Friday, April 30, 2004

The Air Down There

According to an old (possibly apocryphal) story, economist Armen Alchian was once asked the following question: “If you could wave a magic wand and eliminate all of the pollution in South Central Los Angeles, would you do it?” To which Alchian allegedly replied, “No. It would be cruel to raise those people’s rent like that.”

I usually tell that story to my students just to jolt them into thinking differently (that is, like an economist) about environmental issues. But lately I’ve been wondering if Alchian’s comment might be even more insightful than I’d realized. Environmentalists sometimes get lathered up about “environmental injustice” or “discriminatory pollution,” meaning the location of pollution in regions populated by poor people and minorities. If we take Alchian’s point seriously, the problem is bogus, because the market rental rate for apartments and homes in the affected regions falls enough to reflect the undesirable effects of pollution. And taking the argument one step further, what this means is that the real victims of pollution are not the residents, but the land owners who get paid lower rents. The value of their land diminishes.

But taking the argument yet another step, perhaps even the current land owners are not the real victims, so long as the pollution has been around for a while. Consider the analogy to a property tax. A property tax reduces the value of the property, because the owner is obligated to pay a stream of future taxes. When the tax is imposed for the first time, the current owner suffers a reduction in the price for which he can sell his land, because it’s now burdened with a tax liability that is capitalized into the land’s value. But if he sells the land to a new owner, the new owner does not take a hit, because the tax liability is reflected in the lower price. Yes, it appears that the new owner suffers, because he must pay property taxes – but if not for the taxes, he would have paid a higher price for the property. The price differential should be approximately equal to the present discounted value of the stream of tax payments. In effect, a property tax is borne entirely by the land owner at the time of the tax’s imposition.

The analogy to pollution should be clear. If there is an increase in pollution in a particular region, and that increase is expected to be permanent, then the cost of the pollution gets capitalized into the land value. The owner at the time of the pollution increase suffers, but subsequent owners do not, because they are compensated by the lower sale price. Subsequent owners suffer new damage only from further increases in the pollution burden. Renters suffer damages during the period in which their rent remains at the level set prior to the increase in pollution.

I haven’t worked all the way through the logic, but my suspicion is that these considerations don’t really change the economist’s prescriptions for how to deal with externality problems. For most economists, the key question is whether the gains from the polluting activity are greater than the reduction in value of all the affected land. A policy allowing current owners or renters to sue for damages might (and I emphasize might, because I’m leaving out a lot of relevant caveats) internalize the externality and produce the efficient outcome. But interestingly, my analysis above indicates that this policy would be awarding damages to people who may not have suffered any actual (uncompensated) harm. On the other hand, if such a policy already existed at the time of the purchase of the land, that, too, would be capitalized into the sale price – this time by raising it. The higher price would be compensated by the expectation of a future legal settlement.

If there’s a policy implication of my speculation here, I think it probably comes down to this: In the absence of substantial administrative costs, the following two policies would have equivalent effects: (a) a policy that allows current owners and renters to sue for damages from new or existing pollution, and (b) a policy that allows only owners at the time of a permanent increase in pollution to sue for damages from pollution. But in the presence of administrative costs, (a) would involve lawsuits every year, whereas (b) would allow all lawsuits to be handled just once, thereby minimizing administrative costs. On the other hand, (a) and (b) might only be equivalent when the benefits and costs from the polluting activity are relatively constant over time, thus assuring that pollution that’s efficient when it first appears continues to be efficient thereafter. If the costs and benefit change substantially over time, (a) might handle better the need for change in pollution levels.


Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Rape Inflation

In today’s Dear Abby, a 17-year-old complains about her boyfriend who wants to have sex all the time. At the end of her letter, she says:

The other day, I told Johnny I didn’t want to do it, but it happened anyway. I didn’t resist, so it wasn’t like he raped me or anything, but it wasn’t right.
And here is part of Abby’s reply:
And I have more bad news – when a person says "no" to sex and it “happens anyway,” that is the definition of rape.

I urge you to pick up the phone and call the R.A.I.N.N (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network)… They can help you to clearly understand what happened and find counseling.
A charitable interpretation of Abby’s remarks is that she thinks the writer may have been raped, and RAINN can help her figure out if she was raped or not. But as I read it, Abby’s saying a rape did occur and RAINN can help her to realize that’s what happened.

The writer never indicates that she said “no.” All she says is that she didn’t want to have sex. I’m sorry, but merely having sex when you don’t feel like it does not count as rape. Lots of people consent to have sex just to make their partners happy. If you don’t want to go to work in the morning, but it happens anyway, that’s not slavery, that’s life. Sometimes people do things they’d rather not do. Now, maybe she did say “no” but neglected to mention that fact to Abby. Possible, but the only evidence provided points exactly in the other direction: the writer expressly states that she was not raped. Instead of assuming the writer doesn’t know what rape is, why not take her at her word? Rape is a serious accusation, and it shouldn’t be thrown around in situations where all indications point to the guy just being a jerk.

