Category: Current Affairs

The moral horror of America’s prisons

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the final bit but not the main argument:

So what then to do? The first and most important step is for Americans to realize they have been creating and sanctioning a moral horror, and to treat it as a major political issue. Step No. 2 is to modify the career incentives for prosecutors to seek out ever tougher sentences. Step No. 3 is to experiment with more electronic monitoring of criminals, and to see if that can limit the number of people behind bars. Step No. 4 is to frame prison reform in more straightforward economic terms. It is not only about guaranteeing rights on paper. It’s also about designing the economic incentives for prisons to create secure and orderly environments. That has hardly been the focus of current systems. Finally — and this idea is broader in scope — the decriminalization of additional offenses should also be considered.

I realize these are complex issues, and potential remedies require far more consideration than I can give them here. But if you think America’s current penal system is the very best we can do, that is about the most pessimistic verdict on this country I have ever heard. Has anyone ever suggested that the American prison system is the world’s best? The can-do attitude is one of my favorite features of American life. We just need to apply it a little more broadly.

Can I simply say “I am right”?

52 things learned by Kent Hendricks

Here are a few:

Contrary to the beliefs of roughly 33% of Americans, Kansas is not the flattest state. In fact, it’s the 9th flattest state, and it’s one of only two Great Plains states to make the top ten (the other is North Dakota). The flattest state is actually Florida, the second flattest state is Illinois, and the least flattest is West Virginia. (Disruptive Geo)

…The average high school GPA of a representative sample of 700 millionaires in the United States is 2.9. (Eric Barker, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong)

…Dinosaurs roamed the earth for a long time. Tyrannosaurus Rex is closer in time to humans than to Stegosaurus. (Peter Brannen, The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions)

…Pepperoni pizza is subject to more government regulation than plain cheese pizza. That’s because cheese pizzas are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, while pepperoni pizzas—which have meat—are regulated by the Department of Agriculture. (Baruch Fischhoff and John Kadvany, Risk: A Very Short Introduction)

Here is the full list, interesting throughout.

At what ages do children stop believing in Santa Claus?

Research in the Journal of Cognition and Development in 2011 shows that 83% of 5-year-olds think that Santa Claus is real, the study’s lead author, Jacqueline Woolley, wrote in The Conversation last year.

“We have found in more recent studies that that number of 85% sounds about right,” said Thalia Goldstein, assistant professor of applied developmental psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

“Children’s belief in Santa starts when they’re between 3 and 4 years old. It’s very strong when they’re between about 4 and 8,” she said. “Then, at 8 years old is when we start to see the drop-off in belief, when children start to understand the reality of Santa Claus.”

What about across the pond?  They seem to be asleep over there:

Of 161 parents in the United Kingdom, 92.5% thought Father Christmas was real for their children up to the age of 8, according to a research paper presented at the annual meeting of the European Early Childhood Education Research Association in Finland in 1999.

And here is a study vulnerable to the replication crisis:

The interviews revealed that 39.2% of the children believed that the man they visited was the same Santa who came down their chimneys…1.3% had a somewhat “adult belief,” Goldstein said, in which they said that the man was not Santa and did not live at the North Pole but could communicate with the real Santa.

That is a CNN article from last year.  Why is the word “marginal” declining in popularity?  How many seven year olds know what “marginal” means?  How many know not to believe everything the President says?  How many understand hedging?

The New Cold War heats up, and it’s not mainly about the tariffs

The new American law, enacted on Wednesday and called the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, says the secretary of state, who is now Mike Pompeo, must within 90 days give Congress a report that lays out the level of access to Tibetan areas that Chinese officials grant Americans.

The secretary is then supposed to determine which Chinese officials are responsible for placing limits on foreigners traveling to Tibet and bar them from getting visas to the United States or revoke any active visas they have. The secretary must make this assessment annually for five years.

The goal of the law is to force Chinese officials to relent on the limits they impose on travel to Tibetan areas.

Here is more from Edward Wong at the NYT.  It is unlikely that this is a good idea.

A revisionist view on women and Boko Harum

The respect that Aisha and Zara [who belonged to Boko Harum] commanded contrasts with the situation of most women in northern Nigeria. The region is one of the nation’s poorest. In Borno state, according to the United Nations Population Fund, nearly sixty per cent of girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen are married, and many have begun bearing children. Wives typically require permission from their husbands to leave the house, and they have little say in family decisions or public life. “People often don’t realize how much choice Boko Haram gave women,” Fatima Akilu, a psychologist who runs the Neem Foundation—which operated a deradicalization program for female former captives of Boko Haram—told me. The wives of commanders, and also women who joined the group voluntarily, were extended greater freedoms than are typical for women in the region. “We usually dismiss Boko Haram as anti-women and anti-girls, but they knew that a powerful recruitment strategy was to tell women that, ‘If you join our group, you can have whatever role you want,’ ” she said. “ ‘Even if you want to be a combatant, we will train you to be a combatant.’ ”

That is by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani in The New Yorker, and there is much more at the link.  I have no opinion on those claims, but I pass them along in the interests of providing an alternative perspective.

