Archive for the ‘regulation’ Category

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s excellent Twitter feed directed me to this story:

Electronic cigarettes don’t burn and don’t give off smoke. But they’re at the center of a social and legal debate over whether it’s OK to “light up” in places where regular smokes are banned. Despite big differences between cigarettes and their electronic cousins, several states, workplaces and localities across the country have explicitly included e-cigs in smoking bans.

Here’s a video overview for a typical e-cigarette:

The article notes that e-cigs are designed to “address both the nicotine addiction and the behavioral aspects of smoking — the holding of the cigarette, the puffing, exhaling something that looks like smoke and the hand motion — without the more than 4,000 chemicals found in cigarettes.” Since the smoke that is emitted is actually water vapor, users call the activity “vaping” instead of smoking.

So if it’s just water vapor, then how could e-cigs fall under smoking bans (about which I’ve written critically here). Well, the FDA says the liquid nicotine cartridges contain “detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed.” Not saying much really, but if even if e-cigs were toxic, smoking bans are ostensibly about second-hand effects, so what’s the harm in water vapor?

There’s no research to say if any of the ‘detectable toxins to which users could potentially be exposed’ might also potentially expose third-parties, but that’s not stopping the awesomely named American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. In their view, e-cigs should be banned until it’s proven they “do no harm.” In that case, says the spokesperson with courageous unambiguity, “we’ll have to revisit” the ban.

Several days ago, Robin Hanson blogged about how the status of a risky activity seems to affect our desire to regulate it: climbing Everest is a deadly activity and no one thinks to call for a ban, but the far less dangerous lawn darts? Fuggedaboutit! This status-driven impulse might apply to smoking bans as well.  Smoking, while once considered classy and cool, has become so low-status that smokers often feel the need to apologize for their behavior every time they want to light up. Sure, there’s a defensible public health argument for smoking bans, but then how to explain this anecdote at the beginning of the article?

That’s not smoke coming out of Cliff Phillips’ mouth.

But that hasn’t stopped others from cringing, making remarks, waving their hands in their faces and coughing at the sight of the vapor from his electronic cigarette.


Some e-cig users have even taken to “stealth vaping,” a method in which they hold the vapor in their mouth long enough for it to mostly dissipate or exhale the vapor discretely.

E-cigs are made to look like regular cigarettes, but functionally they are little alike.  In fact,  e-cigs are quite similar to nicotine inhalers.  If e-cigs were identical in every way except for the emission of water vapor, would they be causing such a hubbub? Or what if manufacturers agreed to model e-cigs to look like pieces of excrement? That way those who enjoy vaping can do so in peace, and restaurant and bar patrons can still look down their blissfully non-irritated noses at the habit.

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Readers should know by now I love me some economics, but many of its practitioners in recent years have done their discipline a disservice by inflating its explanatory power to cover all decisions made by all people at all times.  My heart is thus sent a-flutter when simple standard economics can be applied appropriately to a problem and do some good. Take parking:

Yes! We’ve got  a supply of parking spaces, we’ve got demand for them, now use prices to match them up! Now, as Felix Salmon notes, there’s  no reason the pricing couldn’t be more dynamic and variable (which would help on the demand side), and as Matt Yglesias says, cities could leave parking space construction to the purview of private people  (which would help on the supply side). Nonetheless, an improvement over the status quo thanks to good economics.

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Caveat Venditor

A common complaint of expats here is that Rwanda, in contrast to other African countries, has no cheap, delicious street food.  The reason is because the government forbids street vendors. Here’s a New Times article from today on the subject

Following the directives from Kigali City Council (KCC) to get rid of all street vendors operating within the city, penalties for those who will be caught in the act have been made public, The New Times has established.

In an interview, Bruno Rangira, the KCC Director of Media and Communication, said that those caught in the act will on top of seizing their merchandise, be fined Rwf 10,000 [~$20].

Goods seized from the vendors are given to different orphanages in the city.

Why the beat down on the beleaguered burghers?

“These are the people who cause commotion and poor hygiene in the city,” he said.

He added that some of the vendors indulge in pick pocketing, snatching ladies’ bags and stealing phones around town.

Of course, the “Three C’s” of good governance: Commotion Prevention, Cleanliness, and Crime Stoppage. Of these, the only one that has any smell of legitimacy amongst all the African odors is the last.  But does the fact that some vendors engage in petty crime necessitate a ban of their hitherto legal profession?

Here’s a story of firefighter who stole over $150; here’s another one of a police detective who pilfered $8,000 worth of confiscated drug money. Guess we better get rid of the police and fire departments.

One suspects the “Three C’s” are ex post rationalizations for a policy based primarily on the personal preferences of people in power (isn’t alliteration fun–er, alluring!).

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A few days ago, J, wife of Prophylactic Paul, forwarded along another German sex story:

Demetrius Soupolos (29) and his wife were very keen to have a child together, but when doctors found that Demetrius is sterile, they began to seek other options to become parents.

The option the couple decided on was to hire their neighbor Frank Maus (34).

Frank, who was already married with two children, agreed to do the job for the fee of 2.000 euros. For three times a week for the next six months, a total of 72 times, Maus tried to impregnate the neighbor’s wife.

