Does Safer Heroin Use Mean More Heroin Use?

Megan McArdle is one of my favorite columnists, and she has a new gig over at the Washington Post, where she recently wrote an article about a fascinating just-released economics working paper that caught my eye. The authors, Jennifer Doleac and Anita Mukherjee, studied how the opioid addict population has responded to the drug naloxone becoming more readily available.

Naloxone (a.k.a. Narcan) shuts down the effects of opioids, so it is commonly used by EMTs to rescue people who have overdosed on opioids, including heroin. Out of concern that it can take a while for EMTs to arrive, states have passed laws making it easier for ordinary people to get naloxone, allowing addicts to be rescued by family, friends, and fellow opioid users.

The Doleac-Mukherjee study explores the possibility that this is creating what economists call a “moral hazard.” The basic idea is that naloxone reduces the risk of dying, and the risk of dying is part of the non-financial cost of using opiods, so naloxone effectively reduces the price addicts pay to get high. The  law of demand predicts that when the cost of something goes down, people will buy more of it. So making naloxone more available could cause an increase in opioid usage.

If you’re not used to economic thinking, this might seem crazy. It’s hard to imagine addicts thinking, “Since people around me have naloxone, I can use more drugs!” It’s even harder to imagine that someone who has never used opiods will suddenly think, “Hey, with all this naloxone around, I think it’s time to try heroin!”

What makes this theory plausible, however, is that economic effects happen on the margins. Every day, some Americans decide whether or not they will use heroin that day. Some say “yes,” and some say “no.” And it’s reasonable to assume that some people who say “yes” are just barely saying “yes,” and some who say “no” are just barely saying “no.” Those are the people most affected by changes in incentives: Give them a slight nudge in the other direction and they might make the opposite choice. So while most heroin non-users will not be swayed by naloxone, there are likely to be some who change their mind.

Similar effects have been seen in other contexts. The most famous example is when seat belts were required for automobiles. Economist Sam Peltzman predicted that since seat belts made accidents less dangerous, people would start to have more accidents, and subsequent studies have confirmed this prediction. The effect is not huge, but it’s real. In economic terms, since seat belts reduced the “cost” of accidents, people “bought” more accidents.

That’s not to say that people literally make a conscious decision to have more accidents. But knowing that the seat belt will protect them from minor accidents, they may decide to drive faster, or they may feel it is safer to fiddle with the radio or talk to passengers more often.

If that still seems unlikely to you — if you’re sure that you would never drive recklessly just because your car protected you better — then consider a scenario suggested by economist Gordon Tullock: Disable your air bags, remove your seat belts, and mount a seven-inch steel spike in the center of your steering wheel, pointed straight at your chest. Now ask yourself how your driving would change. Given that even a moderate accident could drive that spike into your heart, you will probably drive a lot more carefully. But if you agree that making your car more dangerous would make you drive more carefully, then you must agree that the level of safety you currently enjoy is allowing you to drive less carefully. You are responding to an incentive by driving more recklessly.

(Use of the name “moral hazard” for this phenomenon is unfortunate, because it implies a judgement against some measure of morality, and that’s not usually how economics works. The term comes from the insurance industry, which has to worry that car owners who can’t make their loan payments will “sell it to the insurance company” by driving the car into a river and reporting it stolen, or that building owners who are upside down on their mortgage will burn the building down for the insurance money. But the problem also rears its head in more mundane ways, such as when people with theft insurance are more likely to leave their car windows cracked open on sunny summer days, and more likely to leave their car running in the driveway in winter with the keys inside. And yes, people with insurance also get into more accidents. The insurance industry takes a dim view of all this, thus the name “moral hazard.”)

Getting back to opiods and naloxone, there are no data sets that directly report opioid consumption, so the study looked at proxy variables, such as opioid-related crime and opioid-related emergency room visits. Because the dates on which naloxone became available vary from state to state, the study was somewhat able to randomize away confounding variables. E.g. The proxy measures in one state might change because law enforcement anti-drug activity changed at the same time that naloxone became available, but that coincidence would be unlikely to occur in every state. This creates a kind of “natural experiment” that allows for stronger results.

So, cutting to the chase, are addicts using more opioids because of naloxone?

Yes, and to a surprising degree. The Doleac-Mukherjee study observes that the introduction of easily-available naloxone is associated with a 17% increase in arrests for possession of opiods and a 27% increase in arrests for selling opioids. Opioid-related emergency room visits went up 15%.

(There are a few caveats, of course. The study is a working paper that is being released for review, so the results could be subject to revision. Also, as with any study of this kind, the authors make a lot of reasonable-seeming assumptions — which are extensively documented in the paper — some of which might turn out to be wrong in ways which substantially alter the conclusions.)

