Vice Squad
Monday, April 30, 2007
 
Internet Gambling Updates


Representative Barney Frank hopes to override the October, 2006 legislation that (eventually -- see this January 18, 2007 post --) rendered it considerably more difficult to Americans to take part in gambling over the internet. The Frank bill would set up a licensing system similar to what Britain intends to introduce, so that operators who abide by rules designed to preclude access by kids, aid compulsive gamblers, and protect the interests of consumers, would be allowed to offer web-gambling services. Individual US states and Native American reservations that choose to make internet gambling illegal for bettors within their borders would be allowed to opt out of the system -- many states already have adopted the appropriate (inappropriate?) bans. College and professional sports leagues that would like to prevent legal internet gambling on their contests also could opt out. This opt-out provision is not enough to satisfy the NFL and other sports organizations, however -- even if sports betting remains illegal, some of them oppose the Frank bill. Could it be that they see internet gambling as a competitor within the entertainment marketplace?

Meanwhile, internet giant Yahoo is setting up its own poker room in which players risk real money -- though US residents, for the nonce, will be excluded.

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Carceral Volume 2


Back in May, 2005, Carceral Notebooks made its debut (see May 25, 2005 post) in the vice policy world. (Extensive research indicates that 'carceral' means 'prison-related,' so vice policy overlaps with -- but neither subsumes nor is subsumed by -- the carceral universe.) The second Carceral volume has just been released, with some Vice Squad representation. Volume 2 includes, among other things, multiple offerings concerning the regulation of sex, and the articles are available online.

The impresario of Carceral Notebooks is University of Chicago Law School Professor Bernard Harcourt. Bernard is guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy this week, drawing primarily upon his work documenting and analyzing the profound shift in incarceration from mental asylums to prisons during the second half of the 20th Century in the US. Welcome to the only somewhat institutionalized blogging world, Bernard.

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The Business of Kinky Internet Porn


Sunday's New York Times Magazine includes this informative piece about a company, Kink.com, that produces fetish porn for the web from a former armory in the Mission District of San Francisco. Much of the article concerns the professionalization and mainstreaming of internet porn. The dot.com bust was a bit of a blessing for internet porn, as highly-trained technical people became available to work in the industry.

The Kink company has developed an elaborate protocol to ensure that their BDSM-style shoots are, and are perceived to be, fully consensual. The protocol includes the filming of pre- and post-play interviews with the participants.

One of the problems that web-based porn purveyors face is receiving payments: many credit card issuers and other standard payment mechanisms (including American Express and PayPal) will not deal with porn sites, in part because a large number of the processed payments were challenged by cardholders or clients and rescinded. Apparently, more narrowly-focused sites have less of a problem with chargebacks, as their clientele is more dedicated.

The article covers legal issues, too, such as whether Kink-style pornography might be adjudged to constitute illegal obscenity. The problem of determining the relevant "community standards" for web-based porn -- a crucial component of the US obscenity test -- is noted, as is the likelihood that the more such porn produced and consumed, the harder any legal challenge will be: "It makes itself unobscene." In any case, the article sheds a good deal of light on one generally opaque sliver of the vice world.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007
 
Diplomatic Initiative Fails


There's a pub in Penzance, in the United Kingdom, with a Peruvian theme. It's called the Peruvian Arms -- did I mention that it has a Peruvian theme? -- and its few hundred years' existence owes itself, at least initially, to the munificence of the silver mines of Peru. So when faced with the prospect of the UK's public smoking ban going into effect on July 1, what choice did the Peruvian Arms have? Naturally, it applied for Peruvian consular status. The Peruvian Ambassador to the Court of St. James subsequently met with the Anglo-Peruvian society, but alas, denied the application, despite a promise that the Peruvian Arms would purchase a llama if the pub were designated a consulate of Peru.

Incidentally, embassies and consulates are exempt from the smoking ban.

Here's a review of Penzance that has some kind words for the Peruvian Arms. And here is a Financial Times article about the effect of the liberalization of controls over British pub opening hours that took place in November, 2005. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that the changes resulted in more alcohol-related violence.

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Friday, April 27, 2007
 
Pakistani Obscenity Vigilantes


Naturally, they have an expansive view of obscenity; for instance, audio and video shops are verboten in the worldview of the private oppressors, independently, it seems, of precisely what wares are on offer at the shops. So if the government in Islamabad won't close brothels and audio and video shops, they will take matters into their own hands. This is no idle threat -- their stick-wielding anti-vice groups have already issued hard-to-ignore warnings to shop owners. Last month the vigilantes kidnapped, and held for two days, a woman they accused of being a prostitute, along with three of her relatives, according to this article.

How come they get to decide? If I decide that sticks and anti-vice activities are verboten, can I suppress these vigilantes? Oh I see, they have adopted what John Stuart Mill called the "logic of persecutors," that is to say, the idea that "we may persecute others because we are right, and... they must not persecute us because they are wrong." But what if both sides adopt this logic?

Oh yeah, the self-appointed anti-vice lords were none too pleased when a female Pakistani government minister embraced her paragliding instructor in Paris. I thought it was illegal not to embrace in Paris.

Vice Squad has noticed similar private anti-vice enforcement in the past; for instance, in Pakistan (February 13, 2006), and repeatedly for Valentine's Day (February 14, 2007).

Update: The logic of persecutors also makes continued appearances in the form of Pakistan's anti-blasphemy laws: "Catholic man arrested twice on wedding day for alleged blasphemy;" and, "Play about burkas banned in Pakistan."

