Minority Report

It would appear that the Georgia General Assembly is under the impression that police officers in this state are endowed with wizardry skills, namely the ability to divine the future and see beyond this physical realm into the invisible and incorporeal dimensions. The Georgia House voted last week (the Senate similarly approving it a month earlier) to approve Senate Bill 94.  In broad terms this bill’s stated purpose was to modernize many of Georgia’s statutes under Title 17 relating to criminal procedures. There do appear to be some genuine improvements to the law in this piece of legislation. For example Section 17-20-2 covers procedures for witness identification lineups. It is now forbidden that the person conducting the line up have any knowledge of the identity of the actual suspect. This ensures a true “double-blind” outcome free of unconscious cues directing the witness to the “correct” choice.

However there are other aspects to this legislation which take a decidedly two-steps forward one-step back approach to improving the state of criminal law in this state. Perhaps the most egregious is Section 17-5-22, which now includes language that warrants may be issued if probable cause can be shown that a crime is about to be committed. Yes you read that correctly – about to be committed. Taking a page out of the movie “Minority Report,” Georgia now has a “pre-Crime” clause in its criminal code. We are fortunate that police officers in this state can now exercise a power none of us mere mortals posses: the ability to see into the future. Nostradamus would be proud. So, that leaves an open question – can the state get a conviction for a crime that was about to be committed but then because of the warrant was not? What are the standards of evidence? Is merely possessing a weapon “proof” you were about to commit a crime? If I have a gun or knife on me does that mean I am about to commit the crime of murder? Armed robbery? Assault? Which one? All three perhaps? If I own an analytical balance does that mean I’m about to commit the crime of drug distribution? I wonder how much easier it will be for the police to harass someone they have it in for if any of a number of innocuous items could be used to commit a crime. Let me just interject here now to say I don’t mean the Oconee County Police – they are the best and would never do anything like this! Ok, that was mean to be a bit of levity, but I’m also serious, I am fortunate to live in a county with a police force that does not engage in the sort of shenanigans you sometimes hear about on the news – they truly are top-notch.  So, what am I complaining about you might say, none of these legislative games affect or are likely to affect me? Because I can see beyond my own little world, and I can see how although some officers would not abuse the power granted in this new law, I can also see how it could easily be abused by those with personal vendettas or discriminatory inclinations. We’ve all heard the phrase “driving while black” – can you imagine how much easier it will now be for officers with racist inclinations to concoct suspicion of some “pre-crime” when they fail to find any evidence of an actual crime? I believe the question answers itself.

On the lighter side of inanity contained in this bill, there is a change in the definition of “property”. Section 17-5-1 now defines property to encompass “intangible, … incorporeal… or invisible” things. Hmmmm… so are they going to confiscate my invisible friend? That doesn’t seem very respectful of the rights of invisible, incorporeal beings. Ok, I know what they mean; they are referring to digital media (well I hope that is what they mean, otherwise someone let Casper know about this). The intent here is unclear but one could imagine that it allows them to now collect a physical device (phone, hard drive), copy all the data off, and then erase it and return it to you empty. That way they can say they returned your physical goods and kept as evidence the “incorporeal” digital evidence. Of course if making a copy of someone’s property” is supposedly a crime then haven’t the police just committed the same crime by copying your copy? Perhaps if the General Assembly used the correct definition of property, e.g. scarce, rivalrous resources, it would free up police manpower to go after actual property crimes (theft, rape, murder) rather than acting as referee in disputes that amount to nothing more than schoolyard disputes over who said something first.

March 31 / 2015

Rape culture, no. Theft culture, yes.

There are a number of word-couplet slogans that aim to pithily define some societal ill that is widely ignored but which demands immediate rectification (white (or male) privilege, social justice, rape culture). The proof of said societal ill? The mere Jehovah-like utterance of said phrases brings them into existence before a credulous audience who only need hear the words to accept the implied truth. Their refutation, on the other hand, requires pages of discourse and facts and who has time for that? Mindless emotion trumps facts and reasoned discourse every time.

