An Anti-Piracy Proposal

A new PSA to make movie pirates feel guilty has been released:

Clever how it plays on our natural sympathies towards boom operators, isn't it?

Problem is, the logic applies any time a movie is seen second-hand. Watch a DVD at a friend's house? So long, key grips! Friend loans you a movie? Goodbye, gaffers! Buy a used blu-ray? Y'all take care now, dialect coaches!

Imagine some rich guy has such a passion for movies that he regularly buys and broadcasts full-quality movies for free all across the world via multiple formats. Is he violating copyright law? Yes. Would this have longer-term consequences that were bad for the film industry (and possibly fans)? Yes. But is he acting immorally? Are the people who watch the movies engaging in theft?

And how about this doozy: if my willingness to pay for a given movie is $0.00, then I'm not putting anyone out of work by pirating because otherwise I'd just not see the movie. If that isn't a victimless crime, then anyone in the world who failed to see the movie is also complicit, which seems excessive.

Many people are not like me, however, and they'd be willing to pay $.50 or even $10 for a given ticket. But so long as that maximum willingness to pay is below the ticket price, they're not going to buy. The result for the studios is less revenue from unsold tickets, and less revenue from concessions for the theaters. This is a losing proposition for both the industry and for customers, but it's worse for the industry since some of those potential customers are going to see the movie anyway for free.

Movie theaters could respond by introducing demand pricing (and a quick google reveals I'm not the only one with this idea).  Instead of one price to rule them all, theaters could adjust prices to reflect people's willingness to pay, much as airlines and now even sports and music venues do*.  The average ticket price would happily decrease for movie-goers, and profits would happily increase for movie-makers. Further, since the marginal cost of a ticket is near zero,  theaters could actually give away unsold seats for free and still make some money on the popcorn**. How's that for an anti-piracy measure?

*After all, if you're going to copy stadium-style seating, it only makes sense to copy stadium-style pricing, right?

** Note: this would not work on me, for I am in my soul an economist.

Don't Clean Your Recyclables for the Environment's Sake

People recycle because they don't want to waste resources. Throw a yogurt tub in the trash instead of a colored bin, and you lose forever to a landfill whatever use could be gotten from that plastic.  But recycling itself also consumes resources, so how can you judge the trade-off? Such is the worry of a Mother Jones reader:

City recycling instructs you to put clean containers in the recycle bins. But I've become increasingly frustrated trying to get certain pet-food cans, yogurt containers, and margarine containers cleaned without using a lot of water. I feel that the water I use, the gas to heat the water, the dish soap, and the paper towels are wasting natural resources as well as costing me money. So how clean is clean enough?

The columnist ignores the question of resources, instead saying that 1) you don't have to get the containers squeaky clean, but 2) the cleaner they are, the more valuable they are, so "by providing clean recyclables, you can actually save your city (and ultimately, taxpayers) money."

By the logic of the second point, everyone should also not only be sorting and cleaning their recyclables, but also personally transporting them to the recycling center, perhaps stopping along the way to dive a dumpster or two for more revenue-generating recyclables.  Think of all the money you'd be saving taxpayers!

Ikea furniture is cheap, but the price can be misleading because you're performing the value-added process of building the furniture yourself. For some the labor and time involved is a trade-off worth making. For many people, however, it's better to pay a higher price for a typical piece pre-assembled by an expert.

Cleaning recyclables is also a value-adding process, and if your goal is to conserve resources, you want that process done as efficiently as possible. The single best way to ensure that efficiency is to pay the specialist to do the recycling for you. Don't waste any resources cleaning the yogurt tub, just throw it in the bin as is.* If a modern recycling facility can't turn a dirty yogurt tub into a valuable resource, then how in hades do you expect to do better in your kitchen!

* Prediction: As automated scanning and sorting technologies improve, and the economic value of recycling increases, sorting at the home will disappear entirely. Sci-fi writers and futurists feel free to include this prediction in your works.


Legal Status

Personally I've never been one for indicating a dating relationship on Facebook. Dating is about sampling with a relative ease of entry and exit, so why add a complication to what's supposed to open and free? The appropriate use of the relationship status is for the more consequential and permanent arrangements of marriage and the like, says I.

