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This is what government agent accountability looks like April 16, 2015

Posted by federalist in Government, Government Regulation, Natural Rights.
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Today’s example care of the TSA (though examples from other law enforcement agencies abound at the Free Thought Project):

Three months after an employee alerts the TSA to sexual abuse of citizens by two “security” screeners they get around to checking into it and, sure enough, it’s going on as described. And the penalty for the perverts hiding behind government agency and paychecks? They (we are told to believe) lose their jobs. Nothing more. Not even their names have been released.

Gambling: Legality and Morality December 18, 2014

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Government Regulation.
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My general attitude towards legal gambling has been libertarian melancholy: I don’t consider it a positive means of recreation, but as long as everything is above-board who am I to tell people how to spend their money? The expected losses from gambling are well known. The fact that it is addictive and can financially ruin people is also fairly evident.

But after reading this story I don’t think the way it’s done in America is fair: Yes, the industry and its regulators go to great lengths to ensure that games yield their expected negative outcomes to players — no more, no less. But when a player finds a bug or advantage and exploits it he is treated as a criminal. This takes the industry’s built-in “heads-I-win tails-you-lose” bias one level too far.

Casinos can already eject and ban players they think are playing at an advantage. They have virtually limitless resources to detect what they would term fraud, and are not even legally required to pay out “fraudulent” winnings. The law has no place buttressing the house’s enormous advantages just because the house actually determines the mechanism by which a player manages to “cheat.” After all, when an addict loses his fortune there are no legal repercussions or claims on the casino for having exploited the addict’s mental defect. Why should the law bear on a player who, despite the unlimited scrutiny and safeguards of the house, manages to find and exploit a defect to his advantage?

Redistribution of Opportunity that Makes Sense December 1, 2014

Posted by federalist in Human Markets, Social Politics.
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Rick Bookstaber points out a way of looking at equal opportunity “ex ante” that makes sense. The problem with progressive social engineering to date has been that it can’t help but reference, and thus try to manipulate, outcomes. (This is ignoring the much larger problem that progressives persist in seeking the coercive force of government to pursue their experiments. To be clear: government should never be involved in social engineering!)

Playing with policies to try to produce more equal outcomes is a futile endeavor: Human outcomes are subject to so many unobservable variables and so much chance that targeting outcomes will inevitably be suboptimal.

But the fact remains that the distribution of human capital — talent, genius, potential — in a free society does not correlate with the distribution of opportunity, which is largely determined by one’s birth endowment (i.e., the station and wealth of one’s parents).

After describing a theoretical framework for optimizing resources given the disparities of these two distributions, Bookstaber offers a sports example: Two children are vying for a tennis scholarship. One child would be called “underprivileged” but has immense potential. The other would be called “advantaged” but has mediocre talent. If our goal is to produce the best tennis players then the scholarship should go to the undeveloped but larger talent of the first child. However, our society is still too superficially meritocratic and so more often than not we see the suboptimal outcome of social resources being added to the second child, who in this example manages to beat the undeveloped but better player and win the scholarship.

Pathological Altruism November 5, 2014

Posted by federalist in Government, Uncategorized.
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William Voegeli, summarizing his recent book:

The problem with liberalism may be that no one knows how to get the government to do the benevolent things liberals want it to do. Or it may be, at least in some cases, that it just isn’t possible for the government to bring about what liberals want it to accomplish. [T]he intended, beneficial consequences of social policies are routinely overwhelmed by the unintended, harmful consequences they trigger. It may also be, as conservatives have long argued, that achieving liberal goals, no matter how humane they sound, requires kinds and degrees of government coercion fundamentally incompatible with a government created to secure citizens’ inalienable rights, and deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.

Experts Agree: 165 MPH is a safe speed limit September 4, 2014

Posted by federalist in Transportation.
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Safety is relative. There’s no guarantee you won’t be in a collision if you drive on public roads, no matter what precautions you take. So society, via engineers and legislators, weighs costs, benefits, and risks and reaches designs and compromises that are generally accepted.