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Thursday, April 26, 2007
 
Smoking Bans and Dutch Coffee Shops


Marijuana sales for recreational use are illegal in the Netherlands, like everywhere else (April 20, 2004), but they are tolerated, as is possession and consumption, in some 700 "coffee shops". But what happens when a public smoking ban, of the broad type that applies to bars and restaurants, comes into effect? Well, presumably the ban will apply only to tobacco smoking, so that marijuana smoking in the coffee shops will still be allowed. This is not to say that the shops will not be affected by a tobacco smoking ban -- it turns out, according to this linked story, that many customers (though not visiting Americans) like to mix their mj with tobacco when consuming it, and these customers might have to find a different means of consumption, or do their smoking at home. Americans, at least in the Amsterdam shop featured in the article that is owned by a "local conservative politician," prefer to use some sort of vaporizing mechanism that collects the smoke in a "balloon," from which it is then inhaled. In a reversal of what one might think is the usual European view, the owner/politician seems to appreciate a significant American presence: 'On good days, when the shop is full of Americans, we sell 100 or 200 of these balloons.'

Thanks to Alcohol and Drugs History Society for the pointer.

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The Blogosphere Becomes Wiser and Classier


Renowned economist Dani Rodrik, an old friend of Vice Squad, has started to blog. Welcome to the world of misplaced priorities, Dani; oh no, already checking your web traffic?

A link from Dani Rodrik's blog also alerts us to the fact that Rodrik is the first winner of the Albert O. Hirschman Prize. Congratulations to Dani and bravo to the selection committee. This news really pleases me because I have profited immensely from both of these scholars. My students are used to my lengthy encapsulations of some of Hirschman's notions, and my 2003 book was largely an application of Hirschman's ideas concerning exit and futility. Among the things I have learned from Dani is to be more assiduous in questioning how much of my faith (and the faith of other economists) in free markets and market-style solutions is just that, faith, as opposed to being an honest appraisal of the evidence.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution for the pointer; Tyler in turn thanks Gregory Mankiw.

Speaking of the triumphs of old friends, though it deserves a post of its own, I will append it here. Co-blogger Mike was the first to inform me that another old friend, Susan Athey, was awarded the very prestigious John Bates Clark Medal, to the best American economist under the age of 40. Congratulations to Susan as well. [Now feeling guilty about underplaying the significance of Susan Athey's award. The Clark Medal is a recognition that her work is of the highest order, a fact that was already well-known within the economics profession. I am in awe of her abilities and accomplishments.]

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
 
Anti-Drug Counter-Advertising in Afghanistan


The contradiction between NATO's military mission in Afghanistan and poppy eradication efforts briefly burst into the open, until the Afghan government requested that the status quo ante, the implicit contradiction, be restored. A radio advertisement, paid for by the NATO-run International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), was at the heart of the controversy. Isaf's mission is to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people to the cause of the Afghan government and its foreign allies. Recognizing that some two million poor Afghans raise poppies for opium production, the radio advertisement, aired in a poppy-growing region of Afghanistan,
...said Isaf troops understood that most Afghan people had no source of income other than poppy production.

It [the ad] said that troops are not in Afghanistan to eradicate opium poppies, but to bring security and kill foreign militants.

The implication that it was OK to grow opium poppies was too much (too honest?) for some folks, and the advertisement was dropped. A representative from the ever-helpful UN Office on Drugs and Crime reminds us (in the linked BBC article) of the connection between the Afghan insurgents and drug traffickers -- a connection fostered by the misguided worldwide prohibition on opium, which incidentally, also is responsible for the connection in UN offices between Drugs and Crime.

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If You Patronize an Illegal Brothel During a Raid...


...make sure that you do so when there is a sheriff and undersheriff also hanging about. Part of the culmination of a two-year investigation, the raid took place just west of the Las Vegas strip at about 9:30 on Saturday night. "No customers or suspected customers were arrested." Among those not arrested were the Sheriff and Undersheriff of San Mateo County, California, which is a bit south of San Francisco. The details are a little hard to discern from the linked story, but apparently at least one of the two men, and possibly both, were shocked, shocked, to learn that more than massages might be on offer at the raided establishment. If you think that the law enforcers received special treatment from the raiding parties, well, we are assured that that is not the case.

OK, I admit it, I have never heard of an "undersheriff" before. But it has quickly become my favorite law enforcement rank.

In all seriousness, in places where prostitution is legal and regulated, it generally is not a matter of public concern if a law enforcement officer (including an undersheriff) is in the vicinity when off-duty. And legality also makes it easier to combat coercion and trafficking of women.

Speaking of jurisdictions with legal prostitution, in the Netherlands, the number of sex businesses has declined by sixteen percent. One explanation offered for the phenomenon in the linked story is that versions of web-based sex are proving to be effective competitors to the non-virtual businesses.

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Monday, April 23, 2007
 
Off-topic: Boris Yeltsin


I have now read a few obituaries of Boris Yeltsin that report (as seeming fact) that per-capita income in Russia fell by 75% during the Yeltsin years. (Here's one such article, from Forbes.com.) I was in Russia for a month in 1991, at the beginning of the Yeltsin era, and I lived there in 1997-98, towards the end of the Yeltsin era, with many visits in between. The notion that per-capita income fell by 75% is simply absurd. Does anyone believe that Russians were consuming two or three or four times as much of any good in 1991 than they were in 1998? As co-blogger Michael and I used to say to each other when presented with such proclaimed "facts" concerning large income falls, Russia must have been extremely wealthy in 1991. If the 75% decline is correct, then after the high growth rates of the 2000s, Russia would have just about caught up by now to the glorious heights that its juggernaut of a planned economy achieved in 1991.

There are many reasons for the insane figures on changes in per-capita income or consumption in Russia in the 1990s, but the chief culprit is the employment of bad price indices under a situation of repressed inflation prior to price liberalization in early 1992. So economic conditions of the pre-Yeltsin years are artificially boosted, and much of the measured fall of the Yeltsin years is just a recognition of the actual, pre-Yeltsin, situation. Many people have pointed out this problem over the years -- see my 1995 book on Russian reforms, for instance -- but somehow it now can be published as established fact that Yeltsin oversaw an economic collapse unparalleled in history.

