Thursday, November 29, 2007
Blue Whale Belated Update
Back in October Vice Squad mentioned the high-roller who was being pressed by a casino for two million pounds that they claimed he owed them. They have a strong case, but there is the problem that they didn't really try hard to collect the debt for nearly six years, until just before their legal claim would have expired. During those six years, the high-stakes gambler frequently patronised their club in a manner that was highly profitable to them. So from one perspective, the casino essentially provided credit to the "blue whale" -- and casinos cannot provide credit to gamblers in Britain.
At the time of the initial Vice Squad post, the gambler had lost his bid to have his debt annulled. Later in the month, however, a three-judge panel gave him permission to appeal, along with a lecture:
The history of the debt, Lord Justice Sedley said, "reflects no credit on either of them". Sir Anthony Clarke agreed that Mr Zayat had "an arguable defence", but added: "I have serious doubts as to whether the defendant has real, as opposed to fanciful, prospects of success."
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Regulating Vice: Chapter 1, "The Harm Principle" (2)
What if John Stuart Mill were the Drug Czar? What are the strictest drug policies that we could have that would be consistent with Mill's "Harm Principle" and the precepts of On Liberty? Interpretations of Mill can vary, of course, but in what I think are the most plausible interpretations, the libertarian-style philosopher would allow quite strict controls over drugs. What would be ruled out by Mill would be the criminalization of adult drug possession, as well as a medicalization-type regime in which drugs are available legally only via a prescription. Among the controls that would not run afoul of Czar Mill are bans on sales of those drugs, such as marijuana, for which sales are not really requisite for consumption; bans on advertising of drugs; high taxes on drugs; and buyer and seller licensing. While Mill would not allow a policy to be adopted if its purpose were to limit adult vice consumption, he would permit many policies that have other aims, but have the side effect of limiting adult consumption. Thus the high taxes, for instance, are OK (Mill goes further -- they are all but required) if their purpose is to raise necessary government revenue, even though high taxes will discourage drug consumption. And while I don't state it explicitly in Regulating Vice, I think that you could have a fairly restrictive, and quite adequate, drug control regime while staying within the bounds proposed by J. S. Mill.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Economies of Scale in Reverse: Bingo
In gambling, people tend to prefer larger payouts with lower probabilities of success to similar games with the same expected return but smaller top prizes. This is a major reason why many US states have combined their Lotto games, so they can offer the larger prizes that consumers prefer. When a gambling venture starts to decline, then, it can lose attractiveness in a hurry: the initial decline results in smaller prizes, which then drive away more players, and the process continues.
Vice Squad has been following the difficult times for the Bingo industry in Britain, which is in the midst of a significant decline. Among the culprits for the changing fortunes are the smoking ban and competition from online gaming. Today's Guardian offers a wonderful article and accompanying video based on the final round of the National Bingo Callers of the Year 2007 competition. Both the article and the video are highly recommended for those interested in getting a feel for British Bingo culture.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Regulating Vice: Chapter 1, The Harm Principle
The Introduction to Regulating Vice is so engaging that I thought, hey, people might actually read this. What can I do to make sure that this won't happen? Then inspiration came: I could devote Chapter 1 to John Stuart Mill and his harm principle. Mill was not in favor of governmental or private coercion of adults in their "self-regarding" actions -- a category within which most vice activities fall. What is a poor vice prohibitionist to do, then, in a Millian world? Well, you can search for loopholes: kids are an obvious one. Maybe we can prohibit vice for adults as a collateral measure aimed at Helping The Children. Or maybe we can argue that there is No Such Thing as a self-regarding act. That joint you are puffing on in the privacy of your home ten miles away is hurting me, or hurting somebody, so you must be stopped. (My vice? Well, thanks for asking, but my vice is benign, and self-regarding.) Anyway, I argue that these exceptions don't cut the mustard -- for the traditional vices, they would not justify prohibition, in Mill's eyes or mine. (In On Liberty, Mill was quite explicit about some of the vice policy implications of his harm principle: alcohol sales must be allowed, private gambling must be legal, prostitution per se cannot be criminalized, and so on.) But then there is a third exception, one I call "Vice Lunacy." Mill argued, essentially, that coercion is OK when someone is in a condition of a sort of temporary irrationality, when a person is “in some state of excitement or absorption incompatible with the full use of the reflecting faculty…” [see paragraph 5 in the linked section of On Liberty]. Hmmm, maybe vice brings on this state, especially for addicts. Can we justify a vice prohibition on these grounds, while still remaining true to Mill? That is an issue that I take up in Chapters 2 and 3.
