Why we stand up to bullies


Bullies succeed by making their victims fear them. The bully may be stronger than the victim, but he does not constantly use force against them. It is the fear of violence or humiliation that makes victims act in the way the bully wants them to. Once it has been established that the bully can hurt the victim, the threat is enough. Maintaining that threat is relatively cheap for the bully and for a sadist this may seem like a good deal. This might also seem cheaper for the victim, because the costs of direct confrontation may be very high.

When we tell children to stand up to bullies we do not expect that they will turn out to be stronger or more popular than them, though this is what usually happens in fiction. We assume that standing up to a bully will cause the victim to be hurt or humiliated. But it does make it more expensive for the bully to maintain his power over the victim.

Standing up to the bully means that his actions may not have the long-term effects that make them profitable. And it is good to have a general social agreement that bullies are bad, and should be stood up to. It discourages people from trying the tactic in the first place.

Terrorism often operates in the same way. Very few terrorists could ever hope to win in a full-scale war against their victims, so instead they do shocking, frightening things. Yesterday’s attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices was a very significant example of this, because the terrorists’ apparent goals (‘avenging the Prophet’ for blasphemous cartoons) seem ridiculously trivial compared to the lengths they were willing to go to to achieve them.

It is now clear that Western journalists who blaspheme against Islam may be murdered where they work. And most Western journalists don’t really want to blaspheme against Islam anyway. It’s rude, and it’s rude against a group that does not have much power in the West.

What’s more, that kind of wilful rudeness may drive moderate Muslims away from Western liberalism towards Islamic extremism. On the other hand, I’m not sure a person whose respect for free speech ends at a blasphemous cartoon was much of a moderate to begin with.

But if a bully tells you not to do something, sometimes you should do it even if you didn’t really want to do it anyway. Defiance of the bully is very important to rob him of his power over you, and – just as important – to show to others that bullying is not effective.

Simply talking about how unafraid we are of terrorism is an empty, weak reaction. Cartoons that show the power of pencils are worthless. No Jihadi is disturbed by any of this. What disturbs them is to show in our actions that they do not have the bully's power over us. The cost of rudeness is real, but it is insignificant compared to the cost of letting bullying work.

Marijuana legalization in Colorado: One year on


It's been a year since Colorado became the first US state to permit the commercial sale of marijuana for non-medicinal purposes, and statistics which hint at the impact of legalization have just started to emerge. With these come two conflicting reports— one from the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), and another from the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). The two together make for an interesting read. Unsurprisingly, there’s been an increase in the amount of cannabis consumed in Colorado, as well as in Washington, where it has also been legalized.

Both states already had a higher than the US average use of marijuana, but between 2011/12 to 2012/13 the percentage of over-18s who had used marijuana in the past year rose from 16.1% to 18.9% in Colorado, and from 15.3% to 17.6% in Washington, compared to a national increase from 11.6% to 12.2%. Past monthly use of marijuana by 18-25 year olds in 2012/13 was 29.1% in Colorado and 25.6% in Washington, compared with a 18.9% US average.

Of course, an increase in marijuana use isn't in and of itself a bad thing; what matters are the other costs and benefits to society and individuals that legal and increased use creates. Predictably, the two reports paint very different pictures of these.

The DPA point out that Marijuana possession rates in Colorado have fallen 84% since 2010, from over 9,000 arrests a year to under 1,500. However, SAM's report claims that citations for the public display of marijuana have rocketed - from 183 in 2013 to 668 in 2014 in Denver alone.

Both violent crime and property crime fell in Denver in 2014. Violent crime was down by 2.2% in the first 11 months of 2014, compared with a 1.1% decline the year before. Burglaries were down 9.5%, and overall property crime 8.9%. This, the DPA say, is evidence of legalization’s success. However, at the same time, SAM report that drug violations in Denver are up 12%, disorderly conduct up 51%, and public drunkenness up 53%.

SAM also report that the number of citations given for driving under the influence of marijuana in Colorado have risen markedly between 2013 and 2014. However, despite concerns that marijuana legalization would result in an increase in traffic fatalities, the DPA point out that Colorado saw a 3% fall in the number of fatal accidents in 2014, continuing a 12-year downward trend.