But they are grossly inconsistent. Consider: America is full of roads with no physical divider and speed limits of 55 MPH. I.e., it is not considered excessively risky to drive 110 MPH relative to cars in adjacent lanes, separated by nothing more than a double yellow line. If you have ever designed, approved, or driven on one of these roads you evidently agree.

On a divided highway with a speed limit of 65 MPH this is equivalent to 165 MPH.

Many Americans to whom I have pointed this out seem appalled by the equation. What about distracted drivers? Can regular cars even handle such speeds? A small mistake at 65 MPH becomes catastrophic at 165 MPH.

Amusingly, on the unrestricted sections of the German Autobahn the answers to those questions are on display every day. For one thing, every modern road vehicle has a speed limiter (a.k.a. governor) set by its manufacturer to ensure that it isn’t pushed faster than its design limits. Drivers who push their cars well into triple digit speeds don’t do so without care. And distracted drivers, knowing that they share the road with aggressive drivers in high-performance cars, learn quickly to stay out of the left lanes. Of course they have accidents there too, and speed certainly contributes to their severity. But allowing drivers to speed on suitable divided highways does not seem to create more accidents.

So why do Americans accept the risks of passing oncoming vehicles at 110 MPH, but shudder at the idea of overtaking at the same rate on a divided highway?

How Tax Policy Drives Quirky Compensation July 24, 2014

Posted by federalist in Taxation.
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In some European countries tax rates are so high that there are vibrant parallel “black-market” economies.

But you don’t have to go to the Old World to see this. Distortions of healthcare markets by the tax code are something with which most Americans are familiar.

California has treated us to some more salient examples:

Even moderate income families in California can face marginal tax rates that approach 50%. When an employer tries to pay a worker one more dollar, the employee takes home slightly more than 50 cents. Most employee benefits, however, are tax free. That means that the benefit could be worth half its cost and still be a good deal for the employees.

Laser-corrected optics June 28, 2014

Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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This is just cool:
Four Lasers over Mauna Kea

This article describes how the Keck Observatory uses 40W laser pulses to measure atmospheric disturbance, which can then be reduced by changing the shapes of segmented 10-meter telescope mirrors and post-processing the resulting images.

Of course you can’t just go firing 40W lasers willy-nilly into the sky — the FDA considers any visible laser with output greater than 5mW to be hazardous — so the observatory has some interesting safety measures in place:

Our Federal Aviation Administration–approved approach to aircraft safety is to have two spotters outside during all laser operations, with switches to shutter the laser. We also have an IR camera boresighted to the laser that will automatically shutter the laser in the event of aircraft detection.

Prior to each laser observing run, a list of targets and their observation times is faxed to the Laser Clearinghouse at the US Space Control Center. The Space Control Center faxes back a list of any required blackout periods, to avoid illuminating satellites.

Government Competition Update May 18, 2014

Posted by federalist in Government, Government Regulation, Markets.
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What remains of state sovereignty in this country is both entertaining and heartening.

Of course state competition for business has a long history. Before government became a distinguishing factor businesses would often establish themselves based on access to needed natural resources, labor, and markets. Gradually each state’s tax and regulatory burden became a significant part of that equation. Now the political environment itself is becoming an explicit factor.

For example, the last round of gun control hysteria had quite disparate results. States that enacted draconian new gun laws have found themselves losing firearm businesses to more friendly states.

More recently the CEO of a California company complained publicly that its government is becoming reminiscent of the communist Vietnam he fled 35 years ago. Texas is one of the states that has been reaching out to companies with this compelling invitation from its governor:

Texas’ low taxes, predictable regulations, fair courts and world-class workforce make our state the ideal place for any business looking to relocate or expand….

Government Shakedowns May 4, 2014

Posted by federalist in Government Regulation, Markets.
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He knows that it’s cheaper to settle than it is to fight this investigation.

