Month: June 2020

Not From the Onion: Grenade Launchers for School Police

LATimes: Los Angeles Unified school police officials said Tuesday that the department will relinquish some of the military weaponry it acquired through a federal program that furnishes local law enforcement with surplus equipment. The move comes as education and civil rights groups have called on the U.S. Department of Defense to halt the practice for schools.

The Los Angeles School Police Department, which serves the nation’s second-largest school system, will return three grenade launchers but intends to keep 61 rifles and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle it received through the program.

A school police department with grenade launchers and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle! Only in America.

The article is from 2014 but relevant to current discussions of militarized police.

Hat tip: Noah Smith.

L.A. Unified's police department received a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle like this one through a federal program.

What should I ask Melissa Dell?

She is a professor of economics at Harvard, and winner of the most recent John Bates Clark medal.  I would describe her as a both a rising star and an already-risen star.  From Wikipedia:

Melissa Dell’s research interests include development economics, economic history and political economy. Her work has mainly focused on explaining economic development through the persistence of historical institutions and climate. She has also investigated the effect of conflict on labor market and political outcomes and vice versa. Much of her research has focused on Latin America and Southeast Asia. She was one of the first economists to use a spatial regression discontinuity design, in her paper on the long-term effects of Peru’s Mining Mita.

Her broader biography is interesting as well (see Wikipedia).  Here is previous MR coverage of Melissa Dell, and here is the very good Clark medal summary of her research.

So what should I ask her?

The NIH Should Run Human Challenge Trials for COVID

As I have been warning, social distancing measures are making it more difficult to test COVID vaccines even as the cost of COVID remains very high.

WashPost: The Oxford group earlier boasted that it had an 80 percent chance of developing an effective vaccine by September. Hill said the difficulty of testing the vaccine in Britain may mean there’s only a 50 percent chance of success within that time frame now.

The probability of an Oxford vaccine by September has fallen by 30 percentage points. Oxford isn’t the only vaccine and we may be able to find clinical trial candidates in Brazil and the United States where infections continue to occur. So let’s be generous and convert this into say a 10% increase in a one month’s delay of any vaccine. The world economy is losing $375 billion a month so this means we have lost an expected $37.5 billion. That number highlights why we should be willing to pay large sums to speed vaccines and it also indicates the immense value of human challenge trials.

More than 28,000 people have already volunteered to be part of a challenge trial and if we paid a few hundred volunteers a million dollars each it would be worthwhile (and would surely increase the number of volunteers).

The main impediment to human challenge trials appears to be skittish firms rather than bureaucratic governments which is why challenge trials should test multiple vaccines under the auspices of the NIH. The NIH umbrella can protect the firms and increase the efficiency of the trials.

Addendum: China is adopting a bold approach. We used to be bold. Apathy is killing us.

My education debate with Noah Smith

Done through Bloomberg Opinion, here is one excerpt from me:

In a tier-one American research university, I envision something like 20% of the curriculum being on line. No more Monday-Wednesday-Friday 8 a.m. classes, fewer boring classes and some people will be able to graduate in three years. Professors will have more time to meet with students, and I am happy to demand more from the faculty in this regard. Virtually every class will be on tap, once cross-university registration and credit exchange is allowed.

The product will be much better, more convenient, and face-to-face meet-ups will be more alive than ever, at least once Covid-19 recedes.

Noah of course has plenty to say too, here is the full discussion.

Why don’t NYPD police officers wear more masks?

While police officers may forgo mask-wearing for any number of reasons, from peer pressure within ranks that are loath to change to a desire to more easily communicate, the images have fueled a perception of the police as arrogant and dismissive of protesters’ health — perhaps even at the peril of their own.

And while several officers have conspicuously knelt down with or hugged people at rallies, the widespread failure to use masks is creating a more standoffish look, one that protesters say suggests that the police operate above the rules — one of the very beliefs motivating the nationwide movement.

