Sunday, October 30, 2016

Defending Gary Johnson Against Stupid "Gotcha!" Questions

There is something missing from all the coverage of Gary Johnson’s “Aleppo moment.” Unless you actually watched the interview you wouldn’t know that he answered the question asked of him. As soon as he realizes they are talking about the Syrian civil war, he answers the question and explains his policy position. He expresses a non-interventionist worldview (if perhaps a bit inarticulately). It was clear from his answer that he’d given some thought to the issue and had a ready answer. So I think it’s totally unfair to peg Johnson as clueless, as if he’d never even heard of the Syrian civil war. I’d call this episode mildly embarrassing and his overall answer is a bit weak (at least poorly expressed), but I’m not buying the notion that this disqualifies him from the presidency. Clearly he had a well-formed opinion on the topic in question, even if he didn’t pass the interviewer’s geography quiz. I get almost daily news updates on the Syrian civil war, and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the significance of Aleppo, and I’ve heard/read something similar from a few other regular NPR listeners. So I certainly don’t buy the pretense that “all of us smart, informed policy wonks know the significance of Aleppo.” Especially considering this

And yet Johnson is hardly alone when it comes to Syria gaffes. Former Obama administration ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, followed Johnson on Morning Joe and mocked the former New Mexico governor's "blank stare." Hill predicted that "he will now be known as 'Aleppo Johnson'" and then called Aleppo "the capital of ISIS." In fact, Raqqa, not Aleppo, is widely considered the capital of the self-declared caliphate known as the Islamic State. The New York Times incorrectly referred to Aleppo as "the capital" of ISIS three times in its quick take on Johnson's screw-up before adding a correction to the bottom of the page. Even that correction required a correction, as it initially referred to Aleppo as Syria's capital, when it is in fact, Damascus.

In other words, in the rush to smear Johnson, his snide critics are fumbling on the factual details of Aleppo. So you’ll have to pardon me if I think this “everyone knows what Aleppo is” attitude is all a pretense.

I think people are applying a double-standard here. I can’t read people’s minds, and I can’t peer into the alternate universe where Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump get surprised with the same or a similar “gotcha” question. (My best guess is that Clinton would get it right, Trump wouldn’t, and on a random different day Johnson wouldn’t have brain-farted and supplied sleazy journalists with their “gotcha” moment.) But I’m pretty sure nobody would disqualify a candidate they liked over something this petty.

I’m imagining an alternative universe where Hilary Clinton is asked “What would you as president do about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?” and she stumbles to recall who that is or asks a clarifying question. Her critics pounce on her "ignorance" of foreign policy details, but her defenders understandably point out that it’s a stupid “gotcha” question. The interviewer did not intend for his average viewer to understand the context of the question, but was deliberately attempting to trip up the candidate and eventually succeeded. You might think that the intention of the interviewer is irrelevant. A mistake’s a mistake, and ignorance is ignorance, right? But this is wrong. If I know the interviewer was fishing for “gotcha”s, I’m going to think it’s less significant that he finds one. A gaffe is less embarrassing if we know that the politician was placed in a gaffe-generating environment; it’s more embarrassing if it happens spontaneously. What you’d like to know is a politician’s gaffe-propensity “in the wild,” their true “gaffe base-rate,” not their gaffe-propensity in an artificial gaffe-magnifying environment. 

To reiterate, none of this is to say he gave a great answer or that the incident was completely irrelevant. It's just that people are blowing it way out of proportion and not even acknowledging that he answered the goddamn question asked of him.

This is in contrast to the “name a foreign leader” incident, which many people have been dishonestly misrepresenting. The conversation that scrawled across my social media feed was: “Johnson was asked to name a foreign leader, any foreign leader, and he couldn’t name one.” Any  thoughtful person’s nonsense detector should have gone off. “Would an interviewer really ask such a pointless quiz question? Of course not! I should read more into this!” And such a thoughtful news reader might eventually discover what actually happened. In fact, he was asked to name a foreign leader he admired. That’s a question that requires some thought. It’s a legitimate stumper. Nonetheless, Johnson *had an answer*! His answer was Vincente Fox, although he did fail to recall Fox’s name on the spot. That might be mildly embarrassing if Johnson ever meets Fox face-to-face, but it’s hardly an indictment of his mental ability or his knowledge of world events.  The mischaracterization of this event is more serious than the Aleppo thing. It caused me to down-rate the credibility of some news sources and some people who I know personally. It’s a very shallow reading of the news, and I saw several people commenting on it as if the “Johnson was asked to name any foreign leader and failed” narrative was the correct one. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bad Arguments For the Minimum Wage

Now, there are some really bad arguments for the minimum wage. There are people who don’t even acknowledge that it’s theoretically possible for the minimum wage to cause unemployment. It either doesn’t occur to them, or they pretend the very idea is absurd on its face when confronted with it, or they dismiss it as being numerically insignificant without evidence. My post won’t discuss these people, because they aren’t really serious.

There are some slightly better but still bad arguments for the minimum wage that actually come from people who are well-read and economically literate. These people argue that while economic theory does indeed predict that a minimum wage leads to unemployment for low-skilled workers, it doesn’t tell us how big the effect is. The effect may be big or small. It’s an empirical question. The empirical literature has many studies that show a small or even positive effect of the minimum wage on employment. Summarizing slightly, the argument here is that the costs of the minimum wage fail to materialize, so there’s nothing to worry about.

But hold on a second! Did you notice that something’s missing? Here we have advocates for a policy telling us that the costs fail to materialize. Okay, so what about the benefits? Aren’t there two sides to a ledger?  Doesn’t a “cost-benefit analysis” entail measuring the benefits, too?

It turns out there is an enormous literature on the effects of the minimum wage, and we have empirical studies on things other than the effect on unemployment. The book Minimum Wages by David Neumark and William L. Wascher is a thorough literature review on the economics of minimum wages. Attached is a summary table that appears near the end of their book.

Hopefully they wouldn’t mind me using it. (I’d be downright baffled if someone wrote a book intended to inform public policy but then suddenly got "copyright happy" when someone tried to share excerpts from it!) Notice that we fail to see the presumed benefits of the minimum wage. Under "Income distribution", it says, "For U.S. economy, clear conclusion that minimum wage effects range from no beneficial distributional effects to adverse effects, with no evidence of beneficial distributional effects." Based on the rhetoric marshaled in support of the minimum wage, you'd expect to see some sort of distributional impact. You'd hope to see a reduction in poverty or something like that. Based on the empirical literature, minimum wage proponents can claim no such benefit.

