Vice Squad
Thursday, January 31, 2008
 
Smoking Ban Winners, Illinois Version


Years ago Vice Squad offered its first take on businesses that have been helped by public smoking bans -- prominent among them are outdoor heater manufacturers, and, in countries where it is legal, snus. The Chicago Tribune this week pointed to another business that is profiting from public smoking bans: makers of little smoking huts, shacks that are similar to some bus stop shelters and that cannot be fully enclosed (to comply with the law). The huts, according to the Trib article, can cost anywhere between $2,000 and $30,000, depending on how elaborate they are:
The shelter manufacturers won't release numbers but said their business has soared.

One leading supplier, Tafco Corp. of Melrose Park, estimates that Illinois orders for shelters have doubled.
How long will these shelters be tolerated? After all, look at what is happening to those early smoking ban winners, the outdoor heating manufacturers.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008
 
US Military Gambling


Stars and Stripes has been investigating gambling on US military bases abroad. It turns out that in places like South Korea and Germany, there are slot machines located on-base:

The U.S. Army and Air Force generated more than $83.6 million in revenue via 1,191 slot machines in South Korea in fiscal 2007, according to data provided by the Army’s Family MWR [Morale, Welfare and Recreation] Command and the Air Force Personnel Center.

The Army, which also runs the machines on Navy facilities in South Korea, earned the lion’s share: about $73.5 million with 927 machines. As a comparison, the Army’s 1,550 machines in Europe, including machines the service runs on Air Force and Navy installations, brought in $38.5 million during the same time period.

South Koreans are not supposed to gamble on US military bases but it appears that some of that revenue did come from officially-ineligible Koreans. Some of the revenue comes from military personnel or family members who gamble pathologically.

At least one congressman wants to put an end to on-base gambling. I have some sympathy for that point of view, but I also have another suggestion. Require every person who wants to gamble at an on-base facility to have pre-committed to a daily, weekly, and monthly (and possibly annual) total bet limit. Rig the slots so that they only operate when the player inserts his card into the relevant card reader, so that the previously recorded betting limits can be enforced electronically. (That is, the betting limit cards are like "frequent player cards" that casinos use to track betting and to target freebies.) A gambler who is afraid of his own susceptibilities to addiction can then choose low limits, or even totally self-exclude by not acquiring a card with limits in the first place. This voluntary system is not foolproof, but it is helpful. If this suggestion is seen as too tepid, then the limits can be chosen by the military.

Back in 2005, the New York Times explored some of the problems associated with gambling on US military bases abroad.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008
 
Alcohol in Russia


Deaths from acute alcohol poisoning in Russia have been described as "so high that they do not fit into the range of international experience." The good news is, however, that such deaths have fallen by more than half in the last two years (or at least the reported statistics have fallen by more than half), from 40,000 deaths in 2005 to 19,000 deaths in 2007. The Moscow Times article suggests that the reduced deaths are due to a tax increase -- no, not a tax increase on potable alcohol, but a tax increase on industrial alcohol, which has caused Russians to substitute to less poisonous varieties. (For some flavour of Russian proclivities to drink beverage "surrogates," see this Vice Squad post from May 2007.) While acute alcohol poisoning deaths have been falling, however, alcohol-associated domestic violence incidents (reported, again) have been rising substantially.

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Monday, January 28, 2008
 
Obscenity in Staunton, Virginia


Staunton, Virginia, was fortunate enough not to record a single homicide in 2007. But it isn't exactly crime-free: there was nearly an assault per day, and more than one-and-a-half larcenies on a daily basis. So you would think local prosecutors would be keeping busy. Nonetheless, a video store clerk was charged last week with various obscenity counts, accused of selling legally-obscene material. Oh the humanity.

The new charges come in the wake of an earlier indictment of the man who owns the store from which the videos allegedly were sold. Oddly, six of the counts filed against the poor clerk are felonies. What is the explanation? A lawyer for the owner speculates (on avn.com, not safe for work) that the prosecutors are trying to use the law that makes repeat offenses a felony. So if they get a misdemeanor conviction for selling one obscene DVD, they will claim that sales of others are repeat offenses, and hence felonies, even though the sales occurred before the prior conviction.

Actually, maybe the local prosecutors in Staunton are busy. The idea to indict the clerk seems to have come from the federal Department of Justice, which is helping out with the Staunton prosecution. I had sort of been hoping that our new Attorney General wouldn't want to make obscenity a huge priority, if for no other reason than to distinguish himself from his two immediate predecessors.

Staunton is the home of the world's only re-creation of the Blackfriar's Theatre, the indoor space north of the Thames that Shakespeare's acting company took over in 1608. Uh oh, aren't some of those Shakespeare plays obscene?

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Sunday, January 27, 2008
 
Medical Marijuana Use: States vs. the Congress


The recent decision by the California Supreme Court upholding the right of employers to fire employees who use marijuana for medical purposes in compliance with California’s Compassionate Use Act has continued the troubled history of medical marijuana use in California and other states that have made such use legal. One of the arguments of the Court’s majority was that marijuana use for any purpose remains illegal under federal law and California law “does not require employers to accommodate the use of illegal drugs.” This discussion reminded me of a paper by Robert Mikos that he presented at the Midwestern Law and Economics Association meetings in October of last year. The paper, which was a work in-progress, discusses medical marijuana use as a case study of the power of the states to authorize activities prohibited under the federal law (here is an abstract). I think the paper makes some interesting points with respect to medical marijuana use and it might be useful to summarize Mikos’s central argument here.

