02 Dec 2015
I thought I’d jot down some notes/observations after this conversation about payday lending. Payday lending is an interesting subject to me, both because of the demonization of the market and the interesting economics at work – it provides an interesting microcosm of how attempts to regulate markets can backfire and/or fail.
1st premise: people wish to lower the market rates for payday loans (ignoring for the moment the various moral/ethical reasons for this). 2nd premise: the current rate for interest on loans is at a (dynamic) equilibrium allowing for firms to remain viable/profitable given costs of default/administration/etc.
When the equilibrium rate is perceived as being too high, the usual approach is to simply legislate a ceiling cap on rates that can be charged. When you do so, there are two options:
1) You set the rate too high, which creates a schelling point that encourages implicit collusion at this higher rate. There’s some empirical evidence that this already happens.
2) You set the rate too low, which means some portion of the supply (lending firms) will exit the market (voluntarily or go out of business), or reduce the scope or quality of their services.
Thus the two possible outcomes are: harm to low-income borrowers via increased rates, or harm to low-income borrowers via reduced market choice/options.
This all leads back to square one: if you want to eliminate high payday loan rates, there’s only one option: find and provide a better (more efficient) emergency funding option.
The natural and usual rebuttal to this is that regulators simply need to find the “right” rate at which to set the ceiling. I cannot write a better response to this fantasy than Hayek did 70 years ago.
24 Nov 2015
This started as a half-formed tweet but quickly took the shape of a tweetstorm, and I hate those, so:
Every time there’s a horrific police shooting, I hear a lot of talk about the need for more police body/dash/helmet/whatever-cams. I feel like I’m stating the obvious, here, but perhaps this path needs a bit more scrutiny.
Given an insidious hidden abuse of authority, increases in technology that enables monitoring will, inevitably, shine a light on it. There are two main effects of monitoring on abuses of authority:
- deterrence (an abuser will think twice, knowing they are being monitored)
- documentation/justice (even if an abuser is not deterred, they can subequently be brought to justice, assuming the evidence is reliable)
The latter is useful for the pursuit of justice in documented (recorded) cases of abuse, obviously, and is fairly easy to measure (though of course you still don’t know if an increase in documented authority abuse is evidence of increasing abuse or simply increasing documentation).
Deterred abuse, however, is trickier to measure, because you can never know what acts of abuse an authority didn’t commit. It seems unlikely, as a result, that we’ll ever know what police body/dash/etc-cams do actually manage to deter, since it’s impossible to measure, and hopelessly intertwined with many other variables (increases/decreases in actual acts of abuse, etc).
This is not sufficient to say that increased police *-cams are a bad idea, necessarily, though. But they don’t come without a cost, either: specifically, we’re talking about the deployment (let’s be honest, the expansion) of a massive surveillance state in order to counter the police state. Is this a cure worse than the disease?
Overt police-controlled surveillance also has drawbacks, simply because it’s in the control of those we are seeking to deter. If these authorities are willing to collude and murder, why do we trust them to not collude to tamper/manipulate/delete the evidence? When is letting the fox guard the henhouse ever a good idea?
A more robust solution is citizen-controlled (covert or overt) surveillance of authorities. Many recent acts of abuse came to light not because of police-controlled dashcams, but citizen-controlled technology (phonecams). Why, whenever one of these atrocities is committed, isn’t anyone lobbying for an increase in citizen-controlled surveillance as well? Of course, the answer is somewhat pragmatic: not everyone has a phone out and recording ready to go every time an egregious abuse of authority happens, nor is the prospect of a society that is monitoring itself mutually and perpetually particularly appealing. But technology marches forward, and it seems that this is an inevitable arms-race of escalation already in progress. I am not sure if this is good or bad, but it’s certainly territory that science fiction has already started covering in a rather bleak light (see Black Mirror, The Entire History of You)
The fundamental question remains: do we want a police state that surveils itself or a police state surveiled/checked by its citizenry? Frankly i’d prefer not to have a police state at all, but that seems like a bridge too far.
01 Oct 2015
I have a small but important piece of advice for journalists: stop using the phrase “affordable housing”. This occurs to me often in general, but occurred to me in particular while reading Amanda Haggard’s otherwise fine summary of the Ft. Negley tent city situation. The problem is the use of the phrase “affordable housing” – repeatedly, from the title to the body of the piece.
Why is it a problem? Because “affordable housing” doesn’t really mean anything, and for a journalist to use it means accepting the narrative being set by wily politicians using it as a weasel phrase. When politicians/administrators furrow their brow and and say we need a solution to “affordable housing”, it means about as much as a fart in the wind. So, unfortunately, Haggard’s piece, written through the lens of “affordable housing” misses the opportunity to identify the actual problem(s) and uncover potential solutions, and instead shines the spotlight on the oh-so-very-concerned politicians who aren’t actually doing anything.
