Dungeons and Dragons and Central Planning

Table top games like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and Traveler are all great ways to stimulate your imagination, bond with friends, and practice your problem solving skills whether you are a game master or a player. The first time I was a player I was surprised by the freedom given to you in the game.

If you are unfamiliar with these kinds of games, just imagine a videogame like Skyrim or World of Warcraft, except there are no limits. In videogames you can run into plastic walls, can’t talk to certain non-player characters, can’t use certain items, etc, but in a tabletop game it is all in your imagination. You tell friends what you are doing, whatever that may be, and the game master describes how the environment or non-player characters react to those actions while other players decide for themselves how they will react to those same actions. As someone who has played role playing videogames, like Guild Wars, and strategy games, like Age of Empires, for my entire life, I was honestly delighted by the liberty you had as a player in a table top game. Of course the only reason this is possible is because a human can make cleverer responses to actions than a program can, especially when dealing in the worlds of fantasy and science fiction.

However, when I prepared for my first time being a game master I had a ‘conflict’ with some of my political ideas. Was I being a central planner for this world to the players? I was directing the “economy” around them and how all social interactions occurred with the players. However, I think you go further than being just a central planner when you are a game master. You aren’t just the mechanics of how players get money and how much any item costs, but you are also the trees, the bees, the deer, and the beer. You are literally all the universe that isn’t directly the players themselves. In this way, you are the god of this imagined universe (but the god of gods since there are gods that exist within most of these universes).

At this point, it should be noted that there is a significant difference between being a game master and being a central planner, which make it significantly easier to be a game master. When being a game master, you don’t have to deal with scarcity of any kind. It is an imagined world. There is no lack of cows, food, sand, water, swords, monsters, or anything else that might appear. I only have to think about it, say it, and it exists. The only thing I have to keep in mind is not creating an extreme rate of inflation for gold or experience among the players or else the numbers become unkind to work with and confusing to the players.

Without there being scarcity to worry about as a game master, directing this world as a planner must be an easy task. It is like writing a story or a book. Just imagine something entertaining or exciting and we will have smooth sailing. Except… Not really. Actually any interesting game for the players is the opposite of smooth sailing. It is frustrating, confusing, and everything is unexpected even as a game master, and it is all because of those pesky human players. They are too volatile of a variable. As players sit at the table, they create a narrative for their characters that have their own desires, motivations, fears, and beliefs. How am I suppose to plan around that?

I planned an entire quest going down the path to the burning Castle of Prince Ralley the Mighty, but then the elf rogue played by my friend decides they feel something calling to them in the forest and runs off the path into a mysterious forest I had only considered for 5 minutes before the session. What if the other players’ characters don’t want to follow him into the forest? What if one decides to attack the other? What if none of them are interested in the burning castle? Human players are a pesky variable that you can never predict.

So in this way, even when I don’t have to deal with scarcity in this world, I still struggle to plan for the players because I am not the players. I don’t have all the knowledge, motivations, and thoughts as the players, so I will never be able to perfectly plan for them. And sometimes, that lack of planning can show for a really crappy sessions, but most of the time I would like to think I am clever enough to rebound.

Regardless, I think tabletop games teach a valuable lesson on humans as a chaotic variable. The main take away for me being that humans are too complicated to plan around. Ludwig von Mises describes this problem to a great extent in his treatise Human Action, but to put it down to small excerpt from the piece:

“Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions. No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented.” –Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics

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Being a Good Samaritan

The United States suffers from a problem of drug overdose from illegal substances, whether it be underage drinking or the use of heroin. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), between 2001 and 2014, deaths due to cocaine overdose increased by 42%. In 2014, death due to heroin exceeded 10,000. Rose Rudd, Noah Aleshire, and several other authors from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), described the United States as “experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose (poisoning) deaths. Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137%”. Furthermore, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that out of the 94,200 respondents (all under the age of 21), 15.9% self-reported that they had engaged in binge drinking in the last 30 days.

