Category: Law

SCOTUS, houses of worship, and the pandemic

The Supreme Court has sided with religious institutions (NYT) against some of the pandemic restrictions of state and local governments:

The opinion said the state had treated secular businesses more favorably than houses of worship.

“The list of ‘essential’ businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities,” the opinion said.

Here is also WaPo coverage.  And:

“We may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. “Things never go well when we do.”

While I am not myself religious, I regard religious services as essential parts of our society and also in the longer run for our economy (birth rates, if nothing else).  More generally, I am struck by how many intelligent people no longer seem to attach much weight to religious liberty, by no means starting with the various anti-Church moves during the Obama administration, but certainly emphasized there.  (Even centrist Democrats are often clueless about the traumatic effects here, one of the biggest gaps in their understanding of American politics.)  So I am happy to see push back in the opposite direction, siding with the rights of religious institutions.  On top of all other considerations, those institutions are also (usually) bastions of non-Woke sentiments, which makes protecting them all the more important.

You will note that the decision does not strike down all restrictions on church services, but rather rejects a particular set of restrictions, leaving many broader issues open (to varying degrees for the different justices, if I understand correctly).

You might think “this decision is killing people,” but I wonder if that is true on net.  If you do believe various pandemic restrictions are the way forward at this point (only modestly in my view), you will want to restrict more than just churches.  If religious people see that the rights of churches will be protected to some reasonable degree, they might be more willing to support other restrictions.  So even if you are very pro-restriction, I hardly view this decision as an obvious consequentialist disaster.  We are not banning Thanksgiving travel either, right?

And if we do not turn government and also federal funds and tax exemptions into a battering ram against religious autonomy, we will reap a lot of other practical, life and death benefits from that decision over time, including a healthier American discourse.

That all said, if I were running a church likely I would cancel all in-person services beyond very limited numbers.

Addendum: If in 2016 you vowed to “respect Trump voters,” supporting this decision would be one good place to start.  It might do a good deal to limit polarization and improve the other decisions we make.

This was a thing, yes it was, that was then, this is now

Initially founded in 1962, the Anti-Digit Dialing League quickly became the premiere sensible dialing association organization in the United States of America. Nearly 60 years later, the problems this country’s phone network faces are direr than ever. While we continue to espouse the use of 2L+5N dialing over all-number calling whenever possible, our primary aim today is to publicly oppose the proliferation of 10-digit dialing, which is fast becoming a public nuisance and dialing nightmare for ordinary people everywhere in this country.

Circa 1962-64 (those were the days), here is the web site.  Web site?  Wait, it still is a thing!:

Although 771 is scheduled to be overlaid on D.C.’s 202 area code in 2021, forcing residents of our nation’s capitol to dial 10 digits forevermore, the A.D.D.L. objected to the use of an overlay as a matter of principle. According to NANPA, splits are unlawful when the majority of the area code is in the same rate center (as is D.C.) (see pg. 12 of Sept. 1 Community Hearing Transcript). That doesn’t mean overlays are inevitable in other areas, though. Overlays continue to remain a public nuisance, and although splits have not been commonplace since 2006, we will continue to urge the use of splits over overlays whenever possible, because splits better serve the public interest, a finding which is well supported by empirical data.

Don’t let them tell you money illusion is not a problem.  Via Anecdotal.

Rapid Antigen Tests in Europe

Image‘If rapid antigen tests are so good how come other countries aren’t using them’? is a question I get asked a lot. In fact, India authorized these tests months ago. Slovakia tested most of their population using antigen tests. Germany is using them to protect nursing home residents. Lufthansa is trialing rapid antigen tests on special flights. Rapid antigen tests are now beginning to be available more widely in Europe. Here from a twitter thread is a picture of what they look like, it’s just a paper strip inside. You swab your nose (no need for deep cleaning), swirl the swab in a tube with some liquid and then squeeze a few drops of the liquid onto the end of the tester. Results in 15 minutes. They cost about $8 a test.

Why are these tests important? The CDC now says that asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people account for a majority of infections. Do you get it? How many people without symptoms will get a COVID PCR test, which can be time consuming and expensive? (And how many PCR tests can we run in a timely fashion if people without symptoms get many more tests?) Not that many. But many people without symptoms would get a $8 or less, at-home, 15 minute test. And if some of those people discover that they are infectious and self-isolate for a few days we can drive infection rates down.

We should have had an Operation Warp Speed for tests. We still need funding for a mass rollout and, of course, the FDA needs to approve these tests! (Here is Michael Mina in Time fulminating at the FDA holdup.)