“If you’re out here to protect the public, it starts with you,” said Chaka McKell, 46, a carpenter from Bedford-Stuyvesant who attended a protest in Downtown Brooklyn on Monday. “The head sets the example for the tail.”

The official New York Police Department policy is that officers should wear masks when interacting with the public. But in a statement on Wednesday, the department dismissed the criticism about the lack of masks as petty.

“Perhaps it was the heat,” Sgt. Jessica McRorie of the department’s press office said in a statement. “Perhaps it was the 15 hour tours, wearing bullet resistant vests in the sun. Perhaps it was the helmets. With everything New York City has been through in the past two weeks and everything we are working toward together, we can put our energy to a better use.”

“In a nutshell,” as they say, and here is the full NYT piece.  This short vignette reflects two basic truths: first, there is a tendency to see oneself above at least some of the laws, and to follow defined procedures only selectively.  Second, given the resources and constraints put on the table, such attitudes should not be entirely surprising.

Rewatching *Serpico*

When I was 12 it was one of my favorite books (by Peter Maas), and shortly thereafter I saw and liked the movie as well.  On this viewing I was struck by the excellent understanding of the culture of corruption, the notion that the mayor is beholden to the police who can threaten to shirk, the performance of Al Pacino, and the wonderful scenes of early 1970s New York City (yes that is Soho you are seeing).

The last quarter of the film should have been shortened.  And for all of its attempts to be a politically correct film, the degree of casual racism and sexism still is astonishing to the modern eye, specifically how either black criminals or attractive women are shown on screen.

Nonetheless recommended, and in particular as historical backdrop for understanding 2020.  Here is a John Arnold thread on the primary of culture in police departments.  And here is the police response to the recent protests.

Here is the Wikipedia page of the actual Frank Serpico, still speaking out against police abuses at age 84.

Underpoliced and Overprisoned, revisited

I’ve been writing for years that the United States is underpoliced and overprisoned. Time for a review:

NYTimes: “The United States today is the only country I know of that spends more on prisons than police,” said Lawrence W. Sherman, an American criminologist on the faculties of the University of Maryland and Cambridge University in Britain. “In England and Wales, the spending on police is twice as high as on corrections. In Australia it’s more than three times higher. In Japan it’s seven times higher. Only in the United States is it lower, and only in our recent history.”

…Dr. Ludwig and Philip J. Cook, a Duke University economist, calculate that nationwide, money diverted from prison to policing would buy at least four times as much reduction in crime. They suggest shrinking the prison population by a quarter and using the savings to hire another 100,000 police officers.

Here’s a graph from Daniel Bier on the ratio of police to prison spending comparing the United States to Europe. The US spends relatively less on police and more on prisons than any European country.

And here’s a graph from President Obama’s CEA report on incarceration and the criminal justice system. The graph shows that the United States employs many more prison guards per-capita than does the rest of the world. Given our prison population that isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that on a per-capita basis we employ 35% fewer police than the world average. That’s crazy.

polce v prison

Our focus on prisons over police may be crazy but it is consistent with what I called Gary Becker’s Greatest Mistake, the idea that an optimal punishment system combines a low probability of being punished with a harsh punishment if caught. That theory runs counter to what I have called the good parenting theory of punishment in which optimal punishments are quick, clear, and consistent and because of that, need not be harsh.

Increasing the number of police on the street, for example, would increase capture rates and deter crime and by doing so it would also reduce the prison population. Indeed, in a survey of crime and policing that Jon Klick and I wrote in 2010 we found that a cost-benefit analysis would justify doubling the number of police on the street. We based our calculation not only on our own research from Washington DC but also on the research of many other economists which together provide a remarkably consistent estimate that a 10% increase in policing would reduce crime by 3 to 5%. Using our estimates, as well as those of some more recent papers, the Council of Economic Advisers also estimates big benefits (somewhat larger than ours) from an increase in policing. Moreover, what the CEA makes clear is that a dollar spent on policing is more effective at reducing crime than a dollar spent on imprisoning.

