Thursday, March 29, 2018

Hill Climbing Analogy to Drug Prohibition

Suppose we observe large numbers of people attempting to climb a tall, steep hill covered with thorn bushes. It's a mystery what they're after, but they all seem eager to reach some prize at the top. Some end up scraped up pretty badly. A few even die. But a lot of them make it up to the top without too much damage.

Someone says, "We need to put a stop to this. These idiots are hurting themselves. Let's erect a fence at the bottom of the hill!"Someone points out that this is a moronic idea. If people are willing to climb a bramble-covered hill, they'll be willing to scale your stupid fence. Maybe a few people will see the extra obstacle and that will be the final straw. The marginal hill-climbers, who were nearly indifferent to the hill climbing venture, will be nudged from a "yes" to a "no." But there is no way your silly fence will deter large numbers of people. Also, some people fall and get hurt trying to scale the fence, so this has to go into your cost-benefit calculus, too.

So you say, "Put some concertina wire at the top of the fence!" And someone points out that this is a losing game. Sure, it deters more hill-climbers. But most of this population of people, who were willing to climb a very high hill covered with thorns, are not deterred by some concertina wire. They scale the fence and snip the wire with wire-cutters. Or they throw a thick blanket over it and climb over that. Or some simply climb over the wire and take their scrapes. Some still fall and hurt themselves while scaling the fence.

Effectively, we are attempting to deter people from climbing the bramble-covered hill by placing another bramble-covered hill in front of it. This deters a few people from undertaking the venture in the first place, but the ones who venture on get twice as scraped up.

There is no way to square the circle here. To deter drug use, you must threaten some kind of harm to drug users. And to make the threat credible, you must follow through on your threat. Under pretty standard assumptions about demand elasticity, this is a losing game. Increasing the penalty (beefing up the fence, adding razor wire, electrifying it) increases the total harm to society. I think that advocates of drug prohibition have been incredibly sloppy on this point, failing to account in a serious way for total costs to society. In some vague sense, bigger penalties get you more deterrence. But we can be pretty confident that the price paid for that deterrence is too high.

Opioid "Epidemic": Some Relevant Time Series

The standard narrative for the opioid epidemic is superficially plausible when expressed in a sloppy narrative form, but it starts to fall apart when you look at the actual data. The overall story that "prescriptions went up, and subsequently overdose deaths went up" is clear enough. But the notion that increasing prescriptions inherently produces more addicts or drug abusers is wrong. Someone might infer from this simple story that a crackdown on prescriptions is warranted: "If prescriptions go back down, overdoses will go back down, too." Plainly this is wrong, too, given our experience in the 2010 - present period. So what's been happening over the past few decades?

Below are prescription opioid lifetime abuse charts from the book Lies, Damned Lies and Drug War Statistics.

The light circles represent lifetime non-therapeutic (recreational) use of prescription drugs. What's weird is that it's flat (maybe even declining) for the 1990s, the period over which doctors' attitudes about prescription painkillers were changing and opioid painkiller prescriptions were increasing. It suddenly spikes in the 1998 to 2002 period, then flattens out again. I'd say the spike is probably more likely a reporting bias or some kind of methodology change. It's likely that the true value was increasing over the period 1990-2002, since this is the first time large quantities of these drugs were widely in circulation. I wish that I could find "past month user" data for this period, comparable to SAMHSA data for the 2002 to present period. I don't know if it just doesn't exist or (implausibly) nobody has bothered to chart this.

See the charts below. These are SAMHSA survey data, 2002 - present, drug misuse and drug abuse disorder. I focus on the triangles, because this is the most inclusive grouping. Different age demographics move differently, but as a whole this is flat or declining for the 2002 - 2014 period.

The Monitoring the Future graphs tell the same story for the 2002 to 2014 period, but fills in details for the earlier period. It looks like there was an increase in past year use from 1990 to 2002, then a leveling off and a decline in very recent years. The discontinuity is due to a change in the survey question, in which they changed the examples of drugs in this category. I would probably "correct" the 1990 to 2002 numbers by drawing a straight line from 1990 to 2002 and saying this was probably the "real" trend. Note that availability seems to be declining. These surveys are aimed specifically at youths (8th, 10th, and 12th-graders), so they aren't directly comparable to the SAMHSA data. Still, roughly speaking the corroborate the story that illicit use of these substances was increasing in the 1990 to early 2000s and flat or declining from the early 2000s to present.