As Mikos points out, when the US Congress has the authority to regulate an activity, this authority trumps the conflicting state laws. It follows that when the Congress authorizes an activity prohibited by state law, the latter is unenforceable and, therefore, irrelevant. The situation is different, however, when Congress prohibits an activity that is permitted by the state. This is because the Congress does not have a general authority to command the states to undertake a certain action. Therefore, as long as the states that permit medical marijuana use limit themselves to not prosecuting the users (as opposed to actively assisting marijuana growers, helping them procure marijuana, etc.) there is nothing that the federal authorities can do against the state. Of course, the federal authorities can still prosecute medical marijuana users under federal law, but the feds simply lack the enforcement powers to do this on a massive scale (Mikos cites another source stating that only about 1% of all marijuana cases are handled by federal authorities). The state, however, may not be able to protect effectively information it gathers as part of its registration process about medical marijuana users and their enablers (e.g., caregivers or doctors who prescribe it) because the feds do not have to respect state confidentiality laws. Therefore, if the state wants to control and monitor medical use of marijuana by registering users and enablers, it puts them in danger of federal prosecution. This results in two potential problems. First, states may decide not to register medical marijuana users, as California, Maine, and Washington have apparently decided to do. Second, in the states that require registration, the eligible users might not want to register. Neither outcome is presumably desirable either from the state or even from the federal point of view. For example, if the states do not require registration of eligible medical marijuana users, such eligibility may be ascertained ex post, making it costlier for the state law enforcement to verify it. Also, the eligible users may suffer confiscations and even brief incarceration while their eligibility is verified. All this may significantly reduce the desire and ability of the state’s law enforcement agencies to prosecute all marijuana users, whether eligible for medical use or not.

Mikos’s policy conclusion is that “Congress may find it worthwhile to shield state registries from federal law enforcement agents, in order to preserve some level of control of marijuana at the state level.” My view is that it is hard to expect this level of rationality from our lawmakers on this issue. Otherwise, the current complete prohibition regime with respect to marijuana at the federal level would have probably ended a long time ago.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008
 
Regulating Vice: Chapter 2, "Addiction: Rational and Otherwise" (part IV)


When last we left off in our tortuous journey through the surprise bestseller Regulating Vice, we were nearing the end of Chapter 2's exploration of addiction. There's a short section entitled "Comparative Addictiveness," that explores such claims as "heroin is more addictive than alcohol." Is it? Probably depends on who the consumer is, the mode of ingestion, the social setting: Zinberg's Drug, Set, and Setting, yet again. (Comparative addictiveness even depends on the regulatory structure facing the various vices.) Nevertheless, ice cream is probably more addictive than spinach, and there are methods of trying to formalize such commonsense notions. One method is to ask what percentage of casual users of a drug go on to become habitual users; a second is to try to gauge the difficulty of quitting an acquired habit.

It is probably the case that for formulating desirable policy, dangerousness is more important than addictiveness. Most people think of caffeine as rather addictive, but not as particularly harmful. What is most striking about typical rankings of dangerousness is how poorly they map onto existing public policy, however. In particular, marijuana and many hallucinogens do not appear to be all that dangerous, but they face prohibitions. Alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous, and quite legal.

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Friday, January 25, 2008
 
Fighting Unhealthy Eating...


...by limiting the number of holes in salt shakers? That seems to be the plan in the British town of Rochdale. Turns out that next week is National Salt Awareness Week, so the Rochdale council gave out five-hole salt shakers -- the standard ones have 17 or 18 holes, we are told -- to thirteen local eateries, for a six week trial. There is evidence that small "architectural" changes like this can alter the amount that people eat, so I would not be surprised to see salt consumption fall markedly -- and even if it doesn't , the restaurant patrons will get more exercise shaking out their salt portions. I might prefer that this experiment be undertaken without government involvement, but I can't join the chorus complaining about this latest expansion of Britain's nanny state. I did enjoy one point raised by the Adam Smith Institute post, however: the new "risk of your chips going cold in the process of trying to get a decent amount of salt on them."

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Thursday, January 24, 2008
 
Off Topic? -- Virtue


Vice Squad was in the audience tonight when renown philosopher Jonathan Lear lectured (primarily to University of Chicago undergraduate students) about Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. I'll just note a sample of what he had to say, though I imagine that some mangling of the original will unintentionally slip in.

Spiders have no difficulty being spiders -- they go about their spidery business automatically, as it were. But we humans can't just go about our human business automatically. We must know what life is about before we can determine how we should live, before we can flourish in our humanity. This flourishing comes from a lifetime of acting virtuously.

