Category Archives: politics

Congestion Tolling at the Supermarket

To help explain why toll lanes might not be the great solu­tion to traffic con­ges­tion many believe them to be, Timothy Lee goes to an unex­pec­ted place to draw par­al­lels: your loc­al super­mar­ket.

Super­mar­kets are a good ana­logy, sug­gests Lee, because they oper­ate in a free mar­ket, are ruth­lessly effi­cient, intensely com­pet­it­ive, and employ ‘lanes’ (check­out queues)… but they don’t use con­ges­tion pri­cing. The reas­ons why they don’t, he says, can also be applied to traffic con­ges­tion:

First, we have strong and soph­ist­ic­ated social norms, cul­tiv­ated since we were young chil­dren, for wait­ing in lines. This bit of self-organ­iz­a­tion is extremely import­ant for the smooth func­tion­ing of civil soci­ety. We see wait­ing your turn as an oblig­a­tion we have to one anoth­er, and there­fore not as an oblig­a­tion that a super­mar­ket or trans­port­a­tion agency can waive in exchange for a cash pay­ment. I sus­pect cus­tom­ers would see people using a tolled check­out lane as break­ing an impli­cit social con­tract.

More import­antly, cus­tom­ers would be sus­pi­cious that the super­mar­ket was delib­er­ately under-staff­ing the free lanes to gin up demand for the express ones. […] In the low-mar­gin gro­cery busi­ness, it would be a pretty effect­ive way for a man­ager to pump up his short-term profits, while the long-term harm to the store’s repu­ta­tion would be hard […] to quanti­fy.

This lat­ter con­cern seems par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to the case of toll roads. The rev­en­ue-max­im­iz­ing pri­cing sched­ule is not the same as the con­ges­tion-min­im­iz­ing sched­ule. An effect­ive con­ges­tion-pri­cing scheme might gen­er­ate rel­at­ively little rev­en­ue if people shift their driv­ing to off-peak times (which is the whole point). The oper­at­or of a mono­pol­ist­ic toll road will face a con­stant tempta­tion to boost rev­en­ues by lim­it­ing through­put on free lanes and jack­ing up the off-peak toll rates. The wide­spread voter per­cep­tion that they’ve “already paid for” many tolled roads through oth­er taxes isn’t exactly right as a mat­ter of fisc­al policy, but I think it’s based on a sound intu­ition: there’s no reas­on to think the polit­ic­al pro­cess will set tolls in a way that’s either fair or eco­nom­ic­ally effi­cient.

The Long Game: Civilization II and Sim City’s Magnasanti

After ten years of play­ing the same Civil­iz­a­tion II cam­paign (my favour­ite game ever), Red­dit user Lyceri­us has ended up cre­at­ing a dysto­pi­an semi-self-sus­tain­ing world, where the three remain­ing “super-nations” are in a con­stant state of espi­on­age and nuc­le­ar war.

The details of Lyceri­us’ “hellish night­mare” world are abso­lutely fas­cin­at­ing: the mil­it­ary stale­mate; the 1700-year war; and the glob­al warm­ing epi­dem­ic that led to melt­ing ice caps, fam­ine, and the end of cit­ies. This is the polit­ic­al situ­ation:

The only gov­ern­ments left are two theo­cra­cies and myself, a com­mun­ist state. I wanted to stay a demo­cracy, but the Sen­ate would always over-rule me when I wanted to declare war before the Vik­ings did. This would delay my attack and render my turn and often my plans use­less. And of course the Vik­ings would then break the cease fire like clock­work the very next turn. […] I was forced to do away with demo­cracy roughly a thou­sand years ago because it was endan­ger­ing my empire. But of course the people hate me now and every few years since then, there are massive guer­rilla […] upris­ings in the heart of my empire that I have to deal with which saps resources from the war effort.

This reminds me of Mag­nas­anti: the total­it­ari­an city cre­ated in Sim City 3000 that sus­tains the max­im­um pop­u­la­tion (six mil­lion) for 50,000 years. The inter­view with it’s ‘maker’, archi­tec­ture stu­dent Vin­cent Ocasla, is worth a read.

Keep these people away from town plan­ning depart­ments, please.

Mag­nas­anti via Kot­tke

The ‘Bad Version’ and How to Tax the Rich

A ‘bad ver­sion’ is a tech­nique used by tele­vi­sion writers to inspire cre­ativ­ity when exper­i­en­cing a cre­at­ive block. The tech­nique involves writ­ing a pur­pose­fully awful sec­tion of plot as a way of help­ing the writer find cre­ativ­ity and, even­tu­ally, the ideal solu­tion: it’s a way of “nudging your ima­gin­a­tion to some­place bet­ter”.

