Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Fact-Checking" Is Often Just Editorializing

Many of the "fact-checking" pieces I read are actually editorials trying to take up the mantle of immutable truth. This new trend annoys me.

Fact-checking as such should be very narrow in scope. A false claim about some material fact should be corrected. A number or statistic or historical claim that is easily evaluated to an unambiguous answer is corrected, with some minimal commentary on how the claimant's conclusion changes. If I say there are 200 million people in the United States, such that each person on average owes $100,000 of the $20 trillion federal debt, it is the proper place of a fact-checker to say that the true figure is 323 million people and that the per-person average is closer to $60,000. On the other hand, if I want to argue that the true figure is not $20 trillion (unpaid bills that we have covered through borrowing) but more like $200 trillion (total unfunded liabilities for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlements), that is not a piece of fact-checking. That is editorializing. It moves beyond the narrow scope of correcting a singular piece of information to telling an entirely new narrative. "The debt" is a fairly well-defined concept. "Total unfunded future liabilities" is another concept. It is arguably more relevant and less arbitrarily defined than "the debt." But changing the subject is very different from fact-checking. Media personalities need to be much more aware of when they are writing an opinion piece.

Editorializing is important, and I'm not knocking it. Some narratives really are better than others. We need journalists and academics to write opinion pieces sorting this out. But an entire narrative cannot be "fact-checked". A narrative can be wrong even though each material piece of data mustered in its defense proves correct. A narrative can be right even though transparent falsehoods are used to support it. Some things can be known with near certainty through sheer logic and introspection. It is impossible to fact-check a statement such as "demand curves slope downward." Getting at the truth requires more than assembling facts, because facts don't speak for themselves. Some assembly is required. Facts must be arranged into coherent stories, and this always requires a hefty dose of theory. There is a strong desire to have "the facts" on one's side. But facts themselves are neutral. They are often consistent with any of several competing, mutually exclusive hypotheses. We should stop pretending that if we simply collect enough of these crystallized nuggets of unassailable truth, we win the argument.

I should probably list a few example of bad fact-checking.

See this Slate story about motorists in China killing accident victims and this Snopes piece "debunking" the Slate piece, plus this China Insider story arguing that the original Slate piece is probably true.

See this story, in which the Washington Post "fact checks" a claim about declining union membership and union support by the labor force; Mark Hemingway of the Weekly Standard calls them out on their shenanigans. This is a great example of what I'm talking about. It is perfectly legitimate to discuss various pieces of evidence and argue about the implications of various historical facts and statistics, but that is emphatically not fact-checking. That is editorializing.

See this Marginal Revolutions piece about fact-checkers disagreeing with each other at an unacceptably high rate (with a link to the academic paper). And this Weekly Standard piece discussing it (also by Mark Hemingway).

Read a few of these posts from the WUWT blog about Wikipedia expelling contrary viewpoints on climate science. Wikipedia is often cited as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Plainly it's not if a few zealots are systematically deleting everything that casts doubt on their worldview. In a certain online forum that I frequent, people routinely fact-check by citing Wikipedia. That's often a good start, but it's never quite safe.

Econlog has some good pieces on political bias in fact-checking. See this one by Bryan Caplan and this one by David Henderson. I like the point Henderson makes in his piece. Sometimes fact-checking is not the journalist's job. For example "correcting" one of the candidates during a presidential debate, while hypocritically getting the facts wrong.

A correspondent on NPR's Morning Edition does this kind of thing all the time. He will instant-fact-check his conservative guests: "Hold on, I'm gonna have to fact-check you there..." And then he interjects with his opinion. His left-leaning guests don't get a similar treatment, even though they are just as likely to spew falsehoods. I want to say, "Buddy, it's not your job to fact-check based on your own fuzzy memory of what the 'facts' are." 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hypocrisy Denounced. Now Tell Us Which Thing They Were Right About.

There are plenty of accusations of hypocrisy floating around. They often take the form of: You took the position X in a previous case, but now you're taking the position "not X". Supposedly someone's opinion changes just when it's politically convenient, or someone evokes a principle when it favors them but repudiates the principle when it doesn't. I think most of these accusations miss the mark. The two things being contrasted aren't actually in conflict. A simple conversation with one of the "hypocrites" would reveal that there is no internal contradiction. The person accusing you of hypocrisy is imagining himself to have more insight than you do into your own mind. Arnold Kling calls this "asymmetric insight," and we should all be extremely careful about doing this. Adherents of an ideology usually understand that ideology better than its critics.

Still, I want to take some of these accusations of hypocrisy at face value. I want to note that the claims of hypocrisy are usually perfectly symmetrical. Usually if "the Right" believes "X" in one situation and "not X" in another, "the Left" believes "not X" in the first situation and "X" in the latter. If you're making a charge of hypocrisy, it might be useful to specify in which instance the hypocrite is correct.

Consider a few examples that I have seen.
  • Conservatives were once for the individual mandate to purchase health insurance, now they are against it.
  • Conservatives side with the police when young black males are shot, but are either silent or side with the agitators when they are white (like Cliven Bundy and his followers).
  • Conservatives are all in favor of the rights of the unborn, but don't seem to care about children once they are born.
For the first bullet point, you can turn this around and point out that liberals once opposed the individual mandate, until it became a feature of the ACA and they decided they liked it. In the case of the second bullet point, I wish people would state clearly whether police confrontations are an appropriate or inappropriate response to rowdy protesters. When Cliven Bundy's people were occupying government buildings, I remember seeing some left-wing chatter on Facebook wishing that American soldiers would descend on them and "split open their skulls." (citation needed) It's fine to say that different protests take on a different character and thus invite different kinds of police responses. But if anyone is going to insist on some kind of absolute consistency, let's first have them tell us which kind of response is appropriate.

For the third bullet point, this is once again reversible. If we're collapsing these issues down to, "Well, do you care about children or don't you?" then conservatives could turn this one around on their accusers. You could defend this by saying something like, "No, the question of whether an unborn fetus is a person is different from the question of how the welfare state protects living people from misfortune." But this concedes the point that we're talking about two very different policy questions, and we can't collapse it to a one-dimensional question like "How much do you care about children?" You can believe that an unborn fetus is a person with all the associated rights and legal protections, but that a government-run welfare state creates perverse incentives that causes more misery than it solves. You can likewise believe that an unborn fetus is definitely not a person, and that a welfare state definitely ameliorates poverty and saves lives of people who are materially underprivileged. Or you can mix and match. No combinations of these viewpoints is self-contradicting or internally inconsistent. But if you do insist on some foolish consistency, you commit yourself to that consistency, too.

My preferred approach to these alleged hypocrisies is to say there probably is none. You are probably just failing to understand someone's viewpoint. But beware the symmetry of these accusations, which usually ensnare the accuser along with the accused.

___________________________________________________________

There is a very different kind of hypocrisy, where someone does something in their own life that is inconsistent with their stated moral beliefs. ("Al Gore uses a lot of fossil fuels while decrying the use of fossil fuels." "Bill Bennett preaches the dangers of addiction while indulging a gambling habit and a chain-smoking habit.")  I won't say much about this other kind. I will point out that sometimes the hypocrite has the right professed morals, even if they lack the character to live up to them. It would be unfair to do an ad hominem against, say, arguments in favor of temperance.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Old Crank Yankers Episode: An @$$ Slapping Contest

There was a show on Comedy Central in the early 2000s called Crank Yankers. The theme was that comedians would prank-call someone, usually a local business, and the phone call would later be enacted by puppets.

In one episode, an effete, high-society gentleman named Niles calls a professional calligrapher and asks her to draft up invitations to an "ass slapping contest." Of course, the intention is to be as obnoxious as possible and make the calligrapher feel as uncomfortable as possible. That's the point of a crank call. The calligrapher declines, saying that she's "just a southern house-wife." That's her way of saying that an ass-slapping contest offends her delicate, conservative sensibilities. (Using "conservative" in an apolitical, cultural sense here.) I have a serious question.

Should we find this house-wife and prosecute her? Suppose she'd instead been asked to bake a cake for an "ass slapping contest"?

I hope you see what I'm getting at. The calligrapher's conservative sensibilities meant the project was extremely uncomfortable for her, so she declined. I think that's perfectly reasonable, and nobody should be able to compel you to serve them if they don't feel comfortable doing so. But apparently some people don't agree with me on this point. Apparently it's not sufficient to say, "Sorry, I'm not feeling it. Ask someone else to do it." Instead, you have to give a reason for declining. If the reason given doesn't pass muster, you're the fair target of a lawsuit.

I think it's possible to stake out a territory between "you have to bake a cake for a gay wedding" and "you don't have to do calligraphy for invitations to an 'ass slapping contest.'" But what's difficult is to make this kind of carve-up conform to a principle that any sane person recognizes. To do this without making it sound incredibly ad hoc requires some serious rhetorical gymnastics.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Hitch 22 - A Memoir

I thought I'd collect a list of some of my favorite passages from Christopher Hitchens' autobiography Hitch 22: A Memoir. I've read this book probably a dozen times. Actually I have it on audiobook, and it's The Hitch himself narrating. Very enjoyable. You will experience the full range of human emotions from this book. Hitchens sounds like "The Most Interesting Man In the World."

He coins many reusable phrases. "The sheer balls-aching tedium." I don't even remember the context for this one. "Hammer-blow heart attack", describing the very sudden death of his father who had "never spent a day in bed in his life." Referring to adolescent self-discovery, so to speak, at an English boarding school he says, "Most boys decided quite early on that, since their penises would evidently give them no rest at all, they would repay the favor by giving their penises no respite in return."

