Category: Law

My Conversation with Melissa Dell

Interesting throughout, here is the transcript and video and audio, here is part of the summary:

From the impact of the Mexican Revolution to the different development paths of northern and southern Vietnam, her work exploits what are often accidents of history — whether a Peruvian village was just inside or outside a mine’s catchment area, for example — to explain persistent differences in outcomes. Her work has earned numerous plaudits, including the John Bates Clark Medal earlier this year.

On the 100th episode of Conversations with Tyler, Melissa joined Tyler to discuss what’s behind Vietnam’s economic performance, why persistence isn’t predictive, the benefits and drawbacks of state capacity, the differing economic legacies of forced labor in Indonesia and Peru, whether people like her should still be called a Rhodes scholar, if SATs are useful, the joys of long-distance running, why higher temps are bad for economic growth, how her grandmother cultivated her curiosity, her next project looking to unlock huge historical datasets, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

DELL: Yeah, I’ve done some work looking at the persistence of economic development in Vietnam. The work I did, actually, was limited to what was South Vietnam because there’s also been huge events, obviously, that have happened in the past hundred years in North Vietnam, with a war that destroyed much of the country and was fought over an extended period of time.

But when you look, in general, at places in Vietnam that have a similar recent history, but going back in time, one of them was part of a much stronger, more centralized state. The other one was part of what is today Cambodia, a much weaker state, generally ruled by local lords instead of by a strong centralized state.

You see the towns that were part of the stronger, centralized state going back before colonialism, so several hundred years ago. More recently, they have better-functioning local governments. They’re richer. They’re better off, which shows that places that have a long history of governance seem better able to do that more recently.

So places going back a long time ago — they were part of the central state. They had to collect taxes locally to send up to the central state. They had to organize military conscripts. The central state mandated that they had certain laws.

More recently, those places also have more functional local governments and are also better off economically, whereas the places that never had that structure that comes from a state — it was, essentially, if you were living in that area, there’d be a warlord that you sent tribute to. But there was never any regular taxation, never any organized local government under a central state. Those places much more recently — when there were constitutional reforms in Vietnam that gave them a degree of self-government — they weren’t able to do that very effectively.

They weren’t able to keep the positions on their local city council filled. They weren’t able to provide, as effectively, local public goods, like education or health services. So really, having this long history of governance makes places more able to do that today. That’s relevant because there’s been a big push to have local governments provide an important role in providing public goods, et cetera.

If places don’t have a history of doing that, perhaps not surprisingly, they tend to have a much harder time. When the World Bank says, “Well, we want to give local autonomy to let local governments decide how to provide schools in the way that works best for them,” that’s going to work in places that have a long history of providing education. In places that don’t, they’re more likely to have a hard time.

COWEN: But if you select your cases on the basis of having similar histories, aren’t you selecting for persistence because the locales that have reversals of fortune — a big war in North Vietnam, Communism coming to North Vietnam — that’s a kind of mean reversion. It deliberately gives them a not-similar history. Do you then not overrate the degree of persistence in the dataset by just taking the sliver that is indeed continuous with its own history?

DELL: I think that you could imagine writing papers about different things. Our motivation was, we wanted to think about if the historical state could have a role at all. In order to do that, you don’t really want to compare South Korea to the Philippines — which is what most of the historical literature on this does — because they’re different in so many ways. We know that South Korea looks really different from the Philippines, but there’s so many ways that they can be different.

By looking within South Vietnam, we wanted to say, “Okay, these are places that had a much more recent modern history. Can their past history still matter?” But we’re not saying that that begins to explain everything. There’s other forces that happened more recently that we think are also important.

Certainly, there can be mean reversions, and the argument is not that things are always persistent. I think part of the literature is about understanding why sometimes things persist and sometimes they don’t. Certainly, more recent events can matter, and we’re not claiming that there’s an R-squared of one that a place’s history is its destiny, but that there are these forces.

Next up will be Nathan Nunn, and I asked him a series of related questions about persistence…

How to rename the Washington Redskins

McCauley first trademarked the Washington Pigskins in 2015, and while he has lost count himself, a search of the US Trademark and Patent Office website shows that he holds trademarks for names such as the Washington Monuments, Washington Redtails, Washington Veterans, Washington Red Wolves and Washington Warriors.

Somehow I don’t think it will be the Warriors, nor “the Washington Pandas” (story here).

I say “the Washington Redtails,” or my very first choice would be the Maryland Tolerations.

