Law

How much does poverty drive crime?

by on August 22, 2014 at 7:25 am in Economics, Education, Law | Permalink

Maybe less than you thought, at least after adjusting for other variables.  The Economist reports:

In Sweden the age of criminal responsibility is 15, so Mr Sariaslan tracked his subjects from the dates of their 15th birthdays onwards, for an average of three-and-a-half years. He found, to no one’s surprise, that teenagers who had grown up in families whose earnings were among the bottom fifth were seven times more likely to be convicted of violent crimes, and twice as likely to be convicted of drug offences, as those whose family incomes were in the top fifth.

What did surprise him was that when he looked at families which had started poor and got richer, the younger children—those born into relative affluence—were just as likely to misbehave when they were teenagers as their elder siblings had been. Family income was not, per se, the determining factor.

That suggests two, not mutually exclusive, possibilities. One is that a family’s culture, once established, is “sticky”—that you can, to put it crudely, take the kid out of the neighbourhood, but not the neighbourhood out of the kid. Given, for example, children’s propensity to emulate elder siblings whom they admire, that sounds perfectly plausible. The other possibility is that genes which predispose to criminal behaviour (several studies suggest such genes exist) are more common at the bottom of society than at the top, perhaps because the lack of impulse-control they engender also tends to reduce someone’s earning capacity.

The original research, by Amir Sariaslan, Henrik Larsson, Brian D’Onofrio, Niklas Långström and Paul Lichtenstein is here, here is how the authors report the conclusion:

There were no associations between childhood family income and subsequent violent criminality and substance misuse once we had adjusted for unobserved familial risk factors.

Department of Uh-Oh

by on August 21, 2014 at 1:00 pm in Food and Drink, Law, Uncategorized | Permalink

When it opened in 1990, the McDonald’s on Moscow’s Pushkin Square was a symbol of thawing relations with the U.S., attracting long lines and later becoming the fast-food chain’s most visited outlet world-wide.

On Wednesday evening, it stood empty, closed by Russia’s consumer-safety regulator amid the Kremlin’s most-serious confrontation with the West since the Cold War. The agency cited sanitary violations as it said that it had closed four McDonald’s Corp.’s restaurants in Moscow.

Analysts said the move was more likely the latest shot by Russia in response to U.S. and European sanctions over Moscow’s role in the armed conflict with its former Soviet neighbor, Ukraine.

Food inspectors “have been instruments of Russian foreign policy for years,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He cited earlier bans on Moldovan wine and U.S. chicken.

There is more here, there is some context here.

How does a stop for jaywalking turn into a homicide and how does that turn into an American town essentially coming under military control with snipers, tear gas, and a no-fly zone? We don’t yet know exactly what happened between the two individuals on the day in question but events like this don’t happen without a deeper context. Part of the context is the return of debtor’s prisons that I wrote about in 2012:

Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States but today poor people who fail to pay even small criminal justice fees are routinely being imprisoned. The problem has gotten worse recently because strapped states have dramatically increased the number of criminal justice fees….Failure to pay criminal justice fees can result in revocation of an individual’s drivers license, arrest and imprisonment. Individuals with revoked licenses who drive (say to work to earn money to pay their fees) and are apprehended can be further fined and imprisoned. Unpaid criminal justice debt also results in damaged credit reports and reduced housing and employment prospects. Furthermore, failure to pay fees can mean a violation of probation and parole terms which makes an individual ineligible for Federal programs such as food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Family funds and Social Security Income for the elderly and disabled.

Ferguson1new report from Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal defense organization, shows that the Ferguson municipal courts are a stunning example of these problems:

Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. The majority (67%) of
residents are African-American…22% of residents live below the poverty level.

…Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

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.”

If you have money, for example, you can easily get a speeding ticket converted to a non-moving violation. But if you don’t have money it’s often the start of a downward spiral that is hard to pull out of:

For a simple speeding ticket, an attorney is paid $50-$100,
the municipality is paid $150-$200 in fines and court costs, and the
defendant avoids points on his or her license as well as a possible
increase in insurance costs. For simple cases, neither the attorney nor
the defendant must appear in court.

However, if you do not have the ability to hire an attorney or pay
fines, you do not get the benefit of the amendment, you are assessed
points, your license risks suspension and you still owe the municipality
money you cannot afford….If you cannot pay the amount in full, you must appear in court on that night to explain why. If you miss court, a warrant will likely be
issued for your arrest.