By the way, more than 2800 Americans have died of COVID since Pfizer requested an Emergency Use Authorization for their vaccine. The FDA meets Dec. 10.

Addendum: Here’s me explaining why Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive and the difference between infected and infectious.

The Chilean pension system is in crisis

Chile’s celebrated $200bn private pensions system has served as a model for dozens of emerging markets since it was introduced in the 1980s. Now, it faces an existential crisis as public support for the model fades and populist politicians allow savers to withdraw funds during the coronavirus crisis.

The lower house of congress voted to allow Chileans to withdraw another 10 per cent of their pension funds last week, following a similar measure in July that saw withdrawals of some $17bn.

Congress could yet approve a third withdrawal next year, putting at risk a pool of savings that has driven the growth of Chile’s capital markets and jeopardising future returns.

That is from Benedict Mander and Michael Stott at the FT.  Of course you can say “Ah, they shouldn’t do that!”  And they should not.  Still, at the end of the day if you leave surpluses sitting around to be grabbed or handed out, don’t be surprised if they are grabbed or handed out.  Arguably the famed Chilean scheme has been shown to be time-inconsistent.  It was, however, nice while it lasted.

More immigrant founders and co-founders, in this case Moderna

Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman of Moderna, is a two-time immigrant. He was born to Armenian parents in Lebanon and immigrated with his family in his early teens to Canada. After attending college, Afeyan came to the United States and earned a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He started his first company at age 24 and ran it for 10 years, during which time he founded or co-founded five additional companies.

…Moderna’s CEO is Stéphane Bancel, who immigrated to America from France. He earned a master of engineering degree from École Centrale Paris (ECP), and came to the United States as an international student, receiving a master of science in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

Here is the story, there will be more like it…

Judge Richard Neely, RIP

Judge Richard Neely, former head of the WV Supreme Court, held a special place in my heart. I never met the man but early on in my career, Eric Helland and I wrote a paper on elected judges and tort awards (PDF):

We argue that partisan elected judges have an incentive to redistribute wealth from out‐of‐state defendants (nonvoters) to in‐state plaintiffs (voters). We first test the hypothesis by using cross‐state data. We find a significant partisan effect after controlling for differences in injuries, state incomes, poverty levels, selection effects, and other factors. One difference that appears difficult to control for is that each state has its own tort law. In cases involving citizens of different states, federal judges decide disputes by using state law. Using these diversity‐of‐citizenship cases, we conclude that differences in awards are caused by differences in electoral systems, not by differences in state law.

While researching the paper I found this quote from Neely and when I read it I knew we were going to be published in a good journal:

As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to injured in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone’s else money away, but so is my job security, because the in-state plaintiffs, their families, and their friends will reelect me. (Neely 1988, p. 4).

That is what you call anecdotal gold.

To be clear, when Neely was looking for a law clerk he advertised:

“America’s laziest and dumbest judge” seeks “a bright person to keep (the judge) from looking stupid,” and gave preference to University of Virginia law students “who studied interesting but useless subjects at snobby schools.”

Neely spoke brutally honestly to break conventions and reveal underlying truths. Thank you Judge Neely for your candor as it surely helped me in my career.

Free Britney Spears

Jamie Spears was authorized by the California Superior Court to control his daughter’s finances, health care, and aspects of her daily routine. The conservatorship was initially temporary. Twelve years later, it’s still in place. The court documents and hearings—there have been many over the years—have been mostly sealed to the public, so little is known about the actual nature and conditions of the agreement.

Britney’s father can control virtually all of the terms of her life, and Britney is vociferously opposed to having him as her “conservator.”  I know very little about the mental condition of Britney Spears, but I would think the case for enslaving her — as we have done — should face a very high bar indeed.  She hardly seems totally unable to function:

She released four albums, went on as many world tours and, for her successful Piece of Me residency in Las Vegas, played 248 shows in the span of four years, grossing $500,000 per show.

Guess who controls the money and the terms of employment?  The Straussian element shows up on Instagram:

What appears to the uninitiated as a random assortment of selfies, inspirational quotes, and dance videos is, according to supporters of the so-called #FreeBritney movement, a desperate plea for help. First, there was the color of her shirt, which appeared to match commenters’ calls for her to wear yellow (or red, or blue, or white, or anything) if she were in trouble. Then there were the roses, “a symbol of secrecy and silence,” as one user pointed out. In one video, Spears walks back and forth nine times, obviously Morse code for SOS. And then of course there were her eyelashes.