Of course, maybe you don't like the harm principle, maybe you don't see any need to be true to Mill. The problem (or one problem) with an outright rejection of Mill is that it then sets one up to admit the propriety of almost any invasive or tyrannous act, such as the government telling you what time to get up in the morning or what color to paint your living room. But again, this is a topic to which I return in Chapter 3....
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Parents Who Supplied Alcohol to Teens Out of Jail
They invited teens over to their older son's 16th birthday party, collected car keys, and served alcohol. The idea was that the guests would all spend the night. Other parents were not informed of the alcohol, however. At any rate, no one was injured -- except for the host family, that is. Loud music brought a phalanx of police and dogs to their Charlottesville, Virginia home about 11PM. The teens, who initially scattered, were tested for alcohol, and nine of the sixteen who were tested came up positive. The mom and dad, now divorced, were convicted and sentenced to eight years -- a sentence that eventually was reduced to 27 months. The oldest son, the birthday celebrant, dropped out of school because of the case, and to look after the temporarily orphaned younger son, who was himself 16 when the jail terms began. After serving five months, the parents were released from jail before Thanksgiving.
Here's a Washington Post story dating from the start of the jail terms. Here's a BBC News story, not very sympathetic to the Virginia authorities, from a few days after the jail terms started. (This early attention led to difficulties with the other inmates, so the mom was moved into protective solitary confinement.) Here's today's Washington Post story on the mom's release from jail; in it, we learn of someone else negatively affected by the case, the prosecutor, who lost a campaign for re-election that highlighted a crackdown against underage drinking. Here's addiction expert Stanton Peele's Wall Street Journal op-ed (via Radley) on the benefits of introducing alcohol to your kids at home.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Regulating Vice: The Introduction (part III)
After wading through Zero Tolerance versus Harm Reduction approaches to vice policy, the Introduction sashays towards a conclusion with two sections, one (provocatively?) entitled "Futility?" and the other "Toward a Thesis." (The original title of the final section was "Towards a Thesis" but my towards were deemed untoward by the copy editor.) "Futility?" points out that it is not uncommon to hear people make claims of complete vice policy ineffectiveness, along the lines of "Prohibition can't work, because market forces are too strong for mankind's meager regulations." As you might guess (and as the loyal Vice Squad reader knows), "Futility?" argues that this sort of claim generally is overstated. As for "Toward a Thesis," this section will not be news to the Vice Squad reader, either. In it, I foreground what becomes the organizing structure of my approach to vice policy, and to Regulating Vice. I...
...suggest that a type of “robustness principle” should govern the regulation of vice: public policy toward [sic!] addictive or vicious activities engaged in by adults should be robust with respect to departures from full rationality. That is, policies should work pretty well if everyone is fully informed and completely rational, and policies should work pretty well even if a substantial number of folks are occasionally (or frequently) irrational in their vice-related choices. “Working well” entails coming to grips with the 3⅓ standard vice concerns of kids, addicts, externalities, and harms to nonaddicted adult users.(The word "nonaddicted" started out as non-addicted, but the copy editing involved some extreme hyphen cleansing along with the towards-shortening.)
I get the sense that these sort of lengthy summaries of Regulating Vice have found an unfortunate middle ground between a bare-bones recitation of the argument and an engaging presentation keeping with the spirit of the book. As is standard in the vice world, I have every intention of reforming.
