Alex Tabarrok

In our textbook, Tyler and I write:

Farmers use the subsidized water to transform desert into prime agricultural land. But turning a California desert into cropland makes about as much sense as building greenhouses in Alaska! America already has plenty of land on which cotton can be grown cheaply.  Spending billions of dollars to dam rivers and transport water hundreds of miles to grow a crop which can be grown more cheaply in Georgia is a waste of resources, a deadweight loss. The water used to grow California cotton, for example, has much higher value producing silicon chips in San Jose or as drinking water in Los Angeles than it does as irrigation water.

In Holy Crop, part of Pro-Publica’s excellent, in-depth series on the water crisis the authors concur:

Getting plants to grow in the Sonoran Desert is made possible by importing billions of gallons of water each year. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in existence, and each acre cultivated here demands six times as much water as lettuce, 60 percent more than wheat. That precious liquid is pulled from a nearby federal reservoir, siphoned from beleaguered underground aquifers and pumped in from the Colorado River hundreds of miles away.

…Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than $1.1 billion in cotton subsidies, nine times more than the amount paid out for the next highest subsidized crop. In California, where cotton also gets more support than most other crops, farmers received more than $3 billion in cotton aid.

…If Arizona’s cotton farmers switched to wheat but didn’t fallow a single field, it would save some 207,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply as many as 1.4 million people for a year.

…The government is willing to consider spending huge amounts to get new water supplies, including building billion-dollar desalinization plants to purify ocean water. It would cost a tiny fraction of that to pay farmers in Arizona and California more to grow wheat rather than cotton, and for the cost of converting their fields. The billions of dollars of existing subsidies already allocated by Congress could be redirected to support those goals, or spent, as the Congressional Budget Office suggested, on equipment and infrastructure that helps farmers use less water.

“There is enough water in the West. There isn’t any pressing need for more water, period,” Babbitt said. “There are all kinds of agriculture efficiencies that have not been put into place.”

Luddite Violence

by on June 26, 2015 at 7:47 am in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the Paris riots against Uber are worker versus capitalist, the attacks are rentiers versus capitalists and worker versus worker.

UberParis

More pictures here.

Finance and Growth

by on June 25, 2015 at 8:15 am in Economics | Permalink

The rough consensus until recent years has been that finance increases growth. The great recession has led a number of researchers to revisit that result and several papers now report that finance increases growth just up until a point and then turns negative. William Cline, however, has a short but elegant rebuttal. Using the same basic methods, Cline finds that doctors per capita, R&D technicians per capita, and fixed telephone lines per capita all show a positive effect on growth when GDP is low but a negative effect when GDP is high.

Before you turn on your thinking hats to “explain” these results consider that growth tends to slow as GDP increases (moving from catching up to cutting edge growth) and some of the growth slowdown is inevitably picked up by a quadratic term in some other variable that is increasing.

Cline summarizes:

The recent studies’ finding that “too much finance” reduces
growth should be viewed with considerable caution. The reason
is that there is an inherent bias toward a negative quadratic term
in a regression that incorporates financial depth, or any other
variable that tends to rise with per capita income, along with
the usual convergence variable (logarithm of per capita income)
in explaining growth. That the results may well be unreliable is
demonstrated here by finding a statistically significant negative
quadratic term in equations that “explain” growth by spurious
influences: doctors per capita, R&D technicians per capita,
and fixed telephone lines per capita. In some situations, finance
can become excessive; the crises of Iceland and Ireland come
to mind. But it is highly premature to adopt as a new stylized
fact the recent studies’ supposed thresholds beyond which more
finance reduces growth.

Hat tip: Greg Ip.

Addendum: The authors of one of the key papers reply.

The New England Conference of United Methodist Churches, a group of 600 churches, has issued a resolution calling for an end to the war on drugs. The resolution draws on ethical principles and also a remarkably astute reading of economics and social science:

Whereas: The public policy of prohibition of certain narcotics and psychoactive substances, sometimes called the “War on Drugs,” has failed to achieve the goal of eliminating, or even reducing, substance abuse and;

Whereas: There have been a large number of unintentional negative consequences as a result of this failed public policy and;

Whereas: One of those consequences is a huge and violent criminal enterprise that has sprung up surrounding the Underground Market dealing in these prohibited substances and;

Whereas: Many lives have been lost as a result of the violence surrounding this criminal enterprise, including innocent citizens and police officers and;

