Saturday, June 28, 2014

Institutional Decay

Matt Yglesias reminds us that legislating through the courts is not the best way to govern in a democracy:
The conventional term for the paralysis of the legislative branch is gridlock. But while it's true that it's exceptionally difficult for a bill to become a law — the president can veto it, 41 Senators can filibuster it, a bare majority of the majority caucus in the House can prevent it from coming to the floor, and that's leaving aside all manner of committees and political delays — it's not the case that policy stops changing. The judicial branch, through its power of statutory interpretation, is constantly changing the lived-experience of American public policy even if the legislative text stays constant. 
And yet the judicial branch is not properly equipped to make broad evaluations of the policy merits of different approaches.
The idea of institutional drift and decay is not a new one, but it's super-important and deserves increased visibility as a cost associated with congressional dysfunction. Throughout the US' history, we've had periods of drift but also periods of renewal. Lately we've had mostly drift and not a lot of renewal.

Francis Fukuyama's spectacular essay The Decay of American Political institutions (somehow can't find an ungated version), is probably the best analysis on the topic, but Steven Teles' Kludgeocracy idea is also related and very important.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Top Five Most Important Public Policy Issues

1. Establishing modular, independent, resilient and sustainable permanent non-Earth colonies.
2. Asteroid defense
3. Eliminating age-related pathology
4. Poverty (insufficient human capability due to lack of resources)
5. Ecological destruction

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Aereo is Toast

Tim Lee has a great rundown on today's Supreme Court ruling on the internet-television company Aereo:
In the process of ruling against Aereo, the Supreme Court has created a mess that will take lower courts years to clean up. Online services that are similar to Aereo in some respects and different in others are more likely to face lawsuits, and the lower courts will have to sort out which services are similar enough to Aereo to face copyright liability.
His point about future political chaos and uncertainty in the cloud storage industry isn't even a comprehensive picture of the damage this ruling will cause. The sections of spectrum currently claimed by broadcast television are extremely potent (signals are long-range and can pass through concrete etc.), and are almost certainly not allocated to their highest and best use (that would be wireless internet). Siding with Aereo would have set the US on the slow path towards reallocating this valuable spectrum, and eliminating the ridiculous subsidy to broadcast television.

On another note, I can't help think that even though Aereo's specific legal strategy didn't work (a warehouse full of tiny antennas), the basic idea of streaming television over the internet is inevitable. Aereo was probably over-ambitious by placing the antennas in a remote warehouse. This encouraged a psychological framing of their service as one totally disconnected from the typical TV-viewing experience. But image if instead you placed a unique antenna in your house, on your TV, which then connected to the internet and let you watch it anywhere. Having the antenna 'based' in your home, instead of in an impersonal warehouse would certainly make the broadcasters' case harder to stomach. After all, you can already do this with an old laptop...

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Arc of History Bends Towards Bicycle Safety

NYC mayor Bill De Blasio today signed a collection of traffic-safety bills into law, most notably increasing the penalties for cars hitting bicycles with the right of way:
Intro 238-A makes failing to yield to pedestrians or cyclists with the right of way a criminal misdemeanor, not just a traffic violation, punishable with fines and jail time. If the driver injures a pedestrian or cyclist with the right of way, penalties increase to a $250 fine and 30 days in jail.
This is great news, but there still exist a number of wicked problems related to bike safety. For one, many bicycle lanes are painted in the 'door zones' of parked cars, forcing safety-conscious cyclists to disregard them and ride farther out in front of motorists, antagonizing them. In general, many bicycle lanes face upkeep issues, with metal plates, gutters, or other debris partially or completely offsetting their safety benefit. More conceptually, nobody has yet discovered a solution to the 'right hook' situation where turning motorists cut-off cyclists proceeding straight forward.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Do Ice Cream Trucks Have an Outrageous Regulatory Subsidy?

Photo Credit:
Most food trucks and food carts quietly set up shop in some high-traffic public space to make money. Ice cream trucks seem to be unique in that they're constantly moving and travel deep into residential areas. Presumably the only way these strategies are lucrative is because ice cream trucks announce their presence with a loud ring or jingle.

But why don't we see more competition in these residential areas by other food trucks? I see two possibilities. One is that the rich history of ice cream trucks and their jingles makes them uniquely identifiable to residents. If a taco truck wanted to roll through neighborhoods selling food, how would they identify themselves to customers in their houses watching tv? The norms and precedence for mobile food trucks selling anything other than ice cream just isn't there.

This possibly explains everything, but I doubt it's the whole story. It's not hard to imagine some enterprising food truck blasting a variation of an ice cream truck jingle to train new customers, or even get an initial market foothold by copying an ice cream truck jingle just to get people out of their houses (bait-and-switch).

