Yale Politic interview with me

I enjoyed this one, lots of real questions from Eric Wallach, not “tell us about your book” and the usual snoozefest.  Here is one bit:

So you like the idea of pardons– how do you work through that one?

I don’t even firmly believe that punishment is justified morally. Maybe it’s necessary, maybe you just can’t do without it.  But the mere fact that someone has wronged another, I don’t think causes them to forfeit their rights in the way that was claimed in classic, early modern political philosophy. Once you think wrongdoers still have their human rights, on what grounds do you punish them? Could be that you simply have to– either the public won’t accept another option and they would overthrow your non-punishment regime and bring in fascism, and something with a lot more punishment would come about.

I get that– I’m not saying you can just toss away the keys to all these jails. But insofar as you have options of not punishing people – who in the cases I’ve read about it seems they’re not going to go out there and continue their serial killing sprees – I think we just simply ought not to punish them. Martha Stewart, again, that seems to me a very clear case. Undo the wrong. If I were a president, I’d consider just only pardoning people and then resigning. I know I couldn’t get away with it forever, but it’s one way to think about the job.

There are other points of interest, new and interesting throughout.


The irony in Tyler effectively arguing punishing crime doesn't have any deterrence effect, while just yesterday praising Singapore as being the most well-run society on earth. It is palpable.

Of course punishment has a deterrent effect, and of course Tyler knows that. But a basic utilitarian POV is that we want the minimum amount of punishment that accomplishes a given amount of deterrence and crime minimization, and it's clear we are way, way, way, way above that.

Prof. Cowen is talking about morality, not utility. Utility is more Prof. Tabarrok's direction. It will be interesting to see how many people will defend Prof. Cowen, and how much creativity they will use when doing it.

I'd like to see a 10 minute debate between Cowen and Tabarrok on the quality of Singapore's government. I bet Tabarrok has different views, especially since I heard he was once denied entrance when authorities discovered he had Rush's 2112 on his player.

You think utility and morality aren't the same thing?

"it's clear we are way, way, way, way above that"

What a ridiculous comment.

The issue is that our "given amount of deterrence and crime minimization" is ridiculously low. We in the West have become so accustomed to crime and disorder that unless there are literally folks dropping dead on a daily basis, we look the other way.

Boston, a relatively safe city in the U.S. had more crimes last week than Singapore had all of last year. And that's despite having 1/10th the population.

If tomorrow, Tokyo, Dubai, Shanghai or Singapore suddenly had Boston's crime rate, there would be riots. Every politician would have to resign in disgrace by week's end.

Yet in the West, we are perfectly fine with chaos and disorder. Why? Any politician that would try to impose laws that would cut down crime would be met with shrieks and wails from activists and the media.

Still, even leftist/liberal US cities have draconian punishments compared to most of Europe.


But the old East European police states had much harsher punishment, and lower crime rates.

I'd say the length of time we house people in prison is way above optimal the we don't punish enough people quick enough and we have too many laws, like laws against selling drugs.

I am not seeing Tyler so much as arguing about deterrence here (or even incapacitation of troublemakers), so much as he is implicitly arguing against retribution as a legitimate theory of punishment. This is the old Golden Rule argument where the captured criminal says to the sentencing judge, "And if you were sitting here in my shoes, would you want to be punished by someone else?" If you don't accept retribution as a legitimate penal theory, and you have no firm evidence to suggest the person will commit crime again or will signal to others that it is okay to commit crime, it is difficult to come up with a reasonable ground to punish them.

Tyler could also be arguing in Straussian against human rights in favor of a more utilitarian criminal justice system a la the place other commenters here have mentioned, Singapore, and other East Asian societies.

" and you have no firm evidence to suggest the person will commit crime again or will signal to others that it is okay to commit crime, it is difficult to come up with a reasonable ground to punish them."

So, aside from two gigantic reasons why society might choose to punish wrongdoers, there is no reason to punish wrongdoers? Neat!

Are you sure that America's current criminal justice system considers these two factors? I'd argue that it's far more based on placating the American voter, who wants to hurt people they don't like than it is based on either of these two reasons.

If you really started from scratch and developed a criminal justice system (really, a criminal quarantining and rehabilitation system) that focused on ensuring that a given criminal would neither re-commit a crime nor assist others in committing said crime, I think you'd find yourself with a vastly different system than the one we have.

Singapore is also more diverse/muliticultural than Boston and is > 40% immigrants compared to 13.5% for the USA. To have less crime, we need more immigrants. Those are facts, you cannot argue with that.

