Monday, September 22, 2014

Standards and Practices

In the brittle bones of Autumn, Jack Frost quickens, a half-dram of winter spirits freshening the pumpkins' shell. As the mercury does the timid turtle shuffle, central air switches from cool to warm, knitted sartorial delights emerge reluctantly from their summertime sequester, and stockpiles of hot cocoa begin to refresh their seasonal dalliance with those tiny puffballs named after the tuber of the Nile river flats mallow. There's a nip in the air if you will. Bundle up.

Unless you've contracted services with a day care provider. In which case, you've also "agreed" to the regulations of your state's department of family services. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, it's the "Department of Social Services" and here are the standards for licensed family day homes, effective July 17, 2013 published by this most august of public agencies. In there (p. 66) is a ban on blankets for children under 2 years of age.

The standard argument for state intervention is that, on occasion, private voluntary association is insufficient to obtain desirable outcomes. Because by cutting corners on things like safety or attention, agents can pocket the cost savings and lie to the principal about the lapse. In a daycare, the kids are too naive to reliably monitor shoddy supervision.

So there is at least a theoretical case for third-party monitoring of home care providers. But dare I say the 120 pages of regulations curated by our friends at the VA DSS runs a small-scale version of what Hume warned about in Of Commerce or what economist Robert Higgs calls the "ratchet effect" or  what Munger colorfully refers to as the "metastasis of the state." Bureaucrats bear next to no cost for adding to the stock of mandates. Indeed, since monitoring duties serve to encrease the dominions of their office, they benefit from adding regulations whose marginal cost to parents exceed the marginal benefit.

But I suspect that state-mandated regulations about the sort of bedding caregivers can use will be politically popular even though suffocation risks for an 18 month old toddler are remote. Safety rhetoric is high status, and since daycare costs are at least party socialized (thank you, taxpayers of Virginia for paying for my daughter's lunch despite the fact that my household income is a bit above median in one of the top 5 highest income counties in the US), benefits are concentrated and costs are diffuse. It's a tiny hassle for me to bring a jumper for my kid to sleep in, and only a small fraction of my state taxes go towards DSS, while I get to enjoy the marginal peace of mind that my kid who seems to be able to sleep comfortably with blankets in our home at night, faces no such threat from killer fabrics as she dozes off for a couple of hours in midday.

Ex post regret is the moral sentiment here. Worst-first and at-any-cost thinking dominates discussions of children (follow Free Range Kids for more examples) well beyond what should be reasonable using rational risk analysis. And because of the logic of public choice, it's unlikely to change anytime soon.

Unless of course, sensible constituents can wrest from the Helen Lovejoys of America the mundane moral apotheosis and shame enforcement agencies into sticking to the crucial purpose of their charter: to investigate and prosecute actual, systematic abuse of children. The War on Fluffy Pillows wastes vital public resources.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Terms of Service Subject to Change

It's no secret that I'm a long-time fan of eccentric Canadian industrial noise band Skinny Puppy. I hold Last Rights to be at least as good a studio release as The White Album. So when founding member cEvin Key all of a sudden showed up in my Facebook feed under his birth name of "Kevin Crompton" I was a little taken aback. I even thought for a moment that I'd unexpectedly made Internet acquaintance with a relative of friend of EE, GMU grad, and ethnic Canadian Eric Crampton.

Nope. It was a guy who's had a particular stage name since 1983 or so.

So, like many of us, cEvin signed up for a site that allows him to connect with fans and business partners and the like under a set of beliefs that presumably included the liberty to use his stage name where'er he shall roam. However, one of the riders in the service contract is that the terms and conditions are subject to change without notice.

The ultra-rational economist that still rattles around the fringes of my mind hollers, "the risk that he'd have to give up his stage name at some unspecified future date should have been priced in at the moment of the decision. He's got no legitimate complaint." But it seems to me that this is obtuse. Rational expectations in a game theoretical general equilibrium takes into account that the person on the other side of the exchange will behave, for lack of a better term, as a civilized person might. That is, in accordance with ordinary rules of conduct. It is not outrageous that a performer should expect to be able to identify with his adoring public using the only name they've known him by for the past three decades.