The opioid-related mortality figures are especially interesting, and I’ll get to them in a minute. But I want to address one part of the study that’s been upsetting people on Twitter:

Naloxone access may unintentionally increase opioid abuse through two channels: (1) saving the lives of active drug users, who survive to continue abusing opioids, and (2) reducing the risk of death per use, thereby making riskier opioid use more appealing.

To be very clear, contrary to what alarmed Twitter users are claiming, the study authors are not saying that saving the lives of drug users is a bad thing.

The reason they bring up this issue is because the study is intended to look at increasing opioid use due to the “moral hazard” behavioral change (channel 2), but opioid use could also increase simply because longer-lived drug users have more time to consume drugs (channel 1) and the study cannot directly distinguish between the two explanations. It would be dishonest not to mention this.

In any case, when we look at the mortality figures, Doleac and Mukherjee discovered something astounding:

On average across all urban areas, we find that these laws have no significant impact on the opioid-related death rate. Thus, while the risk per use has gone down due to Naloxone access, the number of uses increases enough that we find no net effect on opioid-related mortality.

In other words, in response to the availability of naloxone, opioid users appear to have increased their use of the drugs so much that it completely negates the life-saving benefits of naloxone.

The magnitude of this effect was a surprise to the researchers. In an email message, Dr. Doleac explained what it means for the first causal channel:

When we first started this paper, we expected to find a big decline in mortality, in which case that channel could be very important. Given that we don’t find a net decline in mortality, it is probably less important[.]

In her article about the Doleac-Mukherjee study, Megan McArdle discusses possible policy responses to this startling finding:

The coldly logical response to this would seem to be to discontinue naloxone use. But there’s something repulsive about that conclusion, and Doleac and Mukherjee can’t bring themselves to go there. “Our findings do not necessarily imply that we should stop making Naloxone available to individuals suffering from opioid addiction,” they write, “or those who are at risk of overdose. They do imply that the public health community should acknowledge and prepare for the behavioral effects we find here.”

Sally Satel echoes Doleac and Mukherjee, both on the moral hazard of naloxone and on whether access to it should continue. Satel, a psychiatrist who is also a drug policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says the paper’s findings reinforce what she has heard from patients: “Patients occasionally tell me that having naloxone on hand has served as insurance against overdose. So, in some instances, it enhances risk taking.”

“That said,” she emphasizes, “we must use it to save people in the immediate term.”

So how can public policy prepare for those “behavioral effects” found by Doleac and Mukherjee? Satel suggests we look at civil commitment for patients who overdose multiple times in a short period. But she also notes that civil commitment can’t work without good treatment options — and in a lot of places, those aren’t available.

Which brings us back to something that’s easy to forget about the Peltzman Effect: It can be used to argue as much for more regulation as for less. Insurance companies, after all, have been fighting moral hazard for centuries, which is why they reward people who install burglar alarms or fill in their swimming pools (or punish people who don’t do those things). And so, too, can the government — for example, by aggressively ticketing speeders, passing tougher drunken driving laws, or using a combination of carrots and sticks to help addicts get clean. There are better policy responses to moral hazard than mounting a spike on the steering wheel — or depriving addicts of a second chance at life.

Much of that seems reasonable, but I wish McArdle had considered something else that’s easy to forget about the Peltzman Effect: It’s not necessarily a bad thing. When surgical anesthesia became a lot safer during the last century, we began to do a lot more surgery. When Elisha Otis invented the safety brake, people all over the world started riding elevators. As air travel becomes safer, more people flew through the sky. Doing more of what we want is usually considered a good thing.

That’s because economists usually make a formal assumption that people will act rationally to improve the quality of their lives. So if people decide to consume more of some goods — apples, oranges, antibiotics, haircuts, televisions, surgical anesthetics, elevators, airplanes — economists assume they do so because it makes their lives better. So why shouldn’t economists be happy that naloxone allows heroin users to consume more heroin?

There are two common answers to that question. One is to reject the idea that heroin is a “good.” This is a common position in public policy analysis, where certain actions, such as prostitution or consumption of illegal drugs, are deemed to be axiomatically bad. Doleac and Mukherjee kind of take this route by default, never really considering that increased opioid use may be a benefit. However, being good economists, they do allude to the possibility, noting that “welfare implications of drug and alcohol abuse themselves are unclear: Some argue that people can do whatever they want to their own bodies, no matter how harmful.”

McArdle takes the other route, arguing that because drug use is addictive, it’s not an actual choice:

It makes a certain amount of sense that the Peltzman Effect would show up particularly strongly in drug users; after all, drugs hijack the brain’s reward system, redirecting it toward drug-seeking even at high personal risk.