Sound bite slogans engage in semantic slight of hand, mixing words and their meaning into a soup of inscrutability. As the great sage Inigo Montoya would say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Perhaps the worst offender among these is “rape culture.” This term is particularly sinister as it establishes its own legitimacy in tautological fashion by claiming that proof of rape culture is found in the very denial of its existence.  Witches must exist because anyone denying their existence is only doing so to cover up their allegiance to said witches.

Users of this term apparently are unaware of what “culture” actually means. The dictionary definition is “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.” Hmmmm… so it seems if we had a “rape culture” that would mean we would find positive depictions of rape in our literature, movies and television. Our political leaders would extol the virtues of rape whenever possible. We would erect monuments to the greatest and most prolific rapists. Our schools would teach boys and girls the virtues of rape. Nope, I don’t see any of that, do you?

Yes, rape is a horrible crime and the perpetrators should be severely punished, but to suggest that 3% of the population who commits 90% of the rapes (on college campuses) suggests an endemic problem in the very fabric of a society is ludicrous. It ironically mimics the very thing proponents of this term decry – victim blaming – by shifting the blame from the perpetrator to society. “Society” should teach men not to rape and thus to the extent rape exists it is tacit proof of the failure of society to teach that. See, the perpetrators are the victims here as well; it’s not their fault, they never got the “don’t rape” memo from society. Honestly, is there anyone alive who thinks rape is “ok”? Even thieves and murders know their crimes are wrong – and yet they do it anyway. Does this then signify we have a “murder culture” or “theft culture”?

Actually, on that last question I would answer in the affirmative. We do have a “theft culture.” How so? Imagine the following: in order to eliminate the scourge of rape from society the government created an incentive system to stop potential rapists. Whenever someone thought about raping they could instead go to the government Department of Gender Relations and receive a payment to not rape. To make this system work all potential rape victims would be required to pay an annual fee into this system. If they did not pay up, then the government would publish a list of their names and anyone could rape them without consequence. Naturally nobody wants to be on that list so everyone pays – just the threat of what might happen for not paying is enough to ensure all continue to pay “voluntarily.”

Does that seem shocking and crazy? Well it should, but unfortunately this exact system exists today in order to prevent a different crime: theft. Government agents who would otherwise violently rob people in order to extract the proper “tribute” payment to the state’s coffers have convinced everyone it is better if we all just pay them “voluntarily.” If we don’t then they can rob us without consequence. So if we all pay our taxes in a “civilized” fashion then there will never be a need to resort to base barbarism. And it’s all “voluntary”, so that makes it legitimate.

The really scary part is that this culture is not unique to America; it is global. People will universally agree that taxes are bad, but quickly pivot to extol their virtues. The parallel to an actual rape culture would be if society would extol the virtues of all the children born as the result of rape and told women they should just accept being raped because yes it is bad, but look at all the good it brings about. One parallel that does exist today between rape victims and tax victims is the odious practice of “victim blaming” – rape victims “deserved” it because of how they dressed and tax dodgers “deserved” jail because they refused to be robbed; both have the right to exist in the world without being victimized on account of the lens through which others view them.

That is the way of the state, instead of standing as a bulwark against rights violations it institutionalizes those very violations and whitewashes them into a sanitized bureaucratic system that like a virus then infects all cultures, transforming them into the “war is peace” and “theft is good” upside down culture of the state.

March 25 / 2015

‘Not Even Wrong’

One of the main reasons I am skeptical of the predictions of status quo climate science is that those predictions are entirely based on the output of computer models. As a Ph.D. chemist part of my training exposed me to chemical computer modeling and I quickly learned how easy it is to get results that do not conform to reality. Computer models have their place, but that place employs very narrow constraints on both the number of variables and the degrees of freedom of those variables.

Today I came across this article in C&EN (Chemical and Engineering News) the weekly news magazine of the professional society of which I am a member (American Chemical Society). Anyway, in it the article they discuss a new article (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2015, DOI: 10.1021/ja5111392) that shows that computer models meant to predict the reaction mechanism for a particular chemical reaction come up with wildly incorrect predictions that are so off base they are ‘not even wrong’ in the words of the studies author.

