Archives: 03/2018

Bad Urban Design to Blame for Driverless Car Fatality

The death of a pedestrian who was struck by an Uber autonomous car Sunday night has led to questions about whether driverless cars are safe. However, it appears that the accident could not have been prevented no matter who was in control of the car.

Scene of the accident. Scroll left to see the poorly designed pedestrian path that the woman was apparently using before crossing the street.
 

According to police, a woman pushing a bicycle laden with shopping bags stepped from the roadway median into 35-mile-per-hour traffic. The Uber vehicle, which had a back-up human driver behind the wheel, did not have time to even brake before it hit her.

Transit agencies are in the habit of blaming the victims who are killed or injured when struck by light-rail trains. The reality is that accidents involving light rail are usually the result of poor design, and any design that puts 50- to 200-ton vehicles in the same streets as 1.5- to 2-ton vehicles and 0.1-ton pedestrians is a poor one.

In the same way, the real blame for the Tempe accident should be placed on poor street design. The above Google image shows the approximate location of the accident.

Rotate to the right to see a trail in an arroyo marked the “Shortcut from Mill Ave. to Lake View Dr.” This trail connects to the Canal Trail and some other trails east of Mill Avenue. Rotate to the left to see a paved continuation of this trail, which eventually connects to the Grand Canal Trail west of Mill Avenue. Zoom in to see a sign saying “No pedestrian crossing: Use crosswalk” with an arrow pointing to a crosswalk that is 500 feet to the right.

In other words, despite the pavement, pedestrians and cyclists using the canal trails aren’t supposed to cross the median strip. Instead, they are supposed to go on the sidewalk to the crosswalk on Curry Road. The pedestrian path across the median strip, however, is a tempting shortcut that saves close to two-tenths of a mile.

Aerial view of the paved paths in the median strip between north- and southbound Mill Avenue lanes with the probable path of the accident victim shown in red.
 

This means it would be natural for people traveling from the Grand Canal Trail to the Canal Trail to cross southbound Mill, use the paved path, then cross the northbound portion to get to the Loma Trail. I don’t know for certain, but it seems likely that this is what happened.

It’s hard for any kind of driver to stop when moving 35 miles per hour on a semi-limited access road and a pedestrian steps in front of you from out of nowhere in the dark. I don’t want to blame the victim, but I don’t think the car, whether controlled by a human or by a computer, is to blame either.

So the question that must be asked is why are there paved trails between the north and southbound lanes of Mill Avenue when there is no safe way for pedestrians to use those trails? We’ll know more soon, but I suspect this fatality is more due to bad urban design than to the autonomous car.

Putin’s New Term—From Brezhnev to Stalin

As was widely expected, on Sunday Vladimir Putin was once again reinstalled (reconfirmed, re-enthroned) in the Kremlin. The term “elected” cannot be used in this case since nothing that happened on March 18, 2018, or in the months leading to this date, qualifies for the internationally recognized basic standards of the term “election.” 

In full control of the Kremlin for more than 18 years, Putin has already been at the top of the Russian state longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader in the last century—including Leonid Brezhnev—and is now left to compete only with the three-decade reign of Joseph Stalin.

The official numbers of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) gave Putin 76.7% of the vote with a turnout of 67.5%, making up almost 52% of Russia’s electorate. According to the CEC, the official number of people who voted for Putin was 56.4 million. However, Sergei Shpilkin, the renowned expert in electoral statistics, has estimated that ballot stuffing this year amounted to at least 10 million. In each of the three previous cases of “presidential elections” (in 2004, 2008, 2012) Shpilkin and his colleagues calculated the number of added (falsified) votes at between 8.8 and 14.6 million. 

Whatever the actual level of Putin’s public support, the official numbers provide Putin with a level of legitimacy that Russian presidents never had before. The real question that now arises is how he is going to use it.

The general consensus is that Putin’s policy on the domestic front would be a still further tightening of his grip on the last remnants of civil society, a further destruction of the already almost-fully-destroyed rule of law, meager—if any—meaningful economic reforms, and definitely a new level of ideologization of Russian society based on anti-liberal, conservative, Orthodox religious values. Russia’s level of political rights and civil liberties in previous years has been sliding down to non-free status. Now its status is just one notch above the very bottom in Freedom House’s political freedom index, meaning that it is close to the level of the totalitarian regimes of Cuba and North Korea. Given Putin’s persistence and Russia’s rapid political deterioration, it is rather hard not to expect that Russia will soon sink to the lowest level in the political freedom index.

As for Putin’s possible foreign policy in the coming years, we can get a hint of it based on a number of his recent statements, comments, and interviews. It appears that Putin’s traditional interest in disturbing Russia’s immediate neighbors and grabbing pieces of land in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine has been visibly redirected towards Belarus, since Mr. Lukashenko’s dictatorship—lacking any serious foreign allies except for Russia—seems to be particularly vulnerable to absorption. In addition, the Russian “czar” has started to look for more ambitious targets beyond the borders of the former Soviet republics. Recently, his attention has been directed towards his key adversary—the United States—and the most irritating part for him within the United States, its democratic political system. In the documentary movie “The World Order, 2018,” which was prepared by the Kremlin propaganda team before the March presidential vote, Putin firmly articulated his two approaches to the United States: to be emphatically positive towards president Trump and to show strong “disappointment with the unpredictable [democratic] political system” of the United States.

