Category: Law

Some thoughts on second chances in the #MeToo era

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

Whether we like it or not, as the list of wrongdoers grows, questions of forgiveness will begin to outnumber questions of punishment. The thing is, questions of forgiveness are never entirely easy.

Much Christian doctrine, and especially Catholicism, emphasizes the value of confession, forgiveness and redemption. Thus it is not hard to convince many Americans that sinners should be given a second chance. This impulse occasionally finds its way into policy; just last month, a prison-reform bill became law, reflecting notions that criminals can indeed be rehabilitated. In her book “The Up Side of Down,” Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle stresses how many features of American life, including bankruptcy law and startup culture, depend on second, third or even more chances…

The more delicate truth is that, in the context of the #MeToo movement, forgiveness carries great dangers. I am not referring to those asking for it; rather, I am talking about those in a position to offer it. The survivors of such abuse often feel shame, guilt and a loss of confidence and self-esteem. It is very costly, both psychologically and practically, for such individuals to step forward and levy charges. An emphasis on forgiveness could reinforce victims’ tendencies to bury the crimes and wrongdoings.


The result is a set of conflicting and probably irreconcilable values. America believes in equal treatment before the law. But America’s increasingly powerful system of social pressures and sanctions does not provide for equal treatment.

Do read the whole thing, which also considers both John Lennon and Picasso.

The United States is Underpoliced and Overprisoned

Daniel Bier has a nice rundown on the ratio of police to prison spending comparing the United States to Europe. The US spends less on police and more on prisons than any European country.

Moreover, this is not because Europe spends less on criminal justice. Surprisingly, there is very little correlation between total spending and the ratio of police to prison spending. What we see in the graph below, for example, is that Europe is on the right, indicating more police to prison spending but not noticeably below the US states on total spending as a percent of GDP.

As I have argued before, the United States is underpoliced and overprisoned.

The top marginal tax rate

Taxing Top Incomes in a World of Ideas
Charles I. Jones∗
Stanford GSB and NBER September 26, 2018 — Version 0.5
Preliminary Abstract
This paper considers the taxation of top incomes when the following conditions apply: (i) new ideas drive economic growth, (ii) the reward for creating a successful innovation is a top income, and (iii) innovation cannot be perfectly targeted by a separate research subsidy — think about the business methods of Walmart, the creation of Uber, or the “idea” of These conditions lead to a new term in the Saez (2001) formula for the optimal top tax rate: by slowing the creation of the new ideas that drive aggregate GDP, top income taxation reduces everyone’s income, not just the income at the top. When the creation of ideas is the ultimate source of economic growth, this force sharply constrains both revenue-maximizing and welfare-maximizing top tax rates. For example, for extreme parameter values, maximizing the welfare of the middle class requires a negative top tax rate: the higher income that results from the subsidy to innovation more than makes up for the lost redistribution. More generally, the calibrated model suggests that incorporating ideas and economic growth cuts the optimal top marginal tax rate substantially relative to the basic Saez calculation.

Via Illya Novak.  Here are the slides, here is the paper.

That was then, this is now

Obama’s goal now is to make clear to adults in Central America that there is no payoff for sending their children on the dangerous journey northward, said Cecilia Muñoz, the White House domestic policy director. “He feels intensely a responsibility to prevent an even greater humanitarian crisis,” she said.

That, however, means speeding the deportation of most of those who have already arrived, which many in Obama’s own party are resisting.

That is circa 2014, here is the full story.  I thank an MR reader for the pointer.

People, the streets are empty here, in and around D.C.

…sales have slowed, with one exception: Happy hour. People are coming in earlier and staying longer, but often not having dinner.

“It’s increasing happy hour and decreasing dinner,” he said.

He said he had moved happy hour earlier to 3 p.m. from 4 p.m. for anyone showing government identification, and that people were coming in as early as 2 p.m.

And this:

On Tuesday, the City Council gave the mayor emergency authority to issue marriage licenses, because the Marriage Bureau, funded by the federal government, is closed.

That is all from Sabrina Tabernise in the NYT, the article has other interesting points.

When State-Building Hinders Growth: The Legacy of China’s Confucian Bureaucracy

That is the title of a new paper by Daniel Mattingly:

Do countries with a long history of state-building fare better in the long run? Recent work has shown that earlier state-building may lead to higher levels of present-day growth. By contrast, I use a natural experiment to show that the regions of China with over a thousand years of sustained exposure to state-building are significantly poorer today. The mechanism of persistence, I argue, was the introduction of a civil service exam based on knowledge of Confucian classics, which strengthened the social prestige of the civil service and weakened the prestige of commerce. A thousand years later, the regions of China where the Confucian bureaucracy was first introduced have a more educated population and more Confucian temples, but lower levels of wealth. The paper contributes to an important debate on the Great Divergence, highlighting how political institutions interact with culture to cause long-run patterns of growth.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Border Crime

Alex Nowrasteh at Cato shows that crime is lower in counties adjacent to the Mexican border than in the rest of the United States:

If the entire United States had crime rates as low as those along the border in 2017, then the number of homicides would have been 33.8 percent lower, property crimes would have been 2.1 percent lower, and violent crimes would have dropped 8 percent.

