Let them eat cake…and buy discounted TVs

Already (and keep in mind they’re five hours behind), Americans are storming Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Macy’s (and a whole lot of small, independent shops too) to snag the best Christmas deals of the season.

It’s Black Friday- the biggest shopping day of the year in the States, when stores open ‘early’ and offer huge discounts on otherwise pricy, luxury goods. Unlike the Brits, who started looking forward to Christmas post-Halloween, Americans had to at least pretend they weren’t listening to Bing Crosby on their iPods until the day after Thanksgiving; and now, with less than a month till Christmas day, shoppers will spend well over $1billion today alone to make up for their tireless waiting.

Over the past few years, this all-you-can-shop American trend has spilled over to the UK, with Amazon, Apple and Wal-Mart’s Asda taking the charge to bring discounts, up to 70%, to British consumers. Still in its early phases of becoming any kind of British tradition, the demand from customers for these kinds of deals continues to sky-rocket; last year, according to Visa’s estimate, £1million was spent on its cards every three minutes, and it’s expected this year’s charges will be up 22%.

And this year’s looking even bigger:

However, this year, the day is expected to be even busier. Black Friday 2014, scheduled for November 28, should be the biggest online shopping day ever in the UK.

Christopher North, managing director of Amazon.co.uk, said: “Black Friday took an incredible leap forward in 2013 with so many more customers taking advantage of the great deals on that day, resulting in sales of over 4m items for the very first time in our history.

“This year, we are offering more deals and savings than ever before and we are expecting record numbers to benefit from Black Friday Deals Week.”

Some take a moral stance against Black Friday, arguing that it promotes consumerism and unnecessary purchases; and some in the UK have gone so far as to say it defies British identity, as Black Friday has, until recently, been a post-Thanksgiving, US tradition.

It seems almost too obvious to point out that the the millions of pounds that will be spent in the UK today are a huge stimulant to the economy; benefiting not only businesses and their employees, but the customers themselves who are able to buy electronics and goods they could not otherwise afford at hugely discounted prices. It’s all very well to claim the moral high-ground on consumerism if you and your family want for nothing; but for many customers, necessities in the digital age (like computers and phones for their kids) aren’t accessible at their normal prices.

As for British identity – Black Friday is far too new to the UK for us to know how it–as a sales pitch or as a tradition–will play out in the future. Under no circumstances should Britain adopt the crazy shop-till-you-drop celebrations if it doesn’t want to; but no one can deny the huge, and ever-growing, demand from British consumers for the Black Friday tradition. And as long as there’s demand, let the rush commence.

Where the US justice system is and isn’t racially biased

In a timely post Scott Alexander investigates the evidence around the US justice system to see where, if at all, it is systematically biased against African-Americans. He looks at quite a lot of empirical evidence and concludes that:

There seems to be a strong racial bias in capital punishment and a moderate racial bias in sentence length and decision to jail.

There is ambiguity over the level of racial bias, depending on whose studies you want to believe and how strictly you define “racial bias”, in police stops, police shootings in certain jurisdictions, and arrests for minor drug offenses.

There seems to be little or no racial bias in arrests for serious violent crime, police shootings in most jurisdictions, prosecutions, or convictions.

This is important given the news coverage of the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year old African-American in Ferguson, MI, by a white police officer. Although a lengthy grand jury investigation found that the police officer did not act unlawfully, many have rejected this verdict.

They may be motivated by a belief that the justice system is predisposed to exonerate white police officers who act wrongfully to racial minorities. This is a phenomenon I have written about in the past – one has to use one’s existing beliefs to assess new information to make sense of the world at all. But Alexander’s investigation of the evidence suggests that things may not be as clearly biased as they believe (or, indeed, as I did before reading the post myself).

Alexander makes an important point, however. Although law enforcement may be less biased in the US than we think, the laws themselves may still be very biased (even if that bias is unintended, which perhaps it is). Drug laws, which seem extremely unjust, will cause more injustice to African-Americans if they use drugs more regularly than other racial groups. And then there is the fact that African-Americans may be poorer on average than than white Americans, so they cannot access the same quality of legal defence.

The lesson from this may be that, though we can never escape the ‘webs of belief’ we construct to understand the world, we can try to be aware of the fact that we use these. If instead we decide to view disagreements about politics as existing because bad guys have incentives to fight good guys, we may end up in dark places where no amount of evidence will ever convince us that we may be mistaken.

But *which* right on and trendy thing should I be doing?

