It's official, Uber saves lives

Tomorrow, the European Commission is set release its findings from a year long investigation into the Sharing Economy. Interestingly they're expected to go against many European cities who are increasingly trying to regulate ridesharing out of existence.

Last week, I argued that attempts to protect consumers by regulating supposedly unsafe products often backfired, because those products are often substitutes for even riskier products and behaviours. In particular, I pointed to Austin's fingerprint background check requirement that made Uber and Lyft prohibitively expensive to run in the city, and led to consumers taking even riskier journeys. But, if anything the harms of driving Uber and Lyft out of town are even greater than I made out.

At least that's according to a new Working Paper from Angela Dills and Sean Mulholland, which investigated the impact of Uber's entry to a city on vehicle accidents and crime. They looked at data across 150 cities and counties on a range of metrics, from vehicle accidents and DUI arrests, to drunk and disorderly conduct and aggravated assault. 

Dills and Mulholland point out that there's a range of ways that Uber might affect crime and accident rates. Maybe it'll increase accidents because Uber drivers are more likely to be distracted both by smart phones and passengers. Maybe it'll increase driver-on-passenger assaults as unsafe drivers sneak through lax background checks. Maybe it'll increase assault widely, as more folks get their drink on, safe in the knowledge they don't have to be the designated driver.

But the data doesn't bear out any of these fears. Dills and Mulholland came away with two major findings.

First, the rate of vehicular accidents falls quite dramatically when Uber enters a city, with traffic fatalities declining by 16.6 per cent over a year. This can be explained by both a reduction in the number of people driving under the influence, as well as the fact that the people most likely to use Uber (i.e. millennials) are terrible drivers and anything that keeps them off the road is a good thing.

Second, they find declines in arrests for both assaults and disorderly conduct. This may be because Uber reduces passenger wait times, lowering the risk of someone being attacked while waiting for a cab. This finding is especially important as governments have attempted to impose minimum wait times on ridesharing services with varying success (thankfully, TFL's proposals were roundly rejected).

As city governments increasingly move to crack down upon ride-sharing services like Uber on the grounds of public safety, legislators should take these findings very seriously. Bans on Uber aren't just bad economics, they can kill.

The BBC’s output, management, and quality are irrelevant, the license fee should be scrapped regardless

Arguments about the BBC seem to invariably focus on whether it is biased or genuinely neutral. Zionists think it is anti-semitic. Anti-Zionists think it supports Palestinian genocide. The right thinks it disseminates Cultural Marxism and Europhilia. The left thinks it is little more than a cheerleader for the Tories, an establishment mouthpiece, and/or part of the Blairite-media conspiracy to undermine Comrade Corbyn.

Maybe all of this true; probably it is all paranoid nonsense. No news can be perfectly objective, and no network can please everyone. In fact, the BBC probably does comparably well compared to the likes of MSNBC and Fox News.

However, this is not a good argument for making everyone who owns a TV pay for a license fee. Neither is the popularity or quality of the BBC’s programming. The fact that some (even the majority of) people enjoy and benefit from what a network produces does not mean that other (even a minority of) people should have to subsidise it. If someone only wants to watch ITV, Channel 4, and Sky, then they should not have to pay to fund a network for others.

The solution from a policy perspective is simple: make payment voluntary. How to handle this should be left to the BBC itself. Introducing advertising may prove unpopular. Instead, it could be turned into a subscription only service. Perhaps people could choose to purchase TV and online subscriptions either separately or as a single package. 

Setting aside that it is entirely subjective whether ‘Strictly’ is better than ‘X-Factor’, or if ‘Doctor Who’ is better than ‘Game of Thrones’, there is no reason that the quality of programming would fall. Netflix has proven extremely successful from charging a fraction of the license fee. There is no reason to think that many people who currently pay the fee would cease to do so. And, if they did, that would be because what the BBC was not offering a service worth paying for.