Most government shakedowns don’t get coverage like this in the Wall Street Journal. But then, as the FERC lawyers paraphrased above noted, most people realize it’s cheaper and easier to just settle.

In its legitimate role the government enforces clear laws and applies well-defined penalties to lawbreakers. In practice the government has promulgated so many laws that they are uncountable. Executive agencies ostensibly ordained to enforce these laws then compound them with rules and regulations so extensive and opaque that even expert enforcers often cannot say with certainty what is or is not permitted.

I have previously noted that the greatest peril of this situation is selective enforcement. I have since observed a more nefarious phenomenon: the government shakedown.

What motivates regulators in a system in which one can argue that virtually anyone is doing something wrong? Criminal convictions for clear violations of the law are great, certainly. But evidently when it’s too hard to find or convict criminals the next best thing for a regulator is a settlement. And, like all gangsters, the government goes after people with money.

I’ve seen this from traffic courts to tax assessors to market regulators: Pick an amount that is low enough that the target will decide it’s cheaper to settle than to fight. When you run out of criminals start with the wealthy, or just pull people over at random. Threaten them with laws and rules that may not even exist. Find the highest number they’ll pay to avoid further hassle, and if they turn out to be fighters just close the case and move on to the next target. There are no penalties for government enforcement agents who engage in such harassment. On the contrary, it seems, they are rewarded for “settlements” even if no wrongdoing was admitted or even committed. And since shakedowns are easier than full-scale prosecutions that could be lost under the judicial scrutiny of the courts and juries it often appears that enforcers would rather accumulate these token settlements than pursue the hard criminals they were created to take down.

We need more public scrutiny of the everyday government shakedown. And we need more people like the Gates brothers to stand up and say, “Even though it’s cheaper for me to pay you to leave me alone, I’m going to fight you because what you are doing is wrong.”

Is Silicon Valley Ironic? March 23, 2014

Posted by federalist in Human Markets, Markets, Open Questions.
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I’ve had a number of friends over the years go to Silicon Valley (SV) to pursue opportunities in technology and finance. SV has a unique entrepreneurial culture, and I have seen second-hand how, once you’re plugged in, you have first call on talent, funding, and ideas.

I find this ironic because so much of the output of SV has been products and services that eliminate physical location as a barrier to production and collaboration. Yet there’s still no substitute for being there in person: absent a physical presence you’re an outsider. Unless you can show up in person you’re mostly excluded from the discussions, ventures, and partnerships that form in face-to-face meetings.

Is this an expression of a human social instinct that technology won’t be able supplant? Or is it just an expression of the path of least resistance: I.e., since so much of the money and talent is willing to make the physical move there it’s just not worth the trouble, however small, to engage someone remotely?

Why don’t I just move out there? Yes, the cost of living is exorbitant. But if you’re any good you’ll make enough money to compensate. Besides, as one outdoorsy friend said referring to the perfect year-round climate: that’s the price for living in heaven.

But there’s a second irony: the government. My understanding is that the dominant ideology of the SV tech/finance world is libertarian, yet they elect to live under the most heavy-handed state government in America. All evidence I’ve seen suggests this is in spite of, not because of, that government: just look at the number of entrepreneurs and companies that setup operations outside of the state at every opportunity. Yet the core of this capitalist engine still operates from within a political regime that seems to despise wealth and free markets.

Yes, I could leave all my CA-illegal guns in a free state. But I chafe at the idea of “voting with my feet” for such a bad government. Granted, California is still something of a constitutional democracy, so because in principle you have a marginal influence on its government joining its public body isn’t quite like handing your life and property to a totalitarian state.

Yes, there’s some level of compensation that would make it worth my while to move to an expensive and politically oppressive place like that. Evidently my price is higher than most.