Directly below are opioid-related deaths, 1978-1998. This was under the ICD9 cause of death coding. It is not directly comparable to ICD10, which has different codes and allows for much more detail about the substances on the death certificate. At any rate, the trend is what we'd expect. It starts increasing steadily around 1990 or so.

The deaths for the 1999 - 2016 period are coded under the more detailed ICD10 system. We can see trends by various substances (or categories of substances). Again, there is a dramatic increase in "other opioids" (encompassing most opioid painkiller pills) from 1999 to 2016, a period over which recreational use rates were flat. Heroin overdoses started skyrocketing around 2010, when the "opioid epidemic" started getting widespread attention. I wonder if this is where a crackdown on pills started to take place, and perhaps some recreational Oxycontin users switched to heroin. Or maybe illicit fentanyl made street heroin cheaper (because it's so easy to smuggle/distribute), and it's an independent phenomenon.

The "standard narrative" of the opioid epidemic is that loose prescribing practices turned a bunch of unwitting patients into drug addicts. They either began abusing their own legal prescriptions or buying them on the street to use recreationally, and this led to an increase in overdoses. This story is inconsistent with the SAMHSA and MTF survey data, at least for the 2002 to present period. The volume of opioids prescribed roughly quadrupled in the 1999 to present period, leveling off in recent years (level or declining slightly since ~2010). The standard narrative would predict that this should have increased the number of illicit users. Certainly this can be said for the 1990-2000 period. But apparently you can massively increase the volume of opioids prescribed without creating new addicts. And apparently a crackdown (or perhaps just a leveling-off?) can lead to an even faster increase in drug poisoning deaths.

I get annoyed with sloppy journalism on the opioid subject. It usually reports the correlation between deaths and prescriptions in the 1999 to present period, and sloppily implies a neat causal relationship. Such stories usually feature some poor addict with a terrible drug problem, perhaps telling the reporter that they got hooked on a legal prescription and implying to the reader that this is the social phenomenon driving the increase in deaths.

Sam Quinones' book Dreamland has a long exposition about the "Xalisco boys", a Mexican drug cartel operating in the US and selling heroin. But the timeline is all wrong. Much of his story takes place in the 1990s, and the dramatic increases in heroin deaths didn't start until 2010 or so. His book came out in early 2015, so he would have at the very latest had 2013 mortality data (the CDC data for a given year comes out in December of the following year). Supposing he even looked at the CDC data, he would have seen just a couple of years' worth of the recent heroin epidemic. He never seems to tell his reader that it took over 20 years of relaxed opioid prescription practices to cause the heroin epidemic. Indeed, he gives his readers the perception of a steady rise. (Near the end of the book, he even concedes that a local crack-down on prescription opioids led to an increase in heroin overdoses. Instead of doing the requisite soul-searching and revising his priors, he simply insists that the crack-down was necessary. I can't place my finger on the passage at the moment, but it was so jarring it seared itself into my memory.)

I have a few other very long posts attacking the standard narrative, notably here and here. The broken link in their chain of reasoning is the flat recreational use rates, which according to the standard narrative should be rising.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Rules and Meta-Rules

Really interesting Econlib post here.

Basically, one economist says (paraphrasing, not actually quoting here), "I must be irrational, because I could switch to generic diet soda, which is cheaper and likely just as good. But I don't bother, because I'm stuck in some bad default mode. Even if it's not just as good, it's probably at least worth trying."

Another economist says, Hold on there! The brain power necessary for decision-making is a truly scarce resource. You aren't being irrational by creating some simple rules that economize on this resource, such as "always buy Diet Coke." (He says a lot more, but this is my blog so I'm summarizing my own take-away.)

