Traffic Circles and Safety

As promised in the last post, here’s one on traffic circles, a subject that I have also taken up here. From The Economist:

One of their main attractions, says Mayor Brainard, is safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent research group, estimates that converting intersections with traffic lights to roundabouts reduces all crashes by 37% and crashes that involve an injury by 75%. At traffic lights the most common accidents are faster, right-angled collisions. These crashes are eliminated with roundabouts because vehicles travel more slowly and in the same direction. The most common accident is a sideswipe, generally no more than a cosmetic annoyance.

What locals like, though, is that it is on average far quicker to traverse a series of roundabouts than a similar number of stop lights. Indeed, one national study of ten intersections that could have been turned into roundabouts found that vehicle delays would have been reduced by 62-74% (nationally saving 325,000 hours of motorists’ time annually). Moreover, because fewer vehicles had to wait for traffic lights, 235,000 gallons of fuel could have been saved.

While I’m a bit skeptical of the time and fuel savings estimates there at the end, I do agree with the overall safety and convenience of traffic circles instead of lights. Here in the Triangle they are becoming more and more common. I have to admit that sometimes people do seem very confused by them, trying to turn left instead of going around and so on. However, this is because most driver education programs in the United States don’t educate people about traffic circles, a problem that should be relatively easy to overcome. I’d be interested to hear from people who have spent time driving in countries with lots of traffic circles as to whether or not they agree with the claims of safety or convenience.

Statistics and Crime: “We are all criminals.”

Longtime readers will remember these posts on traffic laws. I’ve got another post coming down the pipe on traffic circles soon, and am also planning a post or two on the (mis)use of statistics and probability by political figures. However, this morning I was also reminded that statistics can be used for good by this post:

Where am I going with all these numbers? Over 100,000 people a day (about 112 thousand) receive a speeding ticket in the United States. That’s just speeding tickets – no parking tickets, no DUIs, just speeding. Now granted some of those tickets are going to be for driving crazy fast and doing stupid things, but at some point they start calling that behavior “reckless driving” which, again, isn’t part of the above statistic….

The 112,000 or so tickets given each day add up to over 41 million tickets per year – that’s 19.5% of the populous! Between 1 in 5 and 1 in 6 American citizens will be ticketed for speeding this year, and that’s not accounting for children or those who otherwise don’t drive. About 20% of the U.S. is below legal driving age so even if we say that ALL of the remaining 80% (166,996,430 approximately) of Americans drive a car regularly (they don’t) then that means 24.5% of Americans of driving age are ticketed every year.

[via @newsyc20]

The whole thing is recommended. I agree with the point that calling a behavior that is commonly engaged in by a substantial minority or even the majority of a population criminal is silly. This is because, in my view, the law should be a clarifier of expectations. Speed limits no longer (if they ever did) accurately express the expectations of most people that you won’t speed. Instead, most people recognize that 5-10 miles per hour above the limit is the commonly expected speed, at least in urban and suburban areas where going the speed limit can actually be dangerously slow.

On the other hand, I will point out that if cities and states lose the revenue from speeding tickets they will probably seek to make up for it elsewhere. Since it’s harder to raise taxes than to enforce ridiculous laws, this would probably lead to even more ridiculous practices. I’ve got a hypothesis in the back of my mind that much of government is about hiding costs–but that is the subject of another post.

Opposing the “Stop Online Piracy” Act

I’ve been following the issue in articles like this one at The Atlantic, which has a great video that will get you up to speed quickly. Over the weekend I corresponded with one of the members of the Duke Office of Scholarly Communication, who regularly deals with issues of copyright and intellectual property. I share his answers below, but since he is on vacation this week I was unable to get permission to use his name. If you are interested, email me and I will pass along his contact information.

How does this legislation differ from existing copyright and intellectual property laws? That is, does it offer substantial additional protection to creators (e.g. academics) or does it threaten the exchange of information under existing avenues such as fair use?

This bill would not  change the fundamental set of rights and exceptions in copyright.  Its focus is really on enforcement of existing rights, although some provisions, because they would so heavily stress enforcement of rights, seem to change the delicate balance between those rights and the exceptions that are a fundamental part of the policy that underlies copyright.  One objection to this bill is that it is another step toward shifting the costs of enforcement off of the rights holders (through civil litigation) and onto taxpayers, as federal agencies take on more responsibility for enforcing private rights.  As for fair use, it would not be changed in principle, but it might be harder to exercise because of, first, fear of the heavy sanctions for a mistaken judgment and, second, the mechanism in SOPA that would allow a “shoot first and ask questions later” approach to alleged infringement online.  Given that approach, fair use would become even riskier than it is now.