Some on the left would object that the purpose of having a state controlled network is to provide ‘higher class’ services to those who could not afford it otherwise. Regardless of the merits of this view, it does not support the license fee. There are no concessions for being poor. In fact, many of those convicted for non-payment are people who cannot afford to pay. Concessions for the over-75s are one of the many benefits offered to a proportionately well-off section of society. Concessions for the blind and care homes could be maintained, if the network or government saw fit.

Equally, cultural conservatives may trumpet the virtues of having a network that unites the nation and creates a sense of belonging and unity. This vision is woefully out-dated. The fracturing and pluralisation of the market means that the 1950s picture of families around the country crowding around their TV sets to watch the same thing is long dead. This is a positive development. People have always had a diversity of tastes and preferences, and yearning for more ‘community’ at the expense of the freedom of choice is a miserable ideal.

Unfortunately, when critics of the license fee attack the BBC for being too competitive or for falling short on impartiality, they are arguing on their opponents’ terms. They will lose these arguments. The proposals in the government’s White Paper to abolish the BBC Trust and replace it with a largely government appointed unitary board will only be unpopular. It does not matter whether the BBC is successful, popular, impartial, independent, or innovative. The license fee still needs to go. 

We are deeply, deeply, confused here

We simply do not understand why people are so dead set against the TTIP, TPP and in this latest example, CETA. Those jumbles of acronyms being the various free trade treaties that are under negotiation. The usual bands of hippies and Teenage Trots seem dead set against them. Greenpeace has been climbing towers and the Trots writing in The Guardian.

Sure, these deals are not very good: the only logical trade stance is unilateral free trade of course. But making trade a little bit easier in the absence of that sensible policy doesn't sound like a bad idea. So what is it with these people?

For example:

Like the US deal, Ceta contains a new legal system, open only to foreign corporations and investors. Should the British government make a decision, say, to outlaw dangerous chemicals, improve food safety or put cigarettes in plain packaging, a Canadian company can sue the British government for “unfairness”. And by unfairness this simply means they can’t make as much profit as they expected. The “trial” would be held as a special tribunal, overseen by corporate lawyers.

We're not really sure what to call this. A mistake? Oversight? Lie? For in the treaty itself:

1. For the purpose of this Chapter, the Parties reaffirm their right to regulate within their territories to achieve legitimate policy objectives, such as the protection of public health, safety, the environment or public morals, social or consumer protection or the promotion and protection of cultural diversity.

2. For greater certainty, the mere fact that a Party regulates, including through a modification to its laws, in a manner which negatively affects an investment or interferes with an investor’s expectations, including its expectations of profits, does not amount to a breach of an obligation under this Section. 

There's a specific clause in the treaty itself that flat out states that the allegation is not true. so why are these people continually repeating something that just is not true?

What is it that some innocent trade treaty has done to them that it should be misrepresented so grievously?

 Finally, through something called a “ratchet clause”, current levels of privatisation would be “locked in” on any services not specifically exempted. If Canadian or EU governments want to bring certain services back into public ownership, they could be breaking the terms of the agreement.

Not true in the slightest:

A Party shall not nationalise or expropriate a covered investment either directly, or indirectly through measures having an effect equivalent to nationalisation or expropriation (“expropriation”), except: (a) for a public purpose; (b) under due process of law; (c) in a non-discriminatory manner; and (d) on payment of prompt, adequate and effective compensation. For greater certainty, this paragraph shall be interpreted in accordance with Annex 8- A. 2. The compensation referred to in paragraph 1 shall amount to the fair market value of the investment at the time immediately before the expropriation or the impending expropriation became known, whichever is earlier. Valuation criteria shall include going concern value, asset value including the declared tax value of tangible property, and other criteria, as appropriate, to determine fair market value. 

As today a government can nationalise anything it likes. It must simply pay for it, that's all. The government's allowed to force you to sell your house in order to drive a train line through. But they must pay for it.

And thus our confusion. We know that what is being said is not true. What we cannot work out is why people are propounding such untruths. Anyone got any ideas?