Friday, November 23, 2007
Regulating Vice: The Introduction (part II)
The Introduction proceeds by discussing a typical vice policy dilemma, that of Zero Tolerance versus Harm Reduction. First, imagine that vice activity has no benefits at all -- then the social goal, presumably, would be to decrease the total harms, or total social costs, of vice and vice policy enforcement. Drawing upon MacCoun and Reuter, Total harm = [# of vice incidents] times [harm per incident]. It looks as if reducing the number of vice incidents is a good way to reduce harm, but there is a catch: in practice, policies aimed at reducing vice incidents simultaneously increase the harm per incident. [Zero tolerance policies are among those that hope to reduce the number of incidents.] Under alcohol Prohibition, for instance, drinking went down, but the drinking that remained tended to come at high cost, including poisonings via adulterated beverages and crime and corruption. So even if you ignore the benefits of vice, it might be desirable to adopt policies that accept some vicious behavior, in order to reduce harms per incident and potentially, to reduce overall social costs. Thus it makes sense to consider policies such as the provision of clean needles to heroin addicts, or drug legalization, as possible methods to reduce overall costs.
The harm reduction versus zero tolerance trade-off exists in a wide array of social policies. One that has recently been in the news concerns the provision of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Such policies probably decrease the social cost per illegal immigrant driver. Opponents stress, instead, that license availability in some sense subsidizes illegal immigration, so the number of incidents of illegal immigrant driving might go up.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Regulating Vice: The Introduction (part I)
Regulating Vice starts off by trying to impress upon the reader (note the singular) that vice policy has traditionally been highly unstable, and that on these grounds alone there is reason to believe that current policies will prove similarly ephemeral. (An early Vice Squad post offers a parallel discussion, not coincidentally.) The next step is to delimit the subject matter: what constitutes a vice? (An axiomatic-style definition is not sought.) Excess and habit are part of the standard equation, as is the idea that the behavior in question does not have (at least in some private manifestations) direct effects upon non-participants -- in econ-speak, 'no externalities', or in Mill-speak, 'self-regarding'. And then there is the conflation of wickedness (or immorality) and pleasure, which separates gambling, for instance, from exercise, though both gambling and exercise can be habitual, excessive, and self-regarding. [The very end of Regulating Vice returns to the question of what is a vice.]
...taking perceptions of immorality as given, a traditional vice exhibits excess, is habitual, and produces direct consequences that fall nearly in their entirety on the person engaging in it. These common traits imply that approaches to regulating vices as disparate as gambling and injecting heroin involve a shared set of principles. Within the class of illicit drugs alone there are vast and important variations that influence the appropriateness of alternative regulatory structures; nevertheless, it makes sense to discuss public policy toward alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and so on, within a common framework [pp. 5-6].The framework that is then proposed is one that is primarily economic and legal, one that takes into account (at least implicitly) the pleasures that some people find in vice. The standard three and one-third vice concerns (familiar to the loyal Vice Squad reader) of kids, addicts, externalities, and internalities are then introduced. This gets us to page 12; more tomorrow, I hope.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Smoking Ban Avoidance
Vice Squad has noted some of the dodges that have been tried in the past -- such as becoming a consulate. But today's Los Angeles Times provides an article (annoying registration possibly required) that is practically a how-to guide for restaurants and other establishments in Nevada to avoid the state smoking ban. The ban does not apply to places that do not serve food -- oh, and it doesn't apply to the gaming floors of casinos, brothels, or strip clubs, either. Nevadans have priorities, after all. So one thing you could do, if you are a restaurant, is to become a brothel, strip club, or casino. But the article recounts less obvious (to me, at least) circumventions. You can break your restaurant into a bar (smoking allowed) and a restaurant (no smoking), where bar patrons can order their food from the physically connected but legally and atmospherically separated restaurant. Other establishments make the division temporally, being restaurant by day, smoke-infested bar by night.
One disgruntled smoker notes that he doesn't like to leave an establishment to have a cigarette: 'It feels like you're a junkie if you go outside to smoke.' He doesn't draw Vice Squad's conclusion: shouldn't junkies be able to indulge indoors legally, too? [Maybe junkies don't want to?: it feels like you're a smoker if you go inside to shoot up.]