Whereas: Many more lives have been lost to overdose because there is no regulation of potency, purity or adulteration in the production of illicit drugs and;

Whereas: Our court system has been severely degraded due to the overload caused by prohibition cases and;

Whereas: Our prisons are overcrowded with persons, many of whom are non-violent, convicted of violation of the prohibition laws and;

Whereas: Many of our citizens now suffer from serious diseases, contracted through the use of unsanitary needles, which now threaten our population at large and;

Whereas: To people of color, the “War on Drugs” has arguably been the single most devastating, dysfunctional social policy since slavery and;

Whereas: Huge sums of our national treasury are wasted on this failed public policy and;

Whereas: Other countries, such as Portugal and Switzerland, have dramatically reduced the incidence of death, disease, crime, and addiction by utilizing means other than prohibition to address the problem of substance abuse and;

Whereas: The primary mission of our criminal justice system is to prevent violence to our citizens and their property, and to ensure their safety, therefore;

Be it Resolved: That the New England Annual Conference supports seeking means other than prohibition to address the problem of substance abuse; and is further resolved to support the mission of the international educational organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) to reduce the multitude of unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime, and addiction by ending drug prohibition.

Normative Sociology

by on June 19, 2015 at 7:29 am in Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

Excellent post by Joseph Heath:

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.

Let me give just one example, to get the juices flowing. I routinely hear extraordinary causal powers being ascribed to “racism” — claims that far outstrip available evidence. Some of these claims may well be true, but there is a clear moral stigma associated with questioning the causal connection being posited – which is perverse, since the question of what causes what should be a purely empirical one. Questioning the connection, however, is likely to attract charges of seeking to “minimize racism.” (Indeed, many people, just reading the previous two sentences, will already be thinking to themselves “Oh my God, this guy is seeking to minimize racism.”) There also seems to be a sense that, because racism is an incredibly bad thing, it must also cause a lot of other bad things. But what is at work here is basically an intuition about how the moral order is organized, not one about the causal order. It’s always possible for something to be extremely bad (intrinsically, as it were), or extremely common, and yet causally not all that significant.

I actually think this sort of confusion between the moral and the causal order happens a lot. Furthermore, despite having a lot of sympathy for “qualitative” social science, I think the problem is much worse in these areas. Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get away with doing normative sociology.

Incidentally, “normative sociology” doesn’t necessarily have a left-wing bias. There are lots of examples of conservatives doing it as well (e.g. rising divorce rates must be due to tolerance of homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births must be caused by the welfare system etc.) The difference is that people on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems, and so they have a set of pragmatic interests at play that can strongly bias judgement. The latter case is particularly frustrating, because if the plan is to solve some social problem by attacking its causal antecedents, then it is really important to get the causal connections right – otherwise your intervention is going to prove useless, and quite possibly counterproductive.

He goes on to discuss four reasons why people are attracted to normative sociology 1) they want to have a causal lever so they blame what they think they can change 2) they don’t want to blame or appear to blaming the victim so they avoid some explanations in favor of others 3) confusing correlation and causation 4) a metaphysical desire for bad things to have big and bad effects.

Addendum: My review of Heath’s book, Enlightenment 2.0.

In today’s illustration of Cowen’s second lawhere is a paper on what happens to wages when a worker’s subjectively reported race changes:

In Brazil, different employers often report different racial classifications for the same worker. We use this variation in employer-reported race to identify wage discrimination. Workers whose reported race changes from non-white to white receive a wage increase; those who change from white to non-white realize a symmetric wage decrease. As much as 40 percent of the raw racial wage gap is explained by the employer’s report of race, after controlling for all individual characteristics that do not change across jobs. The results are consistent with workers manipulating perceived race in an environment where racial classification is subjective, but discrimination persists.

Hat tip: Scott Cunningham.

Roth Cover

Al Roth’s Who Gets What and Why: The Hidden World of Matchmaking and Market Design is an excellent addition to the pantheon of popular economics books. It’s engagingly written, covers new material and will be of interest to professional economists as well as to the broader audience of intelligent readers.

review the book more extensively for the Wall Street Journal. (Google the title, Matchmaker, Make Me a Market to get beyond the paywall for non-subscribers). Roth is well known for helping to design kidney swaps–when donor A and patient A’ and donor B and patient B’ are mismatched it may yet be possible for A to give to B’ and B to give to A’.