Behaving in accordance with virtue gives us a principle to guide our actions, but not a detailed rule. Part of acquiring a specific virtue is understanding what that virtue requires no matter what life circumstances are thrown in our paths -- and it also requires that with that understanding comes motivation to undertake the virtuous act. For instance, consider the virtue of kindness. A kind person has to understand what kindness requires in a specific circumstance. Sometimes it is kind to help an elderly person board a bus -- but not every elderly person desires help, so a kind person must choose not to offer or provide help in some circumstances. Simply taking the appropriately kind actions is not enough, either, for virtue -- we must take those actions for the right reasons. Being habitually kind in order to avoid punishment is not virtuous. But being kind in order to live up to what is fine, what is noble, what is beautiful, is virtuous. Once a virtuous person sees that an action is shameful, he or she has no interest in taking that action, irrespective of other costs and benefits.

Towards the end Professor Lear began to draw upon his most recent book, one that concerns the Crow nation. (This part of the talk was the most fascinating for me; for some of the flavor, see this New York Times review of his book.) The Crows -- a nomadic, warrior, buffalo-hunting people -- saw their traditional way of life erased, and erased permanently, almost overnight. Think about those who most achieve the Aristotelean virtues within the Crow civilization. They have become habituated to behaving virtuously, but those virtues are specific to the Crow way of life. The virtuous Crows seem to be in the worst position to flourish in the new environment. Lear suggested that the Crows met the challenge by transforming their understanding of the virtue of courage. Before, courage was associated with warfare; in the nineteenth century, however, courage came to be associated with weathering the storm. Those who made the transformation achieved a higher Aristotelean virtue -- they were able to adjust their idea of virtue itself to the circumstances that life had thrown at them.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008
 
Coffee, Inexpensive and Expensive


Well, those are relative terms. The inexpensive version is the small cup of coffee that Starbucks is now offering in Seattle for $1, with free refills included. This might be in response to the increased competitive pressure from McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts. The expensive coffee is made by fancy equipment that can cost $10,000 or more -- this is for brewed coffee, not for espresso. One might think that expensive coffee-making equipment substitutes capital for labor, but it isn't obvious from the description in the linked article: the $20,000 coffee-making process requires stirring the brewing coffee with a bamboo paddle in a rather precise fashion. (Here's a photo set of the bean-to-cup transformation.)

Other caffeine news this week was that even relatively modest caffeine consumption could increase the risk of miscarriage for pregnant women: "Of 264 women who said they had used no caffeine, 12.5 percent had miscarriages. But the miscarriage rate was 24.5 percent in the 164 women who consumed 200 milligrams [about 10 ounces of coffee] or more per day." My uninformed reaction is that this result suggests an effect from caffeine that is more extreme than what actually exists. Among other issues, I think that pregnant women who consume no caffeine at all might differ from others in ways that are hard to control for in an experiment, and could influence miscarriage rates. One nice feature of the Chicago Tribune's coverage is a separate little box that indicates some of the reasons that one might question the experimental finding.

Finally, if you are robbing a bank, you might want to skip the coffee, alluring as it is. The coffee may look free, but that will prove to be an expensive cup.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008
 
Military Tradition Imperiled


The Philippine Air Force has a new commanding general -- and he has instituted an anti-vice campaign aimed at his troops. In particular, alcohol, gambling, and mistresses have been targets of his disapproval. Commanders have been ordered to offer daily hectorings to focus the mind of the soldiers upon the evils of these vices. The general intends to lead by example, and has pointed out that he does not smoke. And that is not all for this paragon of military discipline: 'I will not play golf, except for ceremonial tee-offs or to entertain guests.' A quick internet check suggests that the Philippines does not employ a draft (though it has legal provision to conscript), so the general might not want to come down too hard upon the volunteer soldiers.

What was it that Winston Churchill reputedly said about British naval traditions?

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Monday, January 21, 2008
 
Pinball


Today's trip back to cold Chicago on Southwest Airlines provided an opportunity to read up on the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in Southwest's Spirit Magazine. The fine linked article mentions that pinball machines were illegal in New York City well into the 1970s, until a live demonstration by a pinball maestro in an NYC courtroom led to the recognition of pinball as a game of skill, and hence, legalization. Pinball machine production peaked in the early 1990s, with some 100,000 machines being produced per year. Now the sole remaining producer makes about 10,000 machines annually, and many of those go to private residences, as public locations have turned away from pinball towards video games.

Beyond the hint in the information about the New York City ban, the article explicitly notes that early pinball machines often involved gambling. Indeed, the relationship between pinball and gambling profoundly affected the design of pinball machines. (Here's an article with lots of apposite info that I draw upon below.) Pinball machines have come in many flavours over the years, including some that were mainly for gambling purposes, some that could easily be adapted for gambling, and others that did not directly facilitate gambling, but could be used for that purpose via side bets by competing players or high score monetary bonuses from the till of the host establishment. The institution of free games for high scores was motivated in part to reward pinball players without violating anti-gambling statutes that rendered cash payouts illegal. Possibilities to win extra balls were developed to avoid anti-gambling laws that extended to the provision of free games. And flippers, virtually a defining feature of pinball machines for more than 50 years, were helpful in promoting the idea that pinball is a game of skill, not chance, and hence exempt from anti-gambling laws.

