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Archive for the ‘Rants and Raves’ Category

The Risk of Ebola

Chairman Mao once remarked “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.” It would appear that we are in a period of “utter chaos.” First, ISIS dominated the news. Now we have the Ebola “outbreak.” The situation is “excellent” from a political perspective precisely because crises (real or constructed) provide windows of opportunity for offering explanations and policy proposals that may have little direct connection to the underlying reality.

It remains to be seen whether Ebola will become a genuine risk in the US. Given everything I know about risk regulation, I have been a bit skeptical about the media coverage of the Ebola “outbreak,” although when fundraisers are cancelled, it gives me pause (unless polling mysteriously entered the calculus).

Regardless of risk, Ebola may continue to attract attention precisely because it creates an opportunity to revisit key arguments about policy and the role of the state in society. As Megan McArdle notes:

You might find this surprising. The Ebola virus is not running for office. It does not have a policy platform, or any campaign white papers on burning issues. It doesn’t even vote. So how could it neatly validate all our preconceived positions on government spending, immigration policy, and the proper role of the state in our health care system? Stranger still: How could it validate them so beautifully on both left and right?

Drawing on McArdle: the problem is the Ebola “outbreak” (or more precisely, two cases of Ebola contracted in a single hospital). The explanations include (1). A failure to protect our borders; (2) A failure to fund adequately the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control; (3) The inadequacy of anything short of a single-payer system of health care; (4) Obama’s failures as president or the austerity policies of the Republican Congress (5) Our failure to deal with climate change; and (5) The growing trends in income inequality).

In some ways, the “crisis” of Ebola seems to resemble the current concerns over ISIS-ISIL. The real nature of the risk to national security is far less important than the multiple ways in which a situation can be framed as a means of supporting pre-exiting political arguments and solutions. Unfortunately, the solutions rarely involve a reduction in the role of the state or an expansion of civil liberties.

Bottom line: the greatest risk posed by Ebola may be the political response.

 

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My Twitter feed has been filled with Americans and others expressing outrage about a Saudi court’s sentencing a man to be paralyzed from the waist down. He had stabbed a man in the back, paralyzing him.

I’m not going to defend or oppose the sentence, but I am going to defend a principle here: the violence inherent in the justice system should be obvious rather than hidden.

A couple of years ago, Peter Moskos suggested bringing back flogging as an option for prisoners: a year off your sentence for every stroke of the lash. He wrote eloquently of the horrors of the carceral state. And, so long as judges don’t simply respond by increasing sentence duration, it’s hard to see how the option to choose the lash would make prisoners worse off. As I wrote at the time:

I’m pulled to agree with Moskos. But I worry. I worry that the best evidence seems to suggest that prison deters crime mainly through incapacitation – criminals cannot commit crimes except against other criminals while behind bars. There’s good evidence for deterrent effects through things like California’s three strikes legislation, but incapacitation matters a lot. Longer term crime rates could go down with a switch from prisons to flogging if those committing crimes were better able to maintain a connection to the community and if prisons encourage recidivism. But rates would almost have to increase in the short term: those viewing flogging as much cheaper than a jail term would expect a reduction in the effective expected punishment for a criminal act. I’d hope that Moskos’s prescription would maintain the use of prisons as preventative detention for the really scary crazy dangerous cases.

A decade ago I would have worried that reducing the price of punishment experienced by the state would increase the total amount of punishment. If it’s expensive to keep a prisoner for a year, the state might be reluctant to put marginal offenders in jail. That’s not proven much of a constraint, so I worry rather less about that now.

But I do worry that the mob used to enjoy the spectacle of a public hanging.

When I read about cases like John Horner, (likely) entrapped by the DEA and facing a 25 year mandatory sentence for having sold his leftover prescription pain medicine to another man who had made him believe that he was in desperate pain, I wonder whether it’s the Saudis or the Americans who are really out of line. If you had two young daughters, and were facing 25 years delivered by the American justice system for doing no harm to anyone, wouldn’t you prefer surgical paralysation? I would.

Sometimes I wonder whether the focus on injustices committed abroad are a way of avoiding thinking of the ones at home.

In other news, we now have decent evidence that “tag and release” is more effective in preventing recidivism than incarceration. Here’s the abstract from the newly published paper by Di Tella and Schargrodsky in the Journal of Political Economy:

We study criminal recidivism in Argentina by focusing on the rearrest rates of two groups: individuals released from prison and individuals released from electronic monitoring. Detainees are randomly assigned to judges, and ideological differences across judges translate into large differences in the allocation of electronic monitoring to an otherwise similar population. Using these peculiarities of the Argentine setting, we argue that there is a large, negative causal effect on criminal recidivism of treating individuals with electronic monitoring relative to prison.

Lengthy carceral sentences for drug crimes are arguably behind much American inner-city disfunction. When a reasonable proportion of men of marriageable age are in prison, really bad things start happening to family formation.

Moskos is looking more right all the time.

