Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It's Summer. But Who Cares, Weather Doesn't Matter, Right?

The central business district in Minneapolis has an extensive indoor skyway system.
Photo Credit: Tech{dot}MN
For much of the country summer is just around the corner, bringing psychological optimism and excitement about fun outdoor activities to millions. Excluding a small set of die-hard skiers and ice-fisherman, it's pretty much a given that warm, sunny weather is preferable to cold, dark conditions. But what is the exact nature of good weather's benefit? If good weather does have a beneficial effect on people's lives, does this imply regions and cities with terrible weather have populations that are somehow worse off?

Maybe. Isolating the total effect of weather on individual well-being is tricky to the point of being impossible. There are simply too many location-specific factors (cost of living, social and cultural opportunities, economic strength/wage levels, aesthetics, history, style etc.) that drown out any clear causal links. Psychological adaptability means that most people's happiness levels will quickly regress to roughly the same place following a big change in weather. Add to that the huge selection effects involved with people's decisions about where to live (i.e. finding a good "fit"), and it's pretty clear this is a minor and unimportant realm of social inquiry.

Nevertheless, a nagging intuition prevents me from fully accepting weather's irrelevance. Being outdoors has tremendous utility. We use the outdoors to exercise, socialize (most public space is outside), and move between indoor locations, to name a few uses. It seems self-evident that good weather increases the quantity of outdoor activity compared to bad weather. More specifically, good weather reduces the personal cost of doing stuff outside. Now, for die-hard year-round bicyclists, this doesn't matter too much. But on the margin, small changes in the costs of outdoor activities might reduce them below critical decisionmaking thresholds for some people, resulting in some higher amount of total outdoor activity.

If you consider health and outdoor activity to have some intrinsic worth (as opposed merely being instrumental in achieving personal happiness or life satisfaction), then areas with more good weather are indeed better off, however slightly. But in a different sense, good weather also increases personal freedom. Bad weather prevents us from doing things we want to do (would-be hikers are freed from the psychological torment of braving the cold, for example). Good weather increases our capability to achieve the functionings in life that we desire (exercise, stay up late without getting tired, etc.). Broadening the scope a bit, good weather probably has a disproportionately large affect on animal-welfare (the share of mistreated and unhealthy dogs almost certainly spikes in winter months).

Technology and infrastructure surely mitigate some of these effects (heated buildings, thermal underwear, etc.), but access to these offsets is itself a source of inequality and unfreedom. Vacation habits and patterns of homeless and elderly populations living in sunny areas bear this out. Additionally, the costs involved with bad-weather mitigation strategies are not trivial.

So later this summer, once your psychology has adapted and the good-weather euphoria has worn off, remember that in some very minor way, you're better off. And come next winter when bad-weather Stockholm syndrome sets in among your peers and you find yourself arguing with bad weather apologists ("I love winter, snow is so pretty" etc.), just smile and suggest a leisurely picnic in the local public park.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Cass Sunstein Wrote Another Book

I recently finished Simpler: The Future of Government by legal scholar and former OIRA administrator Cass Sunstein. I've read some of his other books--notably Risk and Reasonwhich emphasizes cost-benefit analysis in regulation--so I was excited to hear first-hand how his academic theories fared in Washington's bureaucratic and political swamp.

The book is framed around Sunstein's experience heading up OIRA, the executive-branch office responsible for overseeing new regulations set by the various federal agencies. OIRA studies proposed rules, coordinates expertise, manages inter-governmental turf issues, and ultimately serves as a veto point for regulation. Sunstein makes two core arguments. First, that public policy should be much simpler, accomplished largely by cutting red tape and through behavioral innovations that help businesses and citizens interact better with government (think label design, or -EZ government forms). Second, that public policy should have stronger empirical foundations, driven by cost-benefit analysis and retrospective analysis (looking back at existing regulations to determine their efficacy). The book generally alternates between short personal vignettes, research findings and theory from behavioral psychology, and descriptions of specific policy accomplishments Sunstein pushed through while at OIRA.

