Bad day in the blogosphere

Kevin Drum is one of the high-candlepower sources in public deliberation.  This did not begin my day well.  My aunt succumbed to this disease fifty-odd years ago, and  one bright spot here is that Kevin’s prospects are so much better than hers. Another is Kevin’s completely unwhiny, thoughtful affect.  Get better, Kevin, and my best to Marian. And the cats.

Why we should fund medical and all science research more, I leave for another post.

Annals of commerce: Beerkeley

Mark says alcohol creates more social cost than all other drugs combined.  I work for a university that has a persistent alcohol problem among its students.

It also has a sideline in big-time athletics, but that operation has made some very bad decisions in recent years and is genuinely desperate for money.  Three years ago, we made a three-year deal to let Coors use our name to sell beer.  No, really; there was an enormous billboard on the local interstate, but no-one on campus noticed. Last year such a billboard went up again, and the 15-year-old son of a public health [sic] prof noticed, producing some faculty outrage and this 21/XI/13 assurance from Claire Holmes, our Associate Vice Chancellor for PR:

… I am working on this issue with Vice Chancellor Wilton and have a meeting to discuss this with him Tuesday next week.  As you know,  contracts are binding agreements, so there is a process involved to change any agreements.  What I can assure you though is that there are no more beer ads planned for the foreseeable future.

Oops:

billboard 14a(Photo Terray Sylvester/SF Chronicle)

It appears the “process” didn’t work, or AVC Holmes was misled, or the folks who could sign a three year contract couldn’t foresee a year ahead…or everyone at our higher financial levels missed the MBA class where they explained that any contract can be abrogated for a price (which would be pretty small while Coors had a whole year to figure out how to use the billboard without us).  Or maybe our campus leadership just decided $200,000 was an appropriate price at which to sell our students’ welfare and our principles, and endure public humiliation in the eyes of every driver and Chron reader.   You might think the 200 large at least went to the health center for alcohol emergencies, or the police and fire departments who have to deal with the alcohol poisonings and sexual assaults on Saturday night, or the undergraduate dean’s office for student alcohol education and safety programs, but as far as I can tell, you would be wrong.  The money is Intercollegiate Athletics’ to use as they wish.

This year’s poster has a couple of little logos in the corner saying “Party safe”and “21 means 21″, so it’s fine! Cigarettes are OK with a little health warning on the pack, right? OK, I’m ready to get with the program…but we can do a lot better.  At the least, we need to start selling beer at games again.  Several years ago, I offered what I thought was a surefire scheme, but so far haven’t been able to sell it.  Never mind: how about we partner with these guys, so they can put our logo right on their page as long as they also have a little box that says “Don’t plagiarize!” But the payoff from that deal pales in comparison to what we can get for adjusting research results, from companies who would kill to have a UC study finding their products safe/effective/whatever.  A notice on our web home page, and on the title page of each such lucrative report, to the effect that “UC Berkeley does not support compromising academic standards” would surely sanitize such deals.

I’m already shopping for my new office furniture.

Tipping

I despise the institution of tipping for service.  There’s no practical way to escape it (obviously no decent person will stiff a waiter in the service of a principle), it’s degrading to people who are no more “servants” to me in a restaurant than I am to my students, the “expected” tip has been increasing as a percentage of the tab for no reason (because its a percentage, inflation is automatically covered already), and in some contexts (like New York garages and apartment houses) it’s only slightly above extortion, with a soupçon of positional arms race.  Furthermore, it’s an invitation to tax evasion.

Here’s the beginning of a worthy trend: some high-end restaurants here are just putting a stop to it, and apparently to everyone’s approval.  Now we just need to increase the menu prices 20% and have done with the whole mess.  I like charging extra for checked bags on an airplane; why should people without bags pay to schlep mine across the country?  But having dinner put on your table is not an optional part of dining in a sit-down restaurant.  Roll it all up together and have done with it; let management manage things like salaries, training, and working hours.