SAM’s report contains a handful negative incidents which can be directly attributed to legalization, including a rise in the number of children in ER from the accidental consumption of marijuana edibles, and an increase in people attempting to make hash oil and setting themselves on fire. However, perhaps the most interesting claim of the report is a quote from a Colorado policeman that legalization has ‘done nothing more than enhance the opportunity for the black market’.

A potential reason for continued underground dealing is that, with taxes, legally-purchased weed is up to twice the price of that on the street. However, the market demand for legal weed has far exceeded earlier estimates, including those of the Department of Revenue’s. Unsurprisingly, there’s also been a huge increase in the amount of marijuana which has been stopped from leaving Colorado for other states — a 400% rise between 2008 and 2013, SAM claim. This has resulted in neighbouring Nebraska and Oklahoma suing Colorado for the flow of marijuana across state lines. However, whilst this might present a nice new business for criminal gangs or college students, it seems unlikely that it would increase the black market's size or power compared to pre-legalization.

Of course, it’s also very difficult to know if  other reported stats like falling violent crime can actually be linked to marijuana legislation, and even things like a rise in disorderly behaviour arrests could be down to other factors. But there are a few stats we can be certain about, and these come down to cold hard cash.

Retail marijuana sales raised $40.9m in tax for Colorado between January and October 2014, and that’s not including revenue from medical sales, licenses or fees. Of the revenue collected, $2.5m has been directly set aside to fund more health professionals in Colorado public schools, many of whom will focus on mental health support and drug use education programs.

Legalization has been great for entrepreneurship, too. 16,000 people have been licensed to work in Colorado's marijuana industry so far, and unemployment is at a 6-year low. A study of two marijuana dispensaries by the University of Denver’s economics department found that they generated $30m of economic output and 280 jobs between January and July 2014 – and whilst paying ten times the amount of tax of a typical restaurant or store.

Though we can measure things like tax intake, both the DPA and SAM’s reports highlight the need for much more high-quality data, which can help unravel the effects of legalization, and quantify their impact.  This is something which will likely to emerge with time, but without reliable facts and evidence campaigners on both sides will cherry-pick stats to confirm their existing views — which is no good for the policymakers elsewhere who are watching this experiment closely. (It's certainly a shame that Theresa May is not one of them....)

Nevertheless, a year on and we can tell a couple of things. Legalization is obviously a learning curve. To avoid serious backlash, marijuana users should stop lighting up where they shouldn’t (at school, in public places, before driving, etc), whilst the green industry should probably do more to provide information on the strength and dosage of new products, and particularly edibles.

However, it’s also clear that legalization is a major boon to the public coffers, takes millions of dollars of business out of the hands of criminals and into legitimate businesses, and is a major win for liberty.

SAM may be concerned about the 100 kinds of marijuana gummy bears out there, but these THC-ripened snacks are also testament to the creativity and entrepreneurship that flourishes when the state gets out of the business of deciding what peaceful activities adults are allowed to partake in, for recreation and for profit.

It's always a bit risky to critique a Nobel Laureate but here goes....


There's no doubt that the work of Amartya Sen has enriched the human race. His studies of famine, as an example, have led to a general realisation that in the modern era they're not a result of insufficient food, they're a result of insufficient ability to purchase food that is extant (or to attract food from outside the area to the one of earth). The solution is therefore not to ship corn or wheat, but to ship money and simply give it to people. That this idea has so penetrated even the US government sufficiently that both the Bush and Obama Administrations have attempted to change the method of US famine relief in the face of the usual vested interests is evidence of quite how powerful the point is. However, this does not mean that Professor Sen is correct in all things. And this piece on universal health care shows us this:

The usual reason given for not attempting to provide universal healthcare in a country is poverty. The United States, which can certainly afford to provide healthcare at quite a high level for all Americans, is exceptional in terms of the popularity of the view that any kind of public establishment of universal healthcare must somehow involve unacceptable intrusions into private life. There is considerable political complexity in the resistance to UHC in the US, often led by medical business and fed by ideologues who want “the government to be out of our lives”, and also in the systematic cultivation of a deep suspicion of any kind of national health service, as is standard in Europe (“socialised medicine” is now a term of horror in the US).