Sure, I’ll take the Singapore policy of skimming the intellectual elite from all corners of the world while completely shutting the door on low-skilled immigration. I have a feeling that wouldn’t sit well with the activist class

A daily reminder that there is literally 0 benefit to taking low-skilled immigrants that isn’t better captured by simply bringing in temporary workers (as the East Asian countries do)

Yet, America continues to send foreign university students that learned both English and a useful skill back home when they want to work here. Also, the temporary worker programs in Asia that you hold as an example don't work:


I agree the USA crime rate is high enough that almost any immigration will tend to lower the crime rate. Certainly taking in 60 million Chinese and Vietnamese would lower the crime rate considerably.

"Almost any" ≠ "Chinese & Vietnamese"

That's not clear at all.

In a utilitarian view, the costs to the perp are Prob(getting caught and convicted) times U(Expected Sentence)

When the probability of getting caught and convicted is low, as it is in our legal system, then the appropriate punishment has to be extraordinarily high.

And when criminals have a much different utility function with respect to a given sentence than you do, you don't have an informed opinion about what punishment is "too much."

But in addition to the proper punishment to fit the crime, we need to have a deterrence premium. That is, punishment for the harm caused PLUS punishment likely to deter future crime. Deterrence is both specific and general. Specific deterrence prevents the perp himself from committing crimes while general deterrence prevents the general public from committing similar crimes, I.e. a positive externality to society. The mere act of locking criminals up specifically deters crime while they are inside. Criminals sometimes enjoy prison and are able to run criminal enterprises from prison. What's certain is that these people have much less disutility from imprisonment than you or I have.

And for any sentence there is a nontrivial chance of victory on appeal, clemency, pardon, early release, etc thst must enter the Beckerian equation.

Half of our homicides produce no arrests, so there is at least a 50% chance of getting away with it. Fewer result in convictions. Plea deals give people punishments far below the optimal punishment for a given crime. We barely have a death penalty anymore.

This is why I left the state's attorney's office. The only people for whom the legal system is unfair is the honest, law abiding citizen.

'Half of our homicides produce no arrests, so there is at least a 50% chance of getting away with it. '

At least in DC, back in the extremely bad late 80s crack epidemic, part of the reason for the lack of arrests was the murderous winnowing involved in being part of the crack trade. Apart from the DC police just not caring all that much about another dead crack dealer (good riddance might cover at least part of the perspective), the reality was that last month's murderer was this week's murder victim.

One assumes that this dynamic, if not necessarily at the same intensity, is still in play in a number of areas where murders connected to the drug trade are not uncommon.

'Half of our homicides produce no arrests, so there is at least a 50% chance of getting away with it. '

That is the problem. People seldom commit murder in from of a policeman because the will be swiftly and surely punished. We need to decrease punishment time but make it surer and swifter.

That assumes that criminals are perfectly intelligent agents, which we know they are not. A more intelligent utilitarian system (we'll call it a rationalist system :P) is to find out what works to prevent crime and then do that.

Incentives: how the heck do they work?

Wow, I had no idea tyler had such extremist views in crime and punishment. That is a huuuuge turn off.... such a silly and indefensible position...

Come on, *Tyler Cowen*…please…?

Comments like this don't contribute to an intelligent conversation, you're just insulting him without providing any useful information or new ideas. Be civil!

To those upset at Tyler's "extremist views", his "hypocrisy" for praising SG but espousing the above or not understanding incentives, a closer reading of his statement will do you good. He is speaking from the perspective of moral grounding behind punishment, not its efficacy or need. He even states that he wouldn't intend to do away with punishment generally.

Except the part where he says:

"But insofar as you have options of not punishing people – who in the cases I’ve read about it seems they’re not going to go out there and continue their serial killing sprees – I think we just simply ought not to punish them"

This is an extreme-left position and literally everywhere it's been tried leads to surging crime. These people may not keep going on their murder-sprees but types of criminal behaviors are correlated. They would steal, rob, assault, etc.

Again, this is all not to mention the incentive effects. If criminals think there's an extremely low chance that they will get punished for their criminal actions then the expected value of these actions increases significantly. This is what's happened in San Francisco. There were over 30,000 (reported) car break-ins last year with less than 1.5% of them resulting in arrests. Half of those that were arrested were back out into the streets in about a week. When there is no punishment for crime and anti-social behavior, society falls apart. When there are harsh punishments for crime and anti-social behavior, you get Singapore. A city where people look at you sideways when you ask where the "rough" part of town is.