Unbundling disability rights

From my email:

My name is Max Grozovsky. I’m an economics student at the University of Delaware (until I finish a few more papers and can start my life) and a fan of your blog/column.

Thanks a lot for using your platform to elevate disability rights. I hope you’ll write more on the topic going forward, perhaps mentioning supported decision-making mechanisms which have been touted by the National Council on Disability as alternatives to guardianship that actually help people rather than bundle and strip their rights wholesale based on the canard that incapacity in one area implies incapacity in an unrelated one.

Also, since you (or is it someone else?) sporadically post on Islamic architecture/history, here’s my favorite nonficiton book, unsolicited.

Our regulatory state is failing us, antibodies edition

It might be the next best thing to a coronavirus vaccine.

Scientists have devised a way to use the antibody-rich blood plasma of COVID-19 survivors for an upper-arm injection that they say could inoculate people against the virus for months.

Using technology that’s been proven effective in preventing other diseases such as hepatitis A, the injections would be administered to high-risk healthcare workers, nursing home patients, or even at public drive-through sites — potentially protecting millions of lives, the doctors and other experts say.

The two scientists who spearheaded the proposal — an 83-year-old shingles researcher and his counterpart, an HIV gene therapy expert — have garnered widespread support from leading blood and immunology specialists, including those at the center of the nation’s COVID-19 plasma research.

But the idea exists only on paper. Federal officials have twice rejected requests to discuss the proposal, and pharmaceutical companies — even acknowledging the likely efficacy of the plan — have declined to design or manufacture the shots, according to a Times investigation. The lack of interest in launching development of immunity shots comes amid heightened scrutiny of the federal government’s sluggish pandemic response.

Here is more from the LA Times, substantive throughout, via Anecdotal.

Too many autistic adults are denied basic rights

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Some of the very worst treatment of the vulnerable is hardly being discussed. There is an entire category of American adults being denied almost all of their basic legal rights: to hold a job, choose a residence, determine their health care, enter into contracts and even decide what to do with their own body. These are adults under legal guardianship — a court-imposed process, in Ohio as elsewhere, “by which a person is relieved of the right to make personal life decisions and another is appointed to make those decisions on that person’s behalf.”

Among the adults who have lost such rights, or live under the fear that they will, are those with autism. It is entirely possible that they will end up in guarded and segregated communities, often against their will.

Perhaps you think many of these individuals are unable to care for themselves and therefore their full rights cannot be respected. To whatever extent that may be true, it is not a reason for trampling on human rights. And even if you believe it is, you must concede that the legal system is prone to horrible misjudgments and mistakes.

After recent revelations about institutional racism, it is hard to believe that prejudices do not affect decisions about guardianship. The justice system is already heavily biased in favor of plea bargains, in effect favoring efficiency over constitutional rights. And even when there is no bias, there is the reality of simple error — which are common enough in hospitals, where the stakes are much higher.

Definitely recommended, do read the whole thing.  And don’t forget this:

When it comes to guardianship, is there any reason to be so sure that liberty-protecting institutions are in place? Especially since basic information is so hard to come by? As both a people and a polity, Americans do not always behave best “when no one is watching.”

Overall it is remarkable to me how little good information, or for that matter argumentation, is available on this topic.

The polity that is Oklahoma

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that nearly half of Oklahoma falls within an Indian reservation, a decision that could reshape the criminal-justice system by preventing state authorities from prosecuting offenses there that involve Native Americans.

The 5-to-4 decision, potentially one of the most consequential legal victories for Native Americans in decades, could have far-reaching implications for the 1.8 million people who live across what is now deemed “Indian Country” by the high court. The lands include much of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second-biggest city.

The case was steeped in the United States government’s long history of brutal removals and broken treaties with Indigenous tribes, and grappled with whether lands of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation had remained a reservation after Oklahoma became a state.

Here is the full NYT article.  Do those people now live under some kind of joint sovereignty?

Tales from Trinidad barter markets in everything

One of my favorite countries, this is from the newspaper:

DESPERATE to get his taxi badge, a man bought a $500 used typewriter and donated it to the Licensing Office…

The seller, who asked not to be named, wrote: “So funny story. I had a typewriter for sale on Facebook marketplace for some time. I get this call from a young man. We chat for a bit. He says he’s down at licensing office. He’s coming right now.

“When he arrives he gives me the story. Since December he’s been trying to get his taxi badge. He bought a maxi taxi and can’t use it because he’s waiting for his badge. Then when he passed pandemic lockdown happened. Three months later, Licensing Office opens with an appointment system, appointment to pay, then appointment to collect. The day arrives to collect. He’s told typewriter is not working over a week.”