There are many types of housing. What kind are we talking about? Affordable for whom?
- Emergency shelter? (it’s 5F outside and I have nowhere to go)
- Transitional housing? (I’m homeless and waiting for the maze of myriad bureaucracies to work me through the system to get Section 8 and I have nowhere to stay)
- Treatment facilities? (I’m a homeless drug/alcohol addict and I need help)
- Bathrooms/showers? (I need to shower and take a dump)
- etc …
The list goes on. The people camping at Ft Negley are a group of people who have chosen to camp together (often because the few emergency/transitional housing we do have is abysmal if not outright abusive, but that’s another story), likely for equally diverse reasons, some or all of which would be solved by the above. But they are all different situations, and “affordable housing” means nothing to any of them. It means nothing, and is often interpreted as meaning everything from emergency shelter to a shortage of cheap housing for the politically active voting middle class. So, when it comes time for our political elite to claim they’ve addressed the “affordable housing” problem, which do you think they are going to focus on? Spoiler: not homeless people. There are no people camping at Ft Negley who are homeless because there aren’t enough apartments in the Gulch. Solving that problem won’t eliminate homelessness. You’ll never eliminate homelessness, and to think you can requires the sort of psychotic delusion that only a politician can muster. What we can do is identify the causes of homelessness and build infrastructure to ameliorate the symptoms and provide a path out.
So please: stop accepting that bogus narrative and start digging into the specifics. Connelly and Howsnashville have done a great job in helping people navigate the process of getting Section 8, but that is only one small piece of the puzzle. Show us the rest.
27 Jul 2015
Posting this mostly for posterity and as a reference for when people ask me. For clarity, I am only listing restaurants that meet my (arbitrary) definition of “Hot Chicken Restaurant”, which is that they have to serve a leg quarter in varying levels of heat, and should at least nominally focused on hot chicken itself – that is, I’m not bothering to list the random restaurants that coat chicken fingers in cayenne and call it hot chicken (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Ranked in order from worst to best:
The only reason Bolton's makes this list for me at all is because it's an institution in Nashville, and so people will inevitably ask "what about Bolton's?". Bolton's is part of the narrative of hot chicken history, as it originally split off from Prince's. And, it fits the aesthetic of what people want out of a hot chicken experience. The place is a cinderblock dump, but it's warm and cozy inside. The chicken, however, sucks. Sorry. I've tried it three times -- each time the leg quarter was overcooked (to the extent that the skin was burnt). I'm also not a fan of the dry-ish/er "saucing" they do there. The chicken on a stick is okay, insofar as a dried chicken finger on a stick is okay, but it's amateur hour for hot chicken aficionados. Go there if you're craving fish, or want to get chummy with your neighbors, but otherwise: skip it.
I haven't been to Helen's since they moved to Jefferson, but when I tried it at the food truck it was not great. The chicken was well-fried, but the sauce was clearly made with oil (possibly their frying oil), which is something you see cropping up in recipes recently. I do not approve. There wasn't a lot of spice, and it tasted like rancid oil. I'll probably give them another chance, though, now that they have an actual brick and mortar location.
Party Fowl is a newer contender. Their hot chicken is not mindblowingly good or hot, but it's tasty. They also have a huge menu of Other Stuff, so it's a good option for dining with other people who don't care for the heat.
People are often down on 400 Degrees, and I'm not sure why. I've been eating there since it opened, and they've always been consistent. Their chicken is always a little bland (not sure why -- no brining? shitty/cheap chicken source?), but the crust and heat have always been spot-on for me. I know the owner had some health issues resulting in erratic hours, so maybe this also contributed to some quality control issues. I went a few weeks ago and it was great, though, so if you've counted them out, give it a whirl.
It's hard to say enough good things about Hattie B's: they took hot chicken, perfected their own version of it, and added beer. What's not to like? My preferred heat level here is Shut the Cluck Up, but it's not for the faint of heart -- roughly about the same as Prince's Extra Hot in my experience. Only Pepperfire's XX Hot is hotter.