The problem with this is that the US does have universal health care. What it does not have is universal health care insurance. And that's a vital distinction. We do not think that the US health care financing system is something that anyone should really be desiring to imitate. We most certainly don't suggest that the NHS, or any other of the European health care systems, should be rebuilt upon the American model. But it is the financing of the system, not the actual treatment, health care delivery, system that is the undesirable thing to copy.

Rock up to any emergency room in the US and you will be treated regardless of capacity to pay. Every county runs a health care system for the indigent and those otherwise unable to pay. Medicaid provides treatment to the poor. Everyone, but everyone, in the US has access to medical treatment. What they do not have access to is treatment without the possibility of having to pay for it out of pocket: and pay for it after the treatment has been given of course.

The importance of this distinction is that Sen is discussing how other countries, ones which don't in fact have universal health care, might move to having such. Great, excellent, a subject well worth discussing. It's also true that we wouldn't go around recommending the US system to those poor countries which currently don't have universal healthcare. But if we don't distinguish between healthcare and the method of financing access to it then we're going to get horribly confused as we try to design the appropriate systems.

Paul Mason wants to be an economist


This is ever so slightly strange. Paul Mason has decided that he'd like to be an economist, figure out how the economy works in detail.

If I could rub an empty lager can, and get a genie to appear and grant me one wish for 2015, it would be for something apparently banal but revolutionary: an accurate simulation of the economy.

It would be multilayered: it would model the microeconomics of my home area, allowing me to test the lurid worries of my neighbours about the opening of a second tattoo shop. It would model the real Britain – including the sex work, the cybercrime and the drug deals. And at a macro-level it would model the whole world – from the effects of a factory collapsing on its workers in Bangladesh to those of fast fashion on the consumption habits of teenage girls here.

The reason we need such models is that the ones provided by economics are pretty useless – particularly when modelling instability, complexity and change. Mainstream economic models rely on the 150-year-old assumption that capitalism’s tendency is towards equilibrium, and that everybody acts rationally; they struggle to accommodate sudden shocks. About 20 years ago economists decided to abandon data and go for an ever more abstract series of models that are logically consistent but not tested against facts, and unable to predict real crises.

There's really only one slight problem with that idea. Hayek showed that, in theory, such detailed planning of an economy simply isn't possible. Knowledge is local, the centre cannot possible gather enough of it in apposite time scales to be able to produce such models. We end up with the end result that we can only use the economy itself as the model of the economy.

It's entirely true that not everyone actually believes Hayek on this point. There's always those who think that just a little more computing power, just a little more scientific socialism, will enable us to overcome this wastefulness of capitalism and markets.

But as the socialists themselves found out, this just isn't true. Or, sa this great essay points out, In Soviet Union Optimisation Problem Solves You.

I said before that increasing the number of variables by a factor of 1000 increases the time needed by a factor of about 30 billion. To cancel this out would need a computer about 30 billion times faster, which would need about 35 doublings of computing speed, taking, if Moore's rule-of-thumb continues to hold, another half century. But my factor of 1000 for prices was quite arbitrary; if it's really more like a million, then we're talking about increasing the computation by a factor of 1021 (a more-than-astronomical, rather a chemical, increase), which is just under 70 doublings, or just over a century of Moore's Law.

Now that is talking about planning the economy. But the same is true of modeling it. For if we can model an economy then, as Mason desires, we would be able to plan it. And the reason that we can't plan it is because we can't model it. It is just one of these things that we cannot do.

Anyway, full marks to Mason for wanting to understand more about the economy, limited points for wanting to know more about the effects of policy but really, shouldn't he have known that his desires are impossible before he became an economics editor?

Ideas can mean the difference between wealth and poverty


Adam Smith never said that “The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations”, as some people who have never read him think. It is hard to think of a less Smithian view – he was the opposite of that quote's patrician and patronising voice, and had a deep compassion for people who had been unlucky in life. But there is some evidence that disadvantaged people underinvest their savings at a huge cost to themselves. This seems to be true even when there are no social constraints or market failures that might cause this to happen.