In other words, drug addicts fail to be rational in pursuing the improvement of their lives: Their addiction takes away their ability to make rational choices, so their apparent choices no longer represent consumption decisions that improve their lives. Somebody has to step in and make those choices for them.

McArdle’s argument is somewhat undermined by the Doleac-Mukherjee study itself:

It may seem surprising that drug users respond to incentives in a sophisticated way. One may think that drug users are poor decision-makers or that addiction makes rational choices impossible. Addiction surely clouds judgement and makes policy in this area difficult, but there is substantial evidence that even drug users respond to incentives. A large body of empirical evidence documents that the consumption of addictive substances is sensitive to prices. For example, increasing taxes on alcohol reduces alcohol consumption (Cook and Durrance, 2013). Alcohol abuse also responds favorably to increasing the likelihood of punishment, as seen in evaluations of the 24/7 Sobriety program (Kilmer et al., 2013). Hansen, Miller and Weber (2017) show that marijuana consumption is price inelastic in the short run, but quickly becomes price elastic, with consumers reducing their consumption in the face of higher marijuana taxes. And finally, Moore and Schnepel (2017) show that a massive reduction in the heroin supply in Australia resulted in a long-term reduction in heroin consumption among those using heroin at the time, due to a spike in the price of the drug. These findings suggest that, at least on the margin, drug abuse may be sensitive to non-monetary costs such as the risk of death.

If drug users are rational enough to alter their behavior to respond to these changes in incentives, that undermines the argument that their decision to consume drugs is irrational, leaving the way open for the possibility that increased opioid use is actually a benefit of naloxone.

That may seem a little insane, because, you know, it’s heroin. But suppose we could figure out a way to make opiates completely safe to use. This would likely cause a big increase in heroin use, but I hope you’ll agree that an increase in the use of completely safe drugs is not a health crisis. Nothing is completely safe, of course, but maybe between naloxone and some other policy changes, we can get close enough to greatly improve the lives of recreational opiate users.

Some nations have experimented with supervised injection centers which provide sterile equipment, trained staff, and of course a supply of naloxone.

Studies consistently show that supervised consumption facilities work. These kinds of sites have opened in Canada, Australia, and Europe, showing drops in drug overdoses, related emergency care calls, risky behaviors that lead to HIV or hepatitis C transmissions, and general public disorder and nuisance associated with drugs.

(I don’t know if there are studies on whether supervised injection centers lead to increased opioid use, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do.)

One thing these centers do not provide are the drugs themselves, so addicts still face risks inherent to a drug supplied with uncertain concentrations, uncontrolled contamination, and unpredictable adulterants. At the risk of yet another increase in consumption, we could conceivably control all of those problems — and reduce the need for addicts to commit crimes to feed their habit — by permitting the development of a legal source of drugs that is inexpensive, uniform, sterile, and…hmm…I think I’ve just invented the friendly neighborhood Heroin Bar.

The Revealed Meaning of Guilt

A few days ago, Gabriel Malor pointed out this story:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — A judge has dismissed charges against two men who were convicted in the death of a woman as part of a “Satanic ritual” more than 25 years ago.

This is an all-too-familiar story. Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark were convicted of murder in 1995.  But after serving 20+ years in prison, DNA testing blew up the case:

Key pieces of evidence from the 1995 trial include a single hair found on victim Rhonda Warford’s sweatpants that an expert at the time said was similar to the hair of Hardin, her former boyfriend. Former Louisville Metro Police Detective Mark Handy said Hardin told him he worshipped Satan and was interested in sacrificing people. And police found a blood-stained cloth with what they called a “chalice” in Hardin’s bedroom, which they said was evidence that he killed animals and drank their blood as part of his worship of Satan.

But since then, DNA analysis shows the hair does not belong to Hardin. The blood on the cloth was actually Hardin’s blood, not an animal. And Handy was later found to have lied under oath about a different murder case, which defense attorneys say question his credibility.

(It will not surprise followers of the American justice system that the case included a jailhouse snitch: “At trial, the state relied on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed that Clark confessed to the crime. Shortly after Hardin and Clark’s convictions, a letter surfaced revealing that the jailhouse informant attempted to solicit another inmate to fabricate testimony against Hardin and Clark to receive a reduced sentence.”)