Abby would be on stronger ground if she had focused on statutory rape. The writer called herself “Too Much Sex in Victorville,” and the only Victorville I know of is in California, where the age of consent is 18. The writer doesn’t state Johnny’s age, and in any case, I’m not sure whether California has an exception for minors having sex with other minors. (If there is no such exception, and two minors have sex with each other, are both guilty of statutorily raping each other?) With statutory rape, consent is not germane, so the whole “no” issue is beside the point.

For more on what’s rape and what’s not, read Dan Savage’s trenchant comments here and here.


Tuesday, April 27, 2004

A Troop of One

This was the headline on the front page of the Columbus Dispatch today:

(1) Blast kills 2 U.S. troops.
The names of the two soldiers were not given, but before I get to my linguistic point, let me say that the families of these soldiers have my sympathy, and all the troops have my respect and appreciation for the dangerous job they’re doing on my behalf.

Now about this headline talking about "2 troops": The definition I had for troop for many years was essentially this one (definition 1a in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary): “a group of soldiers.” In high school, I gradually began to realize that this definition was not sufficient to let me understand some of the sentences I was hearing or reading with the word troops in them. During my U.S. history class in 9th grade, I remember hearing about how President Kennedy had sent some number of troops (I don’t remember the number, but say 50,000) into Vietnam, and wondering, “OK, so how many people does that translate to? 50,000 times…what? Fifty soldiers per troop? A hundred?” The textbook never made it clear. By about halfway through college, it was finally dawning on me that troops could also (and usually did) mean just "members of the armed forces," so 50,00 troops simply meant 50,00 soldiers.

I see that this definition has been around long enough that it is definition 1c in the same dictionary quoted above: “armed forces: SOLDIERS – usu. used in pl.” The last four words are the kicker: “usually used in plural.” Ye-e-e-es, exactly. So on the one hand:
(2) 1 troop = X soldiers, where X > 1 (and probably a 2- or 3-digit number)
But on the other hand:
(3) 50,000 troops = 50,000 soldiers
Dividing both sides of equation (3) by 50,000, we get:
(4) 1 troop = 1 soldier
Now clearly that can’t be right, can it? Somewhere between 1 and 50,000, there must be some number N such that (N-1) troops means some number of soldiers greater than N-1, and N troops means N soldiers. For years, I’ve been wondering what this number is, lowering it now and again as I come across other examples of lower and lower numbers of troops. And now that I’ve learned that 2 troops can mean 2 people, it looks like I’ve reached the limit.

Or have I? I’ve just done a Google search for the phrase “one troop,” and found at least one attestation in which 1 troop = 1 soldier:
One troop was shot in the leg this morning in a TERRORISM CRACKDOWN inspired by DONALD RUMSFIELD and FOX NEWS CHANNEL.
I found plenty of examples in which troop referred to a group of people (most of them boy scouts or girl scouts), and some in which the ambiguity really causes confusion. In this one, I just couldn’t tell whether the one troop and the other troop consisted of one person each, or more than one person each, or a combination:
During further attacks on the strongpoint, one troop engaged enemy from the south, enabling the other troop to cross the wire and the minefield. After a brief encounter one troop entered the strongpoint and the enemy surrendered.
And looking further in my Google search, I see my point has been anticipated by columnist Debra Lo Guercio, in a funny piece with a much more prescriptive slant, here.


There's No Such Thing as a Free Ice Cream Cone

Julian alerts us to Ben & Jerry’s annual Free Cone Day. “TISATAAFICC” (There Is Such a Thing as a Free Ice Cream Cone), he says, playing off Robert Heinlein’s TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch) slogan.

Julian’s only joking, as I'm sure he realizes the slogan doesn’t mean that you personally always pay, but that someone always pays. B&J’s pays the cost of production and (most likely) classifies it as a marketing expense. But in this case, it turns out that the free cone recipients have to pay, too. I went to a B&J’s store a few years ago on Free Cone Day, and I ended up waiting about an hour in line to get my free cone. That could be a pretty steep price for someone with a high opportunity cost of their time. In retrospect, it would have made more sense to just a buy a pint at the convenience store.

Incidentally, Heinlein actually didn’t invent the TANSTAAFL slogan (though he may have been responsible for the acronym version). Here’s the origin of the saying.


Monday, April 26, 2004

Oral Expression in French

Geoff Pullum of Language Log recently posted about one brief shining moment when he successfully deployed his limited Finnish well enough to sound like a fluent speaker. It reminded me of my favorite story of about speaking French. It was back in the summer of 1990 … [harp music, picture getting wavy]

Glen and I were traveling in Europe, staying in youth hostels (well, trying to stay in them, but that’s another story) and other cheap lodgings. It was a Friday night, and we had just ridden the ferry from Dover, England to Calais, France. We got there at about midnight. Glen and I had heard about a campground in the area, and luckily, this was one of the lodgings we were actually able to find (after an hour of hiking through an industrial district). The check-in office was closed, though, and besides, it turned out we didn’t have enough money to stay there—as usual, we’d gotten caught on a Friday night without having converted enough of our travelers’ checks to the local currency, and all the money exchanges were closed. So we decided we’d just have to sneak in through one of the broken bars in the fence that surrounded the grounds, and sleep in shifts in the open air.