Describing his disenchantment with conventional politics: "I began, along with many, many of my contemporaries, to experience a furious disillusionment with 'conventional' politics. A bit young to be so cynical and so superior, you may think. My reply is that you should fucking well have been there and felt it for yourself...I hope never to lose the access to the outrage that I felt then." Maybe this falls flat on the page, but hearing his voice rise in pitch as he says, "you should fucking well have been there" makes me almost feel like I had "been there."

Referring to Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis: "I shall never forget where I was standing and what I was doing on the day he nearly killed me."

He recounts a hilarious story where his friend Martin Amis ropes him into going to a "massage parlor" with him. Martin Amis, himself a successful author, is doing research for a book (titled Money) and apparently clears his research with his wife. "I was later startled, not to say impressed, when I learned that he had "cleared" all this "research" with his then-wife, the fragrant and lofty Antonia. He telephoned her in London and, rather than temporize, informed her right away that: "I'm going to a hand-job parlor with the Hitch." Hitch didn't want anything to do with this expedition, but was unable to say "no":
He even had one all picked out: its front-name was the "Tahitia," a dire Polynesian-themed massage parlor, on lower Lexington Avenue. "And you," he informed me, "are fucking well coming with me." I wanted to say something girlish like, "Have I ever refused you anything?" but instead settled for something more masculine like "Do we know the form at this joint?" I could not possibly have felt less like any such expedition: I had a paint-stripping hangover and a sour-mouth, but he had that look of set purpose on his face that I well knew, and also knew could not be gainsaid. How bad could it be?...Pretty damn bad as it turned out.
I bust up laughing at "and you are fucking well coming with me" every time I get to this part. Every time. And "paint-stripping hangover" is one of those reusable phrases strewn throughout the book. (Apparently in the print edition he writes "paint-bubbling"; if "paint-stripping" is an improvisation for the audiobook it is absolutely brilliant.) I know exactly the feeling. He goes on:
Some of the working "hostesses" may have to simulate delight or even interest - itself a pretty cock-shriveling thought-but when these same ladies do the negotiating, they can shrug off the fake charm as a snake discards an unwanted skin.
The story is anti-climactic, by which I mean he doesn't have to go through with the sex (for all we know). He describes the bargaining process, in which "I wearily started to count out the ever-steepening fee, which was the only thing in the room that showed any sign of enlarging itself." It is the cash question that saves him, as he puts it.

With respect to "identity politics":
People began to intone the words "The Personal Is Political". At the instant I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was -cliche is arguably forgiven here-very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic "preference," to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or to ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words: "Speaking as a..." Then could follow any self-loving description.
He is describing 1969 in the above passage, but he could be talking about today.

"The one thing that the racist cannot manage is discrimination. He is indiscriminate by definition."

From Martin Amis: "He once rebuked some pedantic antagonist by saying the man lacked any sense of humor, but added that by this accusation he really intended to impugn his want of seriousness."

Quoting another literary friend, who apparently had a gift for hyperbole, describing someone's halitosis: "At this point his breath was undoing my tie."

A poem from Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror:
The history of Soviet Russia in five verses. 
There was an old bastard named Lenin,
Who did two or three million men in,
That's a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in,
That old bastard Stalin did ten in.
There is a long and sad section on the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was forced into hiding as credible threats were made against his life.
It was about this time that he took the "Proust Questionnaire" for Vanity Fair. One of the regular questions is: "What do you most dislike about your appearance?" His response: "Its infrequency."
Rushdie is the one who supplies The Hitch with his book title while listing off book titles that never were meant to be: The Big Gatsby, A Farewell to Weapons, Hitch-22. Hitchens, who was looking for a title to his autobiography, says, "Aha, got it!"

He describes "hoofing it" through Belfast at night in the era of IRA activity and being thrown against the wall by British soldiers with blackened faces. "Getting my breath back and managing a brief statement in my cut-glass Oxford tones, I was abruptly recognized as nonthreatening, brusquely advised to fuck off, and off I duly and promptly fucked." I love the split infinitive on "fuck off."

Correcting a Churchillism that goes "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." The Hitch had been to several war zones himself and had a few near misses. He corrects, "Catching the plane out with the whole skin is the best part by far." Perhaps you need to hear him read it in his own voice with his emphasis on "by far."

The book is a wonderful mix of humor, sadness, outrage, pride, and gratitude. Pick up a copy.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

False Positives, False Negatives, and Prescription Opioids

There is a fundamental trade-off between making fewer false positives and making fewer false negatives. Always be aware that both kinds of errors exist, that you can't decrease one without increasing the other, and be clear about which one you are favoring and why.

I am often annoyed by the way the media and politicians talk about social problems. Usually a social problem is discussed as if the solution were obvious and as if the only question was how hard to crank on the “Solve Problem” lever. Any discussion of trade-offs goes out the window, as do any problems with data quality, and questions about the flawed administration of the proposed solution.

Take prescription opioids. (Please.) News reports and demagoguing politicians often start with scary statistics about the number of overdose deaths. Or perhaps they completely dispense with the statistics, assuming that somebody else has already done the math and other boring stuff, and jump straight into their narrative. The problem here is supposedly that doctors are prescribing too many opioids, leading to too many overdose deaths and causing unwitting patients to become hopelessly addicted.

There are two kinds of errors relevant to this discussion. Prescribing someone opioids that they don’t actually need is one kind of error. Perhaps the person has an addictive personality, or has had a previous addiction to opioids or other drugs. Perhaps the person is a heavy drinker, or is on benzodiazepines or something else that could interact fatally with prescription opioids. Perhaps the person suffers sleep apnea, such that the respiratory suppression caused by high-dose opioids could be dangerous. Such people probably shouldn’t be prescribed opioids lightly, or should only get them with special counseling about the dangers, or should only get them if their pain is above a certain threshold. Giving such a person opioids that are unnecessary or potentially dangerous is an “error”, but it’s only one kind of error. This is a false positive: you think the person needs the medicine, but they really don’t.

The other kind of error is a “false negative”: the person needs the medicine but doesn’t get it. I hope we can all agree this is a very costly error. Some people have chronic pain that doesn't respond to anything else, so it would be unbelievably costly (I would even say cruel) to deny such a person their prescription. There is a fundamental trade-off here. If you set the threshold for treatment higher, you will get fewer false positives but more false negatives. There will always be errors of both kinds. An intelligent discussion acknowledges this at the outset and tries to optimize based on the relative costs of those kinds of errors.

“Make fewer mistakes” isn’t always an option. It would be glib to say, “We just need to do a better job of separating the patients who truly need prescription painkillers from those who don’t.” Sometimes we’re already doing the best we can do, and all the relevant information is already being collected. It won’t do much good to throw more resources at the problem. What, should we get multiple doctors to sign off on every prescription? Should we try to collect more information about the patient? The doctors usually already have the patient’s medical history. Should they be conducting in-depth interviews with the patient's family members about potential risk factors? We could try to go down these roads, but it quickly becomes very costly to acquire information of no more than dubious value.

This is not one of my “I’m just articulating the trade-off, not venturing an opinion” posts, although it probably could be if I stopped here. I have a very strong opinion on this topic. I think that a false positive is not very expensive, but a false negative is incredibly costly. I think that people who are in pain and think they would benefit from opioids should get them. I think they shouldn’t require permission. Even if some of them are misinformed, even if most of them are misinformed, to place restrictions on them runs the risk of cutting off a true pain sufferer from their only source of relief.

I also think that if people want to consume drugs recreationally, they should be able to do so. This will come to no surprise to anyone who has read a sampling of my blog posts.  From this perspective a “false positive” isn’t even a mistake, or not a costly mistake at any rate. Someone “mistakenly” acquires the drug that they enjoy using. So what? You can start bringing in the scary overdose statistics here, but this is a risk that the recreational opioid user takes on voluntarily. Certainly there are things that we might do to mitigate this risk: informing users of overdose risk factors, insisting that someone be present in the event of an overdose, etc. But at the end of the day adults need to be able to make those kinds of decisions for themselves.  You might not agree with my civil libertarian idea that adults should be able to make decisions for themselves. Perhaps you are a leftist paternalist who thinks that corporations foist products on unwary consumers who don’t actually want them, or perhaps you are a right wing paternalist who thinks that (certain) recreational drug use represents the abandonment of civilization. You don’t have to buy my drug libertarianism to recognize that there is a cost here. You have to acknowledge that restricting opioid prescriptions will mean that some people who really need them won’t get them. The net you build to catch recreational opioid users will ensnare a few chronic pain sufferers. It is worth reflecting on the relative costs of false positives and false negatives. Suppose you tighten the net on opioid prescriptions and wrongly snare one real chronic pain sufferer, whose only escape from hell-on-earth was his legal supply of opioid pain relievers. How many recreational opioid abusers would you have to deter to make this worth it? I say there is no number that will justify cutting off even a single chronic pain patient. (Am I jettisoning the concept of trade-offs I tried to instill above? Not really. It's just that I see a "false positive" as having almost zero cost, and a false negative as being unbelievably costly. Perhaps this makes me a demagogue, but anyway there you have it.) But whatever number you have in mind, you’d damn sure better be willing to justify it. There is no escaping the trade-off, but you can at least argue that some point on the false positive/false negative curve is optimal. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

In Defense of the Chotchkie's Manager From Office Space

Sometimes I find myself sympathizing with contemptible movie characters. At least, the intent is for the viewer to find them contemptible. But I find myself saying, "You know, this guy has a point."

In the movie Office Space, Jennifer Aniston's character Joanna works for Chotchkie's, a "fun" family restaurant. The servers at Chotchkie's are required to wear at least 15 pieces of "flair," crazy buttons and other crap that they can pin to their waiter uniforms. The manager is trying to lecture Joanna about how she's doing the "bare minimum", and Joanna attempts to secure the approval that she's in the clear.
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: We need to talk about your flair.
Joanna: Really? I... I have fifteen pieces on. I, also...
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: Well, okay. Fifteen is the minimum, okay?
Joanna: Okay.
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: Now, you know it's up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or... well, like Brian, for example, has thirty seven pieces of flair, okay. And a terrific smile.
Joanna: Okay. So you... you want me to wear more?
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: Look. Joanna.
Joanna: Yeah.
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie's for the atmosphere and the attitude. Okay? That's what the flair's about. It's about fun.
Joanna: Yeah. Okay. So more then, yeah?
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, okay? You do want to express yourself, don't you?
Joanna: Yeah, yeah.
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: Okay. Great. Great. That's all I ask.
Mike Judge gives a classic Judge-esque performance as the Chotchkie's manager, including a truly obnoxious eye-roll when Joanna apparently isn't getting his point. I'm pretty sure the intent of this scene was to build sympathy for Joanna, who has to work for an arbitrary, lecturing boss. That interpretation would fit in with the rest of the movie, which is more broadly about the banalities of working life. But I find myself siding with Judge.

Sometimes employees really are looking to do the bare minimum, and they seek a kind of safe harbor to be defined by their bosses. This is the behavior of a low-value employee: Just tell me exactly what I need to do and I'll do that. Careerist corporate drones might want to have the rules clearly laid out so they can game those rules to maximum advantage. The extreme example of this is public sector employees whose pay and retirement benefits are literally set by a formula, and they work (or "work") to maximize the payout of that formula. What's actually expected is that you go a little bit beyond what the letter of the law demands (or what the employment contract or job description demands). Or perhaps what's expected is that you mildly skirt the letter of the law. Some rules are meant to be routinely flouted but need to be written down to prevent excessive violations. Good managers need to be a little bit vague about what the true expectations are, such that they don't get gamed by clever-but-lazy employees. Not to be too "self-help"-y here, but it's good to have an entrepreneurial attitude toward work rather than a bureaucratic formula-maximizer mindset.

That's why I take a sympathetic view of Mike Judge's character Stan. He wasn't trying to be obnoxious or confusing. He was just trying to lecture Joanna on what it means to have a good work ethic. Perhaps he saw unfulfilled potential in her, and he wanted to bring it out. And Joanna just totally misses the point.

While I'm at it...I think the Nicelanders in Wreck It Ralph were right to exclude him from their anniversary party. The formula from Fight Club is perfectly appropriate. ("AxBxC equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.") And Magneto had some great ideas.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Economic Lessons: Shopping for Eyeglasses

Out of Pocket vs. Third Party Payments

I recently had to buy new glasses, because the hinge on my old pair broke. I was paying out of pocket. The initial quoted price was just above $400. I kind of balked because that was way more expensive than what I expected. Then the sales person said that the “anti-reflective coating” made up about $150 of that figure. I said “No thanks” to a feature of dubious value.

I think this is the kind of shopping people would do if they paid more out-of-pocket for routine, predictable healthcare expenses. Some people think that if patients have to pay in cash instead of paying though a third party, they will skimp on important medicine and injure their health. I think this is nonsense. A healthcare market of first-party payments doesn’t imply skimping on vaccines and routine screenings. It just means we say "No" to the anti-glare coating. Maybe it means we double up in our hospital rooms instead of getting our own suite (at least whenever someone isn’t contagious or ultra-sensitive to disturbances). Or maybe it means we shop around for the best MRI price (David Goldhill describes doing exactly this in his book Catastrophic Care).

“Affordability” is a red herring. If you can’t afford the glasses with the anti-glare coating, then you also can’t afford the insurance premiums that will pay in full for the glasses with the anti-glare coating. Likewise, if you can’t afford routine check-ups or monthly birth control, then you can’t afford an insurance policy that will pay for those things. Obviously, your insurance premiums are calculated to cover such expenses, so mandating that insurance cover more things doesn't make those things more affordable. If anything it does the opposite. You get gold-plated hospital stays instead of austere-yet-functional hospital visits. Making healthcare more affordable to people with low incomes requires explicit transfers (government programs and/or private charity), not insurance coverage mandates. 

What follows is a completely unrelated point, so don't stop here just because something about the above section put you off. The next piece could be a completely separate blog post.

Price Discrimination

"Price discrimination" simply means charging different prices for the same product because some customers are willing to pay more. Alternatively, you can think of it as meaning sellers offering discounts to capture some of the potential customers who won't pay the listed price. These are economically equivalent descriptions, but for some reason people balk at the first one. They always imagine that they are the ones paying more, and the seller is trying to squeeze them. But half they time you are the person being offered a discount because you wouldn't pay full price.

Price discrimination exists because some sellers have very high fixed costs. An optometrist's office has to operate a building. They need to maintain an inventory of glasses and frames, many of which will  never be sold because they are the display model. They need to buy equipment for performing eye exams, pay someone to man the front desk, etc. These costs will exist even on a bad day or bad week, when they have few customers. The average price of the eyeglasses must cover these costs. (Or the average price of eyeglasses + eye exam, or whatever bundle is being sold, must cover these costs.) Say I divide my total monthly expenses (including machinery, utilities, labor, rent, return on capital to the business owner) by the number of customer's serviced for a given year and it comes to $400 per customer. I'd better be collecting at least that much from each customer, or I'll be going out of business. 

But wait. Maybe it's very cheap to service one additional customer. Maybe the frames and lenses only really cost $20 or so, and perhaps nobody's busy right now so servicing an extra customer is practically free from a "cost of labor" standpoint. Maybe if you add up the costs of servicing one additional customer, it only comes to $50 or so. If you could offer a random passer-by "Eye exam plus glasses for $100?" you should do so. Your business would profit to the tune of $50 from such a deal. Unless everyone else gets wise to this special deal and starts asking for it, in which case your revenue will only be $100 per customer when you really need $400. (Perhaps you can't drum up enough additional volume to make this deal worth extending to everyone. The community serviced by an optometrist's office is limited, and people only need new prescriptions every few years or so.) 

So you have to be clever about it. You have to say things like, "Well, the price for the frames, plus lenses, is $425." (customer winces) "Of course, that includes the anti-reflective coating, which is $150 of that total." (recalculates price, customer accedes.) This is precisely the negotiation I had with the salesperson. I strongly suspected that the anti-reflective coating is a low production-cost add-on, but a useful bargaining chip if one wants to price-discriminate. They can still nab the marginal customer (like me) who might balk at the full $425 and go buy my glasses elsewhere. I have my prescription, anyway, so I can simply buy glasses online if I need to. 

My suspicion that this was some kind of price discrimination was confirmed later when I went to pick up my glasses. I had said "No" to the anti-glare coating, but they added it free of charge because it would  have taken them longer to fill my order without the coating! So for whoever manufactured my lenses, adding the coating is actually their default. They have to special-order the lenses without the coating. It's probably cheaper to produce lenses with the coating. But it is a very useful way to price discriminate. If the true cost of production were and additional $150 for the coating, they would have probably found some way to get the money out of me, or asked me if waiting was acceptable. 

This reminded me of a story about a Hewlett Packard high-speed laser printer, which was more expensive than the "normal speed" model. The normal-speed model was actually identical to the high-speed printer, except that it had an extra chip that slowed it down. It was cheaper to just build the high-speed printer. The low-speed version was created simply to be able to offer a lower price to more price-sensitive customers and to keep up the facade that there was a difference in quality. This story is told in one of Tim Harford's books (The Logic of Life or The Undercover Economist, though I can't remember which one). 

A favorite write/economist of mine, David Friedman, also once used the example of selling eyeglasses as an illustration of price discrimination. It was from one of his class lecture recordings, several of which I've listened to. They are available at his website. It began: "I'm selling you a pair of eyeglasses. I say, 'That'll be $40.' You don't wince. 'For each lens.' Still no wincing. 'Plus $80 for the frame.' What have I just done?" What follows is a discussion of price discrimination. Sellers who have very high fixed costs have an incentive to figure out how price sensitive their customers are, so they can offer discounts to customers who they would otherwise lose.

Customer Service

Eight years ago, when I last bought eyeglasses, I learned an important lesson about customer service. I bought a pair of eyeglasses from the optometrist who did my eye exam, and I bought another pair from 39dollarglasses.com. Interestingly, in both cases there was a mistake in the prescription. The optometrist immediately recognized the error, and re-ordered me a pair of glasses. Of course I didn't have to pay a second time for their error. In the case of 39dollarglasses.com, the glasses I got were obviously the wrong prescription. I don't know if I had entered it incorrectly on their website or if the error was theirs, but they were completely unwilling to own any portion of the mistake. In order to correct my prescription, they asked that I send back the pair they had sent me, which I did. Then they asked for a $16 fee. Then, later, they said they wouldn't process the re-order until I sent an additional $26. I just rolled my eyes and paid it, but vowed never to buy anything from them ever again.

The pair I had purchased from the optometrist was more expensive in sheer dollar terms than the pair I had purchased from 39dollarglasses.com. But the optometrist was selling me more than just the glasses. They were selling a promise to make good on the order. 39dollarglasses.com offers a stripped-down, bare-bones product with minimal customer service and (apparently) no promise to actually make good on an order. The optometrist's office, having sunk a lot of expenses into building and maintaining a brick-and-mortar business, knows that it needs to keep its customers happy or lose a future revenue stream. All things considered, the pair of glasses I bought on line was probably slightly cheaper than the pair I bought from the optometrist, but it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth. There's no deep economic lesson here, other than "you get what you pay for." It was a pain to navigate 39dollarglasses's almost non-existent customer service, and it gave me the feeling of having been robbed. It was probably worth the extra cash to have the optometrist settle the deal and smooth out any mistakes in the order, having that built into the price of the glasses. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Is My Driver Tracking App Giving Me Bad Advice?

I have an app on my iPhone that tracks my driving behavior. It's called "Drive Well", but there are numerous incarnations of the same concept. It uses my phone's accelerometer and location services to figure out where I'm driving, how I'm driving, how fast I'm driving, if I'm making too many hard breaks, and so on

The concept is fundamentally sound. These kinds of devices have been tested in the market for almost a decade now, and insurance companies and data scientists have been pouring over the collected data. The data truly are predictive of future auto accidents. If you make a lot of hard breaks, you're probably a careless driver. You aren't leaving enough space between your vehicle and the one in front of you, you respond too late to risks that more observant drivers would anticipate, etc. If you speed (above and beyond normal "speeding" that everyone does), you are more likely to cause accidents, and the accidents that you cause are likely to be more severe. If you corner too sharply, if you play with your phone while driving, if you accelerate too quickly, then you are more likely to have an accident. And, of course, the more miles you drive and the more time spent on the road, the more likely you are to get into an accident through sheer exposure to the risk. Someone who had analyzed this kind of data told me that it can replace an insurance company's entire rate plan. That is to say, directly measuring driving behavior is as predictive as measuring everything knowable about the person's demographics (age, gender, marital status, credit history, state and zip code, prior accident history, etc.). The predictive power of this information can be validated against enormous, statistically credible datasets. The signal is real. These things are predictive of future auto accidents.

Still, I think that the app sometimes gives me bad advice. I keep getting dinged for "rapid acceleration," and my app tells me I should cool it. It's true that I rapidly accelerate to get up to speed on the interstate, even in town. It's probably true that people who accelerate rapidly statistically have more accidents, and this generalization probably applies to me whether I'd like it to or not. Please don't think I'm special pleading that "In my case it's different." But in those particular situations where I am accelerating rapidly to match the flow of traffic, I would be less safe if I were to slow it down. In other words, the app is correctly telling me that I have a higher-than-average accident frequency (on this one count, not in total, as my other driving behaviors are good), but possibly giving me bad advice on how to improve my driving.

Someone familiar with this driving behavior data once told me that driving too slow is actually predictive of accident frequency. This makes sense. If someone is driving too slow, they are probably in an unfamiliar place, possibly looking for their exit or house number. Such a distracted driver is likely to cause an accident. But it would be wrong to say, "You should drive fast because slow driving correlates with high accident frequency." No, driving fast while you're distracted and confused probably makes it even more likely that you'll get into an accident. The statistical methods used in predictive models are not capable of teasing out what is causal and what is mere correlation.

I don't want to over-encourage this kind of second-guessing. Statistical methods often surprise us. And people have funny ways of convincing themselves that their vices are actually good for them. "My speeding is fine, it's the slow drivers who drive the actual speed limit who are causing the accidents!" (Loud annoying buzzer sound!) "I've driven home drunk many times and never had a problem. I'm actually safer, because I drive extra careful to avoid police scrutiny." (Loud annoying buzzer sound!) Don't be that guy. But a touch of skepticism is warranted. No statistical method will tell you which behaviors are merely correlational, such that changing them won't affect your accident risk (or will affect it adversely). Only human ingenuity and a cleverly designed test will be able to establish what is a truly causal effect.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Illinois and Unfunded Liability

Illinois has $130 billion in unfunded liabilities and just shy of 13 million in population. So very roughly speaking the burden of those liabilities is $10,000 for every man, woman, and child in Illinois.That's the problem. Almost none of the discussions of Illinois politics really cut to the heart of the matter. Any serious discussion about Illinois' fiscal problems would recognize the magnitude of the problem and then state clearly whose ox is going to get gored: the taxpayer's ox, or the pensioner's ox.

You could make this $10,000/person figure more meaningful in various ways. One could specify the cost per household rather than per individual. (After all, what does a $10k unfunded liability mean to my non-tax-paying children?) Or by netting out the benefit to Illinois retirees, such that those people are have a positive net balance, and the remainder of the population owes more than the $10k. (After all, what does a "$10k unfunded liability" mean to you if you're the recipient of the promised payments? Those aren't a "liability" to you!) Different people are burdened with different portions of that liability. For simplicity's sake let's call it $10,000. It's a substantial stack of money that we're all being asked to cough up.

Most of the commentary I see on this problem is completely unserious.

Here would be a somewhat serious answer: "Make the taxpayers cough up the full $10,000, and pay the full value of the promised benefits." The actual problem of a $10,000 unfunded liability doesn't go away, but at least this "solution" indicates who will pay for it. It at least says, "Hey, Joe Taxpayer, your ox will get gored. Johny Pensioner's ox will not get gored at all." Note that you wouldn't have to tax the $10,000/citizen all at once, but you'd have to raise taxes such that the average citizen pays an additional $10,000 eventually.

Another somewhat serious answer: "Make the pensioners take a total haircut on that $130 billion unfunded liability. Johny Pensioner's ox will get gored completely. Joe Taxpayer's ox will not get gored at all." Again, there isn't a "solution". There's $10,000 worth of "pain" per person to spread around. That doesn't go away when you specify who takes what proportion of that hit. But at least this is an adult conversation about how to spread that pain around.

Some unserious answer are things like, "Bruce Rauner is a big meany. If only he weren't so mean, we could solve this." No. If someone waved a magic wand over Bruce Rauner, that purified his soul and changed his alignment from Lawful Evil to Lawful Good, there would still be $130 billion worth of unfunded liabilities.

Or, "Mike Madigan is a corrupt deal-broker, drunk on his own power." Sorry, but you could wave the same magic wand over Madigan and you'd still have this unfunded liability of $10,000 per person to divvy up. We can talk about Madigan's long career, how he should have solved the problem earlier, how he and his colleagues bought off a powerful voting-block by overpromising future benefits, how he manipulated the liability with unreasonable rate-of-return assumptions, how an honest way to raise state employee compensation is to vote on a tax increase specifically tied to increasing employee salaries (such that there is a democratic check and a transparent budget). But after all the blame-passing, the damage is still done. You can lay all the blame on one guy if you want. There is still a $130 billion hole, and it's too late to fill it.

Apparently some people think that the budget problems would be completely solved if we just "eliminated corruption". I think this is facile. The bulk of the unfunded liabilities are for long-term retirement benefits to state employees and teachers. We could maybe have an adult conversation about how Illinois spends too much, and special interests capture some of that spending. Surely there is pork to cut out of the Illinois budget, and this would get us some of the way there. I would absolutely applaud an effort to make comprehensive cuts to Illinois' budget. But it would leave the bulk of that $130 billion untouched.

There are some hard constraints. The language of the Illinois constitution forbids reneging on a contract. See here: " Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired." So to legally change the benefits we'd have to have a constitutional amendment. Another inescapable constraint: states can only raise taxes so high before they chase away their tax base. That's already happening in Illinois. People are seeing the writing on the wall and leaving the state. The Laffer Curve is real, but its effects are particularly acute at the state level where people can pack up and leave easily.

One might appeal to moral principles rather than practical constraints. "A pension is a promise" one might say. But there's a problem with this. "Yeah, a promise to rob me because you failed to adequately fund your pension!" one might fairly retort. There is no clear moral trump card here. While one can make the case that the pensioner's promised benefits ought to be paid, failing to acknowledge the rights and interests of whoever is paying seems to be a pretty serious omission. Anyone who just thinks "It's so obvious" that the pensioners should get 100% of their benefits, or that the taxpayer should not be liable at all for the badly managed public finances, isn't really thinking seriously about the problem. When there is a conflict of rights, the appropriate thing is to at least acknowledge both parties before you start talking about splitting the difference or resolving entirely in one party's favor. 

I'm not trying to take some lame "split-the-difference" middle-ground approach here. I have opinions, and in a different kind of post I would argue for a certain kind of resolution. I would make an argument for whose ox deserves to get gored more or less than the other party's. But this isn't that post. I'm merely trying to articulate a fair framing of the issue, which requires acknowledging that somebody's ox gets gored under any conceivable "solution." This is at its core a conflict of rights.

*The $130 billion figure appears to be under-counting. This piece from the Illinois Policy Institute suggests it's more like $200 billion when you count local government liabilities.

Biographies of the Presidents

I've been reading biographies of the presidents since some time in March. I've been going in order. I started at the beginning with one about George Washington, and I just recently started a biography of Andrew Jackson. This post won't be a deep dive into presidential history, but I've found this project interesting. Just a few comments that you might find useful.


  1. This way of reading history has a built-in redundancy. So if you're actually trying to learn what happened (the sequence of events, the significance of various events, etc.) this is a very reinforcing way to go about it.
  2. Some of these men didn't like each other, so you will get opposing points-of-view. Naturally someone who writes a book about John Quincy Adams probably thought he was a swell fellow and probably has some critical things to say about Andrew Jackson, and vice versa. John Adams (Sr.) and Thomas Jefferson were likewise political rivals. It's good to get at least two sides to a story.
  3. Why would someone write a just-the-facts book about someone who's been dead 200 years? Surely that already existed. Someone who writes this generation's definitive biography of George Washington thinks he has something special and unique to say. You certainly will read the canonical history with all the critical details and events, but you also get to hear the author's bullshit theory about what really happened, what George's true motives were, etc. Reading these books, you don't get the overwhelming sensation that the author is saying, "Psst! But this is what really happened that nobody else noticed but me..." but you do get a hint of it now and then.
  4. I picked something that was favorable to Andrew Jackson (I think, and so far it is). I already know the bad stuff. I have heard all about how he was a horrible person. I'm not worried that some folksy telling of his story is going to turn me around. But he probably deserves his due. We often remember him as a genocidal Indian killer, and he certainly was. But did you know he adopted an Indian orphan? History is a little more complicated than we sometimes like to believe. 
  5. If you come at this project with an attitude that "everyone from that time was horrible because they had horrible moral values", you won't learn very much. Yes, many of these men owned slaves (the Adams-es didn't). But it's a bit self-indulgent to think that we wouldn't have been just as morally compromised if we'd lived in that society. It takes uncommon courage to challenge a widely accepted practice in your own time. John Quincy Adams got death threats for his anti-slavery stance. And he didn't even introduce a bill to limit slavery; he merely defended the right of petitioners to raise the issue during a time when there was a gag order preventing any discussion of the topic in congress. I think it's important to give people credit for taking the baby steps toward progress that are achievable in their own time. I like to say, "Oh, so you're going to judge someone who lived 200 years ago by the moral standards of today? For your next trick, will you judge a small child's art?"
  6. Jefferson comes off as flighty and completely irresponsible with his finances. I have less respect for him as some kind of great philosopher. If he'd kept his house in order, he might have bequeathed freedom to his slaves upon his death, which George Washington actually did. His strained finances at the end of his life (and through it) ruled this out of the question. At the risk of forgetting everything I said in point (5) above, I think this compromises his character. He failed to walk the walk when it came to freeing slaves, partly because he indulged in luxuries he couldn't actually afford. I still have an overall positive view of him, but the flaws in his personal character are pretty glaring. 
  7. The Adams-es come off as likable and morally upright, also quite brilliant. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Repurposing an Old Joke to Express How Much I Despise Corporate Management Seminars

Here is the original version of the joke, which most people have probably heard. (It's the original inspiration for the "Death By Snu-Snu" episode of Futurama, actually titled "Amazon Women In the Mood.") Here goes.
Two explorers are captured by a tribe of natives. The tribal leaders says to them, “You have trespassed on our sacred lands. There are but two penalties in our society, and you may choose which to suffer. One is a multi-day corporate management seminar. The other is death by unga-bunga.” 
Explorers 1 and 2 look at each other. 
Explorer 1: Uh, yeah, we’ll take the death by unga-bunga.
Explorer 2: Yeah. It’s, like, not even close.
Explorer 1: I don’t even actually know what unga-bunga is, but I already know I’d rather have that then the other thing. (Explorer 2 whispers something into Explorer 1’s ear.) Oh, yeah, that’s way better than the other thing.
Explorer 2: Yeah, the other thing is like being unga-bungad for eight straight hours a day, but without the sweet release of death.
Explorer 1: Look, there will probably be other explorers stumbling though here. If you see more guys who look like us, just go ahead and unga-bunga them on sight.
Explorer 2: Yeah, really. If they *do* pick the other thing, it’s because they don’t know what they’re getting into. 
Perhaps silly posts like this one will ruin my credibility when I attempt a more serious post in the future. It's worth it. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Environmental Regulation In Practice

Excerpt from The Economists View of the World by Steven E. Rhoads:

It would be incorrect to suggest that all the federal air pollution laws and regulations have accomplished nothing. Lawrence White find, for example, that the motor vehicle standards have led to substantial reductions in emissions. White also finds, however, that alternative approaches could have done as well at much less cost. And all in all the clean air gains over the last decade are less than one might expect could be achieved from polices costing over $25 billion a year. 
Economists are not surprised by this unimpressive performance. Crandall notes that “no organization could possibly cope with the continuing flow of legislation and the detailed regulatory responses required of EPA.” For example, there are more than 200,0000 existing stationary sources subject to air-emission limitations. Approximately 23,000 of these are major sources, each capable of emitting more than 100 tons of pollutant per year. Though 94 percent of these major sources are in “compliance” this does not necessarily mean that they have done anything. Typically it means that they are continuing to use the required “best engineering practices.” In most cases the firms are certified on the basis of their own reports that they are complying with the state plan and all relevant standards. The General Accounting Office has found many errors in reports of compliance. As one would expect, the over 1,400 major sources not even “certified” as being in compliance are the most serious sources of pollution. 
These uncertified major sources use the courts to fight the EPA regulations with great vigor. As one authority notes, each sources argues that “(1) he is in compliance with the regulations; (2) if not, it is because the regulation is unreasonable as a general rule; (3) if not, then the regulation is unreasonable in this specific case; (4) if not, then it is up to the regulatory agency to tell him how to comply; (5) if forced to take steps recommended by the agency, he cannot be held responsible for the results; and (6) he needs more time.” The EPA, unable to fight every battle, negotiates as best as it can, and , for the worst violators, it often welcomes agreements promising future action. If not carried out, these agreements are then subject to renegotiations.
This back-and-forth between regulators and private industry will sound familiar to any actuary who has had to defend a rate filing against a hostile department of insurance. Some background. In every state (except Wyoming, bless them), insurance companies have to file their rate plans with the state department of insurance (DOI). The department then reviews the filing and sometimes comes up with a litany of objections, the best of which are only borderline relevant. The insurer must often argue with the state DOI: our methodology is sound and you misunderstood it, the statute you cite does not apply in this case, your instructions contradict other instructions you gave us on a previous round of objections, etc. My job is in part to respond to these questions. It is interesting to see that this process takes place in other regulated industries. I'm curious if the process is just as dysfunctional in emissions regulation, an area where unlike insurance regulation there is an actual externality/market failure problem.

I was going to write a much longer post about the pointlessness of regulation in theory and the dysfunction of regulation in practice. I'll save that for another post that I can dedicate specifically to insurance regulation. But it seems like my experience with the regulatory state generalizes pretty well.

The above post is leading up to an argument for pollution taxes, rather than having "emissions standards." You can see the problem from the excerpt: What standard ought to apply to my factory? This kind of unclear law leads to endless argumentation, legal battles, and delays. A tax gets around this by essentially saying, "Pollute all you want, but you will pay the social cost of that pollution."

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Study on Auto Accident Frequency in Legal Cannabis States

This story has been making the rounds. It was actually e-mailed to me by my boss. A study by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI, pronounced "Hildy") supposedly finds that states that recently legalized recreational cannabis have seen an increase in auto accidents. They reach this result using a naive sort of time-series trend analysis. This is highly dubious.  I wanted to get down a few quick reactions.

- Why are they looking just at auto collision? Why not also look at the liability coverages? Presumably liability property damage should show a similar trend. If there are more stoners and these stoners are hitting things with their cars, it should show up here. Liability bodily injury should ideally show the same trend, although admittedly this is a lower frequency coverage, so noise can swamp even a real trend. Still, it's another data source to validate their results on collision.

-In Colorado the overall collision frequency is about 5%. (As in, 5% of motorists will file a claim in a given year.) A 3% increase to this (the effect overall effect size found in the HLDI study) changes this to a whopping 5.15%. We're talking about small potatoes here.

-And yet...the effect is actually too large to be plausible. According to this document (second table, past month cannabis use rates), the population of users in Colorado rose from 7.3% in 2008/09 to 14.7% in 2014/15. So let's say 7% of the population were previously non-users but have become somewhat-regular users of cannabis (this figure would be 4% for Oregon and also 4% for Washington). For 7% of the population to drive a 3% increase in accidents, the accident frequency for those drivers would have to increase by an implausibly large 43%, which I think is higher than what anyone actually believes. Maybe if all of these new "past month users" were high all the time, but even then this is near the high end of what anyone believes is a plausible effect size.

-The calculated increase in collision frequency was 14% in Colorado, 6% in Washington, and 4.5% in Oregon. But when calculated on a "states combined" basis, the effect size was only 3%, which is smaller than any individual state. There's no mystery here; see Simpson's Paradox. The aggregate effect size can be smaller than any group's effect size (generally, whatever you're measuring) for a number of reasons. I just want to note the very wide range of estimates. It would be a mistake to pick any single one of them as the effect size. Considering my argument in the preceding bullet point, the by-state effect sizes are even more implausible than the overall effect size.

-If you look at a time series of collision frequency (industry-wide data) for Colorado and its comparison states (Utah, Nebraska, and Wyoming), nothing really jumps out at you. Colorado and Utah are sort of trending up, Nebraska is sort of flat, and Wyoming is sort of trending down. But you could easily look at the pattern and say that collision frequency is basically flat, but oscillating randomly around the 4-5% range. Any trends picked out by your eye or by regression analysis are likely to be spurious. The study is looking for very small trends (in the -5% to +5% annual change range), and saying: "We should predict that Colorado would be X based on how its neighbors are trending, but instead it's 14% above X." And it's attributing this difference entirely to cannabis legalization. Similar for the other states. This is not even close to identifying cannabis as a causal factor.

Perhaps I'll have more later.

One more thing. From the link up top: "Moore of the Highway Loss Data Institute said they hope the study's findings will be considered by lawmakers and regulators in states where marijuana legalization is under consideration or recently enacted." Matt Moore is a fine gentlemen. I've met him once and I've had several e-mail contacts with him. But I sincerely hope that lawmakers will not use his study. The study is a fine piece of time-series analysis, perhaps a good exercise for a first course in econometrics. But it's pretty lousy social science.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

How Drug Laws Degrade Respect for the Rule of Law

Sometimes I see a traffic stop in which several police cars have pulled over a single vehicle. The driver and passengers are standing by the side of the road, and the police are searching the vehicle. The driver and passengers are almost always young, male, and black.

My thoughts are always, "Jeez, they're looking to bust some poor kid for drugs." I'm guessing if they searched a lot of similar vehicles, they could occasionally find a joint or a dime bag and make a few arrests. Once in a while they'd turn up a "distribution" quantity of illegal drugs. I think these kinds of traffic stops are, for lack of a better term, complete bullshit. It is not the proper role of government to harass innocent motorists in search of this kind of so-called contraband.

But perhaps this is completely unfair. Maybe the police know the individuals in the vehicle. Maybe they were looking for one of them specifically in order to question them about a recent crime. Maybe the vehicle, or one closely matching its description, was spotted at the scene of a crime. (A real crime.) Maybe a similar vehicle was recently spotted speeding away from the scene of a murder, and the police are legitimately searching for the murder weapon. 

It could be that the true explanation of the traffic stop is some combination of the legitimate policing functions described in the above paragraph. And yet my mind always jumps to "They're looking to bust some poor black kids for a bullshit drug charge." I don't think that my gut reaction is terribly unfair, either, because the police really do harass a lot of innocent people in the enterprise of drug law enforcement.  

So here I am. I'm a pretty average guy. An actuary. My job is literally to compute averages. Mid 30s. Never been arrested or had any trouble with the authorities. And yet when I see a fairly routine police activity, I'm quietly cursing them and assuming they are up to no good, because so often they are up to no good. I'm not the only one who feels this way, either. I don't instinctively react this way to the sight of law enforcement. There are many law enforcement folks at the martial arts club I am in, and I like all of them personally. I think, "Thank goodness these folks are learning how to physically handle another human being, so they don't one day unnecessarily resort to deadly force. I will coach them the best I can so they have the confidence to handle a bad situation without escalating." When I see a police car patrolling my neighborhood, I'm glad they're there. If I saw one pulling over and ticketing one of the young morons who speeds through my neighborhood, I'd quietly cheer.

A vehicle search is very different from a ticket, though. When I see a search, I have two thoughts at once: "That cop had better know for certain that that kid did something wrong" and "That's rarely the case." Feel free to write me off as being completely unfair, but just understand that this perception exists. It's a pretty common attitude, even among "upstanding taxpayers." My calling attention to it doesn't change anything. I should be able to see police officers doing their job and not have to second-guess their motives. If cops only harassed suspected murderers, thieves, batterers, and rapists, I could rest easy. But my knowledge of the injustices of drug policing forces me to do this kind of second-guessing. I think that for a police force to function properly, it needs to command the respect of the public it supposedly serves. Drug enforcement precludes them from earning that respect. 

Inefficiency of High Taxes and Large Government Sectors

There are some inefficiencies that are due to the sheer size of government and the required revenue to run such a government. A government that consumes 10% of GDP is categorically different from one that consumes 40% of revenue. The latter case isn’t just the former case scaled up by a factor of 4; the latter creates problems that don’t exist at all in the former case.

Take tax avoidance. Rich people and big businesses hire teams of lawyers and tax accountants to lower their tax bill. If you can craft a legal argument that a large expense is tax-deductible, you might be able to save your company, say, $10 million. Your employer will be willing to pay up to $10 million for those savings. From the standpoint of society as a whole, resources used to argue over who gets what are a sheer waste. The loss to society isn’t the $10 million in lost government revenue. The real loss is the alternative uses of those brilliant legal and accounting minds employed to minimize tax bills. With a very low tax rate, the tax code could be very simple. There could be no tax deductions at all, so there’s no game of “thinly slicing the salami” over what is or isn’t a legal deduction. One could do away with capital taxes, which inefficiently double-tax income that has already been earned and taxed (originally as labor income). It could all be replaced with a simple income or sales tax. But the massive revenue required to run a large government sector has led to the taxation of almost all transactions, which inherently means multiple rounds of taxation on any given dollar of earned income.

In the city where I work, there are several buildings in the downtown area that have been vacant for years. (This has changed very recently, but there was a long period of perfectly usable yet unused building space.) Someone suggested to me that this is just runaway speculation: someone is sitting on a property because it could be worth a fortune some day. But I suspect this explanation doesn’t quite cut it. If the owners are able to write off depreciation, then a vacant building can be a substantial “tax asset” to a wealthy owner. That probably doesn’t make it worthwhile to buy and hold a bunch of vacant buildings, but it can certainly move the margin of “acceptable sale price” for the owner. It means that buildings remain vacant longer than they should, for inefficient tax avoidance reasons. I don’t know how big a deal this is, but surely there are other examples of this phenomenon. We have some people holding onto these crumbling "tax assets", whereas in a saner world these things would be seen as a pure loss. The owners would sell these properties to someone who places a real value on them, and society as a whole would derive some kind of use from them. With very low rates of taxation, this becomes almost a non-issue. With 30-40% rates of taxation, the write-off becomes substantial. We miss out on the apartments, restaurants, offices, and stores that those buildings might have become.

None of this is to say it's easy to simply trim our waistlines and cut government to 10% of GDP. Sure, that would create some losers along with some winners. (It's easier than you probably think, though. The big budget items, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, could be mostly replaced by a forced savings policy. We would no longer have those huge liabilities requiring high tax rates.) In this post I am not arguing for a huge reduction in government. Rather I am pointing out that a large government has very high costs, which scale up much faster than 1-for-1. A public sector that consumes 50% of GDP is much more than five times as costly as a public sector that consumes 10% of GDP. The real cost probably scales up with the square or cube of the size of government, rather than a simple linear scaling. My point here is to articulate a trade-off, not to state where we should sit on the trade-off curve. There are costs here that we should face with our eyes wide open. There is the entrepreneur who fails to sell his stock portfolio to invest in a private start-up, because he doesn't want to incur a capital gain this year. There is the business that is worth starting under a zero (or at least single-digit) tax rate, but which is rendered unprofitable at a 35% tax rate. There is the bloating of home sizes, because a more expensive home leads the a larger tax asset (because of the mortgage interest deduction). There is the implicit favoring of debt financing over equity financing because of the high corporate tax rates (because interest paid on debt is now a tax asset). There are the thousands of other distortions that don't come to mind at the moment but that economists spend their lives researching.Ideally taxes are structured so as to minimize distortions.  You don't want a tax to cause someone to zig rather than zag. (Maybe you do if it's a Pigouvian pollution tax, but if the purpose is to collect revenue you want to minimize distortions.) If having a very large government sector is worth all these collateral costs, someone should be explicitly arguing that "It's worth the cost, because the benefits are so large" rather than blithely ignoring the costs or claiming they don't exist. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Government Gives Us the Illusion of Control

Sloppy language can betray hidden assumptions. The case for this-or-that government intervention often employs such sloppy language. I want to explore an example here.

The case for government often rests on an assumption that government action gives us control over a problem, whereas non-government solutions don’t. I often hear phrases such as, “You can’t just leave that to the marketplace.” Or  “What if there isn’t enough charity? Won’t some people get left out in the cold?” Or “Should we just let people do whatever drugs they want? Like, all the time?”

Implicitly there is this assumption that government gives us a handle on social problems. We have some kind of social problem: poverty, crime, greed, discrimination, whatever. It is a mistake to insist that leaving the problem to the marketplace is “doing nothing.” There are always private individuals working hard at solving existing problems. Some of these problems are very difficult, even inherently unsolvable. The great mistake is to think that “government” gives us a control lever over this problem, and the only question is how hard to crank the lever. One might ask, can you think of no examples of government intervention backfiring? Don’t welfare programs create very high marginal tax rates for the beneficiaries, discouraging work and leading to greater poverty? Doesn’t drug prohibition create an unpredictable, violent black market and lead to more overdoses? Do state-run services never run out of resources, such that the needy get left out in the cold anyway? Aren’t those private citizens who are supposedly stingy with their charitable givings the very same taxpayers who fund the welfare state? Should we suppose those people will suddenly become more "generous" in one context than the other?

Markets are an imperfect way of doing things. Government is another imperfect way of doing things. Both solutions are unpredictable. Both operate under enormous uncertainty. Market institutions and government institutions both often fail to achieve their stated goals. Let’s not implicitly favor one over the other. If anyone actually believes, “This government program will solve this problem, and with relative certainty!” let them say so plainly. How much private effort goes into solving that particular problem? How well does it work? What has been the track record of other government programs (similar to the one being proposed)? What can be learned from history? From other countries trying similar approaches? Are there countries where the problem is much smaller or doesn’t exist, but where the government is “doing nothing”? What’s needed here is a comparison of institutions. What one often actually gets is this glib presumption that the government intervention will work as intended.

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about. See this video with Tibor Machan on William F. Buckley's show Firing Line, around the 14 minute mark. Ernest Van den Haag apparently thinks he has a terrific "gotcha": either government intervenes or orphans starve. Van den Haag is far too glib. Bryan Caplan pointed out in an excellent post from a few years ago that every system eventually has to say "tough luck". Sure, sometimes private charity is inadequate and somebody gets thrown to the wolves. But this happens under a robust welfare state, too. (The very familiar phrase "falling through the cracks" expresses this phenomenon.)  Van den Haag offers a vaguely worded historical example of orphans starving because of inadequate private charity, apparently not realizing that the government also failed these same orphans. There was no magical "government" lever to crank. The same society that provided insufficient charity also provided insufficient government. Everyone's gotta say "tough luck" now and then. (Machan, who passed away recently, appears to  have had Caplan's "tough luck" insight on the fly, in spite of being ambushed by this "gotcha" question.)

For another example, a guest from a recent Econtalk:
Moreover, I think I would say that I don't think it should be the case that if you are a child born to poor parents you should have to rely on charity to get an education.
Again, the guest is assuming that "government education" is a control lever, which you can simply crank up (perhaps all the way to 11) if "free-market education" is inadequate.

And a guest from a not-so-recent Econtalk:

And frankly, I realize that your libertarian views aren't necessarily the same as my views about what should be done, but you libertarians have a fundamental problem that you don't seem to get, I think, which is that you are altruistic; you care about people; and when people care about other people we have the free rider problem. Who is going to take care of other people? You say charity. But if I care about that person who has got a broken arm laying in the street, and I know you do, I let you go out and try and help them; and then you let me go out and try and help them. And the guy stays there in the street with a broken arm. That's what we have--it's a public good taking care of that person.
Kotlikoff pulls out the classic "free-rider problem" (or "externality" or "tragedy of the commons" or "prisoner's dilemma") from econ 101. He apparently doesn't realize that the very same free-rider problem is what prevents us from getting good government. I could paraphrase him like this:
and when people care about good government we have the free rider problem. Who is going to read social science literature and policy whitepapers and become an informed voter? You say "civic virtue". You say "democracy". But if I care about informed voting, and I know you do, I let you go out and research government policy; and then you let me go out research government policy. And the citizens sit there in the street with broken institutions and bad policy. That's what we have--it's a public good becoming an informed voter.
Kotlikoff, like others who make this argument, is being far too glib. He's assuming there is this exogenous solution called "government" that fixes social problems, such as those free-rider type problems he describes. But "government" is endogenous. It is the same individuals living in that society infested with social problems who are supposed to give us those government solutions. "Government" isn't a generic steering wheel, or control lever, or series of adjustable dials. It's those same imperfect people who are causing society's problems, except now we are empowering them with the legitimate use of force over their fellow creatures. What could possibly go right?

Money Changes Hands, Therefore Your Rights Disappear

Apparently our freedoms disappear the moment money changes hands. I don’t understand this.

For example, some people think we have a basic right to privacy. The government has no business snooping in our private lives, peering into our bedrooms, or scoping out our associates. We have the right to be left alone. Except…suddenly this all changed the moment money changes hands. For sure, I can have all the secret dalliances I want and go to meetings of clandestine political organizations without the government tracking me. But if my interaction with another human being is “Here’s a sandwich, now pay me $6” that is suddenly blown wide open for government scrutiny. The government can demand to know the sum total of these dollar transactions, and it’s a federal crime to miscalculate this sum. I have to open my kitchen to nosy government inspectors, even though I would not have to do so if I were simply making sandwiches for my own children. (An empirical question: I wonder who is actually more likely to subject someone to food poisoning. A parent using ingredients from the fridge, or a sandwich shop? Not sure if data on this exists, but my guess would be the parent.) If “the right to privacy” is actually a principle, then that principle keeps applying after money changes hands. Money does not fundamentally taint human interactions in a way that negates our rights. If anything, market transactions, where we risk losing customers if we make mistakes, cause us to be more honest than we are in our personal lives.

I remember when the Panama Papers story broke, and everyone was seething with outrage that so many wealthy individuals had offshore accounts. I am quite certain that many of those “outraged” news junkies would, in a slightly different context, assert that we have a strong right to privacy. If asked to articulate why we need such privacy, they might give the hypothetical (or real) example of a government that prosecutes homosexuals or persecutes opposition political parties. We require a principled right to privacy for this to work. Otherwise any clever person (perhaps a government lawyer) can simply argue that the principle doesn’t apply in some particular case. And once we start playing that game, it’s not a principle at all.

We have many other rights that are supposedly negated the moment money is transferred from one hand to another. It is important that we enjoy the freedom to associate with other human beings, under whatever terms we find mutually agreeable. Again, many people will agree with this principle as it applies to marriage or political associations. But the moment I pay someone to perform a task for me, the range of possible arrangements is severely restricted. If freedom of association is even a thing, then it protects my right to sign any labor contract I want with anyone who is willing to accept those terms. Put aside for a moment the economic arguments against minimum wages and other labor market restrictions. There is a moral case for freedom of contract. If freedom of association applies to marriage contracts, there is no good reason why it wouldn’t also apply to labor contracts.

Free speech is another example. Commercial speech is severely restricted. The rationale often given for restricting commercial speech is overstated; the “problems” created by free commercial speech are completely overblown. Under no conceivable regime would businesses be able to completely misrepresent their products to their customers. Fraud would still be a crime even under a radically deregulated regime, even under full-blown anarchocapitalism. Companies that skirt the boundary between actual fraud and acceptable exaggeration (present in all advertisements, but usually obvious enough to not be misleading) run the risk of lawsuits.  The regulation of commercial speech in practice is absurd. (We have government bureaucrats telling a brewery to change the labels on their beer bottles because Santa’s eyes are “too googly” on the Christmas-themed beer.) At any rate, it’s fine to make some sort of argument that the “benefit outweighs the harm” for restrictions on commercial speech. But then you no longer believe in freedom of speech as a principle, and you should say so.

Market interactions are no different from any other kind of human intercourse. Couples, families, clubs, churches, political parties, businesses, and corporations are all just different ways of getting things done together. These are just different arrangements, specialized for achieving certain goals. Economic rights are not second-class rights. They are not even a separate category from other civil rights. The principle that allows me to arrange my social and personal affairs without government interference should logically apply to my economic affairs.

I could respect someone for saying, "Meh. I don't really believe in principle. I'm really a min-maxer. I would support whatever policy happens to be optimal in some particular case." But many people use the language of "rights" to justify things like gay marriage and political organization. And once you've articulated a right or a principle, you don't get to decide when it does or doesn't apply. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Freedom Expands At the State Level First

Should the left favor strong, central government? They often seem to do so as a matter of principal. I think this is a mistake. Many important fights get won at the local level. They establish a foothold in a few localities and then spread to the rest of the country. The ultra-stagnant, conservative federal government simply does not move fast enough.

Gay marriage, for example, appeared to get a foothold when the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, directed his city clerk to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. This eventually was adjudicated in California's state supreme court, which legalized gay marriage in the state. I don't know if the 2015 supreme court decision legalizing gay marriage countrywide could have happened without this initial kick at the local level.

Marijuana legalization also got its start at the state level. California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, with extremely lax standards on who can get a prescription. This was de facto legalization for the nation's largest state. I doubt if the states currently legalizing cannabis would have been so emboldened without California's example. And I doubt if public opinion would have changed so quickly without this kind of policy "experiment" at the state level. There are now several states that have adopted full legalization (well, regulated legalization, at any rate). We can point to them and say, "Look, nothing terrible happens after legalization." There isn't an explosion in vehicle accident rates, or even in cannabis use rates. You don't see really see any change in the trend line of social indicators. (Well, there's the obvious one: fewer arrests for nonsensical nonviolent "offenses".)

See no-fault divorce as another example of something starting at the state level. Once again, this is California leading the pack (under governor guess-who). I don't know the history of decriminalization of homosexuality (remember, there used to be police resources dedicated to prosecuting gays!), but from what little I know this started at the state level. The Supreme Court finally forced a recalcitrant Texas and 13 other states to fall in line in 2003, when it struck down state anti-sodomy laws as unconstitutional. But we probably never would have gotten to "Federal government puts a few hold-out states in line" if we hadn't first had "A few extremely progressive states relax their sodomy laws, against the grain of national popular opinion."

Sure, there are cases where a state or local government is "misbehaving" and needs to be told to straighten up. There were certainly some southern states that held onto racist laws for way too long, and it's probably a good thing that the federal government made them change their racist laws. But once you've so empowered the federal government, you've created the danger that it will start doing the wrong thing in every state. I don't see any particular reason to think the federal government gets policy right more often than it gets it wrong. If the federal government is weak (and can't "fix" bad local policies), then, sure, some states will have bad policy. But people can move away from those states. This weak-but-still-important mechanism of error-correction is missing at the federal level. Migrating to another country is far more costly (traumatic even) than leaving a messed-up state. I don't think it's appropriate to trot out the example of southern states in the era between the Civil War and the civil rights movement as a "proof" of the need for strong federal intervention. It is very hard to argue that this example generalizes. How about the Soviet Union? Did it "fix" the "mistaken" policy of its subject states?  Is it a good thing that China is controlled by a central government? How about India?

Don't mistake me as arguing that local sovereignty is inherently more conducive to freedom than a strong central government. The worst states can be just as stifling of freedom as the central government. Even at the very local level of cities or counties, the police force can become a government unto itself and often operates as an extralegal policy-maker. But with empowered local governments there is more experimentation, and more chances to avoid the worst abuses of government by moving away from the truly bad ones.

I get annoyed when I see various slogans and memes on Facebook, decrying that a politician at the federal level has ceded some power back to the states. This is always done far too glibly, as if there weren't a trade-off between having stronger states versus a stronger central government. As if the central government were error-free and the state governments were always at fault. My cynical interpretation is that people really aren't very principled, but just want this particular culture war conflict adjudicated in their favor (whatever happens to be the outrage of the week). Sometimes that means embracing states rights, and sometimes that means embracing a dominant federal government. Which one a person embraces often depends very much on who is "winning" that particular battle in the culture war. If, say, gay marriage doesn't have a foot-hold yet, its supporters tend to embrace states rights. If gay marriage is well-established in many but not all states, those same supporters tend to embrace a strong federal government "forcing" the last few hold-outs to step in line. To me, it all looks like cynical posturing and strategic outrage, calculated to win policy concessions. I wish that the people making these kinds of statements would articulate a principle and stick by it even when it's not convenient. That's the thing about principles: they still apply even when we wish they wouldn't.

Edit: I begin this post by addressing the left, but I should note that conservatives can also be seething hypocrites when it comes to "states' rights." It seems that they (some of them anyway) want a federal drug war to squash local experiments in cannabis legalization. And it seems they (again, some of them) want federal intervention to prevent cities from being sanctuaries for immigrants.

I avoided the term "federalism." Many people think it means "the supremacy of the federal government" while it actually means something more like "states' rights." People who argue that a policy question should be left to the states are arguing for federalism. Of course "state's rights" carries some historical baggage, but "federalism" is potentially confusing.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Physics of the Front Handspring

I’ve been working on my front handspring for a while now. After repeated rounds of getting it, backsliding, improving, and backsliding again, something has finally clicked for me. I figured out the physics of the front handspring and that allowed me to identify what I was missing. I’ve looked online to see if there is a write-up of this anywhere, but I never found anything that really satisfied me. So here it is.

First, some basic concepts. In a front handspring your body is flipping over, so the physics of rotation is important here. There is something called “conservation of angular momentum”, which basically means a body cannot simply start rotating or stop rotating. If you’re floating in space, you cannot induce your body to rotate. You would have to push off of something, or something would have to hit you. Imagine you’re floating in space and you try to do a crunch. You cannot just move your upper body. If you crunch and tuck your chin to your chest, it will pull your feet up. Crunching puts a torque on your upper body, but it puts an equal and opposite torque on your lower body. The net torque on your body has to be zero, otherwise you'd start to rotate.

Let’s apply this to the handspring. You start by taking a hurdle-step and then kicking up with your back leg. The kick with the back leg is simultaneous with your reaching to the ground with your straight outstretched arms. Your arms and back leg should be in a straight line, so you look like one of those toy drinking  birds dipping down for a drink. Okay, now imagine you make the common mistake of reaching to the ground with your hands without kicking up your back leg. You’ve failed to build up proper rotational momentum by kicking up your leg, so you have to “catch up” by kicking your leg up very quickly. By kicking your leg up in a powerful arc very quickly, you are placing an equal and opposite torque on your upper torso and head. (Not quite “equal and opposite” because you’re not floating in space. You have the floor to push against. But your kicking leg is still working opposite of the rotation that you need for your handspring.) This is why you need to keep your arms and leg in a straight line. If you reach to the ground without kicking, or if your kicking leg lags a bit, it will put a torque on your body in the wrong direction when it tries to “catch up.” 

Let me demonstrate this with the help of my friend, fully-poseable Spider-Man.



Here, Spider-Man hasn't kept his leg and arms in a line. He'll have to bring his leg up in an arc to catch up, which will place a torque on his upper body in the wrong direction.


Here, it's even worse. Spider-Man simply reached to the ground. He'll have to swing his leg up even faster, which will put an even greater torque on his upper body in the wrong direction. This torque on his upper body is against the direction he needs to rotate to finish the technique.

When your back leg is kicking high and your hands touch the floor, your front leg needs to push hard. This accomplishes two things that allow you to complete the technique: it raises your center of gravity and it increases the speed of your rotation. When you go into your hurdle-step, your front leg should bend so that you can push with the full strength of your leg. Otherwise, if your leg is already straight, you will only be pushing by extending your foot, which will not generate enough power. See how the front leg is effectively pushing on a lever made by your outstretched arms and leg, generating more rotation.



In this image, Spider-Man is in proper position. His outstretched arms are connected to the floor, that point being the pivot point of a lever. The push with his front leg pushes against that lever, rotating it. The harder the push, the faster the rotation, and the easier it is to finish the technique. If you aren't rotating fast enough through the skill, you will land with your feet in front of you, possibly on your heels. This is a hard and unpleasant landing. Rotate faster (i.e. kick harder), and you will land more softly and on the balls of your feet.

The push off the front leg is probably the most important piece. I hate to say that, because botching any step could cause the technique to fail. But I'm tempted to say that a strong enough push off the front leg will give you enough lift and rotation that you can get away with some sloppiness in the other steps. This was the key failure point for me. Once I nailed this, I was landing my front handsprings consistently. Also the next step, the block off the floor, depends on getting this lunge off the front leg down correctly. Do a ton of hurdle-steps into a handstand position. Make sure that your front leg is bent, not straight, when your front leg lands from your hurdle step, so you actually can push with it. You can even place a yoga ball in front of you and fall forward onto it to get a sense of what coming down feels like.

When you are upside-down, you will “pop” off your shoulders, pushing your hands into the ground. If you had a good running start, this will also increase your rotation. (You can complete the handspring without a running start. But if you have forward momentum, the pop off the shoulders converts some of this to rotation.) Think of a running body tripping over a wire. The wire blocks the bottom of the body while the upper body is free to rotate, generating a face-plant. Or think of someone running face-first into a bar. Their head and upper-body are blocked, while their lower body is free to rotate. Their feet will fly up and they will land on their butt or back. Your block against the floor is accomplishing the same effect. Imagine a powerful wizard picks you up with his mind, holds you in a perfectly vertical upside-down position, and throws you upside-down and back-first across the room. But you manage to reach down to the floor and pop off your hands, generating rotation and landing a front handspring. It’s like being “tripped” or “running into a bar,” just from a strange orientation. The block off the floor converts some of your forward momentum into rotation. 

See Spider-Man below, being turned upside-down and flung toward a wall by a telekinetic super-villain:


He manages to catch the floor and "trip" himself, inducing a rotation. Notice the arrows, which represent his velocity. Initially they are all the same length, representing the same speed. His lower body will be blocked, reducing its velocity to zero. The middle of his body will be roughly unchanged, and his legs will be moving faster. Obviously this will result in his body rotating. Now if  he can stick the landing he can recover and face his foe. This is what the block off the floor is doing for you.



The push off the ground also gives you a few more inches of height, which will give you a few tenths of a second more to rotate through the technique. Imagine a powerful wizard (the same one who tried to fling you into a wall) suddenly bringing up the ground by a few inches when you're trying to do the front handspring. You will probably land awkwardly on your heels with your feet in front of you. The push off the floor gives you two things: more height and faster rotation.

A common mistake is for people to try to tuck forward to spot their landing. This is done after the pop off the hands, while you’re still in the air. At this point your body really is floating in space, so the physics of rotation are very important. Your body has as much angular momentum as it will have for the technique, and you can’t push off anything to generate more rotation. If you tuck your chin and try to “sit up” to spot your landing, it will pull your feet up. You will land hard, with your feet in front of you, and with your knees bent. This is a recipe for exploding your knees, so don’t do it. You actually want to arch your back and tilt your head back as much as possible, which will rotate your feet down toward the ground. This way you can land with your legs straight (well…straighter anyway), on the balls of your feet instead of your heels, and with your feet beneath you. When I do a good one, I feel myself “running forward” out of the technique.

So here is Spider-Man floating in space.


If he crunches his body to spot his feet (similar to trying to spot your landing on a front handspring), it will pull his feet up:


If instead he arches his back and looks back toward his hands, it will pull his feet down. He will land on the balls of his feet and with his feet under him, rather than landing hard on his heels with his feet in front of him. No explody knee-caps:



You can think of this in terms of "net torque has to be zero" or "net motion has to be zero". As in, rotating his upper body one way will rotate his lower body the other way ("net torque is zero"). Or: to push his hips up he must push his upper and lower body down (the net motion of his center of mass is zero). Once you've blocked off the floor, you are effectively floating in space for a few tenths of a second. So the physics of free-floating bodies becomes very important.

There is also a body-mechanics reason for not tucking your chin. It becomes almost impossible to arch your back if your chin is tucked. The arch in your back has to suddenly switch directions for your chin to tuck, so your spine is making an “S” shape. If you tilt your head back through the end of the technique, your back will be able to arch more. Your feet will land underneath you, or at least they won't land so far in front of you. 

I am still no expert at the front handspring, by any means. But I have recently figured out how to consistently land softly, and it's because I finally figured out the physics of the technique. That understanding has allowed me to spot some of my mistakes and fix them. My hope with this post was to achieve some sort of synthesis. I have a serviceable front handspring and a graduate degree in physics (probably a rare combination). Athletes who learn the front handspring hear all kinds of tips, do's, and don't's. Well, here are the why's for those do's and don't's.

"Don't just reach your hands to the ground. Kick up with your rear leg to drive your hands to the ground." Yes, because reaching to the ground and letting your leg "catch up" will fight against the rotation you need to finish the technique. "Don't leap off your front leg until your hands reach the floor, because you'll experience a loss of power." Yes, that's because you don't have a rotating lever until your hands are on the floor. "When your weight is on your hands, don't bend at the elbows." Yes, because bending at the elbows causes a loss of height and fails to convert your forward momentum into rotation. "Don't sit up to try to spot your landing." Yes, because doing so pulls up your feet and causes a heavy feet-in-front landing. Surely most people who learn the front handspring do so without learning the physics behind it. I hope this post will help someone who is stuck on one of the steps.