[rev 24/X] from the linked (paywall) article:

Citing both pragmatic and philosophical reasons, a small collection of Bay Area restaurateurs are eliminating tipping. Instead of expecting diners to leave a tip, the restaurants will automatically add a 20 percent service charge to all bills — and not accept any additional gratuity beyond the service charge….Rather than relying on tips, the restaurants will compensate staff on merit-based hourly wages and revenue-sharing. It’s a system common abroad….So far, the restaurants’ respective staffs have been largely supportive, according to owners. Camino’s Hopelain estimates that cooks stand to receive an hourly increase of 50 cents to $1, while servers’ pay will remain steady, or perhaps decrease 50 to 75 cents an hour….One major shift will be in reporting tips for tax purposes. Generally speaking, cash tips have a tendency to go unreported among restaurant servers. Once the service charge becomes an official line item on a receipt, people will be accountable. Hoffman [co-owner] said employees at Comal will not see a change in their income if they have been declaring all of their tips.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Suspiria

suspiria-Technicolor Halloween is almost here, so I will keep the chills coming again this week by recommending Dario Argento’s ultra-stylish, ultra-bloody and ultra nerve-jangling 1977 movie Suspiria. If it’s possible to make a slasher film for the art house set, this is it.

The plot: American dancer Suzy Bannion (An intrepid and likeable Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend an exclusive ballet school. Everything at the bizarrely designed and decorated school is wrong from the very first, with students disappearing, teachers engaging in strange behavior and an atmosphere of menace suffusing every room. As Suzy begins to investigate her mysterious surroundings, she comes to suspect that some supernatural evil is at the heart of the school and that it will not rest until she is destroyed.

If you judge horror films in the most elemental way, i.e., how scared will I be?, this is a classic of the horror genre. In ways large and small, Argento keeps the audience on edge with very little relief. Much of this is accomplished through an invasive, eerie score, extensive use of anamorphic lenses and other camera trickery, madcap set design and a vivid color scheme (with the accent on red of course…). Even the second time through when I knew what was going to happen, I was still holding my breath and tensing my muscles as I rooted for Suzy to overcome the extraordinary dangers she confronts.

Argento made his bones in a subgenre of Italian film called giallo, and one can see those influences here. However, while giallo is often criticized for its typical sexist plot set-ups (e.g., violent powerful man terrorizes and kills hapless young females), in Suspiria the redoubtable characters — good and bad — are all women. And while there is some astonishingly over-the-top gore, suspense is created much more through mood than through a mere parade of on screen violence.

All that said, the script of the film is remarkably uneven. Certain scenes emerge from nowhere and plot points come and go. For example, a young man at the school shows interest in Suzy and the audience wonders whether a romance will develop. Will he help her survive the terrors she faces? But like other story threads in the film, this one vanishes with no explanation. Maybe the editor was in a slashy mood himself, but I suspect these discontinuities are simply the result of Argento being more interested in theatrics than the underlying story.

In that respect, Suspiria reminds me of no film more than John Stahl’s famous “Technicolor noir” Leave Her to Heaven. Both movies overcome numerous script problems with incredible sets, atmospheric music, intentionally overstated color schemes and a strong leading female performance. Though different in other ways, both prove that sometimes in cinema, style really can triumph over substance. That’s certainly the case for Suspiria, making it ideal Halloween viewing for those who are not faint of heart.

Cannabis legalization in Oregon: Why Measure 91 is close enough for government work

Ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make policy changes when the technical details matter. Despite the simple-minded sloganeering on both sides, the question of creating a legal cannabis market is about as technical as they come, with equally valid public goals in sharp conflict, many unknowns, a variety of tricky design issues, and some big risks.

But sometimes initiatives are the only way to go, because legislators simply won’t do what a majority of voters want.

Cannabis legalization is that sort of issue, too: legislators are scared of cops and prosecutors, and most cops and prosecutors really hate legalization.

In Oregon, advocates went to the legislature and said, “We can and will put legalization on the ballot unless you handle the issue.” The legislature didn’t move. So the advocates acted on their threat, giving us Measure 91.

What they produced is noticeably less crazy than the measure that failed in 2012: for example, the quotation from the Book of Genesis about “herb bearing seed” is missing.  It seems to reflect a good-faith effort to craft a law that will allow adults to get cannabis, wipe out the illicit market, provide some revenue, and prevent a big increase in use by minors.

