A rating system for drivers in the not-too-distant future

Ever since moving to the DC metro area, I spend a lot of time in traffic. I am not a very patient driver, so I’m constantly frustrated with the traffic around here and the driving habits that make it so bad. The thing is, it’s a small percentage of drivers who cause most of the delays. If you don’t believe me, keep your eyes peeled next time you’re stuck in traffic. Somebody will be driving noticeably slower than the natural speed would be (what everybody else would be doing if that driver were not there). Occasionally you get the worst of it and two slow drivers will be next to each other with a long solid line of cars behind them and an open road in front.

People are constantly devising ratings services for products and services currently on the market. Amazon, Netflix, and eBay are famous examples of relatively recent services, and Consumer Reports has been doing this for many years. It occurred to me that it would be helpful if there were some sort of rating system for drivers. In principle one could do this now with a website where reviewers enter in a plate number and a description with their commentary, but this is unlikely to be successful. Drivers would have a difficult time getting plate numbers, and it may not be worth the time to get home and write a review for someone who committed some minor traffic infraction.

Technological development can help. Car computer systems are getting increasingly sophisticated. Not only this, but iPads and smartphones have a usable glass technology that can help. What I have in mind, in perhaps twenty years, is something like this: the windows and windshield of a car being screens in the sense that images can be displayed on the glass, superimposed over the images normally seen. A car could be displayed has having some kind of identifying feature on or around them, like many video games have now. Perhaps a subtle glow around the image. When the computer system is sophisticated enough, drivers will be able to speak to them. Assuming that for some purpose each car has some kind of transmitter, maybe for navigation purposes, each car could then be identifiable. If someone is driving especially poorly, you can direct your onboard computer to give him some kind of negative review. Maybe it can be a 1-5 star system, or a rating of -1 or 1. These can feed into a car review system, so that a driver who accumulates negative reviews will eventually be identified by the onboard computer by a slight red glow indicating that this driver is to be avoided.

Insurance companies could make use of such a system. A driver who gets enough negative reviews is likely an insurance risk, and rates could be adjusted accordingly. These could even work with a private road system, where at some level of constant negative review a driver could be fined or have a fee attached to his bill.

There is the potential for abuse, but a clever design could avoid major problems. Maybe limiting the number of reviews a person can give over a period of time so that people would only flag especially bad drivers. Maybe an appeals system. Maybe other features, and probably a combination of all of these. Certainly we’d want some kind of anonymizing feature so that the state does not get involved in tracking peoples’ movements. The particular design is not the point here. This system would allow people to know which drivers are making life difficult for other drivers, and would allow bad drivers to realize that other people are upset with them so that they could correct their bad behaviors. This could also help in identifying common patterns of bad driving or design flaws in the road network.

The system for harmonizing driving behaviors that we have now is not very good, but with current technology there’s not a lot we can do about it. Police are rarely around to catch certain bad practices, and they have no interest or mandate in penalizing people for more subtle but still important things like driving too slowly. Moreover we ought to be trying to find ways to coordinate behaviors that don’t rely on the police. A mature and responsible society ought to find other ways to enhance cooperation. This could be one such way to deal with something that many people put up with every day.

Update 2014-06-22: Vox has a great piece on how slow drivers in the left lane are dangerous.

John Lovell, prohibition lobbyist

In a previous post I discussed the “law enforcement-industrial complex”, one of the main influences behind the continuing disaster that is drug prohibition. Here is a profile of one such drug warrior, a lobbyist for California police unions. It mentions that police unions spent about $105,000 to combat Prop 19. If the police are merely supposed to enforce the laws that exist, why would they join the campaign against changing the law?

How many sides does a war have?

There’s a news story making the rounds right now about Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who allegedly shot 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood, burned some of their corpses, and is now back in the United States to stand trial. Details are sketchy and rather suspect, but I suppose time will tell. [Early reports based on eyewitness accounts mentioned multiple shooters, and this is a continuing possibility, but for the purposes of this post I will assume just one.]

Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the stories, other stories came out saying that Bales, who hadn’t yet been identified, had some kind of head injury recently and may or may not have been suffering from PTSD. Then a story about how he saw a comrade lose a leg the day before the shooting. US officials—anonymously, of course—have said recently that Bales had alcohol and/or domestic issues also clouding his mind, though his attorney denies this.

I have no doubt that a great many of the soldiers who were and are in Afghanistan and Iraq (and probably elsewhere) suffer from PTSD or related conditions. This is supposed to be a mitigating factor, and in fairness if I were a military judge or prosecutor I would have to consider it. Any human being would be put on edge by seeing his comrades wounded or killed. I’ll be surprised as hell if Bales’ probable eventual sentence isn’t considered in view of this fact, assuming he even goes to trial. By all still-developing accounts Robert Bales was not at all the psychopathic type. Something happened to him.

It’s telling that the military judicial system is so quick to use this mitigating factor on only one side. It applies to US forces but it does not apply to combatants on the other side. A US soldier commits some war crime under the influence of combat zone stresses, and they frequently lighten or forgo his punishment. (See these people.) An Afghan who sees his friends or family killed and fights back as a result gets no such consideration. If he is captured, he can expect no sympathy with that kind of defense. If he details to his captors how for ten years he and all his region have been living in fear of being rounded up on the flimsiest pretext to disappear into a CIA black site or be killed, how one day his cousin’s wedding was bombed from the sky, and how afterwards the rescuers were also bombed, and how the next day he picked up a weapon and fired it at the occupying forces because he was so bent by fear and rage—well, get that picture in your mind, and try to imagine how valid his captors will consider that reasoning.

One might object, but we’re at war! We don’t have time for judicial niceties. We didn’t ask individual German soldiers their stories as we were marching into Germany. That’s true. But there were other differences. They fired at Allied troops, sure, but when they were captured they weren’t treated like criminals, they were treated like prisoners of war. They were held until the war was over and then released. Maybe they had killed Allied troops, but that’s part of war. Nowadays, no matter how frequently political leaders insist that “we are at war” we don’t treat the other side like they’re at war. They are terrorists, militants, insurgents, or some other term with criminal connotations. They can be tortured and held indefinitely. There’s no mass release of combatants in the future, and it’s quite clear that many people currently held were not even combatants. The military can never be sure about the people it captures: some armed resisters are let go, and some non-combatants are swept up. The uniform no longer divides the people they’re after and the rest. There is really only one army in this conflict.

This ensures both an endless supply of Afghan civilian hostility and endless fighting. I’m sure some elements of the US elite want exactly this, but most Americans, including most soldiers, do not. For those who’d object that it has to be this way because Afghan combatants can’t be treated like soldiers, I’d say they’re almost there. I’d say they don’t form a traditional military force, and therefore the US government shouldn’t use its traditional military force against them. This is not the 20th century. War as we used to know it is largely a thing of the past. Let it go.

Entrenched interests support hampering competitors, pt. 234579238156

All right, a few words about DC food trucks. First, white people in DC are very proud that white people invented this thing called a food truck, and that white people have food trucks for serving stylish food to other, mostly white people. They think that you poor schmucks who don’t live in the DC area know and envy them for their food trucks. My first thought was ¿Cómo?, followed by the realization that they weren’t kidding.

That personal message aside, food trucks are under attack in DC. The classic regulatory kind of attack. This time it’s from the president of Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Lynne Breaux writes that she and her organization completely support food trucks—as long as they comply with the spirit of the Vending Regulation Act of 2009. This act allows trucks to get permits for specific places. I know what you’re thinking: it’s a food truck right, as in it can drive around selling food in different locations depending on demand? Yes, that’s so, but then it’s a more unpredictable competitor for established restaurants and their advocacy groups. They disguised this concern by justifying it on the grounds that inspectors needed to know where to find the trucks. It sounds reasonable, but it’s interesting how the best solution was the one that reduced the food trucks’ advantage the most.