One of those lovely little conundrums is raising its head over in the right on and trendy food movement at present. The problem being, well, which part of being right on and trendy should people sign up to? This has actually got to the point that there’s a New York Times opinion piece imploring people to, umm, well, ditch one principle in favour of another:

And yet, if you look closer, there’s a host of reasons sustainable food has taken root here in central Montana. Many farmers are the third or fourth generation on their land, and they’d like to leave it in good shape for their kids. Having grappled with the industrial agriculture model for decades, they understand its problems better than most of us. Indeed, their communities have been fighting corporate power since their grandparents formed cooperative wheat pools back in the 1920s.

For the food movement to have a serious impact on the issues that matter — climate change, the average American diet, rural development — these heartland communities need to be involved. The good news is, in several pockets of farm country, they already are.

“Sustainable” food here means organic. Oh, and small producer: you know, one who cannot get economies of scale because they’re running too few acres. but, you know, if people want to produce this way, live on the pittance they can earn in this manner, good luck to them and all who sail with them. and if people want to buy their produce similarly good luck. However, there’s something of a problem:

But just as these rural efforts started gaining steam, an unfortunate thing happened to the urban food movement: It went local. Hyperlocal. Ironically, conscientious consumers who ought to be the staunchest allies of these farmers are taking pledges not to buy from them, and to eat only food produced within 100 miles of home.

Montana has perhaps three people in addition to all those cows. And it’s a lot more than 100 miles away from any of the hipsters who are interested in small scale organic farming. And those hipsters are all eating local. Which is, don’t you think, just so lovely a problem?

Those urban aesthestes are simply missing the point of farming altogether. Which is that it’s a land hungry occupation (organic even more so than conventional) so it makes great sense to do that work where there’s no people. Farming right by the big cities of the coasts, where land is hugely expensive (because there’s lots of people in those big cities) is simply not a sensible manner of using the resources available.

Just so much fun to see the fashionable being hoist on their own petard really.

Sometimes men and women want different things

Sometimes men and women want different things. Their actions in labour markets are one example of this. That’s OK, even if it results from socially constructed gender roles, so long as it leads to good lives for both genders. One recent example of where this might be the case comes in a new paper studying the mathematically gifted. (Hat tip to Stephen Hsu).

Two cohorts of intellectually talented 13-year-olds were identified in the 1970s (1972–1974 and 1976–1978) as being in the top 1% of mathematical reasoning ability (1,037 males, 613 females). About four decades later, data on their careers, accomplishments, psychological well-being, families, and life preferences and priorities were collected.

Their accomplishments far exceeded base-rate expectations: Across the two cohorts, 4.1% had earned tenure at a major research university, 2.3% were top executives at “name brand” or Fortune 500 companies, and 2.4% were attorneys at major firms or organizations; participants had published 85 books and 7,572 refereed articles, secured 681 patents, and amassed $358 million in grants.

For both males and females, mathematical precocity early in life predicts later creative contributions and leadership in critical occupational roles. On average, males had incomes much greater than their spouses’, whereas females had incomes slightly lower than their spouses’. Salient sex differences that paralleled the differential career outcomes of the male and female participants were found in lifestyle preferences and priorities and in time allocation.

Men and women differed widely on a large number of metrics. Particularly, men, much more than women wanted high pay, risk taking, merit-based compensation and, work involving physical objects. On the other the top three things women valued more than men were, in order: working no more than 40 hours a week, working no more than 50 hours a week, and working no more than 60 hours a week.

It’s OK for people to have different preferences, and it’s OK for those preferences to differ not just within groups but across groups. That’s because satisfying people’s job preferences is what gives them general satisfaction and happiness with their job (shock! horror!) Some people may want men and women to be more alike, and that’s fine, but we should do this keeping in mind the costs that may impose on both groups.

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Bad Signals from DCMS

Yesterday was the final day of a rushed, three week long Government consultation into the elimination of the ‘partial mobile not-spots’ — areas where there’s 2G coverage from some, but not all, of the 4 mobile operators — which cover a fifth of the UK.

The Government now considers such gaps unacceptable, and Sajid Javid has warned that he is prepared to legislate a solution should mobile network operators fail to come up with a satisfactory ‘voluntary’ response.

One of the options the consultation considers is the introduction of national roaming. Via government dictat, mobile operators would be required to enable customers to roam onto a competitor’s network if their home signal were not available.

As the ASI has warned in a submission to the consultation, national roaming would be a terrible idea.