Oh yes, excellent joke from Respublica here

This is a bit of a blinder from Phillip Blond's little don't think too hard tank. The proposal is that Google and Facebook should be paying into a fund which will support traditional journalism. There're two problems with this idea.

The first is the obvious: who gets to decide what journalism gets done with that fund? I think we know, don't we? The sort approved of by Phillip Blond and the like. And isn't that lovely, they propose that they get a chunk of other peoples' money to play with.

The other problem is that they've entirely misunderstood the economics of what is happening here:

He argues that the UK newspaper industry is undergoing an existential crisis. Revenues are declining. Titles are being closed. Editorial staffs are being cut back. The result is that public interest journalism is endangered.

By contrast, online media giants such as Google and Facebook, which take newsfeeds from newspapers, are making huge profits.

In the UK alone, he writes, Google generated more than £7bn of revenues in 2015 while, in 2014, Facebook registered £105m in revenues. Much of this income came from advertisers that once supported news publishers.

Schlosberg contends that a portion of those revenues could be used to build a fund in order to help Britain’s ailing journalism industry.

He said: “Google gains traffic by using stories generated by the media but it pays nothing for the articles. At first glance this seems okay because readers can clearly see the story source, but for journalism and the media industry this is proving harmful.

We should note that Google News doesn't actually carry any advertising. So what revenue?

But there's more to this ignorance. One of us earns the daily crust in exactly this industry. Producing electronic journalism for the modern audience. And we positively lust after being mentioned in Google News: a prominent placement of a headline there will bring 50,000 readers to a piece: more than the daily circulation of a local newspaper. Something going mildly viral on Facebook will being 500,000 readers to a piece: more than the daily circulation of a many a national newspaper. And crucially, it is not Facebook nor Google which sells the advertisements that those readers see: it is the publication which is hosting the article.

That is, both Facebook and Google are driving money to the publications, not extracting from nor displacing revenue. Which is, of course, why absolutely every news outlet on the planet now trains its journalists how to write copy that is likely to be picked up by Google News and has the potential to go viral on Facebook.

The electronic aggregators drive revenue to the newspapers, not deprive them of it. So why on Earth should the be charged for the privilege of doing so?

We even know what would happen if the attempt was made. In Germany the law became that a publisher could charge Google News a copyright fee for inclusion. Google said charge us and we won't include you: all the publishers agreed that gaining the traffic was worth it to them and thus they do not charge. In Spain the option was removed: Google must pay. Google closed the service leaving the publishers most miffed.

We like think tanks, we are one in fact. But we do think the emphasis should be on the think part there.

Why it matters what entrepreneurs think about Brexit

Campaigners for Remain and Leave are keen to ally themselves with entrepreneurs. And the media regularly and willingly reports what individuals and groups of entrepreneurs think about the EU Referendum. But should we value their views above the general population?  

I think we should. After all, entrepreneurial companies often produce higher quality innovations, are more efficient and generate a disproportionate share of employment and productivity growth. To a greater extent than most of the population, entrepreneurs are more tuned into the factors that will impact Britain’s future economic success. Afte rall, they also have more skin in the game. If you were to build a scale of people whose views on the EU Referendum deserves to be listened to most, entrepreneurs would be near the top. What public sector workers approaching retirement think about the EU Referendum has less to tell us about what’s good for society than what entrepreneurs think.

So, what do entrepreneurs think about the EU Referendum? Headlines have been made by a few high-profile statements by individual or groups of entrepreneurs, but these – because of the relatively low numbers – should be dismissed. On the level of the individual, two entrepreneurs can have diametrically opposite views. And it’s easy enough to bring together a group of entrepreneurs who are principally motivated by ideal like sovereignty or the European ideal – even ahead of the success of their business. These motivations are legitimate but not unique to entrepreneurs and so not special.