As for Yeltsin's legacy more generally, I don't pretend to any special insight. His actions on Chechnya were tragic and disastrous, and I was not much of a fan of his 1993 storming of Parliament, though that one is more ambiguous in my mind. He left Russia with Putin, a move which has harmed Russia significantly, and promises deeper and sustained harm for the foreseeable future. But I always sort of felt, Chechnya aside (a big aside), that when the really big choices had to be made, choices about whether Russia was going to head towards individual freedom or totalitarianism, that in those instances, Yeltsin was at his best.

Nevertheless, I also sort of think that it might have been best if Yeltsin had not been re-elected in 1996. The co-opting of the media and the embrace of the oligarchs that were probably required for his re-election were too costly. Had Yeltsin lost, Mr. Zyuganov would have reversed the economic course, but the results, I think, would have been bad enough to discredit Zyuganov's party and its policies permanently. And it is very likely that today we would have someone other than the power-obsessed Putin presiding over a Russia prospering through high world energy prices and a sensible exchange rate (which they only achieved after the 1998 financial crisis).

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Norway to Follow Swedish Model on Prostitution


In Sweden, since 1999 it has not been illegal to sell sexual services, but it has been illegal to purchase them. This Swedish version of one-sided prostitution enforcement differs from that which often has been (and is) the norm, criminalising the behavior of prostitutes while giving a (de facto or de jure) pass to johns. Sweden's prostitution laws also differ from the more usual approach to criminalised vices of all sorts, where sellers are treated more harshly than buyers. During Prohibition in the United States, for instance, alcohol sales were illegal, but purchases were legal.

It now appears that Norway intends to follow its neighbor's example.

I do not support the Swedish approach, nor the standard US approach; rather, I believe that channels for legal and regulated adult prostitution should be available. (This is in keeping with my support for application of the "robustness principle" to all of the traditional vices; here's a paper that applies the principle to prostitution and pornography.) Over the centuries, anti-prostitution laws have suggested more than a hint of the demonisation of prostitutes; the Swedish approach (which defines prostitution as a form of male violence against women and children -- 4-page pdf available here) suggests different demons, but the demonisation continues. The robustness principle shields (some forms of) adult consensual prostitution from legal demonisation, though individuals can apply their own standards.

Incidentally, the Swedish approach, like just about all prostitution regulatory regimes, is rather controversial, of course. Here's a supportive view, and voices of opponents can be found here.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007
 
Parkinson's Disease and Internet Gambling


It has been known for some time that some drugs (dopamine agonists) used to treat Parkinson's disease raise the risk that the patient will become a pathological gambler. (Still sort of amazing, though, isn't it?) This week's British Medical Journal includes an editorial warning of the danger that easy access to internet gambling poses to Parkinson's patients. (The 6-page pdf including the editorial, along with four others, is here.) The editorial contains some statistics on problem gaming: about 1 percent of the adult population can be considered to be pathological gamblers, but 3.4 percent of Parkinson's sufferers fit the bill, while 7.2 percent of Parkinson's patients taking dopamine agonists are pathological gamblers. The editorial is timely in that proposed British regulations for internet gambling will soon be released.

The British Medical Journal frequently features articles relevant to vice policy researchers. A second editorial in this week's issue concerns the over-regulation of opiates prescribed for pain, while a news item notes that in former Soviet Georgia, excessive recreational use of buprenorphine -- an opioid that has shown much success in treating heroin addicts -- has become the nation's leading drug problem.

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Friday, April 20, 2007
 
Of Guns and Drugs


The tragedy in Blacksburg has once again spurred debate about appropriate policy towards firearms. Gun control does not fit into Vice Squad’s ambit, however, because firearms are fraught with externalities (positive and negative) in ways that go well beyond those associated with many manifestations of the traditional vices. That is, on the negative side, when someone misuses a gun, it is often the case (as in Blacksburg, alas) that other people are directly injured or killed. When someone misuses a drug, the direct costs are borne by the user him or herself (though those close to an addict suffer too, of course, as the Guardian article linked to on Wednesday reminds us). To employ John Stuart Mill’s terminology, drugplay tends to be much closer to a ‘self-regarding’ activity than does gunplay.

Nevertheless, gun control debates are marked by what I find to be an interesting parallel with drug policy discussions. Vice Squad has noted before the logically sound proposition that if there were no drugs, there would be no drug problems. That is sort of the macro version of the proposition; there is a micro version, too, that if person A had never used drugs in the first place, he would not have ended up with any drug problems. While unobjectionable so far, the next step in the supposed syllogism, a step to which these propositions are sometimes put, does not follow as a matter of logic. That step is: ...therefore, we should meet any current drug problems (which, macro and micro, occur under our current drug prohibition) with a stricter, more-assiduously enforced prohibition.

These sorts of propositions identify problems after they arise, and then posit that if we had just done something different, these precise problems would not have arisen. Again, these claims are (likely) correct. But what they fail to look at are all the other problems that might arise when their preferred policy is implemented (or that another set of "different" policies might also have prevented the tragedy at issue).

What I find interesting in the gun control debate is that this sort of inappropriately extended logic seems to be used by both sides. Those in favor of increased firearm regulation sometimes employ a direct parallel: no guns means no gun crime, therefore we should do more to eliminate guns. (Or, no guns available to person A means no gun misuse by person A, therefore...) But there’s another version for those who are sympathetic to some slackening of firearm controls. This has to do with the defensive uses of firearms. Anytime someone uses a firearm to commit a violent crime, it is almost surely the case that, had another person been armed with a gun and been in the right place at the right time, that person could have prevented or mitigated the crime. The unsound (as a matter of strict logic) extension, of course, is that therefore we should have more armed people running about.