People who are arrested on a warrant for failure to appear in court
to pay the fines frequently sit in jail for an extended period. None of the
municipalities has court on a daily basis and some courts meet only
once per month. If you are arrested on a warrant in one of these
jurisdictions and are unable to pay the bond, you may spend as much as
three weeks in jail waiting to see a judge.

Of course, if you are arrested and jailed you will probably lose your job and perhaps also your apartment–all because of a speeding ticket.

As a final outrage, consider this story which ties together Ferguson, the courts, and the arrest of parents, often minority parents, for leaving their kids to play in parks (just as my parents did).

According to local judge Frank Vatterott, 37% of the courts responding to his survey unconstitutionally closed the courts to non-defendants. Defendants are then faced with
the choice of leaving their kids on the parking lot or going into court. As Antonio Morgan described after being denied entry to the court with his children, the decision to leave his kids with a friend resulted in a charge of child endangerment.

In a great paper, The Impact of Jury Race in Criminal Trials, Shamena Anwar, Patrick Bayer and Randi Hjalmarsson exploit random variation in the jury pool to estimate the effect of race on criminal trials. The authors have data from nearly 800 trials in two Florida counties. On any given day, a jury pool is randomly drawn from a master list based on driver’s licenses. On some days, the pool of about 30 people contains some black members and on other days, purely for random reasons, it does not. The voir dire process–>For every $1 spent on legal aid, the savings can range from $1.60 to $30.removals, excuses and challenges–whittles down the jury pool to 6 jury members with typically 1 alternate.

The authors have data on the race, gender, and age of each member of the jury pool as well as each member of the ultimate jury. The authors also know the race and gender of the defendant and the charges. What the authors discover is that all white juries are 16% more likely to convict black defendants than white defendants but the presence of just a single black person in the jury pool equalizes conviction rates by race. The effect is large and remarkably it occurs even when the black person is not picked for the jury. The latter may not seem possible but the authors develop an elegant model of voir dire that shows how using up a veto on a black member of the pool shifts the characteristics of remaining pool members from which the lawyers must pick; that is, a diverse jury pool can make for a more “ideologically” balanced jury even when the jury is not racially balanced.

The author’s results show not only that blacks and whites are treated differently depending on the composition of the jury pool but also that random variation in the jury pool adds to the variability of sentences holding race constant. Like is not treated as like. The results also suggest that we don’t need racial quotas to increase fairness. We can increase fairness and reduce variability in a racially neutrally way by expanding the size of juries. Six-person juries have become common because they are cheap(er) but a return to twelve person juries would reduce the variability of sentences and greatly equalize conviction rates across race.

A North Carolina diner that offers discounts to praying customers has ignited an internet firestorm across the US.

For the past four years, Mary’s Gourmet Restaurant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had been surprising customers with a 15% discount if they prayed or meditated before meals.

“It could be anything – just taking a moment to push away the world,” says Mary Haglund, the owner. “I never asked anyone who they were praying to – that would be silly. I just recognised it as an act of gratitude.”

However, it wasn’t until customer Jordan Smith shared her receipt with a Christian radio station on 30 July that the diner and its discount went viral.

“There was no signage anywhere that promoted the prayer discount. We just ordered our food and prayed over it once it arrived,” says Smith. “It wasn’t until the end when they brought the bill over and it said 15% discount for praying in public.”

The story is here, and for the pointer I thank Felix Morency-Lavoie.  By the way, the discount may violate the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

…as it turns out, some hydrants seem to be more tempting — and more costly — than others.

In Toronto, one hydrant stands above the rest. People are fined so often for parking in front of it that on Google’s Street View, a white Toyota can be seen with a yellow slip under its wiper blade as a parking-enforcement officer walks away.

Since 2008, cars that parked too close to the hydrant at 393 University Ave. have been ticketed 2,962 times. Those fines add up to $289,620 —more than any other hydrant in the city.

More generally:

A Canadian Press analysis of Toronto’s parking-ticket data found the city has collected more than $24 million since 2008 by fining people who parked too close to hydrants.

Fabrizi says all parking fines, including those from parking next to hydrants, add up to $80 million a year.

That may seem like a big number, but Fabrizi says it only represents about one per cent of the money needed to run all of the city’s programs.

“The amount of revenue that parking generates is so minuscule compared to the overall revenue that it really doesn’t serve a great purpose as a revenue generator.”

About half the revenue from parking tickets pays for parking enforcement and operations, he added.