Of course, pinball has an addictive quality that might surface even without monetary stakes. The author of the Spirit Magazine article notes that after his girlfriend dumped him, he had a fling with a pinball machine -- one that was obsessive, but does not seem to be entirely negative: "I tragically played that machine for hours and hours, week after week, mourning my loss and perfecting my skill. I became…not to brag or anything, but I became truly great."

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Sunday, January 20, 2008
 
Opera Returns to Turkmenistan!


There goes one of my favorite examples of misguided prohibition -- one that I like to compare with those drug prohibitions we are so addicted to in the US. You mean that people can perform opera in front of paying customers but (non-prescription) opiate possession in private is illegal? Turkmenistan has compounded its liberal folly by unbanning the circus, too, though I hope they will reconsider. Dance opponents, take heart: "It was unclear whether his [i.e., the Turkmen president's] order included the return of ballet." (Maybe if ballet performers sing a few bars they can fall under the opera exemption?)

Vice Squad is still on the road, but hopes to return to Chicago tomorrow.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008
 
Steroids and Kids


Vice Squad is on the road, and has only a few minutes at a public library today. Probably not a good time to bring up a subject that we have studiously avoided in the past -- steroids in sports. (Radley has been posting and debating on this issue.) Our general approach to vice would suggest that if adults want to use steroids, there should be some not-too-onerous legal means of accommodating them. Transfer of steroids to kids could be forbidden, of course. But what about sports leagues, like Major League Baseball. As private businesses, can they make whatever decision they want to with regards to steroids?

Our interest in protecting kids can justify some collateral restrictions upon adults, such as the ban on transfers to youths that I mentioned above. For the "traditional vices" I do not think that this interest can justify prohibitions on adult use or vice activity, however -- and I believe that this is the case with steroids, too.

Nevertheless, I am not sure that a requirement that professional sports leagues ban steroid use would not be acceptable on the grounds of protecting kids. [I acknowledge the controversy over the extent and likelihood of potential harms from steroid use, and then there are issues with the enforceablity of any ban. If a ban on use by kids would be easy to enforce, then any controls on professional sports leagues, presumably, would have to be justified on other grounds. But what if the ban on kid steroid use were quite leaky?] If professional baseball allowed steroid use, promising young teen ballplayers, of whom only a handful would make it to the major leagues and perhaps most would not even make it into the minor leagues, would be faced with a difficult choice. To the extent that those drugs really are performance enhancing, then such kids will feel significant pressure to get a leg up on the competition by using steroids. In the limit, we have the usual positional externality story, where everyone uses steroids without affecting their relative ranking. Of course, the same would be true of major leaguers, too.

It is extremely hard for someone to become a professional athlete if that person was not training for that role at an early age. And professional athletics is a career that, unlike most office jobs, seems to capture the imagination of lots of kids. I also think (following J.S. Mill) that the fact that professional sports league are businesses that offer their wares to the public (and rely on the legal system for their organization, and so on), means that the personal liberty objection to a ban on steroid use by professional athletes is obviated.

Anyway, I haven't really thought this through, as I suppose is obvious. But I seem to be coming down on the side of (or merely rephrasing) Judge Posner's position on steroids.

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Friday, January 18, 2008
 
Finland Backing Off Warning Labels on Alcohol


Alcohol-related problems are severe in Finland, and became more so when the effective price of alcohol fell around the time of Estonia's EU accession and Finland's pre-emptive alcohol tax cut. The recent Finnish campaign to reduce the social costs of alcohol consumption has included higher taxes and a ban on volume discounts -- this latter measure not working out as planned. Also slated is a mandate that warning labels be placed on all alcohol containers. The labels would say, in Finnish and Swedish: "WARNING: Alcohol is hazardous to the development of the fetus and to your health". In the wake of some issues with the EU, however, the Finnish health minister wants to abandon the mandated warnings. Turns out, she never really thought that the warnings would be beneficial in the first place. And not just her -- it seems as if the parliamentarians who voted for the warning labels by and large didn't think they would work, either (though they were pretty into the "no volume discounts" provision).

My quick perusal of the evidence suggests that warning labels are not particularly good ways to reduce the social costs of alcohol; like the Finnish health minister says, taxes would be more effective. But warning labels are probably not completely futile, either. Here's a summary from one review of the relevant research*:
Taken together, the research on the design and content of warning label factors as well as on audience factors indicates that the effectiveness of warning labels on drinking behavior depends on how these factors initially impact underlying cognitive and affective processes. First, design factors influence whether warning labels are even initially noticed. Second, the specific content of warning labels could influence the labels' potential for evoking visceral avoidance responses. Third, audience factors predict differential memory for, processing of, and reactions to alcohol warning labels. These audience effects can then modify drinking behavior.
*"Alcohol counter-advertising and the media: a review of recent research." Alcohol Research & Health, Wntr, 2002, by Gina Agostinelli and Joel W. Grube.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008
 
