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Why Don’t Cars Display Engine Performance Data? July 27, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Open Questions, Transportation.
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Most modern cars have engine control computers and sensors that can tell not only whether your current tank of fuel is contaminated but also whether you would benefit from higher-octane gasoline. Yet few (if any) cars readily communicate those data to the driver. Why not?

Many car engines are designed with higher compression ratios that require “premium” gasoline for optimal performance. These cars can still run on lower-grade fuel: They rely on knock sensors to detect the failure of low-octane fuel to resist detonation and can adjust valve timing to counteract it. However this adjustment reduces engine efficiency and power, so typically drivers want to avoid it. (Conversely, higher-octane gasolines are sometimes sold at such a premium to regular that their higher cost might outweigh the efficiency benefit to engines tuned for them.)

But gasoline octane rating is not the only factor that determines safe engine timing. Air density, which decreases with altitude and temperature, also affects detonation. Fuel that works great in summer or mountains may bog your car down in cold or sea-level conditions. Only your engine knows for sure whether it’s running optimally, or whether it would benefit from a bump in your fuel tank’s octane.

Apparently some aftermarket engine computer interface devices (e.g., the ScanGauge or the DashHawk) can allow a driver to monitor engine timing retardation in realtime. Ideally manufacturers should convert these data into useful dashboard information. Perhaps something like, “Your current fuel is handicapping the engine. Increase tank octane by 2 for optimal performance in current conditions.”

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Dye-Free, Perfume-Free July 26, 2009

Posted by federalist in Markets, Open Questions.
2 comments

I was surprised to learn from a discussion with a P&G product manager that dye- and fragrance-free consumer products are only a 5% market niche! This is baffling to me, and not just because I find most artificial fragrances irritating: It’s not like we’re living in primitive conditions where lack of hygiene and sanitation permeate our surroundings with the stench of unwashed animals, waste, and decay.

I suppose nosegays and perfume might still be in order for excursions to the zoo, circus, or municipal waste processing facilities. But why would normal humans in a well regulated household in a civilized community want to immerse themselves in the cacophony of artificial scents from their laundry detergent, fabric softener, dish soap, surface cleaners, bath soap, shampoo, antiperspirant, lotion, etc? And maybe then further compound that with “air fresheners” and colognes?!

As I wondered before: Shouldn’t I be able to buy dye- and perfume-free products at a discount, since they require fewer ingredients and development? Apparently not, and because consumer product companies consider “dye- and fragrance-free” to be a niche market they typically don’t consider removing those ancillary additives until a product line is well established!

Missing Words July 23, 2009

Posted by federalist in Language.
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What is the word for a parent whose child has died?  There seems to be no standard term; the best I have found is “child-bereft” or “bereft parent.”  But researching the question did lead me to this excellent discursion by Arnold Zwicky on “Missing Words:”  Concepts that are important enough to a culture that they should have words to describe them, but that don’t.

In our culture, people’s sex is important, and, for relatives, it’s important whether they are related to us by blood or by marriage (whether they are consanguineal or affine kin, as the anthropologists put it).  Yet, the marking of these features in the ordinary English vocabulary of kinship is a puzzling patchwork.

Ideally, we’d have both more specific words, distinguishing relatives on these dimensions, and also more general words, disregarding one feature so that relatives can be grouped together. Parent vs. mother/father and child vs. daughter/son come close to this ideal situation.   Sibling vs. brother/sister is a more dubious case, since for many people sibling is a technical term.  Then we get to cousin, which is undercoded (there’s a sex-neutral word, but no sex-specific ones), and niece/nephew, which is overcoded (there are sex-specific words, but no sex-neutral one).

And to aunt/uncle, which is overcoded on one dimension (there are sex-specific words, but no sex-neutral one) and undercoded on another (there are no words distinguishing consanguineal aunts/uncles from affine aunts/uncles).

Then there’s sister-in-law/brother-in-law, which are overcoded on the sex dimension, but undercoded in another way.  These words encode both an affine and a consanguineal relationship, but with two different scopings: brother-in-law is either spouse’s brother or sibling’s husband.  Many people feel that these two relationships are not equally close — in marrying, your spouse’s family is joined with yours, but when your sister marries, her husband’s family is not joined with yours in this fashion — so that these people find the use of a single word for them uncomfortable.  (As a result of the familial closeness of spouse’s brother, some people — I am one — are willing to extend sister-in-law to spouse’s brother’s wife.)