Speaking of debauchery, Vice Squad is back from New Orleans, and primed to go on and on about Regulating Vice. I am particularly pleased to report that Regulating Vice made it to number 7 on Amazon's best seller list. Oops, wait, that was actually number 363,704; that's just about 100,000 places behind Ferns For American Gardens. I'm aiming at you, fernsters.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
What I Have Been Up To
In the initial Vice Squad post of September 18, 2003, I noted that I had "recently started to write a secondary text" for my Regulation of Vice class. On June 6, 2005, Vice Squad entered a year and a half of semi-hibernation, which I claimed was undertaken largely "to devote myself to finishing up the book I have been composing (decomposing?) on vice policy." Today, about four and a half years after starting work on the book, I am happy to report that Regulating Vice has sprung (or stumbled) into existence. The Amazon page (for the paperback) is here.
There are no kind words from famous folks on the back of the book -- hmmm, was this intentional, or despite heroic efforts, was the publisher unable to conjure up such encomia? In any event, I will provide my own ringing endorsement of Regulating Vice: "All the tedium of Vice Squad, without the brevity." Everyone should buy a copy -- er, two copies, one hardback ($85 at Amazon, so appropriate for the library at Alexandria) and one paperback (for you, dear Vice Squad reader, only $29.99 at Amazon.) When I return to Chicago from the conference in New Orleans I'll have lots more to say about Regulating Vice; for now, though, I must dance.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Letting Alcoholics Drink in their Subsidized Apartments
A couple years ago Seattle opened an apartment building aimed at the worst chronic homeless alcoholics in town. They were rented a room (for a slice of their disability checks), and allowed to drink all they wanted inside. A nurse and access to other services were on-site, but there was no overt preaching to the residents to give up their drinking habit. There was a great article about the project in the New York Times last year; it mixes well with one of Malcolm Gladwell's articles in The New Yorker, which argues that it might well be cheaper to target the worst cases with extensive services than to pay the continuing emergency room and police bills.
The Times returns to Seattle for an update, and it is quite moving. The article focuses on two old friends, Vietnam veterans and long-time homeless alcoholics. They were both given studio apartments in the building -- and now one has quit drinking.
Thanks to Alcohol and Drugs History Society for the pointer. Back in 2004, Vice Squad mentioned a Toronto shelter that allowed limited drinking.
Monday, November 12, 2007
Slots in Maryland
Vice Squad was in Baltimore this past weekend, perhaps explaining the blog neglect. But the news in Baltimore is pretty similar to the news in Chicago -- lots of talk of government budgetary shortfalls and slot machines as one way of dealing with them. Maryland lawmakers seem ready to pave the way for the number of legal slot machines in the state to rise from zero to 15,000. Millions of dollars in lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions from gambling interests have not affected the political debate, of course. Illinois and Chicago also appear to be headed towards a gambling expansion. Is there any ceiling to how much gambling can expand? Yes, but Illinois and Maryland are probably below that threshold right now. In Las Vegas, on the other hand, August 2007 gambling revenues were 4.4 percent lower than in August, 2006.
Speaking of gambling, Vice Squad is slated to attend a conference in New Orleans later this week. New Orleans contains a casino that holds a local monopoly but somehow managed to go bankrupt twice. Posting will remain limited until next week, I am afraid.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
"The Adult Film Industry: Time to Regulate?"
Yesterday Vice Squad linked to an article with the title of this post; the article appeared in PLoS Medicine in June 2007, and was written by Corita R. Grudzen and Peter R. Kerndt. The article has lots of interesting tidbits about the porn industry, so I thought I would list just a few of them today:
(1) Here's the opening paragraph, sans endnotes: "The United States adult film industry produces 4,000–11,000 films and earns an estimated $9–$13 billion in gross revenues annually. An estimated 200 production companies employ 1,200–1,500 performers. Performers typically earn $400–$1,000 per shoot and are not compensated based on distribution or sales." It kept me reading.
(2) Production of gay sex films is much more likely to involve condom usage than is production of heterosexual films. The authors argue that depictions of unsafe sex in movies could alter norms in society more generally, and make unprotected sex more common outside the industry. Brazil's adult industry is second in size to that of the US, but the majority of Brazilian films involve condom use. There are various filmic techniques that minimize the perceived presence of condoms.
(3) "Among 825 performers screened in 2000–2001, 7.7% of females and 5.5% of males had chlamydia, and 2% overall had gonorrhea [endnote omitted]."