But perhaps you don't have much sympathy for a guy in a band whose music was used (without their consent) to torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Might you have a little bit more for political dissidents in oppressive regimes? How about whistleblowers facing sanctions from tyrants? Refugees?

There are any number of perfectly legitimate reasons to adopt a pseudonym. The relatively modest risk of social media vandalism is trivial next to the lethal threat posed by oppressive states. Non-anonymity service agreement clauses jeopardize the people who need whatever protection men and women of good conscience can provide. And an agreement that ignores this moral imperative is incrementally less euvoluntary than one that respects it.

I am cEvin Key. You are cEvin Key. We are cEvin Key.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

With Apologies to K. Grier

People, if crap like this can happen, why do we even have an electoral college? (NSFW?)

"Politics as Exchange" is the theme of the Virginia School of Political Economy. I'm not sure what exchange is on offer here, but it sure don't seem like a euvoluntary one.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Party in the USA like it's 1999 (or maybe 2011)

I'm a little late to the Doomsday Preppers party, but I hope you'll forgive me the sin of consuming my pop culture a few years behind the curve. If it ain't on Netflix streaming, I don't see it. So I'm still slogging through the first season on my second monitor as I have Stata open in front of me with my absurdly ballooned copy of the General Social Survey (GSS) fired up for some hot-and-sweaty margins in ordered probit.

Part of what's been occupying my mind lately is the claim that immigrants will bring with them intolerable culture and customs and will work to wreck the frail version of Western Civilizations we diligent Americans have carefully preserved in our living Constitution and our shared beliefs. In other words, I'm curious if the freedoms of association (and non-association) United States citizens enjoy with each other extend themselves naturally across international borders. This curiosity leads me to think about the culture space that exists among native-born US citizens and compare it to what immigrants are likely to bring with them. Edge cases like the ones presented in the show suggest that the range of subcultures within the US is massive, and to me at least, at least as alien as anything you'd be likely to find abroad.

What I've gotten from the GSS, at least on questions that relate to cultural issues, is a dash of cosmopolitanism and small-scale focus among immigrants, with much less concern about national politics. Immigrants want freer immigration policy and better bus service. They're not especially concerned with race relations. They think the US should have a smaller military footprint internationally and are worried about urban problems, but are comparatively indifferent to corporate tax rates and executive compensation. The responses I've checked are consistent with the hypothesis that immigrants lean towards "epistemic humility", which is a five-dollar (adjusted for inflation) way of saying that they don't claim to know much about or have strong opinions over issues they've not personally encountered*. I know that the folks on the show are pretty far from a representative sample, but the sorts of weird, speculative "reasoning" offered by the show's participants as justification for their end-of-the-world preparations range from the not-entirely-unreasonable (Yellowstone eruption) to the ludicrous (magnetic pole shift) to the downright laughable (China recalling US sovereign debt). But even though the participants have gone to logical extremes, many of them share a feature with native-born GSS respondents: they care about issues distant in both space and time. One episode in particular featured a home where the husband was preparing for a pandemic (this lies on the reasonable end of the plausible-scenario scale), and his highly skeptical wife was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge. She'd actually had firsthand experience fleeing horror, living in caves, eating bugs, the whole deal. I adored that segment, as it mirrored nicely some of the findings I've captured in the GSS.

Perhaps one unintended benefit of allowing more immigration is that the folks who would chose to move to the US would tend towards the sort that are less infatuated with fairy tales and delusions of grandeur. A little more community focus, a little less abstraction about national greatness might be the ticket to a more practical, less delusional constituency. Not all cultural spillover effects are potentially negative, people.

*for questions with related salience variables, immigrants report consistently lower rates. For others, there's a higher propensity than the native population to prefer the status quo.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Are donations euvoluntary?

The Center for Public Integrity has recently released an expose on Florida State University's Economics Department and their dalliance with Koch Foundation money. The low-down: the Charles Koch Foundation made an offer with strings attached: hire libertarian professors, fund libertarian students, or no donation for you.