Read the whole thing for some good answers to my original question.

Federalism Showdown Looms Over Gun Control July 21, 2009

Posted by federalist in Federalism, RKBA.
Tags: , , ,
3 comments

Montana and Tennessee recently passed “Firearms Freedom Act” laws declaring that most firearms manufactured and traded within their respective states are exempt from federal gun laws and regulations.  The most significant implications of these state acts:

  • Federal Firearms Licenses are not required to manufacture or sell locally manufactured guns.
  • Locally manufactured silencers, short-barrelled guns, and man-portable smokeless-powder guns with bore diameters up to 1.5″ are exempt from NFA tax and registration.  Presumably “Any Other Weapon” devices are also NFA-exempt.
  • However, explosive ammunition and fully-automatic firearms are not protected by the Firearms Freedom Acts, and therefore still subject to the federal NFA and GCA.

Last week the BATFE sent letters to Federal Firearms Licensees in both states asserting that these Firearms Freedom Acts do not exempt licensees from any federal requirements.

Granted, there could be an administrative detente to this standoff:  When someone decides to obtain a Federal Firearms License (FFL) they are voluntarily submitting to federal regulations.  Therefore, a separate network of non-FFL manufacturer and dealer entities could stand up to deal in state-protected Firearms Freedom Act items.  In that case the BATFE would have to take the aggressive step of barging in on individuals engaged in state-sanctioned activity to assert that it has jurisdiction over them.  Hopefully the states will resist such an intrusion on their sovereignty.

[Update: FirearmsFreedomAct.com is serving as a clearinghouse for news on this sovereignty movement.]

Let’s Shift Funding From NASA to NOAA July 20, 2009

Posted by federalist in Government Spending.
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I’ve railed against lavish government funding for NASA before.  Apparently the space agency’s publicity machine is having a hard time keeping up its inspiring vision: A report today is entitled, “Space Program Struggles for Direction.”

This reminds me of a good question raised by Robert Ballard a few months ago when he appeared on The Colbert Report: Why does NASA have a budget over one thousand times the size of NOAA’s?  Investment in oceanic research and development today will have generate returns orders of magnitude greater than investments in outer space.

Granted, I don’t believe our government should currently be funding either endeavor.  In past generations there were some plausible arguments for government sponsorship of NASA, but given that the Department of Defense now has its own vast budget for the exploitation of space, and given the competitive markets for both private and foreign space launch capacity, these earlier premises are no longer valid.

Chemical Interrogation for Counter-Terrorism? July 18, 2009

Posted by federalist in Natural Rights, Open Questions, Social Politics.
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If the War on Terror left any doubt, episode after contrived episode of TV series 24 has shown that there are circumstances in which we may want to use any means necessary to extract life-saving information from a hostile captive.  Following years of controversy over what interrogation methods should be publicized and allowed to fight terrorism, the federal government is considering the creation of a special interrogation team with new tactics.

Note that we are not talking about securing information for use in judicial proceedings, but rather about extracting accurate information from subjects intent on resisting interrogation that could thwart future — perhaps imminent — homicides.  It is fatuous to discuss whether interrogation methods in such scenarios are “degrading” or “coercive.”  Most pragmatic people probably don’t particularly care whether methods constitute “torture,” so long as they are effective.  Many may even countenance real torture that causes permanent physical damage to a subject withholding information that could avert a mass homicide.  But one problem with torture and coercion on any level is that subjects can be prepared to resist known tactics.  And even when a subject appears to break interrogators can’t always be certain he hasn’t provided them with false information.

So what happened to the art of chemical interrogation: I.e., dosing subjects with drugs that diminish their capacity to consciously evade questions or formulate deceptive answers?  Jed Babbin addressed this early in the War on Terror:

So-called “truth serums” are not foolproof, and do not guarantee success. But chemically assisted interrogation can significantly increase the interrogator’s chance to get the facts without descending into barbarism. There are legitimate differences between the constitutional and legal limits we impose on police interrogating a suspected criminal for prosecution in a civilian court and the means interrogators use to get as much as they can — as quickly as they can — from Mohammed and his ilk. Those limits do not require us to forego chemically assisted interrogation.

