On Shutting Off Blog Comment Sections

A few months ago, the editors of Popular Science’s blog announced the following change in policy:

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.

It wasn’t a decision we made lightly…we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.

More recently, the bloggers at The Incidental Economist (TIE) largely followed suit:

All TIE admins are in agreement that we need a break from comment moderation. It’s a lot of work and the benefits relative to costs have dwindled. We’d rather use our time in other ways.

Andrew Sullivan makes his own case against comment sections here. Although I failed to find it when I googled just now, I am pretty sure that some of the bloggers at Outside The Beltway have publicly questioned the value of comment sections, though their site still has one.

I have been ambivalent about this issue for some time. At RBC, we have some absolutely terrific commenters (I saluted some of them here) who add tremendous value to the site for commenters and bloggers alike. At the same time, we also have accrued, it pains me to say, a bad reputation for our comments section being vitriolic and fact-challenged on some topics, most particularly drug policy but also some others (anything about guns usually gets ugly fast).

Can’t bloggers just closely monitor comment sections and separate wheat from chaff? Given unlimited time, yes. But even for the few people who make their living by blogging, time to do this is not unlimited. And for those of us who have demanding day jobs, it’s an awful lot to ask.

Last week, I had a twitter exchange with Austin Frakt about what TIE had done, in which he defined destructive comments as a collective action problem that he was tired of trying to solve. This resonated with me. I was also struck that when I emailed a group of our very best commenters and asked whether we should close off comments on drug policy posts, the modal response was that they didn’t care because they had been driven away from reading those comment sections.

I was sad to hear that and recognized that a negative feedback loop had developed: As a few commenters were abusive or intellectually dishonest or both, those initially more numerous commenters who were civil and substantive began dropping out of the conversation. These two trends reinforced each other until being abusive and non-substantive became more the norm (though some heroes and heroines soldier on, God bless you all).

I do not speak for RBC as a whole on this, but I have come to the conclusion personally that the TIE approach of making a lack of comment sections my default on future posts is the best one for me. There are significant costs to this decision because some excellent comments that would have been made will no longer grace our site. I hope those of you who have for so long contributed reasoned, respectful and data-based reactions, critiques and counter-arguments to my posts will continue to do so on those that remain open for comment.

Want to Save Pubs?: Support Minimum Unit Pricing of Alcohol

13jour600.1The Economist is among the world’s indispensable newspapers, but it has a University of Chicago-style blind spot concerning any restrictions on psychoactive drugs. I therefore generally regard it as an endearing British relative who has one annoying quirk, but now I can be unambivalent in my affection: The Economist has endorsed minimum unit pricing of alcohol.

I describe the policy in detail here, but the gist is that regulators set a floor under the price of alcohol. The Economist describes this as a “windfall” for producers and retailers but this is not correct: The increase in price lowers volume of sales to the point that it’s a wash for sellers (fewer sales, but higher profit per sale). The true windfall goes to the public, who benefit from decreased deaths, accidents, crimes and emergency room visits.

Minimum pricing is also, as a member of the UK Parliament and I pointed out in submitted evidence, exactly what the ailing UK pub industry needs to get back on its feet. Some critics of minimum pricing howl that “responsible pub drinkers should not have to pay for the damage of boozing by violent yobs”. This is completely wrong-headed, because alcohol prices in pubs are already far above even the highest proposed minimum price. Minimum pricing is directed at rock-bottom price sales of alcohol in supermarkets, which are killing the pubs by undercutting the price of their number one product.

Pub-goers who are losing their beloved watering holes are thus suffering not from minimum pricing, but from a lack of it. Andrew Sullivan laments, as I do, the decline of British pubs, but his series of posts on the topic has not highlighted how Tesco and similar supermarket chains have hurt pubs by flogging high strength, low cost alcohol. Sullivan passed along the claim that anti-smoking legislation is one cause of pubs’ declining fortunes, which sounds like tobacco industry propaganda and has been empirically disproven. The return of customers who don’t like tobacco smoke isn’t hurting pubs; alcohol being sold at ultra-low prices by competitors who can make up the lost revenue on other products is.