The Top Ten Marginal Revolution Posts of 2018

As measured by page views the most popular MR post this year was my post on how there is one law for the police and another for the rest of us, Get Out of Jail Free Cards.

Second was Tyler Cowen’s 12 Rules for Life. Number seven on Tyler’s list, “Learn how to learn from those who offend you,” caught my eye today but there’s much wisdom throughout.

The third most popular post was by neither Tyler, myself, nor a guest blogger but rather by a MR commentator, One smart guy’s frank take on working in some of the major tech companies.

One of my favorite posts was fourth, Lessons from “The Profit”. The new season of The Profit has started and continues to be of interest. All IO economists should watch.

Number five was another one of my favorites Why Sexism and Racism Never Diminish–Even When Everyone Becomes Less Sexist and Racist.

Tyler’s excellent analysis of the North Korean deal shows why he is an important thinker in foreign policy, able to see beyond the headlines, The North Korean summit and deal.

A second MR commentator had another top post, Will truckers be automated? (from the comments).

Tyler doesn’t like to write the kind of post that came in at number 8 but these posts are always popular which is one reason Tyler doesn’t like to write them. The five most influential public intellectuals?

Number 9 was a useful post, Why are antiques now so cheap?

Coming in at number 10 was my video and Tyler’s post on Paul Romer’s Nobel Prize, Why Paul Romer Won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Other notable posts from Tyler included:

Other notable posts from me included:

Overall, I’d say it was a notable year for MR commentators! Congratulations! What were your favorite, or least favorite, MR posts of 2018?

Trends and major issues to watch for in 2019

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the fourth of the four major issues I list:

How will India’s intellectual space evolve?

Many Western outsiders used to root for a particular Indian brand of Anglo liberalism to assume increasing importance in the political and intellectual life of India. While this has always been a minority viewpoint, it has had prominent representatives, including Ramachandra Guha, who just published a major biography of Gandhi. But these days, this perspective is dwindling in influence, as is old-style Bengali Marxism and other ideas from the left. It’s not just Hindu nationalism on the rise, rather India seems to be evolving intellectually in a multiplicityof directions, few of them familiar to most Americans. In India, history ain’t over, and further ideological fragmentation seems to be the safest prediction. Note that ideas are very often a leading indicator for where a nation ends up.

Since India may become the world’s most populous country and biggest economy by mid-century, this one is a dark horse candidate for the most important issue of the year.

I also consider China, Ethiopia, Trump, Brexit, and the NBA title.

Police in Philadelphia Stealing Houses

The Supreme Court is considering whether the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states as well as to the federal government. If the SC needs more motivation to curb the abusive process of civil asset forfeiture they need look no further than Philadelphia. In a field filled with outrageous stories of injustice, the situation in Philadelphia where houses have been forfeit stands out.

A forfeiture petition for one property lists one gram of marijuana, a half gram of cocaine and some over-the-counter pills as justification for taking. In one case recently settled in a $3 million class-action lawsuit, Norys Hernandez nearly lost the rowhouse she and her sister owned after police arrested her nephew on drug dealing charges and seized the house. Another family named in the suit fought to save their house from the grip of law enforcement after their son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside of it. Of the lawsuit’s four named plaintiffs, three had their houses targeted for seizure after police accused relatives dealing drugs on the property. None of the homeowners were themselves accused of committing a crime.

As families fought to keep homes targeted by the DA, the revenues from the forfeiture sales became a big moneymaker for local law enforcement – netting some $6 million annually in the best years. The proceeds turned into an unregulated budget split between the police and DA. The money made off of the seized homes went to buy wish list items ranging from new submachine guns to custom uniform embroidery.

As if that weren’t enough, sometimes police officers were the buyers of the foreclosed properties! How’s that for demand creates its own supply?

“I am genuinely distressed to learn that the DA’s office permitted police officers to acquire forfeited homes of Philadelphians at public auction,” said University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Lou Rulli. “This disturbing revelation underscores one of many serious flaws in civil forfeiture — law enforcement is able to directly benefit from the actions they take to seize private property, often from lawful homeowners who have done no wrong.”

This story takes the cake:

Biddle recalled an instance, in 2007, when he purchased a property on the 5700 block of Chester Avenue for $21,000. To his surprise, he found a buyer just a few days later who was willing to pay nearly double that amount. He inked the sale.

At the next forfeiture open house, an incensed DA staffer, who by now knew Biddle on sight from his repeat visits to forfeiture auctions, approached him.

“They said, ‘That guy we took the house from? You just sold that to the guy’s mom,’” Biddle recalled. “They were pissed, but they knew I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Records show that it took the District Attorney’s Office three years to seize the property back, through a second forfeiture action filed against the pair.

This is from an excellent investigative report by Ryan Briggs.