What I found most striking was this quote, “Theory, he [Houk] says, “is still not capable, and may never be capable, of predicting what happens, when many chemicals, four (emphasis added) in this case, are mixed in solution”

Did you get that? Even a mere four variables is too many for the best computer model to predict the outcome, pathway, and interplay in a highly chaotic system of a “simple” chemical reaction. And yet climate models, modeling not a mere collection of atoms in a flask but  basically every atom in the atmosphere and oceans on the entire planet with orders of magnitude more variables, those models are 100% ironclad and sound and we should take their predictions to the bank.

Perhaps someday computers (quantum computing) will get us to that point, but that day is not yet here. At the end of the day the proof of scientific validity is in prediction. It is not sufficeint to simply predict “it will get warmer in the future” – anyone has a 50/50 chance of guessing correct on that one. You must predict to what extent and at precisely what rate (with reasonable error bars, not error bars larger than the magnitude of what it is you’re trying to measure).

March 23 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
Category Climate Change
Comments No Comments

Blind Lines

Last week a Los Angeles jury awarded the estate of Marvin Gaye a $7.3 million verdict against songwriters Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams for their 2013 chart topping hit “Blurred Lines.”  The plaintiffs claimed that “Blurred Lines” copied several key elements of Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.”  There are many parts that contribute to what we call music: melody, harmony, key, time, rhythm, note patterns, chords, instrumentation, lyrics, and so on. The degree of similarity or dissimilarity of any one of these components is not an objectively measurable property. One’s judgment of similarity is a subjective assessment that depends on our unique set of experiences and preferences. For some a song’s rhythm may be the most striking characteristic, whereas others may find the key or melody to be more noteworthy (bah-bump). To underscore this point one need only to do a cursory Internet search on this topic to witness the broad range of opinions: some say it was a blatant “rip-off” whereas others assert only a superficial similarity (the cowbell). So if the degree of similarity in such a case can be so dependent upon a mere cross section of opinion, how can it be said “justice has been done”? Try this case 10 more times and you’ll get a random array of “thumbs up/thumbs down” decisions. Using the result of one coin toss is hardly just.

But the arbitrariness of the outcome, insofar as it rests solely upon the subjective opinion of 12 jurors, is not a failure of the judicial system itself or of the jurors. Jurors in such a case are tasked with the intellectual equivalent of deciding if that now infamous Internet dress is gold and white or black and blue. The failure is in the legislative system. Ambiguity and arbitrariness in law breads ambiguity and arbitrariness in outcomes. Copyright (and by extension all intellectual property law) is nothing if not arbitrary and that fact betrays the invalidity of IP laws in their specious claims to be protecting “property.” Laws protecting actual property (that is scarce, rivalrous physical goods) do not have expiration dates. The title to your house or car doesn’t simply expire after some set time period; but not so for copyright (or patents, etc.). In fact the fingerprints of crony-capitalism are all over the recent extensions of the copyright term (life of author + 50 years in 1976 and then extended to life of author + 70 years in 1998).  Every time some particularly lucrative piece of copyright material would otherwise fall into the public domain (yes Disney, I’m looking at you) there is mysteriously a push in Congress to extend the copyright term just a bit further out.

Surprisingly there are still some areas of human creativity that are not protected by copyright and yet, despite pro-IP arguments to the contrary, innovation and creativity have flourished. Yes, the utilitarian argument for IP laws is superficially plausible – unfortunately the empirical data indicates IP laws inhibit innovation whereas a lack of them fosters innovation. For example, food recipes are not copyrighted (can you imagine the state of affairs if McDonalds had copyrighted the hamburger and fries – it would be a CRIMINAL offense for any other firm to make such a meal). Clothing design/fashion is not covered by copyright. Designs are copied, altered, and tweaked into a dizzying array of choices. Fashion trends twist and turn and change so quickly as each firm tries to distinguish themselves and stay one step ahead of the competition. Imagine that, people can still actually be creative without the “protection” of a state granted monopoly.

Human creative efforts invariably must draw on the work of those who have come before. If one objects to truth of this statement, then they would see no downside in not educating their children, destroying all books and technology, and depositing babies in the forest so that each new generation must start from scratch. Since such a scenario is obviously absurd then we can agree that it’s not “copying” that is “bad” but rather “too much” copying that is bad. Ok, so where shall we draw this arbitrary line in the sand between “just right” and “too much”?