Note that I am not claiming that either the stricter or liberalized firearm controls are unsound policies. I am only claiming that one piece of logic that is frequently put forward in their defense is far from dispositive and perhaps even false.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007
 
Seconds on Secondary Effects


A couple days ago Vice Squad mentioned the "secondary effects" analysis that is the dominant strain in the body of US Constitutional law relevant for erotic dancing. The secondary effects are unhappy developments, including increased crime and lower property values, that might arise in the vicinity of an adult-oriented establishment. They serve as a basis for justifying, in a constitutional sense, some restrictions on the nature of adult-oriented activities that are permitted.

In California, purported secondary effects are being put to a new use, an attempt to justify a tax aimed specifically at the porn and adult entertainment industries. The proceeds of the proposed tax are earmarked for programs that combat crime.

The folks at Adult Video News are not impressed by the pending bill (as always with AVN, the link is not work-safe), calling it "a clearly unconstitutional attempt to selectively tax speech on the basis of its content." I agree with their characterization. The Supreme Court's secondary effects analysis is only applicable for controls upon speech that are deemed to be content-neutral, that would apply just as well to political speech as to commercial speech as to any other type of speech. It is a stretch to label a nude dancing ban (or, for instance, a G-string requirement) as content neutral, but that stretch is now established law. A tax on adult-themed enterprises is much broader than a nude dancing ban, and as it doesn't seem to apply to any other types of businesses that might spur crime or lower property values, seems on its face to be a content-based restriction on speech. And these sorts of restrictions must pass a higher bar to be consistent with the Constitution -- a bar placed so high that few restrictions can clear it.

There's a nice post from October 2006 concerning the jurisprudence around secondary effects on a blog entitled "talkbacknorthampton," which has many interesting posts defending free speech.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007
 
Informal Heroin Maintenance


The Guardian today reprints (from Black Poppy magazine) a moving story about a family that is being devastated by a son's ten-years-and-counting heroin addiction. The author of the story is the addict's mom, who also serves as his drug dealer. (She's a college teacher, too.) That is, she decided that the best way to minimize the harms of her son's addiction -- and they have tried many, many alternatives -- is to buy heroin herself and to dole it out to him. But this measure has not made the situation bearable, in part because the purity of the black-market heroin is variable and the cost of street heroin, as her son's tolerance grows, is close to prohibitive.

The son tried various treatment regimens, including methadone maintenance -- all have failed. The article does not mention heroin maintenance, but it seems like it offers the best (short-term, perhaps) hope for improvement. After all, the son already is on a heroin maintenance scheme, but one that is partly undermined by variable purity and high cost. An official heroin maintenance scheme, one that would eliminate these two problems, could hardly be worse.

There are many small insights in the article. I'll only mention one here, the notion that an addict's knowledge of his own failure to handle his addiction can spur more drug use, as a way of blotting out a painful self-awareness.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007
 
Nude Dancing and Secondary Effects


Can a municipality ban nude dancing in adult establishments? The Supreme Court has ruled that erotic dancing is a form of expressive conduct (like flag burning or draft card burning) and as such is entitled to a measure of the constitutional protections offered to speech. In practice, what this means is that a municipality can not just ban nude dancing, unless it provides a fig leaf of a rationale by claiming that what it really wants to do is to combat the nasty secondary effects associated with nude dancing, such as prostitution and public nuisance. And the fig leaf of a rationale doesn't materialize just because it is asserted that a requirement of G-strings is necessary to combat those secondary effects; rather, some sort of reference to actual evidence is required, too. Hartford, Vermont, couldn't be bothered with looking at any evidence before it passed a ban on nude dancing -- after the fact its planning department did manage to review the experiences elsewhere. But this lackadaisical approach was found by a Federal court to render the ordinance unconstitutional, and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the lower court's opinion.

Now does anyone really believe that nude dancing creates negative secondary effects but that allowing only nearly-nude dancing is a reasonable way of controlling these effects? Well, no. This obvious logical deficiency in the law provided a starting point for a provocative analysis by Amy Adler; here's a short excerpt from her abstract:
I show that the legal struggles over the meanings and the dangers of the gyrating, naked female body can be fully understood only when placed within a broader context: the highly charged terrain of female sexuality. By rereading the cases as texts regulating gender and sexuality and not just speech, a dramatically new understanding of them emerges: The nude dancing cases are built on a foundation of sexual panic, driven by dread of the female body.
Vice Squad had a nude dancing frenzy a few years ago; here's the May 28, 2004 post. (This link seems to work, but other links to previous posts basically have been failures since an 'upgrade' to Blogger's software -- the links generally take you only to the month of the relevant post. I will try to remember to include the actual date of linked previous posts for those with too much time on their hands. And in Blogger's defense, I must say that I like the new "label" feature, so that you can easily reach all of Vice Squad's dancing-related posts. One problem with this feature, however, is that our blog had about 1200 unlabeled, pre-existing posts, and the process of going back and attaching labels has been haphazard. But we will soldier on.)

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Monday, April 16, 2007
 
Curses, Flight Cancelled


That is, the flight was cancelled because of cursing. The pilot was heard cursing during a cell-phone conversation prior to what would have been a Northwest Airlines Las Vegas-to-Detroit flight. He also allegedly cursed a passenger who confronted him about his saucy tongue, it seems. Oh my.

Professor Tom Schelling has mentioned that one difference between alcohol and tobacco is that you should be worried if your pilot has been drinking, but not if he has been smoking. Apparently cursing is more like alcohol than tobacco.

(Sorry for being slow -- somehow this story passed me by for a week.)

