Alex Tabarrok

In Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison I wrote:

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

The DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department verifies this in stunning detail:

Ferguson has allowed its focus on revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of Ferguson’s municipal court. The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct.

… Our investigation has found overwhelming evidence of minor municipal code violations resulting in multiple arrests, jail time, and payments that exceed the cost of the original ticket many times over. One woman, discussed above, received two parking tickets for a single violation in 2007 that then totaled $151 plus fees. Over seven years later, she still owed Ferguson $541—after already paying $550 in fines and fees, having multiple arrest warrants issued against her, and being arrested and jailed on several occasions.

Predatory fining was incentivized:

FPD has communicated to officers not only that they must focus on bringing in revenue, but that the department has little concern with how officers do this. FPD’s weak systems of supervision, review, and accountability…have sent a potent message to officers that their violations of law and policy will be tolerated, provided that officers continue to be “productive” in making arrests and writing citations. Where officers fail to meet productivity goals, supervisors have been instructed to alter officer assignments or impose discipline.

Excessive, illegal and sometimes criminal force was used routinely:

This culture within FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing. Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Here is one example:

In January 2013, a patrol sergeant stopped an African-American man after he saw the man talk to an individual in a truck and then walk away. The sergeant detained the man, although he did not articulate any reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. When the man declined to answer questions or submit to a frisk—which the sergeant sought to execute despite articulating no reason to believe the man was armed—the sergeant grabbed the man by the belt, drew his ECW [i.e. taser, AT], and ordered the man to comply. The man crossed his arms and objected that he had not done anything wrong. Video captured by the ECW’s built-in camera shows that the man made no aggressive movement toward the officer. The sergeant fired the ECW, applying a five-second cycle of electricity and causing the man to fall to the ground. The sergeant almost immediately applied the ECW again, which he later justified in his report by claiming that the man tried to stand up. The video makes clear, however, that the man never tried to stand—he only writhed in pain on the ground. The video also shows that the sergeant applied the ECW nearly continuously for 20 seconds, longer than represented in his report. The man was charged with Failure to Comply and Resisting Arrest, but no independent criminal violation.

Here is another, especially interesting, example:

While the record demonstrates a pattern of stops that are improper from the beginning, it also exposes encounters that start as constitutionally defensible but quickly cross the line. For example, in the summer of 2012, an officer detained a 32-year-old African-American man who was sitting in his car cooling off after playing basketball. The officer arguably had grounds to stop and question the man, since his windows appeared more deeply tinted than permitted under Ferguson’s code. Without cause, the officer went on to accuse the man of being a pedophile, prohibit the man from using his cell phone, order the man out of his car for a pat-down despite having no reason to believe he was armed, and ask to search his car. When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him. The officer charged the man with eight different counts, including making a false declaration for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”) and an address that, although legitimate, differed from the one on his license. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in possession. The man told us he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government as a result of the charges.

Although the report says the initial stop was constitutionally defensible, the initial stop was also clearly bullshit. “The officer arguably had grounds to stop and question the man, since his windows appeared more deeply tinted than permitted under Ferguson’s code.” Deep tinting!!!

Missouri, like most states, has a window tint law which essentially requires that tinting not be so dark as to impede the ability of the driver to see out of the car. Ok. But why does Ferguson have a window tint law! What this means is that you can be fined for driving through Ferguson for window tinting which is legal in the rest of Missouri. Absurd. Correction: the code appears to be the same as the state code but passed as a municipal ordinance so fines were collected locally. The purpose of the law was simply to extract more blood:

NYTimes: Last year Ferguson drivers paid $12,400 in fines for driving cars with tinted windows. They paid another $4,905 for loud music coming out of their cars.

The abuse in Ferguson shouldn’t really surprise us–this is how most governments behave most of the time. Democracy constrains what governments do but it’s a thin constraint easily capable of being pierced when stressed.