But Measure 91 does not reflect a sophisticated understanding of the problems of illicit markets or a nuanced view about substance use disorder. Focusing on the goal of eradicating the illicit cannabis market in Oregon, it doesn’t pay enough attention to the risk that Oregon might become a source of illicit supply to neighboring states. Focusing exclusively on preventing use by minors, it neglects the risk of increasing dependency among adults.

The basic fact about a legal cannabis market is that the product will be remarkably cheap to grow; once competition and industrial-style production have taken effect,  a legal joint would cost (before tax) about what a tea-bag costs, rather than the illegal or medical-dispensary price, which is 100 times as high. And the tax provided for in Measure 91 would add only about 50 cents to the price of a joint: not a high price to pay for two hours or more of being stoned.

Lower prices won’t much change the behavior of adult casual users; even at today’s illegal prices getting stoned is a bargain compared to getting drunk.  But lower prices would matter a lot to frequent users, and most of all to frequent underage users, simply because what they spend on pot represents significant element in their personal budgets: at current prices, the cost of a heavy cannabis habit can exceed $5000 per year.

Of course the claim that barring minors from buying in cannabis stores will keep them from having access to diverted supplies doesn’t pass the giggle test: just consider how easy it is for a minor to get alcohol from an older friend or relative or from the poor heavy drinker hanging around the liquor store, willing to buy a case for a teenager as long as he gets to keep a couple of bottles for himself. Cheap cannabis for grown-ups inevitably means cheap cannabis for kids.

Unless the legislature decided to raise it, the $35-per-ounce tax in Measure 91 would lead, within a couple of years, to prices way below current illicit prices and way below legal prices in Washington State. That in turn would mean big increases in use by minors and in the number of Oregonians with diagnosable cannabis problems. It would also mean substantial diversion of cannabis products legally sold under Oregon’s low taxes to Washington, where taxes are much higher. (Currently the flow goes the other way, with the two biggest-selling legal cannabis stores in Washington being the two closest to Portland.)

It wouldn’t be hard to draft a better-balanced measure than the one to be voted on in two weeks. For example, it might be wiser to limit legal production and sale to co-ops or non-profits, keeping the profit motive out of the business altogether.

But the choice Oregon voters face isn’t between what’s on the ballot and some perfectly designed cannabis policy; it’s between what’s on the ballot and continued prohibition at the state level, until and unless a better initiative can be crafted, put before the voters, and passed into law.

Measure 91 would enact an ordinary law, not a constitutional amendment. If it passes, the legislature will be free to amend it the next day by a simple majority vote; such moves are allowed not only by law but by the conventions of Oregon politics.

So the question facing Oregonians who want adults to be able to buy cannabis legally – without the nonsense of finding a “kush doctor” and faking an ailment – is whether to defeat the proposition and hope that the legislature will act on its own (or that a better-drafted bill will appear on the ballot in 2016) or whether instead to pass the current proposition and hope that the legislature will move to fix what’s wrong with it.

Given the balance of political forces, it seems more reasonable to trust the legislature to rein in a too-lax legalization scheme than to expect it to do what no legislature in the nation has been willing to do yet: pass a full cannabis-legalization law.

It’s not hard to identify the key points that need amendment, within the context set by the initiative: cannabis sold by a set of for-profit enterprises under state regulation. (That leaves aside such interesting ideas as just letting consumers grow their own, or requiring that growers and retailers be not-for-profit co-ops or public-benefit corporations, as well as the alternative of state-monopoly retailing, which has some attractive features but can’t be done while the federal Controlled Substances Act is in place, because the state can’t tell its officials to violate federal law.)