The full article, which also lists the ten most lucrative Toronto hydrants, is here.  For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

I’ve long wondered about this question, now there is a paper about it, from Johannes Abeler and Simon Jäger, forthcoming, “Complex Tax Incentives,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.  The abstract is here:

How does tax complexity affect people’s reaction to tax changes? To answer this question, we conduct an experiment in which subjects work for a piece rate and face taxes. One treatment features a simple, the other a complex tax system. The payoff-maximizing output level and the incentives around this optimum are, however, identical across treatments. We introduce the same sequence of additional taxes in both treatments. Subjects in the complex treatment underreact to new taxes; some ignore new taxes entirely. The underreaction is stronger for subjects with lower cognitive ability. Contrary to predictions from models of rational inattention, subjects are equally likely to ignore large or small incentive changes.

I would think the real world danger is that intermediaries will teach people how to game complex tax systems over time.  Still, the actual tax incentive faced by individuals may not be so transparent even to informed and strategic advisors, nor are the advisors always able to communicate actionable advice to the individuals facing the taxes.

Here is Simon’s paper on the returns to German higher education.

FDA Device Regulation

by on August 13, 2014 at 7:20 am in Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

In the interests of length I had to sacrifice a few points in my WSJ review of Innovation Breakdown by Joseph Gulfo (excerpted on MR yesterday). In the review, I argued that the FDA could speed the approval of medical devices and reduce uncertainty by not reviewing directly but becoming a certifier of certifiers as is done in Europe.

In fact, a US model is already in place. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health, requires that a range of electrical products and materials meet certain safety standards but it outsources certification to Underwriters Laboratories and other Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories. We could and should do the same for medical devices and for drugs. Indeed, if a device or drug is permitted in a developed, advanced economy such as in Europe, Australia and Japan then I see no reason why it ought not to be provisionally approved in the United States (and vice-versa).

My paper with DiMasi and Milne showed that some FDA drug divisions appear to be much more productive than other divisions suggesting possibilities for substantial improvements if best practices were uniformly adopted. There also appear to be substantial differences between the regulation of drugs and devices especially in recent years. Ian Hathaway and Robert Litan have a new paper on Entrepreneurship and Job Creation in the U.S. Life Sciences Sector that shows that new firm creation in the medical device sector has fallen drastically since 1990 and far more than in the drug sector. Although there are likely many causes, the drop in the number of new firms is consistent with Gulfo’s experience of regulatory uncertainty and may suggest increases in regulatory cost for devices relative to drugs. Here is Hathaway and Litan:

The medical devices and equipment sector, on the other hand, saw new firm formations decline steadily and persistently between 1990 and 2011—falling by 695 firms or 53 percent during that period. Its share of new life sciences firms fell to 31 percent in 2011 from 50 percent in 1990. Unlike its life sciences sector counterparts, the decline in new firm formations in this segment appears to stretch beyond the cyclical effects of the Great Recession.

new device firms

“Fair Trade” Cocaine Is A Thing Now

For instance:

Even more intriguing is the use of marketing strategies that mimic corporate social responsibility initiatives. These may take the form of financial sponsorship of organizations likely to be viewed favorably by online drug consumers. For example, one Australian drug vendor recently advertised their enterprise as a: “Proud financial supporter of WikiLeaks and Bluelight.”

At the more extreme end of socially progressive marketing strategies used by online dealers are those that involve the promotion of drugs on the basis of supposedly “ethical”, “fair trade”, “organic” or “conflict-free” sources of supply:

“We are a team of libertarian cocaine dealers. We never buy coke from cartels! We never buy coke from police! We help farmers from Peru, Bolivia and some chemistry students in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. We do fair trade!”

Naturally, it is impossible to verify these claims.

For the pointer I thank Annie Lowrey.

Innovation Breakdown

by on August 12, 2014 at 7:47 am in Economics, Law, Medicine, Uncategorized | Permalink

From my review today in the WSJ of Innovation Breakdown by Joseph Gulfo:

Yo is a smartphone app. MelaFind is a medical device. Yo sends one meaningless message: “Yo!” MelaFind tells you: “biopsy this and don’t biopsy that.” MelaFind saves lives. Yo does not. Guess which firm found it easier to put their product in consumers hands? Oy.

In “Innovation Breakdown: How the FDA and Wall Street Cripple Medical Advances,” Joseph Gulfo tells the tumultuous history of MELA Sciences, the company that invented MelaFind. When Dr. Gulfo joined the firm as president and CEO in 2004, the company’s brilliant team of scientists had spent many years and tens of millions of dollars to develop MelaFind, a “camera with a brain”—optical technology that would scan potential melanomas in multiple spectra and then, using sophisticated algorithms and large datasets, diagnose which were most likely to be cancerous.

