Quotulatiousness

September 2, 2015

Seattle is considering implementing rent control

Filed under: Economics, Europe — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Megan McArdle on the things Seattle may learn — painfully — if they fail to heed the experiences of other cities that have implemented rent control:

So I see that Seattle is considering rent control. For a columnist who covers economic issues, this is a little bit like hearing that residents are debating how big to make the reet pleats on their zoot suits. It’s hard to get economists to agree on much of anything, but as Alex Tabarrok notes, this is an area of rare consensus among economists: Rent control creates more problems than it solves.

If you want a vivid example of what those problems look like, you can do no better than a letter written by a resident of Stockholm to the good citizens of Seattle, quoted by Tabarrok: “Seattle, you need to ask your citizens this: How would citizens like it if they walked into a rental agency and the agent told them to register and come back in 10 years? … Stockholm City Council now has an official housing queue, where 1 day waiting = 1 point. To get an apartment you need both money for the rent and enough points to be the first in line. Recently an apartment in inner Stockholm became available. In just 5 days, 2000 people had applied for the apartment. The person who got the apartment had been waiting in the official housing queue since 1989!”

Now, Stockholm is extreme. But the general effect always goes in the same direction. Rent control creates two classes of tenants: people who have the right to rent at below-market rates, and renters who would like to get a long-term lease on an apartment, but cannot, or must pay through the nose for a limited number of uncontrolled properties. Meanwhile, landlords let the quality of the existing stock decline and become very reluctant to build new housing that they can’t make a profit on.

This is not some sort of arcane secret that has not reached the policy analysts in our nation’s fair metropolises. They’re well aware of what rent control does. So why is it ever on the table?

August 28, 2015

Google and the (bullshit) European “right to be forgotten”

Filed under: Europe, Law, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Techdirt‘s Mike Masnick points and laughs at a self-described consumerist organization’s attempt to force Google to apply EU law to the rest of the world, by way of an FTC complaint:

If you want an understanding of my general philosophy on business and economics, it’s that companies should focus on serving their customers better. That’s it. It’s a very customer-centric view of capitalism. I think companies that screw over their customers and users will have it come back to bite them, and thus it’s a better strategy for everyone if companies focus on providing good products and services to consumers, without screwing them over. And, I’m super supportive of organizations that focus on holding companies’ feet to the fire when they fail to live up to that promise. Consumerist (owned by Consumer Reports) is really fantastic at this kind of thing, for example. Consumer Watchdog, on the other hand, despite its name, appears to have very little to do with actually protecting consumers’ interests. Instead, it seems like some crazy people who absolutely hate Google, and pretend that they’re “protecting” consumers from Google by attacking the company at every opportunity. If Consumer Watchdog actually had relevant points, that might be useful, but nearly every attack on Google is so ridiculous that all it does is make Consumer Watchdog look like a complete joke and undermine whatever credibility the organization might have.

In the past, we’ve covered an anti-Google video that company put out that contained so many factual errors that it was a complete joke (and was later revealed as nothing more than a stunt to sell some books). Then there was the attempt to argue that Gmail was an illegal wiretap. It’s hard to take the organization seriously when it does that kind of thing.

Its latest, however, takes the crazy to new levels. John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s resident “old man yells at cloud” impersonator, recently filed a complaint with the FTC against Google. In it, he not only argues that Google should offer the “Right to be Forgotten” in the US, but says that the failure to do that is an “unfair and deceptive practice.” Really.

As you know by now, since an EU court ruling last year, Google has been forced to enable a right to be forgotten in the EU, in which it will “delink” certain results from the searches on certain names, if the people argue that the links are no longer “relevant.” Some in the EU have been pressing Google to make that “right to be forgotten” global — which Google refuses to do, noting that it would violate the First Amendment in the US and would allow the most restrictive, anti-free speech regime in the world to censor the global internet.

But, apparently John Simpson likes censorship and supporting free speech-destroying regimes. Because he argues Google must allow such censorship in the US. How could Google’s refusal to implement “right to be forgotten” possibly be “deceptive”? Well, in Simpson’s world, it’s because Google presents itself as “being deeply committed to privacy” but then doesn’t abide by a global right to be forgotten. Really.