Assume for the moment that you've no dog in the fight. Consider if a strings-attached university donation could be euvoluntary. If not, which EE condition(s) are violated? Is there a BATNA desperation problem lurking in there? I'm well aware of the sorry tendency of a tiny few university faculty to claim that they're desperately underpaid (and for adjunct faculty, there might be a grain of truth to that), but largely, tenured professors enjoy excellent salaries, comfortable job security, intellectual stimulation, and high social status. Nothing short of a bloated excess of self-regard, an over-inflated ego, or an ostentation of peacocks' worth of preening vanity would cast the tenured university professor in the same category as a desperate Haitian highlander. Babies won't starve for want of a foundation grant.

Perhaps there's something to the BATNA disparity story. If the Koch Foundation doesn't send its millions to University X, they can as easily send it to University Y. Their BATNA is to absorb some piffling transactions costs and move their grasping tentacle elsewhere, yes? For FSU, the BATNA is to expend precious department resources (including, importantly, valuable time that could otherwise go towards research) in the pursuit of raising funds. Is this difference in opportunity cost morally relevant?

Perhaps the idea of modeling donations as exchange is perverse on its face. Academics are sacred; commerce is profane. Do strings-attached academic donations cross the same moral intuitions as the Citizens United ruling? If so, does it matter what the strings are? If political advocacy has no place on campus, then it is my sad duty to inform you that there's quite a bit of housekeeping to be done.

Of course, as we consider the costs of accepting tainted money, consider also the benefits. None other than Mungo himself points out that liberal students strengthen their arguments and hone their important critical thinking skills by exposure to alternative analysis, by wrestling with alternative worldviews. Surely this is an important function of a university education.

I asked you to suspend your skepticism. You may now restore it. It's fair to wonder whether or not I'd be so sanguine if the roles were reversed—if instead of the Koch Foundation wishing to pressure a department chair for libertarian funding, it were George Soros or the Gates Foundation pressuring a department chair for left-wing faculty. Would I defend that? It's cheap talk to say that I would, but I think I've made a case here and there on this ol' blog of ours in favor of robust protections for the First Amendment and the general rights of folks to transact as they see fit. As long as the research that comes of such funding meets the standards of the academy, I'm as fine with [left-leaning economist's name redacted] getting a grant as I am with [right-leaning economist's name redacted] getting a grant. I'm enough of a Humean to think there's a far greater danger in empowering the political elite to decide which ideas are fit for research and class discussion. Counter speech with speech, not with force, says I.

Caveat: strings-attached transfer payments for poverty relief imply a different analysis, one limited by liquidity constraints and truly desperate BATNAs. I am not blithely claiming that all strings are hunky-dory, but edge cases are particularly unlikely for university department endowments. Straight cash donations without riders for the desperately poor are the best way to go, both theoretically and empirically.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Live Nude Camgirls!

The article I link to here is not for the faint of heart. It has its own trigger warning, but if you're likely to have an adverse reaction to a story of sexual abuse against children, consider giving it a pass. "Harrowing" is an accurate one-word description.


I beg you again to please consider the logic of prohibition. Every vice cop out there busting a majority-aged streetwalker or professional call girl is an officer of the law not out there tracking down mothers renting out their children to pedophiles to pay for drugs.

Mercifully, not all paid sex work is forced to accept the second-best governance of the pimp and the gangster. The (relatively) new profession of cam-girl enjoys if not all, at least most of the ordinary protections of the law. They (I assume—correct me if I'm wrong) pay taxes, feel as comfortable calling the cops if they're harassed as any NORP (Normal Ordinary Respectable Person), can petition the government for redress of injury, file suit in courts of law, and register for jury duty—they live in virtually every respect as mundane as June Cleaver. But they still trade sexual pleasure for money. Is being a camgirl so much more euvoluntary than being a call girl that we treat one like a typical PTA member and the other like a social and legal pariah?

