Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The worst law in London

What does absurd government monomania in the face technological irrelevance look like?

Back in the early years of the 20th century, before computers had become widespread, the word 'calculator' actually referred to people. They would perform large numbers of arithmetic calculations, essentially being a slow and kludgy version of a spreadsheet.

Let's suppose, hypothetically, that being a human computer was a licensed and highly regulated profession in 1920. The government required you to study for years, and prove that you could do hundreds of long division calculations without making a mistake. A whole mystique grew up about 'doing the sums', the examination required to become a calculator. Only licensed calculators were permitted to perform arithmetic operations for more than half an hour a day in a commercial setting

Then IBM popularises the computer, and  Richard Mattessich invents the spreadsheet, and it becomes totally clear to absolutely everybody that 'doing the sums' is completely worthless as a skill set. Not only is keeping the current regulation raising costs by a lot, but it's producing huge deadweight loss from all the people devoting years of their life to studying something that's now completely redundant.

What do you think the response of the government and the public would be once it became apparent that the new technology was cheap and easily available? Immediate repeal of the absurd current regime? Outcry and anger at the horrendous government-mandated inefficiency?

Ha! Not likely,

I suspect the old regime would trundle merrily along, and the New York Times would write philosophically-minded pieces extolling the virtues of it.

Because, dear reader, there actually exists regulation exactly this disgraceful - The Knowledge, the required examination for London taxi drivers.

The New York Times Magazine wrote a long piece describing just how much taxi drivers are required to memorise:
"You will need to know: all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists.
 Test-takers have been asked to name the whereabouts of flower stands, of laundromats, of commemorative plaques. One taxi driver told me that he was asked the location of a statue, just a foot tall, depicting two mice sharing a piece of cheese. It’s on the facade of a building in Philpot Lane, on the corner of Eastcheap, not far from London Bridge.
What, in the name of all that is holy, is the purpose of making it a legal requirement of driving a taxi that you can name the location of a foot-tall statue of two mice that exists somewhere in London?

In the first place, the demand for finding the location of a statue like this from your taxi driver is zero. A precisely estimated zero, as the statisticians say. The revenues side of the ledger is a donut. It is literally inconceivable that the location of this statue has been the subject of a legitimate question towards a London taxi driver in the history of the entire profession. The only benefit is rent-seeking and limiting the size of the taxi industry. So why not just make them memorise the Roman Emperors in chronological order, or the full text of War and Peace? It would serve just as much purpose.

Not only is there no value to your taxi driver knowing this, but if I type in 'statue of two mice in London' into Google, the first image lists the location as 'Philpot Lane'. (The only sites that come up, ironically, are ones referencing the damn test, suggesting just how pointless this knowledge is). The internet has made memorising this kind of trivia, for all possible sets of London trivia, irredeemably useless.

Everything a taxi driver needs to know has been replaced by a smartphone. Everything. Which is why every man and his dog can drive Uber around just fine.

So what threadbare arguments does the NYT offer when, three quarters of the way through the article, it finally gets around to discussing the question of whether this damn test is worth anything?
Taxi drivers counter such claims by pointing out that black cabs have triumphed in staged races against cars using GPS, or as the British call it, Sat-Nav. Cabbies contend that in dense and dynamic urban terrain like London’s, the brain of a cabby is a superior navigation tool — that Sat-Nav doesn’t know about the construction that has sprung up on Regent Street, and that a driver who is hailed in heavily-trafficked Piccadilly Circus doesn’t have time to enter an address and wait for his dashboard-mounted robot to tell him where to steer his car.
Okay, I'll bite. They beat them in staged races by... how much? One minute? Maybe two? Perhaps 60 or 70% of the time? And the value of this time-saving is what, exactly? How does it compare to the extra time the person waited trying to hail a cab because of the artificial limit on the number of taxis?

It seems that New York Times writers are not required to distinguish between statements like 'the revenue side of the income statement here has literally no items on it' and the statement 'this is a positive NPV project that should be invested in'. Disproving the first statement is sufficient to establish the truth of the second. Look, there's a benefit! Really! See, it shows it must be a good idea to do the project.

Perhaps sensing the unpersuasive ring of this argument to anyone who's ever ridden in an Uber and found it cost 40% of the price, we then get another tack:
Ultimately, the case to make for the Knowledge may not be practical-economic (the Knowledge works better than Sat-Nav), or moral-political (the little man must be protected against rapacious global capitalism), but philosophical, spiritual, sentimental: The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London’s soul, and for the souls of Londoners. 
Well, in that case!

But riddle me this - how, exactly, can I tell whether this egregious rent-seeking and artificial deadweight loss monopoly is good for London's soul? 
The Knowledge stands for, well, knowledge — for the Enlightenment ideal of encyclopedic learning, for the humanist notion that diligent intellectual endeavor is ennobling, an end in itself. 
'Enlightenment'. You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

Learning is definitely good. Government-mandated learning, especially when used as part of banning the consensual commercial activity of many individuals, is a wholly separate matter.

Just ask someone from the Enlightenment, like John Stuart Mill:
But, without dwelling upon supposititious cases, there are, in our own day, gross usurpations upon the liberty of private life actually practised, and still greater ones threatened with some expectation of success, and opinions propounded which assert an unlimited right in the public not only to prohibit by law everything which it thinks wrong, but in order to get at what it thinks wrong, to prohibit any number of things which it admits to be innocent.
Like, for instance, driving a cab without studying for years to satisfy a ludicrous exam requirement. 

But it's not just the higher taxi fees and difficulty getting a cab at the wrong time of night that make up the real tragedy here. What's the human toll of making every potential taxi driver learn this kind of nonsense, regardless of whether they ultimately succeed?
McCabe had spent the last three years of his life thinking about London’s roads and landmarks, and how to navigate between them. In the process, he had logged more than 50,000 miles on motorbike and on foot, the equivalent of two circumnavigations of the Earth, nearly all within inner London’s dozen boroughs and the City of London financial district. 
 It was now 37 months since he’d paid the £525 enrollment fee to sign on for the test and appearances. “The closer you get, the wearier you are, and the worse you want it,” McCabe said. “You’re carrying all this baggage. Your stress. Worrying about your savings.” McCabe said that he’d spent in excess of £200,000 on the Knowledge, if you factored in his loss of earnings from not working. “I want to be out working again before my kids are at the age where someone will ask: ‘What does your daddy do?’ Right now, they know me as Daddy who drives a motorbike and is always looking at a map. They don’t know me from my past, when I had a business and guys working for me. You want your life back.”
Apparently this must be a strong case of the false consensus effect, because reading this paragraph filled me with furious rage, but the NYT writes about it as one of those quaint things they do in old Blighty.

In the end, McCabe gets his license, so it's all a happy story!

He does not, however, get the three years of his life and £200,000 back.

How on earth do the parasites who run the testing and administration of this abomination justify all this to themselves? How do they explain their role in this shameful waste of money and fleeting human years, the restrictions on free and informed commerce, the ongoing fleecing of consumers, and the massive, groaning, hulking, deadweight loss of this monstrous crime against economic sense and liberty?

They must be either extraordinarily intellectually incurious, morally bankrupt, or both.

As the Russians are fond of saying, how can you not be ashamed?


  1. Most excellent Mr Shylock, your words made me both laugh and cry

  2. Ha, thanks. That's about how I felt on the matter as well.