The post goes on to say that officials at Licensing agreed that if they got a typewriter they would be able to provide the taxi badge.

The seller continues: “He finds me on Facebook marketplace. When he arrives he says ‘You ever heard of a private person buying a typewriter for the State?’ Money paid. He calls later to say everyone is getting their license today. He actually called twice while at licensing office to get further instruction on operating the typewriter. Well done, young man. Well done!”

Via K.

Do walls work?

To be clear, I do not favor building the Trump Wall (at all), still I am willing to present relevant evidence when it appears. Here is the abstract of a new paper by Benjamin Feigenberg:

This paper estimates the impact of the US-Mexico border fence on US-Mexico migration by exploiting variation in the timing and location of US government investment in fence construction. Using Mexican survey data and data I collected on fence construction, I find that construction in a municipality reduces migration by 27 percent for municipality residents and 15 percent for residents of adjacent municipalities. In addition, construction reduces migration by up to 35 percent from non-border municipalities. I also find that construction induces migrants to substitute toward alternative crossing locations, disproportionately deters low-skilled migrants, and reduces the number of undocumented Mexicans in the United States.

That is from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, you should be able to click through the captcha and get to the paper.

Why Americans Are Having an Emotional Reaction to Masks

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, easier read through than excerpted, but here is one bit:

When no one can see our countenances, we may behave differently. One study found that children wearing Halloween masks were more likely to break the rules and take more candy. The anonymity conferred by masks may be making it easier for protestors to knock down so many statues.

And indeed, people have long used masks to achieve a kind of plausible deniability. At Carnival festivities around the world people wear masks, and this seems to encourage greater revelry, drunkenness, and lewd behavior, traits also associated with masked balls. The mask creates another persona. You can act a little more outrageously, knowing that your town or village, a few days later, will regard that as “a different you.”

If we look to popular culture, mask-wearing is again associated with a kind of transgression. Batman, Robin and the Lone Ranger wear masks, not just to keep their true identities a secret, but to enable their “ordinary selves” to step into these larger-than-life roles.

And:

The tension of current mask policy is that it reflects a desire for a more obedient, ordered society, for public health purposes above all, but at the same time it creates incentives and inclinations for non-conformity. That is true at least within the context of American culture, admittedly an outlier, both for its paranoia and for its infatuation with popular culture. As a society, our public mask-wearing is thus at war with its own emotional leanings, because it is packaging together a message based on both discipline and deviance.

What can we do to convince people that a mask-laden society, while it will feel weird and indeed be weird, can be made stable and beneficial through our own self-awareness?

Recommended.

Claims about American economic growth

From Naomi R. Lamoreaux and John Joseph Wallis:

Before the middle of the nineteenth century most laws enacted in the United States were special bills that granted favors to specific individuals, groups, or localities. This fundamentally inegalitarian system provided political elites with important tools that they could use to reward supporters, and as a result, they were only willing to modify it under very special circumstances. In the early 1840s, however, a major fiscal crisis forced a number of states to default on their bonded debt, unleashing a political earthquake that swept this system away. Starting with Indiana in 1851, states revised their constitutions to ban the most common types of special legislation and, at the same time, mandate that all laws be general in their application. These provisions dramatically changed the way government and the economy worked and interacted, giving rise to the modern regulatory state, interest-group politics, and a more dynamic form of capitalism.

Here is the NBER working paper, titled “Economic Crisis, General Laws, and the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Transformation of American Political Economy,” via Ilya Novak.

I’m so American, I can’t even tell if this British speech is parody

Here is the story, the speech appears in a box in the corner:

Brexiteer Tory MP has urged the government to let his dogs keep their freedom of movement rights after Britain leaves the EU.

Bob Stewart, the MP for Beckenham, said his “French-speaking” hounds crossed the Channel regularly on their EU “pet passports”.

Millions of Britons are set to lose the ability to live and work freely on the continent at the end of the year as a result of the UK’s departure from the bloc.

I am an advocate of canine cosmopolitanism, rather than canine nationalism.  Is everyone?

Speaking in French, Mr Gove added: “We always defend the rights of dogs.”

Is that true?  Under the previous pre-Brexit regime, a pet passport was sufficient.  But now:

Under the worst case-scenario of a no-deal Brexit, taking a pet to the EU will likely require a four-month advanced process that includes microchipping, a rabies vaccination, a blood test and a three-month wait to travel after the blood test.

