The One Good Thing to Come from The Drug War

The War On Drugs, Libertarianism
AMC
Those who say nothing good has come from the War on Drugs have clearly not seen Breaking Bad.  In case you do not own a television or have internet access, in which case someone has printed this article out for you, Breaking Bad is the tale of a milquetoast high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking methamphetamine upon being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.  I just happened to catch the pilot when it first aired, and I have been hooked ever since.


I was fascinated by the character of Walter White from the beginning.  He is frustrated, not just with his cancer diagnosis but with his career and his ability to support his family.  We learn early in the series that he has a history as a brilliant chemist and co-founded a now successful company with this college roommate but left the scene before he was able to cash in.  After being presented with his terminal diagnosis and confronting the end of his life, the relative comfort of his mundane existence turns to the realization of his own untapped potential.  In his angst, Walter White becomes an entrepreneur.


He hooks up with a drug-addicted slacker and former student of his, Jesse Pinkman, who just so happens to also be throwing away quite a bit of potential himself.  The two develop a complicated, father-son (or at least uncle-nephew) relationship as they develop a drug empire based on super high quality meth.  Based on the pilot, I thought the show was going to be primarily a comedy, but the dark consequences of a life of crime spoiled the fun early and often throughout the series.  The remainder of the show has been a dramatic thriller, with Walt and Jesse facing down kingpin after kingpin while growing their business and keeping it a secret from Walt's wife and his DEA agent brother-in-law (did I  forget to mention that?).  


So Walter White becomes the bad guy, or at least that is the goal of the show's creators.  I have a difficult time seeing him as pure evil like so many others do who have commented on the show.  Of course he has committed crimes beyond retribution -- murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, grand larceny -- but, really, who started it?  Imagine if methamphetamine was not a controlled substance.  Walter would have developed his recipe, purchased his ingredients and started cooking.  Maybe he would have taken out a small business loan.  He would have documented and controlled his process and would have approached retailers with Heisenberg's brand, ultra-pure, blue methamphetamine.   Perhaps he would have negotiated a price and exclusive distribution deal with Walgreens.  I doubt at any point he would have had cause to murder any of the Walgreens executives, poison their children or dissolve any of their bodies in hydrofluoric acid.  There would be no violence, no suspense and thus no television show.  

But, as much as my heart wants to, I cannot let Walt off the hook.  Murder, whether to protect Jesse, his family or his empire, is wrong.  Still, at its core, the cause of the violence in the show is the War on Drugs.  If Walt sold his drugs to Walmart and CVS instead of Tuco and Gus, he probably would have lived happily ever after, or at least until the cancer killed him.  So remember: no war on drugs, no Breaking Bad and no destruction of the character Walter White.  





To Protect and Serve

My usual commute to work is 10 minutes.  Lucky guy right?  Well, today it was 45.  Was there an accident?!  Maybe someone was pulled over and the rubber necks put me behind?  As I waited, I realized that this was too much of an ordeal for something like that.  

After about 30 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I saw a clue to the mystery: "Regulatory Area Ahead.  Prepare to stop." Shortly thereafter I reached the epicenter, ground zero of traffic enforcement stupidity.  I saw no less than six cop cars in the HOV lane with their lights flashing, pulling people over for using the HOV lane improperly.  I was absolutely beside myself.  This is a quote from a local news story covering the topic today:
Pennsylvania State Police officers wrote more than 60 tickets, and gave out 14 warnings to drivers who were driving alone in the HOV lanes.
“We were very surprised at the number of violators that we had,” said Trooper Robin Mungo, of the Pennsylvania State Police.
However, the crackdown caused a nine-mile long traffic backup.
Surprised?! Really?!  You were surprised that six police cars with their lights flashing, during morning rush hour, as you enter downtown on one of the largest and busiest thoroughfares in Pittsburgh caused traffic to backup?!  You are either lying, in which case you do not care about the people you are supposed to be protecting and serving, or you are too stupid to operate a motor vehicle, let alone enforce traffic laws for those of us who are not.
“I don’t want to say I apologize; it’s unfortunate that they had to sit in the backups, but in our profession it kind of comes with the territory,” said Trooper Mungo.
Yes, in your profession, sitting around in a car all day may come with the territory, but not in mine.  Officer, you seemed to be a little bit confused about this non apology you have reluctantly not rendered to whom I can only interpret are other police officers.  Here is what you meant:
“I don’t want to say I apologize; it’s unfortunate that they had to sit in the backups, but when people as dull as me are in charge, you should just come to expect this sort of thing,"  Trooper Mungo meant to say.    
It seems relatively likely to me that traffic was backed up the way it was on purpose.  Are people more likely to illegally take the HOV lane if traffic is backed up as far as the eye can see?  I know I would be.  This spells harvest time for the state police.