In other obscenity news, there's another attempt in Congress to try to protect children from sexually-explicit material on the World Wide Web. Now one problem with getting websites to abide by regulations that might shield kids from smut is that many of the questionable sites are located abroad. I can't tell precisely from the report, but it sounds like the idea might be to use implicit government control of ICANN to force even foreign websites to go along with the proposed labelling scheme. If so, this will raise the hackles of foreigners who might well view this as an illegitimate extension of US legal jurisdiction to the rest of the world.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007
 
EU Vice Update


Yesterday Mike brought up the odd statistics on Russian alcohol; in today's New York Times, Serge Schmemann discusses the European Union's upcoming ruling on the definition of 'vodka'. The ruling will have repercussions for Russia, as a decision that claims that vodka must originate from grain or potatoes would marginalize some of the competitors to Russian vodka exports in Europe. Sounds as if Schmemann thinks that the origin of vodka is irrelevant to imbibers: practiced drinkers in his experience "are unanimous that all vodkas are divided into two, and only two, categories: pure and impure." Kinda like bloggers.

Among the ongoing EU vice stories is what to do about cross-border (often internet-based) gambling. Many EU members have monopoly providers of gambling services, but that practice conflicts with the free trade precepts of the EU. Which approach should win, state-level gambling monopolies (perhaps consistent with the subsidiarity principle of the EU), or free trade? (It's the EU's version of the US v. Antigua problem.) This past week, the British betting firm William Hill applied for a license to overcome the Greek national monopoly by offering its services in Greece. Also, a German court upheld a state-run casino monopoly in Germany, though German gambling restrictions (including a plan to outlaw internet gambling) are running into opposition in Brussels. Speaking of German authorities, a small measure of revenge might be exacted for the soccer team AC Milan eliminating Bayern Munchen from the Champion's League this week: AC Milan's uniforms in the Munich match included an ad for an Austrian gambling firm, resulting in the imposition of a 100,000 euro fine against the Italian team.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007
 
Are the Russians drinking more that they used to?


A couple of days ago, Matthew Kean cited Canberra that reported a big jump in Russian alcohol consumption from 5.4 liters of pure alcohol equivalent per person in 1990 to 15 liters per person currently. This per capita consumption seemed high, but not incredible. For comparison, Irland's 2006 consumption was 13.6 liters per person aged 15 and older. (The corresponding number for Luxembourg is 15.5 liters but that is certainly skewed by Luxembourg neighbors' cross-border shopping.) Also, the French used to drink about 20 liters per 15+ year-old 30 years ago and Spain wasn't far behind, although both have cut down their drinking since then.

Canberra also reported, however, that in 2005 consumption was "only" 9.7 liters per person. While the tripling of consumption since 1990 was hard to believe (well, thinking of it, Jim and I started visiting Russia in 1991, so perhaps there is a reasonable explanation), the 50+% jump since 2005 was completely incredible. Paraphrasing the US Postal Service, if it looks too strange to be true, it probably is. So, I went to the Russian website mentioned by Canberra (the site of the Russian consumer protection agency Rospoterbnadzor -- as the Russians would say, you can't pronounce the word without drinking a bottle of vodka first). Sure enough, while Russians do drink a lot (no surprise there) they are probably much steadier in their drinking habits than Canberra would have us believe. Rospotrebnadzor actually was careful to distinguish between "measured" consumption in 1990 and 2005 correctly reported by Canberra and the "rough estimate" of actual "current" per capita consumption of 15 liters. The latter included "dual use" liquids such as alcohol-based household chemicals and eau de colognes. There is no telling what the actual consumption was in 1990, although it certainly was much higher than 5.4 liters per person.

Interestingly, as reported by this Russian news website, the output of vodka in the first quarter of this year grew by 67% relative to the same period a year ago, and the output of wines increased four-fold. This remarkable growth in output (but not in consumption, I bet) was due to the problems that the Russian booze industry had a year ago when the Russian government began to require new excise stamps for alcohol, but did not provide those stamps to the producers.

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Friday, April 13, 2007
 
FCC Extends Chicago Cubs Playoff Run....


...by 6.4 seconds, at least for those listening on radio. In the "Inside Media" column by Teddy Greenstein in today's Chicago Tribune comes this short notice:
WGN-AM 720 has instituted a 6.4-second profanity delay for its Cubs broadcasts. So if you want to listen to the game while at Wrigley Field or prefer the radio team of Pat Hughes and Ron Santo while watching at home, you're out of luck. A WGN spokesman said not instituting the profanity delay would have posed a liability risk.
I realize that the Cubs tradition is to drive their fans to muttering the occasional imprecation, but do we really need this? I have listened to countless hours of Pat and Ron over the years, and do not recall ever hearing any profanity (though I would not be surprised if the odd curse slipped out). Six-point-four seconds might not sound like a lot, but this delay will essentially eliminate, as the notice suggests, listening to the radio broadcast while at the ballpark or watching on TV; I believe, in fact, that the delay will render listening in those circumstances to be even more nightmarish than the Cubs's play.

The FCC claims that obscenity complaints can be denied if the profanity, within the "overall context of the programming," does not rise to the level of indecency, but it is not clear if Cub futility makes a finding of indecency more or less likely.

Maybe the delay can be removed in the last few innings? Many losses by the North Siders are only assured after 10PM, and at that time, indecent (but not obscene) broadcasting is safe from FCC sanction.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007
 
Vice and Blogging...


...as much as we at Vice Squad like to think they go well together, their complementarity is not universal. A British diplomat in Thailand accepted an offer from a Thai newspaper to provide an (online) blog for a brief stint. The blog certainly offers little in the way of, well, excitement, perhaps excepting the post entitled "English people love dogs!" (I believe that a previous post may have been deleted?) But the blog managed to stir up a significant brouhaha anyway, as the Guardian reports:
The head of the British embassy's political section in Bangkok thought nothing of jotting a few musings for a newspaper website as he approaches the end of his posting. But Ian Proud's innocuous blog has sparked a blizzard of comments on all manner of topics, including his forays into Bangkok's infamous red light districts.
The Thai newspaper website included a photo of the diplomat, followed by the surfacing of claims that he had been spotted in the past in one of Bangkok's red-light districts. If these claims are true -- well, it might be "undiplomatic" and cause a problem for the blogger and his Thai fiancee, but does it merit brouhaha status? Again, even accepting the truth of the accusations, we know essentially nothing of his behavior in the dens of vice.