Does the Tea Party Want to Win Elections?

Kevin Drum ponders what he calls a “timid” National Review article about the Tea Party by Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru. Drum agrees with L&P’s diagnosis that the Tea Party needs to appreciate the value of winning national elections if it wants to shape national policy, but raises this challenge:

OK, but how will conservatives win more elections? L&P explicitly disavow the notion of the party turning left, suggesting only that they’re skeptical of “the idea that moving in the opposite direction will in itself pay political dividends.” But if they have no concrete suggestions—either in policy or tone or messaging or something—then this is just mush.

Well, maybe. But there is an alternative explanation. L&P are probably more in touch than is Drum (or me) with the pulse of Tea Party at the moment. L&P may have concluded that the alienation, rage and self-indulgence in that corner of the world are such that persuading Tea Partiers that elections matter is indeed a significant task of its own, much as it was with some leftist factions in the 1960s and 1970s. You can’t tell people how to do something that they don’t want to do in the first place. If you feel that the country is lost, that your values have been rejected and the entire system is corrupt, politics can become simply an outlet for rage. That may be the ledge the Tea Party is on, post-government-shut-down humiliation.

This same observation is germane to Andrew Sullivan’s otherwise compelling analysis of Chris Christie’s electability. It assumes that the Tea Party cares about winning elections, and therefore will embrace the big guy from Jersey. It used to be that the rightmost wing of the Republican Party always lined up for the establishment choice in the end, but maybe this time around they will simply be in the mood to express their fury via a Quixotic Cruzade for one of their own.

Cannabis taxes will wind up too low, not too high

Legal cannabis will naturally be much, much cheaper than illegal cannabis. A joint is the same sort of item as a teabag: the dried flowers of a plant in a wrapper. A fancy teabag costs a dime at the supermarket; the marijuana in an average joint costs about $4 (0.4 gram of sinsemilla flowers @ $10/gram) on the current illicit and quasi-medical markets. The combination of not having to worry about law enforcement and the economies of mass production will inevitably drive the joint price down close to the teabag price. (Generic tobacco cigarettes can be manufactured for about two cents each; the remainder of the price is marketing expense, quasi-rent on brand names, and taxes.)

Now that the federal government has made it clear that state-licensed production in Washington and Colorado will mostly get a pass from federal law enforcement, and now that Washington has decided to allow outdoor growing, avoiding the production bottleneck that might have resulted from the lags in local land-use approval for growing facilities, I’d expect to see much lower-than-current prices in Washington State’s commercial stores no later than next fall. (If I had been running things, I would have started with lower tax rates to speed the transition to the legal market, and then raised taxes to offset the fall in market prices, but the tax rates were in the legislation the voters passed.)

Even at current prices, cannabis is a remarkably cheap intoxicant. A  drinker who hasn’t built up a tolerance might need about $5 worth of mass-market beer to get sloshed; a similarly fresh cannabis smoker could float away on half a normal joint: call it $2 worth. Colorado medical dispensaries already offer their “weekly special” strains of sinsemilla at $5/gm., with volume discounts, and vaporization seems likely to lower the effective cost substantially.  Anyone who’s worried about the price of cannabis is spending far too much time stoned.

Taxation, even if it is very heavy on ad valorem (percentage-of-price) basis, won’t change that picture much; Washington state will collect something like 40% of total retail prices in tax, but 40% of “damned near free” isn’t very much. Colorado’s taxes will be even lower.

The illicit markets may start out with a price advantage over taxed and regulated commercial markets for a year or two. Even then, the quality/reliability/ legality advantages enjoyed by the legal stores would be expected to quickly push the illicit business to the margins, as legal alcohol has done with moonshining. That will be especially true if the states that legalize make a vigorous law-enforcement push against purely illicit activity.