Surveys offer the greater insight. And in survey after survey entrepreneurs are decidedly split on the benefits of leaving the EU. In most surveys, entrepreneurs running large businesses tend to be more favorable to the EU than smaller businesses. Should we take them more seriously? After all, they are self-evidently more successful. Perhaps, but working against this is the fact that entrepreneurs running large businesses are more likely to have the characteristics of managers as opposed to entrepreneurs. This suggests that the pros and cons of Brexit for entrepreneurs – and so for society at large – are more balanced than many on the extremes of the debate would have you believe.

The Entrepreneurs Network is running an event on 16th June with Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Raoul Ruparel, Co-Director of Open Europe, Allie Renison of the Institute of Directors and Roland Smith, Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute – all of whose opinions we should value very highly. (Perhaps even more than entrepreneur.)

Stop saying 'virtue signalling'

It has become popular to describe certain behaviour as ‘virtue signalling’. By this people mean, in the words of James Bartholemew (who helped to popularize the term, and who I like very much in every other respect), writing or saying things 'to indicate that they are virtuous'. As popular as it is, it’s a stupid term that misuses the concepts it invokes, it encourages lazy thinking, and it’s hypocritical.

The term signalling does not mean the same thing as 'saying' or 'showing off' when it is used by economists or biologists. Signalling means credibly giving information that is difficult to prove just by saying it. For example, banks used to have very grand buildings. Any bank could claim to be safe, but only a bank that had lots of money could afford a grand office.

Education is a classic example of signalling. It’s difficult to show to a potential employer that you’re smart and hard working, but only smart and hard working people can get a good university degree (in theory). Good university degrees might be partially about signalling ability to potential employers.

That’s what signalling is. It’s a very useful concept. It means exactly the opposite of what virtue signalling means – it’s credible and honest. The whole point of virtue signalling is that it’s disingenuous and cheap. A better term would be ‘showing off’. How many times where the term virtue signalling has been used would ‘showing off’ not have just as accurately sufficed? It’s not exactly a novel concept.

For something to actually be virtue signalling, rather than just showing off, it would need some sort of sacrifice, like a sacrifice of knowledge by pretending some obvious falsehood is true.

The other problem with the term is that it assumes your opponents are disingenuous. This is of course very common but it is probably the single worst thing about political debate.

It comes from an underlying assumption that the world is straightforward and your views are obviously correct. To many people it’s obvious that letting Syrian refugees in to Britain is a bad idea, because if even a few of them are terrorists we’re endangering our own people's lives. The people who ignore this are most likely trying to show off how much they care and what good people they are – hence virtue signalling.

To many people it’s obvious that welfare cuts are cruel and unnecessary, and indeed hold back the recovery by taking money out of the economy. If you support those cuts you’re putting ideology ahead of real people, and that makes you a heartless scumbag.

But it’s possible to disagree honestly and sincerely about complicated questions with lots of different moving parts. In a world as complex as we libertarians say it is, it would be astonishing if the truth was obvious about almost any contentious policy issue. Disagreeing with me and being a bit right-on does not mean you are disingenuous. Voting Labour while not spending your life doing volunteer work doesn’t either, nor does being a libertarian but not signing up to join an anarcho-capitalist seastead.

Giving money to wasteful charities might count as virtue signalling, but only if you know that the charities are wasteful. I suspect most virtue signalling accusers assume that it’s obvious that groups like Fairtrade are wasteful or harmful. In fact it probably doesn’t even cross most people’s minds that that might be the case.

Accusing others of virtue signalling encourages you to not interrogate your own beliefs. If you think people only disagree with you because they’re trying to show off how nice they are to their mates, why would you even consider that what’s obvious to you might actually be wrong? As well as being rude and stupid, virtue signalling gives people another mental shortcut to dogmatism.

Finally, saying virtue signalling is hypocritical. It’s often used to try to show that the accuser is above virtue signalling and that their own arguments really are sincere. Of course, this is really just another example of virtue signalling!