Incidentally, prostitution remains illegal in Thailand, though typically it is tolerated, and the commercial sex industry is large, even excepting those elements that cater to foreigners.

Speaking of the Guardian and blogs, Thursday's Guardian offers an editorial entitled, alas, "To the average Joe, blogs aren't cutting it." (To the average British diplomat either.) Two points in the editorial that I found surprising are: (1) English-language blogs comprise only about 1/3 of the blogosphere; and (2) the Japanese lead the world with 37 percent of the 70 million blogs that Technorati knows about.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007
 
Back to Kansas...


...and to prostitution. Wichita has its shaming (shameful?) website, and Topeka recently dusted off another tried-and-true method of prostitution control, bringing the local media along on raids to serve as enthusiastic cheerleaders. Here's the end of the linked story:
Women convicted of soliciting prostitution in Topeka receive a mandatory 30-day jail sentence, according to city code. They get 90 days in jail and are required to attend a 30-day treatment program for a second offense. After three or more offenses, they receive a 150-day jail sentence and the 30-day treatment program. The prostitutes are also banned from a four-block radius from where they were arrested.
A 30-day "treatment" program for a prostitution offense? Let's hope that it is an "offer" of treatment for an alcohol or drug addiction.

The news channel couldn't help but to present a follow-up story on prostitution in Topeka. Mostly it concerns the fact that many prostitution arrestees are repeat offenders. But it also throws down the gauntlet at Wichita for primacy in the regulation-by-humiliation game:
The city [Topeka] is also considering the use of public humiliation to curb the problem. The police chief wants to put pictures of prostitutes and the men who hire them on the city's government access cable channel.

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Wichita Prostitution Policing


Wichita, Kansas seems very pleased that its police department's anti-prostitution page, launched in early March, is the most popular of its police webpages, and sixth most popular of the city's entire (500 pages plus) web presence. Naturally, the page posts photos of those arrested, though not yet convicted, of prostitution-related offenses, re-posting an arrestee's photo if there is a later conviction. And the police webpage lets us know just why their anti-prostitution work is so important:

Prostitution stings represent one aspect of the department’s comprehensive effort to rid Wichita of crimes that detract from our quality of life. A number of other criminal offenses coincide with prostitution, including assault, robbery and theft. Because many prostitutes and other persons associated with prostitution are drug users, illegal drug sales and usage are also linked with and perpetuated by prostitution. Therefore prostitution increases public health concerns, specifically the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, and other blood disorders.


Prostitution also exists, because those who solicit it, also known as “johns,” are willing to risk arrest. These “johns” are equally responsible for related criminal public safety and public health issues. They make it increasingly difficult for prostitutes to break the cycle of crime, violence and drug use.

Hmmm, they go to a lot of effort to try to link prostitution to other activities that they know their readers won't like, such as theft and illegal drug sales. Sort of sounds like they don't really see much wrong with prostitution per se, no? Perhaps they should think about legalizing prostitution, to break that link with assault, robbery, and theft.

Speaking of theft, are there photos available on the Wichita police website of people arrested for theft? In terms of protecting the good people of Wichita, doesn't it make more sense to alert them to the identity of accused thieves than of accused solicitors? But somehow I could not find photos of accused thieves. Could this be because the real purpose of the website is not to protect the public but rather to shame those who are arrested for prostitution-related offenses? Surely not, because that would be punitive, and people in the US cannot be punished until after a conviction, following due process of law.

These extraordinary acts of publicity for 'crimes' such as prostitution are employed precisely because of the lack of a link between participation in these vice activities and generalized criminality. The people caught up in anti-prostitution stings often really are regular folks, generally law-abiding people, whose prostitution-related behavior would not be a crime nor a matter of public concern in much of the world. Unlike inveterate thieves, these people have a stake in legitimate society, and therefore really will be shamed by having their photos posted on the web. Robbers tend to be less in thrall to the norms of mainstream culture, so there is little deterrence value in a publicity threat to them.

By the way, Wichita also has created "anti-prostitution emphasis areas," which are similar to drug-free zones: penalties for prostitution-related offenses are raised if the offense takes place in an emphasis area.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007
 
War on drugs on NPR


A few days ago, NPR started a five-part series on "America's forgotten war on drugs." An overview is here. It is certainly not a very complimentary view of the "war" but at the same time, it is nowhere nearly as critical as I would have liked it to be. For example, one of its major points is that the emphasis on reducing supply hasn't worked and the efforts should be shifted to reducing demand. Demand reduction can be good if it is based on educating people about the harm of drugs, but it can be also bad if the government tries to reduce demand by putting consumers in jail. In general, the approach of the reports seems to be about how we tweak the existing policy to make it work better rather than asking whether the entire policy makes any sense. I must say though that I read only the overview of the series and so I might have gotten a wrong impression of it. I did find one thing quite unteresing. The overview report says that experts estimate the annual cost of the war on drugs to be about $40 billion. That's a big number and I think it understimates the war's true costs, but compared to the other seemingly unwinnable and probably counterproductive war we are in now, it no longer seems so outrageous. I now long for the time when the most expensive war we as society were waging cost us only $40 billion per year. Hope we don't get into another mess any time soon that would dwarf the current ones.

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The Prevention Paradox


Last week Vice Squad touched upon the idea that the majority of harms from an activity (alcohol consumption, in the case previously discussed) might be tied, not to a relatively small number of dedicated participants in the activity, but rather to chippers, low or moderate intensity participants whose overall prevalence might more than make up for their comparatively safe behavior. Among the observations that I failed to make is that this phenomenon has a name, the "Prevention Paradox," though precisely what is so paradoxical about it is hard to identify. Thanks to daksya for sending an e-mail to bring my attention to the discussion (a short editorial and four responses) of the Prevention Paradox in the February, 2006 edition of Addiction.