The untaxed and (in Washington State) unregulated quasi-medical markets may also enjoy a price advantage; if people with medical recommendations can buy their cannabis tax-free, we should expect a certain amount of arbitrage. How best to rein in the out-of-control medical-recommendation systems is a challenge that Washington and Colorado (and California, which hasn’t legalized for non-medical use but which has more “medical marijuana” outlets than it has Starbucks) will confront over the coming months and years.

So the biggest worry about legalize cannabis would be a big upsurge in heavy use, and that worry would be exacerbated to the extent that the growth in heavy use is among juveniles. (Provision to minors is by definition illegal, but, as with alcohol, it seems unlikely to generate a distinct illicit market; younger smokers who can’t buy in the stores will be supplied by older siblings, older friends, their parents’ supplies at home, and straw purchasers.

How big that problem turns out to be depends in part on unknowns and in part on policy choices. If cannabis prices are allowed to fall to something like their free-market levels, a very large increase in heavy use would be the likely result. Preventing that will require heavy specific-excise taxation (perhaps on a per-milligram-of-THC basis) and enough enforcement to prevent the evasion of that tax.

The other approach to limiting the increase in heavy use and use by minors would be on the information side: limits on marketing, required vendor training, aggressive consumer information both at point of sale and in the community.

Naturally, true-believing libertarians insist that cannabis legalization be done in the way likely to generate bad outcomes. Taxes BAD! Regulations BAD! “Commercial speech” is SACRED! The free market FOREVER! And of course drug abuse is a merely imaginary problem, so cannabis is just an ordinary commodity that the market will handle perfectly.

It’s possible that they’ll get their way, and that as a consequence the results of cannabis legalization will be just about as bad as the drug warriors keep predicting: the reproduction of our very bad, no good, awful alcohol markets. It’s barely possible – this is what my drug-warrior friends hope – that the results will be so awful that the voters shy away from legalization altogether.

Jacob Sullum has elevated the temporary risk that relatively high taxes starting will slow down the migration from the illicit to the licit market into an existential threat to the legalization project, and is more or less encouraging Colorado pot fans to double-cross the rest of the voters by rejecting the taxes that were the premise of last year’s legalization push. “From a consumer’s perspective, something has gone terribly wrong if legal marijuana prices do not end up being substantially lower than black-market prices.” That’s true, if by “consumer” you mean someone who smokes multiple joints per day. For anyone else, the cost of weed is way down in the rounding error of a personal budget; a weekly smoker might now be paying something like $100 per year for cannabis, even at current prices.

Andrew Sullivan seems to take this seriously. Talk about solving the wrong problem!

“Puritan Progressive” Parents are Neither Puritans nor Progressives. Discuss.

Mark Oppenheimer’s critique of hygiene-obsessed parents who are scared of immunization, processed food, non-organic anything and the alleged over-sugarization of children kicked off a long, engaging set of comments on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish about the “Puritanism of Progressive Parents”. It all makes for stimulating reading, but the basic framing is I believe unfair both to Puritans and Progressives.

Here’s Oppenheimer:

The Puritan parents I encounter are nearly all liberals, and they represent the persistence of two unfortunate tendencies liberals have inherited from the Puritans, queered along the way by Progressive-era reformers. The first is the fun-smothering tendency of Progressive-era moral uplift, the tendency that brought us Prohibition and the first laws proscribing opiates and narcotics.

The Puritans compete with the Victorians for being the chief whipping boys of lazy historical analyses like these, which source current moralistic views to long-dead people who in fact believed something quite different. The Puritans generally opposed Prohibition of alcohol, specifically because it would be an unfair denial of pleasure. Indeed, no less a Puritan figure than Increase Mather called alcohol a “good creature of God” (For those who want to know more about how different Christian sects view alcohol, let me put a plug in here for the scholarly work of my friend Rev. Dr. Chris Cook).