Let’s erase that line and allow the full flourishing of human creativity in all arenas. Where is the harm in that? If the “copy” is more successful than the original what has the original lost? What has been stolen? The right to limit the choices of others to your inferior product? If your business model necessitates the deployment of armed goons of the state to influence the peaceful behavior of others, then it’s time to rethink your business model.

March 16 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
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Medicaid Expansion: Compassion or Trojan Horse?

Georgia is one of 19 states currently not expanding Medicaid under the auspices of Obamacare. This, contends proponents of expansion, is leading to needless deaths and poor health outcomes for many poorer Georgia residents due to the ongoing closure of rural Georgia hospitals. As with any political issue reduced to sound bites, this is a gross over simplification. Although it is true that monies received under a Medicaid expansion would indirectly alleviate some of the financial burden faced by these hospitals, it would not solve the problem nor would it address the proximate cause of these hospital’s failures.

This nationwide network of rural hospitals was established in the 1940s by the federal government. For the most part they were quite successful with few closures, that is, until the first year of Obamacare regulations came on line – 2010. Obamacare then began to smother these community hospitals with shortsighted regulations that do nothing to limit costs. These regulations included penalties for patient re-admittance if done too soon after initial release, mandates to establish electronic medical records, as well as cuts in Medicare reimbursements to hospitals.  While one hand of Obamacare beats these hospitals with a stick (regulation), the other hand offers a Band-Aid (Medicaid expansion); truly a case of governmental cognitive dissonance.

Medicaid expansion is but one part of the Obamacare-Trojan horse that will slowly stamp out the last vestige of market health care. The “Medicaid Hole” was deliberately inserted into Obamacare. This “hole” leaves some people with no coverage unless the states go along with the Federal definition of Medicaid eligibility (the states can set their own standards now). This is the second Gruber-esque ploy within Obamacare directed at enticing “voluntary” state compliance. It follows the standard Mafia extortion-pattern of an “offer you can’t refuse” by threatening harm to a third party. The first instance of this was the state exchanges: “set up state exchanges or else your citizens won’t qualify for federal subsidies.” Now it is “expand Medicaid or your citizens will suffer for lack of health care.” The individual is but a pawn in their game. If that were not so then why didn’t they simply create federal exchanges and grant everyone subsidies?

The second part of this Trojan horse is that Obamacare sets a substantial tax on “Cadillac” health care plans. The threshold for a Cadillac plan is the ONLY financial figure in Obamacare that is NOT indexed to inflation (let that sink in for a minute). Once a state expands Medicaid they must follow the federal eligibility requirements. The end game is a masterful pincer action; Medicaid eligibility will be eased upward by the feds while the Cadillac cap will in effect be eased downward (as a result of healthcare inflation). “Affordable” plans will disappear and thus people will have no choice but to jump over to Medicaid. End result: single payer healthcare (Medicaid) without a shot being fired.

Now before anyone argues that we need single payer to fix this “free market” mess remember that we have never had a free market based health care system in this country – there has always, at some level, been government intrusion into the market.* These intrusions distorted natural incentives and created unintended consequences. The “solution” to these unintended consequences then is always more government intrusions. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

To find a real solution to government interventions we must “undo” – not “do”. If proponents of Medicaid expansion in Georgia are serious about helping the poor and uninsured then they should propose the total repeal of all “Certificate of Need” laws (O.C.G.A. 31-6) in this state that require both state approval and the approval of any potential competitors for not only any new health care facility, but even the expansion of an existing one. CON laws have nothing to do with maintaining a certain standard of care. They are entirely a crony-capitalist measure, like taxi medallions, meant to limit competition among providers of a particular service. These laws do nothing but scare off potential investors and add years onto the process of opening a new hospital. The best thing to help the uninsured would be low prices brought about through competition. Subsidies to the uninsured in a CON environment are nothing but an indirect subsidy to high cost providers.