Intelligence agencies and the military have been experimenting with so-called “truth drugs” since the Egyptians began making beer about 5,000 years ago. During World War II, Germany and Japan both used chemical interrogation with very mixed results. Today, there are several drugs that are more effective and safe than the ones used then.

The object of a chemically assisted interrogation is to release the cortical functions of the brain. Most of the drugs that would be used — sodium amatol and related drugs — are sedatives that have a general calming effect. So do barbiturates. Another group — valium and its progeny, including Versed — have essentially the same effect, but also induce short-term memory loss, so the subject won’t remember this morning what he told you last night. The beauty of these chemicals is that there is a minimal danger of allergic reaction, and they can be administered in relative safety to all but the most elderly or those with diabetes, or other conditions that can generally be detected by blood tests and an electrocardiogram.

If a suspect is being interrogated while under the influence of one of these drugs, it is possible to further boost the ability of the interrogator to succeed by administering an amphetamine. If administered properly, the sedative calms the suspect and breaks down resistance. The amphetamine can raise his anxiety level, causing him to blurt out what he might otherwise conceal even under sedation.

Even if the a drugged subject doesn’t crack, the short-term amnesia that can be induced with some of these drugs can itself be a useful interrogation tactic: leading him to believe he has given up useful information, and thereby weakening his resolve against further questioning.

The Geneva Conventions prohibit chemical interrogation.  But terrorists are not covered by the Geneva Conventions.  Drugs used for chemical interrogation are neither painful nor, when administered to healthy individuals, particularly dangerous.  Rather than continue to debate the boundaries of torture for official policy, our terrorist interrogation guidelines should include the routine use of helpful drugs.

Demand lawmakers actually read bills before passing them! July 17, 2009

Posted by federalist in Government.
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As an early supporter of the Read the Bills Act (RTBA) I have been astonished in the past to hear lawmakers argue that they should not be held responsible for the bad effects of a law because they didn’t read it before they voted on it.  Such a confession should have them ejected from office on the spot for dereliction of duty.

But it has gotten so bad that federal congressmen openly admit in advance that they will not read a law before they vote for it!  Jeff Jacoby elaborates:

Congress frequently votes on huge and complex bills that few if any members of the House or Senate has read through. They couldn’t read them even if they wanted to, since it is not unusual for legislation to be put to a vote just hours after the text is made available to lawmakers. Congress passed the gigantic, $787 billion “stimulus’’ bill in February – the largest spending bill in history – after having had only 13 hours to master its 1,100 pages. A 300-page amendment was added to Waxman-Markey, the mammoth cap-and-trade energy bill, at 3 a.m. on the day the bill was to be voted on by the House. And that wasn’t the worst of it, as law professor Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve University noted in National Review Online:

“When Waxman-Markey finally hit the floor, there was no actual bill. Not one single copy of the full legislation that would, hours later, be subject to a final vote was available to members of the House. The text made available to some members of Congress still had ‘placeholders’ – blank provisions to be filled in by subsequent language.’’

Why Are Public Pension Funds Special? July 16, 2009

Posted by federalist in Pensions.
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Terrance Slattery, President of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, protests criticism of public pension plans’ refusal to mark their funding levels using the rigorous actuarial standards accepted in the private sector. He correctly notes what makes public pension funds different: “their sponsoring entities [i.e., taxpayer-funded governments] are going concerns, not subject to takeover or going out of business.” But this is precisely why they must be held to high accounting standards. Politicians and public employee unions have every incentive to encourage wildly optimistic actuarial assumptions: Current costs of pension benefits look cheaper, and if the future isn’t as rosy as they project then taxpayers are still on the hook for paying their full benefits. Heads they win, tails taxpayers lose.

