement seems pretty unlikely.  After all, they have regular and reportedly interesting lunches, presumably often discussing issues they disagree on.  There are many, many possible beliefs to have, so even if they only disagree on a small percentage of them, that's still a lot of absolute disagreements.

The most damaging argument is:

2) They don't really think the efficacy of betting is that high, that is a stated belief, but the lack of bets is a revealed belief that betting isn't very useful.

     Possible, but I think it's more likely that the reason is that betting on beliefs is quite difficult and often a suboptimal form of investing.

The most compelling reasons are practical problems with betting:

3)  Betting has high transaction costs.

    There is one group of professionals that regularly bet on all sorts of beliefs, professional gamblers.  It's incredibly common for the negotiation of the terms of a bet to be an excruciatingly long process.  It's not uncommon for the negotiation of a high stakes golf match to take longer than the round.  The most important part of the bet is the terms and the goal isn't just to make a profitable bet; it's to make the most profitable bet possible.

4)  Betting is low return and high variance.

    As a whole, the bets between the three bloggers must have 0% return, because betting is a zero sum game.  Thus, as a whole the bets are just adding risk/variance to their portfolios.  Perhaps, it's also adding a certain amount of fun (most people don't go to Vegas to win).  That fun might rapidly decrease with the number of bets in play, though if betting is primarily for fun, doesn't that dramatically devalue the argument for the efficacy of betting?

   Perhaps, they can each convince themselves that they have a 3% advantage.  Is it enough to justify betting?  If you used the Kelly Criterion, you'd want a $6800 bankroll for these $100 bets.  [Most people are likely too risk averse for Kelly and should have higher bankrolls.]

5)  Many disagreements aren't bet-able.

    Maybe Bryan, Alex and Robin disagree a lot, but those disagreements aren't conducive to making bets.  For instance, how could Tyler vs. the others bet on the efficacy of bets to reveal beliefs?  I could imagine gathering a large number of subjects and performing some sort of betting experiment, but even if they could agree on one potential experiment, running the experiment would be extremely expensive.

But if most disagreements aren't conducive to betting, it's hard to be optimistic about betting. If three people already totally convinced that betting is useful can't find things to bet on, how worthwhile is it to pursue the pro-betting agenda?

While this post probably seems like I'm trying to take Tyler's side, really, there is just a lot about betting I don't understand.  All of my biases favor lots of betting on beliefs.  As a pretty poor grad student, it's pretty easy to justify why I don't bet very much/often.  Yet, these are three tenured professors.  They should be willing to bet pretty large amounts on any belief they hold strongly.

Adam Ozimek argues that the key to betting is agreeing on terms, which takes a clear claim.  I agree that is a big part of betting, but then the bet itself is mostly ceremonial.  We might just assume bet $1 or "pride", and it mostly justifies all of Tyler's arguments that we are expressing a certain type of irrationality.  Most of the prominent blogosphere bets look ceremonial.  Bryan Caplan even argued that betting does reveal beliefs, because we are irrational, but is that a good argument in favor of betting or an argument he should strive to be more rational about his investing (like Tyler)?  

Monday, July 1, 2013

Kill All Whitey

By Robert H.

Son Tan Sexy 

David Bernstein can't figure out why Latino professors are mad at him.  Maybe I can help!

Bernstein wrote a post saying he doesn't understand why Hispanics benefit from affirmative action when they apply to universities.  He finds them getting special treatment odd because:

A. The Supreme Court allows affirmative action in higher education under a diversity rational.  Universities want to create a diverse student body so they get to weigh race a little in selecting students.  But Bernstein observes that "Hispanics" are a very broad group, including people of Native American, European, and African ancestry.  Since Hispanics are so diverse, he doesn't think it makes sense for universities to favor recruiting them when they want to try to promote diversity.  ??????????????

B. He acknowledges that there might be other reasons for affirmative action, even if they probably don't pass constitutional muster under existing jurisprudence.  Specifically, he can see the argument that affirmative action exists to balance out past injustices minorities suffered.  But he doesn't think that makes sense in this context, because according to him some Hispanics (the ones of European descent) never faced real historical injustice.  Meanwhile, some groups that aren't favored in the university admission process have faced tons of historical injustice, like Jews.


OK, first thing's first: he actually has a good point!  Some Hispanic people are really well integrated into our society, and may not need affirmative action.  You don't think of Louis CK as Hispanic, but his dad is Mexican and he grew up in Mexico for a few years. So there really is a small subgroup of Latinos who are descended from Europeans, don't particularly identify as Hispanic, are treated as white by society, but could identify as Latino on a college application.  Maybe, for people like Bernstein, that is enough for universities to throw out "Hispanic" as a class of people they want to recruit.  I think that would throw out the baby with the bathwater, but i at least get why he wants to throw out the bathwater.  He hates bathing, is what I'm saying.

So if he is wrong but has a good point, why is everyone so mad at Bernstein?  Because, whatever you think about the merits of his argument, in making it Bernstein has completely failed to identify the reason most people support affirmative action.  Which is:

C. Most hispanics have to deal with a lot of bigotry in our society and affirmative action gives them a leg up to counterbalance that.  This bigotry is directed at them because they are Hispanic, not (just) because of their race or history or economic condition.

Maybe I've missed it, but he seems to have not even considered this.  Which is weird!  It's usual for comfortable white men to think bigotry isn't a real problem anymore, but most of them at least know other people think it's still a problem.  You'd expect him to talk about how some people think Latinos should get preferential treatment when being recruited for higher education to cancel out both overt discrimination and the more subtle, negative treatment they get when applying for jobs, looking for promotions, whatever.  Or you'd expect him to just focus on the diversity rational, since that is what matters for legal purposes.  But instead he tries to postulate non-legal reasons people might like affirmative action and then completely ignores the actual non-legal reason people like affirmative action.  Weird.

And infuriating!  If you know a European-descent  Hispanic who has faced real bigotry and barriers in their education and career, your teeth start to grind when you read a guy explaining that Hispanics of European descent weren't discriminated against in the past so why should they get a leg up now.  Here is why, Bernstein: it's because while some European-descent Hispanics basically function as white people, others are more identifiable as Latinos and, consequentially, face lots of overt and covert bigotry.  And the lesson there is that "Latino" isn't just a cobbled together collection of some racial groups that are discriminated against and some that aren't, it's a distinct and discriminated against class of people.  The fact that some Latinos are able to evade discrimination does not change that.  If you want to talk about ending affirmative actions without offending Latinos, you have to acknowledge this basic reality.  Or at least, acknowledge that lots of people think it is reality.  And if you just want to talk about the diversity rationale for affirmative action because that is the legal standard, then just talk about the diversity rationale for affirmative action.  Don't wade into the broader debate only to claim you never left the beach as soon as you see tiburónes circling in the water.