My suspicion is that there exist some regulations restricting the ability for non-ice cream food trucks to roll around residential neighborhoods selling food and blasting music. Most food trucks are highly regulated by cities in many ways. A few years ago Washington DC had a big fight over new rules governing where food trucks could park. Other cities around the country have faced similar battles pitting incumbent restaurants and other interest groups against the relatively weak food truck establishment.

In general most of these rules restricting food trucks are too stringent. Policymakers caving to the baldly bootlegger and baptist strategy from brick-and-mortar restaurants is silly, and NIMBY complaints from neighborhood groups or other local institutions is not sufficient cause to block these innovative small businesses.

But ice cream trucks actively disrupt neighborhoods with their loud music (many neighborhoods in New York City experience Mr. Softee trucks rolling past 5-10 times per day every day from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm). It's virtually guaranteed that the introduction of a new systemic nuisance like this would result in numerous law-enforcement complaints and local collective action to block the change to the status quo.

Implicitly (due to the lack of complaints or enforcement of nuisance laws) or explicitly (due to special regulatory exemptions), ice creams trucks have a protected market position. Now, the complaints of one sensitive local resident aren't enough to justify corrective policy action, but in the context of other paternalistic public health efforts (smoking bans, calorie-count requirements, restrictions on advertising to kids, etc.), taking a hard look at the social effects of ice cream trucks' special status seems reasonable.

The idea of a toxic food environment in most urban areas is pretty well-established, and the penetration of ice cream trucks (and the obesogenic food they peddle) into low-income residential neighborhoods with populations at high-risk for metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity is clearly damaging. The proliferation of online-ordering has leveled the playing field somewhat, but the psychological nudge of an ice cream truck loudly rolling up outside the house makes consuming this food that much harder to resist among willpower-depleted populations already struggling with health issues.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Quote of the Week

"There are two things that make Diplomacy so unique and challenging. The first is that, unlike in most board games, players don’t take turns moving. Everyone writes down their moves and puts them in a box. The moves are then read aloud, every piece on the board moving simultaneously. The second is that prior to each move the players are given time to negotiate with each other, as a group or privately. The result is something like a cross between Risk, poker, and Survivor — with no dice or cards or cameras. There’s no element of luck. The only variable factor in the game is each player’s ability to convince others to do what they want. The core game mechanic, then, is negotiation. This is both what draws and repels people to Diplomacy in equal force; because when it comes to those negotiations, anything goes. And anything usually does."
That's from an excellent Grantland profile of the board game Diplomacy.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Bitcoin Assassination Market Is Terrible. But What About This?

Ever since I read about the grotesque idea of a bitcoin assassination market, I haven't stopped thinking about its underlying mechanism, which itself isn't evil. The idea of anonymously crowdfunding an account that pays out under a specific circumstance, and only with blockchain unanimity is provocative, and might have some interesting applications.

Take political campaign contributions. The existence of widespread quid pro quo agreements between interest groups and lawmakers hasn't really been documented, but merely the appearance of corruption and dependency erodes trust in government and is corrosive to our democracy.

Most of the best solutions to the money-in-politics problem revolve around regulatory fixes (spending limits, increased transparency, decreased transparency etc.), but bitcoin 2.0 technology offers a potential band-aid that could marginally improve the incentives for certain politicians or policy issues.

It would not be difficult to imagine a bitcoin donations market whereby the first politician to come out publicly for some specific position would get paid. Or perhaps everyone on a committee voting a certain way on a bill would collect. State and local executives would be even more ideally placed to have their incentive structure modified by such a 'prize-for-action' scheme (their action-outcome link is tighter, and have less access to campaign funds than national figures). In many ways this conditional contribution approach is just a variation of the Kickstarter thing, but the specific mechanism of the blockchain makes it much more exciting.

Friday, June 6, 2014

To Combat Soda Increase the Availability of Free Water

Another day, another article explaining why soda is killing us and making us fat. Everybody knows that slapping a tax on the bubbly stuff would be the most effective an minimally-distortive policy to reduce consumption (versus, say Bloomberg's cup size nudges), but in light of tremendous political opposition in many jurisdictions, let me suggest another approach.

Making soda more expensive will discourage soda consumption and push people to consume other substitutes. Now some of those might just be other sweetened treats, solid or otherwise, but I'd guess that a large chunk of soda consumers drink the stuff because they're thirsty. Making healthier sources of hydration comparatively cheaper by say, increasing the availability of drinking fountains in cities, would seem to be a good idea targeted at that second group of soda drinkers.

Funding certainly exists for goofy, small urban projects with unscientific and uncertain benefits. A crash program to build a ton of drinking fountains all around cities would be a really interesting experiment.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Is Frontier CGI the Most Labor-Intensive Form of Artwork in History?

It certainly seems likely:

Via u/Muffintoxico this amazing showcase of some of the best-in-the-business CGI requires armies of animators and digital artists. Arthur C. Clark once remarked that the 7,000-strong team of engineers that labored to produce a new automobile model was an appalling waste of technical manpower. I won't go into whether free market capitalism allocates resources ethically, but this type of labor-intensive collaborative art existing on the frontier of technological possibility presents a fascinating case of markets supplying hugely valuable (in an economic sense) artistic products.