Dismissing other people’s false beliefs as virtue signalling means you won’t consider them properly and means they have every right to do the same to your beliefs, which as far as they’re concerned are also obviously false. Sometimes beliefs are honestly, sincerely held, however stupid they seem to you, and if there’s any value to debate at all it requires that we at least consider the possibility that we might be the stupid ones.

At best, virtue signalling is a pretentious way of saying 'showing off'. At worst, it is mental armour against self-doubt. People should stop saying it.

Cannabis is a consumer product – that's how it should be regulated

I spoke at an event, "Regulate: But How?" last night held by VolteFace, a new magazine that is working to bring a bit of sanity to the drugs debate and hopefully in doing so militate for drug reform. The theme of the event was what the key regulatory considerations ought to be if and when we do legalise cannabis. Here are my opening remarks:


Ladies and Gentlemen:

Harm reduction is an important goal but it cannot be our only consideration if cannabis regulation is to be a success. 

Most cannabis users smoke not because they are addicted but to have fun. If our regulatory framework does not put this insight at the heart of its structure it will fail to deliver the benefits that legalisers promise, and further drug reforms will be hindered. 

It is crucial that cannabis is regulated according to what it is: a low-harm consumer product that most users enjoy without major problems.

Where this hasn’t been done legalization has had, at best, mixed success. Colorado has seen improvements but high taxes and regulations, and a fundamental aversion to anything that might actually increase the user base has held that back. 

So don’t just legalise it to better stamp it out in the long run, like many people wish to do with tobacco. Accept it as a normal part of the lives of the people who choose to use it, as we do with alcohol.

The lighter our regulation, the more scope there is for business to improve the quality and delivery of the product. Once we accept that using cannabis is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, our phobia of letting capitalism in should fade away.

Of course kind of approach would seem anathema to those people for whom even very limited legalization is a hard sell. But this largely misses why people object to cannabis.

Public use is most people’s biggest concern by far. A Pew poll last year found that while 62% of Americans said they’d object to people using marijuana in public if it was legal, only 15% would object to people using it in their own homes. Even among people who oppose legalization, a majority say they would not object to people using it in their own homes. 

This point, I think, militates against the model recently proposed by the Lib Dems for cooperatively-run high street shops to be the primary vendors for cannabis in the UK. 

We don’t want to be accused of turning the UK into a gigantic Amsterdam-style red light district; and we certainly don’t want to make it more convenient for people to smoke on the street than it is for them to smoke in their own homes.

Indeed this model does not appear to be particularly commercially viable either, and when we consider the power that local government planning committees wield over places like this it should be fairly obvious that this is a non-starter, at least as the dominant way for people to buy cannabis.

When I need to buy electronics, books, a takeaway, or indeed legal drugs, I go online. Just today I had a new phone battery delivered via Amazon Prime, less than 24 hours after I ordered it. 

Online shopping allows for greater competition and economies of scale, which reduce costs and offer greater accountability because reputation matters so much.

Indeed there is already a large and relatively healthy marketplace for illegal drugs, albeit one that suffers from unreliability and risks precisely because of government prohibition.    

I suggest that online sales and delivery seem to be the most viable way of making cannabis accessible to those who want it. 

And that is an accessibility that steers people towards using it in their own homes. Indeed it might be most politically saleable for us to continue to outlaw street consumption and, of course, sales, and presume that creating a safe legal alternative will drive most people into the privacy of their own homes, or their friend’s.

But apart from these restrictions on the hard issues of where people can buy and use cannabis we should favour as much free-wheeling capitalism as possible. Plain packaging, price controls, advertising bans, restrictions on preparations and dosage – all these things continue to treat cannabis and cannabis users as the enemy, and will dull the effectiveness of legalisation.

In many respects cannabis will be seen as the test case for further drug reform, so it’s crucial that we get this one right. Red lines where they matter and where people actually care, but not the medicalization in all but name that many well meaning campaigners want. The object isn’t harm elimination, it’s not even harm reduction alone, it’s utility maximization. 

This problem is too important not to leave to the market.