Here is the full article from Vanity Fair. Don’t forget this:

“Conservatorships are very hard to get out of—much, much harder to get out of than to get into, and that’s something many people don’t realize, even people who are seeking conservatorships,” said Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project.

Britney’s life matters, free Britney Spears.

Paige Harden on Genetic Differences and the Left

Paige Harden, the left-leaning behavioral geneticist, brings the fire in comments on an AEON article about her work:

In this article, Erik Parens urges me and other scientists working in the field of social genomics to “curb [our] optimism” regarding how genetic discoveries could be used to advance progressive and egalitarian social goals. In my view, however, it is Parens and other critics of social genomics who need to curb their optimism, in two ways.

First, Parens is overly optimistic that social science can ever hope to be successful without genetics. In reality, social scientists have failed, time and time again, to produce interventions that bring about lasting improvements in people’s lives. There are many reasons for that failure. But one reason is that many scientists continue to engage in what the sociologist Jeremy Freese has called a “tacit collusion” to avoid reckoning, in their research designs and in their causal inferences, with the fact that people are genetically different from one another.

All interventions and policies are built on a model of how the world works: “If I change x, then y will happen.” A model of the world that pretends all people are genetically the same, or that the only thing people inherit from their parents is their environment, is a wrong model of how the world works. The more often our models of the world are wrong, the more often we will continue to fail in designing interventions and policies that do what they intend to do. The goal of integrating genetics into the social sciences is not to design boutique educational interventions tailored for children’s genotypes. It is to help rescue us from our current situation, where most educational interventions tested don’t work for anyone. This track record of failure plays directly into the hands of a right-wing that touts the ineffectiveness of intervention as evidence for its false narrative of genetic determinism.

Second, Parens and other critics are overly optimistic that their strategy of disapproval, discouragement, and disavowal of genetic research will be effective in neutralizing the pernicious ideologies of the far-right. What is the evidence that this strategy actually works? Herrnstein and Murray published “The Bell Curve” when I was 12 years old; Murray published “Human Diversity” when I was 37 years old; and in all that time, the predominant response from the political left has remained pretty much exactly the same – emphasize people’s genetic sameness, question the wisdom of doing genetic research at all, urge caution. Yet, the far-right is ascendant. In my view, the left’s response to genetic science simply preaches to its own choir. Meanwhile, this strategy of minimization allows right-wing ideologues to offer to “red-pill” people with the “forbidden knowledge” of genetic results.

What the left hasn’t done (yet) is formulate a messaging strategy that (a) reconciles the existence of human genetic differences with people’s moral and political commitments to human equality, and (b) is readily comprehensible outside the confines of the ivory tower. Reminding people that genes are a source of luck in their lives has the potential to be that message. Parens characterizes me as making a “generous hearted but large leap” to expect that portraying genes as luck will change people’s minds, but economic research suggests that reminding people of the role of luck in their lives does, in fact, make them more supportive of redistribution.

Overall, this article portrays me and others working in this space as “soft-pedaling” the dangers of social genomics being appropriated by the far right. But I am fully cognizant of the dangers. Parens is the one who is soft-pedaling. He is soft-pedaling the enormous damage done to progress in psychology, sociology, and other social sciences – fields that are tasked with improving people’s lives – by their refusal to engage with genetics. And, he is soft-pedaling the danger of simply continuing the left’s decades-old, easily-“red-pilled” rhetorical strategy at a time with right-wing ideologies are on the rise globally.

Are body cameras effective for constraining police after all?

Controversial police use of force incidents have spurred protests across the nation and calls for reform. Body-worn cameras (BWCs) have received extensive attention as a potential key solution. I conduct the first nationwide study of the effects of BWCs in more than 1,000 agencies. I identify the causal effects by using idiosyncratic variation in adoption timing attributable to administrative hurdles and the lengthy process to the eventual adoption at different agencies. This empirical strategy addresses limitations of previous studies that evaluated BWCs within a single agency; in a single-agency setting, the control group officers are also indirectly affected by BWCs because they interact with the treatment group officers (spillover), and agencies that give researchers access may fundamentally differ from other agencies (site-selection bias). Overcoming these limitations, my multi-agency study finds that BWCs have led to a substantial drop in the use of force, both among whites and minorities. Nationwide, they reduce police-involved homicides by 43%. Surprisingly, I do not find evidence that BWCs are associated with de-policing. Examining social media usage data from Twitter as well as data on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, I find that after BWC adoption, public opinion toward the police improves. These findings imply that BWCs can be an important tool for improving police accountability without sacrificing policing capabilities.