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I got into an argument with a structural engineer the other day. I was saying that it would be really cool if the Navy had something like the Helicarrier used by SHIELD in the Avengers movie. He was trying to say that it “wouldn’t work” for some kind of technical reasons, like there’s no known power source that could make something that big hover and also be on the thing, and that even if we had one, the blast from the turbines would be so powerful that it would destroy any buildings it happened to fly over. But I replied that this was just his opinion. In my opinion, it would be terrific, and these “technical” objections really shouldn’t override how awesome it would be to have a Helicarrier. He kept insisting that, unlike me, he had spent years studying physics and electromagnetism, and that therefore his “opinion” as to what was or wasn’t technically feasible was better justified than mine, and that my aesthetic preferences really didn’t amount to much in the absence of good reasons. I replied that he doesn’t have perfect knowledge, so my opinion should count just as much, and I reiterated how great it would be: it would greatly enhance naval effectiveness and air superiority, plus it would super-cool so we should just do it and make it work. Who’s to say we couldn’t possibly make it work? He kept going back to the theme that I’m not really qualified to say what would work, whereas he actually was an expert on these things. He said he realized it sounded arrogant when he put it that way, which he didn’t intend, but that he did actually have a PhD from Cal Tech, and that he was only bringing it up to help motivate the point that I didn’t have a rational basis for arguing with him about this.

The above anecdote is fictional, of course, yet it’s analogous to the kinds of arguments economists and political philosophers often find themselves in. The word “rights” can’t just mean whatever you want it to mean, and not every conception of rights will be coherent. In a democratic society, everyone is entitled to have their voice heard, but it’s a mistake to infer from this that everything is up for grabs, that Locke and Marx (or Keynes and Hayek) are “just different opinions.”

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Conservatives and taxpayer groups are ready to fight the $1 trillion farm bill when it comes up for a vote in the new Congress. Agricultural subsidies, price supports, and tariffs in developed countries (the U.S., Japan, and the European Union especially) not only harm consumers at home by hitting them with higher prices, but cause severe poverty abroad by shutting exports from less developed countries (LDCs) out of developed-country markets and by dumping developed-country surpluses on LDC markets at prices below marginal cost. Since the poorest people in the world are farmers in poor countries, and over 15 million people die from hunger and disease each year due to severe poverty, rich-country agricultural subsidies are literally killing poor people on a massive scale.

Here’s just one anecdote from the IFPRI report of how this works:

Harrison Amukoyi’s farm is perched on a hillside in western Kenya. On less than two acres of land, he raises several crops and a dairy cow. To sell milk, Harrison and his neighbors must compete with industrialized countries that dump their subsidized milk on local markets, depressing prices for Kenyan farmers. This unfair contest appears in countless guises throughout the developing world, intensifying conditions of poverty.

And here are some figures from the NCPA analysis on how poor farmers would benefit if cotton subsidies alone were eliminated:

The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) estimates that ending U.S. cotton subsidies would raise world prices by 26 percent, or 11 cents per pound. The results for African countries dependent on cotton exports would be substantial:

  • Burkina Faso would gain $28 million in export revenues
  • Benin would gain $33 million in export revenues
  • Mali would gain $43 million in export revenues.

We have seen reductions in severe poverty recently. The world’s biggest reduction in severe poverty has come in China over the last three decades. It’s clear that economic reform is the critical, long-term driver of poverty reductions. But where did China’s poverty reductions start? With growing agricultural productivity. The poorest countries of the world can’t just move straight into manufacturing. They need first to generate some agricultural surplus. Making it possible for poor farmers to sell to rich consumers, or even to their own people, is necessary to making that happen.

Removing rich-country agricultural subsidies could also have political-economy benefits. Many LDCs repress their agricultural markets in favor of the urban sector. Thus, their own governments deserve some share of the blame. The typical tool for this repression is a “marketing board” monopsony. The marketing board buys produce at coercively depressed prices and then tries to export it for a profit, plowing the proceeds back into urban subsidies. Rising world prices for farm goods would increase the profits of these marketing boards, potentially allowing them to raise the prices they pay farmers at home. While some nasty governments might find the new revenue reinforces their power, the new revenues would surely build useful state capacity in just as many places. Furthermore, rising farm incomes should increase the political power of the farm bloc in LDCs, which increases the probability of domestic liberalization.

Ending the rich world’s harmful policies would not eliminate global poverty. However, it would make a significant dent and could set in motion economic and political processes that would have far-reaching effects indeed.

Still, agricultural subsidies and trade barriers survive, amounting to well over $300 billion per year in the rich countries of the OECD, dwarfing the aid sent from rich to poor countries. They survive because of the collective-action problem: poor people have no voice at all in the political systems of the rich world, and rich-world consumers barely have one. Producers organize effectively because of the clear benefits they receive from subsidies, and even ideological opposition from both the left and the right cannot effectively fight them.