These numbers are staggering. Why has there been such a sharp increase in overdose deaths recently? How can so many underage individuals be getting their hands on alcoholic beverages? While there are many hypothesis to answer these questions and a proven answer may never be known, that does not mean that there aren’t ways to combat these numbers.

The War on Drugs has a long history in the United States from the institution of prohibition in 1920 to Nixon coining the term “War on Drugs” and declaring it in 1974. Yet, even with this long fight against drug use, we still see drug use climbing, and we unfortunately see overdoses increasing as well. So perhaps tighter prohibition would not be the solution to this overdose dilemma, but ending prohibition (meaning legalizing cocaine, heroin, etc.) does not yet seem to be an option a wide majority of Americans are willing to accept, making it a politically infeasible goal for now. According to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll, only 11% of the thousand respondents wanted to legalize cocaine, 9% supported legalizing heroin, and 8% supported legalizing methamphetamines.

With this in mind, the current best and most feasible solution to decreasing the current drug overdose problem in the United States is to push for reform in good samaritan laws. Good samaritan laws comes in a lot of different variations such as freeing medical professionals or private citizens from liability if they try to help someone that is in immediate danger. However, this could go further to protect those in danger of overdose. With reform, people that call emergency services or seek medical attention for someone in danger of an overdose (or alcohol poisoning in the context of underage drinking) should be immune to any kind of criminal or civil punishments in the context of the event. For example, if there are teenagers that are drinking underage and one is suspected of being in danger of alcohol poisoning, the other participants should be immune to any kind of punishments should they call 911 to assist their friend. This could also be said about those that are using illicit substances. Furthermore, this law needs to be upheld unflinchingly and be well known in order for it to serve its purpose.

The strongest counter-argument for this proposal, and one that is quite common among prohibitionists, is that this could encourage drug use. If people know that they could use drugs and get out of a situation safely if an overdose were to occur, this fact would incentivize people to use illicit drugs.

Even if this were true, the main purpose of this law is not to decrease drug use, but to decrease deaths due to drug overdose, which is the problem we are facing in the United States. Furthermore, some states, municipalities, and universities have already instituted similar ideas of good samaritan laws. According to Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Cornell University Instituted this form of good samaritan ruling in 2006, and not only found that there was a major increase in emergency calls, but that there was also a fairly constant rate of alcohol use on campus. Several states have also instituted good samaritan laws, like North Carolina, which is specifically for underage drinking, and California, which institutes this kind of reform fully, and neither of these states has seen a drastic increase of use after this kind of reform.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the #1 cited reason for people not calling 911 in the case of an overdose is the fear of criminal punishment. Since this is the case, it is clear that the only feasible way of alleviating death due to overdose is to ensure immunity of punishment through medical amnesty.

In Response to “A Prosperous and Cleaner Future…” by Lynne Kiesling

If I were to describe Lynne Kiesling’s publication “A Prosperous and Cleaner Future: Markets, Innovation, and Electricity Distribution in the 21st Century” as anything, it would be that she is the Friedrich Hayek of energy policy. This paper methodically, and almost poetically, describes a major issue facing the energy and environmental policy world today: archaic design, a design that was put in place during the 19th century Progressive Era which put regulators “as agents, custodians, and stewards of ratepayer resources” (Kiesling 2015).

However, putting regulators in a dynamic and ever-changing market as custodians gives rise to what Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek describes as “The Knowledge Problem” in his 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in which he says:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. (Hayek 1945).

Politicians and regulators are generally the butt of many party jokes as being incompetent and foolish, however this is a misunderstanding of why regulators stifle markets and innovation. Energy regulators will make bad decisions on what is best for the energy market or the environment not exactly because they don’t know what is best, but because they can’t know what is best.  The same could be said about a CEO of an energy company. Lynne Kiesling explains this idea by saying “[i]n dynamic markets with diffuse private knowledge, neither entrepreneurs nor policy makers can know a priori which goods and services will succeed with consumers and at what prices.”

Thus, it is not the free market assertion that private sector forces know better than public sector forces, per se. However at first glance, it seems that a solution in energy and environmentalism problems can never be found if no one actually knows enough to solve it.  This is not the free market assertion either. Instead it is that a free market is the quickest trial-and-error process for determining solutions based on the dispersed knowledge of private sector actors, which is determined through prices and profit. This is the crown-jewel of competition, which is absent in today’s energy market because of government sanctioned monopolies. Public sector action is simply too slow to enact this trial-and-error method, nor would they be able to determine what is and isn’t successful quite like consumers and the market can. Furthermore public sector forces are too slow to keep up with the innovation of today’s market, which is illustrated by Kiesling through the emergence of new technology like smart-grids, nuclear energy, and combined-cycle gas turbines. Kiesling as a result concludes that our regulation methods are inherently far too static for the dynamic market and technology we see today:

Many of the assumptions of this regulatory model are increasingly untrue in our modern society. The assumption of a single production technology with a declining long-run average curve has long been incorrect, as shown by the smaller-scale combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) innovations in the 1980s and the ensuing unbundling of generation from the vertically integrated firm and the liberalization of wholesale energy markets in restructured states in the U.S. This assumption is becoming even more problematic in the face of recent innovations in smaller-scale generation technologies, including natural gas, renewables, and even small modular nuclear power. (Kiesling 2015).

If Kiesling and Hayek are correct, it is clear that a feasible solution to problems we face today in energy and the environment, which are increasingly complicated topics, is the free market, and not an expansion of archaic regulation methods.

TransCanada Sues for $15 Billion: Environmentalism and Eminent Domain

On January 6th, TranCanada announced that it would be filing suit under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and would be seeking $15 billion in damages. The pipeline was introduced in 2008 but was rejected in November of 2015, and with the rejection President Obama gave three primary reasons for the rejection:

  1. The State Department does not foresee this being as beneficial to our economy as others presume.
  2. The pipeline will not make gas cheaper.
  3. The pipeline does not enhance our “energy security,” and we must focus on generating a clean energy economy.

In response, a TransCanada spokesperson made the following statement: “TransCanada has been unjustly deprived of the value of its multi-billion dollar investment by the U.S. Administration’s arbitrary and unjustified denial. It is our responsibility to take the actions we deem appropriate to protect our rights.”

While free trade and arbitrary regulation are something that should be avoided in the marketplace, I believe the Obama Administration has rightfully denied TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline, but for all the wrong reasons. To say that the government should pick the winner and losers of an energy market to focus on a clean energy economy is cronyism at is essence. To say that the government should reject a project because it does not foresee economic benefit or cheaper gas prices is central planning and cronyism at its essence, as well.

However, this is not the big issue with the proposed pipeline. If the pipeline were to be accepted, we would not be escaping cronyism within our government in the least. TransCanada proposed a pipeline that will be 1,179 miles long and ending in Nebraska where it will meet up with already existing pipelines. However, there is very little mention from the Obama Administration or TransCanada about the private property that would be seized under eminent domain because of the pipeline.

The project would seize the private property of other landowners across several northern states, namely South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana, if deals were not reached with the owners of the property. This is undoubtedly anti-market behavior from the side of the federal and state governments for the sake of the TransCanada company.

According the company, it has reached agreements with private property owners in South Dakota and Montana, and would not have to use eminent domain. Yet, this is not the case for landowners in Nebraska.  Furthermore with eminent domain seizures above the heads of so many South Dakotans and Montanans, did these landowners really have much choice? If they were to deny the company of sale, TransCanada would most likely use eminent domain to their advantage, which would not be opportune for the landowners.

Conservatives and libertarians should be skeptical of the reasons this Administration has rejected the Keystone Pipeline, but they should also take another look at what is being proposed. This proposal is not inherently free-market and further degrades private property rights for individuals within the United States.