How HOV lanes contribute to greater pollution

I admit that title is a little strong, but “How HOV lanes probably contribute to pollution” just doesn’t grab you the same way. Anyway, as I’ll get to shortly it’s an empirical matter that I think can be reasonably inferred to swing the way I think it does.

Fact: cars in stop and go traffic emit more pollutants than cars driving at more even speeds. HOV lanes, in effect, cut off lanes for most vehicles. The idea was to encourage people to carpool, which may be admirable. However, many of the people who use the HOV lanes are people who would already be in vehicles together. Parents with children, for example. This probably varies from city to city. The situation that made me think of this was in Alexandria, Virginia, in the Washington D.C. metro area. There is a high percentage of childless professionals here without strong social roots, so that it’s far less likely that the HOV lane will be in use than in other areas of similar size and build.

When there is heavy traffic in other lanes and the HOV lane is either largely empty or has traffic moving at a much faster clip, this implies that traffic could be eased in the other lanes if it were not for the artificial legal restriction. Traffic at any speed produces pollutants, but traffic at lower speeds produces more, such that in the cases I’ve described more pollutants result. What about when traffic in the HOV lane is moving at the same speed as traffic in the other lanes? Well, in that best case scenario, the HOV lane is not providing any special benefit to carpoolers; in effect, it’s just another lane.

The first objection to what I’ve just said is that it is supposed to encourage people to carpool. That is an empirical claim, but as far as I can tell it really doesn’t. The second objection is, I think, a bit stronger: maybe the added traffic hassle will cause marginal commuters to work from home, take public transit, or some other way of staying off the road entirely. That would cut down on pollution. This is also an empirical claim, and it’s hard to measure. I don’t expect that it really leads people to stay off the road who weren’t already incentivized to do so.

I wrote the previous section before looking up any data. I wanted to challenge myself to think it through as much as possible. After a quick look at the available research, I appear to be on the right track. Here’s one example.


The Informal Norms of Bar Pool

I’ve long been a big fan of bars and a big fan of pool. Putting them together is a great combination. Since I first became aware of them, I’ve also admired the informal norms that govern bar pool among strangers. The spontaneous order that results is what makes playing with strangers possible. People only tend to be sticklers about the rules to the extent that it doesn’t make the game uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be fun, right? These norms keep play moving without requiring too much formality. What’s more, they work in almost all situations. From a situation where both players know many people to one where the only people there are the two strangers playing, you generally find that people stick to them. While occasionally violence can result from breaking these rules—and I think there’s usually alcohol involved as well—it typically doesn’t come to that. People can be shamed or shunned, and usually this threat keeps them honest.

First, the person who racks makes an honest attempt to rack the balls as tightly as possible. This is essential for a good break. Though it’s the challenger and not last game’s winner who racks, and thus does not get the full benefit of a good rack, this always happens. Occasionally the rack is not tight due to a low-quality table, but in general you can count on it.

Second, while all shots are supposed to be called, in practice doing so slows the game down. Often the other player is not around or not paying attention, and anyway it’s usually obvious which pocket the player is aiming at. The honor system usually works. In the event that a player makes a different shot than the one he intended, he will usually (honestly) end his turn. On the lower end of the talent spectrum people sometimes don’t do this, but in that case it typically doesn’t ruin the game and is not worth policing. I’ve seen many players make impressive shots only to immediately explain that they were not the ones intended and let their opponents shoot.

The eight ball, of course, is the most important to call, and if the other player is not around a player usually calls it to a third party. Even if this third party is that player’s friend, he impartially observes the shot and does not help the shooter cheat. Many times in many places I’ve seen a person call a shot to his friend, lose the game in some way or another, and then go find the other player to report the facts.

Another feature of bar pool that can imbalance play is the quality of pool cues. In a lot of bars there are few good cues, and if this is the case players typically share a cue. At the very least, there will be some discussion of the deficiencies of the cues at hand, and the players try to find a solution that does not unduly handicap one player.

Concentration is important to the game, and players will get out of the extended line of the shot their opponent is taking, or at least stand back and stand still. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it generally happens. Of course, if somebody violates this norm his opponent will make sure he does not violate it twice. (Penalties range from a brief suggestion to the threat of an ass-whooping for especially flagrant violations.)

Most games do not involve bets, but when there are bets, people tend to abide by the terms. It doesn’t have to be money; it can be drinks or something else. There are plenty of people who try to weasel out of paying up on lost bets, but again, it’s the small minority of cases.

Perhaps more remarkable than all of these is the fact that people not involved in the game will move out of the way for people who are. Even people who don’t play pool recognize that the temporary property right of the pool table trumps their claims to the spots they’re standing in. The influence of alcohol and loud music makes this the most commonly violated norm, but it still holds almost all the time. People will even apologize profusely for unknowingly getting in a player’s way.

As I said at the beginning, these norms hold in almost all situations. Whether the two players are regular players surrounded by their friends or two strangers in a one-off situation who will never see each other again and have nobody else around to detect cheating, these are the unwritten rules that they play by. Of course, they develop and people learn them in repeated-interaction scenarios, but they are quickly internalized. I’ve played many games with strangers in towns I’ve never been to before or since, and I still find that I can reliably predict the things they will not do.