The only effective way to counter the greed of the few is with the white-hot moral passion of the many. (more…)

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Free at Last

Yes, I know, the market remains in the tank, jobless numbers are up, and the world economy looks like it is on the brink of recession 2.0.   But a week ago, we could begin smelling freedom in the air. As Grover Norquist and Patrick Gleason explain:

This year Cost of Government Day arrived Aug. 12 — meaning that the average American toiled 224 days to foot the bill for this year’s total cost of government. Of those 224 days, 103 went toward federal spending, and 44 days for state and local spending. The regulatory burden, coming in at $1.8 trillion, took up an additional 77 days of work….before President Barack Obama took office, Cost of Government Day never fell later than July 21.

Of course, the smell of freedom remains distant for residents of the fine state of Connecticut, where I live.

 As for residents of Connecticut, the state with the latest Cost of Government Day for the past two years running, they won’t finish paying their tab until next month – Sept. 10.

Given that when I moved to Connecticut (in 1989) there was no income tax, this is quite a achievement. Those of you who are not living in Connecticut should raise a glass to the principle of self-ownership and one properly braced, consider the annual Cost of Government Day report (available here).

Free at last, free at last…

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1. In the below video, Senator Rand Paul criticizes John Pistole and his TSA for their ham-fisted and invasive pat-downs, especially on children.

Senator Paul makes several good points. What struck me in particular, however, is one part of Mr. Pistole’s response. He said that pat-downs on children and seniors are driven—and, apparently, justified—by bona fide intelligence: he knows of a case in which a child under twelve was used as a suicide bomber, and another in which a 65-year-old couple were suicide bombers as well.

Isn’t this exactly the kind of invidious stereotyping and discrimination that prevents the TSA from targeting Muslim males for enhanced scrutiny? The argument given against targeting Muslim males is that not all Muslim males are terrorists. It does not follow from the fact that some tiny proportion of them is that therefore they are all suspespects, so targeting all of them for enhanced scrutiny is prejudice.

Yet here is a case in which Mr. Pistole apparently thinks that because a single child was allegedly once used as an attempted suicide bomber, therefore all children are equally suspicious and must be subjected to enhanced scrutiny. Moreover, because two seniors allegedly attempted to become suicide bombers, therefore all seniors are equally suspicious and the TSA is justified in patting them down too.

Well, Mr. Pistole, which is it? Is assuming that a trait that belongs to some members of a group therefore belongs to all members of the group morally acceptable, or not?

2. In other TSA news, my nomination for American Hero of the Week: Andrea Fornella Abbott of Clarkesville, Tennessee. According to this report, while traveling through the Memphis airport, Ms. Abbott would not allow the TSA goons to molest—er, enhancedly pat down—her daughter. When she refused, they reminded her that they, not she, will be the ones who will decide what is “inappropriate touching,” thank you very much, and she may now just be quiet and stand over there while they have their way with her daughter.

Apparently Ms. Abbott refused, vociferiously. Upon reconsideration, the TSA agents recognized that she was not under suspicion of any crime, that they had no evidence of criminal behavior on her or her daughter’s part, that in a free society people have a right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures that shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized, and that it is just plain sick to grope minors anyway, so they relented and let her go on her way.

Uh, no. They arrested her on the charge of “disorderly conduct” and put her in jail. For defending her fundamental liberty, for defending the bodily integrity of her daughter, even in the face of arrest, and for giving the rest of us passive and docile ennablers a reminder of what is at stake and an example to follow, I salute Ms. Abbott.

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Congratulations to the Packers!

I thought yesterday’s Super Bowl game between the Packers and the Steelers was fantastic—thrilling and exciting. I had no particular dog in the fight, since I am not much of a Packers or a Steelers fan; so I was able simply to enjoy the good game.

I say that so that no one misunderstands what I say now: I am glad it’s over. But not for the reason you might suspect. I love American football. I am a fan especially of college football, but I follow professional football as well. I’m even in an NFL fantasy football league (though my son does most of the actual work).

No, what I got sick of was the constant nagging on all the news shows about how to “eat healthy” during the Super Bowl parties. Oh. My. Goodness. Can we please stop with the stay away from this good tasting thing, with the substitute this far-less-appetizing thing instead, with the strategies to avoid overeating, with the guilt trips and the exercise tips and the puritanical don’thavetoomuchfunevernotevenonaspecialoccasion? Please?

It seemed like every time I put on the local news over the last week there was yet another fitness expert or nutrition expert or personal trainer scolding and nagging and wagging fingers. We eat this amount of calories in just this one day, but we only need that amount! Egad! Yes, yes, I got it: we don’t eat enough whole grain nut leafy non-trans low-fat omega vegetatofufruits, and we eat waaaay too much salt sugar fat cream calories.

But can you please just leave me alone already? I’ll tell you what. Since we’re both adults and we’re both capable of making decisions for ourselves, I’ll make you this offer: You let me eat what I want, and I’ll let you eat what you want. Deal? Please? Pretty please with sugar, I mean krill oil, on top?

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