The other reason that the parents Oppenheimer quite appropriately derides should not be called Puritans is captured in the old saw that “The Puritans went to America for the freedom to practice their faith and to force other people to practice it too”. A Puritan would be delighted to meet a fellow member of the faithful, but that is not what I see in these parents. If they are vegetarian and meet another vegetarian, they are unhappy and commit to becoming a vegan. If they then meet another vegan, they become unhappy and commit to becoming an ovo-lactic vegan. They don’t want other people to share faith in a community of peers, they want to outrank their lessers within a hierarchy.

This is also why they are not truly liberal or progressive. They are not trying to save the world, they are trying to get an edge in life for themselves and for little Hayden and Sawyer too. Oppenheimer hits this point well, when he upends his own initial characterization of these parents as progressives:

Most of the middle-class “liberal” parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to. It’s enough that they make their midwife-birthed children substitute guava nectar for sugar.

Rather than surrender the terms liberal or progressive so easily to the domain of lifestyle and shallow issues of personal identity, I suggest we let those terms retain their political meaning by not describing panicky, entitled, hierarchy-obsessed, materialistic strivers as “liberals”. Likewise, let’s not throw theology and history to the side and call them “Puritans” either. If we need a shorthand term for them, I suggest that someone with literary skill invent an entirely new one, as long it isn’t very polite.

Doubling Down on White Voters: The California Experience

Andrew Sullivan has a helpful round up of the current debate about whether the GOP can attain electoral success in the face of increasing population diversity by “doubling down” on white voters. The experience of California suggests that such a strategy can help a political party in the short term, but only at the cost of crippling it in the long term.

Younger Americans are often surprised to learn that California was a Republican-friendly state for decades. Other than in the 1964 LBJ landslide win over Goldwater, Californians supported a Republican for President every cycle from 1952 through 1988. However, by the early 1990s, the increasing diversity of the state began to alter the political landscape, just as it is doing now nationally.

The debate within the California GOP at the time was eerily similar to that happening within the national Republican Party today. Virtually all Republican leaders conceded that the rise of Latino and Asian-American voters required some response, but what that response should be was the subject of intense disagreement.

California GOP reformers, noting that a Democratic Presidential Candidate (Bill Clinton) had broken the GOP lock on the state in 1992 with strong support from minority voters, argued that the party had to modernize by reaching out to people of color. A different faction, who pointed out that Clinton had captured only 46% of the popular vote and that Ross Perot had attracted many conservative white voters, insisted that the Republican party needed to go hard right, including by making race-based appeals to white voters.

The two GOP factions battled each other in the lead-up to the 1994 gubernatorial election and the “double-downers” won. Anti-immigrant ballot Proposition 187 was the central issue of the contest, and like any Californian I can attest to the venomous, racially-divisive nature of the debate that surrounded it. Republican Pete Wilson publicly embraced the measure at every campaign stop, and rode anti-immigrant sentiment to re-election with strong support from White voters.

In the process, Wilson and those who advised him to double-down on white voters did lasting damage to the California Republican Party from which it has never recovered. In the minds of much of the population of this minority-majority state, the GOP is the party of white people who don’t like non-white people, a branding that — fair or not — repulses most minority voters and no small number of white voters as well.

Subsequent Democratic Presidential candidates have not even bothered to campaign in California; why should they? They need only stop by to gather big campaign contributions that would have gone to Republicans in prior eras. Traditional Republicans are neutered in the state legislature and have no chance in the gubernatorial race either. The only Republican Governor since Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, won by packaging himself as a post-partisan figure and following it through by rejecting many of the national GOP’s key positions.

The California lesson for the national GOP? Racially divisive appeals to alienated white voters can work, perhaps especially in a mid-term election. Indeed, doubling down on white voters may well work nationally in 2014. But pursuing such short-term electoral rewards is a route to long-term political oblivion in an increasingly diverse America.

Why Biological Tests of Driving Impairment are Superior to Behavioral Performance Tests

Andrew Sullivan has had a series of posts recently about “driving while stoned” (Examples here, here and here). He and a number of the people he quotes argue that driving impairment from drug consumption does not correlate perfectly with biological measures (e.g., blood alcohol level as measured by breath test, concentration of cannabis and its metabolites in drawn blood or urine), and that such tests are therefore inferior to assessing impairment directly.