Does this legislation threaten start-up businesses by making it easy for their established competitors to accuse them of a violation?

I think this is a real risk.  Also, since so much innovation is happening right now in the technology to deliver content, the risk of shutting down that innovation in order to protect “legacy” content is very real.

Will this legislation, if passed, have any effect on the way that we deal with copyright and intellectual property issues at Duke?

SOPA could create liability for Duke in its role as an Internet service provider for students, faculty and staff.  By weakening the DMCA “safe harbor” for ISPs, SOPA would force lots of entities, including universities, to either screen materials uploaded by members of the community or to risk greater liability.  Also, technology staff who assist in the sharing of academic content are worried about the new criminal provisions for streaming allegedly infringing media.  Finally, modern websites are build by pulling content and code from a wide variety of sources.  If web hosting services can be shut down so easily, based on a lowered evidentiary standard for infringement, Duke’s own web presence (as well as those of many others) could become unstable.

[End of interview remarks.]

The person with whom I was corresponding went on to say that the strongest objections to SOPA come from the “techologically savvy” community (which seems to be the case in the articles and blogs that I have read as well). As you can see, though, this act poses a threat to academics and researchers as well. Honestly, I haven’t seen any redeeming characteristics of a bill that seems to have a lot of flaws. Readers who disagree or have more information are welcome to share in the comments.

PETA and Super Mario

In the department of “You’ve got to be kidding me…” 

Frequent readers will know that I am interested in issues of nature, technology, and politics. I had not anticipated them meeting in this way:

To be clear, the E-rated “Super Mario 3D Land” never suggests that Mario slaughtered an animal for its fur. In fact, the magical Tanooki suits that he wears in the game typically spring from magical squares that magically hover in the air. These squares magically give up the suits (which at first look like magical leaves) when Mario bumps his head into them….

It’s hard to believe that the folks over at PETA truly believe that a video game starring tiny man in a magical children’s costume actually contributes to worldwide fur wearing. If they did believe Nintendo’s new game had that kind of impact on behavior, then they should have also mentioned Mario’s abuse of the turtle-like Koopa creatures.

But this is not the first time PETA has skewered video games as a way to grab attention.

More here. And yes, I realize that by posting this I am giving them exactly what they want.

An Answer to Violence in Mexico

Professors Barbara Walter and Alberto Díaz-Cayeros over at the Monkey Cage:

Their strategy of intimidation targets mayors, police, prosecutors, journalists, and pro-regime citizens. The cartels’ objective is to demonstrate that the government is too weak to punish them or protect future victims.  In fact, violence helps elicit the tacit support of the population, which is why Mexican drug organizations now operate openly rather than in secrecy.

This intimidation strategy also thrives on uncertainty: can the government protect me? With Mexico’s two deadliest cartels employing more than 100,000 foot soldiers combined, it’s not always possible to know who is in charge in a given area.

That sums up the problem pretty well. For their answer, see here.

But corporations don’t supply public goods!

One of the objections that could be raised to yesterday’s post is that corporations tend not to provide what are known as “public goods”–things that can be enjoyed by many people at the same time or over time without being consumed, and from which people cannot be excluded on the basis of some criterion such as having paid/not paid. While my personal response would be something like a listing of all of the positive externalities of corporations, Dr. Kuran’s talk provided a better answer. He discussed the role of waqfs in the Ottoman economy.

A waqf, as he explained it, is essentially a perpetual trust that can be used as a tax shelter for assets. Rather than investing all of his assets in another business partnership (which, as we discussed yesterday, were subject to more than market risk), he could purchase land to build a school, an inn for travelers (“caravanserai”), and the like. This carried with it the additional benefit of being seen as a pious act in Ottoman culture.

Caravanserai of Qaytbay, held in trust by a waqf

I found this private provision of public goods fascinating, since it was done on a decentralized basis. A merchant in the heart of Istanbul, for example, would have had very little idea where an inn might be needed on the eastern portions of the silk road. A trader who spent most of his time traveling between Cairo and Baghdad, on the other hand, would likely not have the inclination or knowledge necessary to set up a school in Damascus.

It turns out that this arrangement became inefficient as time went on because the assets could not be transferred out of the waqf or easily put to new uses. That meant that a caravanserai established during the era of land trade between Europe and China became almost useless after the circumnavigation of Africa, but the assets tied up in it could not be turned into a school or moved to another location. So what you have is private individuals providing public goods as a form of tax shelter, but institutional arrangements leading to economic inefficiency.