Art has always existed in a less-than-pure context of funding competition, and clearly the vast demand and money-making ability of movies and video games has meant CGI and natively-digital art has outpaced basically every other artistic medium in this economic measure. This sort of stuff is slowly starting to gain recognition by existing artistic institutions like museums, but it presents a major disruptive challenge to the existing art culture. These videos and video games are overwhelmingly action, fantasy, and sci-fi oriented, and currently would be relegated to the 'low art' category.

Which is fine. Low art created with novel technology doesn't stay that way forever, and its only a matter of time until artsy artists really start using the full CGI capabilities available to them. The uniquely-high labor demands of good CGI might present a roadblock to this adoption, though.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Creative Corporate Social Responsibility

As I've previously noted, non-profits have a set of structural issues that stack the deck against them delivering services efficiently and effectively. Not mentioned was the fact that many big nonprofits provide services by deploying small armies of volunteers from various big companies engaging in corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The New York Times recently had an interesting article about Toyota's CSR relationship with the Food Bank Of New York City, one of the largest free-food distribution organizations in the US. Instead of writing checks or sending unskilled employee volunteers, Toyota leveraged its efficient-business-process expertise to help make Food Bank better.

I tend to think that donating cash directly to charity organizations (or better yet, people themselves) is a much more effective way of making people's lives better compared to volunteering or direct service. The cost incurred by training, overseeing, and in some cases feeding new volunteers every day is too high, and biases organizations towards devoting resources into activities that can accept and use human volunteers. Charity organizations would be better served by receiving discretionary funds and then deciding--freely--what to use them for. Maybe it means the soup kitchen hires some servers (tasks previously done by volunteers), or maybe it means buying a better machine. Or maybe it means offering a high salary to steal away some lowly-but-valuable consultant to come run things. Who knows!

But clearly scrapping a volunteer program in exchange for a marginal increase in funding (most big companies that provide volunteers also provide institutional funding) would deprive companies of the branding component of CSR. And here's where Toyota's program is such a brilliant CSR coup. They managed to ditch the volunteering gig, which is relatively ineffective, while retaining--even enhancing--the branding and reputational benefits of their relationship with the Food Bank.

Now possibly this is just due to the novelty--if every business copies Toyota I'm guessing the New York Times articles will dry up. But in a broader way Toyota's branding success here shows that trying out innovative alternatives to boring-and-ineffective volunteer programs can pay off big time.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Quote of the Week

"Looking inside yourself for salvation, contemplating your navel, is not, as the Drop Out people would have you believe, the answer. Happiness lies outside yourself, is achieved through interacting with others. Self-forgetfulness should be one's goal, not self-absorption. The male, capable of only the latter, makes a virtue of irremediable fault and sets up self-absorption, not only as a good but as a Philosophical Good, and thus gets credit for being deep."
That's from the SCUM manifesto. Most self-absorbed contemplation has little social benefit, but some small share result in big intellectual breakthroughs. Additionally, receiving fame and recognition by anonymous internet people for deep navel-gazing previously relegated to journals and internal thoughts is evidence of the increased the social benefits of contemplation.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Are Zoos Morally Okay?

Over the years zoos have successfully repositioned themselves to be educational and research institutions affiliated with the environmental conservation movement. This is a far cry from their original incarnation as a more carnivalesque freakshow designed to trigger awe, wonder, and even fear.

With the animal rights movement and an increased concern for animal welfare, zoos are put in an awkward position. Imprisoning animals and depriving them of their capability to flourish in settings with limited human interaction is clearly an increasingly challenging thing to justify. Offsetting this morally questionable dimension of zoos are the potential upsides. Now of course, to hardcore animal rights advocates, no amount of social benefit makes zoos morally justifiable. But let's take a look.

Most often you'll hear arguments about protecting endangered species. I'm not too familiar with the effectiveness of zoos in this regard, but it seems unlikely this point is all that effective in the light of massive structural forces like economic growth, habitat destruction, etc. And the types of animals that are deemed worthy of zoo protection aren't necessarily those that are most crucial from an ecological integrity perspective. My suspicion is that much of the conservationist rhetoric surrounding zoos is a marketing strategy designed to maintain the institutional and historic inertia of zoos.

The educational mission of zoos is the strongest argument for a social benefit potentially large enough to offset their moral problems. Showing young children in a directly-experiential way that there exists a larger world out there is a great way to build up cosmopolitan and environmentalist ethics.  Whether the cheapness of air travel, the growth of information on the internet, and the explosion in popularity of nature-themed entertainment like Planet Earth makes this benefit of zoos more replaceable and thus zoos less morally justifiable is an open question.