The judge vacated the conviction, and an appellate judge upheld the ruling. Hardin and Clark were free…until prosecutors charged them with new crimes: Kidnapping and perjury. The kidnapping charge was based on evidence from the original case which they felt had not been discredited. They might sincerely believe that, for all I know. But the perjury charge is pure vindictiveness:

It also charges Clark with perjury, for testifying under oath in 2015 in a hearing on the motion for a new trial that he had never admitted any involvement in the murder when in fact he had previously testified before the Kentucky Parole Board in April 2006 that he helped move her body after her murder.

In other words, lock a man in a cage, threatening to keep him locked up if he doesn’t confess (because it worked for Moscow show trials), then when his conviction is vacated a decade later, use that coerced confession to prosecute him for perjury.

How the hell do things like this happen?

I’m not sure where and how things went wrong here, but they way the case against Hardin and Clark played out in our justice system is a reminder of something I’ve learned in years of blogging about policy issues: You can’t judge a policy by its intentions. The proper measure of a policy is how it functions in the real world. Once you understand how it really works and what it really accomplishes, you can work backwards to develop a better description of the policy, one that has the power to explain your observations of it.

Illinois law blogger Matt Haiduk does something like that in a post that looks at how “guilt” really works in our criminal justice system.

Guilt is a burden that can turn a witness into a defendant or turn the accused into an informant. Guilt is the negative attention of those in control.

Officer Lawman sees a baggy with traces of a green plant-like material on the center armrest of the rear seat in a car and tells all four occupants, “If somebody doesn’t claim this you’re all getting arrested…” Somebody–often the guy who’s already been arrested several times, even when it’s not his–always claims it.

One of them is really guilty or all four of them are “sorta” guilty, right?

Maybe the good officer shows up to that same house he’s been called to nearly every night and, well, “It’s the third trip here tonight, so somebody’s going to jail.” Who cares if they actually should? Truth doesn’t really matter. Doling out a little guilt solves the problem, at least for the time being.

Four guys go to rob and murder a rival gang member. All of them get charged, but how strong is the case when all the living witnesses are defendants (and didn’t talk to the police)?  Prosecutors decided who they really want to go after (maybe the guy with the worst record… or the guy who they think is the biggest jerk) and ease a little of that guilt burden of the guys they want for witnesses.

I think I’m pretty cynical about our criminal justice system, but Matt has spent years seeing it up close. I’ve got nothing on him:

Guilt is power. Guilt is control. Guilt is not truth or facts.

It’s sometimes created from thin air — often from the mouths of jailhouse snitches, mistaken witnesses, or others with a vested interest in a case (like an ex-spouse, or hated neighbor).

Seeing guilt as power the government exerts upon people is the only way to understand the system.

Read the whole thing.

in Legal

A Brief, Partial, and Contingent Defense of the Cops Who Waited

As the media puts together a still-evolving account of what happened during the school shooting in Florida, it now appears that as many as four Broward County Sheriff’s deputies were at the scene early on during the shooting, including school resource officer Scott Petersen, yet did not enter the school to confront the shooter, even as he continued shooting students.

According to CNN, Coral Springs police officers say they found Peterson and three other deputies outside the school with their pistols drawn and behind their vehicles. With direction from the Broward deputies, Coral Springs police entered the building where the shooter, later identified as Nikolas Cruz, was. Two deputies who arrived later and an officer from Sunrise, Florida, joined Coral Springs police as they went into the building. Per CNN, a report on what happened will likely be released next week.

This made me furious. As someone who covers issues that evoke a lot of criticism of law enforcement, I’ve lost count of how many times some cop has responded with some variation of, “You’re complaining now, but when you need us, you’ll be begging for our help!”

Yet when the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School needed help the most, these police officers did nothing.


Until we get a more complete account, including a better picture of the tactical situation at the school, I’m inclined to reserve judgement on the individual officers. While I have a lot of doubts, I can imagine some legitimate reasons why the deputies might wait.

I will say, however, that I’m not impressed by the “What could they do against an AR-15?” argument. First of all, I think some of these people are confusing the semi-automatic (i.e. not a machine gun) AR-15 with its fully-automatic cousins. And second, how would the cops have known that the shooter had an AR-15 when they hadn’t even entered the building?

That said, compared to most handguns, the AR-15 is a really loud weapon. The cops wouldn’t be able to figure out exactly what model of gun he had, but someone familiar with gunfire would probably realize the shooter had a centerfire rifle, and they’d probably know that such a rifle might be powerful enough to penetrate the officers’ body armor.

A rifle would also be more accurate than the officers’ handguns. In a building like a house, that wouldn’t give the shooter much of an advantage: He’d have trouble maneuvering with the weapon in the tight spaces, and any exchange of gunfire would take place at close range which would negate the benefit of the rifle’s superior accuracy. But in a school with wide-open spaces such as a gymnasium or a cafeteria, the shooter would have an advantage, and I sure wouldn’t want to be an officer who’s trying to advance up one of those long corridors against a shooter with a rifle.  Factor in the complication of shooting past fleeing students and it becomes a very difficult tactical situation.

