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March 31st 2013 print

What I left in San Francisco

Our US correspondent rides a bicycle without helmet and lives to tell. Despite a reverence for regulation that would gladden any Australian bureaucrat, Californians still know how to do a cost-benefit analysis

One thing I can say with certainty is that time passes very quickly when you are on a year’s sabbatical.  My wife and I are now a quarter of the way through our year. Of course it helps that I am at a great US law school where they care about what you publish; there is no trace of that Aussie disease of obsession with what grants you have won (most prominently from friends at the ARC, and which mean nothing to anyone outside Australia and, anyway, are just inputs not outputs) or with whether you have a Ph.d. (I do, but this is often a worthless degree). And the level of speaker that passes through this US law school twice a week (virtually none of whom has a Ph.d., being mere Harvard and Yale law grads) is astounding. Oh, and there’s less ridiculous guff and cant here than at Aussie law schools, which isn’t saying much, as on that score I’m probably at the best choice of law schools in the whole US.

But my point is that things can surprise you here in California. Here’s another example. Before coming here I expected to find government regulation run rampant. And indeed in many ways California is more Big Government, Big Regulation than many, many of the other 50 US States. But not in everything. And not compared to Australia.

Take riding a bike. The politically correct forces that be in Australia make wearing a helmet mandatory, on pain of paying a fine. It’s always the same sort of argument. You point to the fact that helmets can in some circumstances save lives, that there are potential benefits, and that is the end of the discussion. It’s always cost-benefit analysis, but without the costs considered. (And by the way, another of the problems with Australian universities is that this sort of thinking, driven from an over-centralised university administrative structure, is that any idiotic policy with any potential benefit has a good chance of getting through because there is little appetite to consider potential costs, and anyway the costs will fall on someone else. One example from my university in Oz is that the bureaucratic confirmation steps that needed to be passed through for Ph.d. students were overnight tripled, by centralized fiat, just because this could potentially help one or two struggling students out of hundreds! It was ‘costs be damned for everyone else’ thinking par excellence.)

Where was I? And I promise not to rant any more about Australian universities, but please, please, please Mr. Abbott do NOT listen to the vested interests on this. Shake up the system. It badly needs it.

But back to bicycle helmets. Here in California you don’t need to wear one. This is a radical concept, I know, but it’s up to you. You’re an adult. You decide for yourself. You see there are potential costs to making people wear helmets, not just potential benefits. And the costs may well outweigh the benefits.

For instance, there is some slight evidence that wearing a helmet when biking makes you, the biker, more of a risk-taker. And there is also slight evidence that it affects car drivers too, making them less careful about bikers. But those claims are contested so throw them out. What is not contested, what everyone accepts, is that forcing people to wear helmets lowers the number of people who will bike.

It is a pain in the neck to wear a helmet. It affects your hair. With shared city wide bikes no one wants to share a helmet.   And this lowering of the numbers who will bike is a fact. You might not like that fact. You might prefer to live in a world where it weren’t the case, or where government could simply mandate that you must ride the bike anyway. But you don’t.

So any sensible cost-benefit analysis of whether to mandate helmets should weight up the costs of fewer bicyclists – what will transpire if they drive instead. Because that means fatter people, more car accidents, less fitness.

In California they’ve done this real cost-benefit analysis and they’ve decided that the ‘no helmet’ side of the equation wins. In Australia, by contrast, only the possible benefits of compulsion are considered. No one is allowed to think about costs because, well, you see, helmets have these potential benefits; they’re safer; you just have to force people to wear them, or some such juvenile, precautionary principle-type nonsense such as that. Yuck!

But speaking of all things related to bicycles, my wife and I drove up from San Diego to San Francisco last weekend. It’s about an 8 hour drive, depending on your luck in getting through the parking lot that is LA. And isn’t San Fran wonderful! You can see what Tony Bennett was getting at. We had three great nights up there.

On one of the days we both rented bikes (no helmets, thank God, and here I am to write about it, mirabile dictum) and pedaled along Fisherman’s Wharf, over to the point and across the Golden Gate Bridge. That was some experience crossing that bridge on bike. From there we went down through Sausalito, stopped for a drink and to watch all the beautiful people, and then biked up into a small State Park to see the trees before heading down to the seaside village of Tiburon. All in a nice day’s cycle.

Now let me make one thing abundantly clear. I would like to be reincarnated as a 29- year-old who works in Silicon Valley. And that’s because when we got to Tiburon on bike it was about 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. And the ferry back to San Francisco left at 4:30pm. So of course we went to a bar, possibly because Tiburon is really just one big array of seaside bars with spectacular views back looking at San Francisco.

We picked the oldest bar in town, but they all looked good. And they were all heaving packed with people. Young 29-year-old types, almost all of whom were completely bombed, good looking, still ordering loads of expensive drinks, having loads of fun, and looking as though they’d be having even more fun later that night.   And we chatted to a bunch of them. Here’s the thing. Almost all of them worked in Silicon Valley. They were all in the I.T. and computer game. Doing well and playing hard.

Now it’s true that I have slightly less confidence in the reliability of my wife’s Apple phone than I did before going to Tiburon, and maybe in every other product coming out of the San Fran area, but I sure as heck would like to come back as a Silicon Valley 29 year old employee.

By the way, had I asked any of these highly productive people whether they were judged on what they produced (outputs) or on how many grants they got from government to go on and then do something (in other words on inputs from government), they would all have said it was the former. But then they don’t work in an Australian university, so what would they know. And yes, yes, yes, I said I would stop ranting, but it’s hard.

As for San Francisco itself, well, we stayed in a bohemian little place in North Beach near what turned out to be fantastic restaurants. We spent a whole day walking the town. And I, a US college basketball fanatic, got to have lunch one day in a pub watching some of the March Madness playoff games.

Our next driving trip out of San Diego is going to be to Yosemite National Park for a bit of tree hugging. That’s the good kind of tree hugging, as opposed to having anything to do with the policies of Australia’s Greens Party.

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law, University of Queensland (on sabbatical at the University of San Diego)