Mr. Roth, however, wants to go further. The larger the database, the more lifesaving exchanges can be found. So why not open U.S. transplants to the world? Imagine that A and A´ are Nigerian while B and B´ are American. Nigeria has virtually no transplant surgery or dialysis available, so in Nigeria patient A’ will die for certain. But if we offered a free transplant to him, and received a kidney for an American patient in return, two lives would be saved.

The plan sounds noble but expensive. Yet remember, Mr. Roth says, “removing an American patient from dialysis saves Medicare a quarter of a million dollars. That’s more than enough to finance two kidney transplants.” So offering a free transplant to the Nigerian patient can save money and lives.

It’s hard to think of a better example of gains from trade (or a better PR coup for the U.S. on the world stage).

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that Roth has created a new typology of market failure but a very different way of addressing such market failures. Read the whole review for more.

A debate forum at the New York Times begins:

A rise in gun violence in New York, Baltimore and other cities after months of angry protests over police killings of unarmed black men, have led some to see a ”Ferguson effect,” in which police, spooked by criticism of aggressive tactics, have pulled back, making fewer arrests and fewer searches for weapons.

But has a wave of murders and shootings brought an end to the long drop in crime?

I don’t think that we will see a sustained increase in crime at the national level. But there is no question that we are seeing a Ferguson effect in Baltimore–more precisely a Freddie Gray effect. Arrests in Baltimore have fallen by nearly 40% since Freddie Gray’s funeral and the start of the riots on April 27. In the approximately 3 months before the Gray funeral police made an average of 87.7 arrests per day, since that time they have made only 54.6 arrests a day on average (up to May 30, most recent data).

Arrests

As Peter Moskos argues:

In Baltimore today, several police officers need to respond to situations where formerly one could do the job. This stretches resources and prevents proactive policing.

Not all arrests are good arrests, of course, but the strain is cutting policing across the board and the criminals are responding to incentives. Fewer police mean more crime. As arrests have fallen, homicides, shootings, robberies and auto thefts have all spiked upwards. Homicides, for example, have more than doubled from .53 a day on average before the unrest to 1.35 a day after (up to June 6, most recent data)–this is an unprecedented increase–and the highest homicide rate Baltimore has ever seen.

Put differently, the unrest in Baltimore and subsequent reduction in policing is responsible for roughly twenty “excess” deaths. (so far)

Homicides

It’s not just homicides, the number of shootings in Baltimore has more than tripled. Shootings increased from .82 a day before the unrest to just over 3 a day. Since the onset of the riots there has hardly been a day without a shooting.

Shootings

Robberies are up from 8.1 per day to 13.25 per day on average.

Robberies

Even auto thefts are up from 9.6 per day to 13.6 per day on average.

AutoTheft

The increase in homicides and other crime is terrible and it is also putting a strain on police resources.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the rise in killings is “backlogging” investigators, just as the community has become less engaged with police, providing fewer tips.

With luck the crime wave will subside quickly but the longer-term fear is that the increase in crime could push arrest and clearance rates down so far that the increase in crime becomes self-fulfilling. The higher crime rate itself generates the lower punishment that supports the higher crime rate (see my theory paper). In the presence of multiple equilibria it’s possible that a temporary shift could push Baltimore into a permanently higher high-crime equilibrium. Once the high-crime equilibrium is entered it may be very difficult to exit without a lot of resources that Baltimore doesn’t have. I have long argued that high-crime areas need more police but the tragedy is that they also need high-quality policing and that too is made more difficult to achieve by strained budgets and strained police.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s poorly-argued and evidence-free rant against Amazon is more about her hatred of capitalism than about Amazon’s actual effect on the market for books. Here’s Le Guin:

[Amazon’s] ideal book is a safe commodity, a commercial product written to the specifications of the current market, that will hit the BS list, get to the top, and vanish. Sell it fast, sell it cheap, dump it, sell the next thing. No book has value in itself, only as it makes profit. Quick obsolescence, disposability — the creation of trash — is an essential element of the BS machine. Amazon exploits the cycle of instant satisfaction/endless dissatisfaction. Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment.