This is an important and deep point. You can't simply re-analyze every single decision from scratch. You need some simple rules, such as "Leave work at 4:50", "Set alarm clock for 6:30", and "If we're low on our household stock of Diet Coke, pick up more at the store." You also need a set of meta-rules for resetting these rules of thumb. "If the boss complains about my punctuality twice, set alarm clock for 6:20 instead of 6:30." Or "If the expected benefit of changing from Coke to generic brand exceeds X, switch." The problem here is that you need a rule to even alert you to the possibility of changing a decision-rule. Maybe the benefit of switching from Coke to generic is enormous, so big that almost anyone would agree that it's irrational not to attempt the switch. But you don't just get to know that. You have to sit down for a moment, jot down some figures, grind out a simple calculation, and see the answer. Someone who did this all the time for every little decision would be almost paralyzed by their constant cost-benefit checking. (Flip over a used envelope, or grab a sticky note? Pen or pencil? Or just use Excel? GHAA!) So your meta-rules require not just a set of rules about thresholds that overturn existing rules, but for when you will even bother to check whether the threshold has been crossed.

This is a theme I've discussed before. I think the whole economic irrationality/behavioral economics thing is way overblown and overdone. Examples of people allegedly behaving irrationally usually have an explanation that is fully compatible with a "rational actor" model. Just add in, say, limited computing power or limited information and you get back to "imperfect but serviceable decision rules."  Of course some clever person can pick these rules apart and find that they are occasionally wrong or even that they tend to be biased wrong. Such rules can still be useful.

How Good are Modern Vital Statistics?

From the book Drug War Heresies:
It has been said, for example, that French authorities will only record a death as drug-related if a needle is still sticking in the arm, whereas the Germans will include a driving fatality of a one-time client of a drug treatment clinic.
 Indeed, if you look at the figures in this link (click on "EMCDDA Selection B"), Germany inexplicably has more overdose deaths than France. In 2013, Germany had 1179 while France had 349. Germany had 80.65 million people and France had 66 million in 2013. Not enough to explain the difference. Dividing by populations, we get 1.46 deaths per 100k in Germany and 0.53 deaths per 100k in France. This is for two western European that don't differ in any obvious way (no obvious way that would explain a factor of three difference in drug poisoning deaths, anyway). If the reporting bias mentioned in Heresies is real, though, that would certainly explain a difference in the official statistics.

This is a theme I've written about numerous times. Too many commentators take the official statistics at face value. If mere reporting differences leads to enormous differences in national statistics, then it's likely that changes in reporting biases over time can induce a spurious trend in a time series. It's been a while since I looked at the by-state drug overdose data in any detail, but some patterns in those data suggested a similar bias creeping in. There is enormous state-to-state variation in overdose totals and in the trends over time. Are these differences real or spurious?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

People Actively, Deliberately Spurn Opportunities to Earn More Income

In my personal and professional life, I see lots of people deliberately foregoing opportunities to earn more money. I wish that the “income inequality” alarmists would take this seriously and admit that this is a widespread phenomenon. Almost everyone could make various decisions that would increase their income. When someone spurns such an opportunity, I take that as an admission that they are comfortable with their level of income and don’t want to earn anymore. I’m thinking of a few examples.

One is from college. Someone (who I barely knew but had a few classes with) told me he’d had an “epiphany” over winter break. He decided to change his math major to a physical education major. I hope he’s doing well, but this decision to change majors severely limited his options.

I know a lot of actuaries who stop after passing a few exams (there are 9 or 10 total, depending on how you count them). I understand. The exams are a pain in the butt, and this is partly by design. It’s a powerful sorting mechanism. If someone passes all the exams, you can be pretty sure they are serious. If someone passes a couple exams and then stops, you know they have some good analytical chops by maybe they lack the combination of ambition, conscientiousness, willpower, and intelligence that makes a really good actuary. The rewards for passing just one more exam are pretty big. Usually when another adult makes a choice like that I try not to second-guess them, but honestly I think some of these people are being short-sighted. Many of them would be more fulfilled in the long run if they just passed another exam or two (or all of them).