Newer proposed vending regulations would allow a food truck to park in any legal parking spot, selling food to willing customers. Predictably, entrenched interests fear that this would lead to a “food truck free-for-all”. Let me translate that for you: more food trucks means more competition. As you recall from Econ 101, competition is good for consumers. As you may not recall from Econ 101, established businesses will generally oppose new competition and will almost invariably cloak this opposition in some sort of public-interest language.

From RAMW’s website:

RAMW, in addition to many individual members, has been very active in campaigns and fundraising in local elections – giving greater power to the voice and the vote of RAMW members. We also advocate strongly to DC officials to craft regulations and laws that adequately consider the interests of RAMW members and the greater restaurant industry.

I leave it to the reader to interpret Lynne Breaux’s op-ed however he or she likes.

Follow-up to history of economic thought post

I’ve been thinking about the previous post on the subject for a few days now, and I thought I should add some clarifying comments.

It was in the context of Pete Leeson’s post, which was advice for young Austrians. I think I implied, but did not outright say that the proper people to work on the history of economic thought are the older gents (and ladies) who have already produced other work. Once you become a Jedi master you are pretty much free to work on whatever you like, and producing work for the young Padawans is something that’s both interesting and important.

I suppose in brief my attitude would be for graduate students to absorb it but not to think about producing it until later. Leave that to the pros. The purpose of graduate school is not to educate the hard core of the next generation.

I really want to hammer that part home: the history of economic thought is a valuable field for the liberty movement because junior members (including me) need to know about it, not because outsiders need to know about it. Graduate students (should) produce work for outsiders only. The elder statesmen of the movement, if you’ll pardon the expression, produce work for outsiders and insiders.

The JFK Assassination, pt. 9: Review of Shots

One of the continuing mysteries about the assassination surrounds the number of shots fired in total. My take is not conclusive, of course, but we seem at least to have:

1. Kennedy’s back, from behind
2. Kennedy’s throat, from in front
3. Connally’s back etc., from behind
4. Kennedy’s head, from in front
5. the missed shot, from behind, debris from which hit James Tague
6. the windshield shot, from in front

These are the shots that to me are obvious, but are obviously disputed by a great many people. There are other possible shots as well:

7. a missed shot nearer to the presidential car, from behind
8. a separate headshot, from behind

As you can tell, the count is already too high for one shooter with a bolt-action rifle to make in just a few seconds, and physically impossible for a single shooter with all the time in the world firing from behind. As I’ve already written, we’re clearly dealing with a conspiracy.

I’m a little bit sympathetic to the belief that one of the shooters was in the Dal-Tex Building, but I wonder why more earwitnesses wouldn’t have indicated this. It certainly seems to fit the video evidence to have Connally and Kennedy hit from different rear angles. Based on the number of shots, three general angles of fire make as much sense as two.

Another thing that has troubled me is the hole in the windshield. It’s said to have come from the front, and while this isn’t conclusive there’s no testimony that I know of—except from the Secret Service and other agencies we already know we can’t trust—to suggest otherwise. If so, at what angle did it enter? It’s unlikely to have been made by the same bullet that made the throat wound, because this would involve yet another shooter at an angle never considered. Perhaps it was caused by the shot that hit the curb far in front of the motorcade and hit James Tague’s cheek. I really don’t have a good answer for this and haven’t seen anything that suggests a solution.

On a related but separate note, The Future of Freedom Foundation’s Jacob G. Hornberger has a great series of posts on the JFK assassination that can be read here. By the way, I met him a couple of times since I’ve been in the area, and he’s a nice guy.