MELA Sciences conducts an extensive clinical trial according to a protocol agreed on by the FDA and all looks good. After the clinical trial is completed, however, the FDA backs away from the protocol and comes out against MelaFind.

…The title of Dr. Gulfo’s book is “Innovation Breakdown” but “Innovator’s Breakdown” might have been more apt. The letter sent the author into survival mode. He battled the FDA, calmed investors, and defended against the lawsuit all while trying to keep the company afloat. Under stress, Dr. Gulfo’s health began to decline: He lost 29 pounds, his hair began to fall out, and the pain in his gut became so intense he needed an endoscopy. When his wife begged him to quit, he refused. They turned into roommates. “We were nothing more than cordial. I basically shut my wife out of my life,” he writes.

…The climax to this medical thriller comes when, in “the greatest 15 minutes of [his] life,” Dr. Gulfo delivers an impassioned speech, à la “Twelve Angry Men,” to the FDA’s advisory committee. The committee voted for approval, 8 to 7, and, perhaps with the congressional hearing in mind, the FDA approved MelaFind in September 2011.

It was a major triumph for the company, but Dr. Gulfo was beat. He retired from the company in June 2013—just in time to save his marriage.

Yet remarkably, given his experience, Mr. Gulfo writes that he still believes in a strong FDA. He argues in the book that better “leadership” and a few tweaks to existing rules can fix the problem. He’s wrong.

Compare MelaFind’s experience in the U.S. with its reception in Europe: MelaFind was submitted for marketing approval in Europe in May 2011. It was approved just five months later. One key reason for Europe’s efficient approval process is that European governments don’t review medical devices directly. Instead they certify independent “notified bodies” that specialize and compete to review new products. The European system works more quickly than the U.S. system, and there is no evidence that it results in reduced patient safety. Rather than tweak the current system, why doesn’t the U.S. just adopt the European model and call it a day? Our health and our economy would be better off for it.

Google’s Sergey Brin recently said that he didn’t want to be a health entrepreneur because “It’s just a painful business to be in . . . the regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high that I think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs.” Mr. Brin won’t find anything in Dr. Gulfo’s book to persuade him otherwise. Until we get our regulatory system in order, expect a lot more Yo’s and not enough life-saving innovations.

Assaf Zimring writes to me:

Since we tend to associate high unemployment with any economic calamity, people don’t seem to think a lot about why we see very high unemployment in Gaza. But I am puzzled by it. How come an economy with such tremendous shortages fails to employ 40% of its workers in an attempt to meet these shortages?

Has the (by now, fairly loose) blockade pushed the MPL to zero for 40% of workers? Is it uncertainty that stops investment? Did large aid payments (in some years – 50% of GDP) cause some kind of a Dutch disease of an epic scale (though I am not sure that would lead to unemployment)? I wonder if you have any thoughts about that.

At the first link you will find some interesting papers by Assaf on the Gaza blockade and other Gaza shocks.  One option of course is simply that hardly anyone is really employed, although there is massive underemployment in grey and black market economies, including for the digging of tunnels and subsistence agriculture.

He writes:

…the cost of bureaucracy is in general vastly overestimated. Compensation of workers accounts for only around 6 percent of non defense federal spending, and only a fraction of that compensation goes to people you could reasonably call bureaucrats.

And what Konczal says about welfare is also true, although harder to quantify, for regulation. For sure there are wasteful and unnecessary government regulations — but not nearly as many as libertarians want to believe. When, for example, meddling bureaucrats tell you what you can and can’t have in your dishwashing detergent, it turns out that there’s a very good reason. America in 2014 is not India under the License Raj.

In other words, libertarianism is a crusade against problems we don’t have, or at least not to the extent the libertarians want to imagine.

And:

And what all this means in turn is that libertarianism does not offer a workable policy agenda. I don’t mean that I dislike the agenda, which is a separate issue; I mean that if we should somehow end up with libertarian government, it would quickly find itself unable to fulfill any of its promises.

You can read his further points here.  In fact I agree with many of Krugman’s observations in what I thought was overall a useful post.  It’s just that I think a lot of other viewpoints are living in a fantasy world too.