Obviously border counties are different than non-border countries, more rural etc. Nevertheless, the raw fact is striking in comparison to the heated rhetoric about illegal immigration and American blood.

The new committee to re-elect Donald Trump

It has some surprising members:

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been promoting the idea of a 70 percent top marginal tax rate, and Paul Krugman has been defending it. Matthew Yglesias of Vox has written that 70 percent might be too low.

Here is my full Bloomberg column on the topic.  You will note by the way that if you only apply the tax on say $10 million and up, it will all be converted into capital income and the tax will distort without raising much revenue.  And here is a sentence toward the end of the piece, part of my advice for Democrats:

Recognize that you’ll never be that popular on the tax issue.

I see this as a kind of catnip issue, one where the Democratic Left is so, so tempted to make redistribution the central idea of the party, a disastrous urge in my view.

Non-martial legislation passed during The Civil War

The Homestead Act of 1862, providing (nearly) free land for settlers in designated parts of the West

The Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862

The National Banking Act of 1863, creating a national banking system and currency

Several transcontinental railroad bills

The first federal income tax

Created the National Academy of Sciences

Establishment of the Department of Agriculture (which had a significant R&D component), the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Immigration.

Love it or hate it or both, that’s a lot.  Not only do the pressures of war lead to “things getting done,” but of course the Southern states and their representatives had dropped out of Congress.

That is all from Walter Licht, Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century.

Bitcoin is Less Secure than Most People Think

I spent part of the holidays poring over Eric Budish’s important paper, The Economic Limits of Bitcoin and the BlockChain. Using a few equilibrium conditions and some simulations, Budish shows that Bitcoin is vulnerable to a double spending attack.

In a double spending attack, the attacker sells say bitcoin for dollars. The bitcoin transfer is registered on the blockchain and then, perhaps after some escrow period, the dollars are received by the attacker. As soon as the bitcoin transfer is registered in a block–call this block 1–the attacker starts to mine his own blocks which do not include the bitcoin transfer. Suppose there is no escrow period then the best case for the attacker is that they mine two blocks 1′ and 2′ before the honest nodes mine block 2. In this case, the attacker’s chain–0,1′,2′–is the longest chain and so miners will add to this chain and not the 0,1… chain which becomes orphaned. The attacker’s chain does not include the bitcoin transfer so the attacker still has the bitcoins and they have the dollars! Also, remember, even though it is called a double-spend attack it’s actually an n-spend attack so the gains from attack could be very large. But what happens if the honest nodes mine a new block before the attacker mines 2′? Then the honest chain is 0,1,2 but the attacker still has block 1′ mined and after some time they will have 2′, then they have another chance. If the attacker can mine 3′ before the honest nodes mine block 3 then the new longest chain becomes 0,1′,2′,3′ and the honest nodes start mining on this chain rather than on 0,1,2. It can take time for the attacker to produce the longest chain but if the attacker has more computational power than the honest nodes, even just a little more, then with probability 1 the attacker will end up producing the longest chain.

As an example, Budish shows that if the attacker has just 5% more computational power than the honest nodes then on average it takes 26.5 blocks (a little over 4 hours) for the attacker to have the longest chain. (Most of the time it takes far fewer blocks but occasionally it takes hundreds of blocks for the attacker to produce the longest chain.) The attack will always be successful eventually, the key question is what is the cost of the attack?

The net cost of a double-spend attack is low because attackers also earn block rewards. For example, in the case above it might take 26 blocks for the attacker to substitute its longer chain for the honest chain but when it does so it earns 26 block rewards. The rewards were enough to cover the costs of the honest miners and so they are more or less enough to cover the costs of the attacker. The key point is that attacking is the same thing as mining. Budish assumes that attackers add to the computation power of the network which pushes returns down (for both the attacker and interestingly the honest nodes) but if we assume that the attacker starts out as honest–a Manchurian Candidate attack–then there is essentially zero cost to attacking.

It’s often said that Bitcoin creates security with math. That’s only partially true. The security behind avoiding the double spend attack is not cryptographic but economic, it’s really just the cost of coordinating to achieve a majority of the computational power. Satoshi assumed ‘one-CPU, one-vote’ which made it plausible that it would be costly to coordinate millions of miners. In the centralized ASIC world, coordination is much less costly. Consider, for example, that the top 4 mining pools today account for nearly 50% of the total computational power of the network. An attack would simply mean that these miners agree to mine slightly different blocks than they otherwise would.