 

*Sky high income tax rates during World War II fostered the creation of tax free health insurance through ones employer. That, coupled with the creation of Medicare in the 1960s soon led to rapidly increasing health costs in the 1970s which Congress tried to stem with the HMO Act of 1973  and this country’s first dalliance with “managed-care” – that is the insertion of a third party between the doctor and patient who would pay for all care but also inject their opinion on the necessity of care. As costs continued to spiral upwards (due to the artificial disconnect between the customer (the patient) and the vendor (the doctor), Congress introduced layer upon layer of additional regulations trying to keep costs down. That was about as successful as throwing more blankets on a leaking waterbed to stop the leak. Like whack-a-mole, as soon as they plugged one hole a new one appeared, normally as a direct, unintended consequence of the “fix” for the last hole. And that story is how we now got to Obamacare – the latest fix in a long line of fixes.

 

Knock, knock – Who’s there?

A pair of nearly identical bills (SB 45, SB 159) has been introduced this session into the Georgia legislature concerning “no-knock” warrants. Apparently all those no-knock raids we’ve heard about recently in Georgia (a toddler nearly killed in Habersham County, the murder of David Hooks in Laurens County) were illegal. Under Georgia law (O.C.G.A 17-5-27) officers must give “verbal notice” before force can be used to execute a warrant. Huh. Imagine that, words on a piece of a paper didn’t stop those in power from doing whatever they wanted – and since there was no accountability in either case, apparently the current law prohibiting no-knocks is of little practical value. So, let’s see, how could we possibly remedy this situation? I’ve got it – make no-knock raids LEGAL! Now when officers engage in this practice they won’t be breaking the law anymore, problem solved.

Why stop there? Why not make rape, murder, and theft legal? That would lower the crime rate in Georgia to the point where there would be no need for no-knock raids. Oh, right that wouldn’t help because no-knock raids aren’t about catching actual criminals (rapists, murders, and thieves). No, they are about nabbing the low hanging fruit of drug “crimes” where mere possession of “stuff” is all that is needed to close a case. Smash, grab, arrest. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Detective work is so tedious – this is much easier. I have a suggestion for these politicians. If you are so keen on legalizing that which was formerly illegal in order to control it better, then try this: repeal all drug laws. Now there is no need for no-knock warrants.

Now, just to clarify, both bills’ proponents claim the bills prohibit no-knock raids. One (SB45) even goes so far as to call itself “Bou Bou’s Law” (after the toddler that nearly had his face blown off). Because both bills would greatly increase the probability of another “Bou Bou” type incident, this particular appellation is about as disconcertingly insulting as naming a rape legalization bill a “Women’s Rights Law”.

What the declaration giveth (“No search warrant shall be issued which contains a no-knock”), the exception clause taketh away (“unless the affidavit or testimony supporting such warrant establishes by probable cause that if an officer were to knock and announce identity and purpose before entry, such act of knocking and announcing would likely pose a significant and imminent danger to human life or imminent danger of evidence being destroyed.”)

“Significant and imminent” are the weasel words that will build the foundation of every manufactured excuse to engage in this practice. Honestly, if the degree of danger is that serious do you really think an extra 5-10 seconds will provide an absolute measure of safety? If the danger level is truly “imminent” no one should be entering, announced or unannounced, if officer safety is the primary concern. Surround and siege is a much less dangerous alternative for all involved. Likewise, the phrase “evidence being destroyed” is code for “drugs flushed down the commode”. Thus upon this rock one may build the excuse for every drug case being a no-knock case.

Opposition to these bills is not “anti-cop”. Quite the contrary. Officers tend to get shot when they break into people’s homes unannounced. That’s just a fact. The goal should be to eliminate such raids, not increase their use through legalization and specious pleading of “oversight.” The only situation where a no-knock raid would ever be warranted is if someone’s life inside the residence is in danger (think serial killer situation). But to risk the lives of officers and innocent bystanders inside in order to potentially get a few grams of dope off the streets – that is simply reckless and the Georgia senate should be ashamed of themselves for attempting to codify under the color of law this outrageous practice. Please contact your Georgia Senator to voice opposition to these bills.

