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