Aside from the cost of coordination, a small group of large miners might not want to run a double spending attack because if Bitcoin is destroyed it will reduce the value of their capital investments in mining equipment (Budish analyzes several scenarios in this context). Call that the Too Big to Cheat argument. Sound familiar? The Too Big to Cheat argument, however, is a poor foundation for Bitcoin as a store of value because the more common it is to hold billions in Bitcoin the greater the value of an attack. Moreover, we are in especially dangerous territory today because bitcoin’s recent fall in price means that there is currently an overhang of computing power which has made some mining unprofitable, so miners may feel this a good time to get out.

The Too Big to Cheat argument suggests that coins are vulnerable to centralized computation power easily repurposed. The tricky part is that the efficiencies created by specialization–as for example in application-specific integrated circuits–tend to lead to centralization but by definition make repurposing more difficult.  CPUs, in contrast, tend to lead to decentralization but are easily repurposed. It’s hard to know where safety lies. But what we can say is that any alt-coin that uses a proof of work algorithm that can be solved using ASICs is especially vulnerable because miners could run a double spend attack on that coin and then shift over to mining bitcoin if the value of that coin is destroyed.

What can help? Ironically, traditional law and governance might help. A double spend attack would be clear in the data and at least in general terms so would the attackers. An attack involving dollars and transfers from banks would be potentially prosecutable, greatly raising the cost of an attack. Governance might help as well. Would a majority of miners (not including the attacker) be willing to fork Bitcoin to avoid the attack, much as was done with The DAO? Even the possibility of a hardfork would reduce the expected value of an attack. More generally, all of these mechanisms are a way of enforcing some stake loss or capital loss on dishonest miners. In theory, therefore, proof of stake should be less vulnerable to 51% attacks but proof of stake is much more complicated to make incentive-compatible than proof of work.

All of this is a far cry from money without the state. Trust doesn’t have the solidity of math but we are learning that it is more robust.

Hat tip to Joshua Gans and especially to Eric Budish for extensive conversation on these issues.

Addendum: See here for more on the Ethereum Classic double spend attack.

Do consumer interests shape trade policy?

Alas, it seems not, or so it is reported by Timm Betz and Amy Pond:

Why are some countries more open to trade than others? Prominent explanations emphasize differences in the influence of voters as consumers. Consumers benefit from lower prices. Because governments in democracies are more responsive to voters, they should implement lower tariffs. We develop and evaluate an implication of this line of argument. If lower tariffs are a response to consumer interests, lower tariffs should be concentrated on products most relevant to consumers. Using data on consumption shares across product categories, we report evidence that consumer interests do not account for lower tariffs. Governments place higher tariffs on goods with higher consumption shares, and we find no evidence that this relationship attenuates under more democratic institutions. There may be a variety of reasons why more democratic states are engaged in higher levels of international trade. A larger concern for consumer interests, however, is likely not among them.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Do longer sentences reduce crime?

I find that Republican prosecutorial offices sentence defendants to longer incarceration spells as compared to their Democratic and Independent counterparts. This increase in incarceration length is driven by longer sentences for both violent and prop- erty offenses, and translates into a persistent increase in incarceration. These sentencing and incarceration enhancements do not lower crime at the county level, indicating that, in terms of public safety, the marginal return to the tough-on-crime stance may be close to zero.

That is from a new AEA paper by Ashna Arora.

Why private regulation of internet speech doesn’t make many people happy

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

I’d like to suggest a simple trilemma. When it comes to private platforms and speech regulation, you can choose two of three: scalability, effectiveness and consistency. You cannot have all three. Furthermore, this trilemma suggests that we — whether as users, citizens or indeed managers of the platforms themselves — won’t ever be happy with how speech is regulated on the internet.

There is much more at the link.

The new economics of complaining

Barbara Deckert has a new weapon in the war against airplane noise — and she’s not afraid to use it.

Every time a plane flies over her suburban Maryland home, rattling her windows and setting her teeth on edge, she presses a small white button and feels a tiny sense of triumph.

That’s because with one click, Deckert has done what could have taken her hours to do a few months ago — she has filed a noise complaint with officials at the Maryland Aviation Administration.

Thanks to the ingenuity of a software engineer from Southern California, Deckert and hundreds of others with similar beefs, and the Airnoise button, have an easy way to register their annoyance with the jets that fly over their homes.

“It’s a fabulous tool,” Deckert said. “Clicking that button is really psychologically satisfying.”

Officials at airports from Seattle to Baltimore said Airnoise has led to a dramatic spike in complaints. At Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, officials are almost certain Airnoise is the reason complaints surged to 17,228 in August from 2,692 the previous month. In San Diego, more than 90 percent of the complaints came through third-party apps like Airnoise.

That is from Lori Aratani at WaPo, via Eric J.  And there is this, a metaphor for our times:

The button has clearly gotten a lot of use: The plastic coating is partially peeled off. A few weeks ago, the battery gave out. So for now, she’s using her iPad to file complaints.

“People can try to discredit me, but I don’t worry about that,” she said. She paused and remembered the day she filed her first complaint with the Airnoise button.

“It felt so good,” she said. “It’s highly, highly therapeutic. It makes you feel like you can make a difference.”