August 26, 2015

Organic food recalls on the rise

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Health, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

It must be a trend if even the New York Times is reporting on the increasing number of food safety recalls involving organic food:

New data collected by Stericycle, a company that handles recalls for businesses, shows a sharp jump in the number of recalls of organic food products.

Organic food products accounted for 7 percent of all food units recalled so far this year, compared with 2 percent of those recalled last year, according to data from the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture that Stericycle uses to compile its quarterly report on recalls.

In 2012 and 2013, only 1 percent of total units of food recalled were organic.

Kevin Pollack, a vice president at Stericycle, said the growing consumer and corporate demand for organic ingredients was at least partly responsible for the increase.

“What’s striking is that since 2012, all organic recalls have been driven by bacterial contamination, like salmonella, listeria and hepatitis A, rather than a problem with a label,” Mr. Pollack said. “This is a fairly serious and really important issue because a lot of consumers just aren’t aware of it.”

August 22, 2015

Coming soon to Massachusetts (maybe) – pot pubs

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Forbes, Jacob Sullum looks at the finalized ballot initiative to be presented to Massachusetts voters in the next general election:

When the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts unveiled the text of its 2016 legalization initiative this month, the group highlighted several features of the measure but omitted the most interesting one. The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act would allow consumption of cannabis products on the premises of businesses that sell them, subject to regulation by the state and approval by local voters.

That’s a big deal, because until now no jurisdiction has satisfactorily addressed the obvious yet somehow touchy question of where people can consume the cannabis they are now allowed to buy. The legalization initiatives approved by voters in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska all promised to treat marijuana like alcohol, which implies allowing venues similar to taverns where people can consume cannabis in a social setting. Yet all four states say businesses that sell marijuana may not let customers use it on the premises.

Although a few “bring your own cannabis” (BYOC) clubs have popped up to accommodate people who want to use marijuana outside their homes from time to time, the legality of such establishments is a matter of dispute. The result is that people can openly buy marijuana without fear, but they still have to consume it on the sly, just like in the bad old days. The problem is especially acute for visitors from other states, since pot-friendly hotels are still pretty rare.

August 20, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 4 of 6 – “Unreal Estate”

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital— shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

August 17, 2015

Food fears and GMOs

Filed under: Environment, Health, Media, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen on the widespread FUD still being pushed in much of the mainstream media about genetically modified organisms in the food supply:

New York Times nutrition and health columnist Jane Brody recently penned a generally good piece about genetic engineering, “Fears, Not Facts, Support GMO-Free Food.” She recapitulated the overwhelming evidence for the importance and safety of products from GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms” (which for the sake of accuracy, we prefer to call organisms modified with molecular genetic engineering techniques, or GE). Their uses encompass food, animal feed, drugs, vaccines and animals. Sales of drugs made with genetic engineering techniques are in the scores of billions of dollars annually, and ingredients from genetically engineered crop plants are found in 70-80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves.

Brody’s article had two errors, however. The first was this statement, in a correction that was appended (probably by the editors) after the article was published:

    The article also referred imprecisely to regulation of GMOs by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. While the organizations regulate food from genetically engineered crops to ensure they are safe to eat, the program is voluntary. It is not the case that every GMO must be tested before it can be marketed.

In fact, every so-called GMO used for food, fiber or ornamental use is subject to compulsory case-by-case regulation by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of USDA and many are also regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during extensive field testing. When these organisms — plants, animals or microorganisms — become food, they are then overseen by the FDA, which has strict rules about misbranding (inaccurate or misleading labeling) and adulteration (the presence of harmful substances). Foods from “new plant varieties” made with any technique are subject to case-by-case premarket FDA review if they possess certain characteristics that pose questions of safety. In addition, food from genetically engineered organisms can undergo a voluntary FDA review. (Every GE food to this point has undergone the voluntary FDA review, so FDA has evaluated every GE food on the market).

The second error by Brody occurred in the very last words of the piece, “the best way for concerned consumers to avoid G.M.O. products is to choose those certified as organic, which the U.S.D.A. requires to be G.M.O.-free.” Brody has fallen victim to a common misconception; in fact, the USDA does not require organic products to be GMO-free.