March 02 / 2015

FAA Proposes to Murder 100 People Per Year

If you are anything like millions of other Americans you have bought something over the Internet. A world of wares is there for us to browse at just the click of a mouse and tap of a keyboard. And although it is in some respects virtually the same process we (or our parents for the younger among us) engaged in when we browsed print catalogs not that many years ago, it is also a vast improvement over that older, static, process. Information is updated in real time. We can make buying decisions based on the reviews and feedback of other consumers. We can instantly compare prices and options among several vendors. In short, the Internet has not simply repackaged an old process in some techy guise; it has made a material improvement that has added value (that is, time) to all of our lives.

However, one aspect of the ordering process has not changed in over 170 years (Tiffany’s Blue Book, published in 1845 was the first mail-order catalogue in the US) and that is the delivery process. Yes, it has gotten faster (with the advent of air delivery) but the core process is the same: the order changes hands multiple times from human to human as it moves through the delivery pipeline. To be fair, this process is far more enviable than the alternative of picking up the order yourself. In fact one of the rarely noted benefits of bulk delivery is the prevention of accidental death. If every person who has ever ordered something had to go and pick the order up themselves the cost in time and hence productivity is incalculable. But the cost in lives would be calculable to a degree, given the fact that for a certain number of miles driven there will be a certain number of motor vehicle fatalities. All things being equal, without delivery, more people would certainly have died.

Today, after 170 years following one delivery model we are on the cusp of switching to a new delivery model: the drone. Amazon.com has been experimenting with what they call “Prime Air”, that is, direct delivery of your Amazon order, by drone, to your doorstep within hours of placing the order. Amazing! Forget Marty McFly’s 2015 hover board – this is even cooler! But, you knew there was a “but” coming, the FAA will have none of that.  Last week they proposed a new set of regulations for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) (that only apply to private business naturally; we can’t have these rules standing in the way of government users). Among some of the more onerous rules that would all but quash Amazon’s plans include: “The operator must remain within visual line of sight of the drone” and “They can only operate in the daylight and under 500 feet”. These proposed regulations are driven more by fear of the unknown than by any rational concern over safety. It’s like they never got the point of the old college essay primer: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” Hint: the point is to let the ship sail so that its potential may be realized.

If these proposed rules are implemented there will be an unseen cost, one that I’m surprised a supposedly “must save lives” utilitarian-mindset entity like the FAA is apparently oblivious to. Were drone delivery of packages permitted it would save roughly 100 lives per year in the United States alone due to the decreased mileage of delivery vehicles (based on my own estimates, see gregmorin.com). And that is only for Amazon deliveries. When other companies begin to deploy the same technology the potential for saving lives only rises further.

Internet commerce, that is, the free market, through its endeavoring to improve our lives has also managed to save many of them. Let’s not forget that lesson as we look toward the future.

February 23 / 2015

Free Market Vaccination

The recent outbreak of measles cases in the US in the last few weeks has brought into stark relief the result of what happens when one forgoes vaccination. The measles vaccine was introduced in the mid 1960’s when cases averaged around 400,000 per year. It quickly dropped to nearly zero and remained there until 2014 when it shot up to over 600 cases.  The anti-vaccine movement is having an effect, and it is not a good one. I would like to believe that the anti-vaccine folk do understand and accept the principle behind vaccine enhanced immunization (which has been convincingly demonstrated since the days of Edward Jenner) but rather that they want that which has never been and never will be: absolute 100% elimination of all risk. Nothing in life is 100% risk free. Vaccines are not perfect and they do have side effects for some. But those side effects pale in comparison to potential outcome of the disease itself (death).

The anti-vaccine movement is right in one respect but for the wrong reason. The anecdotal cases they cite are likely correct at face value. But this does not prove all vaccines are bad. It merely proves some people are allergic to some things (duh). The problem is not the vaccines but the humans it is administered to: we are all different. In nearly any metric one might choose to measure, populations can be plotted into a bell-shaped curve where the bulk are in the middle “normal” range and a small percentage occupy the “tail” portions (e.g. really fast and really slow). For most there are no issues, no side effects and they work great. But under one tail there are those that have an allergic response while under the other tail the vaccine does nothing at all to enhance their immunity.

