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Dec. 15th, 2014

devil duck

On enjoying the holiday season...

From the Times

Dec. 9th, 2014

devil duck

police snippets

There was an interesting NY Times op-ed a few days ago, by a black man who was beaten up by the police as a teenager, then went on to become a police officer to see if he could improve the system. On his first day out of police academy, he was told "It's better to be tried by twelve jurors than carried by six pallbearers," and regaled with stories of his comrades killed in action. Which had two effects: it sanctified the memory of those fallen comrades (understandable and probably a good thing), and it trained police officers to start every shift in mortal fear of the civilians they were supposed to be protecting (almost certainly a bad thing). Which I guess makes things even: a lot of those civilians, at least if they're male and have dark skin, live in mortal fear of the police officers who are supposed to be protecting them. Mutual fear, distrust, and stereotyping are a great way to perpetuate mutual fear, distrust, and stereotyping -- just look at the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

In other news, shalmestere and I spent Sunday in Manhattan. As soon as we got off the train in Penn Station, we noticed there were even more police than usual, almost all white, and looking like they'd just stepped off the set of "Dukes of Hazzard". I counted something like fifteen, including one black, by the time we got out of the station. We got to Union Square for some holiday shopping, and found dozens more police officers, apparently preparing for a protest march. The march amounted to about fifty people chanting "Hands up! I can't breathe!", and an equal number of police, including four or five black officers. I didn't see or hear of any violence, but the row of ten on motorcycles with helmets and face-plates had a decidedly threatening look. I kept thinking "If I were a police captain preparing for a racially-sparked protest march, I would get every black officer I had to the scene. They've got less than 10%."

I was struck by the choice of uniforms. In recent years I've gotten used to seeing police in Penn Station wearing army-style "camouflage" fatigues (a classic example of "security theater"). This time we'd see not only a knot of three or four in fatigues, but a hundred feet away a knot of three or four in khaki park-ranger-style uniforms with broad-brimmed Mountie hats, then a hundred feet away another knot of three or four in traditional police navy-blue. And there were probably some plain-clothes officers too.

Dec. 4th, 2014

devil duck

Thoughts on hiring people to be violent

So once again a white on-duty police officer has killed an unarmed, mostly-innocent black man, in violation of his own department's policies, and will face no criminal charges; it's not clear whether he will receive any negative feedback from his employer, or will be subject to a civil suit.

Part of the issue is race, of course -- this kind of thing seems to keep happening with white officers and black civilians. But there's a larger problem which would remain even if there were no racial angle.

One of the qualities of a State, in libertarian terms, is "a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence." Our society routinely hires people to exercise that "legitimate use of violence": soldiers, executioners, jailers, police officers. All of these people are expected to do, as part of their job descriptions, things that would normally be criminal offenses, because they're allegedly acting not as individuals but as representatives of the State. If these people were held to the exact same standards as ordinary civilians, they couldn't do their jobs and nobody with any sense would accept such a job.

But our problem right now is the opposite: we've hired people to be violent on behalf of the State, and effectively immunized them from any personal responsibility for their actions on duty; we've given them individual discretion far exceeding their training and mandate.

One expects the severity of the action to be correlated with the strictness of the procedures. An executioner, in killing people, has to follow a very precise script, after a procedure of months or years has allegedly established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A jailer isn't supposed to kill people at all, but can use violence to keep people in captivity, again after a lengthy legal procedure. A soldier, in killing people, obviously doesn't have time for all that "in the field"; the person to be killed is decided to be a legitimate target in a matter of seconds by virtue of appearance, physical location (in a war zone, outside the U.S.), and (perhaps) the appearance of posing an immediate threat. A police officer applies basically all the same criteria, except that the people to be harmed or killed are inside the U.S. and (mostly) citizens, so there are stricter standards: a police officer is supposed to follow legal procedures (which frankly can be pretty complex), while still making decisions in a matter of seconds. And a police officer isn't hired to kill people, but only to use that as a rare last resort. [Note the remarkable similarity between a police officer and a soldier. I'll get back to this.]

I suspect that there's no objectively "right" answer, only a continuum of unsatisfactory compromises. People with a right-wing mind set of "it's a tough world out there, and it takes a tough man unfettered by bureaucracy to get the job done" will prefer one end of the spectrum, while those with a left-wing mind set of "we're a nation of laws, not of men; people's rights should be taken from them only after commensurate due process" will prefer the other end of the spectrum.

However, as I was thinking through this post, I mused "police officers need guns and some individual discretion in order to do their jobs," and shalmestere said "Like in England, where the police don't routinely carry guns?"