There are other possibilities. According to reports, several officers were hiding behind their cars in the parking lot. Given the size and complex shape of the school building, and the weird way the sound of gunshots can echo off walls, the officers may not have been able to tell where the shots were coming from. Maybe they thought someone was sniping at them from the trees around the school, or maybe they thought the shooter was with them in the lot and they were trying to sneak up on him.

Finally, there’s the question of training. School shootings are incredibly rare. Far more common scenarios involve a small number of people and a bad guy who doesn’t necessarily want to kill anyone, such as a robbery gone wrong, or a suspect taking hostages when cornered by police. These are the situations police train for, and they have usually been taught to secure a perimeter to keep the offender from breaking out. That makes a lot of sense, and it’s what police were trained to do for a long time.

The Columbine school shooting changed that, because while the police were throwing up a cordon around the school, the shooters were killing students. And so police began rethinking their plans. The modern consensus on active shooter situations is that the first officers on the scene should basically charge right in and do their best to find and stop the shooter, or at least pin him down and limit his movement.

But that’s a very dangerous thing to do. It’s an almost military-style calculation: Take a huge risk with your life that, if you survive and succeed, will save a lot of other lives. Until recently, taking those kinds of risks had been discouraged in police departments. Maybe Broward County still discourages it.

So maybe none of the deputies was able to figure out where the shots were coming from. Or maybe they all had different ideas and couldn’t figure out what to do. Or maybe they got stuck in some kind of groupthink, where one influential deputy misunderstood the situation or the appropriate tactics and the rest followed along. Or maybe they were doing what they were trained or ordered to do.

Sheriff Scott Israel is currently throwing his deputies under a bus, claiming to be investigating their behavior while frantically disavowing responsibility for their actions. The thing is, if only one deputy had stayed outside the school, I’d be willing to believe he was derelict in his duty. But when four of the Broward County deputies do the same thing…that suggests something more complicated was going on. And Sheriff Israel seems to be trying desperately to distract us from it.

in Police

America’s Harvest Box: Socialism for Republicans

About a year ago, my friend Jennifer was mocking our current lack of school choice with this analogy to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP):

…the system we have, wherein people are given food stamps to spend at whatever store they please, is FAR better than a system wherein poor people are only able to get food from ONE specified grocery store in their neighborhood — and if that store is subpar and has a crappy selection of food, tough shit for them; if they want to shop at a decent grocery store, their only option is to move to a neighborhood which has one. Yet that dysfunctional hypothetical is EXACTLY how our public education system works now.

The SNAP program is far from ideal, but it’s much better than Jennifer’s laughably zany idea.

Fast forward a year, however, and it turns out that the Trump administration has come up with something much, much dumber.

The Trump administration wants to slash food aid to low-income families and make up the difference with a box of canned goods — a change that Office of Management and budget director Mick Mulvaney described in a Monday briefing as a “Blue Apron-type program.”

“What we do is propose that for folks who are on food stamps, part — not all, part — of their benefits come in the actual sort of, and I don’t want to steal somebody’s copyright, but a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash,” Mulvaney said. “It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food. So we’re pretty excited about that.”

People have come up with a lot of questions about this plan, and I have a few concerns of my own.

[Update: And so does my friend Jennifer, who scooped me on this angle with a post of her own.]

Will it really be cheaper? Sure, the government can buy the food in bulk, but they still have to distribute it to everyone, which is a job that retailers do right now. Can the government actually perform the distribution cheaper than people whose livelihood depends on controlling costs?

What about delivery costs? Under the current system, the cost of getting the food to people’s homes is born by the SNAP benefit recipients themselves, in the sense that they pick the food up themselves. Granted, delivery is probably a nice time-saving benefit for recipients, but there’s no way it’s cheaper for the government.

What about people who move a lot? What about transients and migratory farm workers? What about people who crash with friends? What about the homeless? How will the delivery service work for them?

(Frankly, I wouldn’t expect the deliveries to last. Somebody will decide that since poor people aren’t working, they have plenty of time to pick the food up from a local depot…thus more closely conforming to Jennifer’s original mocking suggestion.)

Even if the system of in-kind food distribution reduces costs, I’m pretty sure it will be far from cost effective — recipients will be getting far less bang for the buck. With food stamps or EBT cards, the recipients get to make their own choices about which foods to buy, which means they can carefully target their needs. That’s just naturally more efficient than letting distant bureaucrats decide what they need.