Many situations in life are governed by informal norms. This particular example may not seem important per se, and in the grand scheme of things probably isn’t. But people who are capable of this kind of spontaneous order are capable of many others as well. One of our tasks as students of human action is to discover and explain them.

Today is another sad day for economics, with the death of Armen Alchian. Alchian was a UCLA economist who Don Boudreaux describes as “a scholar who, I believe, probably is history’s greatest pure microeconomic theorist.” Alchian’s price theory is an integral part of the GMU program.

Encouraging observations from ISFLC13

This weekend I went to the sixth annual International Students for Liberty Conference, and it got me thinking about the state of the libertarian movement. I’ve been a member of this movement for quite a long time; I was enthusiastic enough about libertarianism to join the Libertarian Party on a high school trip to Washington D.C. when I was sixteen.* I’m now thirty, so I’ve been involved for about half my life.

First, it’s grown exponentially even during the time I’ve been involved. There were more than a thousand attendees, and the vast majority of them were undergraduates. These are the undergraduates who either found their own travel money or get somebody to pay for their trip; they must represent many more young libertarians. When I first got involved most libertarians had never been in a room with 1000+ libertarians, much less thought of it as an annual event they could prepare for and look forward to. I was “that libertarian guy” in high school. Even in college there were only a few of us. Now, for college undergraduate libertarians, this is an institution. They now seem to know almost nothing of the disheartening loneliness of the earlier days of the movement when a libertarian might not personally know any other libertarians. I can’t overemphasize the novelty and importance of this fact.

Second, the quality might even be better, on average, than it used to be. As best I could tell, this was a very radical group. There are always a few odd conservatives and single-issue, i.e. pro-legalization people around at large libertarian events, but my random sampling of these students seemed to be very well acquainted with the great intellectual leaders of the movement; Bryan Caplan is a fixture at these events.** One would expect a dilution of the degree of radical belief as a movement expands, and I’m sure that’s true in general, but the hard core of this movement is expanding at a really mind-blowing pace. (As Exhibit A, a tweet from the Students for Liberty account: ‘In true libertarian form, “Would Not Vote” wins the 2016 Presidential straw poll’.)

As a corollary, the movement seems to be shaking off its lingering, historically contingent conservative shackles. Ever since libertarians and conservatives united against the New Deal, we’ve been stuck with them—in the minds of others, and all too often in our own. It’s been a constant frustration trying to explain to people that I consider libertarianism an antidote to both modern conservatism and modern liberalism, which in my mind should be grouped together before either should be grouped with us.

Third, libertarian events have always skewed heavily white and male. ISFLC13 was noticeably more even in gender ratio than any general libertarian event I’ve ever been to, and included delegations from across the world. This is also an important sign of the growth and health of the movement. I don’t have specific answers about how to make libertarianism more appealing to Group X or Category Y, but whatever they’re doing appears to be working.

All in all, I am very encouraged by where the movement is headed. I admit I had mixed feelings about the influx of people due to Ron Paul. I loved the enthusiasm for humbler foreign policy and smaller federal budgets, but I didn’t feel that the rich intellectual heritage of the movement was really getting its due, and I secretly feared the movement would be drawn off track. I’m not worried about that anymore. This is a sharp crowd.

* My LP membership lapsed not long after, for what it’s worth. Some people will read this footnote wondering why I included it, but I’m preempting the others.
** Full disclosure: Bryan Caplan is currently a professor of mine, but I don’t think he will take this as buttering him up.

Law and Economics, Imperial Chinese edition

In the Fall 2011 semester David Friedman was a visiting professor at George Mason University. That happened to be my first semester there as a Ph.D. student, so I lucked out in a big way. He ended up doing a seminar series, and I got in on some of that also. He mainly talked about a project he’s been working on for a few years now, a course he’s been teaching called “Legal Systems Very Different from Ours”, which he is slowly turning into a book. You can find the draft here. I think it’s a fascinating topic, and he’s one of the few people who could pull it off extremely well.

I recommend reading all the sections. I saw this in the section on Imperial Chinese law:

Where the offense did not seem to fit any category in the code, the court felt free to find the defendant guilty of doing what ought not to be done or of violating an Imperial decree—not an actual decree but one that the Emperor would have made had the matter been brought to his attention. The underlying assumption was that people ought to know right from wrong without the assistance of the legal code, hence it was proper to punish those who did wrong, although the lack of a relevant legal rule raised difficulties in setting the appropriate punishment.

This is surely a unique legal code in world history. (If you have evidence to the contrary, please let me know.) What makes that fact even more surprising is how it’s probably a very common opinion, worldwide and throughout time, that people should know basic right from wrong without having it listed out for them, and there’s still just this one example in law. My gut feeling is that this must have been used by judges to nail people they couldn’t rightly get on any other charge, which is almost guaranteed to be abused more often than not, but without more information about the Chinese legal system I wouldn’t bet money on it yet.

So, just as a thought experiment, join me in considering what the efficiency rationale of this law was. There must have been one if it lasted for several hundred years or more.