Developing…

Our regulatory state is failing us

The Transportation Security Administration withheld N-95 masks from staff and exhibited “gross mismanagement” in its response to the Coronavirus crisis – leaving employees and travelers vulnerable during the most urgent days of the pandemic, a senior TSA official alleges in a new whistleblower complaint.

On Thursday evening the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that handles whistleblower complaints, said they had found “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” in the complaint and ordered the Department of Homeland Security to open an investigation…

TSA Federal Security Director Jay Brainard is an official in charge of transportation security in the state of Kansas, and has been with the TSA since the agency’s inception in 2003.

He told NPR that the leadership of his agency failed to protect its staff from the pandemic, and as a result, allowed TSA employees to be “a significant carrier” for the spread of the Coronavirus to airport travelers.

Here is the full NPR story.

My Conversation with Rachel Harmon

Rachel Harmon is a Professor at University of Virginia Law School, and an expert on policing.  Here is the audio and transcript, and here is part of the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the best ideas for improving policing, including why good data on policing is so hard to come by, why body cams are not a panacea, the benefits and costs of consolidating police departments, why more female cops won’t necessarily reduce the use of force, how federal programs can sometimes misfire, where changing police selection criteria would and wouldn’t help, whether some policing could be replaced by social workers, the sobering frequency of sexual assaults by police, how a national accreditation system might improve police conduct, what reformers can learn from Camden and elsewhere, and more. They close by discussing the future of law schools, what she learned clerking under Guido Calabresi and Stephen Breyer, why she’s drawn to kickboxing and triathlons, and what two things she looks for in a young legal scholar.

And here is one bit:

COWEN: Should we impose higher educational standards on police forces?

HARMON: There’s mixed evidence on that. Slightly older police officers tend to be better in certain respects, at least, and education is often associated with age. But, again, I don’t think that we can select our way out of problems in policing.

COWEN: But why can’t we? Because different individuals — they behave so differently. They think so differently. Why is it that there’s no change in selection criteria that would get the police to be more the way we want them to be, whatever that might be?

HARMON: I think we could do some things. We could screen out people who have committed misconduct in the past, for example, by decertifying them at the state level and therefore discouraging departments that can’t or don’t care very much about quality of their officers from hiring those officers.

It’s not that we can’t select against problems in policing at all. Sometimes we know that an officer’s problematic, and still he’ll wander around from department to department. I think we should set minimum age standards that are above 18, which many states have as a minimum age standard.

But in terms of education or other more subtle factors, I think the effects can often be subtle, and when we look at what creates problems in policing, departments create officers. The officers don’t preexist a department, really, so what you’re really looking at is the culture of the department, the incentive structures, the supervision, discipline. You can make good officers with imperfect people.

Recommended, interesting throughout, and yes we discuss San Francisco and Singapore too.

Racial disparity in federal criminal sentences

Using rich data linking federal cases from arrest through to sentencing, we find that initial case and defendant characteristics, including arrest offense and criminal history, can explain most of the large raw racial disparity in federal sentences, but significant gaps remain. Across the distribution, blacks receive sentences that are almost 10 percent longer than those of comparable whites arrested for the same crimes. Most of this disparity can be explained by prosecutors’ initial charging decisions, particularly the filing of charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences. Ceteris paribus, the odds of black arrestees facing such a charge are 1.75 times higher than those of white arrestees.

That is by M. Marit Rehavi and Sonja B. Starr in the 2014 Journal of Political Economy.  Via Andreas.

The Spanish Inquisition and the learning curve

Empirical evidence on contemporary torture is sparse. The archives of the Spanish Inquisition provide a detailed historical source of quantitative and qualitative information about interrogational torture. The inquisition tortured brutally and systematically, willing to torment all who it deemed as withholding evidence. This torture yielded information that was often reliable: witnesses in the torture chamber and witnesses that were not tortured provided corresponding information about collaborators, locations, events, and practices. Nonetheless, inquisitors treated the results of interrogations in the torture chamber with skepticism. This bureaucratized torture stands in stark contrast to the “ticking bomb” philosophy that has motivated US torture policy in the aftermath of 9/11. Evidence from the archives of the Spanish Inquisition suggests torture affords no middle ground: one cannot improvise quick, amateurish, and half-hearted torture sessions, motivated by anger and fear, and hope to extract reliable intelligence.

Here is the full piece by Ron E. Hassner, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.