Periscope Depth

bellum omnia contra zombies

First up, I’ve got a new post on Overthinking It, interpreting the first season of The Walking Dead in light of social contract theory:

Locke’s social contract, and Shane’s, hinges on reason. People emerge from the state of nature because, as rational creatures, they see a value to it. An established tradition of how to trade, how to handle differences and when to fight makes life easier for everyone. Locke presumes that a society emerges from the state of nature once enough people recognize those benefits.

Shane wants people to recognize those benefits, too. When Jim snaps and begins digging mass graves, Shane spends a long time trying to talk him down. He doesn’t get violent until Jim provokes him, swinging the shovel like a weapon. He’s the man with the gun, and (until Rick shows up) the only man with a badge. But he doesn’t bark orders.

Second, a couple great news items crossed my plane yesterday. c/o Bruce Schneier, there’s this post from Emergent Chaos on whether the TSA is properly modeling threats:

Half of getting the right answer is asking the right questions. If the question the President is hearing is “what can we do to protect against the threat that we saw in the Christmas day bombing (attempt)” then there are three possible interpretations. First is that the right question is being asked at a technical level, and the wrong question is being asked at the top. Second, the wrong questions are being asked up and down the line. Third is that the wrong question is being asked at the top, but it’s the right question for a TSA Administrator who wants to be able to testify before Congress that “everything possible was done.”

Then, from the New York Times, an example of a law with wholesome intentions and unintended consequences:

Defaulting [home-]owners saw television commercials or heard radio ads where a lawyer promised relief. They handed over a few thousand dollars and heard no more.

Two years ago, the state bar association had seven complaints of misconduct in loan modifications. By March 2009, there were more than 100 complaints, and a task force was formed to deal with the problem. Soon, there were thousands of complaints.


Under [a new] measure, passed overwhelmingly by the State Legislature and backed by the state bar association, lawyers who work on loan modifications cannot receive any money until the work is complete. The bar association says that under the law, clients cannot put retainers in trust accounts.

The law, which has few parallels in other states, was devised to eliminate swindles in which modification firms made promises about what their lawyers could do, charged hefty fees and then disappeared. But foreclosure specialists say there has been an unintended consequence: the honest lawyers can no longer afford to assist Ms. Bell and all the others who feel helpless before lenders that they see as elusive, unyielding and skilled at losing paperwork.


The problem for lawyers is that even a simple modification, in which the loan is restructured so the borrower can afford the monthly payments, is a marathon, putting off their payday for months if not years. If the bank refuses to come to terms, the client may file for bankruptcy. Then the lawyer will never be paid.

(I’m not sure why this isn’t a problem for the other sorts of law firms that take big cases on contingency, like mesothelioma chasers, but I’m no lawyer)

These two stories fit into a theme that came up in the comments thread of my Livejournal mirror of an earlier post. There, talking about the efficiencies of the free market, I made the point that corporations aren’t bothered much by diseconomies of scale. Sure, an individual company may grow too big too fast, slicing its profit margins too thin to support its overhead costs (a point Bryan made yesterday). But the competitor that knocks it off its perch will be using the same business model. If one inefficient behemoth loses ground to another, that’s not a ringing endorsement for the free market’s ability to strip away chaff.

Quoting myself here:

The presumption of a diseconomy of scale is that there’s something inefficient going on. If you think of a corporation as an engine meant to produce and distribute goods at a low price, then yes, it’s inefficient. If you think of a corporation as an engine to employ people and return value to the shareholders, then it’s irrelevant.

The stories above, about the TSA and California homeowners, tend toward the same point. The TSA is bad at finding terrorists and great at humiliating civilians. This is because the TSA is a vast agency whose purpose is to employ people, look busy and avoid embarrassing questions in Congressional hearings. The California State Legislature probably didn’t want to pass a law making it impossible for homeowners to find lawyers to represent them in foreclosure hearings. But they did, by producing a law that did one thing really well.

My point: you get the behavior you incentivize. Or, looking backward: you incentivized the behavior you got.