I hope these food packages will be customized to handle common medical situations, such as low sugar for diabetics, gluten-free for people with celiac disease, no peanuts for those with allergies. On the other hand, the proposed “America’s Harvest Box” program closely resembles the USDA’s current Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which offers only 52 different foods. Even a 7-Eleven stocks over a thousand items.

In any case, there are other reasons besides medical needs for customizing food choices. Secretaries, store clerks, dock workers, nursing mothers, and heart patients all have different food requirements. In addition, many poor people don’t have very versatile kitchens, so they would be better off if they could select foods they can cook easily. And it’s a lot easier to satisfy a picky child with the 30,000 choices from a grocery store than to force them to eat foods they don’t like.

In the long run, with billions of dollars to be spent on food every year, the selection of items to offer is almost certain to be captured by lobbyists for the agriculture industry. They won’t care what foods poor people like, and they won’t even much care what foods are healthy. Instead, food choices will be driven by which agricultural sectors contribute the most money to campaigns or have the most employees in swing states.

The craziest thing about “America’s Harvest Box” program is that it is a giant government-run program proposed by Republicans. Conservatives are supposed to love efficient free markets and hate planned economies, but when Republicans propose programs like this, it shows they don’t really understand why free markets are good. They don’t really believe that individual consumers making choices for themselves will be far better at it than buildings full of government bureaucrats. They only give lip service to “free markets” because it’s what they think their donors want to hear. In practice, gigantic socialist agricultural programs go over just fine with American Republicans. 

Show Me the Memo! Or GTFO!

If I’m following the story correctly, California Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, has prepared a 4-page memo which purports that the FBI lied in some way to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to get permission to wiretap a Trump aide who was supposedly talking to the Russians. 

Democrats are arguing that Republicans only want to release the memo to protect Trump by derailing Muller’s Russia investigation. Republicans are arguing that the memo should come out because it will show that the Russia investigation is driven by partisan hackery. And now the FBI is now saying they have “grave concerns” over the memo because it is misleading and reveals secrets.

To hell with all of them. Either show us the memo or shut up about it. All this speculation is pointless when the memo itself is right there.

The First Year of President Trump

I gotta say, it hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.

Last year about this time I was concerned about four major policy areas where I thought Trump could ruin things. He’s been active in all of them, but as I suggested, he’s done the most damage in the area where he has the most direct control: Immigration. Trump’s attempt at a Muslim ban fell apart pretty quickly because it was so poorly executed (although that did not stop our traitorous Homeland Security department from trying to stop permanent residents from re-entering the country). He keeps trying though, with the result that our immigration system is in turmoil. He has also been creating chaos for the “Dreamers” who were brought here as children, leaving their status unresolved and in jeopardy for most of the year. Trump is a wrecking ball.

Lest you think Trump has some principled objections to illegal immigration, he’s also been pushing for more restrictions on legal immigration, including a reduction in the diversity lottery, reduced acceptance of refugees, restrictions on family immigration, and a bizarre scoring system for merit-based immigration.

Trump has done less damage to our healthcare system. The direct Obamacare repeals all failed, and cutting the advertising budget appears to have only slightly lowered enrollment this year. On the other hand, the tax bill removes the individual mandate for next year, without making much in the way of offsetting adjustments, which greatly increases the risk of a health insurance death spiral in 2019.

Trump is moving even slower on Trade. He appears to have killed U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but that hadn’t been approved anyway, so it’s not so much a setback as a failure to make progress on a trade deal that wasn’t all that great. On the other hand, the recent tariffs on solar panels and washing machines show Trump’s willingness to steal from some Americans for the benefit of the better connected. In addition, that kind of unpredictability discourages investments.

Finally, I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to foreign policy, but I think I would have noticed any really bad blunders, like nuclear war. And the leaders of most other nations seem to understand that Trump’s bluster shouldn’t be taken too seriously. (The fireworks in North Korea have remained rhetorical.) I do have this vague impression that by restricting trade we are losing influence, and nations like China are moving in, but that may have happened anyway as China becomes wealthier.

Clearly some people have lost big under Trump, but as bad as some of those things are, the overall damage has been surprisingly limited: The broad economic indicators have continued their long streak of improvements and no major disasters have befallen us.

To be honest, I expected much more of a shit show, but things have held together better than I thought.  I think this reflects less on Trump as a President than on the resilience of our institutions, but it’s still good news.

For the coming year, I expect continued turmoil in all of these areas, and I’ll add criminal justice to the list, as the Trump administration continues to reverse federal policies and as the reduced oversight of state law enforcement plays out.

(Now let’s see what happens in the State of the Union address.)