Even civilians may under some circumstances be permitted violence, mostly in defending themselves or others from immediate danger. But (except in "stand your ground" states) they're expected to use no more force than necessary, to take reasonable measures to avoid confrontation, to call the cops if possible rather than confronting bad guys directly, etc. Come to think of it, these are all things that we'd like to expect of police too.

I suspect that in many countries, police officers don't think of themselves as "soldiers with stricter rules of engagement," but rather as "civilians with a special duty." Not "trained killers minus some of their discretion," but "good neighbors plus some extra trust."

Oct. 7th, 2014

devil duck

techie art

One of the stairwells in my office building has a column of fiber-optic cables running down the center, with some peeling off at each floor.  This is what they look like:

Oct. 4th, 2014


sabotaging Obamacare

So I was reading a right-wing blog in which people were congratulating themselves over the court rulings saying that Federal subsidies can only be spent on people who buy their insurance through State-run exchanges, and that if the State refuses to run such an exchange and the Feds step in to fill the gap, all the citizens of that State have lost their eligibility for health insurance subsidies.  The glee in their online voices at the thought of making Obamacare unnecessarily painful for millions of people, so they'll learn the lesson never to vote for a Democrat again, is more than a little disturbing.

It's certainly true that that part of the law is poorly worded, under the naive assumption that States offered the opportunity to do things their own way would take that opportunity, and States offered billions of dollars of Federal aid to help their own citizens would accept it.  It's also true that Congress could fix the wording in a matter of days if it wanted the law to work.

For most of U.S. history, there have been two major political parties that disagreed on how to make government work for the benefit of the American people.  But in the past five years, we've had parties that disagree on whether to make government work for the benefit of the American people.  We have a large faction of one party that actively wants any government program (especially one with Obama's name on it) to fail.  Because they've staked their personal political identities on the notion that Government Can Do No Right, they're threatened whenever it tries to do right, they deny the evidence when it seems to be doing right, and they feel compelled to prevent it doing right, no matter how many people suffer the consequences.

Most Americans (including me) think Obamacare is a sub-optimal, overly-complicated plan, but they also think it's an improvement on the status quo ante.  Most Americans (especially the millions who have health insurance now for the first time in many years) want it fixed, not repealed.  They want it to work, which puts their interests at odds with those of many Republican politicians.

Let's be realistic.  Obamacare, for all its flaws, has progressed far enough that it won't be repealed unless it's replaced with something better; even most Republicans acknowledge this now.  Blocking all attempts to fix it doesn't bring us any closer to something better; it's just a temper tantrum thrown by spoiled children who didn't get everything they wanted and want everybody else to suffer for it.

Sep. 3rd, 2014


(no subject)

From the New York Times:

Robert L. Livingston resigned in scandal in 1998 just days before he was set to take over the House speakership. Now, as a prominent Washington lobbyist, he said he was advising [new majority whip] Mr. Scalise on policy and leadership issues.
“He doesn’t ask for it,” Mr. Livingston said of his advice. “I volunteer it.”

Such selflessness! Who ever heard of a Washington lobbyist volunteering his advice, free of charge, to a Congressional leader? That's the kind of civic-mindedness that America needs more of.

Aug. 14th, 2014

devil duck

armchair economics

Some weeks ago I followed a link on Paul Krugman's blog to an article at AEI-Ideas, the group blog of the American Enterprise Institute.  And ever since then I've been getting e-mail notifications of further articles and reader comments on that blog -- probably a dozen a day.  It's an interesting exercise to read stuff written by people with extremely different political/economic views from mine, and figure out which of their statements I can find some logic in and which seem just utterly bonkers.  James Pethokoukis is the "sane, moderate" voice on the blog: he generally favors less government, less regulation, less taxes, etc. but recognizes the reality that after five years of Obama and quantitative easing, inflation has NOT exploded, interest rates have NOT exploded, the Federal budget deficit has NOT exploded (indeed it's shrunk dramatically), and the parts of the world that enacted the most stringent Austerian policies have been the ones to go into double- and triple-dip recessions, while those that didn't cut government spending as much have recovered better.  Other columnists are less willing to acknowledge reality, and some of the readers are even farther immersed in unquestionable right-wing assumptions.

I got into a debate with one such on the issue of externalities.  His position appears to be that you should pay exactly as much for public goods (police and fire protection, clean air and water, street lights, etc.) as you feel like paying for them; people who value them more should and will pay more for them, and that's fair; he shouldn't be asked to pay anything for other people's actions, even actions that benefit him.  I was skeptical about how this works in the real world, and pointed out that whenever the benefits of something are public and the costs are private, it's almost guaranteed to happen at less than the optimal level ("positive externalities"), while when the benefits are private and the costs are public, it'll happen at more than the optimal level ("negative externalities").  After I had written a longer post than I intended, I decided to copy it here so I don't lose track of it.