As the Finnish study reviewed in the prior post indicated, it isn't so much annual consumption but rather, episodes of binge drinking, that is related to overall harm. And as Ole-Jorgen Skog's editorial points out, this observation is consistent with the Prevention Paradox, if "most of the binge drinking is found among consumers with a moderate annual consumption level." Among Skog's conclusions is that regulatory "measures ought to be aimed at both drinking pattern (frequency of intoxication) and consumption level (intake per year), as well as drinking contexts."

Among the responses to the Skog editorial, one by Paul J. Gruenewald and Andrew Treno is quite stimulating. They note that we might be making a "category error" when we talk about moderate or heavy drinkers -- what we care about is drinking, not drinkers:
[T]he the notion of a 'problem drinker', like the 'reckless driver', brings with it an illusion of explanation, an explanation which, surprisingly, few seem to accept. Most researchers would agree that 'problem drinkers' are drinkers who have problems, but may not exhibit these problems the next time they are interviewed or surveyed. Does this mean that they are still 'problem drinkers' or not? On the other hand, the concept of 'problem drinking' brings with it other challenges which, surprisingly, also appear equally unacceptable. If all drinkers have problems sometimes, and some drinkers can be categorized as 'problem drinkers' sometimes but not others, how do we select cases to treat with our preventive interventions? Or is it possible that we should not select cases to study, but rather focus upon population interventions and outcomes, neglecting the individuals involved?
As Gruenewald and Treno note, there is evidence that "most acute problems are related to moderate drinking (not 'moderate drinking groups')."

The inspiraton for this post leads me also to mention daksya's annotated summary of a drugs report prepared some years ago for the British Prime Minister.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007
 
Nevada's Legal Brothels: "Antiquated Joke"?


The editor of the Lahontan Valley News of Churchill County, Nevada, provides an editorial, "Legal Prostitution is an Antiquated Joke," arguing that Churchill County should get rid of its provisions that allow legal brothel prostitution. Vice Squad's approach to these issues tends to be quite different than those expressed in the editorial, but I appreciate the editorial because reasoned arguments for vice prohibition are not all that easy to come by, at least for those vices that currently tend to be illegal. (Editors of newspapers in states other than Nevada probably don't even think of writing editorials condemning legal prostitution.)

The editor admits to moral qualms about legal prostitution, but does not base his argument on those concerns. Rather, he argues that the costs of regulating and negotiating over legal brothels or potential brothels exceed the revenues that they bring into the county: "the business simply has never offered any redeeming value to the community, isn't doing so now and never will. It's not compatible with the direction the community is heading, and the county will continue to expend resources to investigate and analyze prospective brothel owners, most of whom are from outside the area, and often ending without the opening of a facility, until the ordinance is repealed."

This is a curious economics-style argument, since the main benefits of any commercial activity are those which accrue to the customers (in the form of "consumer surplus," as economists would say) and those which accrue to the sellers ("producer surplus"). A comparison of administrative and regulatory costs with licensing and other fees paid by legal business might be helpful in arguing for a change in fees (or in the costs), but an unfavorable comparison does not come close to establishing that a business has no "redeeming value." The accuracy of the related claim that "Brothels are not the business of the future" would be revealed soon enough if legal brothels can't make a go of it in Churchill County. Or should we adopt a rule that prohibits any business that the local politicians declare to be not of the future? (The editor might be right that the prospects of the brothel business are not that strong in Churchill County: indeed, despite the fact that provisions exist for legal brothels, currently there are no legal brothels
operating in the county.)

The author is dismissive, perhaps a bit too hastily, of claims that prostitution should be reluctantly tolerated because men would be led to worse behaviors if prostitution were not available. "
The 'safety valve' argument I've heard a few times around town, which claims that brothels provide an outlet for those who could potentially rape or commit sexual assault, is bunk." But increased sexual assault is not the only possible consequence. Divorce and the keeping of mistresses might increase, too. These combined reasons were sufficient to convince both Augustine and Aquinas that prostitution was a lesser evil.

There are a few interesting factoids in the article: "
It's still baffling that 63.35 percent of local voters opposed repealing the county's brothel ordinance in 2004, while President Bush earned 71 percent of the vote in Churchill County." (Which figure is supposed to be baffling -- oh, it's the contrast, I see.) "An amendment to the Uniform Code of Military Justice signed by President Bush in October 2005 prohibits military personnel from patronizing brothels." I didn't realize that this provision applies to visits to legal and regulated prostitutes and brothels. (Here's the Defense Department's Press Release from the day that the amendment went into effect.) During the first Gulf War, Nevada's now-defunct Mustang Ranch offered a free "party" to any US soldier who served in the Gulf.

Vice Squad has looked at the brothel question in Churchill County before.


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Friday, April 06, 2007
 
Obscenity in Singapore


Singapore seems to have an interesting and altering relationship with vice. Prostitution is legal in Singapore. Pornography is forbidden, though it appears to be available easily over the web. The first 'adult' magazine, quite tame by US standards, became available recently. Legal casinos are on the way -- but not with the participation of Macau's questionable gambling monopolist.

This week marked a milestone of sorts, when a play about a native Singaporean ex-porn star opened. The actress, who featured in a 1995 movie shot in California, is apparently well-known in Singapore -- and the new play will enhance her celebrity -- but the movie itself, of course, cannot legally be sold there (in Singapore, that is, not in California).

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Thursday, April 05, 2007
 
Vegas and the National Basketball Association


The city of Las Vegas has been interested in becoming a home for an NBA team. The NBA's All-Star game was held in Las Vegas earlier this year, in what was sort of a tryout. Betting on professional (and amateur) sports is legal in Las Vegas, of course, but no bets were accepted on the All-Star hoops game -- the NBA had made a ban on All-Star betting a condition of holding the game in Las Vegas.