In The Wall Street Journ­al, Scott Adams offers some “ima­gined solu­tions for the government’s fisc­al dilemma” – bad ver­sions of ways to incentiv­ising the rich to will­fully pay more tax. Those incent­ives:

  • Time: Any­one who pays taxes at a rate above some set amount gets to use the car pool lane without a pas­sen­ger. Or per­haps the rich are allowed to park in han­di­capped-only spaces.
  • Grat­it­ude: The gov­ern­ment makes it a con­di­tion that any­one apply­ing for social ser­vices has to write a per­son­al thank-you note to a nearby rich per­son […] It’s easy to hate the gen­er­ic over­spend­ing of the gov­ern­ment. It’s harder to begrudge med­ic­al care to someone who thanks you per­son­ally.
  • Incent­ives: Sup­pose the tax code is redesigned so that the rich only pay taxes to fund social ser­vices, such as health care and social secur­ity. This gives the rich an incent­ive to find ways to reduce the need for those ser­vices.
    Mean­while, the middle class would be in charge of fund­ing the mil­it­ary. That feels right. The coun­try gen­er­ally doesn’t go to war unless the middle-class major­ity is on board.
  • Shared Pain: I doubt that the rich will agree to high­er taxes until some ser­i­ous budget cut­ting is hap­pen­ing at the same time. That makes the sac­ri­fice seem shared. […] Change the debate from arguing about which pro­grams and how much to cut, and instead to do what the private sec­tor has been doing for dec­ades: Pull a ran­dom yet round num­ber out of your ear, let’s say a 10% cut, just for argument’s sake, and apply it across the board. No excep­tions.
  • Power: Give the rich two votes apiece in any elec­tion. That’s double the power of oth­er cit­izens. But don’t worry that it will dis­tort elec­tion res­ults. There aren’t that many rich people, and they are some­what divided in their opin­ions, just like the rest of the world.

Equal Societies Good for All

The more unequal a society’s income dis­tri­bu­tion, the more health and social prob­lems ail both the rich and the poor.

With this the­ory brought to his atten­tion through the “quite fas­cin­at­ing book“ The Spir­it Level, Nic­olas Bau­mard dis­plays the evid­ence to sup­port the the­ory that eco­nom­ic inequal­ity is bad for all inhab­it­ants of a coun­try before con­sid­er­ing some pos­sible explan­a­tions, and look­ing at what this means in terms of poverty and cli­mate change.

It is com­mon know­ledge that in rich soci­et­ies the poor have short­er lives and suf­fer more from almost every social prob­lem. In [The Spir­it Level], [the authors] demon­strate that more unequal soci­et­ies are bad for almost every­one – the well-off as well as the poor […]. The remark­able data the book lays out and the meas­ures it uses are like a ‘spir­it level’ which we can hold up to com­pare the con­di­tions of dif­fer­ent soci­et­ies. The dif­fer­ences revealed, even between rich mar­ket demo­cra­cies, are strik­ing. Almost every mod­ern social and envir­on­ment­al prob­lem – ill-health, lack of com­munity life, viol­ence, drugs, obesity, men­tal ill­ness, long work­ing hours, big pris­on pop­u­la­tions – is more likely to occur in a less equal soci­ety.

Base­ball fan? Bau­mard also points out that “the more equal the salar­ies in a base-ball team are, the bet­ter its per­form­ance”.

Political Risk Assessments

“Safety is nev­er allowed to trump all oth­er con­cerns”, says Juli­an Bag­gini, and without say­ing as much gov­ern­ments must con­sist­ently put a price on lives and determ­ine how much risk to expose the pub­lic to.

In an art­icle for the BBC, Bag­gini takes a com­pre­hens­ive look at how gov­ern­ments make risk assess­ments and in the pro­cess dis­cusses a top­ic of con­stant intrigue for me: how much a human life is val­ued by dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ments and their depart­ments.

The eth­ics of risk is not as straight­for­ward as the rhet­or­ic of “para­mount import­ance” sug­gests. People talk of the “pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ciple” or “erring on the side of cau­tion” but gov­ern­ments are always trad­ing safety for con­veni­ence or oth­er gains. […]

Gov­ern­ments have to choose on our behalf which risks we should be exposed to.

That poses a dif­fi­cult eth­ic­al dilemma: should gov­ern­ment decisions about risk reflect the often irra­tion­al foibles of the popu­lace or the ration­al cal­cu­la­tions of sober risk assess­ment? Should our politi­cians opt for informed pater­nal­ism or respect for irra­tion­al pref­er­ences? […]

In prac­tice, gov­ern­ments do not make fully ration­al risk assess­ments. Their cal­cu­la­tions are based partly on cost-bene­fit ana­lyses, and partly on what the pub­lic will tol­er­ate.

via Schnei­er on Secur­ity