Monthly Archive for April, 2008

Four techniques of public policy

Suppose you have a situation where individual choices are suboptimal, both for that individual and for the group as a whole.  Exactly why the individual makes suboptimal choices isn’t immediately relevant for the moment.  It seems to me, that there are four broad approaches to “solving” this problem: a) an engineering approach; b) a government mandate; c) economic incentives; and d) a psychological approach.  The four approaches are not mutual exclusive and can even overlap, but they each bring a different mindset to the problem.  All four approaches can be taken to an absurd extreme.

To explain each of the four, an (admittedly pretty graphic) example may be useful.  Men seem, in general, to have a habit of spillage at public urinals – pee goes on the floor instead of the urinal.  This induces both private costs (increased health risks and the ‘ick’ factor of negotiating another guy’s floor-pee) and public costs (increase cleaning costs).

  • An engineering approach would be to design a better urinal to minimise spash-back.  An extreme engineering approach would not only do this, but also include sensors to detect when urine falls outside the catchment area and then activate an automatic (i.e. robotic) cleaning system.
  • A government mandate would make it illegal to spill your pee on the floor.  How extreme this is would depend on the enforcement mechanism.  A light-handed approach would pass the law and then do nothing to enforce it, similar to jay-walking.  A heavy-handed approach would hire a cop to occasionally watch men pee and arrest them if they spill, similar to most countries’ drug policy.  An extreme approach would have a government agent hold your penis to make sure that you don’t spill, similar to the Australian government’s enforcement of mandatory superannuation.
  • An economic incentive would impose a fine on men for spilling and/or give them a bonus payment for not spilling.  How extreme this measure is would depend on the size of the fine or the bonus.  Because this also has a need for enforcement (government-implemented or government-guaranteed), this can be thought of as a market-oriented government approach.
  • A psychological approach would seek to reframe the issue to influence the way that men make their choices.  For the urinal, it could be to make use of the fact that if you paint a fly in the urinal at the spot that minimises splash-back, the visual cue will cause men to aim at it and overall spillage will fall.  My mother did something similar when I was a kid.  She had five teenage boys living under her roof and not even making us clean the toilet seemed to stop the mess, so she put a ping-pong ball in the toilet (because it’s so light, it won’t flush down) and told us to aim at it.

So what’s my point?  Just this:  most people tend to focus on just one of the four approaches and think that it is the best way to solve every problem, when the truth is that different problems call for different responses and that the best strategy will usually employ several approaches.  In the case of spilling urine, the best strategy is probably a combination of an engineering and psychology, but in others a different combination may be optimal.  Don’t always think that your favourate approach is the best or only one.

Understanding race relations in America

Now, I’m just a white guy from Australia who’s only visited the US a few times, so there’s a strong element of “What the hell would I know?”[*], but still … I suspect that if you want a quick, visual introduction to race relations and the issues facing non-whites in America, you would not do too badly by only watching three things:

[*] The answer, of course, is “probably not very much,” especially if you subscribe solely to ethnographic or other immersive techniques of sociological fact-finding, but since my wife grew up as an Hispanic immigrant in the (28% African-American, 6% Hispanic) state of Georgia, I work on the assumption that even if I have no clue, she’ll yell at me if I say something entirely stupid.

*sigh* (Zimbabwe)

This is from The Independent. It’s a fairly short article, so I’ll include it in full (all emphasis is mine):

Chinese troops have been seen on the streets of Zimbabwe’s third largest city, Mutare, according to local witnesses. They were seen patrolling with Zimbabwean soldiers before and during Tuesday’s ill-fated general strike called by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Earlier, 10 Chinese soldiers armed with pistols checked in at the city’s Holiday Inn along with 70 Zimbabwean troops.

One eyewitness, who asked not to be named, said: “We’ve never seen Chinese soldiers in full regalia on our streets before. The entire delegation took 80 rooms from the hotel, 10 for the Chinese and 70 for Zimbabwean soldiers.”

Officially, the Chinese were visiting strategic locations such as border posts, key companies and state institutions, he said. But it is unclear why they were patrolling at such a sensitive time. They were supposed to stay five days, but left after three to travel to Masvingo, in the south.

China’s support for President Mugabe’s regime has been highlighted by the arrival in South Africa of a ship carrying a large cache of weapons destined for Zimbabwe’s armed forces. Dock workers in Durban refused to unload it.

The 300,000-strong South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) said it would be “grossly irresponsible” to touch the cargo of ammunition, grenades and mortar rounds on board the Chinese ship An Yue Jiang anchored outside the port.

A Satawu spokesman Randall Howard said: “Our members employed at Durban container terminal will not unload this cargo, neither will any of our members in the truck-driving sector move this cargo by road. South Africa cannot be seen to be facilitating the flow of weapons into Zimbabwe at a time where there is a political dispute and a volatile situation between Zanu-PF and the MDC.”

Three million rounds of AK-47 ammunition, 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades and more than 3,000 mortar rounds and mortar tubes are among the cargo on the Chinese ship, according to copies of the inventory published by a South African newspaper.

According to Beeld, the documentation for the shipment was completed on 1 April, three days after the presidential vote.

Zimbabwe and China have close military ties. Three years ago, Mr Mugabe signed extensive trade pacts with the Chinese as part of the “Look East” policy forced on him by his ostracising by Western governments over human rights abuses. The deal gave the Chinese mineral and trade concessions in exchange for economic help.

The shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague called on David Miliband to demand a cessation of arms shipments.

A South African government spokesman Themba Maseko said it would be difficult to stop the shipment.


“American football is big; this is just enormous”

That’s the new Indian Premier League (of cricket, for any heathens in the audience).  The quote comes from Jenny Zaleski, 28, who is one of these girls:

According to the SMH article, they are “a professional cheer squad from the Washington Redskins, an American football team, [flown in] to spice up the pre-match entertainment.”

Map of US Petrol (gas) prices by county

This is the coolest thing I’ve seen today (true, it’s only 10am, but still …)

US Gas prices by county
(click on the image to go through to the workable version)