The same argument was made in the late 1990s against chain bookstores like Border’s. It wasn’t a good argument then (see Tyler’s masterpiece, In Praise of Commercial Culture) but at least at that time it was debatable. Le Guin’s attempt to resurrect the argument today is bizarre. Does anyone doubt that it is easier to buy a niche book today than it ever has been in the entire history of the world? Indeed, does anyone doubt that it is easier to buy a Ursula K. Le Guin book today than it ever has been in the entire history of the world?

Larger markets support greater variety. A bookstore that only sells locally can’t stock many books. It’s the smaller store that fears taking a risk because the opportunity cost of shelf space is so high. Amazon lowers the cost of stocking books through efficient logistics and by warehousing in relatively low-cost areas (subject to being close to markets). The fixed costs of distribution are then spread over a much larger (inter)-national market so it pays to stock many more books.

Amazon makes a lot of money selling niche books. The precise numbers are debatable because Amazon doesn’t release much data but Brynjolfsson, Hu and Smith estimated that the long-tail accounted for nearly 40% of Amazon sales in 2008, a number that had risen over time. Indeed, since costs aren’t that different it’s not obvious that Amazon makes much more from selling a million copies of a single book than from 10 copies of each of 100,000 books (especially if they are ebooks).

Ebooks take this argument to the limit and the data show greater diversity in who publishes books than ever before. According to a recent Author Earnings report:

…indie self-published authors and their ebooks were outearning all authors published by the Big Five publishers combined

Perhaps what pushes Le Guin onto the wrong track is that there are more (inter)-national blockbusters than ever before which gives some people the impression that variety is declining. It’s not a contradiction, however, that niche products can become more easily available even as there are more blockbusters–as Paul Krugman explained the two phenomena are part and parcel of the same logic of larger markets. It’s important, however, to keep one’s eye on the variety available to individuals. Variety has gone up for every person even as some measures of geographic variety have gone down.

In the past small sci-fi booksellers in out-of-the-way places (link to my youth) barely eked out a living from selling books. Precisely because they didn’t make a lot of money, however, the independents signaled their worthy devotion to the revered authors. Today, Amazon sells more Le Guin books than any independent ever did. But Bezos doesn’t revere Le Guin, he treats her books as a commodity. That may distress Le Guin but for readers, book capitalism is a wonder, books and books and books available on our devices within seconds, more books than we could ever read; a veritable fountain, no a firehose, no an Amazon of books.

Laugh Now (while you can)

by on June 8, 2015 at 7:21 am in Science | Permalink

Here’s a video of robots falling over on the first day of Darpa’s 2015 robot challenge, a challenge set up after Japan’s nuclear disaster at Fukushima in order to encourage development of robots capable of navigating a disaster area.

Keep in mind that the first Darpa Grand Challenge for driverless vehicles was held in 2004 and not a single vehicle came to close to finishing the course and most failed within a few hundred metres. Did I mention that was in 2004?

AI Darwin

by on June 6, 2015 at 10:41 am in Science | Permalink

Wired: For the first time ever a computer has managed to develop a new scientific theory using only its artificial intelligence, and with no help from human beings.

Computer scientists and biologists from Tufts University programmed the computer so that it was able to develop a theory independently when it was faced with a scientific problem. The problem they chose was one that has been puzzling biologists for 120 years. The genes of sliced-up flatworms are capable of regenerating in order to form new organisms — this is a long-documented phenomenon, but scientists have been mystified for years over exactly what happens to the cells to make this possible.

The first sentences exaggerates (this is neither the first such discovery nor did the AI have no help from humans) but the discovery of how flatworms regenerate is real and unlike say proofs of the four-color theorem the theory is readily comprehensible to humans:

What the computer discovered was that the process requires three known molecules and two proteins that were previously unknown. This discovery, says Levin, “represents the most comprehensive model of planarian regeneration found to date”.

“One of the most remarkable aspects of the project was that the model it found was not a hopelessly-tangled network that no human could actually understand, but a reasonably simple model that people can readily comprehend,” he adds. All this suggests to me that artificial intelligence can help with every aspect of science, not only data mining but also inference of meaning of the data,”

AddendumOriginal paper and another useful discussion from Popular Mechanics.

Stephen Hawking fears that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk and Bill Gates offer similar warnings. Many researchers in artificial intelligence are less concerned primarily because they think that the technology is not advancing as quickly as doom scenarios imagine, as Ramez Naam discussed. I have a different objection.