Ron H. writes:
“People who value things the least value them at $0, so most often that’s the amount that actually gets charged for positive externalities"

Not necessarily.  It's quite possible that EVERYBODY in a community places a positive value on a particular common good (say, a fire engine), and the total value they place on it is more than enough to buy the fire engine, but still it doesn't happen.  Why?  Because no one community member, even the person who places the highest value on a fire engine, can afford to buy a whole fire engine; it has to be bought jointly.  And if all of my neighbors are chipping in to buy a fire engine, it'll probably be bought whether I chip in or not, so I have a strong temptation not to chip in.  If everybody reasons that way, nobody chips in and it doesn't get bought, even though EVERY SINGLE PERSON wants it.

"Who gets to decide what is the “optimal level”? It would seem that the “optimal level” of something is determined by the number of people who want it, and the price they are willing to pay for it."

Yes, it is.  I'm using the word "optimal" in the usual economic sense of "maximizing total average utility."  I'm not an economist, but I hope I can describe this correctly :-)

We assume that each person in society has a "utility curve" indicating how much that person would be willing to pay, in isolation, for various quantities of the good in question.  Such curves usually rise steeply at first, then gradually level off with satiety.  The person's "average utility" is that person's utility divided by the amount of the good, in other words how much that person would be willing to pay PER UNIT for various quantities of the good.  Average utility curves typically rise to a peak (or maybe several) and then fall off.  The peak of your average utility curve is how much of the good you would want to buy, in the ideal world; it maximizes your personal "bang for the buck".  Different people, not surprisingly, have peaks in different places.

The "total average utility curve" is what you get by adding up each person's average utility curve.  Since it's a sum of curves that each rise to one or more peaks and then fall off, it too rises to one or more peaks and then falls off.  The "optimal level" of a good is the highest peak on this curve, i.e. the amount of the good that maximizes the TOTAL "bang for the buck", as measured by adding up how much each person would be willing to pay per unit if buying that much of it individually -- or in other words, how much benefit each person feels (s)he is getting per unit.

So yes, it IS based on what people are willing to pay.  And in a market where everybody's purchases are independent of one another, you can indeed find "the" optimal level by having each person buy at that person's own optimal level.  But in a market with externalities, where your purchase affects me and vice versa, that doesn't work.  Inevitably some people's peaks are to the left of the total peak, and others' are to the right.  If everybody is expected to pay the same amount, people whose peaks are to the left of the total peak feel oppressed by being asked to subsidize those who value it more.

So let's NOT have everybody pay the same amount; instead, have everybody pay as much as the value they place on the good.  This doesn't work either, because in a market with positive externalities, there's a strong temptation to lie and say you value it less than you actually do; you'll still get the benefit of everybody else paying for it, at less cost per-unit to yourself.  It's especially tempting for people who value the good less than most, as they can be reasonably confident that other people who value it more will cover them.  If you want a fire truck in the neighborhood, but you have a brick house and most of your neighbors have wooden houses, you'll be tempted to pay not just less than they do, but even less than YOU think it's worth, because you know that your neighbors will pay.

If lots of people do that, the market behaves as though their peaks were to the left of where they really are, so the amount of the good actually provided is less than most people (or possibly even ALL people) would be willing to pay for if they were doing it individually.  That's what I mean by "positive externalities are provided at less than the optimal level."

Similarly, negative externalities (e.g. pollution) are provided at above the optimal level because people have a strong temptation to understate how much the externality bothers them, and therefore how much they're willing to pay to avoid it; the result is that not much is paid to avoid it, and we end up with more than most people (or perhaps even ALL people) want.

““…most or all of the employees want more of them, but it somehow doesn’t happen.”

That’s because they are relying on someone else to pay for them. When you “put your money where your mouth is”, you are determining the real value you place on something.”

The first sentence is right: the good is not provided because people who would benefit from it are freeloading, paying less than they actually value it (or nothing at all), and are therefore relying on someone else to pay for them.  The second sentence is right only in an independent market, not one with externalities.  Define "the real value you place on something" as what you would be willing to pay for it in isolation.  Being part of a group tends to lower the amount you're willing to pay for it, even though you benefit just as much; in other words, once you're part of a group, what you're willing to pay does NOT reflect the real value you place on it.

Aug. 2nd, 2014

devil duck

Temporary government programs

I recently read a blog post celebrating Milton Friedman's birthday and including several Quotable Quotes from him. Like Quotable Quotes in general, they're pithy, memorable, and easy to use in arguments in lieu of facts.