Also, notice that it isn’t at all a consensus that minimum wages don’t cause unemployment. They probably do. There are some studies that indicate otherwise, but they aren’t the majority of studies, and according to Neumark and Wascher they aren’t the majority of the best studies with the best data and methodologies. Measured elasticities are in the -0.1 to -0.3 range. A -0.1 elasticity means that a 10% increase in the minimum wage would result in a 1% drop in employment (for low skilled workers).

I have to point out a minor detail in this table. Notice under "Prices and profits" they say " appreciable impact on inflation." Just as there are bad arguments in favor of the minimum wage, there are bad arguments against it. One such goes something like: "Minimum wage will just cause inflation, which will eat away the entire benefit." This is a common lay argument, but almost no economist takes it seriously. It's important to note that Neumark and Wascher slay this fallacy. Lest you think they are just ideologues with axes to grind, witness here that they are debunking a bad argument in favor of their overall conclusion.

I’ve seen some of the back-and-forth on this issue. Proponents of the minimum wage will insist that the studies that show no unemployment effect are the best studies with the most cutting-edge statistical methods, and opponents will redo their studies with these sexy new methods and find that indeed there is an unemployment effect. This kind of back-and-forth is important, but rather than glom onto a few studies it might be more sensible to have a healthy agnosticism. Maybe, in some places at some particular times when some particular minimum wage increase happened, there was no effect on youth employment. That’s not shattering to my worldview. I’m happy to entertain the view that the effect of minimum wage on unemployment is too small to see in a lot of empirical studies. But that would hardly be the end of the debate. If we’re crafting policy in a state of radical uncertainty, that means the potential for enormous harm exists. You don’t just get to take your point estimate and assume it’s the sum total of all truth. There is uncertainty around that estimate, and if you underestimate the unemployment effects you will do enormous harm to the people least capable of absorbing it. And even if you somehow establish that there’s no unemployment effect and the error bars around your point estimate are infinitely narrow, you would still need to empirically demonstrate a benefit. The current state of the empirical literature doesn’t support any such benefit. No one can definitively say, “…and therefore the benefits of the minimum wage justify the costs.” This part of the argument is completely missing.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Idea for a Comedy Skit - the One Man Town

I once had this silly idea for a comedy skit in which there was a town inhabited by a single man who did every job in town. In the early morning he’s putting together the day’s newspaper, and a single copy rolls off the press. Perhaps he mutters something about the recent ruinous decline in sales. He delivers it to his door around 7 a.m. Another hand reaches down from off camera to deliver a fresh bottle of milk to his step. He steps outside to retrieve the paper and milk, then sits down to the breakfast table with his morning coffee. He unrolls the paper to see a headline, “Mayor Embroiled in Sex Scandal with Local Resident” and spits out his coffee. Yells angrily about the press being “fucking hyenas.” He steps outside to see “PERVERT” spray-painted across the front of his house and shakes his head. He pulls out his phone to call “the police” and tells them to “round up the usual suspects.”

I love this stuff. My best friends, the ones I find the most fun to hang out with, are good at riffing this kind of stuff. We take an absurd idea and add to it and it comes to life. Some people have a knack for it, others I’ve noticed have no patience for it. I’ve heard Christopher Hitchens refer to this trait as “a sense of the absurd” and identifies it as one of the best traits to find in a friend. I tend to agree.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Flaky Allies on Drug Legalization - Hippies and Other Anti-Market Leftists

Usually it’s a good thing when people who don’t share your values nevertheless agree with you on some policy position. You can at least form a winning coalition that can change policy in the right direction. But the disagreement can be toxic and lead to some policy proposals or changes that you aren’t on board with. I want to discuss a few bad argument that I hear from some advocates of drug legalization and explain why they're wrong.

Leftists and libertarians both tend to support drug legalization, or at least some form of drug reform. Not everyone on the left is in on this, but most young people I know are at least somewhat hip to it, and most of the “secular liberals” I knew in college were, too. But these broad groups of people give different reasons to support legalization.

For libertarians, it’s a basic moral principle that human beings own their bodies. Even if someone does commit self-harm, it’s within his/her right to do so, so long as they aren’t hurting somebody else. Libertarians also give practical arguments for legalizing drugs, such as that black markets create more violence and the wildly fluctuating drug purity that leads to overdose deaths and poisonings from drug adulterants. In this view, legal markets are peaceful, even if sometimes highly competitive. Market forces, such as the loss of repeat customers and the threat of lawsuits, discipline businesses to provide safe and high-quality products. Alleged lapses in this market discipline, rather than refuting the libertarian view, often demonstrate that such market forces are working. The disgraced company typically loses market share and faces large settlements to claimants for its wrongdoing. Part of the left’s worldview is that big businesses can just arbitrarily “have their way”, as if these market forces didn’t even exist.

It’s in failing to understand these market forces that leftists make flaky allies in this fight. In one breath they will condemn the government for banning a useful medicine with an excellent safety profile (cannabis), and in the next breath they will condemn pharmaceutical companies for “foisting” prescription painkillers on us. Opioids cause a few overdose deaths for sure, but they are a godsend to many people living with crippling chronic pain. Leftists desperately want to tell this anti-big-business narrative, which is a major piece of their worldview. So they end up betraying and undermining some of the better arguments for legalization. I recently saw this behavior in a video of people protesting the recent attempt to ban the pain-relieving substance kratom. Some kratom users were holding up signs blaming the pharmaceutical industry, and others were explaining how dangerous opioid painkillers are. (See the sign at 1:08 in the video, saying "Opiates Kill, Kratom Saves.") Hey, man, if kratom works for you that’s great. But consider that it might not work for somebody else, and that opioids are the only drugs that allow this person to function properly. Some of these legalization advocates are committing the same sin as the DEA. They are trying to prescribe and proscribe substances for every occasion, rather than giving people the freedom to choose which substances make them feel better. In doing so, they risk alienating or even demonizing some of their allies.

I have heard Tommy Chong deride Sudafed, an incredibly useful anti-cold medicine with a  very good safety profile, by saying (paraphrasing here): Yeah, you got a cold, why not just take some meth? (Here's the 6-second segment that I probably saw. Perhaps there's more context in the full video, but I think my summary is fair.) Forget for a second that the dangers of methamphetamine are grossly exaggerated, here we have Tommy Chong, a man at the tip of the legalization spear, deriding a safe and effective medication. To take another example, I had a hippie friend in grad school who argued that marijuana should stay illegal because it would become too “corporatized” if it were legalized. You’d end up with “the McDonaldization of cannabis”, to use a phrase I heard a few times in the run-up to California’s 2010 legalization initiative. In other words, it’s worth violently harassing dealers and users if we can stop a legitimate business from forming, because legal businesses control their customers (or something). This person was arguing that companies exert insidious control over their customers, addicting them not just to sugary snacks or tobacco in general, but to, say, “McDonalds French Fries” or “Marlboro cigarettes” in particular. It’s as if the customer has no free-will with which to say "No" to that particular product or even to choose a substitute. I thought it was a silly argument, and I said so at the time. This was well before I was a self-identified libertarian, but I already knew at the time that these kinds of mind-control conspiracy theories were nonsense. They certainly aren’t compelling enough to justify threats of violence and *actual* violence on a massive scale, as in our current policy, to deter drug suppliers.