The worst abuses of government happen when an invading gang conquer people of a different race, religion and culture. What happened in Ferguson was similar only the rulers stayed the same and the population of the ruled changed. In 1990 Ferguson was 74% white and 25% black. Just 20 years later the percentages had nearly inverted, 29% white and 67% black. The population of rulers, however, changed more slowly so white rulers found themselves overlording a population that was foreign to them. As a result, democracy broke down and government as usual, banditry and abuse, broke out.

Open English Borders

by on March 3, 2015 at 7:30 am in Economics, Law, Political Science | Permalink

I am in favor of open borders for economic and moral reasons. It’s not crazy, however, to be concerned about some of the potential consequences of immediately opening borders between countries with very different income levels, culture or history. It is crazy, however, to fear opening borders between countries with similar income levels, culture and history. Thus, I fully support the petition of the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organisation:

Because of the unique relationship and socio-economic bonds that the U.K, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share, we believe that each country can benefit from a free movement agreement with each other, similar to the policies of the European Union and the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement (T.T.T.A) between Australia and New Zealand.

We propose that the governments of the aforementioned countries finalise agreements (and inevitably, legislation) which make it possible for citizens to move freely with no restrictions regarding work permits or visa controls.

Amen to that.

The only problem with agreements like this is that the very big gains come from opening up borders between countries that are different. Still, I am for lowering transportation and transaction costs. I do hope, however, that more people will come to appreciate that the right to move is a human right and not just a right of the British and their colonial cousins.

Addendum: Open Borders Day is coming on March 16. Write about open borders–pro or con–on that day. Let’s peacefully debate.

Please apply and encourage students to apply to the annual Public Choice Outreach Conference!

What is the Public Choice Outreach Conference?
The Public Choice Outreach Conference is a compact lecture series designed as a “crash course” in Public Choice for students planning careers in academia, journalism, law, or public policy.

When and where is the Conference?
The 2015 Conference will be held at the Hyatt Arlington in Rosslyn, Virginia during June 12-14, 2015.

What will I learn?
Students are introduced to the history and basic tools of public choice analysis, such as models of voting and elections, and models of government and legislative organization. Students also learn to apply public choice theory to a wide range of relevant issues.

Who can apply?
Graduate students and advanced undergraduates are eligible to apply. Students majoring in economics, history, international studies, law, philosophy political science, psychology, public administration, religious studies, and sociology have attended past conferences. Advanced degree students with a demonstrated interest in political economy or demonstrated interest in political economy are invited to apply. Applicants unfamiliar with Public Choice are especially encouraged.

More information and application here.

Price Ceilings

by on February 27, 2015 at 7:25 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

This week we released two new sections of our principles of economics class, price ceilings and trade. Most textbooks discuss how price ceilings create shortages and deadweight loss. Modern Principles delves much deeper to explain how price controls impede the operation of the price system creating economic discoordination and a misallocation of resources.

The introductory video is short but it covers a lot of economics.

Smile! The Dentists Lose a Monopoly

by on February 26, 2015 at 7:20 am in Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled (6:3) in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC that the attempt of the state board of dental examiners to exclude nondentists from the practice of teeth whitening violated the Sherman antitrust act.

mouth1The opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, is especially lucid. Here, from Kennedy, are the key facts:

Starting in 2006, the Board issued at least 47 cease-and desist letters on its official letterhead to nondentist teeth whitening service providers and product manufacturers. Many of those letters directed the recipient to cease “all activity constituting the practice of dentistry”; warned that the unlicensed practice of dentistry is a crime; and strongly implied (or expressly stated) that teeth whitening constitutes “the practice of dentistry.” App. 13, 15. In early 2007, the Board persuaded the North Carolina Board of Cosmetic Art Examiners to warn cosmetologists against providing teeth whitening services. Later that year, the Board sent letters to mall operators, stating that kiosk teeth whiteners were violating the Dental Practice Act and advising that the malls consider expelling violators from their premises.