Why should we be worried about the end of the human race? Oh sure, there are some Terminator like scenarios in which many future-people die in horrible ways and I’d feel good if we avoided those scenarios. The more likely scenario, however, is a glide path to extinction in which most people adopt a variety of bionic and germ-line modifications that over-time evolve them into post-human cyborgs. A few holdouts to the old ways would remain but birth rates would be low and the non-adapted would be regarded as quaint, as we regard the Amish today. Eventually the last humans would go extinct and 46andMe customers would kid each other over how much of their DNA was of the primitive kind while holo-commercials advertised products “so easy a homo sapiens could do it”.  I see nothing objectionable in this scenario.

Aside from greater plausibility, a glide path means that dealing with the Terminator scenario is easier. In the Terminator scenario, humans must continually be on guard. In the glide path scenario we only have to avoid the Terminator until we become them and then the problem is resolved with little fuss. No human race but no mass murder either.

More generally, what’s so great about the human race? I agree, there are lots of great things to point to such as the works of Shakespeare, Mozart, and Grothendieck. We should revere the greatness of the works, however, not the substrate on which the works were created. If what is great about humanity is the great things that we have done then the future may hold greater things yet. If we work to pass on our best values and aspirations to our technological progeny then we can be proud of future generations even if they differ from us in some ways. I delight to think of the marvels that future generations may produce. But I see no reason to hope that such marvels will be produced by beings indistinguishable from myself, indeed that would seem rather disappointing.

A resident of Mountain View writes about their interactions with self-driving cars (from the Emerging Technologies Blog):

I see no less than 5 self-driving cars every day. 99% of the time they’re the Google Lexuses, but I’ve also seen a few other unidentified ones (and one that said BOSCH on the side). I have never seen one of the new “Google-bugs” on the road, although I’ve heard they’re coming soon. I also don’t have a good way to tell if the cars were under human control or autonomous control during the stories I’m going to relate.

Anyway, here we go: Other drivers don’t even blink when they see one. Neither do pedestrians – there’s no “fear” from the general public about crashing or getting run over, at least not as far as I can tell.

Google cars drive like your grandma – they’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.).

…Google cars are very polite to pedestrians. They leave plenty of space. A Google car would never do that rude thing where a driver inches impatiently into a crosswalk while people are crossing because he/she wants to make a right turn. However, this can also lead to some annoyance to drivers behind, as the Google car seems to wait for the pedestrian to be completely clear. On one occasion, I saw a pedestrian cross into a row of human-thickness trees and this seemed to throw the car for a loop for a few seconds. The person was a good 10 feet out of the crosswalk before the car made the turn.

…Once, I [on motorcycle, AT] got a little caught out as the traffic transitioned from slow moving back to normal speed. I was in a lane between a Google car and some random truck and, partially out of experiment and partially out of impatience, I gunned it and cut off the Google car sort of harder than maybe I needed too… The car handled it perfectly (maybe too perfectly). It slowed down and let me in. However, it left a fairly significant gap between me and it. If I had been behind it, I probably would have found this gap excessive and the lengthy slowdown annoying. Honestly, I don’t think it will take long for other drivers to realize that self-driving cars are “easy targets” in traffic.

Overall, I would say that I’m impressed with how these things operate. I actually do feel safer around a self-driving car than most other California drivers.

Hat tip: Chris Blattman.

Most indie films and documentaries don’t get to most markets. It’s hard for a theatre to know which of the many indie films audiences really want to see and without the scale of a NYC it doesn’t make sense for theatres to gamble on a screening that might not make audience.

R.J. Lehmann writes about Tugg, a new service that allows someone who wants to create an event to pull the movie to a local theatre:

With Tugg, a user chooses a film and the date, time and the theatre where he or she would like it to be shown. If the theatre approves the request, Tugg creates a personalized event page for the user through which tickets can be sold. If sales meet a set threshold goal before the set deadline, then the screening is on; if not, it’s cancelled and those who bought tickets are refunded their money. As a bonus that provides ample incentive to promote screenings, users who organize events get to keep 5 percent of the gate.

…Essentially, what Tugg offers is what is known in game theory circles as an assurance contract. (That’s ASsurance, not INsurance.) As my old colleague Alex Tabarrok, who has done some pioneering work on the subject, explains:

In an assurance contract, people pledge to fund a public good if and only if enough others pledge to fund the public good. Assurance contracts were not well-known when I began to write on this topic but have now become common due to organizations like Groupon and Kickstarter, which work on this principle (indeed, I have been credited with the ideas behind Groupon, although sadly for my bank account, I don’t think that claim would stand in a court of law). Since no money is paid unless the total pledges are high enough to fund the public good, assurance contracts remove the fear that your contribution will be wasted if other people fail to contribute.