One area where the anti-vaccine movement is correct for the right reason is the one of government mandate. The part of Chris Christie’s opinion on vaccination that was omitted allows us to see how the true statist thinks, “parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” Yes, government is the true owner of our children and it up to them to decide what is best. Shudder.

It’s not that parents shouldn’t vaccinate their children, they should. Rather the government should not force parents to do so because it precludes any ability for the individual to ignore bad choices by those in charge. Government interference in the vaccine market distorts it and leads to outcomes more deleterious than we would see in a free system. For example it is often cited that the mere existence of the “National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program” established by the government is proof enough that vaccines are not safe. Not really, however it is evidence of how government mandates can incentivize a less safe outcome. It is a classic case of moral hazard. If the government orders the entire nation to buy your product you are happy because of the increased sales but you are sad because the government sets price ceilings on what can be charged. You know your product will have population dependent differential outcomes that can result in lawsuits and the low prices won’t support defending such suits. So the government steps and “immunizes” you from all suits as long as you pay a premium into this Compensation Program fund. Now you have less incentive to devote resources into figuring out why certain people may react negatively to a particular vaccine or how to predict that outcome so it can be avoided. Why bother, the government has protected you from all liability?

The solution to this whole “should the government force parents to immunize their children” debate is so obvious the only reason it has not been implemented is there must be some sort of obscure law forbidding it. Insurance companies should require certain immunizations as a condition of continuing health insurance coverage (and by “should” I don’t mean in the “pass a law mandating it” sense). Since the insurance companies have an incentive in their customers not being injured by a vaccine (as opposed to the government which has no such incentive) you can bet that parents would be more willing to accept scientific evidence of safety from the insurance companies.

If you don’t want to get your children vaccinated then switch to another insurance carrier that either does not require it or that requires fewer vaccines or with a different schedule. Or simply opt to not have health insurance. Oh, right, you can’t do that anymore because of government.

Voluntary choices would help foster a marketplace of alternatives. Yes, vaccination is a sound principle and has been highly effective. But that fact does not necessarily rule out the possibility that an alternative vaccination schedule would also not work equally as well.

February 16 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

The Unseen (Septic)

What does a septic tank have to teach us about economics? This rather mundane bit of technology is at the center of depressingly familiar story figuratively brewing in my backyard. It’s not my septic tank that is the issue, but rather one literally just down the street from me in the small town of Bishop, GA. Bishop residents Blyth and Diana Biggs purchased the “Fambrough House” on the main thoroughfare (Hwy 441) with the intention of residing there and turning it into the first ever restaurant in Bishop. They were on target to open in August 2014 when they hit a snag, well, more of a massive pothole, on the road of entrepreneurship. It seems the Oconee County Health Department is going to require them to rip out their current septic system and install a commercial grade unit to the tune of a mere $75,000. Why? Well, ‘cause regulations say so. And we all know that regulations are infallible because the mantra “one size fits all” has never ever resulted in unintended consequences. Suffice it to say, when I saw their post about this last year on Facebook, all I had to read was “We’ve run into a bit of a problem…” and I instantly knew what the source of their problem was – the state. Nothing will throw cold water faster on the dreams of an entrepreneur than a byzantine labyrinth of irrational regulations.

So, to return to the original question, what does a septic tank teach us about economics? In this case it reminds us of the central lesson of Frédéric Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy – unseen effects must also be brought to account when analyzing economic outcomes. In this case, a restaurant that never opens would be an “unseen” effect of a gross misapplication of this particular regulation.

Regulations are an economic good. They provide a benefit, but like all economic goods they have a cost. However, when economic goods are forcibly imposed their cost no longer bears any relationship to the true demand (and hence price) for them. For example, some people like aquariums, but not everyone does. If the government made a law that required all households to have an aquarium, this would naturally shift the demand pattern from partial to universal. From this universal demand we would then witness an elevated price (Econ 101: as demand increases so does price). In the same way an artificially increased demand for regulation drives up the costs for those regulations. The price of these imposed regulations operates in a vacuum, uninfluenced by any other considerations that might compel one to balance their costs with other equally important considerations. For example, if the owners were not compelled by the threat of violence to keep their doors shut they would then be able to freely weigh the costs of opening with a potentially undersized septic vs. the costs of a delayed opening. All things being equal, absent state imposition of these regulations, we would find that demand, and hence price, for septic installation would be lower. This leads to the rather ironic outcome that in the absence of state mandated regulations many places like the Bishop House would actually be more likely to make these such changes owing to their lower costs).

