The Effect of Communism on People’s Attitudes Toward Immigration

Does living in a communist regime make a person more concerned about immigration? This paper argues conceptually and demonstrates empirically that people’s attitudes toward immigration are affected by their country’s politico-economic legacy. Exploiting a quasi-natural experiment arising from the historic division of Germany into East and West, I show that former East Germans, because of their exposure to communism, are notably more likely to be very concerned about immigration than former West Germans. Opposite of what existing literature finds, higher educational attainment in East Germany actually increases concerns. Further, I find that the effect of living in East Germany is driven by former East Germans who were born during, and not before, the communist rule and that differences in attitudes persist even after Germany’s reunification. People’s trust in strangers and contact with foreigners represent two salient channels through which communism affects people’s preferences toward immigration.

That is from Matthew Karl at the Board of Governors, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

We Cannot Avoid the Ugly Tradeoffs of Bail Reform

Many people think that “innocent until proven guilty” implies that everyone should be let loose on their own recognizance before trial. A moment’s thought reveals that this is idiotic. The white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people on June 17, 2015 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. His image was captured on security cameras and he was arrested the next day. Roof’s trial, however, didn’t start until more than a year later, December 7, 2016, and he wasn’t convicted of anything until December 15, 2016. Should Roof have been released before trial because he was “innocent until proven guilty”? Of course not. I stand second to none in demanding high standards before the state can deprive a person of their liberty but high standards do not demand binary divisions. Tradeoffs are everywhere and when the evidence against the accused is strong and the danger to the public is high, it’s not unreasonable to deprive the legally innocent of some liberty prior to trial. The tradeoffs are ugly, as they always are when trading off two sacred values, but the tradeoffs cannot be avoided.

Consider now the issue of bail reform. In the days when the default was that every accused person was held before trial, the idea of money bail was seen as a liberal, progressive measure that allowed more people to get out of jail. Today the natural default is seen as release until trial and bail is therefore perceived as a conservative, regressive measure that unjustly and unfairly keep poor people in jail. As a result, reformers are trying to reduce or eliminate money bail but they are doing so without thought for the ugly tradeoffs.

The bail reformers frame the issue in a way that I think is misleading. Anytime someone can’t pay for bail they call that “unaffordable bail”. Well that’s literally true but it also gives an incorrect impression of destitute people being denied their freedom because they don’t have a buck. To be sure that does happen but here’s an open secret of the judicial process. Judges sometimes set bail expecting and indeed hoping that it won’t be affordable. Everyone knows this but the bail reformers don’t like to acknowledge it because it brings up the ugly tradeoffs. Consider the following, from Chicago, where the bail reform movement is very active:

…there are about 2,700 people being held in jail because they can’t afford bail but [the Chicago court official noted] 87 percent had a current violent or weapons-related charge, a risk assessment recommending “maximum conditions” if released, an assessment flagging them for violence, and/or an active probation or parole case.

In other words, the judges set a high bail amount for a reason. Under orders from the Chief Judge, however, Chicago has been trying to reduce bail:

Chicago and its surrounding county was supposed to be a beacon of bail reform. After Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans imposed new rules and made sweeping changes to the bench, advocates hoped that virtually no one would be jailed because they didn’t have the money to make bail.

…At first, it seemed to have the intended effect: In the first month after the order, the number of people who had to post money bonds dropped by more than half, while the number of people who were released on their own recognizance—allowed to leave upon promising to return for trial—doubled. Bail amounts also decreased, as did the number of people in jail.

So what happened when bail reform met reality? Under the new system, judges that set a lot of “unaffordable” bail looked bad but most of the people who can’t pay their bail can’t pay not because they are especially poor but because the judge thought that they were a danger to the public. Judges continue to believe that many defendants are dangerous but now rather than setting bail they simply deny bail altogether. In fact, under the new system the rate of denying bail has risen fourfold. In addition, judges soon discovered that the cost of releasing defendants in terms of crime, failure to appear, and perhaps bad publicity was too high so they started to ignore the demands of the Chief Judge.

…But a year later, [the Coalition to End Money Bond] found that not only are judges still setting bail amounts that defendants can’t afford—meaning that more than 2,700 people are in Cook County Jail because they don’t have enough money [recall these are the 2,700 with serious records, AT] —but that things are getting worse. The initial gains “have steadily evaporated and bond court outcomes are now approaching pre-Order levels,” the report states. The authors note that if judges were sticking to the order, there would be no bail amounts set at levels that defendants can’t afford; instead, it says, nearly 30 percent of bail amounts were unaffordable. Between November 2017 and June 2018, judges set unaffordable bail amounts for more than 1,350 people.

Bail reformers are blind to the tradeoffs that must be made between public safety and the rights of defendants. Since the reformers are blind to these tradeoffs they can’t see that money bail actually helps to alleviate these tradeoffs. Reformers think that money bail simply keeps the poor in jail but in fact money bail is a half-way house between release on own recognizance and hold until trial. Money bail lets judges release more people. Bail reformers assume that if they eliminate money bail then judges will release everyone. In fact, as the Dylann Roof case illustrates, that is never going to happen. And when the public realizes that judges are releasing lots of defendants who subsequently commit more crimes there will be a backlash, as is already evident in Chicago. By eliminating the half-way house of money bail, bail reformers force judges to either release or hold until trial. Some people who under the current system are released on bail will, under the new system, be held until trial. Indeed, the unintended consequence of bail reform may be that more people are held until trial with no possibility of release.