Otherwise, in his interview with NBC anchor Megan Kelly, Putin appeared even more decisive—by naming (unprecedentedly) five times the most crucial problem for him and his key partner (president Trump): namely, the United States political system and the United States Congress. He blamed Congress for all of America’s alleged crimes, such as intervention into Russian internal affairs, different accusations of Russia, proclaiming Russia as an enemy, and the introduction of sanctions against Russia—something that Putin has never done before. It remains to be seen what particular instruments he is ready to apply towards this enemy—intervention into congressional elections this Autumn, cyber-attacks, propaganda, blackmail, or otherwise. But having seen Putin’s approach for years, it is hard not to foresee that one of the main targets of his aggressive foreign policy—either open, or clandestine, or both—in the coming years is going to be the democratic political system of the United States, with the United States Congress at its center.

How Many Sessions Does it Take to Screw Up Good Policy?

A snowstorm has shutdown most of D.C. today, but Congress is working to pass a budget to keep the government open. Again.

As I’ve written before, there’s more at stake in the budget than just keeping the government up and running. For several years, Congress has refused to fund federal prosecutions of state-legal medical marijuana (a.k.a. “cannabis”) distribution through a rider to the annual budget known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer (originally Rohrabacher-Farr) Amendment.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has previously asked Congress for the funds to go after the people who provide relief to terminally ill and chronic pain patients with cannabis. He’s already made his intentions clear to the Department of Justice that he wants more marijuana prosecutions. As Politico explained in an article today, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX)—no relation—has done his best to oblige the Attorney General’s request through his position on the House Rules Committee.

Both Sessions are remarkably out of step with not just American sentiment, but Republican feelings on medical cannabis:

Despite its perceived association with the political left, medical marijuana is not just a blue-state issue. Ten of the 29 states with legal medical marijuana—and 115 electoral votes—went for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. More than 200 million American residents, roughly 62 percent of the population, live in states where medical marijuana is legal. Nationwide, according to a 2017 CBS poll, 71 percent of Americans—including 63 percent of Republicans—oppose federal interference with state-legal marijuana. Perhaps most telling, a 2017 Quinnipiac poll found that 94 percent of American voters approve of adult medical marijuana use if prescribed by a doctor.

There is no guarantee that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer will be in the final budget agreement before the Friday deadline. In the midst of the opioid crisis and with so much public (and corroborating scientific) support for medical cannabis as an opioid alternative, failure to attach the rider could be calamitous for suffering patients and an inexplicable unforced error by the Republican majority.  

Protectionists Agree: Steel and Aluminum Tariffs Will Leave Us Worse Off

President Trump’s announcement of new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum drew swift warnings from free traders, including here at the Cato Institute, that such naked protectionism will lead to job losses and reduced prosperity. But don’t just take our word for it. A new study released this week by the Coalition for a Prosperous America (CPA), a protectionist interest group, concludes that the tariffs will result in both net employment losses and reduced economic activity. While the CPA highlights the study’s finding that tariffs will lead to 18,859 new jobs in “iron and steel nonferrous metals,” it also concedes that these will be more than offset with losses in other sectors, including over 10,000 jobs in construction and nearly 7,500 in manufacturing, for a net loss of 411 jobs. Additionally, the study finds that the tariffs will leave Americans marginally poorer, predicting a decrease in U.S. GDP of $1.4 billion. 

In other words, the debate is no longer whether these tariffs will be harmful to the U.S. economy—the protectionists have effectively run a white flag up the pole on that question—but rather the magnitude of the damage. 

Also worth noting is that the CPA study presents a best-case scenario, using assumptions that are, if not questionable, perhaps overly optimistic. For example, the model’s apparent assumption of full employment—by no means obvious given that recent sizeable monthly employment gains have not led to a reduction in the unemployment rate—appears in tension with the study’s claim that steel and aluminum will see relatively restrained cost increases of 6.29 percent and 2.5 percent owing to “available U.S. capacity and competition.” Presumably, any increase in production to partially offset the decline in imports will require additional workers, which may be no easy task in a full employment economy. Furthermore, the study makes no mention of the impact of retaliation that is sure to follow from U.S. trading partners in response to Trump’s tariffs. The study’s finding that the tariffs will result in 464 new agriculture jobs, for example, is hard to square with retaliation threats from the European Union which include targeting American exports of corn, cranberries, rice, orange juice, and tobacco. 

In contrast, a recent analysis conducted by the Trade Partnership consulting group found that retaliation would contribute to net U.S. job losses of over 468,000. Even absent retaliation, a previous study by the Trade Partnership—one that the new CPA report was conducted in response to—still found a net loss of 146,000 jobs. 