Shitholes and the American Dream

I know I’m late to this story, but it took me a while to figure out how to say what I wanted to say about one of the more recent things President Donald Trump said about immigration:

President Trump grew frustrated with lawmakers Thursday in the Oval Office when they discussed protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, according to several people briefed on the meeting.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to these people, referring to countries mentioned by the lawmakers.

Trump then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries such as Norway, whose prime minister he met with Wednesday.

I do think people should be mad at Trump, but I think a lot of people are mad at him for the wrong reason.

Many people, especially those from Haiti and Africa, have been disputing the word “shitholes.” Given the sorts of things I write, I can’t complain about the obscenity, and if we take “shithole” as a hyperbolic way of saying those are not very nice places to live — at least when compared to developed countries like the United States — then many of those places are indeed…crudely speaking…shitholes.

Obviously, quality of life varies from person to person, and there’s no clear way to measure it, but there are some commonly-accepted proxy measurements, such as GDP per capita, infant mortality, and the Freedom House rating. So we can observe that Haiti has a GDP per capita of $1,784, which is less than 1/30 of what we produce in the United States, the infant mortality rate is eight times higher than the U.S., and Freedom House rates Haiti as only Partly Free.

Furthermore, when Haiti was hit with a magnitude 7.0 earthquake just outside of Port-au-Prince in 2010, the collapse of its poorly-constructed buildings killed at least 100,000 people. By comparison, when a similar 6.9 earthquake struck near far-wealthier San Francisco in 1989, it killed only 63 people. After Haiti’s earthquake, the country suffered a cholera outbreak that killed an additional 9,480 people. Compared to how we live in the United States, Haiti is a pretty awful place to live.

Sub-Saharan Africa is more of the same. GDP per capita is about $3,823 per person per year. Of the 25 largest countries, encompassing 90% of the population, the best economic performance comes from South Africa, with $13,225 GDP per capita, which is less than 1/4 the US GDP per capita. Infant mortality in the best country is five times that of the United States, and about half the countries have infant mortality rates more than ten times the U.S. rate. Freedom House’s ratings tell us that 39% of the population is living in countries that are not Not Free and only 11% of the people are fully Free. Of the seven famines that have occurred so far this century, six of them were in Africa.

These are not uniformly terrible places. They have pockets of commerce and industry, of art and science, and they have some areas that are great places to live. But on average, for most of the people living there, quality of life sucks compared to the United States.

It’s important, however, to put this in perspective. Modern humans first show up in the fossil record about 300,000 years ago. For most of the time since then, up until the start of what economist Deirdre McCloskey calls “The Great Enrichment” a few hundred years ago, the average human lived on the equivalent of about $3 per person per day, and the infant mortality rate was as much as fifty times worse that the current U.S. rate. The poorest countries of the world today, including Haiti and Africa, have a quality of life that is still better on average than what most humans have experienced throughout almost our entire existence as a species. In other words, until quite recently, the entire fucking planet was a shithole.

(Just as there are exceptions within even the poorest countries today, there were exceptions throughout history — wealthy cities such as Babylon, Memphis, Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, Tenochtitlan, and Beijing — but only a small group of people were ever able to live in them.)

Author William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” He might as well have been talking about the Great Enrichment. It started a few hundred years ago and it took off big time in the West. It’s spreading everywhere, but in some places it has only just begun.

Having said all that, I still think Trump, and people who agree with him, are badly wrong. To begin explaining why, let me tell you two true things about myself:

True Thing #1: Judging by my income, I am one of the most productive people in the world. I’m easily in the top 1% world-wide. (See the Global Rich List to find out how you rank.)

True Thing #2: True Thing #1 has almost nothing to do with me. I’m reasonably smart, reasonably well educated, and I have a reasonably good work ethic, which helps a bit, but almost all of my advantage over the rest of the world comes from having the great good fortune of living in the United States. If I were to move to Haiti or El Salvador or Zimbabwe, my productivity, and therefore my income, would crash down to the local levels or worse. I would probably die an early death.

The opposite is also true: Conditions in the “shitholes” of the world have almost nothing to do with the people who live there. Trump’s biggest mistake was not calling some countries “shitholes,” but in not recognizing that just because people live in shitty places doesn’t mean they are shitty people.

When people from third-world countries come here, they will find an advanced modern civilization with safe drinking water, mass immunization, efficient transportation, rule of law, personal and economic freedom, private property, courts that enforce contracts and award damages for torts, educated people, massive capital investment, real estate titles, innovative technology, reliable institutions, useful ethics and traditions, and millions of other highly productive people to trade with. In that environment, they will become vastly more productive.