On overdoing the history of economic thought

Somehow I missed it when it was first written, but I was recently hipped to Pete Leeson’s post “10 Austrian Vices and How to Avoid Them”. It anticipated one of my (few) complaints about the GMU economics program, the emphasis on history of economic thought. I understand the motivations: Hayek won the calculation debate in the sense that his ideas were more correct than Keynes’s ideas, but Keynes gets the credit for being the greater economist. Macroeconomics more broadly was on a good path that got sidetracked away from Böhm-Bawerk, Wicksell, and others. Mises set up a fantastic framework for social science that was ignored by Samuelson and his followers. All of these things were detrimental to economic science and the world in general. We want to correct this. We want to illuminate the history of economic thought to demonstrate that we were on the right path and can return to it.

My issue with this is twofold: first, Keynesian ideas didn’t win out because they were better, and second, the opportunity cost is too high.

Keynesian ideas won because they were popular with governments, telling them they had good reasons for doing what they wanted to do anyway (and were already doing). The court intellectuals found it better for their careers to go along and were also swept away by the Zeitgeist. I recognize that there’s more to it, but this seems to me to be the essence of the Keynesian victory. Austrians treat the Keynesian victory as an intellectual problem, which is incorrect. It won’t be won after all these years by pointing out that we were right back then.

More than a handful of intellectual history papers here and there is also a waste of effort. Since the Keynesian revolution was not primarily an intellectual exercise, we ought to treat it as an extremely successful fluke. Most economists do not care about history of thought papers, and by writing them we’re really only talking to ourselves. No dyed-in-the-wool Keynesian of today is ever going to see these papers, much less be won over by them. The best way to make people realize that Hayek won is to apply Austrian insights to new problems and let them trace back on their own. Not only is staying relevant important for its own sake, it’s also the best way to bring people into the history of economic thought on their own. If they see you are right about something, they’ll wonder what else you were right about and give it more credence than if you whack them over the head with intellectual battles from 50+ years ago.

It’s not that I don’t value the history of economic thought as a subdiscipline or enjoy it. I really do. It’s critical for the hard core to have a thorough understanding of where their ideas came from. But these papers are only for the hard core and most of our efforts should be forward-looking.

A Hayekian historical look at American Indians

One of the main tools in the GMU economics toolkit is the framework of knowledge vs. ignorance. Friedrich Hayek famously argued that central economic planners simply have no way to acquire the relevant knowledge to solve real-world problems. Time and again this viewpoint has illuminated various economic and other social problems. I don’t see the stream of interesting papers using this technique to run out in my lifetime. And it’s not always narrowly economic. It applies in many broader social science questions.

I don’t believe I’ve yet seen Hayek’s analytical framework adapted to Indians. [Here we’re skipping the nomenclature issues and using “Indian” to mean the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere.] There are several issues:

1. There weren’t simply “Indians”. A common Indian identity is a relatively new historical phenomenon. Whatever emotive and political power this identity has now, at the time of the contact and for centuries afterwards there were simply many groups who had their own names for themselves, had different languages and cultures, and who didn’t always consider that they were part of a larger group together. The exact same patterns of cultural interaction happened in the Western Hemisphere before 1492 as happened in the whole rest of the world: peaceful coexistence, trade, violent coexistence, etc. One would hardly march into Europe in 1492 from Mars and start talking about how they were all one group of people. It wouldn’t make sense to them at all except in broad geographical terms. Moreover, even before contact, there were groups migrating, waxing and waning, forming and melding, and some simply going about their business, just like everywhere else in the world.

Indian policy by the Spanish, French, British, American, Mexican et al. governments has always recognized that not all tribes are alike—some were allies and some hostile—but the subtleties always seemed to be outside their grasps. Some existed in settled agricultural communities and some were nomadic, for example, while some were semi-nomadic and some were in flux between patterns. Many of these differences could have been found out by these governments if they had cared to, but many of them couldn’t. They didn’t even know what they didn’t know, and that it was important. Yet they presumed to make broad policies anyway.