A common refrain among legalization advocates is that marijuana, psilocybin, kratom, and other potential medicines are naturally occurring plants. A pharmaceutical company can’t patent it, so nobody will bother with expensive clinical trials. This argument is supposed to paint pharmaceutical companies as amoral, cynical avatars of capitalist excess. In reality, this argument is a critique of the FDA’s overly-restrictive approval process for new medicines. The libertarian fix to this problem is to eliminate the FDA’s power to deny access to medicine, such that any private company could sell these plants as medicine without the FDA’s approval.  The reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to do clinical trials would be a non-issue if such trials weren’t required by the FDA. We have two federal agencies that ban substances: the FDA and the DEA. Both cause serious problems. Both deny people useful medicine. Both impose policies that kill a lot of people. Unfortunately, left-wing drug reformers only seem to care about one of them. (Read this for a nice literature review outlining the incredible harm caused by the FDA. Long-ish, but well worth the time.)

I’d encourage some soul-searching by my fellow drug reformers on the left. Do you accept the notion of self-ownership or not? Is your body yours to pollute if you so choose? Or are you just using this as a convenient argument for those substances you’d like to see legalized? If you’ll concede that legalizing heroin will lead to a cleaner, safer legal supply, why does this argument not extend to other pharmaceuticals? Do you see how it makes little sense to limit harm by legalizing heroin if you're going to turn around and ban competitors to the Epipen or new anti-depressants? To those self-contradicting individuals who wish to “decriminalize” rather than to fully legalize drugs: Why is it okay to purchase and use a substance, but not to *sell* it? In the end the harm comes from the user, not the seller. It's convenient to blame the dealer as some kind of "profit-monger" or "death-merchant," but let's not forget that the addict is morally responsible for the harm he caused, and that most users don't end up having problems with their drug use. I think there is some facile anti-market, anti-business populism at work here. Leftists think that it’s intrinsically corrupting for money to change hands, and this assumption needs to be rethought. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Logic of the Hobbesian Trap

When I first read it, Steven Pinker’s description of the Hobbesian trap gave me chills. Violence isn’t just something that’s “innate” or “human nature” or the result of a violent culture. It’s implied by sheer logic, given just a few basic assumptions about how we operate. The logic of the Hobbesian trap applies to anything shaped by evolution. Any population of self-replicators with differential survival rates will experience it. The following passage is from Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, and a similar discussion is given in his book The Blank Slate. For a little context, Pinker gives a passage from Hobbes listing three principal causes of quarrel: competition, diffidence, and glory:

The second cause of quarrel is diffidence, a word that in Hobbes’s time meant “fear” rather than “shyness.” The second cause is a consequence of the first: competition breeds fear. If you have reason to suspect that your neighbor is inclined to eliminate you from the competition by, say, killing you, then you will be inclined to protect yourself by eliminating him first in a preemptive strike. You might have this temptation even if you otherwise wouldn’t hurt a fly, as long as you are not willing to lie down and be killed. The tragedy is that your competitor has every reason to crank through the same calculation, even if he is the kind of person who wouldn’t hurt a fly. In fact, even if he *knew* that you started out with no aggressive designs on him, he might legitimately worry that you are tempted to neutralize him out of fear that he will neutralize you first, which gives you an incentive to neutralize him before that, ad infinitum. The political scientist Thomas Schelling offers the analogy of an armed homeowner who surprises an armed burglar, each being tempted to shoot the other to avoid being shot first. This paradox is sometimes called the Hobbesian trap, or in the arena of international relations, the security dilemma.
The book describes in great detail the behaviors of warring tribes of hunter-gatherers. Such tribes often feud with their neighbors. They often have pitched battles with each other, and they will pick off stray male members of a neighboring tribe who wander into the wrong territory. They even occasionally conduct extermination raids of neighboring villages, attempting to finish off a rival tribe down to the very last person. For a more first-hand account of the violent behavior of hunter-gatherers, read Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee.” Hobbes wasn’t just arm-chair theorizing, and Pinker isn’t just working out the logic of an irrelevant hypothetical. The Hobbesian trap is an accurate description of why some cycles of violence happen. It accurately predicts that such cycles are hard to break.

There is hope. If the ambient levels of violence decline, the threat of being exterminated by your neighbors can become irrelevant, then even unthinkable. So neighboring villages no longer consider slaughtering each other preemptively. The cycles of violence can be broken. If some pacifying force (say international peacekeepers, or even a strong-man dictator who threatens warring factions) can reduce the overall levels of violence, it can start a virtuous cycle where violence declines because violence declines. If the threat of being exterminated by your neighbors is ruled out of the question, you no longer have any reason to exterminate them, and the warring tribes can escape the Hobbesian trap. The overall thesis of the book is that violence has declined, and Pinker discusses the many reasons why. This breaking out of the Hobbesain trap is an important piece of that puzzle. It probably explains the massive difference in homicide rates between hunter-gatherer societies (very shockingly high) and modern state societies (orders of magnitude lower).

For some more context, here is an excerpt from Hobbes himself (Leviathan) that kicks off Pinker’s discussion:

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The firs use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

My Favorite Cobbler Recipe

Step 1: Bake a pie.
Step 2: Fuck it up.

Be careful not to confuse this with the “American Pie” cobbler recipe, which differs by exactly one word.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Beautiful Passage from Governing the Commons

The following is from Governing the Commons by Elinor Ostrom. The book (and Ostrom’s body of research more broadly) is about how communities that own a common property govern it. Governance is not always supplied by an explicit “government”. Often the governance is a set of formal and informal rules and enforcement mechanisms agreed upon by the community, with little or no oversight by the state. Ostrom was one of the winners of the 2009 Nobel prize in economics, and to date is the only woman to have won the prize.