QOTD: Kidney Donation July 15, 2009

Posted by federalist in Healthcare, Human Markets.
2 comments

I have complained that “sexy” diseases get unfair resources, and current laws and regulations hurt the donor supply for life-saving human organs.  Kidney shortages are particularly troublesome because normal people have two kidneys but only need one.  Yet more than 80,000 people in this country alone linger on dialysis regimens and face early death waiting for a kidney donation.  Virginia Postrel elaborates:

Kidney patients ought to command the kind of outrage that demanded a cure for AIDS. The [waiting] list doesn’t have to exist. It is a result not of medical necessity or economic constraints but of public ignorance, conscious policy, and complacent institutions. Too many people are suffering unnecessarily. . . .

The obvious solution . . . is, of course, money. Altruistic blood donors often receive freebies like movie tickets or paid vacation hours that would be illegal for kidney donors. Plasma and sperm donors routinely receive cash, as do egg donors and surrogate mothers, who get tens of thousands of dollars. If transplant centers could pay $25,000 or $50,000 to each living kidney donor, many more people would line up to contribute.

Environmentalists for Incinerators July 13, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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I recently pointed to a report showing that incinerating biomass is at least twice as efficient at producing energy as trying to first convert it to ethanol and then burning the ethanol.  Furthermore, biomass incineration is a mature and versatile technology whereas ethanol can presently only be produced in scale from food.

This month’s Power magazine reminds us that “waste-to-energy” trash incineration is also an environmentally advantageous and mature technology.  It notes that trash incinerators already process 14% of municipal solid waste.  With current technology toxic emissions are negligible and environmental benefits are sundry:

  • Incinerated trash requires only one tenth the landfill space of the raw trash.
  • Metals can be more readily recycled from incinerator dross.
  • If you are a global warmist: Incinerating municipal solid waste emits only one third as much CO2 as coal (to produce the same amount of electricity).  Also, incinerated waste does not produce methane, the potent greenhouse gas released during the decomposition of raw waste.

Long-term I still have my hopes on plasma waste conversion.  But until then this country is still producing at least 200 million tons of solid waste a year that could be burned for energy instead of buried to rot.

States Grasping for Sales Taxes Sacrifice Affiliate Businesses July 10, 2009

Posted by federalist in Taxation.
Tags: , , , ,
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State governments dependent on sales tax revenue have begun desperate and counterproductive efforts to extend their taxing authority to out-of-state businesses.  Per the United States Constitution, states cannot levy taxes on subjects outside of their jurisdiction.  The Supreme Court has clarified (Quill Corp v. North Dakota) that a company must have a physical business presence in a state for it to be subject to the state’s taxing authority.

45 of the United States charge some type of sales tax, and many counties and cities levy additional sales taxes.  As far as I know sales taxes are always levied upon the consumer.  I.e., even though the seller is required to collect the tax, it is the consumer who is being taxed.  Therefore sales made to a buyer outside of a jurisdiction are exempt from sales tax.  Mail-order companies have always taken advantage of this fact:  When selling to a buyer in another state they do not have to collect sales tax, and this savings not only offsets shipping costs but can also make their prices more competitive against local sellers within the buyer’s state who must collect the sales tax.  Consequently “brick and mortar” businesses that typically serve local customers have fought alongside states to eliminate this “mail order tax exemption.”

States have attempted to reduce the out-of-state sales tax exemption by imposing a “use tax” in parallel with their sales tax.  Essentially the use tax obligates residents to pay their state’s sales tax on any goods they bring into the state that were not taxed when purchased.  However use taxes are rarely observed, and even more sparingly enforced (typically only against extremely valuable and conspicuous goods, or against individuals who are already under state scrutiny for other reasons).

Since it is far easier to coerce a large business into complying with sales tax collection than it is to enforce a use tax against individuals, states have been aggressively pursuing new theories to extend their jurisdiction over mail-order companies.  The latest attempts depend on the argument that marketing affiliates constitute a physical business presence.  New York and Rhode Island have already established laws to this effect.  Laws are also pending in Hawaii, North Carolina, and a few other states.  These laws are almost certainly unconstitutional, but it is unclear at this point whether the victims of the laws are willing to fight the states to the Supreme Court.  In fact, to avoid a fight Amazon, Overstock, and other large mail-order businesses have instead chosen to simply terminate their affiliate marketing programs in these states.