These actions had the intended result. Nondentists ceased offering teeth whitening services in North Carolina.

The FTC then brought suit, arguing that the action was anti-competitive. The case raises constitutional issues because the states are allowed to violate the federal antitrust acts, as will inevitably happen in the ordinary use of their powers. The question then became whether the NC State Dental Board was invested with enough state authority to overcome the antitrust provisions. On the one hand, the principles of federalism say leave the states alone. On the other (Kennedy quoting Justice Stevens in Hoover v. Ronwin):

“The risk that private regulation of market entry, prices, or output may be designed to confer monopoly profits on members of an industry at the expense of the consuming public has been the central concern of . . . our antitrust jurisprudence.”

In my view, the majority deftly navigated the tradeoff. The court said that North Carolina can, without question, decide that teeth whitening is the practice of dentistry but they have to do so more or less explicitly–they can’t simply put the fox in charge of the hen-house by deferring the decision to the dentists.

In other words, the court raised the cost of rent-seeking. If the dentists want to monopolize the practice of teeth whitening they will have to make that case to the legislature and not rely on the unilateral actions of a board composed almost entirely of dentists and created for entirely different purposes.

As Kennedy put it in language reminiscent of bootleggers and baptists:

Limits on state-action immunity are most essential when the State seeks to delegate its regulatory power to active market participants, for established ethical standards may blend with private anticompetitive motives in a way difficult even for market participants to discern. Dual allegiances are not always apparent to an actor. In consequence, active market participants cannot be allowed to regulate their own markets free from antitrust accountability.

Addendum: I, along with a number of other GMU scholars, was part of an Institute for Justice BRIEF OF AMICI CURIAE SCHOLARS OF PUBLIC CHOICE ECONOMICS IN SUPPORT OF RESPONDENT. Congratulations are due to the excellent team at IJ, as the brief seems to have been influential.

By the way, the dissenting opinion (Alito, Scalia, Thomas) appears to accept the logic of our brief to an even greater extent, so much so that they shrug their shoulders at the rent seeking as business as usual (I especially enjoyed the dig at the FTC as also being subject to regulatory capture). Thus, the dissenters focused entirely on the federalism question. I respect that approach but I think that as federalism stands today, the majority’s balancing approach is likely to lead to better policy.

Here’s a stunning graph from the New York Fed’s Liberty Street Blog:

What it shows is that default rates on student debt decrease with higher balances or, to put it the other way, the students with the highest default rates are the ones with the least debt.

I wouldn’t have predicted that but here are some possible explanations. First, dropouts have less debt and also less income. But while the debt rises proportionally with years of education the income rises in less than proportion. As I said in Launching, students who drop out after 2 years get less than half of the gains from completing a four-year degree (the sheepskin effect). Thus the 40% or so of students who dropout see their debt rise faster than their income so burdens are higher and default rates increases.

Although the debt to income ratio story is plausible it’s still surprising how many students default with low amounts of debt. Raymond, a commentator at the Liberty Street Blog, offers some additional hypotheses:

I work in financial aid at a large public community college. We pulled data on our defaulters and we found over 60% started with remedial coursework and borrowed their first and second terms. About 80% of the total data population suspended soon after the second term – thus the low amounts. Many were not students just out of high school, they were independent adults. Putting this altogether with the many years I’ve been in financial aid speaking with students I’ve come to a conclusion. 99% of the time when I have a student that has been suspended asking for loans and I mention private or alternative loans they immediately say they don’t have good credit. Bad credit seems to correlate with bad academics. Many seem concerned more with paying bills than paying education. Sometimes they are just out of jail and no one will hire them. Their probation requires they work or get a job which the later is nearly impossible. Other times we have people so deep in the hole in debt already that the student loans was a way to buy more time. The word is out if you have bad credit and are desperate for funds just go to a community college where tuition is low and borrow the maximum. We noticed in our data pull many students graduated from high school or received their GED up to 10 years ago or more! Want the defaults to go down – stop lending to students that have a significant number of remedial courses their 1st and 2nd terms at a college where tuition is already low.