One was "There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program." Now, we all know this in our cynical hearts, but as Krugman has demonstrated, it's not particularly true, at least for large social-welfare programs. (There should be a link or two here, but I'm on my phone and don't have the patience to look them up right now.)

So let's do a thought experiment with two government programs, each costing taxpayers a billion dollars a billion dollars a year. Program A writes a $1000 check to a million people a year, while Program B writes a $10 million check to a hundred people a year. Which is more likely to expire on schedule? I claim it's Program A: it benefits far more people, but few if any of them is so strongly affected as to lobby hard for its extension. (If, as seems likely, they're not politically well-connected people, they may not even know where to start.) By contrast, every one of the hundred beneficiaries of Program B has a strong interest in lobbying for the program to be extended, and might be willing to spend up to $10 million/year on it, which is enough to buy some professional-quality lobbying. On the other side are the taxpayers, who each spend $3/year on the program and therefore have no interest in fighting to make sure the program expires on time.

To look at it another way, suppose Program C writes a $1000 check to ten million people a year, while Program D writes a $10,000 check to a thousand people a year. Program C costs taxpayers $10 billion/year, which is enough to grab the attention of deficit hawks, while Program D costs only $10 million a year, so if even one of its beneficiaries fights to extend it, there's unlikely to be any significant opposition.

If this is correct, then there's a substantial thumb on the scale favoring redistribution programs to small groups of people over programs benefitting large groups of people. Look at industry-specific government subsidies and price supports, especially those that in practice benefit mostly a few upper managers rather than a whole worker base.

How would one fix this? One approach would be to adopt a convention that "temporary" government programs don't sunset all at once, but phase out over 5-10 years, and can only be extended one year at a time. This would raise the threshold of individual benefit it takes to inspire someone to lobby for extension: if you only stand to lose 10% of your $10,000/year check this year, and lobbying to extend it simply means you have to come back and lobby again next year, the cost/benefit relationship has shifted and you're less likely to do the lobbying.

But that's not a complete solution: for an individual, group, or industry that already maintains a lobbying arm, adding on one more annual lobbying effort isn't much of a burden. Other ideas?

Jul. 3rd, 2014


So about Hobby Lobby...

Of course, the Repubs calling this a "victory for individual rights against the government" are blowing smoke: it's a victory for the individual rights of a few corporation owners against the individual rights of their hundreds or thousands of employees -- or, if you prefer, a victory for the individual rights of a corporation to have its own religious views, against the individual rights of actual human beings.

Interestingly, like so many Republican suggestions in the past five years, it would actually be fairly harmless or even good if we were in a thriving economy: "if you want your insurance to cover contraception, and Hobby Lobby doesn't cover it, get a job somewhere else."  Of course, in a depressed economy, "get a job somewhere else" is frequently not an option.  Similarly, cutting Federal spending and hiring would be harmless or even useful if those were "crowding out" private hiring, and cutting Federal deficits would be harmless or even useful if those were "crowding out" private borrowing, and raising Fed rates to restrict the money supply would be harmless or even useful if there were an inflation problem.  All of which is not happening, and hasn't been happening for five years, and won't be happening until more people are working real full-time jobs at decent pay, but Republicans don't believe there is such a thing as involuntary unemployment or business cycles, so they blithely go on prescribing what might be the right medicine for a booming economy with full employment.

Anyway, back to the SCOTUS decision.  Hobby Lobby and friends actually do have a bit of a point: if you ran (say) a small business, and the law said you had to allocate a certain fraction of your payroll to the local Baby-Seal-Clubbing Program, which you considered immoral, you would have some cause to object, even if a few of your employees inexplicably believed in clubbing baby seals.

However, the "right" answer isn't to say "because of your religion, you don't have to obey this Federal law that all of your competitors do."  The "right" answer is to get employers out of the business of providing health insurance for their employees -- that way it wouldn't MATTER much what your employer thought were legitimate health expenses -- or lifestyle choices, for that matter.  And if you lost your job, it wouldn't mean losing your health insurance at the same time.  And and and.

Jun. 29th, 2014

devil duck

mis-heard lyrics

We're all familiar with "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy," "There's a bathroom on the right," "You're a mahogany tree, babe," and the like.  This morning on our favorite folkie-singer-songwriter station was a song with a country-western vibe whose chorus tag-line seemed to be "She's a mixed up meshugginah girl".  On further listening, I concluded it was really "She's a mixed up, mixed up sugar girl," which actually makes LESS sense than the mis-heard version.
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