(4) Among the potential policy changes that the authors list are mandatory condom use and a rating system that reflects the safety of the filming.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Adult Entertainment and Sexually-Transmitted Diseases
Back in 2004, there was an HIV outbreak among performers in adult movies; eventually five performers were found to be infected. The virus's spread might have been much broader had it not been for the Adult Industry Medical HealthCare Foundation (AIM) and its founder, Sharon Mitchell. Among other things, AIM tests adult performers for STDs. Yesterday, Dr. Mitchell and AIM put out a warning about travel to Europe for adult workers, due to a syphilis outbreak within the adult industry on the continent. There can be significant lags between contracting an STD and positive test results, so unprotected sexual activity with someone who has just tested negative for an STD is not free of disease risk (and of course, even condom protection is less than perfect).
Dr. Mitchell is not a supporter of governmental mandates in the area of sex worker health; AIM works with performers and producers on a voluntary basis. (Some of their practices, such as informing other performers and producers of positive tests, are at odds with California health privacy rules.) But STD rates in the industry are still much higher than within the public at large -- this is not the case for workers at Nevada's legal brothels -- and some people are calling for state regulation. Dr. Mitchell has suggested a "seal of approval" system, one that is paralleled by a proposal in this article:
Short of legislation mandating performer protection, restricting distribution of adult movies to condom-only films may be the one way to have an impact on the industry. If there were organized and truly effective advocacy for performers, then large hotel chains, video retailers, and cable networks could be pressured to purchase adult films under a condom-only “seal of approval.”I learned about AIM's alert on the syphilis outbreak from (not work safe) Adult Video News.com; I found the article discussing regulation through SWOP East Sex Workers Outreach Project.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Vice Legalization as an Anti-Corruption Strategy
World Bank economist Branko Milanovic discusses all those corrupt countries out there with very poor governance. He sees the spread of corrupt countries to be connected with globalized trade and travel more generally. Thanks to globalization, "In corrupt states, profitability soars in the production of goods and services that are internationally illegal: drugs, sex trafficking, contraband weapons or cigarettes, or counterfeit goods." More trade allows further specialization in production, and some states specialize in the production or distribution of illegal goods, spurring capture of the state apparatus by organized crime. Hectoring politicians in corrupt countries to be more honest ignores the incentives created by these structural features:
A different approach is necessary: legalize the currently illegal activities like prostitution and drug use and modify the often draconian US and European immigration laws that stimulate human trafficking. If prostitution and drugs indeed became like haircuts and candies, their production would obey the same rules: Countries that export beauty services and confectionary products are not notably more corrupt than others.Bad governance harms economic development. Drug prohibition leads to bad governance, even more so now that global trade has become much less expensive. Drug legalization, therefore, can promote economic development.
Thanks to SWOP East Sex Workers Outreach Project for the pointer.
Drinking at School
A public secondary school in Cornwall, with students aged between 11 and 18, has acquired a liquor license, according to this article in The Guardian. The reason is to make dual use of the school's facilities: school auditorium by day, "Planets Arena" hosting musical events for the community at large by night. The Arena, along with other ways of raising funds and saving cash, is the brainchild of the school's business manager; he is also the British equivalent of a vice principal, though he has no teaching experience or qualifications. He seems to have a head for business, however:
"Schools can no longer rely on local authority and government funding alone. Instead of going round with a begging bowl, they should be using their premises 24/7 to make money to plough back in for the benefit of their pupils - and offer a service to the community as well," [the school's business manager] says.The drinking age in Britain is 18, and the school, of course, does not serve to the underaged at its nighttime musical events.
Sunday, November 04, 2007
Foreign Policy Gets Letters
The September/October issue of Foreign Policy featured a cover story by Ethan Nadelmann calling for a look at drug legalization. (There's video updates featuring a debate between Nadelmann and a leading prohibitionist here.) The November/December issue contains three letters responding to Nadelmann, and Nadelmann's response to the responses (only the beginning of the first letter is available to non-subscribers here.) One letter, by renowned drug policy researchers Rob MacCoun and Peter Reuter, notes that legalization will likely decrease harms per use, but possibly could increase drug use so much that total harm will go up -- and Nadelmann accepts their point, claiming that he just wants to start a debate about legalization, not to promote it as "the answer" to drug problems. I also accept their point, but the minimization of "total harm" cannot be the overall goal in drug regulation any more than it can be in automobile regulation or soccer regulation. Admittedly, based on where we are now, I think that most liberalizations consistent with a robust policy regime would reduce total harm -- but if we started with decent policies, as we have, say, with auto regulation, then further moves to decrease harms (think of reducing speed limits to 5 mph) would not be sensible.