Algorithm Aversion

by on February 22, 2015 at 7:40 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

People don’t like deferring to what I earlier called an opaque intelligence. In a paper titled Algorithm Aversion the authors write:

Research shows that evidence-based algorithms more accurately predict the future than do human forecasters. Yet, when forecasters are deciding whether to use a human forecaster or a statistical algorithm, they often choose the human forecaster. This phenomenon, which we call algorithm aversion, is costly, and it is important to understand its causes. We show that people are especially averse to algorithmic forecasters after seeing them perform, even when they see them outperform a human forecaster. This is because people more quickly lose confidence in algorithmic than human forecasters after seeing them make the same mistake. In five studies, participants either saw an algorithm make forecasts, a human make forecasts, both, or neither. They then decided whether to tie their incentives to the future predictions of the algorithm or the human. Participants who saw the algorithm perform were less confident in it, and less likely to choose it over an inferior human forecaster. This was true even among those who saw the algorithm outperform the human.

People who defer to the algorithm will outperform those who don’t, at least in the short run. In the long run, however, will reason atrophy when we defer, just as our map-reading skills have atrophied with GPS? Or will more of our limited resource of reason come to be better allocated according to comparative advantage?

The Rise of Opaque Intelligence

by on February 20, 2015 at 7:31 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

Many years ago I had a job picking up and delivering packages in Toronto. Once the boss told me to deliver package A then C then B when A and B were closer together and delivering ACB would lengthen the trip. I delivered ABC and when the boss found out he wasn’t happy because C needed their package a lot sooner than B and distance wasn’t the only variable to be optimized. I recall (probably inaccurately) the boss yelling:

Listen college boy, I’m not paying you to think. I’m paying you to do what I tell you to do.

It isn’t easy suppressing my judgment in favor of someone else’s judgment even if the other person has better judgment (ask my wife) but once it was explained to me I at least understood why my boss’s judgment made sense. More and more, however, we are being asked to suppress our judgment in favor of that of an artificial intelligence, a theme in Tyler’s Average is Over. As Tyler notes notes:

…there will be Luddites of a sort. “Here are all these new devices telling me what to do—but screw them; I’m a human being! I’m still going to buy bread every week and throw two-thirds of it out all the time.” It will be alienating in some ways. We won’t feel that comfortable with it. We’ll get a lot of better results, but it won’t feel like utopia.

I put this slightly differently, the problem isn’t artificial intelligence but opaque intelligence. Algorithms have now become so sophisticated that we human’s can’t really understand why they are telling us what they are telling us. The WSJ writes about driver’s using UPS’s super algorithm, Orion, to plan their delivery route:

Driver reaction to Orion is mixed. The experience can be frustrating for some who might not want to give up a degree of autonomy, or who might not follow Orion’s logic. For example, some drivers don’t understand why it makes sense to deliver a package in one neighborhood in the morning, and come back to the same area later in the day for another delivery. But Orion often can see a payoff, measured in small amounts of time and money that the average person might not see.

One driver, who declined to speak for attribution, said he has been on Orion since mid-2014 and dislikes it, because it strikes him as illogical.

Human drivers think Orion is illogical because they can’t grok Orion’s super-logic. Perhaps any sufficiently advanced logic is indistinguishable from stupidity.

Hat tip: Robin Hanson for discussion.

The US economy has been one of the most dynamic economies in the world but recent research suggests that US dynamism is in decline. The startup, job creation, and job destruction rates have all declined over the past three decades with a possible increase in the rate of decline in the past decade. The dynamism decline is robust, appearing in a variety of data. Moreover because startups and the movement of resources from low to high productivity firms are closely associated with improvements in productivity, the decline of dynamism may reduce real wages and the standard of living.