But, if the Bishop House is unable to open due to this artificially imposed barrier, then we will all be the poorer for it, for what is wealth if not the betterment of our lives by the voluntary actions of fellow human beings? Every person barred from adding his own unique contribution to society by artificial barriers (the economic interventionism of regulations, licensing and employment law) erected by the state makes all of society that much poorer.

P.S. If you would like to learn more about The Bishop House or help them please see http://www.gofundme.com/fo1klc

February 10 / 2015

Pool your own resources

It seems everyone wants a pool. But nobody wants to pay for it, because after all pools are really expensive – both to build and maintain. When I moved into my current neighborhood we were “promised” it would have a pool by the real estate agent and the builder. Our HOA dues were inflated owing to the necessity of maintaining this incipient pool. It was not to be. A mixture of the housing bust and and builder antics sealed the fate of the “free” pool. Now that our neighborhood is about 95% occupied there is increasing pressure for “we the neighbors” to build one ourselves via a self-assessed HOA dues increase. When we moved in my children were at the prime “pool” age, however they are nearly grown (college already?!?) and so we have little interest in footing the bill for something we would almost never use. But, we moved in here voluntarily, fully aware that pool expenses would be part of the deal so I have no ethical basis for complaint, merely a pragmatic one. If I don’t like it, I can, as they say, move.

That option, moving, however, does not exist moving up one territorial notch to the county level. Every county in the US pretty much operates the same way. I recently read that a swimming pool has been the number one recreational request in my county (Oconee) for many years. I find this fascinating on several levels. For one it flies in the face of the oft given justifications for government, that is, courts, cops, roads and schools. Surely government must provide these absolutely essential functions, no? Well, no, but for the sake of argument I’ll concede the point right now. However, I find it laughable that recreational amenities now too fall into the category of “essential state functions. Really? That brings me to my second wry observation: Oconee County already has a private provider of pools and gymnasiums (another common request). So, it’s not that people want access to a pool per se, (clearly there is already “access” locally), it’s that they want someone else to foot the lion share of the bill. Getting the county to provide these things means that when you utilize them a disproportionate burden of the cost is shifted to (a) all those with a higher property value than yours and (b) all those that use it less than you do. Subsidization, pure and simple. Not very conservative for a supposedly conservative county?

There is a common misconception that we need a county government to provide these sorts of things because governments can lower the cost for everyone because they don’t extract any evil profit. But think about what that means for a minute. Profit is the increase in subjective value realized when one takes a pile of resources and alters them into a more pleasing arrangement (think raw ingredients —> apple pie). If there is a decrease in satisfaction (think Ferrari melted down to make pie plates) that would be a loss. So when one argues that if a private business were providing access to a park or a pool it would be “too expensive” but that government can “make it affordable” what you’re really saying is that highly valued resources (private pool) should be rearranged into something that is of lower value (public pool). Because that is exactly what happens when money is taken from a property tax payer A to offset the cost of pool access for property tax payer B. Payer A’s funds were diverted from whatever he would have spent them on (high value to him) to something of lower value, that is, something he never would have spent them on, a pool. To argue this is “ok” is to argue that theft is justified in order to provide essential human rights like park and pool access. As they say, first world problems.

So to all those in the county that want a pool I would offer this bit of advice: put your money where your mouth is and join the private pool already here so that it can grow and expand in relation to the demand for its services, or, if you believe you can do a better job then come together voluntarily and risk your own capital (not mine) by building one yourself. I would offer similar advice to the pool proponents in my neighborhood. “Pool” your resources, buy a lot, build the pool and run it for profit. Only with a profit/loss test can anyone know if that would be a wise redirection of capital. There is no better method of plumbing the depth of a man’s belief than to ask him to risk his own capital.

February 04 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
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