The campground was a flat, sandy park, partially surrounded by low terraces. The one we chose was slightly elevated on a low hill from the rest of the camp, and from it we could keep an eye out for possible security guards. On the other side of the fence, the hill descended about fifteen feet to a broad parking lot outside the camp, and beyond was the shore, so we had a good view of what was going on all around us. Glen agreed to be the first to sleep, so he spread out one of the sleeping bags next to a bench that sat in the middle of the terrace, shoving our bags underneath the bench. After two hours, I woke Glen and we switched places. I pulled off my shoes and climbed into the sleeping bag as he began his watch.

"Neal, wake up!" was the next thing I heard. "Someone's coming!"

Oh, great, I thought, it's a guard come to throw us out. Well, I'd better get ready to speak some polite French with him. Glen pointed to the approaching figure, and it wasn't a guard at all. It was a man, coming not from the campground, but from the parking lot below. I recognized him: It was a dark-complexioned, black-haired guy I'd seen on the beach during my watch. We kept watching as he walked up the sidewalk toward the terrace, as it became apparent that he was indeed aiming for us. Finally he appeared at the edge of the terrace.

"Bon soir," I said. Glen stood at a distance, watching.

"Bon soir," the man said. He walked over to the bench and sat down. He seemed to be in his mid-twenties, was clean shaven and had dark eyes. I was still sitting up in the sleeping bag, making sure I could still feel my wallet in my pocket.

He introduced himself--his name was Luigi--and made friendly conversation. Not wanting to antagonize him, I conversed. I learned that he had an Italian name because he was, in fact, Italian, but was working here at some nightclub. He learned that Glen and I were brothers, and seemed a little surprised. The conversation continued with lots of small talk, and I began to wonder if Luigi had a point. I kept making sure I knew where my wallet was and where the travelers' checks were stashed; Glen kept walking around on the patio, keeping an eye on us. As Luigi sat and talked, I began to get annoyed. How long did he plan to stay? Why was he just sitting here and talking with a total stranger? What did he want? Didn't he know we were trying to sleep?

I was still sitting in the sleeping bag when Luigi pointed to my shoes and said something about them. I didn't catch exactly what he said, but I did hear chaussures, so I said yes, those were my shoes. Then he shook his head, pointed again, and I realized he was indicating the foil-like lining of the sleeping bag that was visible next to the shoes. Ah, I must have heard him say not chaussures, but chaud. He was asking if the sleeping bag was hot, probably impressed with the hi-tech lining. So I said sure, it was pretty warm, thinking that this was about the most pointless turn the conversation had yet taken. Luigi reached down from the bench to the sleeping bag and felt the lining with the back of his hand. What, I was thinking, he just has to see for himself how incredibly warm the lining is? Then he reached into the sleeping bag and I finally got the picture.

I jumped out of the sleeping bag, sat on the opposite end of the bench from Luigi, and started putting on my shoes. There was an awkward silence. Then Luigi turned to me and asked,

"Tu veux faire sucir?"

Did I want to what? I couldn't believe I’d heard him right, though I guess at this point I should have. They hadn’t taught the verb sucir in my high school French class, or even in my advanced oral expression French class at college. But I remembered it from a pornographic French novel I’d read, so after asking him to repeat the question, I answered, "Euh…non, merci."

There was another awkward pause. Luigi asked, "Moi a` toi?" (Me to you?)

No, that didn't really change things. "Non."

He was silent for a little longer, and then he nodded in Glen's direction. "Et lui?"

I didn't ask Glen before I told Luigi, "Lui non plus" (Him neither).

Luigi nodded, said, "Tant pis" (too bad), got up, and wandered back the way he'd come.

"What was that all about?" Glen wanted to know. I waited until Luigi was back on the parking lot below, making his way to the beach, before I told him.


Meaningless Driving Statistics

This MSN article reports the results of a focus group composed of 30 bad drivers (people with a large number of accidents or traffic violations in the three years). The article contains a plethora of totally meaningless statistics, including:

• 77% of bad drivers say they frequently or occasionally talk on cell phones while driving.
• 60% of bad drivers say they frequently or occasionally eat while driving.
• 60% of bad drivers say they get frustrated when SUVs or other large vehicles obstruct their vision.
• Nearly all bad drivers say they change their driving behavior when they know police are nearby.
• 93% of bad drivers say they listen to the radio while driving.

“If your answers agree with the answers from the focus group,” says the article, “it's likely you tend to be a more aggressive driver than average.” But the figures given show nothing of the sort, because they provide no point of comparison. The article provides no comparable figures for a control group of typical drivers, and therefore we have no idea whether the bad drivers’ percentages are relatively large or not. I wouldn’t be surprised, for instance, to find out that 93% of all drivers listen to the radio, or that 60% of all drivers occasionally eat while driving. And just about everyone I know drives extra carefully when police are around.

The point is not, of course, that none of these behaviors are dangerous. The point is that we need more information in order to distinguish the truly dangerous activities from the innocuous ones.