I find myself unable to offer much in the way of moral commentary, other than to note that Jesus of Nazareth spent a big chunk of the New Testament narrative tending to prostitutes, thieves, tax collectors, and the chronically ill. I hear a lot about how America is a Christian nation—unfortunately, the actual operation of the criminal justice system seems to put the lie to that kayfabe. What I can offer is a useful question: is the difference between being a cam girl and being a call girl so great that one can lead a normal life in the eyes of the law and the other cannot?

Legalizing prostitution doesn't mean we have to celebrate it, elevate its cultural status, lionize it. What it does mean is that for justice to apply without discrimination or dominion, sex workers must have equal access to the machinery of law—access that they do not now enjoy. What it also means is that a large, well-trained law enforcement apparatus can be liberated to concentrate on the important tasks of investigating and prosecuting cases of actual abuse, such as the one linked above. That seems like a pretty good trade-off to me.

It's entirely consistent to believe that sex work degrades and corrodes civil society and to believe that affording workers commonplace legal protection is an improvement over the institutions they now labor under. It's also entirely consistent to believe that sex work is more or less harmless fun and to believe that the law of the Union is preferable to the law of the underworld. Legalizing prostitution doesn't say, "prostitution is okay" as much as it says, "abusing prostitutes is not okay."

Sex work is not euvoluntary. Legalizing it will help make it more so. Liberate police so that Cracked doesn't have to run another article like the one above.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Cinematic Appropriation and Cultural Durability

Stewart Dompe on the use of tropes in society. The readers' digest version: geopolitics is hard, so to make it easier to understand, applying stylized version of stories we already know makes economic sense. Note that this is consistent with public choice theories of voter information: there is little incentive for constituents to be well-informed about foreign policy (since no single voter has any practical influence over the conduct of the home country's political affairs abroad), and the lack of direct accountability means that voters are at liberty to believe anything that is pleasurable or that conforms to comfortable preconceptions.

Movies, literature, music, pop journalism—there's plenty out there to feed popular prejudices. An abundance of rhetoric, if you will. Some of it even comes from overseas. Though the great era of foreign remakes seems to have waned in this Age of Bay, some of the important film classics of the 20th century are English-language versions of Kurosawa flicks. And if you'll forgive the conceit, they're insufferable bastardizations of the originals. Beloved gunslinger westerns like The Magnificent Seven, a plains-country interpretation of what was Kurosawa trying to come to grips with his postwar experiences took a complicated tale of honor, duty, desperation, pity, vice, and virtue and dutifully sanitized it, presenting instead a swashbuckling gunslinger story with pretty clearly defined good guys and bad guys. I challenge you to identify a paragon of virtue in Seven Samurai apart from perhaps Shimura's character. Even the Italian interpretations of Yojimbo and Sanjuro watered down the originals. Sergio Leone took Mifune's Man Without A Name and made him an off-the-shelf badass in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns is just Dirty Harry in cowboy boots and a poncho. It's worth noting that two of Kurosawa's finest films, Ikiru and Red Beard lack even a basic protagonist-antagonist narrative structure (same goes for the relatively obscure but quite excellent Dersu Uzala) to convert into a 3-act popcorn flick that Western audiences would enjoy. Hence, no director has ever (to the best of my knowledge) seriously considered turning these masterpieces into Hollywood releases.

The film purist in me rails against the dessication of quality cinema. But the social scientist in me finds something refreshing. Kurosawa's (beautiful and true) aesthetic is too alien to English-speaking audiences to stick. Even other imports (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Let the Right One In, Old Boy, various Asian horror films) use the tropes and devices of American storytelling much more than those from the source cultures. Even good-faith attempts at importing the finest the rest of the world has to offer shows that the dangers of cultural pollution are probably not all that severe. Even movies get assimilated when they immigrate.

We like our tropes. We like them enough to bend the finest cinema ever put to celluloid to fit them. The downside is an unsophisticated public attitude toward foreign policy, but the upside is that immigration can probably safely be liberalized, and this includes people at risk from violence abroad. The meta-story about good and evil is a refreshing one. See? Culture can be euvoluntary after all.