Controlled substances

But of course, they are not. Illegal drugs kill people, finance gangsters and terrorists, and bring down governments. But "controlled"? Not even close.

Why? A simple economic analysis shows the fundamentals. Fierce inelastic demand, diverse sources world wide, and limited trade routes. Hey presto, the trade routes are amazingly profitable and impossible to close down. That same economic analysis shows the key to control: usurp the trade routes and become the supplier.

That's right, set up official suppliers. Regulated legalization.

It has happened before, with prohibition and alcohol. It worked.

If addiction is going to be an engine of power, why leave it to the scum of the world to profit by it? Why have our soldiers killed over drug profits in Afghanistan, or drug financed arms used to subjugate a country like Burma, or drug corruption tearing at our neighbors in Mexico or Columbia, or our police and civilians killed over drugs in our cities?

It is not as if the "war on drugs" has any success to recommend it. Time to get real.

Addiction is a medical problem. Becoming a regulated supply does not mean encouraging addiction. You can regulate it in ways that help addicts to get control of themselves or even eventually recover. Require supervision by a doctor. Monitor the amount used. Require education - hey, you can't buy that junk until you pass the test where at least you anwer 20 questions about how it can kill you.

Ah, you say, but if it is regulated then that means the addicts will still go to the gangsters to get it. True, to some extent. Some folks will need more than the regulations allow, more than a doctor is willing to sign up to watch. They'll trade with friends who fake addiction, and they'll trade with criminals with alternate supplies. Yes. And some of those addicts are going to die using stuff they bought from "official" suppliers. But since we accept that hundreds of thousands of people already die from alcohol and tobacco every year (many many times more than are likely to die from "hard" drugs) it looks like this is part of freedom we can get used to.

It will not be worse than the situation today. It might be a little more visible, but if done right you balance the legality of the supply with the access to and education about treatment, and the number of addicts is no worse. Certainly the number of addicts reduced to ruin and crime to support their habit should be much less.

The essential thing is that the regulated channels must sell cheap. You pass the test, you got the signature from your doctor, you take your quarterly physical and listen to the lectures - whatever - but at the end of the day when you put down your money on the counter it costs peanuts. The major drugs - heroin, cocaine, marijuana - they are after all agricultural products. Cigarette prices with taxes thrown in are a good model of the costs to the addict.

Gangsters just can't compete. There is no margin in it. You can't finance terrorism or buy major armaments or corrupt governments on tobacco money. You can't even buy bling to live the city life as a dealer. Government regulated supply should explicitly, unmistakeably aim to sell low. Instead of a war on drugs, this is using monopoly economics to price the gangsters out of business. If the regulated supply is cheap, even the trickle of backstreet sales to folks who for some reason do not want to join the regulated system will have prices kept down to some ratio of the legal price. Done right, that means there just is not enough money to support criminals.

Wouldn't it be nice to see the Taliban's control over Afghan poppy farmers wither away? And Columbian and Mexican cartels collapse? And our cities have their biggest source of crime cleaned up without a shot needing to be fired or an extra jail built?

It makes a lot more sense than anything we are doing today.


Embargoed lucre

Spread freedom and democracy - that is the US line of the moment. If you put cynicism on one side, it does have a nice ring to it and would actually be welcome in many places. But doing it at the point of the gun is clearly fake and other beligerant policies have little credibility. Is there any other approach that could make a difference?

One lever that is rarely used is finance. It is not always true, but there are many places where a corrupt tyrant has ruled for a while, padded some foreign accounts, and escaped to retire in luxury and usually a new head of state keen to repeat and improve upon the avarice of the predecessor.

Often what is happening is perfectly obvious, documented, and beyond dispute. However since we have the fiction of sovereignty we find our hands tied while a dictator is in power, then when they disappear to some (equally sovereign) refuge the victimized nation finds itself obliged to pay the debts lest it be a stain on its credit rating.

So, what would happen if that credit link was repudiated, in advance? Suppose the USA and Europe, together or separately, were to take issue with regimes of obvious corruption and oppression (consider North Korea and Burma as current examples) and simply say: any debts incurred by those regimes (including all its agents) shall be considered to be the personal debts of the dictator, without legal recourse to any successor regime.