One person I know described his educational trajectory to me: “I finished my poly sci degree with the intention of going to law school. But, man, the slopes of Colorado were calling me. I decided to do some skiing instead.” I assume he knew his own long-term self-interest, but there’s no question such a person is deliberately deciding to earn less than he could.

I sometimes suggest career options to people and get not-very-satisfying excuses for not taking the advice. From a single guy with no kids: “I’d love to take more actuarial exams, but I’m just too busy.” He offered “mowing the law” and “preparing meals” and other mundane household chores as examples of things that made him “too busy,” and he even suggested that people like me with a family had more time because other family members could help with that stuff. (?!) This was really an example of someone not prioritizing the thing that would have allowed him to earn more, and choosing a relatively easy-going home life over long, boring hours of study. I can’t blame anyone for taking that route. But it’s funny how people invent implausible excuses for not doing obvious things that would plainly advance their careers. (This person’s notion that having a family means having more time to do grueling hours of study is exactly backwards, but at that point I was just politely smiling and nodding. He’d already decided on “No” and then back-fit a lame excuse to his answer.) It’s funny. I actually started hiring a guy to mow my lawn because it bought me a couple extra hours of study time each week, and I’d pack my lunch so would have a few extra minutes over my lunch break to study (I didn’t have to walk to a nearby sub shop, which took precious time). For dinner, I’d fix whatever was fastest (throw burgers on the griddle and let them sizzle, or throw chicken nuggets in the oven and let them cook while I studied, pausing briefly to eat when they were done). If you are prepared to hunker down and study, you can make time for it. It might require shaking yourself out of your routine and making some sacrifices and uncomfortable changes, but it’s not hard.

I hear other weird excuses, too. “I don’t want to do any more school.” Really? Even a few online courses to teach you specific skills relevant to a specific profession? Bullshit. Categorically writing off the possibility of continuing your education is a bad move, not to mention completely arbitrary.

Here is one I have heard from several under-employed people: “I want a job as long as it’s not [long list of careers for people with quantitative skills and with an extremely low barrier to entry]. Anything else would be fine.” I think you can afford to be this picky after you’ve had some initial career success and want to do something more creative and rewarding.  But if someone is setting down these rules at the dawn of their working career, they are setting themselves up for failure. I don’t parse this as “I physically cannot do more schooling” or “I physically can’t work an unpleasant job.” I parse it as:  “I could do something unpleasant that would earn me more money, but I choose not to.”

I think even the inequality alarmists understand this point. If you could keep the conversation out of a political context and talk to them about under-performing family members or friends, they would tell you something like what I said above. Everyone has a sibling with unfulfilled potential, or a brilliant friend who is under-employed and content to stay that way. They will tell you, with sighing, face-palming frustration, that their friend or family member is spurning a perfectly good opportunity for no good goddamn reason. Implicitly, they will admit that those folks on the lower end of the distribution could choose to be on the higher end if they only made a few unpleasant choices. 

This is where the inequality mongers need fixate less on metrics and more on philosophy. If people are essentially choosing their position on the income distribution, then income inequality is not a great moral problem. We shouldn't pretend that people are assigned an income by the casting of some cosmic dice or some fickle god's roulette wheel. Sheer introspection and experience with actual people suggests otherwise. At least to this observer.

[Note to people who know me personally: If any of this looks familiar, I am not talking specifically about you. These "examples" are really composites of several people with details changed or made vague enough to not identify their real-life inspirations. My younger self is more represented in the above examples than any other single person I know.]

Monday, March 12, 2018

Make Immigration Restrictionists Pay For Their Own Borders

When I hear immigration-restrictionists describe the problems immigrants bring with them, I want to reply with "That's great. Build your own damn borders. Stop conscripting me to pay for a 'border' that I don't want."

In a previous post, I make the point that someone can't just "come here" even under an open borders regime. They can't just walk across the border and merely exist. They have to somehow link themselves into the existing society. They have to acquire housing. They have to either acquire a job or plead for mercy from someone who will bankroll their stay here. They have to obey the norms and formal rules of any establishment they enter. Or else they will get kicked out. All of this entails convincing someone who is already here that you're worth dealing with as a human being. "Yes, I will rent to you" or "Yes, I will give you a job" or "Yes, I will marry you." I called that post "There Are Adequate Borders Inside Our Borders." Someone who considers coming here not really intending to follow the rules will foresee that the entire venture will not be worthwhile and forego the trip altogether. People know that there are internal borders, and they'll have to cooperate with their neighbors, co-workers, etc. in order to navigate those borders.

I'd actually like to see existing policy flipped. Currently it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of national origin for someone who lives here legally, but getting legal permission to come here is a bit of a legal/bureaucratic nightmare. I'd like to see almost no discrimination at the national border, aside from perhaps some minimal vetting to keep out known criminals. But I'd like to give property owners and private organizations more freedom to decide who they will or won't take as members or customers. If some bigot wants to put up a "no immigrants" sign on his store front, let him. I think the concern, that this kind of discrimination would be widespread, is vastly overblown. A bigoted store owner knows that an immigrant's money is as green as anyone else's, so he's likely to keep his petty prejudices to himself, perhaps even rethink them. Even if there are store owners who are truly committed bigots, their shops will end up being owned by people who aren't so arbitrarily discriminating. Productive resources tend to end up owned by those individuals who will coax the greatest productivity out of them. Someone without hangups about immigrants will buy the store from the bigoted owner and turn a higher profit, or simply open a store across the street and drive the bigot out of business.

At any rate, a "no national borders, but you're free to discriminate" regime forces immigration restrictionists to pay the cost of building their own borders. The foregone revenue of potential customers, the added security and enforcement mechanisms, the social stigma and potential boycotts for treading on our society's sacred anti-discrimination norms. I think it's cowardly to unload these costs on other people. I want to say, Do your own dirty work, buddy. You get to enter a private booth every two years and secretly mark a little box for the "anti-immigrant" policy. I'd love to see that veil of secrecy taken away. Private policy suffices here; there is no need to make "keep immigrants out of my life" a matter of public policy. Despite the name, private "anti-immigration policy" would actually be more visible and subject to greater scrutiny. And the discriminators would have to pay the costs themselves. I think that would be true justice.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Jordan Peterson

I’m currently reading Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life. Because why not? I probably would not have heard of Peterson if not for his loud and obnoxious detractors making overblown, hysterical criticisms and comparing him to a Nazi. (I sometimes wonder if these agitators understand just how counterproductive their methods are.)

This naturally piqued my curiosity, so I watched a few Youtube videos. He is actually quite mild mannered and reasonable. His overall message is not obviously contrary to the social justice movement, and it would be a stretch to classify him as "conservative" or "right-wing." The outrage directed at him is kind of confusing, but I can think of an explanation.

Part of his message (in my reading anyway) is that you can improve your own life through deliberate, conscious effort. This is threatening if your narrative is that people are assigned their station in life. If you believe that life outcomes are the result of power structures, classism, sexism and racism, then telling people that they can take command of their own destiny is threatening. It places too much moral responsibility back on the individual, rather than placing it on this amorphous blob known as “society” (or “the patriarchy” or “imperialism”). Well, he’s a clinical psychologist. What’s he supposed to tell his clients? “Sorry, there’s nothing you can do about anything, because all social problems are structural and beyond your control.” He started posting his lectures to Youtube because he thought that maybe people other than his direct clients might find some of his advice useful.

The social justice movement has become something of a religious movement in the following sense: People demonstrate their righteousness by making obscenely implausible claims. Anyone who signs on by affirming such claims is seen as having serious conviction. Anyone who pushes back is seen as insufficiently committed, perhaps even a turncoat. If someone makes a ridiculous claim like “All gender differences are socially constructed” or “All inequality is the result of structural oppression,” agreeing with such an absurdity signals your loyalty to the cause. If you object with some obvious criticism, you get a “How dare you go against the cause?!” kind of reaction. The more articulate and thoughtful your objection, the more of a threat you are and the worse you will get denounced for it. I think Peterson triggered this reaction by saying he wouldn’t allow his speech to be controlled by the force of law. (Specifically, he objected to the demand that he use someone else’s prescribed gender pronouns rather than the ones he and other English speakers are used to. More specifically, he objected to being compelled by the force of law to do so. That's a perfectly reasonable objection, unless you're trapped inside a virtue-signalling "How dare you betray the cause?" paradigm.)

All that aside. Peterson's book is useful in the same sense that all other self-help literature is useful. It's a big mix of "That's obvious to any mature adult" and "That's obvious enough, but plenty of people need to hear it" and "That's obvious after the fact, but I needed to hear it just now." Even if the third thing is only 5% of the book, it can still be worth it. There is a chapter on disciplining children that I very much appreciated, even though I was already following most of his advice (I think). His description of putting his defiant 9-month-old son down for a  nap was adorable and hilarious. He also describes teaching the same defiant son to accept a spoon-feeding. It's hard to describe how happy this made me feel. It was a heartwarming dose of humanity.

Bad Economics and Net Neutrality

I see bad economic arguments all the time in news commentary and in casual conversation. It feels to me like people are “under-theorizing” the problem. It’s not that everyone should have a rigorous mathematical model behind every piece of commentary, but a little bit of disciplined thinking could go a long way.

In discussions of net neutrality, I get the impression that people have a very crude model such as: “Internet Service Providers are monopolies, so they get to call the shots. They can throttle competitors and direct you to their partners or to their own services.” This model gets it wrong because it’s too crude. Even monopolists face a downward-sloping demand curve. They lose revenue if they set the price too high, or if they intentionally sabotage their own product in the way that neutrality advocates claim they do.

This isn’t the only example of under-theorizing. “Employers have monopsony power, so they call the shots.” is another example. Or “Employers have market power, so they can force employees to tolerate working conditions worse than what they’d actually like.” These stories are too simple. Even an employer with monopsony power (a rarity in the real world) loses out if they set the wage too low. Even an employer with some kind of market power would rather give their employees relatively cheap perks and fringe benefits rather than more money. If the employer (no matter how powerful) can provide safety features for $1 that the employee values at $3, the employer will do so. There’s no opportunity to exploit here, no matter how much power the employer has and no matter how greedy he is.

The elixir for bad economic reasoning isn’t a thorough formal model. A tiny amount of formal reasoning usually suffices. “Monetize the value of ‘directing internet users to my products’ and compare it to the monetized value of ‘making the internet more valuable by opening it up to my direct competitors’.” Or how about “Monetize the value of air conditioning and safety features that my employees value, and compare it to the extra wages I’d have to pay to make them go without.”

Friday, March 9, 2018

Why Grandparents are More Lenient Than Parents: Possible Explanations

There is often tension between parents and grandparents regarding how strictly small children should be disciplined. Grandparents are much more permissive of misbehavior and do not enforce the boundaries set by the parents. This often leads to resentment by the parents. The child is learning bad habits because the grandparent tolerates them, and the parent will be tasked with correcting the behavior later. Even excepting this, the child learns that the rules are different when the grandparents are around. (Perhaps it’s always worth pleading to other adults for a better deal when mom and dad are being big meanies?) The grandparents sometimes actively sow confusion and discord by protesting. (“Oh, it’s okay.” Or “Oh, just let him have it.”) This poisons the parents’ moral authority when they have to eventually lay down the law and enforce a rule. Finally, “Where the hell was all this permissiveness when I was a misbehaving little brat!?”

Possible explanations present themselves.
  1. Different incentives. If the grandparent spoils the child, either by giving them too many presents or permitting too much misbehavior, they get all the benefits of spoiling the child with almost none of the costs. The parents will have to deal with the problem the next time the child, say, begs for a toy in the store or jumps on the couch. The grandparent gets a temporarily happy kid, while the parents have to deal with the petulant little monster this creates.
  2. Mellowing out. Young parents are often stressed and not fully mature. A 60-year-old has more social intelligence than a 20-something or even a 30-something. So maybe younger parents really are too harsh and short-tempered and keep their children on too short a leash? Maybe if the parents mellowed out a little, they’d act more like their grandparents. And maybe if the grandparents could impart their full wisdom on their 20-something selves, they would have been more permissive, too.
  3. Changing generational norms. Maybe the younger generation simply has stricter parenting norms than the previous generation? This is distinct from 2) because it is about how society as a whole changes over time, as opposed to how individuals change as they age. I find this one hard to believe, given that corporal punishment has been declining for decades (see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature for a long treatment). I doubt if many grandparents suddenly pull out the paddle when the kid misbehaves.