Can we increase the number of police? Not today but in recent years large majorities of blacks, hispanics and whites have said that they support hiring more police. It is true that blacks are more skeptical than whites of police and have every reason to be. Some of the communities most in need of more police are also communities with some of the worst policing problems. Better policing and more policing, however, complement one another. Demilitarize the police, end the war drugs, regulate people less, restrain police unions and eliminate qualified immunity so that police brutality can be punished and the bad apples removed and the demand for police will soar.

As we reform and unbundle policing let us remember that lower crime has been one of the greatest benefits to African American men over the past 30 years.

…the most disadvantaged people have gained the most from the reduction in violent crime.

Though homicide is not a common cause of death for most of the United States population, for African-American men between the ages of 15 and 34 it is the leading cause, which means that any change in the homicide rate has a disproportionate impact on them. The sociologist Michael Friedson and I calculated what the life expectancy would be today for blacks and whites had the homicide rate never shifted from its level in 1991. We found that the national decline in the homicide rate since then has increased the life expectancy of black men by roughly nine months.

…The everyday lived experience of urban poverty has also been transformed. Analyzing rates of violent victimization over time, I found that the poorest Americans today are victimized at about the same rate as the richest Americans were at the start of the 1990s. That means that a poor, unemployed city resident walking the streets of an average city today has about the same chance of being robbed, beaten up, stabbed or shot as a well-off urbanite in 1993. Living in poverty used to mean living with the constant threat of violence. In most of the country, that is no longer true.

More police on the street is one cause, among many, of lower crime. Chicago just had a horrendous day with 18 innocent people murdered in mostly random drive-by shootings, in part because the police were occupied with protests and riots. As we reform, unbundle, and reimagine, let’s be careful not to reverse nearly thirty years of falling crime which has produced a tremendous increase in the standard of living of the poorest Americans.

We need better policing so that we can all be comfortable with more policing.

Keller Scholl and Robin Hanson on automation

25 simple job features explain over half the variance in which jobs are how automated.

The strongest job automation predictor is: Pace Determined By Speed Of Equipment.

Which job features predict job automation how did not change from 1999 to 2019.

Jobs that get more automated do not on average change in pay or employment.

Labor markets change more often due to changes in demand, relative to supply.

That is all from their newly published paper on the topic.

What I’ve been reading

1. Alex Wiltshire and John Short, Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation.  Thrilling photos, I suspect the text is very good too but I don’t need to read it to recommend this one.

2. Jonathan Bate, Radical Wordsworth: the poet who changed the world.  A magisterial biography by Bates, who has been working on this one for many years.  The best Wordsworth (ah, but you must be selective!) is at the very heights of poetry, and Bate exhibits a great sympathy for his subject.  if you wish to understand how the still semi-pastoral England of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution transformed into…something else, Wordsworth is a key figure.

3. Maria Pia Paganelli, The Routledge Guidebook to Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  It goes through WoN book by book, this is the best reading guide to Smith that I know of.

4. Daniel Todman, Britain’s War 1942-1947.  An excellent book, one of the best of the year, full of politics and economics too.  You might think you have read enough very good WWII books, but in fact there is always another one you should pick up.  Right now this is it.

5. Carl Jung, UFOs: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.  A short book of high variance, occasionally fascinating, half of the time interesting, often incoherent.  The most interesting parts are the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” discussions, basically suggesting that decentralized mechanisms do not give people a sufficient sense of “wholeness.”  He is trying to find a classical liberal answer to the fascist temptation, and worried that perhaps he cannot do it.

I have only skimmed Bruce A. Kimball and Daniel R. Coquilette, The Intellectual Sword: Harvard Law School, The Second Century, but it appears to be an impressive achievement at 858 pp.

Should departments own and control journals?

There is some discussion on Twitter of this matter, and overall I say yes, I would like to see more of this at the margin.  In economics, the two best-known department-owned journals are the Journal of Political Economy (Chicago) and Quarterly Journal of Economics (Harvard).  They also have longstanding histories of being “a bit different,” the JPE having had a Chicago school orientation, and the QJE publishing lots of Harvard grad students and graduates, and being more willing to accept papers with “behavioral” results, and perhaps with more speculative empirics as well.  In both cases, I should add those different orientations are much diminished compared to say the 1990s, the JPE in particular these days not seeming especially “Chicago school” to me, and I wonder if a Chicago school still exists amongst younger economists.

I am very glad we have had these two journals standing out as different in orientation, and I strongly believe that has encouraged innovation, even if (and in fact because) the AER would not have accepted all of those papers.  A lot of “shaky” behavioral results, for instance, have in fact turned out to be quite relevant or at the very least interesting and worthy of further investigation.

One risk is that the different general interest journals become too much alike, too subject to the same pressures, and too homogenized.  And the actual “monopoly” danger, to the extent there is one, is that the American Economic Association controls too many top journals.

To be clear, I don’t see anything sinister afoot with all the AEA journals, but here is a simple way to express my worry.  If I had to, standing on one foot, recite all of the names of those journals and their missions or areas, I don’t think I could do it without multiple mistakes.  (And frankly not so many people in the entire world devote so much attention to following published economic articles as I do, noting that Larry Katz may be #1.)  Somehow the identities are too blurred together, and I wish someone else were running one or two of them.

I am hardly “anti-big business,” but I view commercial publishers as the worst alternative for journal ownership and control.  In addition to all of the usual complaints, I think the commercial publishers often (not always) care less about the quality of the editor, as the emphasis is on how well the sales force can market the journal to libraries.

So unless you want the AEA to run everything, and I certainly do not, that is going to mean more department-owned journals.  I am impressed by those departments that have the money and the commitment to see these journals through — it is not easy.

As of late, there has been a squabble on Twitter about removing one particular journal editor for his injudicious tweets on recent public events (I don’t wish to link to this and add fuel to the fire).  Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about this particular editorship, but I will say this: Twitter is not the right forum for such a debate.  I am very pro-Twitter, as I have written numerous times in the past, but it does have some of the biases of virality, including peer pressure, and it is not always good for reproducing context or considering objections and revisions to viewpoints.  Instead, start by writing out your opinion, and considering objections, in a long, judicious, thoughtful piece.  Spend at least a few days on the piece, have three of your more critical friends “referee” it in advance of on line publication, and let it be debated for weeks.  Is “too much trouble” really a good reason not to do that?  If you think that who controls the rigorous refereeing process at a top journal is so important, the method for making judgments here is no less important.  “The refereed journals aren’t good, fair, and rigorous enough for me, so we need to slug it out and rush to judgment on…Twitter” just doesn’t make any sense.  We can do better.

Addendum: Paul Novosad has some useful suggestions for encouraging decentralization.

Wednesday assorted links

Colin Camerer: Economist in the Wild

The latest video in the MRU series, Economists in the Wild, features the excellent Colin Camerer talking about his research comparing what people say they will do with what they actually do and then asking whether you can use brain imaging to better predict what people will actually do. Very cool.

Each of these videos also includes a teacher’s resource, a set of questions that teachers can assign to students.

A new study of face masks

We use the synthetic control method to analyze the effect of face masks on the spread of Covid-19 in Germany. Our identification approach exploits regional variation in the point in time when face masks became compulsory. Depending on the region we analyse, we find that face masks reduced the cumulative number of registered Covid-19 cases between 2.3% and 13% over a period of 10 days after they became compulsory. Assessing the credibility of the various estimates, we conclude that face masks reduce the daily growth rate of reported infections by around 40%.

That is from a new paper by Timo Mitze, Reinhold Kosfeld, Johannes Rode, and Klaus Wälde.