I love the following passage. It describes the communal rules in a Japanese mountain village. The common resource in question is the surrounding forest. The villagers need wood from the trees and other plants for various purposes. Nobody wants their neighbors to over-harvest the forest, but it's tempting to "cheat" and take more than one's fair share. Villages set official rules, along with specified fines for rule-breaking, and they hire detectives to enforce these rules. The following passages are from pages 68-69 of Governing the Commons. "Mountain opening day" refers to the day that the surrounding forest is officially open for harvest. Fines were often paid in sake to the detective who caught a rule-breaker. With that context, here's the passage:

Although the level of rule compliance was very high, violations certainly occurred. McKean reports several types of infractions. Impatience with waiting for mountain-opening day was one reason. In the period just before the official opening of the commons for harvesting a particular plant, the detectives expected-and found-a higher level of infractions and were able to keep themselves well supplied with sake.
A second reason for rule violations sometimes was genuine disagreement about the management decisions of a village headman. McKean illustrates this type of infraction in the following way:
“One former detective in Hirano, now a respected village elder, described how he had been patrolling a closed commons one day and came upon not one or two intruders but thirty, including some of the heads of leading households. It was not yet mountain-opening day, but they had entered the commons en masse to cut a particular type of pole used to build trellises to support garden vegetables raised on private plots. If they could not cut the poles soon enough, their entire vegetable crop might be lost and they believed tha the village headman had erred in setting opening day later than these crops required. (McKean 1986, P 565).”
 In that instance, fines were imposed, but they involved making a donation to the village school, rather than the usual payment of sake. In her conclusion, McKean stresses that the long-term success of these locally designed rule systems indicates “that it is not necessarily for regulation of the commons to be imposed coercively from the outside” (McKean 1986 p 571).
Emphasis mine. I absolutely love this. A rule of law exists. Everyone approves of this rule of law, but everyone appears to agree that the "law-makers" have erred. So everyone breaks the bad rule, but they also agree to pay a fine to preserve the reining order, which they all believe is necessary (if fallible). The enforcer must somehow preserve his moral authority. He can't demand his regular fine of sake, paid directly to him, from an entire village that has just repudiated his rule. But a fine must be paid by the villages to acknowledge their approval of the reigning order, so they donate to the village school instead.

Modern governments could take a lesson or two from this book. I'm trying to imagine how silly it would be for a central government in Tokyo to tell these villagers how to manage their common property. The knowledge necessary to manage these properties does not exist in Tokyo; it doesn't even exist locally until specific decisions are needed for a specific purpose. It's absurd to think we could simply codify rules for every possible circumstance and apply these rules as needed. I think federal and state governments need to take a hands-off approach to these kinds of local "common property management" problems. Locally, people need to do a better job of providing their own governance.

(In the passage, "McKean 1986" refers to the article "Management of Traditional Common Lands (Iriaichi) in Japan" in a publication called Proceedings of the Conference on Common Property Resource  Management.)

Why Is Ibogaine Illegal? Schedule One No Less?

Ibogaine is an African plant with hallucinogenic properties. I recently read about it in the excellent book Illegal Drugs by Paul Gahlinger. What’s especially galling about the Schedule I status of Ibogaine is that it shows some promise in the treatment of addiction. It’s potentially the solution to the drug problem, but it’s treated like it’s just another habit-forming substance.

After a dose of about 150 milligrams of the powdered root bark, the user might experience an increased sense of colors, similar to the effects of mescaline. With 300 milligrams, there is a slight nausea, dizziness, and a lack of muscular control or coordination. At one gram, there are hallucinations, which can last for days. The elimination half-life— the time it takes for half of the ibogaine to leave the body— is about 38 hours, suggesting that some effects can persist for a week or longer with a large dose.
Since ibogaine has a chemical structure similar to LSD (the ibogaine molecule contains the indole ring characteristic of many hallucinogens; see Chapter 6), the U.S. federal government classified ibogaine among substances analogous to LSD, and therefore made it illegal. Unlike LSD, however, ibogaine was never a recreational drug and it also shows promise as an anti-addictive medication. As research progresses, ibogaine may be rescheduled and marketed as a pharmaceutical.

So it never became a party drug. It’s not “fun.” Maybe it would if it were fully legalized, but it's hard to say. Some tribal medicines (ayahuasca, mescaline) never really caught on as recreational party drugs, and it seems like ibogaine could be in this category. 

Soon after its discovery, Europeans began to experiment with ibogaine and found that it was effective in curing addiction to opiates, cocaine, alcohol, amphetamines, and nicotine. Self-help groups claimed that ibogaine reduces withdrawal symptoms and helps addicts stay away from other drugs. Some addicts claim that even a single dose has reduced drug cravings for periods up to six months.

Even granting that we should probably doubt 19th century medicine, this is kind of promising and should be explored further.

One of the first to explore this use was Howard Lotsof, a non-scientist businessman who discovered that he and his friends stopped abusing drugs after experimenting with ibogaine. In the 1960s, he founded a New York corporation, NDA International, Inc., to market Endabuse. He went on to develop a formal detoxification program and took out several patents, beginning in 1985 with his “Rapid method for interrupting the narcotic addiction syndrome.” In this program, one gram of ibogaine hydrochloride is taken by mouth, with effects lasting for about 30 hours. Following just this single treatment, it is claimed that the addict will no longer want to take heroin and show no perceptible signs of physical withdrawal.

Again, even with the possibility that this is pure snake-oil, testimonials are a good place to start. If this can help people kick their opioid, alcohol, or cocaine addictions, it is well worth exploring. No such exploration is possible with the Schedule I status, which severely restricts the ability of researchers to acquire the drug for legitimate medical trials. 

The effects of ibogaine are felt about 15 to 20 minutes after ingestion. A buzzing sound is often heard, perhaps in waves, and the skin may feel numb. After 25 to 30 minutes, objects appear to vibrate. There may be nausea. After about an hour, the first visions appear. Then peak intoxication follows, lasting two to four hours, during which the user can experience difficulty walking, dizziness, pain with bright lights, and out-of-body sensations. There may also be tremors, abnormal breathing, spasms in the legs, and seizures. Some users have diarrhea, teary eyes, salivation, and a runny nose.

To reiterate, this sounds like other kinds of tribal medicine (mescaline and ayahuasca for example). No fun, but definitely mind altering. 

Then there's this:

There is no documented withdrawal syndrome.

This helps us rule out the possibility of problematic habit-forming.

From the section titled “What to Do if There Is An Overdose?”

Ibogaine appears to be safe even in amounts that vastly exceed the normal dose. The greatest danger is in the paralysis that accompanies very high doses, but this is not properly considered an overdose, and resolves without adverse effects. There are unsubstantiated reports that excessive amounts of iboga ingestion have resulted in seizures, paralysis, and death by respiratory arrest.

The major concern is probably anxiety and apprehension from the long-lasting effects. An overdose should be managed by support in a manner similar to the treatment of hallucinogens (see LSD). For suspected overdose, atropine has been used to suppress all signs of ibogaine intoxication.