EMTs and Doctors: Do you have a go bag? February 21, 2014

Posted by federalist in Healthcare, Open Questions, Uncategorized.
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This winter’s severe weather reminds us that emergency infrastructure isn’t always available. Even in populated areas a severely injured person could be stranded for days. Fortunately, medical technicians and specialists live amongst us. Unfortunately, many I have talked to don’t take emergency preparedness as seriously as they could.

If you are a medical technician and you found yourself stranded with an injury you’re trained to treat, would you have the tools you need? Typical first aid kits do not contain the following essential tools any EMT can use to save lives and limbs:

  • Airway management devices (OPAs or NPAs)
  • IV catheters and solutions
  • Hypodermic syringes and injectable lidocaine and adrenaline
  • Sutures
  • Obstetric kits

What if you’re stranded for days and have to handle and stabilize emergencies from anyone within walking distance? If you have surgical training wouldn’t you rather have general anesthetics, chlorhexidine, scalpels, and hemostats than have to try to improvise them?

Think of your training, and then think of what you could store in small “go bags” kept in your house and vehicle that you might wish you had on hand when hospitals, stores, and ambulances are hours or days away.

New TV Series: Chicago PD – Win; Intelligence – Fail January 12, 2014

Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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Not too long into the first episode of Chicago PD some police roll up on the apartment of a suspect, get out of their cars, and immediately take gunfire from a window. The sergeant on scene shouts, “Get the long guns,” so they holster their pistols and pop their trunks to grab their rifles before going into the building. Finally!

Contrast that with the pilot of Intelligence: America’s single most valuable intelligence asset, a soldier named Gabriel whose brain they’ve managed to meld with wifi and internet access, is also being sought by the Chinese who want to steal the technology and implant it in their own agents. No, this premise isn’t the bad part (and it worked well in the action comedy Chuck). The government wisely assigned a single Secret Service agent to protect Gabriel — the person, not the priceless technology, mind you — as he takes to the field to unravel the plot. Not long into the first episode he follows some leads to a Chinese gang compound connected with the plot. Even as he is told that a tactical team is minutes away, and even though there is no urgency whatsoever, he and his bodyguard decide to raid the compound. With handguns.

My wife is inclined to cut our losses when we see something start so poorly, but I couldn’t believe a major production company could bungle a full-budget series this badly and then have a major network pick it up as their midseason centerpiece. Apparently they can: Everything from casting to screenwriting was awfully amateurish and unredeemed by anything. So we slogged through the remainder of the episode with me intermittently exclaiming, “How does this make it through a script reading?” and, “Why do they spend money producing such crap?”

Chicago PD, on the other hand, showed all the makings of a top-shelf police drama. I guess when producers and actors pay attention to details like tactics it’s a sign they know what they’re doing?

Update: Chicago PD was something of a bait-and-switch. In all later episodes the stars use handguns almost exclusively. Even when heading into a confrontation with bad guys known to be wearing body armor.

I was recently talking to an experienced Hollywood armorer about this and he explained that directors don’t like to give the stars long guns because it’s harder to show their faces. And most viewers don’t care about the difference: A gun is a gun.

Re: Desert Tech Pakistan Contract — me too! January 8, 2014

Posted by federalist in Markets, RKBA.
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Desert Tech (formerly Desert Tactical Arms), a small Utah gun manufacturer, grabbed national headlines when it announced it wouldn’t pursue a $15MM RFP for small arms for Pakistan. Never mind that Desert Tech can barely meet domestic demand for their guns: they boasted that not pursuing the contract had nothing to do with their probability of winning or fulfilling it, and everything to do with their ethical concerns about their pricey bolt-action rifles somehow falling into the hands of enemies of American.

Which is funny, because I recently faced a very similar dilemma: The Pakistani government is looking for elite American technology strategists to enhance their infrastructure. Naturally I would make any short list for those roles, but given the turmoil in the region I have decided that regardless of the personal cost I will forgo any such opportunities for fear that they might lead to situations that could compromise my stalwart American values. Like Desert Tech, I know it’s not always easy or profitable to stand by one’s principles. And I just want to make sure everyone knows that.