Drug, Set, and Setting


Norman Zinberg's trichotomy remains too little appreciated. Earlier this week came word of an experiment that revealed that people prefer wine that they think, mistakenly, is expensive. That is, they like wine that they think is expensive more than they like the same wine when they think it is cheap. It probably isn't very surprising that they say they like the expensive wine more; what is novel in this experiment is that they sipped the wine while they were lying down in one of those functional MRI devices. It wasn't just that the subjects say they like the "expensive" wine more -- their brains respond to the "expensive" wine in a manner that suggests that they physically experience the wine as better when they think it is pricier. Zinberg's book long ago argued persuasively that the impact of a drug on a person is a function not just of the drug itself, but also of the social setting in which the drug is consumed, and of the mindset, including the expectations, of the drug user. "The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
"

Alex at Marginal Revolution was not impressed, particularly with some of the interpretations of the article that are on offer. Surely the headline "Raising prices enhances wine sales" isn't justified by the research.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008
 
Regulating Vice: Chapter 2, "Addiction: Rational and Otherwise" (part III)


When we last checked in with Regulating Vice, we saw how time inconsistent preferences might recommend (public and private) policies that would differ from those that would be appropriate for rational, time-consistent addicts. Chapter 2 continues by looking at further departures from the "standard" rationality story, i.e., where addictive choices are made outside of the usual cognitive framework, or are the result of a diseased mind. One piece of evidence that addictive-type choices are not simply reflecting time inconsistency is that cues in the environment can bring on intense cravings for addicts -- though there is little reason to think that these cues alter discount rates generally, since they only seem to affect choices made in relation to the addictive good or substance. When a smoker has a beer in a bar in night, he might crave a cigarette, but he doesn't necessarily want to lower his savings in favor of more present consumption.

The disease view of addiction has much to recommend it -- at least more than I suggested in an early Vice Squad attempt to come to grips with it. The basic idea is that our brains evolved "reward mechanisms" that give us pleasure when we engage in activities that are (or at least were) helpful for propagating our genes. These mechanisms -- think about those pathways from Monday's post -- have a biochemical substrate, of course. Along comes some chemical like cocaine or morphine that acts as a key that unlocks the pleasure pathway, though these chemicals were not part of the environment in which the pleasure pathways evolved. People try morphine, they really enjoy it, so naturally they try it again -- and again, and again. The brain, awash with external opiates, cuts back on its own endogenous production of pleasure chemicals (endorphins, or endogenous morphines), so now, without the external morphine, the addict is less happy than she was to begin with. Eventually, she needs the morphine not to make herself happy, but to prevent her from being miserable.

Regulating Vice Posts Roundup:
(1) Announcement
(2) Introduction (part I)
(3) Introduction (part II)
(4) Introduction (part III)
(5) Erratum, Page 2!!
(6) Chapter 1, The Harm Principle (part I)
(7) Chapter 1, The Harm Principle (part II)
(8) GMU Talk (part I)
(9) GMU Talk (part II)
(10) Chapter 2, Addiction (part I)
(11) Chapter 2, Addiction (part II)

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008
 
Parking Ticket Profanity


A few months ago, a fine fellow received a ticket for a parking violation in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. (Actually, that scenario probably arises daily.) He did what any proud, free American would do -- he sent in a check to pay his fine. Oh yeah, he also wrote on the check: 'Go (Bleep) Yourself.' The aftermath?
Well this little display of pique or defiance or whatever you want to call it resulted in borough police charging him with disorderly conduct for using obscene language - the F-word - in public, that is to say, on a public document, which his parking fine check was deemed to be.
Oh, this would have made for a super Supreme Court case, one that would have settled for a long time the extent to which we can legally curse our employees, our agents, our hirelings, the government. Alas, Doylestown had no stomach for the fight. At the trial, they offered to drop the disorderly conduct charge as long as our petulant parker paid the original ticket and provided a written apology to the borough clerk whose eyeshade had come across the sarcastic suggestion. (They had to insist on the parking ticket being paid because the ticket itself was sort of out of action, having become evidence in the disorderly conduct charge.) The mouthpiece for the foulmouth accepted the deal, and the possibility of a journey to the Supremes was nipped in the bud, much to the detriment of our republic.

Perhaps you might want to know what century they are living in in Doylestown? Here's some (accurate) information that might provide a clue. The parking fine was $5, and the possible penalty for disorderly conduct was $25 plus court costs. In Chicago, $5 is what they fine you if you are legally parked.

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Monday, January 14, 2008
 
The 5-fold Pathway to Addiction


The Economist reports this week on a recent article in Computational Biology, one of the journals associated with the Public Library of Science -- hence the article is freely available on the web. The article set out to find the neuro-molecular pathways that are common to alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, and opiate addiction. The authors took a meta-analytic approach, combing the existing research database for articles reflecting upon the issue -- and they came up with something new. They identified five neuro-pathways that seem to be common to the four types of addictive substances. Two of these pathways were not seriously under consideration in the past, if I understand correctly, for being involved with addiction. The authors then went one step further, modeling the interactions within these five pathways. The model suggested various types of positive feedback, which would seem to be consistent with the loss of control associated with addiction. (Though perhaps some sort of chemical reversal of this mechanism could lead to a quick recovery, my untutored, neuro-naive self asks?) Is their diagram of the feedback mechanisms one of the keys to understanding addiction?