After the unsuccessful six-month period Demetrius insisted that Frank take a medical examination. The doctor found that Frank was also sterile, which forced his wife into admitting that their two children did not belong to him.

What interested me was the validity of the agreement–which in essence concerned the exchange of money for sex– seemed not to be in question.  Prostitution is legal in Germany, but often these transactions are still limited depending on the state and city, and I’m sure a lawyer could find some legal distinction between prostitution and this particular arrangement. In the US, for example, prostitution is almost everywhere illegal, but pornography is not. According to this article, the main legal distinction is that prostitution involves payment for sex, while pornography involves payment to watch (but not engage in) sex. I’m sure somebody somewhere finds that a meaningful distinction.

Legal arbitrariness aside, a debate was recently held on the morality of paying for sex. One of the debaters is a favorite economist of mine, Tyler Cowen. Part 1 is embedded below:

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Via Lexington, I find the claim in a WSJ op-ed that, contra Newsweek’s cover story, the end of Christianity in America is not nigh, ergo….uh…well, ergo nothing except that I felt I needed a Latin triumvirate in this sentence–oh drat, that made four. Caveat lector, and all that.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah:

Betting against American religion has always proved to be a fool’s game. In 1880, Robert Ingersoll, the leading atheist of his day, claimed that “the churches are dying out all over the land.” In its Easter issue in 1966, Time asked “Is God Dead?” on its cover. East Coast intellectuals have repeatedly assumed that the European model of progress, where modernity equals secularization, would come to the U.S. They have always been wrong.

Claims about the death of American Christianity are as frequent and fervent as a prisoner’s prayers on the eve of execution, so why is religion so robust?

[I]n Salem, Mass., the setting for “The Crucible,” 83% of taxpayers by 1683 confessed to no religious identification.

America became religious after the Constitution separated church from state, thus ensuring that religious denominations could only survive if they got souls into pews. While state-sponsored religion withered in Europe, American faith has been a hive of activity: from the Methodists, who converted close to an eighth of the country in the half century after the Revolution, to the modern megachurches.

In other words, it’s the economics stupid!

I’ve had the chin-stroking suspicion for a few years that pastors were the most overlooked entrepreneurs, but apparently it’s recognized enough to have a portmanteau:

Meanwhile, the supply seems as plentiful as ever. Religion, no less than software or politics, is a competitive business, where organization and entrepreneurship count. Religious America is led by a series of highly inventive “pastorpreneurs” — men like Bill Hybels of Willow Creek or Rick Warren of Saddleback. These are far more sober, thoughtful characters than the schlock-and-scandal televangelists of the 1970s, but they are not afraid to use modern business methods to get God’s message across.

The church-as-business doesn’t give me any moral queasiness, but–bless me, Father–I must confess there’s much to it I don’t prefer. Why should a church need a slick logo emblazoned on interstate billboards; shouldn’t being the purveyor of the meaning of life sell itself? In truth, I often feel the same way about well-marketed businesses. I have some training in graphic design and love a well done corporate identity, but many times the designs feel too good by half, as if compensating for some core deficiency. With churches, clever business-style marketing signals to me they are there not to give me the truth, but to flatter me and make me feel good.

But it’s just a preference, and at least in the American system that counts for a lot.

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This week’s Economist has a series of articles about drug prohibition. Here’s the main point from the leader:

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless.

I’d like to think I’m a reasonable guy with empathy percolating out of every pore, but in this case I just don’t see how someone concerned with the effects of drug policy could not help but favor liberalization.  There will always be disagreement about how far liberalization should go, but virtually any step in that direction would seem to bring more benefit than cost. Insofar as one is not concerned with outcomes, however, but rather with good intentions or what legal drug use “says” about a society, then I am certainly able to understand one’s seeing liberalization as a solution administered through a dark and dirty needle.

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There’s a limited resource: gasoline. There’s a supply shock: a hurricane has shut down refineries. There’s now less of the resource to go around. Gas will have to be rationed somehow. As a policymaker, you must respond to the crisis. What do you do?

Make the most efficient rationing mechanism illegal, of course:

South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster is invoking a state law that allows criminal penalties against gas stations that set their prices too high.

As any Econ 101 textbook would predict, this policy and others like it are resulting in gasoline shortages all over the Southeast. This is great for those who were lucky enough to get the cheap gas, but not so great for everyone else.

In the world of scarce resources in which we live, rationing is always necessary. The wonder of prices is that because they ration so well without any central direction we don’t have to understand or even think about them for the process to work. A problem comes, however, when the results of this rationing jump into the fore of our conscious because they seem to conflict with the moral intuition that it is wrong to profit from distress.

This intuition may have good properties, but one thing it is not good for is ensuring that there’s enough of a resource to go around; indeed, anti-gouging legislation, the codification of this intuition, actually reduces the quantity of a resource available during crises by eliminating the incentive effects that high prices have for increasing supply (especially in the long run). Examining the outcomes of both scenarios, therefore, renders the moral superiority of anti-gouging sentiment to be dubious.

As a consumer, not wanting to feel gouged is just as valid as a preference for a high price over no gasoline at all, and firms respond to these preferences in various ways. Legislation needn’t make criminal the response of a firm to the latter preference any more than legislation should make it criminal for clothing stores to sell white after Labor Day.

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