Partial not-spots occur where mobile infrastructure is lacking. To address them we need things like more masts, more powerful equipment and more infrastructure sharing agreements. National roaming does nothing to achieve this, and on the contrary could harm investment and the quality of mobile networks across the board.

A system of national roaming rewards those who’ve invested least in their infrastructure at the expense of those who’ve invested the most. Were it to be introduced, networks could free-ride off the infrastructure of others where their own signal is weak or non-existent, and still ‘provide’ coverage for their customers. Roaming also creates a strong disincentive for any one operator to invest in infrastructure where there’s complete not spots or signal from all 4 operators is weak, as well as reducing the incentive to spend on general repair and upkeep.

Since mobile networks compete predominantly on coverage and the quality of their service, roaming reduces networks’ ability to differentiate themselves. With consumers less able (or less concerned) to judge the quality of an individual network, the return on investment further lessens.

Roaming could also have potentially disastrous consequences for network’s resilience. Were one network to experience an outage, customers would move en mass to alternate networks. This surge in traffic could overwhelm another operator’s infrastructure, leading to a domino effect of failures. This very real risk to critical infrastructure has long been acknowledged as a key argument against a permanent, ‘any to any’ system of national roaming.

For something that wouldn’t actually improve mobile infrastructure and could actually actively threaten it, national roaming wouldn’t come cheap, either. The government’s back-of-the-fag-packet figures put the cost of mandating roaming as between from £276-400m, compared with projected benefits of only £54-249m.

Creating a robust system of national roaming would be a lengthy, expensive, and complex procedure. There’s a very real risk that forcing mobile operators to divert resources towards roaming would result in the slowdown or scaling back of other projects, such as the rollout of 4G. To add insult to injury, consumers would also have to pay for the cost of establishing and operating roaming, even if it makes their service worse than it otherwise would have been.

For all of these problems, national roaming isn’t even an effective solution to partial not-spots. Roaming would be ‘non-seamless’, meaning that calls would be dropped when a phone switches from one network to another. This means that roaming would do very little to help those travelling by motorway or train and going through patchy areas at speed. Calls made where there’s weak signal also risk being dropped when they would have previously stayed connected, and in some areas connection could ‘bounce’ between operators as the phone tries to lock onto the strongest signal.

Roaming would also impact other, surprising elements of consumer’s mobile experience. Roaming on another’s network means that you lose access not only to things like voicemail, but all data services. The practicalities of roaming mean that a phone will probably ‘lock on’ to a network for a few minutes before searching again for a home signal, which means that consumers could be left without internet and other services for a prolonged period of time, despite only experiencing a temporary loss in signal. In addition, a phone which constantly scans for signals and changes networks will deplete its battery far quicker than one locked onto the same operator.

To ask consumers to lose core mobile services and accept diminished handset performance in the name of tackling partial not-spots is frankly absurd. Whilst it may be possible to disable roaming on some devices until needed, the fact that it’s a good idea to do so simply highlights what an enormous waste of time and resources national roaming would be.

Everything so far suggests that introducing national roaming would be a mistake. But when you look at the scale of the problem of partial not-spots, you start to wonder why DCMS even launched this consultation at all.

DCMS point out that 21% of the UK’s land mass is covered by partial not-spots; but they also admit that mobile networks are already working to bring this down. Project Beacon, an infrastructure sharing project between Vodafone and O2 is expected, once completed, to bring this down to 13%, leaving just 2% of premises affected by partial not-spots.

It’s not even clear why the government is so concerned with land mass coverage statistics, anyway. When you look at the percentage of the population with 2G coverage, you see that every operator hits 99%. In addition, spectrum licence obligations mean that 99% of the population will have 4G coverage by 2017 (and developments like voice over WiFI may prove an effective way of  extending coverage and call quality). It’s somewhat misleading, then, to portray a lack of signal as a problem for a significant chunk of the population. Whilst losing signal in rural areas and when travelling can be annoying, it’s millions of miles from clear that it justifies such extensive intervention from the government.

At best, national roaming would bring marginal benefits at great cost. At worst, it would be an expensive, time consuming and potentially destructive disaster. It runs the risk of reducing competition and investment, and sucks for both mobile operators and consumers. Hopefully the consultation will convince DCMS that national roaming is a terrible solution to a problem blown way out of proportion. Certainly, the department would be best to focus on projects that would actually improve mobile infrastructure, such as reform of the inaccessible and outdated Electronic Communications Code. National Roaming is one call that it would be good to drop.