Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Is the Chicago Police Department an Accessory After the Fact?

A Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, has been charged with first degree murder for shooting and killing a black teenager. The killing occurred more than a year ago. If the accounts appearing in the news are correct, the reason the indictment took so long is that other officers covered up the facts of the case.

If that is true—we will know more after the trial is complete—then other officers, probably quite a lot of other officers, were accessories after the fact to murder. Under Illinois law, an accessory after the fact to a felony is liable to the same punishment as the felon.

It will be interesting to see if any of them are ever charged

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Security Theater

In all the talk about whether to admit Syrian refugees, nobody I have seen has made what seems to me the most obvious argument. The U.S. hosts about sixty million tourists a year from all over the world. Does anyone seriously believe that any terrorist organization competent enough to buy or produce passports would find it difficult to get a dozen of their people in? That's about what a terrorist attack like the recent one in Paris requires.

As best I can tell, there simply is no practical way of preventing terrorists willing to die from killing Americans while doing so. Which makes the present antics of a majority of the House security theater.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Uber adds a feature ...

that converts it into the sort of jitney transit that I described in Chapter 16 of The Machinery of Freedom.

In 1973.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Barack Obama, Supervillain

My younger son is an aspiring novelist; most of what he has been writing is set in a fictional world of superheroes and supervillains. Some of the villains are likable characters, which raises the question of in what sense they are evil. When I put the question to him in the context of the central character of his first novel, The Titanium Tyrant, who is both superintelligent and honorable, his response was that he was a villain because he did not mind killing innocent people in the process of his crimes.

It occurred to me that, by that definition, there are a lot of villains. Churchill and FDR were prepared to murder very large numbers of German civilians by mass bombing campaigns designed to kill as many, not as few, as possible. Obama has taken responsibility for drone strikes which, in the process of trying to kill terrorists, have clearly killed quite a lot of innocent civilians. In theory, we all believe that all lives matter, but in practice we divide people into our ingroup and everyone else and mostly ignore costs imposed on the latter. In the modern world, that largely means the division between our fellow citizens and foreigners.

It is not limited to national governments and warfare, although that’s the clearest example. U.S. immigration restrictions impose enormous costs on people who would like to come and are not allowed to. Most of those people are much poorer than most Americans. Yet Americans who regard themselves as favoring the poor, most obviously at the moment Bernie Sanders, feel no guilt at keeping foreigners desperately poor in order to keep American poor from getting, by world standards, a little less rich.

In the year 1000, Iceland faced a conflict between pagans and Christians. Before it was resolved by peaceful arbitration, there was a brief period when the two sides declared themselves out of law with each other. Put in modern terms, they were declaring Iceland two countries located on the same territory, each viewing the other as foreigners.

The Titanium Tyrant is out of law with the rest of us, loyal to his own people. By some standards that makes him a villain—but not obviously more of a villain than a lot of the people who many of us approve of.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why Do I Waste Time Arguing With Unreasonable People Online?

My son just put the question to me (I was commenting on Facebook at the time), and I thought some here might be interested in my answers:

1. As an excuse not to work on my current book. The chapter drafts I have just been looking at are in worse shape than I thought, which is depressing.

2. In the hope that by putting ideas out, some of them will spread, with some (small) effect on the world. Posts here probably get more readers, but comments on Facebook reach a different audience, one less likely to be familiar with the ideas.

3. In the hope of finding someone reasonable to argue with, which might result in changing his views, or mine, or both, in a desirable direction, as well as being fun. It happens very rarely, perhaps once every few months, but I'm an optimist.

4. Because arguing with unreasonable people online, and watching unreasonable people argue with each other, gives me useful, if depressing, information about what such people are like and (I hope an exaggerated) picture of how common they are. Like most people, I live mostly in a bubble, interacting with a very nonrandom set of people, and this gets me a view outside it. The same is true of reading trade chat in WoW, also depressing.

5. For the same ignoble reason that people spend time beating up on NPC's in WoW and similar games.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Some Economic Puzzles

Visiting China last year, I was struck by an interesting puzzle. In the U.S., if you are in a big building selling clothes or groceries, a department store or a supermarket, the people selling them to you are employees of the firm that owns the building. In China, you are much more likely to be in a building whose owners rent it out in small pieces to a lot of individual sellers. Instead of a supermarket, you have a large building with half a dozen butcher stalls, eight fish stalls, ...  . Instead of a department store, you have the same pattern with different stalls selling different sorts of clothing, jewelery, electronics. 

The pattern is not perfect. There are supermarkets and department stores in China and I once saw a Chinese style food market in Baltimore. But one form of retailing is the norm in China and the exception in the U.S., the other form the norm in the U.S., the exception in China.

The puzzle is why.

On my recent visit to Brazil, I came across another such puzzle. In Brazil, at least in Sao Paulo, restaurants frequently sell food not by the dish but by the kilo. You fill up your platter with whatever combination of salad, beans, meat, desert you want, they weigh it and charge you. I do not believe I have ever seen that pattern in a restaurant in the U.S. The closest I can think of is the cafeteria in my university, which sells salad by weight, most other things by individual price.

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to that way of selling food. The puzzle is why it is common in one country, rare or non-existent in another.

That reminds me of another puzzle that struck me a very long time ago. Some of the costs that a patron imposes in a restaurant depend on what he eats, some on how long he sits. Why are there no restaurants that price the two separately—charge a lower than usual price for the food, but add an additional charge for the time you sit?

For any reader who teaches economics, I suggest that working through the logic of these three puzzles, seeing what the costs and benefits are of one form of organization over another, would be a good problem to set your students. For any graduate student looking for a thesis topic who is more interested in doing economics than proving how much mathematics he knows, one of these puzzles might be worth considering. 

The first step, of course, would be a survey of the literature to see if someone else has already offered an adequate answer. If you find one, let me know.

Good Advice From the Fourteenth Century

Ibn Battuta was a 14th century North African world traveler—I like to describe Marco Polo as his 13th century Italian imitator. He started by going on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, got bit by the travel bug. In the course of his travels he went down both the East and West African coasts, providing our only source for those areas in that century. Hearing that Mohammed ibn Tugluq, the fabulously wealthy sultan of Delhi, was generous to foreign scholars, Ibn Battuta set off for India and ended up spending several years as the chief Maliki Qadi of Delhi. His account of his visit to China is dubious, but he probably got at least as far as somewhere in south-east Asia. Eventually he came home and wrote an account of his travels, the Rehla, which survives.

Early on, he swore never, if he could avoid it, to return by the same route he went out on. In my travels, mostly wandering around foreign cities (at the moment Sao Paulo), I have found it good advice. Walk out by one route, back by another, and you see twice as much.