The Affiliate Nexus

Affiliates marketers are independent contractors that earn fees by referring business to a company.  Typically they are paid a commission when a customer they refer makes a purchase from a company.  The internet has made it possible for affiliate marketing to be done on a much broader scale than ever before, but the marketing practice predates e-commerce.  For example, realtors and lawyers have long collected referral commissions when they send a client to another firm.  States have not and still do not suggest that those referral arrangements establish a business nexus for tax purposes.  If law firm A in New York refers business to firm B in Rhode Island, New York does not claim on that basis that firm B has a physical presence in New York.

Yet states are now straining to argue that affiliate marketers in their state that refer business to mail order companies elsewhere somehow establish a physical presence of those companies in their state.  But these affiliates are not employees of the companies to which they refer customers.  Affiliates do not participate in business transactions between the customer and the company.  And affiliates often advertise on behalf of many different companies.  If an independent affiliate establishes a business presence for its clients in the affiliate’s state of residence, then the same argument must extend to all contractors of a business.  Suddenly all of its outsourced business services — legal, PR, payroll, etc. — could give it a “physical presence” in another state.  If my small business hires H&R Block to prepare my annual tax return, am I suddenly liable for collecting sales taxes from customers in every state just because Block has offices in every state?  Of course not.

The unfortunate collateral damage in these unconstitutional state sales tax campaigns includes numerous small affiliates, many of whom had productive businesses until their state legislatures threatened their clients.  Evidently it is cheaper for the likes of Amazon to cut off referrals from affiliates working in a particular state than to subject themselves to the obligation to collect sales taxes from all customers in that state.  The states will not get any new sales tax revenue by going after mail order companies in this fashion.  But they can instantly destroy the businesses of their own residents who were making a living from affiliate marketing.

Standardization Enhances Market Efficiency July 5, 2009

Posted by federalist in Finance, Government Regulation, Markets.
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Standardization is a public good.  So do we need government to promote it?

Standardization of products and specifications is invaluable to market efficiency.  For example, a standard “letter”-sized sheet of paper will fit in a standard envelope, or binder.  It is sold in “reams” of 500, making it easy to compare prices.  It can be used in almost any printer or scanner.  Imagine if each paper company manufactured proprietary paper dimensions to increase the likelihood that only their file cabinets and folders could keep their products organized?

Mechanical fasteners tend to be standardized.  Only a handful of screwdrivers are sufficient to adjust almost any screw.  What if you had to go to the manufacturer to buy a special set of tools for every individual product you wanted to repair?

Common languages, formats, and specifications are the backbone of the information markets, just as standardized shipping containers, roads, and vehicles are the backbone of our physical markets.

Unfortunately there are incentives for producers to secure rents by avoiding standards.  Inkjet printer manufacturers have proliferated proprietary ink cartridges in order to inhibit competition for replacements.  Most beverages are sold in standardized containers, but odd-sized bottles are an occasional ploy to make a product literally stand out from its competitors that can be tucked away in standard shelves.

Whenever the market wouldn’t overly penalize it, a manufacturer would prefer to create a specialized component that only it can economically manufacture instead of a standardized component that performs the same function but that is broadly and competitively produced.  I.e., unjustified specialization is an attempt to extract monopolistic rents from the market by avoiding competition.  However, unlike true monopoly, specialization is always suboptimal because it also avoids the economies of scale (in both production and use) that result from standardization.

What market forces resist specialization?  Only the ability of consumers to detect and properly incorporate the cost of specialization into their behavior.  But in the real world there is information and behavioral inertia that will always prevent markets from reaching optimal levels of standardization.  No consumer is equipped to analyze a product for specialized components, and determine where specialization was justified, or what the added cost of specialization will be over the life of the product.

What market forces promote standardization?  There is an upfront cost to be born in defining standards, and no individual consumer or producer has an incentive to make that investment.  Standardization is something of a public good.  Therefore, do we need the coercive hand of government to promote standardization to ensure the good functioning of markets?  I have wondered before whether we can rely on the gentle hand of non-governmental organizations to nudge markets to more optimal behavior.

(more…)

Health Reform Myths July 1, 2009

Posted by federalist in Healthcare.
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George Newman has an excellent analysis of twelve arguments made in support of current government plans for intervening in the healthcare markets.