August 15, 2015

Still suffering from the injustices of a caste system? Just apply capitalism

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, India — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar explains how the introduction of free market practices is rapidly undermining the ancient caste system in India:

Karl Marx was wrong about many things but right about one thing: the revolutionary way capitalism attacks and destroys feudalism. As I explain in a new study, in India, the rise of capitalism since the economic reforms of 1991 has also attacked and eroded casteism, a social hierarchy that placed four castes on top with a fifth caste — dalits — like dirt beneath the feet of others. Dalits, once called untouchables, were traditionally denied any livelihood save virtual serfdom to landowners and the filthiest, most disease-ridden tasks, such as cleaning toilets and handling dead humans and animals. Remarkably, the opening up of the Indian economy has enabled dalits to break out of their traditional low occupations and start businesses. The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) now boasts over 3,000 millionaire members. This revolution is still in its early stages, but is now unstoppable.

Milind Kamble, head of DICCI, says capitalism has been the key to breaking down the old caste system. During the socialist days of India’s command economy, the lucky few with industrial licenses ran virtual monopolies and placed orders for supplies and logistics entirely with members of their own caste. But after the 1991 reforms opened the floodgates of competition, businesses soon discovered that to survive, they had to find the most competitive inputs. What mattered was the price of your supplier, not his caste.

August 8, 2015

Election issue – the Netflix tax, “much ado about nothing?”

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Michael Geist looks at the major federal party leaders’ reactions to discussion of a “Netflix tax”:

As part of the digital strategy discussion, I stated that questions abound, including “are new regulations over services such as Netflix on the horizon?”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed that question yesterday with a video and tweet in which he pledged that the Conservatives will never tax digital streaming services like Netflix and Youtube. Harper added that the Liberals and NDP have left the door open to a Netflix tax, but that he is 100% opposed, “always has been, always will be.” Both opposition parties quickly responded with the NDP saying they have not proposed a Netflix tax and the Liberals saying they have never supported a Netflix tax and do not support a Netflix tax.

So is this much ado about nothing?

Not exactly. First, there are groups and provincial governments that support a Netflix tax or mandated contribution to fund the creation of Canadian content. These include the Ontario and Quebec governments along with many creator groups. Earlier this year, I obtained documents under the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that showed that the Ontario government spent months working toward a recommendation to expand the regulation of new media, including Canadian content requirements and increased regulation of foreign online video providers.

Second, while the Liberals and NDP have not proposed a Netflix tax, they have called for requirements that online video providers disclose revenues, Canadian content availability, and subscriber numbers to Canadian regulators. This is a very soft form of regulation that Netflix and Google have rejected as beyond the power of the Broadcasting Act. Providing information to allow for more informed regulatory analysis does not seem particularly unreasonable, but the companies unsurprisingly fear that that analysis could ultimately lead to calls for more regulation or payments.

Third, the real Netflix tax is the prospect of a levying sales taxes on digital products such as music downloads or online video services. It was the Conservatives that raised this possibility in the 2014 budget, launching a consultation on the issue that garnered supportive comments from companies such as Rogers, which noted that Canadian-based online video services such as Shomi operate at a disadvantage since they collect GST/HST, but Netflix does not. With many countries moving toward some form of digital taxation (as I noted in a January 2015 column on the issue, the real challenge lies in the cost of implementation), it seems inevitable that Canada will do the same in order to level the playing field and recoup a growing source of revenue. The Conservatives would presumably seek to differentiate between a generally applicable sales tax and a tax or fee targeting online streaming services, though many may feel it is a distinction without a difference.

August 4, 2015

Alex Tabarrok explains the “Happy Meal fallacy”

Filed under: Business, Economics, Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Another post from last month that I’m just getting around to linking:

Some restaurants offer burgers without fries and a drink. These restaurants cater to low-income people who enjoy fries and drinks but can’t always afford them. To rectify this sad situation a presidential candidate proposes The Happy Meal Act. Under the Act, burgers must be sold with fries and a drink. “Burgers by themselves are not a complete, nutritious meal,” the politician argues, concluding with the uplifting campaign slogan, “Everyone deserves a Happy Meal!”