Objectively speaking, Prince's is still king. They're the originals, they set the bar high, and it's still great. But this is my list, and I'd be lying if I said I went all the way over to Dickerson pike every time I wanted hot chicken. Which is why my favorite pick goes to:
That's right, Pepperfire. It's very possible I'm suffering from sample bias because Pepperfire is so close to my house, but it's my favorite. Pepperfire won my heart with their chicken, which originally was very lightly battered -- and I was able to convince myself made it healthier somehow. Although they have since backed away from this recipe to a more traditional battered chicken, the fantastic mix of flavor and heat hasn't changed. Their heat levels are not to be toyed with. They recently ratcheted up the heat (i think), and their XX Hot is a day-ruiner -- take my word for it.
23 Jul 2015
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” – Karl Marx
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
“Only several thousand Kampucheans might have died due to some mistakes in implementing our policy of providing an affluent life for the people.” – Pol Pot
So, you want to effect meaningful socioeconomic change and measure its success in terms of a societal net good!
Ha! Lemme stop you right there. You got a lot to learn, kid. Sure, we all want to change the world. But measuring stuff, especially outcomes, is really hard! Some might say impossible! Of course we know what we’re doing, but if you declare from the outset that you know what the aggregate outcomes will be, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Defining complicated measures of success merely invites debbie downer critics to poke all sorts of holes in our wonderful plan that we know** will work. So, how to avoid this?
Let’s take a simple, hypothetical example: We all know** that eating as many bananas as possible is good, in order to increase potassium intake.
**results are inconclusive, but one study sponsored by the International Board of Banana Manufacturer Sciencey Sounding Scientists assures us it’s totally legit.
Therefore, we all know we must get people eating bananas. Let’s mandate that everyone has to buy 5 bananas a week. If you have any doubts that this isn’t a good idea, allow me to refer you to our neighbor, Shelbyville, who enacted identical legislation: at the time of this article’s writing, they are proud to declare an astonishing per capita banana/week buy rate of 4.999 bananas/week! Success! Some might say that we should look at whether we have seen actual positive health outcomes, or perhaps look at possible negative side-effects, such as skyrocketing rates of diabetes, potassium poisoning, banana cartels posting record profits, and mounds of rotting bananas on the street. But why? Do you hate progress? We would be irresponsible not to take action here.
But what about a real economy in the real world:
Hiring locally is good, right? Of course! Why? Let’s not get into that right now – but experts agree that hiring local labor within the certain, arbitrary confines of a metropolitan area is better than hiring outside of those boundaries. Nevertheless, the mindless nabobs of skepticism will always be looking for opportunities to ask pesky questions like “why?”, and “how do you know?” and “what about all the inevitable, distorting consequences and externalities?” Don’t give them the chance to derail our progress. Set terms of success and justify our plans entirely with metrics that are circular and arbitrary. We need to ensure that 40% of all construction labor is hired locally. It worked in San Francisco! They enacted the regulations, and now 40% of all construction labor there is local! Success! It wasn’t easy, of course. They had to spend a lot more money to accomplish their arbitrary goal, but they succeeded! Progress!
“Isn’t that a bit tautological?” you might ask. “Didn’t you just mandate a thing and then spend more money to guarantee compliance and then celebrate compliance? You can do that literally with anything. How do we know that we actually helped the economy at large? What about the artificially inflated labor costs? What about the previously-employed out of towners abruptly excluded from the market? Shouldn’t you do a little more due diligence before declaring success? How do you sleep at night?”
What are you, a lawyer? We all know that hiring locally is good, and now we have more local labor. Success!
Now healthcare – boy, that’s a doozy. No one seems to really know why healthcare is getting so expensive and why more and more people can’t afford it. It’s so complicated! Or is it? What if instead of focusing on healthcare outcomes, we simply focus on health insurance! Most people don’t know the difference anyway. The brilliant minds supporting Affordable Care Act realized this a long time ago. Why focus on the messy and hard (maybe impossible!) measuring of health outcomes when we can simply mandate that everyone has to be insured. Much easier to measure! Ones and zeros – either you’re insured or not. Now it’s much easier to declare success – look at all the people that are insured now! How could anyone dare to contest this? Do they hate progress?
If you want to immediately claim the rhetorical highground, you cannot fail if you aim for what we already know: that our mandate was fulfilled. Take George W Bush and the War on Iraq, for example. We can learn a lot from this master of planning! Iraq is a complicated place – like, really complicated. We know of course (of course) that invading was the right thing to do, but proving why is really hard! Much easier is to set a date for when we’ve won the war. When that date arrives? BOOM! Unfurl the victory banner: we just won the war. Think he was wrong? Was it or Was it not May 1, 2003? Was that or was it not the date we set for the end of the war? Ergo, in your face.
Hopefully this brief tour of rhetorical tautology has been helpful, and remember: there is no limit to the change you can make in the world if you put your mind to it and try to avoid having to defend any objective, measurable, positive terms of success.