Monday, December 27, 2004

OBEY - the sign said so!

Digital "informational" highway signs line the roads from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco. Their intent is to convey timely information about problems up ahead, and when they do that, it's great. "CHAINS REQUIRED AHEAD" is an excellent thing to have a sign about. I even appreciate early warning about accidents, lane closures and so on.

But this weekend there was nothing newsworthy to convey. At least, nothing that our mysterious Signmaster knew about. So did the signs stay blank, conserving electricity and sparing drivers unnecessary distraction? Heavens no! Instead, they displayed generic public-service messages. A couple of common examples:



There's something disturbingly Orwellian about regularly seeing the word "OBEY" overheard in bright 6 inch tall capital letters. "OBEY THE LAW" is worse. Who is the intended audience for these signs? Are there a great many potential scofflaws who will be dissuaded by the presence of an "OBEY THE LAW" sign"?

This is just the latest example of a disturbing trend - random hectoring in semi-public spaces. CalTrain installed message signs and vocal announcement capability at most stations recently, and the one unifying theme of all the announcements is that they are totally unhelpful. For instance:

"If the ticket machine is malfunctioning, please report it immediately."

"Watch for suspicious activity."

If announcement speakers and billboard signs are always saying something, it's much less likely anybody will pay attention when they are saying something important.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Social Security versus Global Warming

There's an interesting parallel between the way the right treats social security and the way the left treats global warming. Both are potentially large problems that occur way off in the distant future. Private accounts are a tiny step in what might be the right direction to solve the Social Security problem but as currently envisioned they are obviously on too small a scale to solve the whole thing.

Similarly, the Kyoto Accord is a tiny step in what might be the right direction to solve the global warming problem, but obviously it makes no significant difference in the scope of the problem if we stop there.

In both cases, "do nothing" is probably the prudent course, but the next-best course -- and one that will help get people elected and viewed as problem solvers -- is to make a very small change and see how that works with the idea that if nothing horrible happens, they might make a slightly larger change a decade later, and so on, until the problem is eventually solved. If the change works. If the change turns out in practice to have negative or no effect,it's easier to back out and reverse a small change than a big one.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Business Law in Daily Use, 1881

The following compilation of business law contains the essence of a large amount of legal verbiage:

If a note is lost or stolen, it does not release the maker; he must pay it, if the consideration for which it was given and the amount can be proven.
Notes bear interest only when so stated.
Principals are responsible for the acts of their agents.
Each individual in a partnership is responsible for the whole amount of the debts of the firm, except in cases of special partnership.
Ignorance of the law excuses no one.
The law compels no one to do impossibilities.
An agreement without consideration is void.
A note made on a Sunday is void.
Contracts made on a Sunday cannot be enforced.

A note by a minor is void.
A contract made with a minor is void.
A contract made with a lunatic is void.
A note obtained by fraud, or from a person in a state of intoxication, cannot be collected.
It is a fraud to conceal a fraud.
Signatures made with a lead pencil are good in law.
A receipt for money is not always conclusive.
The acts of one partner bind all the rest.
"Value received" is usually written in a note, and should be, but is not necessary. If not written it is presumed by the law, or may be supplied by proof.
The makers of an "accomodation" bill or note (one for which he has received no consideration, having lent his name or credit for the accommodation of the holder) is not bound to the person accommodated, but is bound to all other parties, precisely as if there was a good consideration.
No consideration is sufficient in law if it be illegal in its nature.
Checks or drafts must be presented for payment without unreasonable delay.
Checks or drafts should be presented during business hours, but in this country, except in the case of banks, the time extends through the day and evening.
If the drawee of a check or draft has changed his residence, the holder must use due or reasonable diligence to find him.
If one who holds a check as payee or otherwise, transfers it to another, he has a right to insist that the check be presented that day, or, at farthest, on the day following.
A note indorsed in blank (the name of the indorser only written) is transferable by delivery, the same as if made payable to bearer.

[Source: a diary kept by John Mason Robie, my great-grandfather. "The Standard Diary Published For The Trade, 1881" begins with a dozen pages of generically useful information, including a two-page summary of business law, of which the above constitutes the first page. Boldface added by me.]

Monday, December 06, 2004

Becker on weapons and preventative war

The Gary Becker-Richard Posner blog is finally up and running. the first issue they deal with is the economics of preventative war. I had a problem with Becker's conclusion. He writes:
The degree of certainty required before preventive actions are justified has been considerably reduced below what it was in the past because the destructive power of weaponry has enormously increased. Perhaps most worrisome, the power of weapons continues to grow, and to become more easily accessible. Critics of preventive wars and other preventive actions against rogue states and terrorist groups ignore these major changes in weaponry and their availability. Democratic governments have to recognize that they no longer have the luxury of waiting to respond until they are attacked.
But "major changes in weaponry and their availability" is a factor that cuts both ways. Certainly, it raises the cost of not intervening when intervention is appropriate. But it equally raises the cost of intervening badly or at the wrong time. Thus it's not clear to me that this factor should make us more rather than less inclined to intervene. It simply raises the stakes.

Given that government does very few things well, has incentive problems, has information problems, and just generally tends to make a lot of mistakes, I don't trust that giving government more lattitude to intervene pre-emptively is likely in practice to eliminate old terrorists faster than it inspires new ones.

If intervention tends to create a net increase in terrorists and terrorism, the fact that the new terrorists can be more effective at a lower cost today than in times past should lead us to favor fewer and smaller interventions than before.

Kirk Parker correctly points out (in the comments to Becker's blog) that some changes in weaponry technology do weigh in favor of intervention. In particular, the fact that we have smaller and more precise weapons on our side means we can intervene with less collateral damage and lower risk of missing what we aim for. True. But Becker was referring to changes in the direction of "more destructive power" and greater "accessibility", which I read as the ability for non-state actors to whip up "WMDs" in a basement lab somewhere using money found under the couch cushions.