Thanks for protecting us, govt.

One of the many controversial conclusions in Freakonomics is that for young children (not infants), car seats do no better than seatbelts at reducing death and major injury (nothing said about minor injury) in car acccidents.

Now, how do these statistics jibe with the government mandating of child car seats? After all, licensing protects us through the benevolent wisdom of a power greater than our own, right? We government skeptics will be unsurprised to read this letter to Levitt:

My first professional job as a statistician was with the Center for the Environment and Man. They were contracted to analyze accident data for NHTSA to retrospectively estimate the benefits obtained from the FMVSS rules (mostly the 1973 rules). The analyses were being performed in the 1978-1980 time window (mostly 1979). One of the items for evaluation was child safety seats. We evaluated child seat performance based on the child seats implicit to usage in that era and found that car seat belts were more effective for children and infants. NHTSA was incensed by this conclusion and we had to reanalyze the data numerous times and ways eliminating parts of the data they decided they did not like for, in our opinion, questionable reasons. No matter how the data was sliced and diced we found that car seat belts were more effective for children and infants (highly statistically significant effects). NHTSA did not like this conclusion and obviously never went public with it (did not want to discourage child seat usage despite the relative ineffectiveness compared to existing seat belt systems). In fact they verbally indicated that they were not even going to take the results to the child seat manufacturers of the day to foster future improvement. NHTSA felt that the manufacturers would be "upset" by the conclusions. We felt that the child seat manufacturers richly deserved to be upset! Ever so slightly to NHTSA's credit is that subsequently got around to revising the child safely seat standards in 1982.

This is a classic example of a regulatory agency "captured" by its true constituency - those it regulates. Their concentrated interests overwhelm the dispersed parents, leaving the latter to waste their money on ineffective protection, following the advice of the government and thus endangering their children.

My father tried working for the government as an economist once, long ago. It turned out they wanted him to justify conclusions, not analyze data. So not only can we not trust the regulators to interpret the available facts correctly, to analyze the cost/benefit ratios, but we can't even trust them to generate accurate new information. They are selfish humans, just like us, and they take their personal cost/benefit ratios into account.

There are other powerful arguments against such regulation, like the one-size-fits-all problem - cost/benefit ratios are fundamentally individual, since each person has different costs and benefits. But it's worse than that, because regulators are plenty capable of screwing up even the calculation for the average person, or a specific group.

The only people you can trust to accurately analyze your cost/benefit ratio is you, and those whose direct incentive is to serve you well. Regulators, despite our fanciful wishes, do not qualify as the latter.

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Today's Links and

Today's Links and Minifeatures 2005 07 30 Saturday
Utterly cool but I had forgotten about it while the shuttle fleet was grounded: A Real Time Track of the shuttle and a few other major satellites.

My father tried working for

My father tried working for the government as an economist once, long ago. It turned out they wanted him to justify conclusions, not analyze data.

So that's where it all started.

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