Could regulation be increasing barriers to entry, raising the costs of reallocation, and slowing the diffusion of productivity innovations? To test the hypothesis that regulation is reducing dynamism Nathan Goldschlag and I combined data on dynamism with an industry level measure of regulation. Our measure of regulation is produced by an innovative technique that combs the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) for restrictive terms or phrases such as “shall,” “must,” “may not,” “prohibited,” and “required”. The count of restrictive words in each section is then associated to industries via a machine learning algorithm that recognizes similarities between the language in that CFR section and industry language (e.g. a section of the text with words such as “pipeline” would be associated with the oil and gas industry). In this way, we can associate each industry with an index of regulation derived from the entire CFR.

The following figure shows the startup rate against the regulatory stringency index (both averaged by industry over the period 1999-2011). Contrary to expectation, there is a slight positive relationship; industries with greater regulatory stringency have higher startup rates. We find a similar relationship with job creation rates.

Startup Rate Against Regulation Stringency by Industry (1)

Of course, it could be the case that more dynamic industries attract greater regulation so the apparent positive relationship in our graph would not reflect a causal connection and could even be masking a negative causal connection. Thus, to further test the relationship, we statistically test whether increased regulatory stringency is associated with reduced dynamism within an industry over time (we give each industry a “fixed effect”). After subjecting the data to a number of different tests we find no statistically significant relationships between dynamism and regulatory stringency (see the paper for details).

One simple test divides manufacturing industries into those that experienced a large increase in regulation (+50% or more) during our time period and those where regulation hardly changed at all (+10%-to -10%). If regulation were the cause of changes in dynamism we would expect to see big differences between these groups. The figure below, however, shows that startup rates, for example, track similarly across the two types of groups suggesting that regulation is not a primary cause of declining startup rates (the same is true for job creation and destruction rates).

Manufacturing Startup Rates

It’s important to note that regulation could have large negative (or positive) effects without having a big effect on dynamism. A tax, for example, could reduce the size of the industry without have a big effect on the startup rate or how well the industry responds to shocks by reallocating labor from low to high productivity firms. In short, regulation can have significant effects on levels without necessarily having large effects on growth rates.

If regulation is not responsible for the decline in dynamism then what is? We offer some suggestive hypotheses in another paper. First, it could be the case that we are mis-measuring entrepreneurship. If entrepreneurship is measured as new firm creation, for example, we miss the entrepreneurship inherent in rebuilding and revitalizing larger and older firms. Since most workers work for larger and older firms, revitalizing these firms may be a more important use of entrepreneurship than starting new firms. In an increasingly global economy we may also miss some of the outsourcing of dynamism that has occurred in recent decades. Apple, for example, is measured in US data as a relatively stable firm but the Apple ecosystem from which Apple sources its product is a maelstrom of entry and exit as Apple hires and fires new firms with each new iteration of the iPhone.

Even if dynamism has declined is this necessarily a bad thing? We should not let word associations influence our evaluations of underlying realities. Dynamism as measured by, for example, job reallocation rates might equally well be called churn. Declining churn doesn’t sound as bad as declining dynamism. Moreover, combining the last two points, perhaps the reason for some of the declining dynamism as measured in the US statistics is that we have outsourced some of our churn. A very different way of describing the same data.

More generally, information technology may allow us to reduce churn while still allowing adaption and innovation. Creative destruction is necessary for a growing economy but if we can boost the ratio of creation to destruction that counts as an improvement in welfare.

Reallocation of labor and capital is an important force driving the American economy forward. We don’t fully understand, however, what the causes of declining dynamism are or exactly how our measures of dynamism relate to entrepreneurship, growth and improvements in the standard of living.

Addendum: Cross-posted at the Columbia Law School Blue Sky Blog.

Here is a Valentine’s Day puzzle: there have been five husband and wives awarded Nobel Prizes. Name them.

I will give you one hint. Four of the couples won for joint work. Only one of the couples each won a Nobel and that couple included a Nobel prize winner in economics.