The more reasonable approach is: abolish prisons, like in the old days.

let the punishment be: a) A fine and or restitution to victim, b) Flogging, c) Death. That was the old English way, and avoided the prison industrial complex, by removing the profitability.

Personally, I'm partial to putting people in the stocks.

No, what he said is this - 'Could be that you simply have to– either the public won’t accept another option and they would overthrow your non-punishment regime and bring in fascism, and something with a lot more punishment would come about.' He would do away with punishment, on moral grounds, it seems - he just feels it would not work. The same general practical framework is applied to pardoning criminals, too.

But if he could, he would do away with punishment generally. What a towering figure of morality he must see when he looks in the mirror.

To hold a position that is basically impossible of being implemented is silly but also irresponsible. It reminds me of communists who say that communism is a great idea and that Mao, Stalin and friends are just bad implementers of it.

The moral grounding behind punishment for moral transgressions is sound. Arguments to the contrary are without merit. kthxby

'I don’t even firmly believe that punishment is justified morally.'

Amazing. So, what do you do with someone like Maddoff? Just say 'don't get caught next time, shame that the money is gone'?

'don’t think causes them to forfeit their rights in the way that was claimed in classic, early modern political philosophy'

Personally, I have no problem with a murderer or war criminal that tortured POWs being executed, at least from a moral perspective. Something about living by the sword and dying by it, though clearly, that expression does not come from classic, early modern political philosophy.

'Once you think wrongdoers still have their human rights, on what grounds do you punish them?'

Based on their actions, of course, after a fair trail in a court of law, where they can be judged by a jury of their peers, and receive punishment if found guilty according to the law - and it is a rare case indeed where a murderer in a state like Virginia is unaware the Virginia has the death penalty.

'Martha Stewart, again, that seems to me a very clear case. '

It is. She provably broke the law, after having had experience herself as a stockbroker - 'According to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Stewart avoided a loss of $45,673 by selling all 3,928 shares of her ImClone Systems stock on December 27, 2001, after receiving material, nonpublic information from Peter Bacanovic, who was Stewart's broker at Merrill Lynch. The day following her sale, the stock value fell 16%.


Prosecutors showed that Bacanovic had ordered his assistant to tell Stewart that the CEO of ImClone, Samuel D. Waksal, was selling all his shares in advance of an adverse Food and Drug Administration ruling. The FDA action was expected to cause ImClone shares to decline.' For information about the entire mess - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ImClone_stock_trading_case

'I know I couldn’t get away with it forever'

Well, sounds like you too believe in punishment, or at least something resembling it by being responsible for your actions to your fellow citizens.

'There are other points of interest, new and interesting throughout.'

No, I won't subject myself to such punishment - it would not be moral. Apparently, universities are full of amoral professors eager to teach their students that actions should not have consequences.


Most retarded suggestion I've ever read.

Impunity is the breeding ground for crime followed closely by not caring insufficient punishment from the subjective lens of the perpetrator.

It's not just retardation; it's retardation mixed with almost unfathomable levels of virtue signalling. He knows it's dumb, but his desire to signal is just overwhelming.

He hints at the truth by saying "But maybe you have to punish, even though it's wrong" .... but then utterly wimps out. He doesn't say "Because it's literally the only thing that would ever work" but instead zones out with "because otherwise people would complain."

Sad. But that's Tyler for you.

I suspect its indicative of the degree to which his mentality is conditioned by a faculty bubble located in suburban tract development where the seedy side of life is simply not present and where the most severe problems in the public square are high rents and traffic tie-ups.

How far is Tyler from Southeast Washington? Not so far, I think, at least in geographic terms.

Psychologically, DC's the Dark Side of the Moon. In terms of the commute, if you're on the wrong side of the traffick, Fairfax to Alexandria takes an hour. Add an increment onto that.

If you hate Tyler so much, maybe you should find another website to share your game-changing insights.

Well you disagree with him that punishment is morally problematic, therefore he must be retarded

Re: your interview, It's certainly true that sports coaches may be important at the extensive margin, but I wonder what you think at the intensive margin? I.e., are there "good" managers in sports who generate (non-trivial) wins above replacement? (I doubt it)

Bobby Beathard would seem to have been a very good manager, especially for the Redskins - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Beathard

I would guess that most models of wins by team do not add a special factor to account for a new manager.

Many Redskins fans of a certain age credit Beathard for the Redskins success in the 80s, even more than they credit Gibbs. Gibbs was a good coach, no question, but it was the players he coached that were fundamental - and those players were picked by Beathard, generally after other teams had ignored them.