The exact amount of the employment decline or loss in economic welfare, however, is almost a second order question on the steel and aluminum tariffs. Directionally, a consensus has been reached, with both free traders and protectionists in apparent agreement that they will cause harm to both jobs and the overall economy. Thus far, President Trump has not heeded the warnings of free traders and appears determined to proceed with his act of self-sabotage. Perhaps he will lend an ear to his fellow protectionists.  

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This Blogpost Isn’t Authorized by the Supreme Court

Can the government force private parties to speak against their own interests and disparage the products they offer? The answer is yes when potential consumer harms are significant (think tobacco labels and other safety warnings) or there’s informational asymmetry (securities offerings)—and indeed fraudulent offerings (the prototypical snake oil) are prohibited altogether. But mandated disclosure regimes are proliferating far past these sorts of traditional disclosures, stretching the First Amendment to the breaking point regarding commercial speech.

A recent example of this phenomenon involves Nationwide Biweekly Administration, whose business is saving customers a significant amount on their mortgages by structuring smaller biweekly payments in place of traditional monthly payments—allowing for an extra reduction of principal each year. To market its services, Nationwide uses public information to send potential customers mailers illustrating how much they might save over the life of their loans. Despite front-and-center statements that Nationwide is “not affiliated, connected, or associated with, sponsored, or approved by the lender listed above,” California decided that this information was insufficient to guarantee that consumers wouldn’t be confused. The state required the company to state on solicitations that they are “not authorized by the lender.”

Nationwide challenged this requirement in court, arguing that the state’s message itself was misleading (by implying that lenders have any power to “authorize” Nationwide’s actions) and forced the company to disparage its own services by suggesting that they were somehow not permitted to offer them. But the federal district court, and then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, approved the mandated disclosure, citing the Supreme Court case of Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio (1985).

Zauderer held that “purely factual,” “uncontroversial” disclosures could be required to directly combat consumer deception. While this is a lower form of constitutional scrutiny than most speech restrictions receive, it’s not without teeth. The government still needs to prove actual deception—and once that hurdle is crossed, those compelled government scripts must be both purely factual and uncontroversial, and take care not to burden the speaker any more than necessary.

“Criminal Aliens” Commit Mostly Victimless Crimes, Few Violent Crimes

During his campaign, President Trump promised to target the “bad hombres” in the United States illegally. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) statistics indicate that his administration has cast a much wider net. More than one in four immigrants that ICE arrested last year had no criminal convictions at all, and of the rest, their convictions were mostly victimless crimes—largely traffic infractions, immigration offenses, and drug offenses. Almost 90 percent were for nonviolent crimes. ICE cannot justify its broad crackdown based on these figures.

Figure 1 shows immigrants arrested by ICE by whether they had a criminal conviction (top left) and the distribution of the convictions by type of conviction (bottom right). ICE statistics only provide a list of all convictions that the entire population of criminal aliens committed, meaning that they only show the distribution of convictions, not the distribution of immigrants based on their most serious offense. That said, a majority of all convictions were for crimes with no private victims (i.e. not the government or “society”). Just 11 percent were violent crimes (just one percent were homicide and sexual assault).

Figure 1: Immigrants Arrested by ICE by Criminal Conviction and Distribution of Criminal Convictions

Immigrants and Type of Convictions

Source: Immigration and Customs Enforcement

An Unhappy Anniversary for the Iraq War

On the unhappy 15th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, the Charles Koch Institute’s William Ruger and Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich offer important and timely op eds.

Writing in the New York Times, Ruger sees Iraq as “just the worst in a string of failures” of U.S. foreign policy in the past quarter century, a range of missions that have cost nearly 7,000 American troops killed, tens of thousands wounded, and trillions of dollars spent, with precious little to show for it. “Underlying all of these failures,” Ruger writes, “is the view, endorsed by both parties, that we need an active military presence around the globe to shape what happens almost everywhere.” He calls for an “alternate approach to the United States’ role in the world,” a “constructive but realistic mind-set [that] would put our safety first while expanding America’s opportunities to engage productively with the world.”

Bacevich takes the occasion of this sad anniversary to comment on the disconnect between the American people and the elites who sold the war. He attributes Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election to the “blood sacrifice vote” – the “communities that paid a high price for the Iraq War in terms of casualties.” Hillary Clinton prevailed among those who preferred to let “someone else’s sons and daughters do the fighting.” It is the sort of scathing critique that Bacevich has come to be known for, but it is no less accurate or insightful for having been written before.

Trump voters, Bacevich posits, supported him, despite the fact that they suspected his “America First” campaign to be “all but devoid of substantive content”:

because Trump said aloud what they themselves knew: that the Iraq War had been [a] monumental error for which they, and pointedly not members of the political elite, had paid dearly. In short, a vote for Trump offered them a way to express their disdain for establishment politicians whose dishonesty they considered far more odious than Trump’s own pronounced tendency to shave the truth.

I’ve written before of how the yawning gap between the foreign policy elite and the people who fight the wars and pay the bills paved the way for a person like Donald Trump to win the presidency (see especially here and here). But I do think it worthwhile to dwell, for a moment, on Iraq as a particularly important step along the process that turned that gap into a chasm.