Sometimes poor people are unfairly held until trial. Eliminating money bail, however, is a crude and dangerous approach to this problem. Instead we should deal with it directly by flagging and reevaluating jailed, non-violent offenders with low bail amounts, use alternative release measures such as ankle bracelets and most importantly, we should look to the constitution. The founders understood the ugly tradeoffs which is why the constitution guarantees the right to a “speedy trial.”  Unfortunately, that right today is widely ignored. My route to reform would begin by putting teeth back into the constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Addendum: Illinois doesn’t allow commercial bail so I haven’t mentioned bounty hunters but in other parts of the country their role in the criminal justice system is important, even if widely misunderstood and disparaged. My paper (with Eric Helland) shows that bounty hunters are more effective than the police at recapturing escaped defendants. More specifically, compared to similar defendants released using other methods, defendants released on commercial bail are much more likely to show up at trial and are much more likely to be recaptured should they flee. See also my adventures as a bounty hunter.

Unintended Consequences of Information Bans

Luke Froeb at Managerial Econ covers a number of cases in which information bans have led to unintended and negative consequences:

When I was at the Bureau of Economics at the FTC, we were asked by Congress whether using credit histories to price car insurance was discriminatory.  The resulting FACTA report found that:

  1. as a group, African-Americans and Hispanics tend to have lower scores than non-Hispanic whites and Asians.
  2. …scores effectively predict risk of claims within racial and ethnic groups.
  3. The Commission could not develop an alternative scoring model that would continue to predict risk effectively, yet decrease the differences in scores among racial and ethnic groups.

As a result, banning the use of credit scores would result in insurers finding other, less good and possibly discriminatory methods of distinguishing high from low risks, like selling insurance only in low risk areas.  Good drivers living in higher risk areas would be “pooled” with other drivers living in the high risk area, and would have to pay higher rates.

Previous studies (here and here) finds an analogous effect of preventing criminal background checks in employment, that doing so increases racial discrimination against African American men.

Adam Smith’s words are evergreen:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit…He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

The Civil War boosted Northern support for immigration

Here we arrive at one of the least appreciated factors in the equation that led to the Union victory: the military service of immigrants.  Foreign-born recruits provided the Union army with the advantage it needed over its Confederate rival.  An estimated 25 percent of the soldiers in the Union army (some 543,000) and more than 40 percent of the seamen in the navy (84,000) were foreign-born.  If one includes soldiers with at least one immigrant parent, the overall figure climbs to 43 percent of the Union army…

The demands of war meant that Union officials needed to appeal to immigrants.  Military recruitment placards were printed in foreign languages; Union officials presented the war as part of a transnational struggle for republican government, thereby decoupling the idea of the nation from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism…

The military service of the foreign-born did more than enhance the Union’s advantage in the field.  It also transformed the politics of nativism in the United States.  From the nativism of the 1850s, exemplified by Know-Nothingism and bigoted anti-Catholicism, the Union now moved in the direction of welcoming — indeed, encouraging — foreign arrivals.

That is all from the new book by Jay Sexton, A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History.

Why is the news cycle getting shorter and shorter?

Remember the anonymous Op-Ed from within the Trump administration?  We’re hardly talking about it any more, and indeed so many “major” stories from just a few weeks ago seem to be slipping from our grasp.  Why?

The naïve hypothesis is that we keep turning our attention to the very latest events because so much is happening so quickly. But there have been periods in the past when a lot was happening, such as the financial crisis of a decade ago, and the news cycle seemed “stickier” then. So this can’t be the entire story.

An alternate theory is that there are actually very few “true events” happening, but there is lots of froth on the surface. Maybe there is only one “big event” happening, one major transformation underway: a change in the willingness of American political leaders to break with previous norms. If the change is mostly in one direction, then maybe it’s enough to debate only the most recent news.

That may sound abstract, so here is a concrete analogy. Let’s say you are on a sinking ship. You might focus more on the current water level than on where it was in the recent past, except maybe to help you estimate the rate of flooding. In more technical terms, talking about the event of the day is a “sufficient statistic” for talking about the last two years.

The shorter news cycle also may result from greater political polarization. If people don’t frame events in a common way, then a discussion of those events might not last very long. Conversation will return very quickly to the underlying differences in worldviews, and discussion of any particular event will get trampled by a much larger philosophical debate. It does seem like we have been repeating the same general arguments about Trump, populism, gender and governing philosophy for some time now, and we are not about to stop.

Possibly the shorter news cycles are also a result of greater general disillusionment with politics and especially with elites, a theme outlined in Martin Gurri’s forthcoming book “The Revolt of the Public.” The really fun stuff might instead be watching mixed martial arts, debating social norms about gender and browsing the Instagram feeds of your friends.