Sometimes in the early morning, when I drive to work on a narrow two-lane road, I see headlights coming toward me. At those moments I hope that if the oncoming driver is alcoholic that he’s had a few belts before he got into the car, because badly shaking, sweaty hands probably impair an alcoholic driver more than does somewhat elevated blood alcohol concentration (BAC). That’s an example of the broader reality to which Sullivan points: More drug consumption does not always mean worse driving. Why then don’t we toss biological tests aside and instead rely solely on behavioral tests of driving impairment, for example reaction time tests done on a laptop, proprioception and coordination-based physical tests (e.g., touching one’s nose with eyes closed), verbal demand tests etc?

The case for such a change at first seems strong, until one recognizes that an ideal driving impairment assessment method would not only perfectly measure impairment, but would also be reliable across testers and testees. Behavioral impairment measures can’t hold a candle to biological measures in this regard.

If like me you have no life and have therefore watched many videotaped driving impairment tests done by police officers, you will have observed how hard it is to administer them in a consistent fashion. Consider the old “walk in a straight line, heel-to-toe” behavioral test. When this test is administered to a driver, both the driver and the police office are generally on the side of the road. Sometimes the ground is flat and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the road is wet or icy and sometimes it’s dry and clear. Sometimes a strong wind is blowing and sometimes the air is still. Sometimes there is traffic zooming by which distracts both the tester and testee and sometimes the road is quiet. Those are only a few of the variables (none of which influences the result of a blood or breath test) that make it hard to administer the test reliably.

Those variables all introduce measurement error even when the best of capacities and intentions are present…and they aren’t always present. If the officer doesn’t like you for some reason, or is exhausted after a long day, or is all hyped up from the violent crime scene s/he just left, or had an argument with the spouse that morning, the behavioral performance test will be even less reliable in determining the officer’s final judgment of whether the driver is impaired. In contrast, a breathalyzer in every one of this situations will give virtually the same answer.

The reliability of biological tests is a facilitator of equal treatment under the law. Fans of behavioral impairment tests should consider whether, for example, a young black male who has had three beers and has to do a series of performance tests under the watchful eye of white cop is likely to do as well as a white, middle aged guy who has had the same amount to drink. The former driver is more likely than the latter to have his performance on behavioral impairment tests decremented by nervousness or fear of the police officer. Likewise, the immigrant who doesn’t speak English well enough to precisely understand the officer’s instructions will also be at a disadvantage relative to the native speaker. To again draw a clear contrast, if you give a blood or breath test all those factors are eliminated from the measure of impairment.

Which leaves me agreeing that perfectly reliable behavioral impairment tests would be better than what we have now, in the same sense that I agree that universal, high-quality health care at low cost would be better than what we have now. But what of it? Winston Churchill (who was probably a better driver at .08 BAC than at .00) said that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. The same could be said of biological assays of driving impairment.

Why I Put My Thumb on the Scale of Andrew Sullivan’s Experiment

Andrew Sullivan is making waves on the web for giving back the Boeing and striking out on his own.

The experiment addresses an intriguing question: Can a blogger actually make it as an independent business or will his audience run away in search of free content?

In my scientific life, I have to conduct experiments such that I do not influence the study to produce the result I want. But this isn’t science, and I therefore felt comfortable putting my thumb on the scale by signing up for a subscription to The Daily Dish.

I did it because I enjoy reading Sullivan, but also because I want his experiment to succeed as a demonstration of a more general possibility. The blogging endeavor can’t survive in a significant form forever a la Huffington Post — providing free material that feeds off of paid content until the producers of that content go broke. Yes there will always be bloggers in their mom’s basement, knocking out rants to an audience of a half-dozen members of their moody loner support group, but those fellows will never shape public discourse as can people with Sullivan’s reach.

I admire him for experimenting on himself (a noble tradition within science, no matter what the horror movies taught you), and very much hope for positive results.

