Thursday, March 04, 2004

Theories of Punctuality

I love it when economists show up sociologists. Alex points to a seemingly good example: why do different cultures have different attitudes toward punctuality? The sociologists’ explanation appeals to “national personality,” religion, etc. The economists’ explanation relies on simple game theory. Arrival-time behavior is a kind of coordination game: you want to arrive at the same time the other guy does, and he wants to arrive at the same time you do. In this kind of game, there exist multiple equilibria, all of them viable (though not necessarily all desirable). Alex’s analogy to left-versus-right-side driving is excellent: both left-side driving and right-side driving are equilibria of the system, so there’s no particular reason to predict one equilibrium over the other.

Economists: 1
Sociologists: ½

Why am I willing to give the sociologists half a point? Because Alex’s analogy also illustrates a problem with the pure game-theoretic explanation. Although it explains why we can observe different equilibria, the theory tells us very little about why one equilibrium happens and the other does not. Why do the British and Japanese drive on the left, while Americans and French drive on the right? Yes, both left and right are equilibria, but why did some cultures end up in one and some cultures in the other? Random chance is one explanation, but legislative decree (as in Alex’s Swedish example) is another. So the antiseptic game theory model tells us just enough to indicate more historical and cultural research may be required. And the same goes for punctuality: the game theory explains why it makes sense that we’d observe different norms, but it doesn’t tell us why the punctuality norm occurred in the places that it did. Random chance might explain the pattern – it was just an accident that Latin American countries happened to evolve a lateness norm – but then again, maybe something else was at work. Maybe influential people at some point in Spanish history had a propensity for lateness, and their activities created the focal point around which others’ expectations formed. In short, an economic theory that predicts multiple equilibria doesn’t shut the door to sociological explanations – it opens it.


Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Old Yeller

Radley approvingly posts a letter he found in the Washington Post, which says among other things:

The Feb. 14 editorial "Focus on Red-Runners" mentioned a Fairfax City study that apparently showed a 44 percent drop in one year in red-light running at five intersections with cameras. But it did not mention the results of a 2001 analysis by the National Motorists Association of a Fairfax County intersection. That organization found that red-light violations dropped 96 percent at the intersection when yellow light time was increased from 4 seconds to 5.5 seconds.

A 1998 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also found that 80 percent of red-light entries occur within the first second of the light turning red, indicating that inadequate yellow time is the major cause of red-light entries.
The implication, of course, is that the government should extend the length of yellow lights. Apparently something is “special” about the difference between 4.0 and 5.5 seconds, which makes those added 1.5 seconds especially useful in avoiding accidents.

I don’t buy it. The 96% reduction in red-light violations was almost assuredly a temporary effect, brought on by the fact that people adjust their driving behavior to the expected duration of yellow lights. People are willing to go through a yellow if they think it will last just long enough to get them about halfway through the intersection before it turns red. If the duration were permanently raised to 5.5 seconds, people’s unconscious timers would gradually readjust, and they would start blowing through yellows that under the 4.0 regime would have seemed stale.

And then, if someone performed another study on the effect of increasing the duration of yellows from 5.5 to 7 seconds, I’ll bet it would have the same effect: a dramatic but temporary reduction in red light violations, which could be used by the credulous to justify another increase in the yellow light time.

UPDATE: Radley responds, pointing out some studies that apparently show the driver adjustment effect I’m talking about is small. Unfortunately, the studies are unavailable on the web. Radley also gives more details about the 96% reduction:
In 2001, the National Motorists Association persuaded the Virginia DOT to lengthen the yellow light at one particularly egregious intersection in Fai[r]fax by 1.5 seconds -- from 4.0 seconds to 5.5. A camera installed at the intersection monitored the number of infractions. About 70 days after the yellow was increased, infractions fell from 52.1 per day [to] less than one per day -- or about 96%.

That was three years ago. NMA reports that infractions at that intersection have remained at about .80 per day in the three years since.
I’m still skeptical, because this could easily be the result of the change having been made at a single traffic light. My “internal timer” is not so finely tuned that it knows the typical length of all the different traffic lights, even the ones I go through regularly. I assess the expected length of a yellow light by reference to all the yellow lights I deal with. So it doesn’t surprise that extending the yellow on a single intersection might result in a substantial reduction in red-light infractions at that one light. But it doesn’t follow that extending the duration of yellows at all the intersections would have a similar effect, because people would then get used to the longer yellows. The conclusion that does follow is that extending the yellow at especially notorious intersections might be an effective strategy, because it makes use of internal timers that have been calibrated on the basis of shorter yellows.