So basically there’s nothing to worry about except for the possibility of the user freaking out a little. This can be managed with a bit of reassurance, or possibly atropine for very extreme cases. With almost no deaths  or even significant side effects observed in all the world’s literature, this appears to be a pretty safe drug. 

For a more thorough literature review than I am willing to write here, please see this article at Erowid. Even if the anti-addictive powers of ibogaine turn out to be complete bunk, it's still very much worth exploring the possibility. 

Hopefully ibogaine is descheduled or *at least* put on a less restrictive schedule, given its impressive safety profile and promise as a treatment for addictions that are actually harmful. Hopefully the DEA stops preemptively banning anything that looks like it might be fun. I really don't understand what makes these drug warriors tick. They don't seem to care that their policies don't make sense. They aren't taking the entirety of American drug policy as a portfolio; it's as if they're doing a bunch of one-offs without considering the overall effect. Banning some substances might mean other, more dangerous substances become more attractive or relatively cost-effective. Lawmakers and the DEA need to consider these overall effects of drug policy. They need to stop treating bans on particular substances as if they are isolated decisions, as if they don't affect the outcomes of *other* decisions to ban other substances. Maybe if ibogaine were the only drug in the world, it might make sense to ban it. (I said "maybe"; I certainly don't think it would make sense.) But its ban needs to be assessed in context. The world also contains many potentially harmful substances: alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, heroin. If freely available ibogaine would reduce the use of these substances, then surely it should be freely available. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The So Called “Opioid Epidemic” Isn’t One Trend. It’s Several Trends.

The following chart appeared already in a previous post, but here it is once again for reference:

All data comes from the CDC's Wonder database. There are several things going on here in the most lethal drug categories.

Other Opioids

This is the most lethal category, and it’s seen a dramatic increase in recent years, from ~1 death per 100k population to ~4 deaths per 100k. This category represents most of the pill-form opiates, hydrocodone and oxycodone and some others. When you hear about the increase in opioid deaths, you are mostly hearing about this category. Notice, however, that it’s flattened out since 2011. It dips down in 2012 and 2013, then in 2014 matches its 2011 level. A similar rise, then dip, happens in the Benzodiazepines trendline. I’ll explain why below in the Benzodiazepines section (and I explain more thoroughly in the link above).


Cocaine was the most lethal category of drugs until about 2006, when cocaine deaths dropped dramatically as “other opioid” deaths continued rising. The drop in deaths is matched by a drop in measured usage rates. (See here,  page 10 figure 11 for a time series of "past month" usage rates.) This should be part of the “rising opioid epidemic” narrative. There’s no apparent explanation for the rise in cocaine deaths between 1999 and 2006, because usage rates were flat. One could be forgiven for thinking that the rise between 1999 and 2006 is spurious, related more to reporting and cause-of-death attribution trends than actual overdoses. At any rate, it should be reported that total drug overdose deaths supposedly increased from 1999 to 2014 despite the most lethal category of drugs staying flat. Furthermore, the number of drug overdoses increased from 2006 to 2014 despite the fact that 2006’s most lethal drug category plummeting. I think this is worthy of some commentary.


The benzodiazepine trendline matches the other opioid trendline fairly closely. (See previous post; correlations are very high, and by-state correlations are also very close.) These drugs are sedatives that are often prescribed for anxiety. In a sense, benzodiazepines are just “along for the ride” with the opioid poisoning deaths. If you look at individual death records for 2014, 52% of benzodiazepine deaths also involved the “other opioids” and 76% involved “other opioids”, methadone, *or* “other synthetic narcotics.” Overwhelmingly these are not straight-up overdoses but are actually drug interactions. If you look at it the other way, ~30% of opioid poisoning deaths also involve benzodiazepines. This warning needs to be made more clearly to the public: IF you’re going to abuse either of these substances anyway, don’t mix them. We’d spare ourselves some 5,000 deaths a year if we got people to follow this advice (again, based on the 2014 numbers I have). (For a thorough treatment of multi-drug poisonings, see my previous post here.)


Heroin deaths were on a slow increase from 1999 to 2010, and they’ve increased dramatically (a factor of ~3.5) since 2010. It’s now the second most lethal drug category, after other opioids. It’s not a simple matter of rates of heroin use increasing. If you divide the number of deaths by the number of users (admittedly this later figure is an approximation based on survey data), it looks like the habit of heroin use has become more lethal. I suspect that this is because what’s sold on the street as “heroin” is actually heroin mixed with fentanyl and other ultra-powerful opioids. I quite often see news reports of a rash of “heroin” overdoses hitting some city, often one particular neighborhood of one city. It’s usually a single bad batch of heroin that’s been spiked with something a hundred or a thousand times stronger. (See carfentanil, aka elephant tranquilizer.) This is definitely a problem created by prohibition, because in a legal market nobody would buy this stuff. The preference by dealers for super-powerful opioids is driven by the fact that these substances are easy to conceal. A kilogram brick of heroin can be replaced by a tiny vial of carfentanil. But then, these tiny volumes of carfentanil need to be mixed into a larger volume of heroin (or perhaps baby formula or some other inert base material). Obviously if the mixing is imperfect or if the mixer is an amateur who doesn’t know what he’s got, the results can be deadly for whoever consumes the final product.

The dominant narrative behind the heroin overdoses is “Freely available prescription opioids have stoked a pent-up or latent demand for other opioids. People who once had a legal prescription are turning to heroin, because it’s cheaper and easier to acquire.” I seriously doubt this narrative has much merit. I think there are two different things happening here. The prescription opioid deaths represent a tiny risk multiplied across a very large population (~100 million prescription opioid users with ~200 million legal prescriptions in 2014); the heroin deaths represent a significant risk (1.5% to 3%  mortality per user per year!) across a small population of users (just shy of half a million in 2014). I think it’s wrong to pile these into the same narrative, as some news sources do. You’ll often see a story touting the total number of “opioid overdose deaths” in a year, or series of years. These stories are (in my view, incorrectly) adding the heroin deaths to the other opioid, methadone, and “other synthetic narcotics” deaths. By adding them together, the authors of these pieces are assuming their narrative is the correct one, when maybe it isn’t. When you hear the claim that 2014 was a record year for “opioid deaths”, they are improperly adding heroin deaths to these other three categories without explaining what they are doing. I think these authors need to be more explicit about their assumptions, and do a better job of explaining to their readers what’s going on.


