Thursday, October 19, 2017

Asking the Wrong Question

A few days ago I spent some seven hours attending a meeting of the San Jose City Council. I was there to speak against a proposed gun control law, but there were other interesting things in the meeting. One of them was a discussion of the Evergreen Senior Homes Initiative, a ballot measure proposed by  developers who want to build 910 units of housing on land currently zoned for industrial use, an idea to which the Mayor is opposed.

His argument is that, despite the references to affordable housing, seniors, and veterans, what the plan actually proposes is a gated community for wealthy residents. He may, for all I know, be correct. It does not follow that building it will not make more affordable housing available for the non-wealthy.

When someone moves into one house he moves out of another, which is then available for someone else to move into. If the development is built and the units are bought by people currently living in San Jose, the net result will be to increase the city's housing stock by almost a thousand units. Doing that will make more housing available in the city and lower its cost. The question the Mayor should be asking, assuming that what he is really interested in is the welfare of the citizens of the city and not merely his ability to control things, is whether the development will draw mostly from current residents or mostly from people who would not otherwise live in the city. Pretty clearly, that question never occurred to him.

The assumption of the Mayor–I think of city planners more generally–is that the way to get affordable housing is to build affordable housing. That is not the only way of getting it. The alternative, very common in the history of U.S. cities in the past, was for poor people to move into housing that had been occupied by, possibly built for, less poor people, vacated when the less poor people moved into newer and better houses. 

The same way poor people get cars.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Embedded Economics: Help Needed from Conrad Readers

As I have mentioned here before, one of my current writing projects is a collection of short works of literature that have interesting economic insights. In a conversation yesterday at an SSC meetup, someone mentioned a Conrad story that sounded as though it would fit in very nicely. Unfortunately he didn't remember the title. I am not sure if he was misremembering something in "Typhoon," which has a scene similar but less interesting, or if there is another story I have not been able to find.

The story as he remembered it involved a ship in a storm, as does "Typhoon." In his version, the money belonging to the crew was in a strong box that got so shaken that there was no way of distinguishing what belonged to whom. The solution was for the captain to instruct the crew members to each write down how much of their money was in the box. He would then add up the amounts and, if they came to more than was actually in the box, dump the box overboard. It's an ingenious solution, although I can see some practical problems, and would fit neatly into my discussion of mechanisms for making it in the interest of individuals to reveal information. The only thing I now have for that is the story of Solomon and the baby which is much weaker, since it depends on the woman who is pretending the baby is hers not guessing what Solomon is up to. 

In "Typhoon," the money that gets mixed up belongs to the Chinese passengers and the much less interesting solution is an even division.

Does anyone here know of the story in question? Does anyone have another work of literature that illustrates another solution to the general problem? Another example of a short work of literature with an interesting economic insight?

My discussion of the Solomon story and the general issue it illustrates

The current draft of the book, webbed for comments

Monday, October 09, 2017

Gun Control and Homicide Rates

Some recent comment threads on Slate Star Codex, my favorite blog, have dealt with the always lively issue of gun control. One standard argument is "we know gun control laws work because the U.S., which has relatively few restrictions, has a much higher homicide rate than countries such as Canada or the U.K., which have much more restrictions."

One response sometimes offered is that there are other countries, such as Mexico and Brazil, with both restrictive laws and homicide rates much higher than in the U.S. That then gets into the question of what comparisons are more relevant, in what respects the U.K. is more like the U.S. than Brazil is.

An alternative approach, which I think more useful, is to ask whether the difference in homicide rates existed prior to the difference in regulation. The web makes that question much easier to answer than it would have been twenty years ago. 

In the case of the U.K., the answer is pretty clear. According to the Wiki page on Firearms Policy in the U.K., the first restrictive legislation was the pistol act of 1903, but it had little effect:
The Act was more or less ineffective, as anyone wishing to buy a pistol commercially merely had to purchase a licence on demand over the counter from a Post Office before doing so. In addition, it did not regulate private sales of such firearms.
The first  significant restriction was the Firearms Act of 1920. There were additional acts in 1937, 1968, 1988, 1997 and 2006.

The data on Homicide rates per 100,000:

Year U.S.  England&Wales Ratio
1900 1.2 0.96 1.3
1910 4.6 0.81 5.7
1920 6.8 0.83 8.2
1930 8.8 0.75 11.7
*1946 6.4 0.81 7.9
1950 4.6 0.79 5.8
1960 5.1 0.62 8.2
1970 7.9 0.69 11.4
1980 10.2 1.11 9.2
1990 9.4 1.09 8.6
2000 5.5 **1.71 3.2
2010 4.8 1.14 4.2

*No data for the U.K. 1940-1945
**The figure is for the U.K. rather than England and Wales

Looking at those data, it is hard to believe that the reason the U.K. has a lower homicide rate than the U.S. is restrictive legislation.

My point here is not that gun control doesn't (or does) work. I wouldn't be surprised if some restrictions on firearm ownership reduced the homicide rate, but if so, the effect on the U.S./U.K. ratio is lost in the noise. My point is rather that the sort of factoids that show up in this sort of argument, even when they are true, are rarely as solid evidence as those who offer them claim.

This would be a better post if I had a good example on the other side of the same debate. I don't, but perhaps someone reading this can offer one.