I’ll concede (as I did in the comments box) that there might be an optimal duration for yellow lights, but I still stand by my argument that this experiment is very far from proving it. I also agree with Radley's broader point, which is that local governments seem more interested in maximizing revenue than preventing traffic violations.


Can This Be Right?

Eugene posts the following New York statute, and I want to know if I’m reading it correctly:

If any clergyman or other person authorized by the laws of this state to perform marriage ceremonies shall solemnize or presume to solemnize any marriage between any parties without a license being presented to him or them as herein provided or with knowledge that either party is legally incompetent to contract matrimony as is provided for in this article he shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not less than fifty dollars nor more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year.
The statute is suddenly relevant because the mayor of New Paltz has been performing marriages of gay couples (who don’t have marriage licenses). But as written, this statute would apply to clergymen as well.

Now, suppose that I’m a minister, and as such I am authorized by the state to perform marriage ceremonies. And suppose that I officiate for a marriage ceremony without a marriage license, and with no pretense of this marriage having the state’s sanction. Everyone involved understands this to be a religious marriage, with no more legal significance than the state should choose to grant it. Notice that I haven’t specified the sexes of the participants. My actions would seem, under a commonsense definition of “solemnize” and a strict reading of the text, to fit within the statute’s language and therefore constitute a crime. If so, then the statute would also pretty clearly constitute a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of speech, association, and free exercise of religion. Does anyone know if “solemnize” has a more specific statutory meaning of which I’m not aware?


Monday, March 01, 2004

Federalism Cuts Both Ways

Eugene (who tentatively favors same-sex unions) says the following Constitutional amendment would be defensible on federalist grounds:

No part of this Constitution shall be interpreted as requiring any state, or the federal government, to recognize or allow same-sex marriages.
I agree. But if we’re going to insert a new amendment purely for the purpose of safeguarding federalism, why not add the following?
Nor shall any part of this Constitution be interpreted as prohibiting any state, or the federal government, from recognizing or allowing same-sex marriages.
This addendum would assure the correct federalist interpretation. Now, I suppose it might be superfluous, because the “part of this Constitution” that might conceivably be interpreted to require recognition of same-sex marriages is the Full Faith and Credit clause, and no plausible interpretation of that clause would prohibit a state from recognizing another state’s authorized same-sex marriages. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a little redundancy in defense of principle and clarity. Furthermore, tacking on this extra bit would force conservatives who oppose it to admit their disagreement with the federalist principles to which they so often pay lip-service.


Regulating Healthcare = Regulating Religion

Libertarians often emphasize that the distinction between personal liberties and economic liberties is a phantom one, because restrictions on economic liberty inevitably affect the personal sphere. Here’s an outstanding example: The California Supreme Court has ruled that the Catholic Church must provide birth control in its employees’ health plans.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) 3.1.04, 11:50a -- A Catholic charitable organization must include birth control coverage in its health care plan for workers even though the nonprofit is morally opposed to contraception, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The high court said Catholic Charities is no different than other businesses in California, which is one of 20 states that require company-provided health plans to include contraception coverage. In California, "religious employers" such as churches are exempt from the requirement.
When the state starts meddling with the terms of contracts, as it does when it dictates the contents of health plans, entanglement with personal liberties, including freedom of religion, is sure to follow. The state can either (a) treat religious enterprises just like other enterprises, as the California high court has done, or (b) make a special exemption for religion, which puts the state in the position of deciding what a religion is and what its defining doctrines are (e.g., is opposition to contraception really inseparable from Catholic doctrine?). I'm curious to know whether abortion coverage is also required under state law.

In an earlier post, I argued that, when it comes to subsidies for education and other activities, the state ought to adopt a neutral policy that does not require it to decide what is religion and what is not. But in this case, we are not talking about the provision of a benefit by the state, but the imposition of a regulatory burden with the potential to interfere with free exercise. Forced to choose the lesser of two evils, I would reluctantly take option (b) above, as it provides at least a limited opportunity for people to escape the state’s regulations when they conflict with conscience. But it is the state’s unjustified regulatory policy that generates the need to choose between evils.


Stale Jackson Joke Makes Comeback

Look where Michael Jackson’s been shopping:

Michael Jackson was pulled over by police and asked to identify himself after shopping at a Wal-Mart while wearing a ski mask.
Yep, he must’ve heard little boys' pants were half-off.