Also, due to its latest human rights abuses I had no choice but to publicly inform the Russian Olympic Committee that I will not license my image for any of their public-relations efforts. (The U.S. government hasn’t put my striking good looks on their export control list, but you know it’s only a matter of time.)

Hopefully my manifest willingness to put my patriotism and principles before profit won’t deter anyone else from approaching me with enormous consulting, contracting, or modelling offers.

Due Process Update: NFA Tax January 3, 2014

Posted by federalist in RKBA, Taxation.
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NSSF provides an update on the time it takes the ATF to send applicants a stamp showing they paid the $200 fee required to possess a suppressor or short-barrel rifle. They cash the check immediately upon receiving the application, but they just reported that average wait times to approve them are still averaging 9 months!

This is worse than it was last year.

The Beauty of Bounties November 8, 2013

Posted by federalist in Markets, Uncategorized.
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Bounties for solving big or hard problems are not new. But they should be more common.

I was impressed to discover a data company (SNL) that issues cash rewards to anyone who finds errors in their data. Based on my experience not many data vendors could afford to do that! So it serves the dual purposes of advertising their quality and ensuring it. (And yes it’s real: I recently collected on a handful of errors uncovered during some tedious work.)

Many major information technology vendors have publicized substantial “bug bounty” programs for researchers who reveal serious security flaws in a gracious manner. (I.e., instead of exploiting their discoveries to attack, blackmail, or humiliate the companies, as is a sometimes attractive alternative.)

Another interesting “error bounty” is Donald Knuth’s, begun in 1968 for errors in his publications. I assume he began the program because he realized he had authored the most important reference texts in Computer Science, and he wanted them to stand worthy of the role. Obviously the scientific community agrees, since the bounty check is minimal and rarely even cashed: Evidence of earning it is far more prestigious.

What’s on my DVR Update October 30, 2013

Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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Update to What’s on my DVR:

The show I most look forward to now is Person of Interest. Of all current TV series it manages to sustain the most realistic action and tactics. Engaging characters and screenwriting more than make up where those fall short. Plus, this season they’re developing a sophisticated machine-as-god subplot.

Blue Bloods has jumped onto the list after I caught up on previous seasons over the summer. Each episode its family of protagonists — NYC police commissioner, detective, beat officer, and district attorney — tell synergistic stories, so there’s plenty of substance and resolution. And viewers are virtually guaranteed a comforting knockout of moral relativism by Tom Selleck’s principled character. (Though to many New Yorkers that may be discomforting ;)

Elementary is not far behind. It manages to keep its plots from seeming overly-contrived, and Sherlock Holmes supplies enough quirky wit to compensate for any other shortcomings.

The Blacklist must have blown its budget on James Spader’s character, who is so delicious it’s worth slogging through the rest of the show just to catch any scene with him. The protagonista is an inexperienced FBI field agent, but the writers apparently don’t have experience or budget for FBI fieldcraft either, so she bounces through international terror cases supported by what must be the most understaffed, isolated FBI a libertarian could dream for.

Pseudoephedrine Update August 30, 2013

Posted by federalist in Healthcare, Markets.
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My wife takes pseudoephedrine continuously to control chronic allergies. When the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act took effect in 2006 I noticed an across-the-board price increase in the generic formulations: 20-count packs of 12-hour pseudoephedrine went up about 50%. Perhaps this was justified because pharmacies were suddenly liable for extra training, control, and logging of sales of any medication containing pseudoephedrine.

The law made it a big pain to keep a supply of the medicine: Individuals are prohibited from buying more than 3.6gr/day. And strangely, the largest and most economical size packaged by pharmacies was kept at just 2.4gr. (The daily limits do not apply if you go through the trouble of getting a prescription for the drug.)

Costco has finally come to the rescue: They now sell 3.6gr of 12-hour Sudafed for $10, which takes advantage of the full daily limit and is the same price as 2.4gr of the generic 12-hour I’ve found at any other pharmacy.