European Speaking Trip in April

I have made tentative arrangements for another European trip. At the moment it looks like four or five talks in two weeks, so I could squeeze in a few more, hence this post. Current schedule:

April 14th, Belgrade

April 21st, Sofia

April 28th, Norway

Sometime between those dates possibly Poland, possibly Milan. For additional talks I prefer places reasonably close to places already on my schedule, so as not to spend too much time traveling.

My usual terms are expenses plus whatever honorarium the host thinks appropriate. Defining expenses gets complicated for a multi-talk trip. If one host has offered to fly me to Europe and back, I expect others to provide accommodations and any additional travel expenses, otherwise it's accommodations plus an even division of travel expenses among the hosts.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Did Anyone Record my Debate with Austin Petersen?

I debated him at the Young Americans for Liberty national convention on anarchism vs minarchism. I unfortunately did not record the debate, and YAL didn't either. 

It occurred to me that, since nowadays practically everyone has a smartphone which doubles as, among many other things, a recorder, someone in the audience probably recorded the debate. If so, I would be interested in getting, and webbing, a copy.

A commenter has now pointed me at a recording of the debate that someone has webbed.

I live in a world where almost everyone in my audience has a video camera disguised as a phone in his pocket and where I can put a question to the world at large, as I did in this post, and get an answer in three days.

For those unhappy with how rarely I post here nowadays, the main reason is that I am active as a commenter on my favorite blog, Slate Star Codex, which I highly recommend. I will continue to post here from time to time when I have something I feel like writing about.

On another subject, Eric Raymond has an interesting post up today, arguing against the destruction of Confederate Statues on the grounds that they, the treatment of Lee in the North as well as the South as a hero rather than a traitor, and a bunch of other things were part of a successful attempt on both sides to heal the wounds of the Civil War.

Reading it, it occurred to me that it parallels what is happening at the end of my second novel, Salamander. There has been a rising attempting to reverse the result of an earlier succession struggle, it has failed, and the victorious incumbents are deliberately offering very generous terms to the losers for essentially the same reason Eric describes.

The issue comes up in the sequel, which I am currently working on. The following is the relevant passage, spoken several years later by a secondary character who was involved in the rising and is now arguing against another attempt:
“Don’t know if you remember, but a bit before the mountain blew up, all Earl Eirick’s food stores went up in flames. Figure the Prince and his mages did it somehow. With no food and no Forstish army, we were in pretty poor shape. Prince could have offered terms a fair bit worse than he did, asked for the Earls’ heads, maybe some others, maybe mine. Sent all of us he didn’t trust north, put his people in the holds. From where he sat, we were traitors tried to bring in a Forstish army, take his capital, mebbe kill him and his brother. Not a lot we could have done to stop him once the rest of the royal forces showed up–can’t keep an army in the field without food.

“I was the one brought the Prince’s terms back to the Earl, good terms considering. Duke Morgen gave ‘em to me–didn’t even know the Prince was in the keep till he stood up to guarantee ‘em.

“One part you don’t know, cause I never told anyone but the Earl. Morgen’s daughter that’s Princess Mariel now, Prince’s wife. Maybe widow. At the College with me. Knew her pretty well. After I got the terms from her father, Prince endorsed them, still wasn’t sure we could trust ‘em, considering what rode on it. Asked Mari. Prince had proposed to her during the siege. Figured she should know.

“She said they would keep the terms. And why. Prince and Duke wanted to tie the kingdom back together, had worried about it a long time. Reason to give us generous terms. Reason to keep them. Told Earl Eirick. He accepted the Prince’s terms. They kept them.

“Try to break up the kingdom, steal the throne from the Prince’s heir, I’ll do what I can to stop you. Asgeir too.”

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Reviving the Living Paper Project

A very long time ago, I wrote some computer programs to go with my price theory textbook. The idea, in each case, was to do something on the computer that could not be done on paper. My favorite was a program I called curvedraw, which let you draw a total cost curve freehand on the computer. As you did so, the computer drew the corresponding marginal cost and/or average cost curves. At any point you could switch from drawing total cost to drawing one of the other two, at which point the computer would take over drawing the total cost curve. You could click on any part of the total cost curve and have the program draw a tangent with horizontal length one, hence vertical length equal to the slope, i.e. the marginal cost, thus seeing visually why the marginal cost curve was what it was. The idea was to teach the student to intuit the relation between total, marginal and average, between a function, its derivative, and its average.

My plan was to produce more programs and offer to customize them to other textbooks, and I sketched out ideas for some of them. I also had a design for a computer game in which the player was  building a trade league, an "empire" based not on conquest but on mutual advantage. An early version was written  by a programmer friend of mine but the living paper project eventually died, since neither I nor my friend was willing to put enough time and effort into it.

I put up a description of the project a few years ago, in the hope of bringing it back to life as open source. That may now be happening.  Ricardo Cruz has been looking at doing my programs in javascript so that anyone could try them using the browser. He has asked me to announce the mailing list [1] and the github page [2]:


Monday, June 19, 2017

Shanghai and Batumi

Two cities I have enjoyed visiting and hope to visit again. They are quite a long distance apart and in many ways very different, but they have one thing in common. In both cities, all the architects are crazy.

Not, however, in the same way. Shanghai architects are science fiction crazy:

 A spherical building of glass

A skyscraper with a stylized Saturn on top. 

Or a space station.


A very large transformer, about to transform.

Batumi architects are fantasy crazy. 

Build a tower. Take a bite out of one side. Insert a magic spinning array of capsules.

Each, presumably, containing someone. Or something.

A three pointed tower, complete with clock and gilded dome.

A steampunk palace.