In theory, that should be obvious to supporters of the MAGA revolution. The campaign was premised, after all, on the idea that the United States was suffering not because its people were lacking, but because its rulers were terrible, and if we just replaced the establishment politicians at the top, the greatness of the American people would carry the day and Make America Great Again. Unless you have some theories about the superiority of white people, there’s no reason to assume that all the problems of places like Haiti and Africa aren’t also caused by terrible leaders, and that the bulk of the people there are just as good as we are.

Another major cause of poor conditions in Haiti and Africa is that they have been subject to centuries of colonialism, exploitation, corruption, and slavery. And even when the colonial powers pulled out, they left behind damaged governments, damaged institutions, and a damaged civil society — all the ingredients for spawning corrupt dictatorships.

Some defenders of Trump’s remarks claim that he’s just restating our policy of merit-based immigration:

The argument that the U.S. should prioritize admitting immigrants with better education, skills and financial resources has been a legitimate policy position for decades.

That excuse doesn’t work because “Haiti” is not a level of education, and “Norway” is not a skill. Trump didn’t say “Why do we get so many fruit pickers instead of mechanical engineers?” He was talking specifically about national origin.

You could argue that national origin is not race, and therefore it’s not racist, but it’s still Trump judging people collectively by the groups they involuntarily belong to, rather than as individuals. It may not be racism, but it’s the same kind of thing as racism. And given the general racial characteristics of people in Norway and people in Africa or Haiti, it’s not hard see that Trump wants fewer brown people.

Furthermore, so-called “merit-based” immigration is a pretty freaking weird thing for “small government” conservatives to support. Talk to conservatives about business regulations, and they’ll argue that companies can reach agreements with their customers and employees without unnecessary government intervention that would only increase costs and stifle innovation. Ask a conservative about limiting fossil fuel consumption or distributing clean energy subsidies, and they’ll explain that our mix of energy sources should be decided by the market, and that the government should not be “picking winners” in the economy.

The basic argument is that there’s no good reason to believe that government employees know enough about the economy to make those kinds of decisions better than the market can. This seems like an argument that applies to immigration policy as well: There’s no possible reason to believe that Trump or Congress know enough about the U.S. economy to plan the mix of education and skills that millions of employers will need in the workforce for years into the future. And yet suddenly conservatives think we need federal government to forcibly control who we can hire from other countries: “Sorry Haitians, we’re only taking Norwegians this decade.”

Speaking of Norway, let’s address Trump’s puzzlement over why we don’t get more Norwegian immigrants. The most obvious reason is that Norway is a small country with only 5.3 million residents — slightly fewer than Minnesota. Haiti has twice as many people, and Sub-Saharan Africa has close to 200 times as many. We don’t get many Norwegians because there aren’t many Norwegians.

Even allowing for population differences, there’s also the fact that Norway’s GDP per capita is about 20% higher than that of the United States, and the infant mortality rate in Norway is half the U.S. rate. So the answer to we don’t get more immigrants from Norway is Why would they want to come? Compared to Norway, the United States is the shithole.

That’s kind of how immigration works. Whether they’re traveling across the ocean, relocating to another city for a job, or moving to a better school district, people migrate in hope that the new place they live will lead to a higher quality of life. We’re all here because someone decided they wanted to get the hell out of some shithole somewhere else.

Let people live someplace better, someplace that rewards hard work and innovation, and they will live better lives. When Emma Lazarus put these words in the Statue of Liberty’s mouth,

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I like to believe that she wasn’t inviting the poor and homeless to come here because we would take care of them, but because we would not get in their way. We would let the huddled masses have their freedom. We would take in the wretched refuse, and we would let them seek the opportunities that would allow them to thrive. That was, and for many immigrants still is, the American Dream.

One Week at the Litter Box

A few years ago, we bought a Litter-Robot automated cat litter box. It’s a spherical litter box that detects when a cat has been inside and rotates itself to dump the resulting clump of cat litter into an internal compartment. It makes maintaining the box easier, and it suppresses the odor much better than regular cat boxes. Our dentist had bought one and she swore it did a great job, so we decided to try it.

But the big question was, would the cats recognize this contraption as a litter box? Our plan was to put it near their old litter box and see if they used it. If we only had one cat, this would be simple: We’d check the collection tray in a couple of days, and if we found clumps then we’d know he’s using it. But how could we make sure all three cats were using it? It’s not like we could watch it all the time.

The solution is obvious, and I’m sure most of you already figured it out: I setup a motion-detecting web camera with night vision that uploads captured frames to a server. Then we just reviewed the images to make sure that we saw all three cats in there.

Afterward, I turned about a thousand captured images into a short video for your enjoyment: