Monday 1 July 2019

Meth and availability cascades

Over at Stuff, Susan Edmunds goes through the meth testing mess in which ridiculously tight standards were taken as a requirement. 

I provided a minor bit of comment on it:
Eric Crampton, chief economist at the New Zealand Institute, said it was probably a snowballing moral panic that went something like this.

"Nobody wants meth users as tenants. They're too high risk.

"Some at Housing New Zealand started applying far too stringent a test. It's easier to make those kinds of mistakes when it's on the public's account rather than coming out of a landlord's own back pocket.

"That then started triggering news stories about meth contamination, making the issue salient for others. Some tenants started demanding them, and some landlords started running them, taking the Housing New Zealand example as what good landlords should be doing.

"And every meth contamination and clean-up provided another news story that fed demand for more.

"It's an example then, of what Timur Kuran calls an 'availability cascade' – a few news stories on a weird scary thing has journalists watching out for more of them, so they all become more likely to be published but at the same time, in this case, also increase the number of real events because it fuels demand for more testing."
We still need better mechanisms to insulate regulation against this kind of nonsense. You know how we keep pushing for cost-benefit testing?

Timur Kuran's piece with Cass Sunstein on availability cascades is great, and is here.

An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception of increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse. The driving mechanism involves a combination of informational and reputational motives: Individuals endorse the perception partly by learning from the apparent beliefs of others and partly by distorting their public responses in the interest of maintaining social acceptance. Availability entrepreneurs - activists who manipulate the content of public discourse - strive to trigger availability cascades likely to advance their agendas. Their availability campaigns may yield social benefits, but sometimes they bring harm, which suggests a need for safeguards. Focusing on the role of mass pressures in the regulation of risks associated with production, consumption, and the environment, Professor Timur Kuran and Cass R. Sunstein analyze availability cascades and suggest reforms to alleviate their potential hazards. Their proposals include new governmental structures designed to give civil servants better insulation against mass demands for regulatory change and an easily accessible scientific database to reduce people's dependence on popular (mis)perceptions.

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