The methodology in this article is striking. One venerable view of economic productivity associates it with making stuff, with production. Often merchant behavior, trading activity, is seen as somehow inferior or disreputable, even when production is held in high regard. Economists tend to a hold a different view, however -- a good is valuable only if it is at the right place at the right time, so merchants are as productive as they are indispensable: manufacturing without effective distribution is not productive. The analogy I see with the Computational Biology paper is that research, especially neuroscientific research, might be thought of as consisting of running experiments. But unless someone sifts through those experiments to extract and combine the information, the experiments themselves might not produce usable knowledge. The Economist article concludes with the following observation:
And this study also shows that the old cry “more research is necessary” is not always true. Sometimes all you need to do is look at what you already have in a different way.
I would have put it slightly differently: "More research is necessary" remains true, but research can consist of such meta-analyses, too. (Maybe The Economist was trying to avoid rhyming?)

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Sunday, January 13, 2008
 
Two Successful Newspapers: The Wall Street Journal and the Bingo Bugle


A few days ago the front page of the Wall Street Journal featured an article about the Bingo Bugle, "a 720,000-circulation monthly distributed free of charge at bingo halls and casinos around the country." The WSJ, which generally covers a different type of gambling, was said to have worldwide circulation of its daily edition of about 2 million in 2006. The WSJ is nearly 120 years old, while Bingo Bugle is a mere 28-year old stripling. Besides bingo-related news, the Bugle also offers a popular advice column, "Dear Aunt Bingo." Like all pursuits, Bingo has spawned its own jargon. Two phrases from the current on-line Dear Aunt Bingo column are "scanning and daubing skills" and "should he Bingo" -- the latter from an interesting exchange about Braille Bingo.

The loyal Vice Squad reader will know that smoking bans and competition from other forms of gambling, among other factors, have been making life tough for Bingo lately. Recent bad news: a major operator of British bingo halls is threatening to close some of them, while a pub in Hartford, Connecticut, which had been hosting what I take to be moneyless Bingo nights for many years, was forced to stop the practice when the state got wind of the games after a local newspaper ran a story on the popular entertainment. If you think that governments are inefficient, you should know that the state tax men showed up the same day the article appeared. Then again, they did manage to overlook the Bingo for the previous, oh, 15 years or so. How did Hartford survive the scourge of unstaked bar Bingo for a generation?

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Saturday, January 12, 2008
 
Outlawing Volume Discounts For Alcohol


A few years ago, the impending entry of Estonia into the European Union led Finland to pre-emptively lower its traditionally high alcohol taxes. One result was a sharp rise in alcohol-related problems. This year, Estonia raised its own alcohol taxes, so Finland felt that it had scope to do the same thing. When the tax rise went into effect on January 1, other new alcohol rules also were adopted, including the abolition of cheaper per-unit prices for larger purchases of alcohol (so that a bottle of wine cannot sell at a restaurant for less than the equivalent amount of per-glass purchases). Vice Squad had suggested months ago that the response to such a rule might be a fall in the price of the smaller units, instead of a rise in the price of the larger units -- and that is what seems to have happened:

In an effort to raise the prices of beer sold in crates and cardboard packs, the government introduced a regulation at the beginning of the year saying the price of a bottle or can of beer sold as part of such a pack could not be lower than that of cans or bottles sold singly.

The result was a fall in the price of beer sold by the bottle and can.

So the Finns are talking about raising the beer tax some more, to make sure that effective retail prices are higher, not lower, than before the no-volume-discount regulation.

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Friday, January 11, 2008
 
Could Use Some Caffeine


It's late, but I wanted to post to keep up the Vice Squad streak of having precisely one post for every day of 2008 -- a streak that is the envy of the blogosphere, I understand. And so we turn to coffee. Starbucks is having a shake-up at the top, and feeling pressure from McDonald's: "McDonald's, whose U.S. coffee sales increased 39 percent during the first nine months of 2007, plans to add espresso counters at as many as 14,000 locations." (Here's another look at Starbucks v. McDonald's from Newsweek. Incidentally, Caribou Coffee also is undergoing a shake-up.) Starbucks will cut back on its plans to open new stores -- is that good news or bad news for independent coffee shops? It looks as if a Starbucks in the neighborhood might stoke the demand for premium coffee in ways that redound to the benefit of independents. Will the new competition from the UK similarly spur the coffee output of leading producers Vietnam and Brazil?

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Thursday, January 10, 2008
 
There is a Limit


Just how much casino expansion can take place in the US before existing casinos begin to see a drop-off in their business? Today the New York Times has an article pointing out how gambling in the Catskills region in New York is doing poorly, partly as a result of competition from all those new slots in Pennsylvania. And yet a leading analyst of the gambling industry is quoted as saying 'The demand for gambling seems to be insatiable.' Well, insatiable sounds a bit too strong. Tomorrow's New York Times (ah, the magic of the web) reports that for the first time since legal casino gambling came to Atlantic City, revenues fell by 5.7% in 2006 [correction: 2007] at the resort's eleven casinos. But Pennsylvania took in significant revenue from its initial flurry of slots -- many more will come on-line soon in the Keystone State -- so other states are taking notice. Will they notice Atlantic City and the Catskills, too?