But will the Happy Meal Act make people happy? If burgers must come with fries and a drink, restaurants will increase the price of a “burger.” Even though everyone likes fries and a drink they may not like the added benefits by as much as the increase in the price of the meal. Indeed, this must the case since consumers could have bought the meal before the Act but chose not to. Requiring firms to sell benefits that customers value less than their cost makes both firms and customers worse off.

The Happy Meal Fallacy is fairly obvious when it comes to happy meals but now let’s consider the debate over the gig economy and the hiring of employees versus contractors. Employees are entitled to benefits that contractors are not. Thus the standard conclusion is that classifying workers as contractors “is great for employers but potentially terrible for workers.” Wrong. Employees get their wages with fries and a drink while contractors get wages only. Would a law requiring firms to provide all workers with fries and a drink help workers?

If firms are required to provide benefits to contractors they will lower the contractor wage. But how do we know the extra benefits aren’t worth the reduction in wages? If the extra benefits were worth more to workers than they cost firms, firms would have eagerly provided these benefits as a way of increasing profits. Firms can profit whenever buyers are willing to pay more for a product than its cost. Benefits are a product that workers buy from firms.

August 3, 2015

Why Do Governments Enact Price Controls?

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 25 Feb 2015

If price controls have negative consequences, why do governments enact them? Let’s revisit our example of President Nixon’s wage and price controls in the 1970s. These price controls were popular, as is demonstrated by Nixon being re-elected after they went into effect. The public didn’t think that the price controls were to blame for things such as long lines at the fuel pump. Without knowledge of the economics behind price controls, the public blamed foreign oil cartels and oil companies for the shortages.

In this video we’ll also address questions such as: do price controls — like rent controlled apartments and the minimum wage — help the poor? Are there better ways to help the poor? If so, what are they? Let’s find out.

July 22, 2015

Price Floors: Airline Fares

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 25 Feb 2015

In this video, we cover how price floors lead to wasteful increases in quality and a misallocation of resources. Using the real-world example of airline regulations from 1938-1978, we show how price floors can be used to restrict entry and reduce competition within an industry. When the Civil Aeronautics Board regulated airline fares, airlines couldn’t compete on price so they instead had to compete by increasing quality. This may sound like a good thing, but we’ll show how this actually created quality waste since the cost of that quality was higher than the value to the customers. Price floors also lead to the misallocation of resources by preventing competition and responsiveness to consumer demand. In this video, we’ll show you how consumers are negatively affected by price floors.

July 10, 2015

A new and exciting (if you’re a lawyer) aspect of photography

Filed under: Europe, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

As a casual photographer, I think very little about taking a photo of a building or landscape visible from the sidewalk or other public place. This casual attitude may become a relic of the past if EU regulators have their way, as Brian Micklethwait explains:

Basically, some EU-ers are talking about making it illegal to profit without permission by taking a photo, in public, of a publicly visible building or work of art, and then posting it on any “profitable” blog or website. The nasty small print being to the effect that the definition of “profitable” is very inclusive. For the time being, it would exclude my personal blog, because my blog has no income of any kind. But does Samizdata get any cash, however dribblesome, from any adverts, “sponsorships”, and so forth? If so, then me placing the above photo of the Shard at Samizdata might, any year now, become illegal, unless Samizdata has filled in a thousand forms begging the owners of the Shard, and for that matter of all the buildings that surround it, to allow this otherwise terrible violation of their property rights, or something.

“Might” because you never really know with the EU. At present this restriction applies in parts of the EU. It seems that a rather careless MEP tried to harmonise things by making the whole of the EU as relaxed about this sort of things as parts of it are now, parts that now include the UK. But, the EU being the EU, other EU-ers immediately responded by saying, no, the way to harmonise things is to make the entire EU more restrictive. Now the MEP who kicked all this off is fighting a defensive battle against the very restriction she provoked. Or, she is grandstanding about nothing, which is very possible.

Being pessimistic about all this, what if the restriction does spread? And how long, then, before the definition of “for profit” is expanded to include everything you do, because if it wasn’t profitable for you, why would you do it? At that point, even my little hobby blog would be in the cross hairs, if I ever dared to take and post further pictures of London’s big buildings.

Some better news for me is that if this scheme proceeds as far as it eventually might, my enormous archive of photographs of people taking photographs will maybe acquire a particular poignancy. It will become a record of a moment in social history, which arrived rather suddenly, and then vanished. Like smoking in public.