That said, Krugman grossly underestimates the costs of government regulation.  For one thing, government regulations are a major obstacle to the infrastructure improvements which Krugman is so keen on.  To use Krugman’s own pick of the cherry, he wrote another post defending the DMV for its on-line service and reasonable wait times.  It was not always so, but on top of that let’s not forget the Virginia DMV just tried to put Uber and other ride-sharing services out of business (Krugman himself wrote rapturously about Uber a few weeks ago and how it held out the promise of a society with diminished car ownership in some locales.  I say bring it on.)  Fortunately the regulators were temporarily overriden in this case, although they may reemerge as an obstacle in a subsequent bargain.  More generally, taxi license and medallion requirements are a disgrace in many places, and who is in charge of that?  Typically the DMV.

You might also ask whether DMVs underregulate where they ought to regulate more.  The number of road deaths in the United States each year is so high as to be scandalous.  I am not sure how much this problem can be pinned on the DMV (how easy is it to get very bad drivers off the road through legal/constitutional means?), but still it is hard to argue that in absolute terms these agencies are overseeing a successful regime of road safety.

The more than 6,000 animals in Russia’s largest zoo have been caught up in the worst fight between Russia and the West since the Cold War. A wide-ranging ban on Western food announced this week by the Kremlin has forced a sudden diet change for creatures that eat newly forbidden fruit.

The sanctions against meat, fish, fruits and vegetables from the United States, the European Union and other Western countries were intended to strike a counterblow to nations that have hit Russia over its role in Ukraine’s roiling insurgency. But the measures will also have an impact on stomachs at the zoo.

The sea lions crack open Norwegian shellfish. The cranes peck at Latvian herring. The orangutans snack on Dutch bell peppers. Now the venerable Moscow Zoo needs to find politically acceptable substitutes to satisfy finicky animal palates.

“They don’t like Russian food,” zoo spokeswoman Anna Kachurovskaya said. “They’re extremely attached to what they like, so it’s a hard question for us.

The penguins still live in a Cobdenite world:

The penguins eat fish from Argentina — whose food sales to Russia have not been blocked and are politically in the clear.

But the Ramsey rules are relevant for some of the primates:

Orangutans, gorillas and monkeys are particularly finicky eaters at the zoo, but Kachurovskaya said they would eventually adapt.

“In the wild, they eat what they have, not what they want,” she said.

The story is here.

This time Newport Beach, CA is the villain, or the guardian of public safety, depending on your point of view:

While demand for such thrill rides seems limitless, the supply has been curtailed by the Newport Beach City Council. Alarmed by noise complaints and safety concerns, the council approved a six-month moratorium on new jetpack businesses this summer, dashing the hopes of several would-be operators. The move has left Jetpack America as the only oceanfront flight school in town for now, cornering the market on what some see as an ever-expanding audience, thanks in large part to video clips posted online and Internet deals that lure new customers to the shores of Newport Beach, an idyllic setting less than 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

The devices cost $10k (formerly 100k), they push you 40 feet up, and you can go 30 mph.  You can still do it in New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida, though further regulations are coming.  How is this for a good sentence?:

The jetpack universe is small, but growing.

The full story is here, by Jennifer Medina, interesting throughout.

If a captive soldier is known to be in a certain vehicle, Mr. Amidror said, it is permissible to fire a tank shell toward the engine of the car. “You for sure risk the life of the soldier, but you don’t intend to kill him,” he said.

Asked whether it was morally acceptable to risk a soldier’s life in this way, Mr. Amidror said: “You know, war is very controversial. Soldiers have to know there are many risks in the battlefield, and this is one of them.”

That is for Israeli soldiers and it is called the Hannibal Procedure more generally.  The subtext is that an Israeli soldier captured by the enemy can end up being traded for a thousand or more imprisoned Palestinians.  The persistence of the kidnapped state for the soldier may create an intolerable situation for the Israeli public, more than would seem to be the case for a deceased soldier, and arguably it damages morale for future soldiers to a greater extent.

Not everyone likes the Hannibal Procedure:

“The procedure is morally flawed,” said Emanuel Gross of Haifa University, an expert in military law and a former military judge. “We have no right to risk the life of a soldier only to avoid the payment for his return from captivity.”

Instead, Mr. Gross said, Israel ought to stand more firmly against the inflated demands of the captors.

I wonder how the opinion of the median soldier or soldier-to-be on this policy compares to the opinion of the median Israeli citizen.  Our philosopher readers will also note the connection of this debate to the longstanding conundrums over whether a person ceasing to exist can be said to harm that person, a topic discussed by Derek Parfit among others.

The full story is here, interesting throughout.