Sunstein's reflections on moving from academia to government administrator (with a painful confirmation fight in between) were by far the best parts of the book. His diagnosis of institutional incentives--academia favors novelty, politics favors loyalty--were fascinating. I did get the sense, however, that we're not hearing the whole story. Sunstein has devoted a career to studying OIRA and it's agenda, yet he resigned as soon as he could without raising eyebrows. This book offers a glimpse into some potential dissatisfaction about Washington--a snide comment here and there--but in general the tone is incredibly cheery and positive, almost eerily so. I suspect Sunstein's sense of duty has prevented a full and honest account; perhaps after Obama leaves office we'll see his full analysis of Washington's dysfunction. That's a book I would enjoy.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Simpler ranks near the bottom of Sunstein's many books, if only because its marketing style fits so poorly with the content. Given the success of Nudge, the impulse to publish another big-picture Malcolm Gladwell-esque book is understandable. But Sunstein has already published several of these, and the unifying theory--"simpler" government policy--is weak. He critiques rules prohibiting private-sector discretion, but admits the legal uncertainty and added costs of vague regulation is not always the best. He promotes performance standards over design standards, yet spends the bulk of the book cataloging the many ways in which process matters in behavioral decisionmaking. He takes pains to separate questions about the complexity of government from questions about the size of government, yet describes in detail the extreme politicization of every facet of his experience at OIRA, an evident failure of the idea in practice. In general the book bends over backwards to fit the big-picture theory, and rehashes lots of content from previous works in order to bulk up to the expected page count. This is a shame given how interesting and important Sunstein's accomplishments were at OIRA. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

What Is Hacking?

It seems pretty cut-and-dry, but on the margin the laws regarding how we define hacking and computer-mediated consent become tricky--and fascinating. James Grimmelmann has a must-read article evaluating the legal theory of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA; the government's big anti-hacking law), and some possibilities for improvement. The comments section also contains further excellent analysis.

The politicization of this issue has played out in a strange way, with many conservatives pushing for a more expansive definition of hacking and liberals criticizing what they see as an unacceptable government capacity for prosecutorial capriciousness. I tend to think the particular history and culture associated with hacking and computers explains these battle lines (i.e. young idealistic liberal nerds vs. The Man), but I'm not convinced stronger hacking rules would actually be worse for the little guy.

The popular conception of hacking still emphasizes the exploitation of big institutions by small groups. But as technology continues to democratize and spread, the exposure of average households to hacking risks will surely increase. Information asymmetries mean large organizations have huge opportunities for exploiting small gaps in uninformed individuals' increasingly computer-mediated lives.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Should Organized Labor Return to its May Day Roots?

Heart of the Beast Theater celebrates May Day in Minneapolis Photo Credit: Minnesota Public Radio
In honor of May Day, here's a great quote by Rad Geek (via Roderick Longcritically evaluating the current incarnation of the holiday:
"May Day is a celebration of the original conception of the labor movement, as expressed by anarchist organizers such as Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, Benjamin Tucker, and others: a movement for workers to come into their own, by banding together, supporting one another, and taking direct action in the form of boycotts, work stoppages, general strikes, and the creation of workers' spaces such as local co-operatives and union hiring halls. The spirit was best expressed by John Brill's famous exhortation to "Dump the bosses off you back"--by which he did not mean to go to a government mediator and get them to make the boss sit down with you and work out a slightly more beneficial arrangement. "Dump the bosses off you back!" meant: organize and create local institutions that let you bypass the bosses. Negotiate with them if it'll do some good; ignore them if it won't. The signal achievements of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th century were achievements in this spirit: the campaigns that won the 8 hour day and the weekend off in many workplaces, for example, emerged from a unilateral work stoppage by rank-and-file workers, declared by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, and organized especially by the explicitly anarchist International Working People's Association, after legislative efforts by the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor failed. The stagnant, or even backsliding, state of organized labor over the past half century is the direct result of government colonization and the ascendancy of government-subsidized unions.
This is a pretty harsh public choice story about the recent history of the labor movement: gains in legitimacy and state support have backfired by opening up new opportunities for special interests (i.e. capitalists) to seize control over the levers of power, constraining labor's freedom to demonstrate and fight. Although this seems undeniably true, it's probably not the whole story concerning labor's decline (technology & globalization mattered, for example), and it almost certainly undervalues the social benefits of widespread access to safe, stable channels for airing labor disputes. Increasing organized labor's capacity for radical action would almost certainly see a concurrent response from businesses in the form of more capricious firing and workforce intimidation.