One reason for this may simply be that poor people do not realise that the investment opportunities exist, or do not really consider that they might benefit from them. Consider those bright young students from deprived backgrounds who have never even considered applying to university, just because nobody in their families ever has either. Your experience of the world shapes how you react to various opportunities that you get.

To test this hypothesis, a group of researchers at Oxford performed a controlled trial in remote Ethiopian villages, where they showed one of several one-hour documentaries about poor Ethiopian farmers who had expanded a business, improved their farming practices or broken cultural norms by, say, marrying for love. “Individuals succeeded largely through their own efforts and by drawing on assistance from community members and available resources, not through outside government or NGO intervention.”

The trial involved a placebo group (shown a comedy movie) and a control group (shown nothing at all) and it seems to have been a success. Six months after the screenings, the documentary group’s savings rate had risen significantly above the control group’s and had also begun to access credit at a higher rate. (These are some of the poorest people in the world, so the absolute amounts – a few pounds – may seem very small to our eyes.)

School enrolment was up by 15 percent in the documentary group, although it was also up by 10 percent in the placebo group so the effect is unclear, and spending on school expenses was up by 17% (compared to no change in the placebo group).

Overall, the results seem to show that showing extremely poor people examples of people like them who had made something of themselves inspired them to invest in themselves and their families.

It’s just one study, but it hints at something bigger. Incentives matter, of course, but you have to be aware of the existence of an incentive for it to work on you. Even if you’re aware of it, you might discount (or exaggerate) its significance according to your experiences. In a complex world, each of us uses a different pair of glasses to focus on what matters and filter out what doesn't. And no pair is perfect.

There is no obvious public policy lesson from any of this, except perhaps that people don’t always react predictably to incentives. Incentives matter – but so do ideas.

Men are not 'over', women are not discriminated against


In what seems to me slightly contradictory, two popular modern memes hold that, firstly, we are experiencing 'the end of men', who are steadily being eclipsed by women in many levels of academia, areas of the economy and so on; and secondly that women are discriminated against in the labour market, which is why they only earn around three quarters as much as men on average per hour. A 2013 paper by Kingsley Browne in the Boston University Law Review challenges both of these claims, arguing that the dominance women enjoy in many areas of society refutes the idea they are discriminated against, but their relative scarcity in other areas shows how men are still not 'over'. He explains this discrepancy between sectors to differences in preferences and characteristics between the sexes, differences he believes are biologically caused.

Common examples of perceived workplace inequality – the “glass ceiling,” the “gender gap” in compensation, and occupational segregation, among others – cannot be well understood if the explanation proffered for their existence is limited exclusively to social causes such as discrimination and sexist socialization.

Males and females have, on average, different sets of talents, tastes, and interests, which cause them to select somewhat different occupations and exhibit somewhat different workplace behaviors. Some of these sex differences have biological roots. Temperamental sex differences are found in competitiveness, dominance seeking, risk taking, and nurturance, with females tending to be more “person oriented” and males more “thing oriented.”

The sexes also differ in a variety of cognitive traits, including various spatial, verbal, mathematical, and mechanical abilities. Although social influences can be important, these social influences operate on (and were in fact created by) sexually dimorphic minds.

As I have written before, even if the very substantial work-related differences between men and women are socially constructed, satisfying their preferences as they are, rather than as an egalitarian might want them to be, makes men and women best off. I have also written how the gender wage gap isn't evidence for firm discrimination between the genders, because it is entirely explained by women's decisions (to take safer, more satisfying jobs, to work lower hours and to take substantial time out of the workforce).

He points out that women have recently come to dominate many high status fields and that most of the gender wage gap is between, not within, professions. Taken together, he argues there is no general 'glass ceiling', although of course there are many individual instances of discrimination.

In many respects, however, women have made breathtaking advances in the past several decades. Professions such as law and medicine are reaching parity among new entrants, and women represent over 60% of newly enrolled pharmacy students and over 75% of new veterinarians.

Even within fields in which men predominate generally, such as science, technology and engineering, there are interesting variations: women are underrepresented in metallurgical and mechanical engineering but much closer to parity in biomedicine and bioengineering.