From yesterday's USA Today:

The USA had a record 767,418 slot machines and video poker games in operation on Jan. 1, up 6.4% from a year earlier, according to Casino City Press, an industry publication. The nation now has slots in 37 states — up from 31 in 2000 — and the equivalent of one machine for every 395 residents.

The trend will accelerate in the next few years. More than 100,000 new slot machines already have regulatory approval or could get it this year.

This related article in USA Today provides some information about a venerable Vice Squad topic, the workings of slot machines. In the course of reading the article, we learn that an icon of our youth, "I Love Lucy," (in re-runs, of course, we aren't that ancient) has now been co-opted to draw in electronic gamblers. Someone has some splainin' to do.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008
 
Regulating Vice: Chapter 2, "Addiction: Rational and Otherwise" (part II)


My project of providing a running summary of Regulating Vice came a cropper in early December, but is herewith revived. We left off after characterising rational addiction. Chapter 2 continues with a look at time inconsistency, which we first blogged about during Vice Squad's inaugural week. The basic idea is that people tend to be more impatient with respect to choices concerning the here and now and near future, than they are about choices over alternatives for the more-distant future. So folks have a sort of prudent, patient, long-view Dr. Jekyll side, and an imprudent, impatient, live-for-the-moment Mr. Hyde side. Mr. Hyde decides how much to drink today, and Dr. Jekyll finds the choices made on his behalf by Mr. Hyde to involve excessive drinking.

There is nothing obviously "irrational" about time inconsistency -- that is, there is nothing inherent in rational choice which requires dynamically consistent choices. But private and public vice policies appropriate for a rational, time inconsistent person might differ from those policies appropriate for a dynamically consistent rational consumer. (Similarly, policies appropriate for irrational consumers also might differ from those of rational, time consistent consumers.) Dr. Jekyll's might look for some commitment device that will keep Mr. Hyde's from drinking too much, and public policies such as taxes or buyer licenses can help Jekyll gain the upper hand. [We could be evenhanded, and say that the public has no more reason to side with Jekyll than with Hyde, but vice tends to be associated with excess. It seems to be more common (or more painful) to regret one too many drinks than one too few.] The costs that Hyde imposes upon a non-consenting Jekyll have many of the marks of economic externalities -- the difference being that rather than Hyde and Jekyll being two physically separate people, they are different incarnations of the same person. In an analogy with "externalities," these costs are called "internalities." And if you accept the externality-internality analogy, then a harm to Jekyll is a type of "harm to others," and hence social coercion of Hyde does not violate John Stuart Mill's harm principle.


Regulating Vice Posts Roundup:
(1) Announcement
(2) Introduction (part I)
(3) Introduction (part II)
(4) Introduction (part III)
(5) Erratum, Page 2!!
(6) Chapter 1, The Harm Principle (part I)
(7) Chapter 1, The Harm Principle (part II)
(8) GMU Talk (part I)
(9) GMU Talk (part II)
(10) Chapter 2, Addiction (part I)

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008
 
Obamamania


OK, Illinois's favorite son Barack Obama did not win today's New Hampshire election. Nevertheless, his candidacy is quite a phenomenon. Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler notes how a former MR guest blogger pointed to the considerable Obama upside back in May of 2004. The loyal Vice Squad reader recalls, however, that our own Nikkie was ahead of the curve on this, writing of Obama in late March of 2004: "This guy is awesome - great ideas, level-headed, rational."

Moved to swearing by Obama's second place finish today, or perhaps want to dance at your table to celebrate the McCain or Clinton victories? Don't try any of that in St. Charles, Missouri, which "is considering a bill that would ban swearing in bars, along with table-dancing, drinking contests and profane music."

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Monday, January 07, 2008
 
Taxing Live Erotic Shows [Updated]


Vice Squad was out of town in late December when (links in this post are not safe for work) an Illinois appeals court ruled that Chicago could not exempt small live entertainment venues, except for strip clubs, from a tax on ticket sales. Such a provision discriminates against erotic businesses based on the content of their expression, the court ruled, and that sort of discrimination has to jump through high and multiple hoops to be constitutional. On New Year's day, a $5 per customer tax went into effect for Texas strip clubs. The first constitutional challenge to the tax was brushed aside in mid-December, before the Chicago ruling. The Texas law looks for Constitutional cover from the "secondary effects" doctrine, which did not seem to come into play in the Chicago tax.

Update: This week's Economist also has an article on Texas's "pole tax". The article mentions the recent popularity of earmarking the proceeds for new taxes. (Part of the controversy surrounding the Texas strip club tax is that the proceeds are directed to programs aiding sexual violence victims, despite there being little in the way of hard evidence that strip clubs increase sexual violence.) Beyond the Texas case, all of the earmarked taxes that are mentioned are vice-related: (non-diet) sodas, tobacco, and video games have all recently been singled out for taxes with earmarked revenues -- an approach frequently used for gambling taxes, too. Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania state senator is looking at an earmarked tax on adult businesses (link not safe for work).

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Sunday, January 06, 2008
 
Saving Lives via Alcohol Taxes


Like Phil Cook, I favor higher alcohol taxes in the US. In Phil's book, Paying the Tab, he reviews the evidence on alcohol prices and overall mortality. Based on that review, his best guess is rather startling: "...if Congress doubled the beer tax and raised the taxes on wine and liquor by a similar amount, one result would be tens of thousands of lives saved every year [p. 170]."