Are Porn Stars Really Healthier and Happier?

Andrew Sullivan flags a new study in the Journal of Sex Research that reports that women who appear in pornographic films experienced no more child abuse and has higher levels of self-esteem and social support than did a matched sample of women who did not appear in porn. The results have generated good publicity for the adult film industry. I am no expert in the substantive issue at question, but my experience in other areas of research on health issues and corporate industries make me more skeptical than is Sullivan about this study.

In my research area of addiction for example, we have had a number of cases in which scientists who worked for industries that make money from addictions (e.g., the tobacco industry) reported “objective evidence” that their product was not dangerous, to have the findings overturned later by disinterested parties. Likewise, pharmaceutical industry-funded research has in some case overstated the benefits and understated the risks of new medications.

An ethical, careful researcher can of course be employed by or accept grant money from an self-interested industry and try to do an objective study anyway, but all the experience we have in this area indicates that regardless of good intentions, research findings have a tendency to be favourable to whoever funded the research. It’s not typically a crass quid pro quo relationship between researchers and funders, but the usually subtle influence of funding on findings is present enough of the time to make a wise consumer of science cautious.

In the case of the pornography study, one of the authors was affiliated with the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, which had a long term fiduciary relationship with the adult film industry. The same organization helped pay for the research (I could not find this acknowledged in the article, but the lead author so confirmed when asked).

Does this mean the study’s findings are wrong? No. But just as we would not uncritically accept findings that all pornography actresses are abuse victims if one of the authors were a board member of the League to Stamp Out Porn we should be skeptical of the present findings until they are replicated by a disinterested team of researchers.

The Tobacco Industry’s Longstanding Desire to Sell Marijuana Cigarettes

In one of the last Newsweek magazine cover stories we will ever see, Tony Dukoupil offers a fascinating inside view of the business people who are making millions by selling quasi-legal marijuana. Exactly as predicted by yours truly, they are not long-haired hippies in tie-dye T-shirts but hard nosed, profit-focused, stylishly attired businessmen who make campaign contributions and try to squeeze out their smaller mom and pop business rivals.

Andrew Sullivan was one of many observers to pick up on the possibility that the tobacco industry will soon follow these early adopters into the pot business, bringing their ruthless, addiction-promoting tactics with them. Tony quotes my friend Dr. Peter Bourne as recalling tobacco industry executives discuss such things during the Carter Administration, but we needn’t rely on Peter’s memory when we have a smoking gun.

I dug through the internal documents that the government forced big tobacco to release and found evidence of the industry’s longstanding interest in selling pot. I gave one of the documents, a report commissioned in the 1970s by Brown and Williamson, to Mike Rosenwald of Washington Post, and here is how he wrote it up:

This is the dream tobacco companies have had since at least the 1970s, when consultants issued a secret report to Brown & Williamson touting a future product line in marijuana. “The use of marijuana today by 13 million Americans is socially the equivalent of the use of alcohol by some 100 million Americans,” said the report, found among millions of documents turned over to plaintiffs during the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s. “It is the recreational drug; the choice of a significant minority of the population. The trend in liberalization of drug laws reflects the overall change in our value system. It also has important implications for the tobacco industry in terms of an alternative product line.”

The tobacco companies, the report concluded, “have the land to grow it, the machines to roll it and package it, the distribution to market it. In fact, some firms have registered trademarks, which are taken directly from marijuana street jargon. These trade names are used currently on little-known legal products, but could be switched if and when marijuana is legalized. Estimates indicate that the market in legalized marijuana might be as high as $10 billion annually.

The report was a long time ago, and no doubt the industry has more modern ideas for selling marijuana today. Maybe that’s why, during the run up to the 2010 election in which marijuana legalization was on the ballot in California, Altria took control of the web domain names AltriaMarijuana.com and AltriaCannabis.com. For those not in the know, Altria is the parent company of Phillip Morris, the manufacturer of Marlboro, Players, Benson & Hedges and many other popular brands of tobacco cigarettes.