There are lots of feasible technological alternatives to incarceration which are both more humane and as likely to achieve specific and general deterrence. We're stuck in 'prison or not' frame. What would it take to break out of the rut we're in, to nudge and stimulate minds and conversations leading in that direction? I wonder.

Corporal punishment. Effective, cheap, and does not offend the 8th amendment.

There are lots of feasible technological alternatives to incarceration which are both more humane and as likely to achieve specific and general deterrence.


Cue Joni Mitchell.

What if I care not a whit about making jail, prison, incarceration more humane, but care a great deal about reducing crime? (That is, reducing the number of criminals.)

'There are lots of feasible technological alternatives to incarceration'

And one assumes that since they would still represent punishment, Prof. Cowen would take a moral stand against them.

Judging his comment in the most favorable light, I presume he means that it is immoral for the state to do what is immoral for us to do. Turn the other cheek. Love our enemies. Judge not lest thou be judged.

Jesus was a great saviour but a poor public administrator. I think we would all like to be Pontious Pilate, asking, "What is this man's crime?" Unfortunately, most prosecutors have an answer for that question.

'but a poor public administrator'

Maybe not entirely. One can imagine the man that said this - '"Return your sword to its place, for all who will take up the sword, will die by the sword."' - would not be necessarily opposed to executing murderers, though obviously, that is just a personal opinion. Much like how Jesus might also have thought that flogging a modern money changer like Martha Stewart would also have been within the realm of the acceptable.

Not trying to play games, but Jesus is a complicated figure with many facets, and we all tend to pay attention to the ones that we consider important. For me, the part about casting no stones is a true moral lesson that outweighs public administration considerations in many ways. Nonetheless, Jesus was also capable of righteous fury, and not only turning the other cheek.

"a modern money changer like Martha Stewart"

Martha Stewart stands outside the temple and changes money into shekels and takes a cut??

She changed Imclone stock into cash money. Now stop being an idiot.

When I was in high school a criminology professor gave a talk to our class. He said that there are some very dangerous people who should be put in very comfortable but very secure prisons for their entire lives, even if they have not committed any serious crime. Everybody else should be treated as leniently as possible. I thought that was completely outrageous, and voiced those feelings in a contemptuous and teenagerous way.

Years later I married a forensic psychologist who now works in a maximum security mental hospital. She works with psychopaths, who have proven to be very dangerous and, because we can't "cure" them, need to be locked up for the rest of their lives. Since their dangerousness is something they were either born with or developed at a very early age this isn't really their "fault". So in fairness I now believe we really ought to make their incarceration as comfortable as possible. I also now believe that everyone else who isn't a psychopath should be treated as leniently as possible.

What I find to be both remarkable and amusing is to see the distance I have traveled on this. I don't think I am wrong now (obviously) but neither do "feel" like my younger self was wrong either. Rather it is that I now find myself believing in something that is clearly outrageous. Odd.

The fact that you are depriving psychopaths of their human rights is immoral, if Prof. Cowen's perspective is to be taken seriously. It is not about how comfortable the confinement is, it is the very fact of the confinement itself. (Admittedly, even Prof. Cowen seems to accept that confinement for those who commit serial murder may not be properly viewed as a moral issue.)

Either Cowen's flying the libertarian freak flag, being the contrarian, or is acknowledging that the difference between an economically productive member of society and a criminal is a fine line indeed. Is Kim a criminal or a peace maker? I suppose it depends on the context. Is Zuckerberg a criminal or a benevolent entrepreneur? I suppose it depends on the context. Mt point (Cowne's point?) is that conduct deserving harsh punishment and conduct that doesn't isn't all that clear; indeed, it is often determined according to one's status.

The intelligentsia is forever reminding us that they should have very little influence in society and latter-day libertarians are forever reminding us that their political impotence is earned.

Libertarians are the incels of the political world.

Now I want to re-read a couple of Tony Hillerman's earlier Jim Chee detective novels, the ones with the young cop trying to be a good Navajo.

So the conduct of school shooters isn't significant if their heart is in the right place?


Not a very interesting interview. Could be that Tyler behind his public persona is not a very interesting man.

On pardons: I absolutely agree with the fact that the US punishes too much, and often for no good reason. It also doesn't punish evenly. However, fixing this through executive pardons of a president's friends, and friends of friends, is ultimately a broken way around it, that might be worse than the disease. I'd be far happier with pardons if they applied to wide swaths of people, if we were stuck in a realpolitik world where penal reforms are impossible: It's the reason I was OK with Obama's approach to drug laws enforcement, or lack thereof.