* Recognize preventing adult substance use disorder among the goals of the law.
* Assign some of the regulatory authority to the health department rather than giving it all to the revenue department.
* Give the regulators explicit authority to restrict the quantity of cannabis that can legally be grown. (Ideally, growing rights ought to be auctioned off rather than given away, giving the financial windfall to taxpayers instead of to the lucky few who end up with licenses.) * Increase the proposed taxes, and make them adjustable to keep legal prices at about the current illegal level as production costs fall. In the end, to prevent a big price decrease, the tax would have to be a very large fraction of the current illegal or quasi-medical price of about $10/gram.  Ideally, taxes would be based on the intoxicating power of the product – measured in milligrams of THC, the primary active chemical – rather than on the total weight of the plant material. (We tax whisky more heavily than beer or wine; why shouldn’t cannabis taxation work on the same principle?)
* Require that retail clerks have some serious training in pharmacology and substance use disorder, and make it part of their job to discourage excessive and dangerous consumption patterns, rather than letting their bosses just tell them to sell as much product as they can.
* Make sure there’s enough enforcement against illicit growing and dealing to make the legal market competitive.
* Rein in the medical-marijuana business. Once Oregonians with medical need can buy tested and labeled product at commercial outlets, there’s no need to have an entire parallel distribution system. It makes sense to offer tax exemptions for limited quantities to genuine patients, but the current practice of “patients” buying “medical” supplies for illicit resale has to stop.

There are lots of other good ideas around. (See the forthcoming RAND report on legalization options for Vermont.) But those will do for a start.

Would the legislature pass them all? Probably not. But Oregon’s chances of getting to a temperate cannabis policy will be better if the voters force the legislators to get off the dime.

It’s not an easy choice; as a Californian, I’m glad I don’t have to make one like it (yet). But if I had to vote in Oregon, I’d vote “Yes.”

Why the “I’m not a scientist” excuse is like a glass of tea

Like many who care about climate change, I’ve noted with a mixture of disbelief and anger the latest trick by Republican politicians: they don’t explicitly deny climate change but attempt a kind of agnosticism. The line is to say, with great modesty, “I’m not a scientist” and therefore can’t be confident that anything needs to be done. (Meanwhile, though “I’m not an economist,” I’m sure that any proposed action would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.)

David Shiffman’s short Slate article on this is great. In particular, there’s this:

… Do they have opinions on how to best maintain our nation’s highways, bridges, and tunnels—or do they not because they’re not civil engineers? Do they refuse to talk about agriculture policy on the grounds that they’re not farmers? How do they think we should be addressing the threat of ISIS? They wouldn’t know, of course; they’re not military generals.

No one would ever say these things, because they’re ridiculous. Being a policymaker in a country as large and complex as the United States requires making decisions on a variety of important subjects outside of your primary area of expertise. Voters wouldn’t tolerate this “I’m not a scientist” excuse if applied to any other discipline, yet politicians appear to be using this line successfully to distance themselves from experts crucial for solving many of our country’s most important problems.

I’d only add that the analogy is not quite exact. After all, the politicians saying “I’m not a scientist” aren’t actually refusing to take a stance on climate policy. They’re adducing their mock ignorance as reason to take a very firm position: against taking action to solve the problem that all the real science reveals to be urgent.

It all reminds me of one of my favorite Jewish jokes. Two men in the old country are relaxing over glasses of tea.

Yakov: You know, life is like a glass of tea.

Yitzhak: Like a glass of tea? Why?

Yakov: Why? How should I know why? What do I look like, a philosopher?

If politicians think they lack the expertise to opine on science, fine. But then they would be well advised to defer to the damn scientists instead of standing in their way.

Catching a Catfish

In The Guardian, Kathleen Hale offers her riveting tale story of tracking down an Internet troll who turns out to be a catfish. At one point, she makes a powerful observation on the psychology of those who troll:

Why do hecklers heckle? Recent studies have had dark things to say about abusive internet commenters – a University of Manitoba report suggested they share traits with child molesters and serial killers. The more I wondered about Blythe, the more I was reminded of something Sarah Silverman said in an article for Entertainment Weekly: “A guy once just yelled, ‘Me!’ in the middle of my set. It was amazing. This guy’s heckle directly equalled its heartbreaking subtext – ‘Me!’” Silverman, an avid fan of Howard Stern, went on to describe a poignant moment she remembers from listening to his radio show: one of the many callers who turns out to be an asshole is about to be hung up on when, just before the line goes dead, he blurts out, in a crazed, stuttering voice, “I exist!”.