Along with “other opioids” and “other synthetic narcotics”, methadone is one of the three categories that are usually tabulated together as prescription painkillers. I believe the CDC uses this definition (citation needed). Take a look; methadone follows its own trend. It rises from 1999 to 2006, then starts to fall. The thing to keep in mind about methadone is that it has a very long half-life, so it stays in the body for a very long time after the user has taken a dose. It can thus build up to toxic levels for a na├»ve user who hasn’t had time to develop a tolerance, or hasn’t figured out how to titrate his own dose. Most methadone overdoses are from users who have just started methadone maintenance for heroin or have recently acquired a prescription for methadone as a painkiller (citation needed here, but I’m speaking from memory based on the books Buzzed and Karch’s Pathology of Drug Abuse.) 

 See Wikipedia’s description of what happened up to 2006:

In recent years, methadone has gained popularity among physicians for the treatment of other medical problems, such as an analgesic in chronic pain. Methadone is a very effective pain medication. Due to its activity at the NMDA receptor, it may be more effective against neuropathic pain; for the same reason, tolerance to the analgesic effects may be lesser compared to other opioids. The increased usage comes as doctors search for an opioid drug that can be dosed less frequently than shorter-acting drugs like morphine or hydrocodone. Another factor in the increased usage is the low cost of methadone.

On 29 November 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a Public Health Advisory about methadone titled "Methadone Use for Pain Control May Result in Death and Life-Threatening Changes in Breathing and Heart Beat". The advisory went on to say that "the FDA has received reports of death and life-threatening side effects in patients taking methadone. These deaths and life-threatening side effects have occurred in patients newly starting methadone for pain control and in patients who have switched to methadone after being treated for pain with other strong narcotic pain relievers. Methadone can cause slow or shallow breathing and dangerous changes in heart beat that may not be felt by the patient." The advisory urged that physicians use caution when prescribing methadone to patients who are not used to the drug, and that patients take the drug exactly as directed.

I don’t have prescription-count data for methadone, but I suspect physicians became more squeamish about prescribing a painkiller with such a low margin for error. But no doubt stiffer warnings for patients had an effect on the death totals, too.

I don’t know why this is never explained in any of the news stories about the “opioid epidemic.” The numbers are supposedly rising despite a big drop in one of the three categories that define “prescription opioids.” And, more to the point, a simple cautioning of physicians and patients about the dangers seems to have brought down the death rate. This is a useful lesson in public health if there ever was one.

I don’t see this point mentioned often, but methadone deaths are very likely to be multi-drug poisonings, which is true of *every* category of drug poisoning in the CDC death data.

Other Synthetic Narcotics

This category includes fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, some of which are super-potent. As stated above, it is one of the three categories that are summed to make up the “prescription opioids” in overdose death tabulations. Fentanyl is something like 80 times as powerful as morphine. Notice its trendline. It grows by a factor of ~3 from 1999 to 2013, then it shoots up (bad pun) in 2014. As with the heroin story, this makes a lot of sense when you consider the recent rash of tainted heroin deaths. I actually suspect that many of the so-called heroin overdoses belong in this category, and it was only in 2014 that anyone caught on to this trend. Medical examiners don’t often know what kind of opioid was taken when there is a rash of overdoses; if they can determine that at all, it requires sending blood work to a lab that takes weeks to do a work-up (citation needed, but I'm speaking from memory based on a recent NPR story). So there could be some “heroin” deaths that are miscategorized, because the decedent actually (unwittingly) took fentanyl or something else in this category.

The musician Prince’s recent tragic death would probably be coded in this category; he died of a fentanyl overdose.

Psychostimulants with Abuse Potential

This is methamphetamine and its legal prescription analogues. That’s right, in official government tabulations, methamphetamine, Adderall, and Ritalin are recognized as being the same category of substance. I have minimal commentary on this, other than to note that the apparent recent increase in deaths is not matched by an increase in use in recent years. (See this again, page 9 figure 9 for stimulant use rates. They are basically flat for each age group.) So either the habit has become more deadly, or perhaps there is a spurious trend in the death totals.

Less Lethal Drug Categories

I spell this out in a previous post. There appears to be a growth in almost all categories of drug poisonings tracked by the CDC. Even for really obscure drugs that only kill a few people, the rise is similar in magnitude as for the opioids. Maybe some of this is other drugs "going along for the ride" with opioid deaths, as in someone took some cough syrup along with a fatal dose of prescription painkillers, so the coroner or medical examiner marked "antitussives" on the death certificate. But this can't be the whole story, because even when you filter out the seven most lethal drug categories (listed above) you still see a sharp rise in overdose deaths. As I say in my previous post, a likely explanation is that we're just testing dead bodies for more substances. It's not necessarily the case that more people are actually overdosing. So beware any news story that tells you the total number of drug overdoses and then spins a good yarn about the opioid epidemic. They are inflating their numbers to puff up their story, and papering over something that casts doubt on their narrative.

So Don't Be Fooled

So keep all this in mind when you read the next perfunctory piece on the “opioid epidemic.” The author of the piece is probably conflating several very different things and cramming them into a narrative that might or might not be true. He’s probably also omitting some important details. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Heterogeneity in Human Responses to Medicine

John wants a Rolex. He acknowledges that it’s a silly, expensive trinket and that his desire for it is kind of frivolous. But this is his one major indulgence in an otherwise sensible and frugal life. He’s just always wanted one and he insists that a small part of him will be fulfilled if he gets one. He buys his Rolex and tells you that he’s now satisfied.

Do you doubt John? Do you feel tempted to probe him and measure his happiness over time? Would you even think of doing a clinical trial, where half the users get a Rolex and half get nothing, and measuring the relative happiness of the two groups? If you did so and found no difference in happiness, would you conclude that Rolexes make no difference to anyone’s happiness? And would you think your conclusion had the patina of “science!” on it? Or would your common sense tell you that different people enjoy different things? It’s possible that one-in-a-hundred feels a real attachment to expensive watches and the other 99 don’t really care. Perhaps two-in-a-hundred feels a sense of guilt over the frivolity of an uber-expensive watch (do some googling for the price of a Rolex to see what we’re talking about here), such that their decrease in happiness overwhelms the increase from the one who enjoys the watch. (Yes, yes, “I’d sell the watch and buy something I actually want.” Please, no arbitrage arguments, because that turns this thought experiment into something it’s not.)

Okay, see where this is going? How about this one:

Jim feels depressed. He wants his psychiatrist to put him on an SSRI. He gets put on an SSRI and insists he feels better.