The hits kept on coming in the interview:
“We weren’t doing it to purposely make anyone late, but we can’t enforce that law any other time,” said Trooper Mungo. 
Yes, it does indeed help to pull people over on the HOV lane when it is open.  I will grant you that one, but is there honestly no other way to enforce these traffic laws?  It seems like a very simple proposition.  So simple that I am going to provide a few suggestions:
  1. Next time, do not worry about having so much staff on duty.  One cop car with its lights on can cause a backup.  Six cars causes a traffic nightmare.  Take the same budget (as if you have to worry about it) and spread the six cars out over six mornings.  You'll probably get just as many tickets.  Do not worry so much if traffic slows down a little in the HOV lane; there are way fewer people over there.  
  2. Occasionally set an officer plainly in view of the HOV lane entrance.   This will prevent all but the very stupid or inattentive solitary drivers from using the HOV lane.  This will, however, have the unfortunate effect of preventing you from actually getting to write any tickets.  
  3. This seems like a no brainer use case for traffic cameras.  Instead of having some lackeys sitting in cars all day trying to enforce the law in real time mucking up the traffic and wasting everyone's time, have some other lackeys doing it at 2X playback speed in an air conditioned office.  If they see a solitary driver, capture the plate and image and send a ticket in the mail.  Delete the remaining video, rinse and repeat.  If you are particularly budget conscious, put the cameras in plain sight but only look at them once or twice a month.  
  4. Finally, just learn to pick your battles.  Is this really that big of a deal?  Are people put at risk by this relatively rare behavior?  Maybe start cracking down on the HOV lane if it starts becoming a problem.  If traffic backs up there for instance, go check it out to make sure everyone there is legit.  
My point here is not just to harangue the officers involved, who I am sure occasionally do good work.  My point is that the way we structure the policing functions in our society does not allow them to make the appropriate cost benefit analysis in any situation like the one I have outlined.  Consider the case in which the police department was liable for the lost time at work for all of those unfortunate souls trapped in traffic for an hour.  I have a suspicion that that would have an effect on their behavior.  

Imagine If Intellectual Property Applied to Football

Intellectual Property in Football
Football is an intensely competitive and dynamic game.  Every season brings changes in offensive and
defensive formations and plays.  Occasionally a young upstart coach at a junior college will come up with a new scheme that, in as little as a couple of seasons, will completely revolutionize the game.  The evolution of the sport is made possible by the rampant copying of one's competitors.  This is what makes the game so much fun to follow.  What works like magic this week may not work at all next week, once one's opponents have watched the game film.  What passes for offensive genius this season may next season be widely exposed for its fundamental weakness.

Imagine for a moment if plays and formations could be patented.  What effect would that have on the game?  An offensive coordinator would come up with a new play, document the design in an overly verbose and incomprehensible document, and wait for the NFL Patent Office to release their verdict.  Finally, 3 seasons later, the coach can incorporate his new play into the offense, or he could try to license or sell the rights to the play to another team.  Perhaps it just does not work with his current crop of players.  Once a defense sees the new play in action, they will have to scour their portfolio for a countermeasure that they think will work in defending it.  If nothing is found, they may have to resort to purchasing the rights to one.  The could of course take the time to invent their own play and check it against current patents issued, lest they land themselves in court for trespassing on the intellectual space of some coach who came up with a too similar blitz 12 seasons earlier.

It is difficult to project exactly how a football patent process would effect the game, but I submit without equivocation that it would put a major damper on that element which makes the game so much fun, innovation.  This is because the incentive of the game would be bastardized.  Instead of just doing whatever it takes to reach the goal line without holding, clipping and the like, the coaching staff must now do so while avoiding the patent courts.   The focus would be shifted from coming up with new plays to protecting the plays already in the team's portfolio.

Is this a perfect analogy to intellectual property to be applied outside the realm of sports?  Probably not.  But I hope what is clear by now is that the absence of legal protection of ideas does not present a disincentive to innovate as is so often leveled in defense of intellectual property.  Being the first to the field or to the market with a new plan, or even an improved implementation of an old plan, is all the incentive that is needed, in life or in sport, to be inventive.  The takeaway that is just as important is that, in the absence of legal protection from copying, one must not rest on one's laurels but must - gasp - keep innovating to keep moving the ball forward.
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