Victims of the Meth Epidemic need not worry: For whatever it’s worth it’s still a misdemeanor to buy more than 9gr in a 30-day period.

Lazy Law Update June 26, 2013

Posted by federalist in Government Regulation.
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We already knew that there are so many laws that it is impossible to determine whether an individual is completely law-abiding. I was alarmed to learn that even if we restrict ourselves to criminal statutes, and only those promulgated by the federal government, we still can’t say who is not a criminal. Paul Rosenzweig dives into the subject after noting:

Even the Congressional Research Service can’t count the federal criminal laws.

Why Civilians Need Machineguns June 16, 2013

Posted by federalist in RKBA.
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Would civilians benefit from the right to keep and bear fully-automatic firearms (a.k.a. “select-fire” or “machine” guns)? I’ve raised this question with firearms tacticians in the past, and the most common answer is, “Probably not.” This answer is usually buttressed by three arguments:

  1. You can’t deliver hits any more quickly with full-auto fire. After the first shot of a full-auto burst the accuracy of an unmounted gun decreases due to recoil. Hence, agencies that issue select-fire weapons prefer that shooters train to deliver three-round bursts instead of barrages.
  2. Reloads, running out of ammo, or overheating your gun are all more likely to get you killed in a fire fight than the inability to deliver an adequate volume of fire.
  3. Modern military tactics only call for fully-automatic fire in squad scenarios. Civilians don’t normally travel in squads with the full battle loads necessary to sustain a firefight with automatic weapons. (Though a militia formed in a state of emergency probably would.)

And yet, there’s this disconcerting fact that the government, which has the option, generally chooses to equip its agents with select-fire weapons. I’ve reasoned before that the argument should end there: If it’s appropriate for government agents it’s appropriate for The People. But the question is still interesting.

One does not need a vivid imagination to conjure scenarios in which a civilian militia or family would benefit from fully-automatic firearms. In fact, most military doctrine for the use of full-auto fire from man-portable weapons involves defensive uses: “breaking contact” to retreat, “denying access” to an aggressor, and “final protective fire.” As discussed in that last article by Oleg Volk, any home or business that has been attacked by a mob would have benefited from the deterrent of a machinegun defense. (Nothing says “go away” like sweeping a sector with automatic fire.)

Even individuals can find themselves in situations warranting a maximum volume of fire. For example, aggressors often attack by ramming with vehicles. To stop an incoming vehicle that threatens your life or property you’d ideally place aimed fire through the windshield at the driver. But if the vehicle is approaching too quickly or the driver takes cover behind the engine you have to stop the vehicle itself, and that requires a barrage of fire: The faster you can shoot the greater your chances of stopping or diverting it.
(more…)

Helium: A Very Non-Renewable Natural Resource May 13, 2013

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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Where are the environmentalists when it really matters? They pitch fits about depleting natural resources, most of which are to some degree renewable or replaceable. Except for one in particular that is practically both irreplaceable and non-renewable: helium. And who shows up to lobby for the continued preservation of this natural resource? “A coalition including orthopedic surgeons, industrial welders and balloon makers….

Helium has a number of unique characteristics that make it indispensable to current industrial applications, and that seem likely to make it essential for future technologies. (Here’s one interesting backgrounder on the element.) Unfortunately those characteristics include exceptional levity and inertness, so when released into the atmosphere helium gradually evaporates into outer space. The only source of terrestrial helium is radioactive decay, which over eons has produced some natural concentrations in impermeable geological formations. When we drill into these formations for natural gas we often get small quantities of accumulated helium. Once we have tapped those pockets we’ll essentially be out of industrial quantities of helium. The prudent course of action, which the U.S. government has been leading, is to stockpile helium found during drilling in the Federal Helium Reserve. This Reserve just became profitable, which strangely required Congressional action to allow it to continue operations.

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