Do you doubt Jim because of studies that show no difference between the control group and the treatment group for SSRIs? Or do you admit to my point above, about different people responding differently to the same treatment? I like the idea of running clinical trials and studying the effects of medicine in a systematic way, but I have serious doubts about measuring subjective feelings. It’s not hard to understand that different people have different preferences for consumer goods. If you switched my shopping cart with a random person at the checkout lane, we’d both be very disappointed. Everyone understands this. We have heterogeneous tastes in consumer goods. When I’m putting things into my shopping cart, I’m mixing my own tonic that will improve my well-being. It would be utter nonsense for someone take the contents of my cart and give them to a treatment group, while simultaneously monitoring a control group who gets nothing. You just sort of have to trust my subjective judgment that “I want some Old Rasputin Imperial Stout and Hanes Premium boxer-briefs.” If you see that stuff in my cart, you presume that I’m satisfying a set of preferences that you can’t possibly observe, that I know better than anyone else. It’s no big mystery that there are numerous versions of every product, that any one product is purchased by a tiny minority of shoppers, or that any shopping cart with more than a few items is completely unique. Is it hard to believe that such heterogeneity of responses holds true for medicine? Does it rankle our feathers to admit that the effectiveness of some medicines might be beyond the grasp of science, as much so as is the “effectiveness of shopping carts?” My experience, having talked to people who are on lots of psychiatric medications, is that they have optimized their “shopping cart” over time after learning about their personal response to various mixes of drugs. A blog that I frequently read (Slate Star Codex), written by a psychiatrist, suggests something similar. The author frequently talks about how one patient might respond well to a given drug while others don’t, and I’m sure his experience is typical of the profession as a whole.

Try another one:

Gary has post-traumatic stress disorder. Gary says that smoking marijuana helps his post-traumatic stress disorder.

I think the only sensible option is to believe Gary. You could do a study and find out that there’s “no difference between the control group and the treatment group.” But maybe that’s because half of the treatment group gets really paranoid and feels worse while the other half improves, such that the overall magnitudes cancel out. In reality, everyone knows goddamn well whether they feel better or not. Everyone given the option of picking and fine-tuning their own treatment can make themselves feel better. The people who are made to feel worse simply stop smoking. These questions of subjective judgment are beyond the realm of science, because they depend on things that aren’t observable. I get very annoyed with people who insist that there’s “no science behind the claim” that marijuana is medicine. For one thing, it’s shown promise in treating objectively measureable problems, such as seizures. So the claim is untrue on its face. But just as importantly, many of the problems that marijuana treats are things that can’t be measured by science. Suppose somebody says, “I smoke marijuana and it makes me feel better. I feel better-rested, less anxious, less bothered by stress.” The decent thing to do is believe them. “I do X and it makes me feel better” is more akin to “I wanted a Rolex and getting one satisfied me” than to “snake-oil cured my cancer.” People who want a scientific answer to this kind of question are barking up the wrong tree.

I don’t want to overstate my point. You really can rule out the possibility that, say, vaccines cause autism. You can show that certain cancer drugs are extremely ineffective. You can demonstrate that a back surgery does not meaningfully affect back pain. There are some questions that randomized controlled trials can answer. But even so, this problem of heterogeneous response is lurking in the background. It really is possible that different people respond differently to the same cancer treatment, such that there is no good way of knowing which treatment is most appropriate to which person.

One might hope that we can get a handle on this homogeneous response problem by identifying what kinds of people respond well/poorly to which medicines. Perhaps some genetic marker or some physical trait makes you more receptive to certain kinds of drugs. And there is certainly some value in this; some genes have been identified that correspond to rapid/slow metabolism of certain drugs, such that the drugs might be ineffective or dangerous to people with those genes. (The textbook Karch’s Pathology of Drug Abuse, which I’ve blogged about before, mentions this genetic heterogeneity problem in practically every section.) But this problem may be very prone to overfitting. There are too many conceivable correlates to specify which one is responsible for good/bad responses to a drug. Supposing even that you have a large enough sample (say, thousands of people). If you have thousands of genes and physical/mental traits to test, some of them will correlate very well with outcomes just by sheer chance. We may eventually get a better handle on the problem. Principle component analysis and various clustering methods might reduce the number of correlates to a manageable few. A solid understanding of the chemical and physiological effects of a drug might inform our ideas of who will respond well or poorly. (For a trivial example: “This drug is hard on the liver, so it won’t be effective for people with cirrhosis.”) But no doubt it is a hard problem. The properties that correlate with treatment outcomes might not be observable in any obvious way.

I’m not preaching nihilism here. I’m not saying “…therefore we can’t know anything about anything.” I think this is actually another case in which radical uncertainty leads to libertarian conclusions. We should allow lots of experimentation with lots of different analytical methods. We shouldn’t try to shoehorn everything into the FDA’s “randomized controlled study” paradigm, because it simply isn’t appropriate for many kinds of medicine. Forget the idea that we’ll know the truth if only we have a big enough sample size. To answer the question of “which medicines are effective, and to whom,” we’re going to need to marshal different kinds of evidence from different kinds of sources. We need to consider our Bayesian priors and be open to the possibility that different priors will lead to different conclusions. When these conclusions differ, it means reasonable people can disagree about whether a given drug is effective, or whether the side-effects are worth the costs. Identifying good medicine is an iterative process. The current paradigm of banning everything that doesn’t pass some official review process is wrong-headed. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Excellent Paper on the Economics of Drug Prohibition by Gary Becker

So I wrote a few pieces a few months ago about the economics of deterring drug use. I found that essentially all of my arguments are covered in this paper by Gary Becker, Kevin Murphy, and Paul Grossman. The title is "The Economic Theory of Illegal Goods: The Case of Drugs." It's a basic microeconomic treatment of illegal drugs by the best micro guys in the world. I nearly titled this post "Gary Becker Got There First" but I thought that was a little obscure for some of my readers. It is very readable, in my opinion, even if you don't have much of an economics background. So please read for yourself if you find any of the claims in this post implausible or surprising. I was happy to see that a full, ungated pdf of the paper is freely available in the above link.

From the abstract:

Optimal public expenditures on apprehension and conviction of illegal suppliers obviously depend on the extent of the difference between the social and private value of consumption of illegal goods, but they also depend crucially on the elasticity of demand for these goods. In particular, when demand is inelastic, it does not pay to enforce any prohibition unless the social value is negative and not merely less than the private value.

He’s saying that it makes no sense to use criminal penalties to deter drug use, especially when demand is inelastic. “Inelastic demand” means that users aren’t very responsive to price changes, which is probably a pretty accurate description of most drug users. The condition at the end, the social value needing to be negative for prohibition to make sense, is essentially saying that external costs have to be so bad that they more than cancel the benefits to the user. Imagine that every time someone snorts cocaine, for every “unit of joy” enjoyed by the user some random victim feels two units of agony. This is a grossly unrealistic estimate (if it is anyone’s estimate) for the social harms caused by drug use, so it probably doesn’t make sense to ban any class of drugs. He’s not exactly saying the same thing as me, but I point out here that trying to ban or even deter a substance with inelastic demand is a losing game, at least from the viewpoint of the drug users. We aren’t helping them. For every one we deter, we make the remaining ones so much worse off that it’s not worth it.