And he gives strong evidence for differences between men and women in: competitiveness, which are not easily explained by 'stereotype threat' given that they start very early and only appear in specific sorts of high pressure competition; risk-taking (boys and men take more risk); interest in children (girls and women show more of it); spatial reasoning ability (men excel); verbal ability (women excel); and occupational interests.

Whether these are biological or social they massively affect the fields that women want to enter and the ones they can do well in. And this is OK! It makes people happier to do jobs (including work in the home) they want to do and jobs they are good at. It's OK for our labour markets to reflect this—it makes us better off overall.

No, really, markets do sort themselves out


You'll recall the terrified bleating from the usual suspects over the way that the supermarkets were sitting on all that land that could be used? As we recall said bleating the first set of allegations were that they had the land banks to make sure that other supermarket chains couldn't build stores in an area. Our reaction to that was, well, issue more planning chittys then. More recently the story moved on to how the supermarkets were sitting on all that land that should be used for housing instead. To which our reaction was, well, issue more planning chittys then. We're really not short of land to build on in this country, we're only short of land someone is allowed to build upon.

And what is happening now?

Britain’s supermarkets are building on just 6pc of the land they control across the UK, underlining the problem they face with undeveloped sites as the industry battles tumbling sales.

New figures show that the pipeline of new grocery stores in the UK is 46.61m sq ft, the equivalent of more than 1,000 acres. However, just 2.8m sq ft of these new stores are actually under construction.

Building work on stores has fallen by 20pc compared to a year ago as the “big four” supermarket chains – Tesco, Asda, J Sainsbury and Wm Morrison – suffer from tumbling sales and profits.

This means that 43.81m sq ft of land across the country is sitting unutilised by grocery retailers according to property agent CBRE. This land is either subject to a proposal for a new food store, or planning permission has already been granted.

The supermarkets simply do not want to build more stores on that land that they own. That land will, therefore, in the fullness of time (given the time and effort it will take to change said planning chittys, this system is not known for its efficiency) be developed to some other purpose, most likely that housing that was being called for.

And all being done without a politician or a bureaucrat making a plan, without considering social usefulness and entirely cocking a snook at the desires of our betters in the Great and the Good.

We the peasantry have decided that we're not all that interested in more supermarkets. So, therefore, there won't be that many more supermarkets. Markets really do just sort themselves out, we get supplied with what we actually want for that's what we spend our money on, what we want.

Well, markets do sort themselves out if they're allowed to. Who's willing to bet on the campaigns against those now won't be supermarket sites being turned into the housing that people insist we need?

Russia, China, and the perils of economic warfare


Many Russians may believe that Putin’s invasion of Crimea was legitimate and justified, many may also believe that Putin’s domestic and foreign policies are at odds with their national interests. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if, in future, many Russians also remember the nations that refused to lift their economic sanctions whilst they suffered from a crippling crisis and that it was the Chinese government that offered help in those dire straits. Of course, this is limited help and there are a lot of other problems to sort out but the gesture is a strong signal of China’s stance and indicative of the possibility of further assistance in future. Warfare via economic sanctions leads to the division of the world into inefficient trading blocs and provides a natural basis from which governments can form convenient, logical military alliances. The wonder then, is whether economic sanctions are really worth risking any chance at long-term peace and stability we may have? Though sanctions are designed to put pressure on governments, regular citizens suffer immensely from them and, in future, when young Russians remember this crisis, that suffering won’t easily be forgotten.

Iran, like Russia, is also in a vulnerable situation and it is quite easy to see how these sanctions that artificially and inefficiently divide the world could also encourage the proliferation of worrying military alliances between those states that feel ‘cornered’ and this garners a sort of legitimate solidarity against their ‘oppressors’.

In the long-run, with alliance systems that lead to increased military posturing (as we had already witnessed from Russia in the Ukraine and in the EU, we are witnessing from China in the Asia-Pacific and we might conceivably further witness from Iran and North Korea) there will be increased uncertainty and genuine fear amongst peaceful peoples and, in the end, global social welfare and economic growth will be stunted in the name of ‘humanitarian’ intervention.