Strolling around Grant Park this evening, my neighborhood park at least until the end of my March, I was listening to this article on my iPod and thinking about Facebook's introduction of "civil union" and "domestic partnership" to its list of relationship options.  It occurred to me that the very reason I dislike Facebook for casual relationships is exactly why GLAAD was glad to see the updated options: Facebook confers legitimacy to a relationship.

It took me .26 seconds to find this video:

The status update is done lightheartedly here, but wouldn't this actually be the most culturally relevant ritual for most marriage ceremonies today? Isn't it the case that modern marriages are made most tangible in the minds of friends and family not through certificate or ceremony, but cyberspace? Sure, relationship statuses are presumably almost always backed by government guarantee, but I wonder if that will ebb in importance as cultural norms trump state fiat.

The libertarian in me gleefully looks on.


Duck and Weave to Fight the Bias

Every so often when I glance at my Facebook feed, I'm reminded at how many of my childhood friends have stayed put in the place where they've grown up.  And it's not hard to see why, since the private Christian school we attended runs all the way from preschool to postgraduate. Whereas I parted ways after twelve years to go to a secular university somewhere else, most of my class--and all of my friends--opted to rollover into what I called the 13th grade. There's a whole host of reasons why staying for college made sense for them, however, and so it's only been after graduation where location decisions were less obvious that I've been surprised. Forget going ye therefore to different nations, or even states; Greenville County is home. To a lesser extent (and yes, I am just speaking in anecdotes based on my FB friends), many of my USC acquaintances have stayed in South Carolina and (perhaps most perplexingly) in Columbia, even if they're not from the area.

What to make of all this? At first, my quick-draw explanation was to throw in some combination of status-quo bias and path dependence. Applying the status-quo bias I imagine is straightforward enough, but path dependence less so: here I'm using it to mean that the longer one stays in one place, the more geographically-bound his social network becomes, thus also binding his options to wherever he happens to be. Plainly put, people stay in a rut because there's nothing strong enough to pull them out, and the longer they stay in, the deeper the rut becomes.

As I was googling around on this topic, however, I also came across two related psychological effects which might also apply. The first is the appealingly-named propinquity effect, which says that closeness (in one way or another) matters a lot for attraction. Similarly, the exposure effect holds that "people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them." Perhaps then the status-quo bias is powerful because people like where they because that's where they are.  Ain't nothing like social science to make intuition sound complicated, is there?

How then have I managed to overcome the mighty propensities of my brethren? My city of residence has, after all, changed once every six months on average since graduating from college.  There are the Adamsian reasons, yes, but those are probably just cover for the real--but less noble and wise--motivations to signal how cool and cosmopolitan I am.  Something about this story is awry, however, because every time I move (Happy New Year!) I still feel a need to explain that I'm not cuckoo bananas.

Iced Naïveté

As another US election draws nigh, politics becomes the sporting talk of a certain American cross section. I'm much more inclined to be an observer rather than participant, but inevitably I am drawn in to an idle political chat or two. If nothing else, these conversations force me to confront the fact that my voting views are not as anodyne as I'd like to think, and that I'd better be ready to explain myself satisfactorily. Here's a short and--I hope--entertaining movie I made based on how these conversations run, with the main differences being that I'm not this articulate in person and that I usually fail to convince the person I'm not some "communist whack-a-doo." If you're having a hard time understanding the robo-speak, you can turn on closed captions:

The main points I try to get across in the movie:

  1. There are many reasons to vote.
  2. What many, if not most, voters use as their stated reason for voting (i.e. its instrumentality, or ability to decide who wins) is irrational in a dry, technical, uncontroversial way.
  3. This is OK, because voters' behavior reveals their voting to be for other valid reasons, such as for personal expression, group affiliation, the fulfilling of a civic duty, etc. In other words, they're behaving like me, even if they don't acknowledge it.

One  thing I don't mention in the movie is that I, along with plenty of others in the electorate, rarely bother to vote in small and/or local elections when the instrumental value of a vote is orders of magnitude higher. You can try to explain this by pointing out the smaller stakes, but in my my view it's another bit of evidence that people vote expressively.

(The paper referenced in the movie on voting probability in the 2008 can be found here (.pdf), and the statistic about death from a non-poisonous arthropod is from the always fun to use Book of Odds.)