More from the abstract:

We show that a monetary tax on a legal good could cause a greater reduction in output and increase in price than would optimal enforcement, even recognizing that producers may want to go underground to try to avoid a monetary tax. This means that fighting a war on drugs by legalizing drug use and taxing consumption may be more effective than continuing to prohibit the legal use of drugs.

I argue as much in previous posts (see here and here). The basic intuition here is that it’s better to deter drug users with a tax, which transfers value from one person to another, than with a penalty, which destroys value. These are two ways to hurt drug users, and only in the “tax” case does society at large collect the value of the harm done to users and dealers. A penalty is akin to taxing the drugs and then throwing away the revenue.

…when demand for drugs is inelastic, total resources spent by drug traffickers will increase as the war increases in severity, and consumption falls. With inelastic demand, resources are actually drawn into the drug business as enforcement reduces drug consumption.

It’s worth pondering this for a moment. Basic economics explains why drug cartels are so powerful and well-funded. Hammering the suppliers harder will mildly increase the market price of drugs, but will draw more resources into drug production and redistribution. (For a very clear explanation of this point, see this great post by Benjamin Powell on Econlib. See the graph and accompanying explanation.) In human terms, this means more young people getting recruited into drug dealing and smuggling, with all the associated violence and all the drug mules dying with exploding balloons of cocaine in their bodies.  Also, perhaps less compellingly but still costly, resources are devoted to building clandestine labs for producing drugs along with ingenious contraptions, vehicles and even tunnels for smuggling. (This story came across my news feed just today.) We could just manufacture the drugs in a single, legal, auditable, regulateable factory and ship them in bulk legally on trucks. The added cost of doing these things clandestinely is a social loss that shouldn’t be overlooked.

After a thorough mathematical treatment, one section of the paper concludes:

The conclusion that with positive marginal social willingness to pay-no matter how small-inelastic demand, and punishment to traffickers, the optimal social decision would be to leave the free market output unchanged does not assume the government is inefficient, or that enforcement of these taxes is costly. Indeed, the conclusion holds in the case we just discussed where governments are assumed to catch violators easily and with no cost to themselves, but costs to traffickers…The optimal social decision is clearly then to do nothing, even if consumption imposes significant external costs on others.

This is kind of stunning. Without even stacking the deck in favor of legalization by making some “weird” libertarian assumption about government inefficiency, their argument implies that the optimal amount of drug enforcement is zero. We should leave drug dealers alone. The argument they are making specifically applies to enforcing legal penalties; in the next paragraph they contrast this with the case of setting an optimal tax.

The authors then show that their conclusion basically holds even if they relax their assumptions. (This is a very important step to any argument, by the way. There is always a thoughtless critic ready to point out that your assumptions don’t hold 100% (duh!), but they never then bother to show you what changes when you relax those assumptions. Best to preempt them.)

Even if demand is elastic, it may not be socially optimal to reduced output if consumption of the good has positive marginal social value…[some technical details, elasticity conditions, etc.]… It takes very low social values of consumption, or very high demand elasticities, to justify intervention, even with negligible enforcement costs.

Even if you significantly relax the assumptions, the conclusion that you should not enforce drug laws at all *still holds.*

The section concludes by reiterating:

…when demand is inelastic, total production costs rise as consumption falls, and enforcement costs rise more rapidly. With inelastic demand, a war to reduce consumption would be justified only when marginal social value is very negative. Even then, such a war will absorb a lot of resources.

The next section gives a treatment of trying to deter drug use (production actually, although deterring use is the ultimate goal) with taxes rather than penalties.

Our analysis shows, moreover, that using a monetary tax to discourage legal drug production could reduce drug consumption by more than even an efficient war on drugs. The market price of legal drugs with a monetary excise tax could be greater than the price induced by an optimal war on drugs, even when producers could ignore the monetary tax and consider producing in the underground economy…With these assumptions, the level of consumption that maximizes social welfare would be smaller if drugs were legalized and taxed optimally instead of the present policy of trying to enforce a ban on drugs.

In other words, a tax is far more efficient than a ban for achieving the goal of drug deterrence. You get less overall drug use, and society pays a lower price to achieve this goal.

The paper has much more to it. There  is some discussion of what types of firms are likely to exist in a legal vs illegal market; the authors note that under alcohol prohibition the firms that produced alcohol were very different from the ones that existed before and after. It wasn’t just the same companies operating in different kinds of markets. There is a somewhat throw-away section on peer pressure, which attempts to illuminate the reasons why young people might want to try drugs and why parents might want to stop them. This is Gary Becker, after all, who became a heretic in his field by applying economic analysis to the sacred realm of the family. Another section discusses the desirability of ad campaigns aimed at dissuading drug use. And a final section gives something of a public choice explanation of why we have sub-optimal drug policy. Read the whole thing. It’s very much worth pondering. Reading this reinforces my belief that legalization is a real no-brainer. I’m also pleased to see that some of my arguments were made more convincingly by someone else. It tells me I must have been on the right track.

The all-caveats-aside takeaway: A tax on drugs is strictly superior to a ban on drugs. The attempt to deter drugs with legal penalties is like taxing drugs at some high rate, then throwing away the tax revenue. The inelastic demand for drugs makes prohibition a strictly losing game. You can make these results go away by appealing to extreme, implausible assumptions, but that's grasping at straws. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Another Species of Bad Comment

You read a long-ish piece. Naturally your brain makes an overall summary of it, rather than transcribing it word-for-word into your memory. Then instead of responding to the actual piece, you respond to the impression it left on your brain. So you make a lot of arguments that are addressed, possibly refuted, in the original post. You say, “Nuh uh! What about X!?”, when a simple re-reading of the original piece, or even a text search for “X,” would turn up a paragraph-long discussion of X. Or you say, “But what about Y?”, when the original piece hedges, “Of course, this argument does not apply to Y.”

I see so many comments like this. The criticisms in the comment are actually addressed in the original piece, but the commenter overlooked it. The antidote for this is to read the piece carefully, re-read your comment before posting, and delete the comment without posting if your point has already been adequately addressed. It’s a simple case where careful communication leads to better communication. I understand that we’re all busy, but if you can’t be bothered to read someone’s argument carefully, you shouldn’t be pounding out a reply to it. There is no merit to this kind of dialogue.

My longer list of bad comments is here. Possibly the one described in this post is a subspecies of one in the older post.