But still, the main reason America worked is that, at least if you were a white male, you had a prayer of being treated equally under the law. Anyone that has looked at developmental economics knows that the key to corruption is to make sure some laws only apply to some people, and that no law applies to your friends. Thus, the power of pardon, by itself, has led to ugly-ish outcomes for many years, and we might now be seeing what happens when it's handed with someone that has no interest in norms and laws.

I do find this response a bit odd. If it were a bit different I'd at least be very sympathetic to it. I don't think that _punishment_ as such is, at bottom, a morally defensible aim, but the reasons I think that also argue that we should not be particularly concerned with what is morally defensible in this case.

Punishment, for its own sake, is about the idea that people are culpable, and therefore deserve to be punished as a matter of justice. I have to admit that I am not sure that I think anyone is, at bottom, culpable for anything. I consider the question of Free Will badly posed, and any answer to it so bad it isn't even wrong.

We do what we do because of some combination of nature and nurture (broadly construed- nurture is present throughout a life,) and we are responsible for neither.

The problem is that a large part of that nurture has to do with the ideas of moral culpability that we and the people around us hold. They might not be very rational, they might not be apparently based on a very accurate understanding of cause and effect, but that just shows that they have proven so useful to us that we have evolved them in spite of the actual nature of things.

We ought to be suspicious of our evolved biases, whether we biological or socially evolved, and we ought to do our best to recognize when they are no longer appropriate (though of course we will do exactly as our nature and environment dictate, but mine dictate that I will write this comment in this way, even if that introduces contradictions if not outright paradoxes.)

Our innate (and I think our sense of justice is innate, though its specifics are mediated by culture) moral intuitions are useful, and their utility deterrence is likely their source. It is, I think, a Chesterton fence of grandeur, the Pieta of Chesterton fences.

OTOH, I'm all for the Martha Stewart pardon, even though I have always found her tremendously annoying. I don't like the tendency of Federal Prosecutors to charge people with lying in cases where there doesn't seem to be an underlying crime. It is very difficult for most people to get out of a lengthy interview with Federal Law enforcement without somehow a crime (reminder: don't talk to cops,) and I do not think it a very good idea to give prosecutors the power to arbitrarily jail anyone foolish enough to speak with them.

But one could as easily say that murderers are inferior people and so should be punished.

Tyler Cowen's comments about crime remind me of a William F. Buckley quote, "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University." (substitute George Mason for Harvard, in this instance).

I find it highly immoral to not attempt to proportionately punish violent or major criminals.

Even great thinkers have un-great thoughts. Next.

We radically underpunish violent crimes in this country. Radically. Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t know anything about recidivism rates and hasn’t ever had a loved one be a victim of a violent crime.

I completely agree with you.

The only defense I have for Tyler Cowen is that I don't really believe he thinks humans have free will. Still, he should keep in mind that it takes many small steps "toward a much better world" to make up for a whopper of a mistake.

Of course humans don’t have free will

Fernando Puron Johnston, former mayor of border city Piedras Negras, candidate for the Mexican Congress, was, I read this week, the 112th officeholder or candidate to be killed in Mexico this election cycle. Pretending there will be less need of prisons in America's future? Viva la reconquista, baby.

Tyler, so if punishment is possibly not morally justifiable, how do you feel about revenge? Serious question.

Yikes. So many good things come from economists like Tyler, and then something like this that belies a serious understanding of human behavior. When you actually talk or believe something like this you practically ask everyone not to take you seriously.

A person can be too old to drive a car, too old to serve in the military, too old to fly an airplane, too old to play NHL hockey. But he's never too old to be incarcerated.

Professor Cowen might get something from The Punisher's Brain: The Evolution of Judge and Jury (Cambridge Studies in Economics, Choice, and Society-2014), or just the summary in my Amazon review :)

I think prison should be a last resort. Use fines, restitution, monitoring and even give them the option of corporal punishment, but some people need to be imprisoned to protect the innocent, but I'd guess much fewer than we imprison (and we might even save some money).

I like Alex Tabarrok's more police less crime. It's better to prevent crime than punish it.

There is also the idea that when a bad guy kills a bad guy it is sometimes justifiable by standards they probably agreed on. I worked with a guy (till he went to jail or prison, I did not follow it closely) who killed a guy for selling him something that was not cocaine that was supposed to cocaine. The death penalty that he gave to guy who defrauded him seemed a bit much but what is appropriate punishment for him?

I am also against government punishment of almost all victim-less crime.

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