Here is the second rose video which goes deeper into the meaning and operation of the invisible hand. One warning, however, don’t watch this video while drinking!

All MRUniversity videos are free to use in the classroom. To that end, we have put together a short guide for teachers that suggests some ideas for using the rose videos in class and how one might continue to deepen the lessons.

I, Rose

by on February 9, 2015 at 7:25 am in Economics, Education, Film | Permalink

Valentine’s Day is this week and what better way to celebrate than to appreciate the economics of roses!

A rose isn’t just a symbol of love it’s a symbol of global cooperation coordinated by the invisible hand. In The Price System, the just released section of our principles of microeconomics course, we feature two rose videos (along with videos on the great economic problem, speculation, prediction markets and more). Here’s the first; I, Rose. Tomorrow, A Price is a Signal Wrapped up in an Incentive. Enjoy.

Unions for Online Education

by on February 6, 2015 at 12:31 pm in Economics, Education | Permalink

The Washington Post reports on a new campaign by the Service Employees International Union, the 2nd largest and fastest growing union in the United States, to greatly raise the wages of university teaching adjuncts:

Now, a union that’s been rapidly organizing adjuncts around the country thinks that number [wages, AT] should quintuple. Last night, on a conference call with organizers across the country, the SEIU decided to extend the franchise with a similar aspirational benchmark: A “new minimum compensation standard” of $15,000. Per course. Including benefits.

…At the moment, the $15,000 number sounds even more outlandish than $15 did when fast food workers started asking for twice the federal minimum wage. But organizers argue that if you’re teaching a full load of three courses per semester, that comes out to $90,000 in total compensation per year — just the kind of upper-middle-class salary they think people with advanced degrees should be able to expect. (Most adjuncts teach part-time, which would put them at $50,000 or $75,000 per year.)

Tullock’s Questions?

by on February 5, 2015 at 7:20 am in Economics, History | Permalink

Gordon Tullock was famous for asking a lot of questions. Some odd, some uncomfortable, some on the spot and some in his work. For example, Gordon would often ask, Why don’t we invade Brazil? Meaning why did countries stop invading other countries and setting up colonies? It’s a good question. I am interested in collecting more of Tullock’s questions. Please respond with any questions Gordon asked you or questions that you find him asking in his work. Thanks!

Tullock

The most recent issue of the Fletcher Security Review features a paper by Alex Nowrasteh and myself on Privateers! Their History and Future. One of the interesting side notes is that Americans supported privateering not just because it was effective but also because America’s greatest patriots, the founding generation, were deeply skeptical about standing armies and navies. Today, the right-wing, uber-patriotic brand of Americanism is pro-military and pro-empire. In contrast, the founders would regard the empire as deeply un-American. Quoting from the paper:

The founders feared standing armies as a threat to liberty. At the constitutional convention, for example, James Madison argued that “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.” For the founders, the defense of the country was best left to citizens who would take up arms in times of national peril, form militias, overcome the peril, and then to return to their lives.

As a result, the ideal military for the founders was small and circumspect (remember also that the second amendment was in part about the fear of standing armies, hence the support of the militia). The 1856 Treaty of Paris banned privateering but the United States refused to sign. Secretary of State William Marcy explained why in a great statement of patriotic American anti-militarism:

The United States consider powerful navies and large standing armies as permanent establishments to be detrimental to national prosperity and dangerous to civil liberty. The expense of keeping them up is burdensome to the people; they are in some degree a menace to peace among nations. A large force ever ready to be devoted to the purposes of war is a temptation to rush into it. The policy of the United States has ever been, and never more than now, adverse to such establishments, and they can never be brought to acquiesce in any change in International Law which may render it necessary for them to maintain a powerful navy or large standing army in time of peace.

Today the patriotic brand of anti-militarism, the brand that sees skepticism about the military and the promotion of peace and commerce as specifically American, is largely forgotten. President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation was perhaps the last remnant in modern memory. It’s a tradition, however, that true patriots must remember.