[Meanwhile, perhaps to make amends for providing a forum for Nadelmann's dangerous ideas, Foreign Policy this month also presents some data and analysis about methamphetamine. I find the two-page spread to be slightly alarmist. Meth is characterized as "the world's fastest-growing illegal drug" -- the type of locution that always makes me want to ask what time period we are talking about. Fastest growing over the last day? month? year? I thought khat use in Canada was rising pretty quickly. Then there's a bunch of overly precise data on meth prices and supplies, with no discussion of the quality of the data.]
Meanwhile, Radley points us to a post by Belle Waring arguing for decriminalization of all drugs, including heroin. I think that it should be noted that a legal regime could still be quite restrictive, involving things like advance purchase requirements and buyer licensing. Also, drug tastes seem to be such that in the absence of prohibition there would be a substitution to milder (though still dangerous, of course) opiates (such as opium itself) instead of heroin -- the opposite shift occurred with prohibition -- and regulations could encourage this substitution. So I believe that a sensible legalization, which should start with rather strict regulations, would lower total harms relative to our current predicament -- not that lowering total harms is the overall goal!
Friday, November 02, 2007
Regulating Ads for Sexual Services
This week's Economist has an interesting article on classified advertising in British newspapers for escort services or adult massages or other (presumably) sex-related businesses. There is a concern that some of the ads involve trafficked or underaged women, as opposed to voluntary adult workers. (Adult prostitution per se is legal in Britain, though street walking and the related activity of buyers, "kerb crawling" in cars, is illegal.) "Last month the South Wales Echo ran a story about trafficked women working in Cardiff, only to discover that all of the brothels named in the article had advertisements in the same issue." (Brothels, too, are illegal, as are the activities of pimps or organizers of escort services that provide sex.)
But the British understand harm reduction, so they have not rushed to ban the ads. Following the prostitute murders about one year ago in Ipswich, a local newspaper company consulted with the police, and they agreed to continue to run the ads, to try to keep as much of the trade above-ground as possible. The newspaper requires that such ads be paid for with a check or credit card, so that the advertiser can be located in the event that irregularities appear.
Alcohol's Health Benefits
It has become common knowledge that alcohol consumption brings some benefit in terms of improved cardiovascular health. But Phil Cook's Paying the Tab reminds us that it once was common knowledge that Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) had similar heart benefits -- and when the results of an actual controlled trial came in, it turned out that HRT raised the risk of heart attacks. The beneficial effects noticed earlier were due, it seems, to biased samples: women who went through HRT had characteristics that made them healthier than women who did not. Could the alcohol story be similar? After all, as Cook notes, Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign did not seem to bring on a crisis in Soviet cardiovascular health -- rather the opposite, actually. In the end, Cook (page 119) does not argue that the health benefit for middle-aged people from moderate alcohol consumption is illusory -- only that "the evidence is far from definitive."
Thursday, November 01, 2007
The Next Attorney General (?) and Porn
The two attorneys general nominated by George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate, John "Comstock" Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, both promoted anti-obscenity as a priority of their department's enforcement efforts. But those efforts never met the high standards of some anti-porn organizations. Can we hope for a further perfecting of the anti-porn plan if Michael Mukasey becomes AG? Senator Orrin Hatch wants to know, especially with respect to a campaign against mainstream porn, and the nominee offers reassurance: "...we have to make sure that this stuff does not affect children and does not wind up undermining families." Is that in Miller v. California, the notion that we can suppress sexually-explicit material if it undermines families? It must be, what with Mr. Mukasey being a retired judge and all. Mukasey seems much more categorical with respect to mainstream porn than waterboarding.