This is in effect an economic embargo not needing military force. At that point, anyone extending credit (which is pretty much anyone trading goods or armaments) has to consider that they have no recourse when the regime ends. It is not as simple as getting cash payment on the spot, since that cash is generally financed by external loans (written of course to have nothing to do with arms or whatever is in trade, but mortgaged against the assets of the country) which would at that point suddenly be very bad business deals.

For good measure make any transfers from that government to any external account (named or numbered) subject to repudiation by a successor regime ("We would like our money back, please"). This makes it more complex to plan for that retirement haven.

Of course this idea has some holes. The financial centers of the USA and Europe would be displaced for shady dealing by other finance centers with less scruples. Still, it would not be long before they realize that the twin problems of picking up some of the worst credit risks along with being tarred with some of the worst political liabilities is not worth it. It only works today because everyone has allowed it to. It is based on international laws that are rooted in centuries ago when it was the norm for countries to be ruled by thugs who affected manners (known as "royalty") and such things need uprooting from time to time.

As soon as some major players change their rules the old system will seem untenable and even ridiculous - as it has been for a long, long time. There clearly is no ethical or practical reason for the current system where a nation is held responsible for the debts racked up by thugs who are supported by the arms and corruption which were financed by those debts. We could change this, we certainly have no need to keep such rules.


City traffic

City traffic is a problem around the world. It is undeniably attractive that individuals should have transport that gives personal freedom, but the current system of cars does not work well and cannot scale to serve everybody. Can we fix this?

Electric vehicles hold a lot of promise. Of course they are low pollution and potentially efficient, but one big advantage seldom discussed is they are much more precise. Regulating an IC engine is messy and slow. You get at best a tenth of a second lag on an accelerator plus the transmission gears and torque converter add imprecision. An electric motor, by contrast, can be controlled to the millisecond and is potentially closely coupled to a wheel. This means that electric cars in principle can be driven in close formation convoys and in efficient sequencing down streets and across intersections without stopping. Of course, you would need computer control since this is beyond human capabilities, but most drivers would probably be happy to put the daily commute on autopilot if it would be faster and predictable.

The payoff for a city is that much less of its valuable space needs to be invested in roads, and the existing rights of way could carry increasing traffic without the expensive and near impossible politics of building new roads or widening existing.

Of course, electric vehicles are tough to build and battery technology could take years or decades to become practical. But there is an alternative way to go, combined with batteries or hybrid drive: electrify the roads. Why not provide electric power through the roadway to participating cars? It would cost, but it would upgrade the capital value of the city and probably pay for itself in a few years so it is an interesting path to explore.

You don't need to put rails in the road. Keep your rubber tires and asphalt surface, but experiment with embedding conductive materials in the formulation of both. If the front and back tires connect as a circuit (a configuration that supports bikes as well as cars) then you can probably get a couple of kilowatts per wheel pair which is enough to sustain urban speeds.

How to avoid electrocuting pedestrians, and how to make the front and back tires get opposite parts of the circuit? Well, you make the system smart. The car would need to signal the road through the wheels (or possibly through separate sensors) so computers controlling the road know the vehicle, the speed, and where each tire is. A pedestrian does not signal the road nor come close enough to a moving car to be included in the active circuit, so to someone walking the road is just a safe paved surface.

The vehicle could then be lightweight since it does not need onboard battery for long range, with current lithium batteries a 50 lb set would allow a half ton car easy range in the suburbs to and from the core electrified network plus boost for hills and acceleration or across gaps in the road supplies. Since there is no heavy IC engine or transmission, with a powerful electric motor under 100 lb, making a 2 person vehicle with luggage space with a loaded weight in the half ton range seems quite reasonable.

Of course the roads would be expensive to build, you would probably need to prefabricate the surface elements and lay them out. However, many cities have property values of $1M per 100 ft or often much higher, so it does not seem at all impossible that something on the order of $100k of equipment might be embedded in the road to maximize traffic flow while minimizing vehicle costs, dangers, and pollution.

Our cities today are pretty stale in terms of transportation. We could transform them and not necessarily by forcing everyone into shared, inflexible public transport systems. We are by no means at the end of the road for personal automobiles.


Think week

This week's goal, one essay per day. The underlying theme will be to take a big problem and suggest a lunatic solution. Of course, there will be some risk that the craziness actually makes sense. Which of course, since the sane world is often senseless, should be expected.