July 1, 2015

QotD: The CRTC, Canada’s most fascistic government body

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The CRTC is an even more odious organization. Back in 1920s both the Canadian and American governments declared the broadcast spectrum to be public property. So a technology pioneered and commercialized by the private sector, in both countries, was essentially nationalized by the state. Since it was a new industry it lacked the ability to effectively lobby Washington and Ottawa. The result has been that a large and important sector of our modern economy now lives and dies at the whim of an unelected government agency: The CRTC.

Of all the organs of Canadian government the CRTC has always struck me as the most fascistic. You could rationalize socialize health care, public education and government financed infrastructure as doing useful things in a terribly statist way. The CRTC is at an exercise in make work at best. At worse it’s an attempt to impose indirect censorship on the Canadian people. Beneath the reams of government drafted euphemisms the blunt truth behind the CRTC is that we mere Canadians are not clever enough, not patriotic enough or sufficiently sensible to watch and listen to the right things in the right way.

The existence of the CRTC explains much of the timorousness of Canadian broadcasting. The Americans did away with the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, thereby triggering the explosion in talk radio in the early 1990s. While Canada never had an exact equivalent, the regulations surrounding who could and could not receive or retain a license were sufficiently vague to make such a rule unnecessary. A nod and a wink from the right people at the right time was enough to indicate what type of broadcasting would or would not be acceptable.

The result was an insufferable group think that could no more be defined than challenged. There were unwritten rules of etiquette that forbade serious discussion from talking place on a whole host of issues: Abortion, capital punishment, race relations, linguistic issues and any frank discussions of our socialized health care system. It wasn’t that these discussions didn’t take place in a public forum, the newspapers and magazines were largely unregulated, but broadcasting was the late twentieth century’s pre-eminent mass media. It’s where ordinary people got their news and opinions.

Richard Anderson, “And All Must Have Prizes”, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-09-24.

June 30, 2015

Extending the ADA to the web

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Politics, Technology, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Amy Alkon discusses why the notion of expanding the Americans with Disabilities Act to cover the internet would be a terrible idea:

So few people understand how laws passed can be used — and easily misused. Stretched into something they were never supposed to be (or not what they were said to be about, anyway).

For example, Title IX was supposed to be about allowing girls equal participation in school sports. The Obama admin has turned it into a system of campus kangaroos courts removing due process from men accused of sexual assault.

Next in line for strrretching is the Americans with Disabilities Act.

[…]

Bader gives some examples from Walter Olson, from his testimony to Congress, of awful changes that would ensue, like that amateur publishing would become “more of a legal hazard.” They’d go after websites like mine, that make a few shekels from Amazon links and a few more from Google ads. I need this money to supplement the money that’s fallen out of newspaper writing; also, I love the people who comment here and the discussion that goes on. It’s what keeps my eyes pried open at 11 p.m. when I need to post a blog item half an hour after I should have gone to bed for my 5 a.m. book- and column-writing wakeup time.

Also, added in the morning, after waking up worrying about this all night — making something “accessible” for a tiny minority could ruin it for everyone.

And what sort of understanding do we really owe people? I don’t do well with complex physics and I have limited attention for things I don’t understand that don’t grab my interest enough to figure them out. Should physics websites dumb themselves down for Amy Alkon’s brain? How many scientific websites will be brought down by disabled people going around to them like the quadriplegic lawyer in the wheelchair filing profit-making suits and closing classic hamburger stands and other businesses in California over ADA claims?

June 29, 2015

Price Ceilings: Shortages and Quality Reduction

Filed under: Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 25 Feb 2015

Price ceilings result in five major unintended consequences, and in this video we cover two of them. Using the supply and demand curve, we show how price ceilings lead to a shortage of goods and to low quality goods. Prices are signals that indicate to suppliers how much is being demanded, but when prices are kept artificially low with price ceilings, suppliers have no way of knowing how many goods they should produce and sell, leading to a shortage of goods. Quality also decreases under price controls. Do you ever wonder why the quality of customer service at Starbucks is generally better than at the DMV? The answer lies in incentives and price ceilings. We’ll discuss further in this video.

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