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Saturday, January 05, 2008
 
More on the Swedish Approach to Prostitution Control


In Sweden, sales of sex are decriminalised, while the (mostly male) purchasers are behaving illegally. This approach, which does not comport with standard Vice Squad precepts, has been receiving substantial attention in Britain. (The "opposite" approach of criminalising sales of sex while giving a de facto pass to the johns also fails to pass through the Vice Squad filter.) A recent Guardian article opens with a story about a purported john ("torsk" is the Swedish term) who is contacted 8 months after his alleged assignation, and eventually fined about $2,400.

Street prostitution seems to be well down in Sweden since the 1999 adoption of the new rules. But street prostitution seems to be declining in many places, in part because of the rise of the internet. Trafficking of sex workers into Sweden from abroad, according to the article, has increased in recent years, though perhaps not by as great an extent as in some nearby countries.

Last week the Guardian's Sunday sister publication, the Observer, contained an op-ed arguing against the Swedish approach. Some letters in rebuttal -- including one from the MP who is sponsoring British legislation that moves prostitution control in the direction of the Swedish model -- appear in this week's Observer.

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Friday, January 04, 2008
 
Save British "Bingo"?


As the loyal Vice Squad reader knows, the British bingo industry is facing hard times, in part due to the smoking ban and to competition from lower-taxed forms of gambling. Also, the bingo halls do not hold the same number of slot machines that used to grace their premises. The Financial Times tells of the growing pressure to reduce the tax burden on bingo. The government is sympathetic, it seems, but are bingo's problems deeper, perhaps even reaching to the name of the game?:

...the government believes the industry faces endemic problems - including an ageing customer base and competing leisure and gambling activity - that taxation relief, on its own, cannot cure.

According to one industry analyst, bingo companies need to apply radical surgery to their industries, including rebranding the pastime in a way that sheds the "bingo" tag.

In Vice Squad news, I am back in Chicago after two vice-free days in Ann Arbor, which I want to "rebrand" as Annushka Arborka.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008
 
A Class Gift


Remember when previous graduating classes would donate a plaque or a water fountain or a bench to their old high school? How passe'. Southington High School in Connecticut has received a magic wand, that when waved in the vicinity of a student, reveals whether the potential miscreant has imbibed alcohol. The wand, the linked article notes, can be used for random tests!

Wand-like mechanisms are referred to as passive alcohol sensors. They are so passive that you can be tested for alcohol without even knowing that you are being tested. I am not sure if our Supreme Court will go along with that, however -- they seem to prefer big dogs providing more active searches for contraband. (For drugs, the accuracy of such dogs lends new meaning to the phrase "random search".) Here's a ten-page pdf that argues that such passive alcohol searches are constitutional when used in the context of traffic stops. And here is a touching tale about the use of drug-sniffing dogs in a Florida school district.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008
 
Legal Prostitution in the US in the Early 20th Century


One of the hazards of writing a book is that you might eventually discover something wrong, or infelicitously worded, right at the beginning, and then you are confronted with your error again and again over the years. On page 2 of Regulating Vice I mention that prostitution was "legal in much of the United States in the first two decades of the [20th] century..." I thought that I had said "legal or tolerated" but I didn't actually include the tolerated part. Is it true that prostitution was legal in much of the US early in the 20th century? [Most large cities had red-light districts where prostitution was tolerated -- Storyville in New Orleans was the most famous example. (Scroll down here for more on Storyville; thanks to the SWOP East Sex Workers Outreach Project for the link.) I have seen conflicting claims on whether prostitution was legal or just tolerated in Storyville.] Well, I am still unsure, but it looks as if the answer is "no" -- that is, prostitution was tolerated in much of the US at the time, but it was not legal. I have just reviewed chapter 2 of David Langum's great book on the Mann Act, and it mentions the legalization and regulation of prostitution in St. Louis in 1870. Apparently such regulatory moves were more common, as they provoked a considerable backlash in the form of various purity societies working against legal recognition of prostitution. Nevertheless, Langum states that "almost all of the [urban red-light] districts existed only by tolerance and lacked any legally protected status...[p. 25]," so it looks as if my page 2 claim is wrong. Ugh.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008
 
Ringing In Another Set of Smoking Bans


Chicago and Paris join the public smoking ban club today; in Paris, the city authorities are distributing "pocket ashtrays" so smokers won't throw their butts on the ground. (Another new law further reduces the Paris-Chicago cultural divide: dogs are now welcome to the outdoor sections of Chicago restaurants.) The Illinois smoking ban does not exempt casinos, so some fiscal authorities are already budgeting for reduced tax revenues from existing casinos -- though the plans to expand gaming in Illinois continue to develop. Fort Worth's new smoking ban does not extend to bars -- and in a last-minute alteration, bingo parlors (a Vice Squad obsession) are exempt, too. Speaking of bingo, in New York, as of January 1, you can organize a fun bingo game in a senior center without fear of imprisonment -- just don't let the players smoke.

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