Addendum: See also my piece with Makowsky and Stratmann forthcoming in the JLS, To Serve and Collect: The Fiscal and Racial Determinants of Law Enforcement.

Mid-level urban average is over?

Forty years ago, Nashville and Birmingham, Ala., were peers. Two hundred miles apart, the cities anchored metropolitan areas of just under one million people each and had a similar number of jobs paying similar wages.

Not anymore. The population of the Nashville area has roughly doubled, and young people have flocked there, drawn by high-paying jobs as much as its hip “Music City” reputation. Last month, the city won an important consolation prize in the competition for Amazon’s second headquarters: an operations center that will eventually employ 5,000 people at salaries averaging $150,000 a year.

Birmingham, by comparison, has steadily lost population, and while its suburbs have expanded, their growth has lagged the Nashville area’s. Once-narrow gaps in education and income have widened, and important employers like SouthTrust and Saks have moved their headquarters. Birmingham tried to lure Amazon, too, but all it is getting from the online retail giant is a warehouse and a distribution center where many jobs will pay about $15 an hour.

That is from Ben Casselman (NYT), interesting throughout.  Ben is yet another example of just how good the Times is at talent selection…

A social credit system for scientists?

Researchers in China who commit scientific misconduct could soon be prevented from getting a bank loan, running a company or applying for a public-service job. The government has announced an extensive punishment system that could have significant consequences for offenders — far beyond their academic careers.

Under the new policy, dozens of government agencies will have the power to hand out penalties to those caught committing major scientific misconduct, a role previously performed by the science ministry or universities. Errant researchers could also face punishments that have nothing to do with research, such as restrictions on jobs outside academia, as well as existing misconduct penalties, such as losing grants and awards.

“Almost all aspects of daily life for the guilty scientists could be affected,” says Chen Bikun, who studies scientific evaluation systems at Nanjing University of Science and Technology.

The policy, announced last month, is an extension of the country’s controversial ‘social credit system’, where failure to comply with the rules of one government agency can mean facing restrictions or penalties from other agencies.

The punishment overhaul is the government’s latest measure to crack down on misconduct. But the nature and extent of the policy has surprised many researchers. “I have never seen such a comprehensive list of penalties for research misconduct elsewhere in the world,” says Chien Chou, a scientific integrity education researcher at Chiao Tung University in Taiwan.

By David Cyranoski in Nature, via Michelle Dawson.

The second cohort of Emergent Ventures winners

Here is the list of the second set of winners, in the order the grants were made, noting that the descriptions are mine not theirs:

Kelly Smith has a for-profit project to further extend a parent-run charter school system in Arizona, using Uber-like coordinating apps and “minimalist” OER methods.

Andrew L. Roberts, Northwestern University, a small grant to further his work on how sports relates to politics.

Stefan de Villiers, high school student, to create podcasts on the decisions of other high school students and how/why they become successful.

Brian Burns is working (with Samo Burja) on the history of mathematics and career networks, with special attention to the blossoming of innovation in 18th century Göttingen: “The secret to producing flourishing mathematical and scientific traditions may lie in a careful study of institutions. I will undertake this investigation and in the process uncover lost mathematical knowledge.”  Gauss, Riemann, and Hilbert!

Can Olcer is one of the two entrepreneurs behind Kosmos School, a K-12 school that exists only in virtual reality, a for-profit enterprise with an emphasis on science education.

Anonymous, working on a board game for ten years, aimed at teaching basic economics, including supply and demand and the core ideas of Ronald Coase.  The grant is for marketing the game.

Sophie Sandor is a 23-year-old Scottish film-maker making films with “noticeable themes [of] rational optimism, ambition and a rejection of the victimhood notion that millennials are prone to.”  She is also interested in making documentaries in the education space.

Nicholas Dunk has a for-profit to bring voice recognition/machine transcription to the daily tasks of doctors.  The goal is to solve paperwork problems, free up doctor time, encourage better record-keeping, and improve accuracy, all toward the end of higher quality and less expensive health care.

Lama Al Rajih, a young Saudi CS student, building Therma, among other projects, she received a travel grant to visit potential mentors.

I am very excited by this new cohort.  Here is a list of the first round of winners, and here is the underlying rationale for Emergent Ventures.  You can apply here.

The Brexit equilibrium

Theresa May has survived, but enough Tories have credibly indicated they won’t support her Brexit plan at least not yet.  She doesn’t want Hard Brexit and doesn’t hate Remain, if the latter can be done sustainably.  She could threaten those Tories with a new election or with a second referendum.  If I were her, I would prefer the latter, as who would want to bring Jeremy Corbyn into the picture?  Nonetheless I don’t think she favors a second referendum per se (too hard to control and manage, no matter what the result).  The threat of a second referendum will be brought to the table, and that means some chance it will happen.  Right now the second referendum contract is selling at 36 cents on the dollar.  That seems correctly priced to me, with the more likely outcome being that enough Conservative MPs fall into line and Theresa May gets her way, more or less.