To bring this to our day, Ryan Pevnick (currently of NYU) has a working paper forthcoming in The Journal of Political Philosophy that looks at one possible way to foster decentralized charitable contributions. Here is the abstract:

 Current U.S. tax code renders all claimed donations to qualifying non-profit organizations exempt from taxable income. By foregoing this potential revenue, the state effectively sponsors the existing non-profit sector. While some critics have argued that there are reasons of distributive justice to reject this arrangement, such criticisms neglect the important non-redistributive functions of the non-profit sector and mistake a general criticism of the basic structure for a particular criticism of the non-profit sector. After dismissing this distributive criticism, I argue that the existing system for funding the non-profit sector is inconsistent with a commitment to political equality because it prioritizes the donations of high-income donors and allows such donors to effectively determine the ends at which government aims. Accordingly, I advocate moving to a voucher-based system that retains many of the benefits of the deduction-based system, but distributes the ability to direct public support of nonprofits equally across the citizenry.

I am not prepared to endorse this proposal yet (although on a first reading I’m not opposed to it) but it does seem to indicate that decentralized distribution of charitable contributions could lead to more efficient outcomes and reduce the disproportionate influence of contributions that OWS protestors find so distasteful. It has the added advantage of being flexible across time, which the waqf approach did not. These two aspects–decentralization and flexibility–are elements of pragmatism, which I will leave as a topic for future posts.

Assassination is Counterproductive

Piling on to a growing body of research, including my own, here is Andrew Cockburn:

By 2008, according to a U.S. Strategic Command study, our military was simultaneously engaged in no fewer than 285 human network attack programs.

So, now that assassination is an official tool of U.S. foreign policy, along with trade embargoes and overseas aid, it is surely time for an open debate on whether it is indeed effective. Surprisingly for some, evidence based on hard numbers demonstrates unequivocally that the answer is no.

More here.

What’s the big deal about corporations?

I had the pleasure yesterday of attending a lecture by Timur Kuran that discussed how the adoption of laws allowing corporations fostered the economic success of Europe. The only form of commercial organization allowed in the Ottoman Empire until the 1850′s was a partnership. This led to two difficulties. First, in a partnership it only takes one member to veto a proposed move. Second, since a partnership is legally an organization made up of a certain set of people, it automatically dissolves when any one of them dies.

That issue of corporate personhood has come up during the Republican primary campaign with Mitt Romney’s comment, and as one of the litany of issues mentioned by the Occupy ___ groups. Mike Munger asked Dr. Kuran about this at the end of his talk. What would happen if we did away with corporate personhood? My recollection of the response, along with some elaboration, is below.

1. Doing away with corporate personhood would be an obstacle to pooling resources. Right now–even despite the economic downturn–it is extremely easy (historically speaking) in modern, developed economies to match capital up with labor. We can even match up enough capital to produce things like iPads, ATM’s, and airplanes. This kind of resource pooling did not happen in the Ottoman Empire because of the constraints mentioned above. Because of the minority veto, you wanted to know and trust the people that you were forming a partnership with. (Dr. Kuran showed evidence that in the 17th century about 80 percent of partnerships had only two members, while fewer than 5 percent had more than 5.) I personally don’t care who’s running the companies I invest in as long as they’re doing their job.

2. Doing away with corporate personhood would prevent perpetual ventures. When all you have is a partnership and one of the members dies, game over. Right now, the health of key individuals like Steve Jobs does play some role in speculation about the company’s future prospects. But it would be absolutely ludicrous for me to have to know the health of 500 CEO’s and other board members simply to have confidence in my investment in an S&P index fund. Ottoman law further complicated this because of their inheritance laws and the fact that more prosperous business owners were likely to have multiple wives and many children. When they died, their business assets were split up in many small pieces. Now, if any of the other stockholders in a corporation dies, the other stockholders are unaffected and the shares pass intact to the deceased’s estate.

3. Doing away with corporate personhood would hurt laborers. To me this was the most illuminating part of the answer that Dr. Kuran provided. As a laborer–whether you serve food at McDonald’s, make cars at GM, or develop software at IBM–you benefit from the fact that a corporation is purchasing your service. You benefit from the two factors mentioned above, in that you can put capital from strangers to productive use and don’t have to worry about the corporation dissolving without warning. But these two seem somewhat weak nowadays–we have Kickstarter and corporations do sometimes fall apart overnight. The most important benefit to the worker is that you have the corporation as a form of protection should anything go wrong. It limits your personal liability, meaning that the McDonald’s worker who sold the woman coffee that was too hot was not personally responsible for the $600,000 lawsuit.

It can be funny to talk about whether or not corporations are people, but a world without corporations is no joke. Just ask the citizens of the Middle East, who are still suffering from nearly a millennium of slow economic growth.