Of course these explanations are not mutually exclusive. It could be some combination of all three. I put most of the weight on 1) because I have seen some particularly dunderheaded grandparental meddling, and done by grandparents who would certainly not have tolerated the child’s bad behavior from their own children. Also, I have seen where a grandparent suddenly become stricter when they have to deal with the child for an extended period of time. For example, when they take the child for a weekend. In this case, the cost of spoiling the child is "internalized"; the grandparent feels those costs, so they learn not to spoil quite so much. It was amazing to witness this lesson being learned. Something like, "Oh, now I see what you're dealing with!"

Still, there’s something to be said for 2). My gut says 3) should go in the other direction (making grandparents stricter than the parents). That said, I can imagine ways that the younger generation of parents are more constraining without being quite as authoritarian. We millennials are a generation of so-called “helicopter parents.” Maybe our parents and grandparents gave us more freedom to roam, but came down harder when news came back to them that we’d misbehaved. They had a “low surveillance, low probability-high severity” regime, compared to the opposite today. (Gary Becker would have approved.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A Bad Argument Against Drug Legalization That I Keep Seeing

I keep encountering a very bad argument against drug legalization. I have pointed out before that there is no need to have legal penalties for the use or sale of drugs because you can accomplish any degree of deterrence less harmfully with a punitive tax or a requirement of licensure for drug users. L

The pushback I hear goes something like: I don’t think the tax would be a strong enough deterrent.

This is nonsense, of course. The tax can be set arbitrarily high. Does doubling the price not work? Fine, then triple it. Or quadruple it. Or increase it tenfold. This scale goes all the way up to eleven.

Or you can make the “recreational drug use licensure” more onerous. Make the form slightly more obnoxious to fill out, turn it from a half-day session to a full-day session, or a week-long session.  

In this, I feel kind of like Scott Sumner. If I understand him correctly, he keeps making the point that the Fed can print a lot more money if it wants to, but for whatever reason lacks the political will to do so. They have a continuously adjustable lever, but for some reason they forbear to adjust it beyond some threshold. Just so with drug taxes and licensure. If the penalty is too small, increase it. (I don’t think anyone can plausibly argue that we lack the political will to increase vice taxes. The popular answer to “How much should we tax cigarettes?” is always “More!”, rather than settling on some "correct" tax rate.)

I'll concede that the objection isn’t totally insane. If the penalty is set too high, you end up pushing people back to the black market. Some states are seeing this with marijuana. They have set their taxes a little too high, and the black market thus maintains a significant market share. Presumably a licensure requirement would similarly push people to the black market.

I think this isn’t so worrying. For one thing, the black market is much cleaner in this scenario, because the supply is diverted from a legal market with modern production standards and regulation (granting for that sake of argument that the latter are helpful). Also, we can always still penalize those people going to the black market for their supply. If necessary, “traditional” law-enforcement style drug prohibition is still around, with the harassment of motorists and jailing/ticketing of users. It’s just very much circumscribed.

I’ve seen this objection pop up in a few places, and it always strikes me as silly. It’s like saying, “We can’t build a fence to keep out intruders, because the fence wouldn’t be high enough.” So build a higher fence, silly.

None of this is to say I actually support punitively high taxes on recreational drugs. It’s just that if your goal is deterrence, there are far more compassionate and less socially destructive ways to achieve it. The only reason to opt for full-blown prohibition is that you actually enjoy violence or get some kind of sick thrill out of hurting people.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Data Science Conference

Are any of my readers going to this? Chicago, May 3-4. I'll get there late on the 2nd and stay until the 4th. I thought that the Venn diagram of "readers of this blog" and "people doing/interested in data science" might have significant overlap. If anyone wants to meet up, let me know and we can coordinate somehow.