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Welcome the Night

By Ataris

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On a long enough timeline the left-leaning policies will generally win out, at least in the context of social policies. Think about marriage and divorce: what was once illegal—divorce, interracial marriage, gay marriage, etc.–is now not only legal, but socially acceptable among the majority of Americans. (Even homosexual marriages or civil unions are now legal in a few states, and is considered socially acceptable by over 60% of the 18-45 demographic [1].) I would be pretty shocked if the majority of states don’t follow in the path of Washington in the next 10 years.

Marijuana, like alcohol once did, will become legalized, and in the long run. Social welfare policies (including publicly provided services like education) always seem to get larger and never smaller. Generally, we continue plodding along in the vague direction of more government power [2]. Sure, there will be steps in other directions, but the regressed trend is one of more discretion. Even Reagan’s so called “deregulation” did nothing to curb government’s control of resources (i.e. Spending). And even “deregulation” is a bit of a misnomer. If I were to guess what deregulation means, I would assume it means fewer laws, but in terms of laws on the books we have more regulation, not less. More, more more.

I argued in part one that progression generally follows predictable paths and will inexorably compound on itself. In part two I argued that even if policies of a certain type (e.g. Pertaining to FDA oversight) all make sense in their own contexts, the aggregate effect of all of these policies can still hurt us more than all these policies helped us. In this part, part three, I want to apply these two ideas as a framework for decision making.

As a libertarian, I’m not a huge fan of this prospect of ever-increasing government control/influence. It’s not that I think we should abolish social safety nets or think everyone truly knows what’s best for themselves (see [6] and [7] for great examples of the necessity of social safety nets and consumer protection laws). What I’m scared of is the aggregate. On the margin, I love the idea of someone making sure the medications I take are safe; the bank in which I deposit my money is keeping their records up to snuff; the education my future children receive covers everything it should. What I don’t like is the precedence it sets [3]. I don’t like the dependence it creates. I don’t like the added layers of needless complexity (look at healthcare or IRS policy; ‘nough said). But most of all, I don’t like the prospects of what can happen in the future.

Let’s start with some examples. This past summer/fall, Madison, WI was engulfed in protest against Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to limit the bargaining rights of public sector unions (especially the Teacher’s Union). As a result, the Capitol lawn was pretty well destroyed. As a response, in September, Wisconsin passed a law requiring more permits and other limitations on protests and demonstrations, citing “cleanup and policing costs” as the primary motivation. Let’s assume that this was the true motivation and there’s nothing sinister going on; just making sure the lawn doesn’t get trashed again. If that’s the case, then yes, this policy makes perfect sense. If you’re going to host a protest then that’s perfectly fine, just give us (the city) a heads-up so we can make sure we have the necessary policing support and don’t get blind-sided by millions of people showing up shutting down traffic for 8 square blocks. However, that’s on the margin and in this context.
What about the next governor? We’re assuming for the sake of argument that the current administration passed this law in good faith with no intent of creating real barriers to entry, but that doesn’t mean the next governor (or the governor in 5, 10 years) will have that same good faith. If this law is on the books, it’s easier to tweak it slightly in the future than it would be to create a new, stricter law in the future. It also means that the current law can be abused and used to prevent protests (one condition is that protesters must put down a refundable deposit to cover property damage, which could be applied pretty open endedly) [4].

The same idea applies to a recent defense bill. Around New Year’s 2012, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which “greatly expands the power and scope of the federal government to fight the War on Terror, including codifying into law the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without trial” [5]. Yes, if you’re suspected of “terrorism,” the Bill of Rights no longer applies (the whole right to a speedy trial by jury? Gone.). President Obama publicly stated that he wasn’t a big fan of that clause, but was going to sign this bill anyway and promised not to use this new power. Great, I feel so much more comfortable now knowing that Obama promised on National TV that he wouldn’t detain US citizens without trial. What about the next President? What about 10 presidents from now? At some point, this dusty, obscure clause will come out and raise it’s ugly head. And what then? Yes, perhaps on the margin this made sense. We obviously don’t want another 9/11, so if a few small overreaches past the 4th and 6th amendments can do that for us, so be it. But since we left this clause pretty open ended—after all, sedition is only a stone’s throw from terrorism—it’s really only a matter of time before we see the principles from parts one and two start kicking in, making everything worse.

What’s the lesson to be learned from both of these examples? What’s my framework for thinking about policy? Let’s take a more benign example and trace through it: Airlines. I travel a lot for work, so I spend a lot of time in airports. The face that I can travel from Wisconsin to Alaska in less than a day is amazing, don’t get me wrong, but flying sucks. And my travel companions often notice inefficiencies and propose solutions. For example: one of my coworkers noticed how many people end up gate-checking their bags because they’re too large; this means that it takes longer to board the plane and decreases the probability of an on-time departure. Her solution was to allow free checking of bags; then more people would check their bags to begin with, fewer people would gate-check them, boarding would go faster, and airlines would have more on-time departures. Let’s analyze this policy (not all policies are legislated) given what we know about aggregation.

The first thing we know about aggregation is that it’s inevitable and will inexorably reiterate itself. Let’s follow this chain of reiterated incentives. If bag check is free, then more people will check bags. This means they will tend to pack more, increasing the payload demands; i.e. More fuel. It also means that airlines, since they are checking more bags, will not require as large of overhead bins. As airplane manufacturers get new orders, they will incorporate this lower demand for overhead space in their designs. This means that fewer bags will fit in the overhead bins, so more will need to be checked. Because not all planes will change their overhead bins at the same time, some planes will still allow larger bags in overhead bins and travelers will be unlikely to check bags that will fit in these planes, so on the smaller planes we will have more people gate-checking their bags, on top of an overall larger payload, and therefore more expensive seats. Granted, these effects will also be reiterated over time, but my point is that this seemingly sensible solution to the problem of too many people gate-checking their bags will likely lead to more expensive seats with no change in the number of gate-checked bags, at least in the medium term.

The second thing we know about aggregation is that although many individual policies may make sense in context, the whole creation does not make sense. Again, let’s apply this this to airports. Assuming that TSA checkpoints are actually effectual in stopping terrorism and other air-crime (I’m not convinced they are, but let’s assume), there are still a lot of safety requirements—both on the plane and from TSA—that, quite frankly, probably have an extremely small, if any, impact on our safety. However, if we just start hacking them away, the functional system we have (again, let’s suppose) will fall apart. Even though on the margin any given requirement can easily be dispensed, the whole picture: security, needs all of these requirements. If we stop requiring everyone from removing their shoes, then security becomes just that much less complete, even if no one actually hides anything in their shoes. Not having to remove liquids and laptops means we don’t have to open our bags at all. These things (shoes and liquids) don’t themselves add to the thoroughness of TSA inspections, but they add to an atmosphere and chance for the TSA to observe (profile) us. That’s where the safety element comes in: the other effects these acts have. Full disclosure: I believe the goal of TSA is not to actually catch terrorists, but to provide the illusion of domination in hopes of having a deterrent affect on terrorism and other plane-related violence (more in the future). If that is the goal, then my argument about aggregation reversals still applies, whether or not that is a worthy goal. Also I wanted an air-travel example.

In very abstract terms, we need to look at the end game. If the goal is some outcome A, then any policy that we hope to get to A must take into account what affects it will have; how it will change incentives and change the rules of the game. Any policy must also take into account that there are other, concurrent policies that will be interdependent with our new one, so directly pushing towards A is not necessarily progress. We need to look at the future to know what to do in the present (aka the future’s past). This is not a prescriptive formula to arrive at the perfect policy; it is merely a framework for thinking about policies, that I hope would help us avoid bad policies and improve on good ones.

More applications in the fourth of four parts: The archimedian lever. 

[1] Wikipedia citing CBS polls on qay marriage approval; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_opinion_of_same-sex_marriage_in_the_United_States#Polls_in_2012
[2] USSpending.com, compiled by Christopher Chantrill; http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/include/us_total_spending_20c.png
[3] Gambling with Other People’s Money, Russ Roberts; http://mercatus.org/publication/gambling-other-peoples-money
[4] Joy Cardin Show on NPR with Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin; episode 120910X http://www.wpr.org/webcasting/audioarchives_display.cfm?Code=jca&StartRow=247&Repeats=yes
[5] Erik Kain, Forbes Online; http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/01/02/president-obama-signed-the-national-defense-authorization-act-now-what
[6] Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen; http://www.amazon.com/Development-as-Freedom-Amartya-Sen/dp/0385720270
[7] Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein; http://www.amazon.com/Nudge-Improving-Decisions-Health-Happiness/dp/014311526X