2. These authorities gave very little thought to historical development. A culture that has been nomadic for one thousand years is less likely to adapt well to farming than a culture that has been agricultural for 900 years and semi-nomadic for the last hundred. The historical event with the most impact was the spread of Eurasian diseases, which killed off untold numbers of people. The numbers vary on this estimate, but on the higher end something around 90% of human North America may have died between the initial contacts and the settling period. This is a world-historically massive change, yet the initial settlers hardly seem to have taken notice. (Charles C. Mann’s 1491 makes the analogy of a visitor to central Europe first arriving in the immediate aftermath of World War II and assuming that the people had always lived in filth, digging through ruins for edible scraps.)

3. The authorities also gave little thought to different cultural norms. We’ve all heard the story about a European buying Manhattan from the Indians living there, who didn’t think that anybody had title to land or could transfer it. This is huge, and probably for that reason has already been covered more than the other points. If one cannot own land, one cannot sell it or buy it. Even if one can own land, the people who live on it have infinitely better claims than the chief in Washington who simply claimed it belonged to the US. Many people dealing with Indians probably knew at least to some small degree that treaties did not count among (many) Indians as proper ways to transfer property, but did it anyway.

4. Some policy makers may have had good intentions regarding Indians, but they were at cross purposes with the intentions of the Indians themselves. Culture is not monolithic. People adapt themselves to new events, ideas, and material goods all the time. The most consistent policy was to try to turn Indians into farmers on small family plots. This would, over time, make them like the newer arrivals culturally and integrate them into America’s agricultural society. Many people who subscribed to this proposal genuinely thought this would be the best thing for them.

The problem, of course, is that nobody consulted the Indians about it. Some of them wanted to adapt to the new arrivals’ ways out of expedience, but some just wanted to keep doing what they had been doing without interference. The various Indian agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs frequently did not care about their charges one way or another, but even the ones that did could hardly understand the magnitude of their tasks. It’s simply not possible to remold societies like that, and even piecemeal takes so much knowledge of local cultural attitudes that they could hardly be expected to learn them during the length of an assignment. Compounding the difficult is that different (Indian) people wanted to do different things with their lives. The effort was doomed from the start.

In retrospect, it seems ridiculous on top of being cruel. Take the land from other cultures, and then take over their cultures too. Don’t ask them what they want or what’s realistic (and certainly not just) as a policy, don’t be sensitive to failures of the policy, and don’t be flexible when nobody can deny any longer that the policies were destructive and wrong.

The courts were not much help either. At first they failed to recognize what in retrospect was obvious: the policies were completely unjust. They also failed to recognize what was not so obvious: the policies were characterized by ignorance of how Indian cultures functioned, and as such could not have worked. This has somewhat changed since the 1970s. The courts have started realizing the injustice of past Indian policy and attempted, somewhat, to correct what they could. Unintentionally, they have recognized the government’s ignorance by recognizing that the policies were utter failures.

Strategies for anti-prohibitionists, pt. 2: the Law Enforcement-Industrial Complex

In part 1 we looked at the moralists who support the prohibition of certain kinds of substances. They are a large and influential group, and their influence extends far beyond their actual numbers. The other key group I had in mind is the law enforcement-industrial complex.

The law enforcement-industrial complex consists: the DEA, local and state police at all levels, federal, state, and local prosecutors, prison systems both public and contracted, manufacturers and suppliers of weapons and armor, and a host of other related “private” concerns who sell law enforcement products to police. Flashbang grenades, Lenco Bearcats, kevlar vests, etc., are all made by companies with a vested interest in the militarization of law enforcement, and while terrorism is the magic word that makes the money pour in, the bread and butter of the industry is the War on Drugs.

I’d be remiss to leave out the President, the US Congress and their equivalents at the state level. By pandering to the law enforcement-industrial complex and the neo-Puritans they acquire and maintain power. Even when giving only verbal support to the neo-Puritans, they give material support to their allies.

The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and it’s these people who benefit directly. Their position is much less philosophical. They profit, both materially and intangibly, from prohibition. More money, more power, more gadgets, more career advancement. I’m sure some of them actually believe that certain substances cannot be used responsibly and that the state has a moral obligation to target them, but it’s my intuition that for the vast majority of them that’s just fluff. (In the same way that some KGB agents were probably true believers in the Soviet system, though after the collapse they adapted quickly to other systems.)