That is from a new paper by Taeho Kim, on the job market from the University of Chicago, a Steve Levitt student.  The piece has a revise and resubmit from ReStat.

Our regulatory state is failing us, FAA edition

The Federal Aviation Administration has for months been weighing whether to allow the nation’s more than 500 federally subsidized airports to spend their money on screening passengers for the coronavirus, an issue teed up by a plan developed by a fairly small airport in Iowa.

Marty Lenss, director of Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, began working on the plan in the spring, when the spread of the virus and lockdown orders brought air travel to a near standstill.

Lenss worked with a local hospital to craft a plan to quickly screen travelers before they passed through security. He figured he could cover the $800,000 cost by using some of the $23 million the airport received under the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package known as the Cares Act.

The local airport commission signed off on the plan in July, agreeing to make the screening mandatory. At a public meeting shortly before the vote, Lenss predicted he would have the program up and running by September.

But months after Lenss started work, no passengers have been screened. Airport funds are tightly controlled by federal rules, so Lenss started asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in May if his plan qualified. He’s still waiting for an answer.

“We would have started the FAA conversation much earlier if we’d anticipated the time it’s been taking,” Lenss said. “At this point, I really don’t have a timeline when we might hear. We’re in limbo.”

Here is the full story, outrages throughout.

The local amenities effect of Prohibition

Comparing same-state early and late adopters of county dry laws in a difference-in-differences design, we find that early Prohibition adoption increased population and farm real estate values. Moreover, we find strong effects on farm productivity consistent with increased investment due to a land price channel. In equilibrium, the amenity change disproportionately attracted immigrants and African-Americans.

That is from a new paper by Greg Howard and Arianna Ornaghi, revise and resubmit at Journal of Economic History.  Arianna is on the job market from MIT, here is her job market paper and broader portfolio.  Here is her paper on civil service reforms for U.S. police departments.

New results on vaccine-mask interaction

However, if face mask use is reduced by 50%, a vaccine that is only 50% effective (weak vaccine) would require coverage of 55-94% to suppress the epidemic in these states [CA, NY, TX, FL]. A vaccine that is 80% effective (moderate vaccine) would only require 32-57% coverage to suppress the epidemic. In contrast, if face mask usage stops completely, a weak vaccine would not suppress the epidemic, and further major outbreaks would occur. A moderate vaccine with coverage of 48-78% or a strong vaccine (100% effective) with coverage of 33-58% would be required to suppress the epidemic.

That is from a new paper by Mingwang Shen,, via Alan Goldhammer.

As for the European lockdowns currently under way, I do not know which choices those nations should be making.  The British one, which I know the most about, seems far too strict to me. No matter what your exact point of view, surely there is something to David Conn’s comment:

Government gone from spending £500m paying people to eat out, to closing all the restaurants, in 2 months.

In any case, if those nations had continued (or in some cases initiated) widespread mask use, they would be facing much, much better trade-offs today.

Rational Criminals, Irrational Lawmakers

Columnist Phil Matier writes in the SFChroncile about rampant, brazen shoplifting in San Francisco.

After months of seeing its shelves repeatedly cleaned out by brazen shoplifters, the Walgreens at Van Ness and Eddy in San Francisco is getting ready to close.

…“All of us knew it was coming. Whenever we go in there, they always have problems with shoplifters, ” said longtime customer Sebastian Luke, who lives a block away and is a frequent customer who has been posting photos of the thefts for months. The other day, Luke photographed a man casually clearing a couple of shelves and placing the goods into a backpack.

Most of the remaining products were locked behind plastic theft guards, which have become increasingly common at drugstores in recent years.

But at Van Ness Avenue and Eddy Street, even the jugs of clothing detergent on display were looped with locked anti-theft cables.

When a clerk was asked where all the goods had gone, he said, “Go ask the people in the alleys, they have it all.”

No sooner had the clerk spoken than a man wearing a virus mask walked in, emptied two shelves of snacks into a bag, then headed back for the door. As he walked past the checkout line, a customer called out, “Sure you don’t want a drink with that?”

…Under California law, theft of less than $950 in goods is treated as a nonviolent misdemeanor. The maximum sentence for petty theft is six months in county jail. But most of the time the suspect is released with conditions attached.

Some stores have hired private security firms or off-duty police officers to deter would-be thieves. But security is expensive and can cost upward of $1,000 a day. Add in the losses from theft, and the cost of doing business can become too high for a store to stay open.

Perhaps San Francisco helps us with Tyler’s “solve for the Seattle Equilibrium” challenge.