It’s the best essay I’ve read in awhile, and is sparking debate about the ethics of the author and the troll. Check it out here.

Nudgefail: The Case of Organ Donation

Behavioral economics is cool science with numerous applications. The concept of nudges, for example requiring newly hired workers to sign a form to stop automatic retirement contributions rather than having to sign a form to start them, is certainly useful in many contexts. But as I write in Washington Post’s Wonkblog, it can’t solve some problems, including the shortage of organ donations, which leaves over 120,000 Americans on the waiting list:

One commonly proposed solution to the organ shortage derives from behavioral economic “nudge” principles. Rather than requiring Americans to complete paperwork in order to opt-in to donation at death, the country could shift to the European model of presuming that donation at death was acceptable. But Tom Mone, chief executive of OneLegacy, the nation’s largest organ and tissue recovery organization, points out that “The recovery rate for deceased donors in the United States is actually better than that of European nations with presumed consent laws. The United States rigorously follows individual donor registrations whereas presumed consent countries actually defer to family objections.”

What this means on the ground, as Tom explained to me and our audience at a recent Stanford Health Policy Forum, is that when European health professionals show up to harvest organs from a newly dead individual, that person’s family often says “no way”, nudges be damned. The state could legally take the person’s organs by force of course, but unsurprisingly it does not. In contrast, in the US opt-in model, both families and the state respect the deceased donor’s wishes because they know they were the result of a proactive decision rather than a bureaucratically-designed nudge. More simply, an active choice has legitimacy that a nudged choice does not

Turning the clock back

No, I’m not referring to daylight savings time. The Supreme Court apparently thinks that making it hard for Texans to vote is a good thing. Catapult me back to 1964.
I guess we have to join Texas in that era. Bring back the Freedom Rides. I would hope that if we baby boomers got the ball (and buses) rolling, some of the Facebook generation might join us. Perhaps my youthful colleague Steve Davenport (who commented eloquently on Keith’s recent essay about Facebook narcissism) could be our liaison to the under-thirties. At my age, the prospect of a long bus ride does not thrill me, (please let there be adequate restroom breaks) but if a couple of my boomer pals from the RBC are in, I’ll ride to Texas to assist with voter registration. It’s just so confusing! Didn’t we do this already?

Consider Staying in the Closet

Three phrases I am tired of hearing in the media: “Breaks his/her silence”, “the last taboo” and “comes out of the closet”. The first appears regularly on the magazines at the supermarket checkout. Magazine covers trumpet for example that — at last! — a 3rd rate television star is “breaking his silence” over the failure of his marriage to a 4th rate country and western singer. The implication is that the breaking of the blessed silence is a gift to the world and we should be grateful, but I wish these people would just shut up. Why should strewing intimate details of one’s life be laudable? And why should anyone care about these incontinent bores in the first place?

“The last taboo” and “coming out of the closet” have a parallel existence in journalism. When gay people came out of the closet it was courageous and remarkable. Today, these phrases adorn stories about people — elderporn enthusiasts, those who admit to being beautiful, people who pay to increase traffic to their website, people who hang glide in their underwear — whose coming out is neither dangerous nor it has to be said particularly interesting. Calling them taboo-breakers is at one level media hype and at another, cultural self-congratulation, as if as a society we are only getting more mature as we let underwear-clad hang gliders tell their heretofore hidden story to the world, even though it will no doubt rattle the foundations of the establishment (or at least annoy our parents).

Most of human existence is simply not that interesting and certainly not newsworthy. And in an era where everyone is tweeting what they had for breakfast, being filmed by covert keyhole cameras, putting photos of their latest drinking binge on Facebook and having their naked selfies released from the iCloud, even the most modestly engaging stuff in our lives is being over-shared. We’ve wiped out even more “last taboos” than we have #2 men in Al Qaeda.

This makes me think that the true radicals today, the ones who are actually taking a risk, are those who refuse to dish out their personal details to the world. To those of you who keep something in your life — anything — out of public view, let me express my respect and thanks. May others follow your brave example of staying in the closet.

Now that I am done ranting, I am going to go do a bunch of things that I refuse to reveal here.