Of course, the wider problem is that the global system of trade restrictions are essentially sugar coated economic sanctions and, therefore, a form of subtle economic warfare that we are conditioned to ignore. Free trade is necessary in order to ensure that there is no unnecessary, state-induced hatred fostered between peoples. Perhaps we could add to the Geneva conventions by suggesting that economic sanctions be ruled out of the question? In this way, instead of providing fertile ground for fostering the animosity necessary for armed conflict, people who truly want peace would be free to go about their own business. The peaceful sentiment that free trade encourages may also help discourage these governments from acting violently in the first place!

Where should one go to glory in the wonders of the world?


We were rather taken aback by one of those listicles telling us all about which roads we should drive along as part of that bucket list of experiences before we die. Here is it, you know the sort of thing. Pacific Highway in California, Skyline Drive, yadda yadda. And it's fair enough, they are trying to give a list of scenic routes. And there's many such lists and sure, many of the things on such lists are worth looking at: the Amalfi Drive for example. However, the bit that always takes us aback with these things is that they're always about going to look at Nature. And always Nature, not nature. Those bits of the world that could be and almost certainly were viewed and possibly even enjoyed by our Australopithecene ancestors.

And while nature's (or Nature's) often fun and even impressive it's not that at all which we regard as the glorious thing about the world that we inhabit. Rather, it's the cities of the world that are. A wander down Cannon Street past St Paul's and into the beating heart of the world's markets that is The City. A drive down Park Avenue perhaps, or to view the commodities of the world easily available and reasonably priced upon Oxford Street. Or, dare we say it, a visit to the food section of a shopping mall where more calories are available, at trivial cost in effort and time, that one of those Australopithecenes would have seen in an entire short lifetime.

What really is a wonder of the world? The scrapings in the rocks that the glaciers have left behind or the civilisation that we have built in the past 10,000 years on that rubble?

If that latter, what, in the comments, would be your example of that one piece of it, the apotheosis of it, that all should place upon their bucket list?

Johann Hari is back and he's actually saying something sensible

But while Johann Hari is back and he is saying something sensible he's not, as so often, actually saying anything original. He's back with a book about drugs and the War on Drugs. This is not even remotely true:

Hari’s book turns out to be a page-turner, full of astonishing revelations. I had no idea that the war on drugs was single-handedly invented by a racist ex-prohibition agent, who needed to find a new problem big enough to protect his departmental budget. One of the first victims of his ambition was Billie Holiday, whose heroin addiction enraged him to the point where he hounded her to death. After he’d had the singer jailed for drugs, she was stripped of her performing licence, and as she unravelled into destitution and despair, his agents continued to harass her, even summoning a grand jury to indict her as she lay dying under police guard in a hospital bed.

That specific harrying of Billie Holiday might be, we don't know, but that's not the start of the War on Drugs by any means at all. As Chris Snowden has explained at book length the attempts to fight a War on Drugs begin long before Billie Holliday was being harrassed. Back to neat the turn into the Twentieth Century in fact.

However, this is true:

But something didn’t add up. “Every day, all over the world, hospital patients are given medical heroin, diamorphine, very often for long periods. And virtually none of them afterwards goes out and tries to score on the street. Which made me think, the issue here can’t just be the drug.”

Hari went to Vancouver to meet a psychology professor, Bruce Alexander, who had been similarly puzzled, so had replicated the original experiments. This time, instead of experimenting on solitary rats locked in empty cages, he offered the choice of clean or drugged water to rats kept in what he called Rat Park, a kind of rat heaven full of wheels and coloured balls and delicious food, and other rats to play and mate with. When these rats tried heroin, they weren’t very interested.

“They just didn’t like it. None of them overdosed. Even more strikingly, he then took rats that had become addicted in the isolated cages, and put them into Rat Park. And they almost immediately stopped using. What Alexander had found is that we’ve fundamentally misunderstood what addiction is. It isn’t a moral failing. It isn’t a disease. Addiction is an adaptation to your environment. It’s not you; it’s the cage you live in.”

It's not, however, remotely original. Much the same has been pointed out by Stanton Peele for some 40 years now. Most notably in pointing out that the vast majority of those American troops who used heroin in Vietnam came home and simply stopped using it, as various official reports have pointed out.

We'll have to wait for the book itself to see whether he properly attributes his sources, eh?