As for how to counteract the influence of this group, well, the strategies are considerably more varied. The overall theme is that we all suffer as prohibition is ramped up. However one feels morally about the consumption of certain plants and chemicals, the benefits that prohibition may have pale in comparison to the costs. It’s mainly the work of academics, journalists, and activists that will make a difference.

Very briefly, here are some of the domestic costs:
1. Rights—for everybody—diminish in proportion to the power and influence of the law enforcement-industrial complex. Only last year did the Supreme Court decide that police who had followed a drug dealer into an apartment complex were legally allowed to break down someone else’s door without a warrant because they thought they heard sounds of evidence being destroyed. In this case the people in the other apartment were smoking marijuana, which attracted the attention of the police. They began to flush it down the toilet when the police kicked in their door. They were completely unrelated to the drug dealer the police initially followed, but the Supreme Court said they were within bounds. This kind of case could only come up in the context of prohibition. Now the police are entitled to kick in your door merely on their say-so that they thought they heard evidence being destroyed. Almost all of the major encroachments on first amendment rights since the Drug War began were because of the Drug War. See: Civil Asset Forfeiture.
2. Rights for minorities suffer in particular. The more marginalized people are in society, the less people will look out for them, even the well-meaning NPR-listening bluehairs. Being Hispanic and having a large amount of cash is grounds at minimum for having the cash confiscated, even if it is funds raised by a church for the purchase of church vehicles. Being black is grounds in New York City for being stopped and frisked, even if you’re just walking down the sidewalk. That this is so was not inevitable; prohibition made it happen.
3. Imprisoning so many people imposes many non-monetary costs on society. Beyond the simple costs of paying the police, district attorneys, and prison guards, social welfare is set back even more. A person who has served prison time for non-violent drug-related offenses has a record afterwards that makes it harder for him to find gainful employment. The jobs he is likely to find will be worse, and he, his family, and his community suffer a lifelong drag on his productivity. This is particularly harmful for people on the lower end of the skill spectrum. People argue that a person can avoid this fate by not having anything to do with drugs in the first place, and that’s usually true, and those people may not be swayed by my argument that non-violent drug-related crimes should not even legally be crimes. Let’s think of it this way: does facilitating someone’s getting high deserve an invisible lifetime ball and chain? I think most reasonable people will answer no. (For the moral monsters who answer yes, we can’t waste our precious resources swaying them.)
4. The rule of law is undermined. As I’ve written before elsewhere, many of the people arrested and convicted of drug crimes aren’t even guilty. (I wrote this, I think, in response to a video showing cops planting drugs on a man they pulled over and then immediately arresting him for the possession of said drugs.) This kind of arbitrariness is exactly the opposite of the rule of law. If it can happen once, it can probably happen again, and it probably happens all the time. I was once told by a defense lawyer that cops lie in court so often and so routinely that it’s usually not worth objecting to. The entire culture of law enforcement is infected with this.

Even more important are the international costs. All of the points just given apply to other countries, a hundred or a thousand times more. The War on Drugs is not always a metaphor—from Colombia to Mexico, and in many other places around the world, it is quite literal. Many thousands of people die violent, gruesome deaths every year who would not have without prohibition. “El Chapo” Guzmán, the most powerful drug lord currently living in Mexico, is said to have someone on his payroll in every law enforcement agency in the country. This may be a bit of a stretch in one way, and may fail to capture the damage of prohibition in another. I’m sure there’s a small town in the Yucatán to which he and his agents have never given a thought, but it’s very clearly the case that in some areas the entire police force is working for him or one of his rivals. And not just the police, but the military as well. The Los Zetas Cartel was founded by defectors from the Mexican special forces. Moreover, fighting the War on Drugs has led the US government to support awful regimes in Latin America, corrupting their societies and leaving a trail of bodies behind. Sure, maybe fewer people get high or overdose. Is that worth it?