The NBA commissioner has said that he would not favor a team in Vegas unless betting on that team's games was not allowed. But it looks as if Las Vegas is not yet willing to concede the point. In a proposal to the NBA, the city suggested that its regulatory structure was sufficient -- or could be made sufficient -- to calm the NBA's fears. According to the linked article, betting on college games involving nearby teams UNLV and the University of Nevada has been legal since 2001.

In an election this Tuesday, "Oscar Goodman, a former mob lawyer and self-proclaimed 'happiest mayor in the world,' breezed to a third term as mayor of Las Vegas."

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007
 
Temporary Alcohol Bans


Recent days have brought two high-profile, but temporary, alcohol bans. Teetotaler Hugo Chavez issued a decree that went into effect last Friday; the edict severely limits (but does not eliminate) the legal sale of alcohol through Easter Sunday. Chavez justified his decree as being necessary to reduce deaths from drunk driving. Meanwhile, in Rome, a ban on sales of takeaway (to-go) alcohol for a little more than 24 hours was instituted prior to Wednesday's soccer match between the visiting English squad, Manchester United, and AS Roma. AS Roma won the match, 2-1, but the alcohol ban did not eliminate violent clashes in conjunction with the soccer: one Man U fan was stabbed in the neck, and many others were hospitalized following pre- and during-match clashes.

Even well-intentioned alcohol bans do not go over well with everyone. Two headlines concerning the temporary bans:

"Chavez Alcohol Ban Outrages Venezuelans", and
"Takeaway Alcohol Ban Angers the Locals."

Remember when Portuguese police tried to stem soccer-related violence by tolerating public marijuana smoking?

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007
 
Understanding Abstinence


Yesterday's post drew upon the April 2007 edition of the UK-based journal Addiction, and obliquely noted that in the course of a year about 1/3 of American adults abstain completely from consuming alcoholic beverages. A slightly smaller percentage abstain from all forms of gambling, including the purchase of lottery tickets. Abstention is quite an important phenomenon in the vice world, and more so to Americans than to the British.

An editorial in that same April 2007 edition of Addiction suggests that vice researchers and commentators do not give abstinence its full due. To the non-abstinent, abstinence can seem to be simplistic and perhaps even misguided, especially when it moves from the private sphere into public policy. But that is no reason not to try to understand this long-term and recurrent approach to vice:
Whether abstinence is good, bad or indifferent we leave to the reader; but we are convinced that no purpose is served by dismissing the concept out of hand....Ideas that are merely disagreeable, that confer no benefit whatsoever, tend to have short histories and few followers. If abstinence were one of those ideas, if it were a pointless exercise in Grundyism, it would never have gained the ascendancy it has over the American imagination.
The authors -- Jessica Warner and Janine Riviere -- then suggest a few reasons for the appeal of abstinence, and why that appeal is stronger in the US than in the UK. (Part of the answer to the latter inquiry: British irony and wit.) While a simplistic approach to a problem sounds unsatisfying, an approach marked by simplicity has its attractions, as the authors note. Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling has emphasised the "focal" effect of abstinence. If your rule is to have no more than two beers, well, what is so special about two? Why not one, or three? (And precisely what constitutes a single beer?) It would seem that someone who is concerned about drinking too much alcohol could adopt a "two beer" rule, or a rule to cut alcohol consumption by 50 percent. But these less-rigorous approaches, for many people, do not work as well as a "cold turkey" strategy, which makes the rule perfectly clear and any evasion immediately evident.

Incidentally, Jessica Warner is the author of an informative and entertaining book about the gin epidemic that surged through Britain early in the 18th Century.

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Monday, April 02, 2007
 
Moderate Drinkers and Social Costs


About 1/3 of American adults don't drink alcohol in any given year. Of those who do drink, their consumption varies markedly. In particular, heavy drinkers are hugely important customers for alcohol sellers: more than half of the alcohol consumed is drunk by the heaviest 10 percent of the drinking population. (See Philip J. Cook and Michael J. Moore, "The Economics of Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol-Control Policies," Health Affairs 21(2): 120-133, 2002.) Does this mean that most of the social harms associated with alcohol consumption also can be traced to the biggest drinkers? In a word, no. Light and moderate drinkers are probably responsible for more than half of all alcohol-related problems.

Some of the most recent evidence on this phenomenon appears in the April, 2007 edition of the journal Addiction. Actually, the evidence dates from 1969 to 1992, but the analysis has just been provided. The data concern adult Finns who drink, and the problems that were studied were of three types: self-reported alcohol problems, alcohol-related hospital admissions, and alcohol-related deaths. The authors -- Kari Poikolainen, Tapio Paljärvi, and Pia Mäkelä -- divided the drinkers into the heaviest ten percent, and everyone else. For the Finnish men in the sample, the heaviest drinking ten percent consumed just less than half of the alcohol consumed by men; for women, the top ten percent drank slightly more than half of all alcohol consumed by women. Here is an excerpt of the results:
Seventy per cent of all self-reported problems, 70% of alcohol-related hospitalizations, 64% of alcohol-related deaths and 64% of the premature life-years lost before the age of 65 occurred among the 90% of men consuming less. The respective figures for women were 64%, 60%, 93% and 98%. Drinking five or more drinks per occasion was related to more harm than not drinking that much.
So there is a strong case to be made that public policy should target all drinkers, especially all binge drinkers, and not just those who are very heavy drinkers. One policy that does this is the alcohol excise tax, of course.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007
 
Open House of (Ill?) Repute


Last year, some commercial elements of Amsterdam's Red Light district held an open house. The district had come under some political attack -- a constant threat to legal or legally-tolerated vice -- and the open house was one attempt to improve public relations. The attacks have continued, in part because of reports of outright illegal behavior taking place in the district. So the district held an encore performance, another open house, on Saturday. "The open house concluded with the unveiling of a statue depicting an unknown sex worker and intended to honour those employed in the industry around the world, including those without the same protection found in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal."

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