In essence, Tugg handles the logistics of creating a movie event and the assurance contract assures that the event will be profitable.

Some people are calling Steven Lubet’s new review of Alice Goffman’s On the Run “troubling” and even “devastating” but I am non-plussed. Lubet questions the plausibility of some of Goffman’s accounts:

She describes in great detail the arrest at a Philadelphia hospital of one of the 6th Street Boys who was there with his girlfriend for the birth of their child.  In horror, Goffman watched as two police officers entered the room to place the young man in handcuffs, while the new mother screamed and cried, “Please don’t take him away. Please, I’ll take him down there myself tomorrow, I swear – just let him stay with me tonight.” (p. 34). The officers were unmoved; they arrested not only Goffman’s friend, but also two other new fathers who were caught in their sweep.

How did the policemen know to look for fugitives on the maternity floor?  Goffman explains:

According to the officers I interviewed, it is standard practice in the hospitals serving the Black community for police to run the names of visitors or patients while they are waiting around, and to take into custody those with warrants . . . .

The officers told me they had come into the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list.

This account raises many questions.  Even if police officers had the time and patience to run the names of every patient and visitor in a hospital, it would violate the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for the hospital simply to provide an across-the-board list….

In addition, Lubet contacted a source in the Philadelphia police department and asked if there was any such policy.

When I asked if her account was possible, he said, “No way. There was never any such policy or standard practice.”  In addition, he told me that all of the trauma centers in Philadelphia – where police are most likely to be “waiting around,” as Goffman put it, for prisoners or shooting victims – have always been extremely protective of their patient logs.  He flatly dismissed the idea that such lists ever could have been available upon routine request as Goffman claims.  “That’s outlandish,” he said.

It would also be outlandish for police to beat and kill people without cause but since Goffman’s book has appeared we have plenty of video evidence that the type of actions she claims to have witnessed do in fact happen.

Moreover, HIPAA does not provide privacy against the police. HIPAA was written specifically so that the police can request information from hospitals. Here is the ACLU on HIPAA:

Q: Can the police get my medical information without a warrant?

A: Yes. The HIPAA rules provide a wide variety of circumstances under which medical information can be disclosed for law enforcement-related purposes without explicitly requiring a warrant.[iii] These circumstances include (1) law enforcement requests for information to identify or locate a suspect, fugitive, witness, or missing person (2) instances where there has been a crime committed on the premises of the covered entity, and (3) in a medical emergency in connection with a crime.[iv]

In other words, law enforcement is entitled to your records simply by asserting that you are a suspect or the victim of a crime.

Finally, the records in question in this case were not even patient records but visitor records. Whether or not there is an official policy on what to do while waiting at a hospital for other reasons (say to speak to a suspect) it’s plausible to me that the police in Philadelphia can and do sneak a peek at visitor records when the opportunity arises. It’s certainly the case that people who have warrants against them avoid hospitals and other institutions that keep such records for fear of arrest (and here).

I was confused by Lubet’s other big reveal, “Goffman appears to have participated in a serious felony in the course of her field work – a circumstance that seems to have escaped the notice of her teachers, her mentors, her publishers, her admirers, and even her critics.” But this didn’t escape my notice. How could it? Goffman’s crime is the climax of the book! Lubet is talking about Goffman’s action after her friend, Chuck, is murdered:

…This time, Goffman did not merely take notes – on several nights, she volunteered to do the driving.  Here is how she described it:

We started out around 3:00 a.m., with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area.  We peered into dark houses and looked at license plates and car models as Mike spoke on the phone with others who had information about [the suspected killer’s] whereabouts.

One night, Mike thought he saw his target:

He tucked his gun in his jeans, got out of the car, and hid in the adjacent alleyway.  I waited in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside (p. 262).

Fortunately, Mike decided that he had the wrong man, and nobody was shot that night.

The fact that Goffman had become one of the gang is the point. A demonstration that environment trumps upbringing. She only narrowly escaped becoming trapped by the luck of the victim’s absence. The sociology professor and the thug, entirely different lives, separated by the thinnest of margins.