Finally, maybe we’re all just better at digesting news events more quickly. Perhaps every possible observation, insight and argument gets put on Facebook and Twitter within a day or two, and much of this material is archived. What’s the point of repeating these debates every few months?

That is from my latest Bloomberg piece.  I am thankful to Anecdotal for a related point and insight.

Brazil fact of the day

Just 8 percent of Brazilians told the Pew Research Center in 2017 that representative democracy is a “very good” form of government – the lowest of all 38 countries surveyed.

Most of the article is about what we can expect from Jair Bolsonaro, sometimes called “the Brazilian Trump,” who is very likely to be Brazil’s next president, recommended and interesting throughout.

The funnel of human experience

So humanity in aggregate has spent about ten times as long worshiping the Greek gods as we’ve spent watching Netflix.

We’ve spent another ten times as long having sex as we’ve spent worshiping the Greek gods.

And we’ve spent ten times as long drinking coffee as we’ve spent having sex.


It turns out that if you add up all these years, 50% of human experience has happened after 1309 AD. 15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now.

This should cheer you all up, yes indeed there is no great stagnation no wonder the rate of productivity growth has been so high:

FHI reports that 90% of PhDs that have ever lived are alive right now.

That is from eukaryote at LessWrong.  Hat tip goes to the always-excellent The Browser.

My Conversation with Paul Krugman

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

Tyler sat down with Krugman at his office in New York to discuss what’s grabbing him at the moment, including antitrust, Supreme Court term limits, the best ways to fight inequality, why he’s a YIMBY, inflation targets, congestion taxes, trade (both global and interstellar), his favorite living science fiction writer, immigration policy, how to write well for a smart audience, new directions for economic research, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: In your view, how well run is New York City as an entity?

KRUGMAN: Not very. Compared to what? Actually, I like de Blasio. I actually think he’s done some really good things. What he’s done on education, and even on affordable housing, is actually quite substantial. But the city is so big and the problems are so large that people may not get it.

I will say, it is crazy that you have a city that is so dependent on public transportation, and yet the public transportation is not actually under the city’s control and has clearly been massively neglected. I don’t suffer the full woes of the subway, but I suffer some of them, even myself.

The city could be run better than it is, but it’s certainly not among the worst-managed political entities in the United States, let alone in the world.


COWEN: Will there ever be interstellar trade in intellectual property? You send your technology to a planet far away. It arrives much later, of course. Or you trade Beethoven to the aliens in return for a transporter beam? Can this work? You’ve written a paper that seems to indicate it can work.

KRUGMAN: I wrote a paper on the theory of interstellar trade when I was an unhappy assistant professor. Are there any happy assistant professors? [laughs] I was just blowing off steam. But it’s an interesting question.

COWEN: It could become your most important paper, right? [laughs]

KRUGMAN: We could imagine that there would be some way. We’d have to find somebody to trade with, although it’s the kind of thing — if you try to imagine interstellar trade for real in intellectual property — it’s probably the kind of thing that would be more like government-to-government exchanges.

It sounds like it would be really, really hard, although some science fiction writers are imagining that something like Bitcoin would make it possible to do these long-range . . . I don’t think something like Bitcoin is even going to work here.

Krugman also gives his opinions on Star Wars and Star Trek and Big Tech and many other matters.  Interesting throughout…

What Do We Learn from Amazon and the Minimum Wage?

Amazon’s widely touted increase in its minimum wage was accompanied by an ending of their monthly bonus plan, which often added 8% to a worker’s salary (16% during holiday season), and its stock share program which recently gave workers shares worth $3,725 at two years of employment. I’m reasonably confident that most workers will still benefit on net, simply because the labor market is tight, but it’s clear that the increase in the minimum wage was not as generous as it first appeared.

What lessons does this episode hold for minimum wage research? Amazon increased its wages voluntarily but suppose that the minimum wage had been increased by law. What would have happened? Clearly, Amazon would have, at the very least, eliminated their bonus plan and their stock share plan! In this situation, researchers examining employment data would discover that the increase in the minimum wage did not much lower employment. Such researchers might conclude that minimum wages don’t reduce employment much because the demand for labor is inelastic. The conclusion is correct but the reasoning is false. The correct conclusion and reasoning would be that the minimum wage didn’t reduce employment much because the minimum wage didn’t increase net wages much.

Amazon is a big and newsworthy employer so its actions have been closely monitored but in most cases we never know the myriad ways in which firms respond to a law. Even using administrative data it would be difficult to pick up changes in a stock share plan or a pension plan, as this compensation doesn’t show up in earnings until years after the work is completed. Even a simple employment contract is a complicated bargain with many margins. During the holiday season, for example, Amazon hires a CamperForce of workers who live in RVs and it pays their campsite fees–no big deal, but that is a form of compensation that is hard to find on a W-2. More generally, firms can respond to a minimum wage by changing compensation on non-wage margins, adjusting working conditions, reducing benefits, changing wage growth patterns, and adjusting the type of workers they hire, to give just a few examples–and notice that all of these changes are difficult to measure and none of them have a first-order effect on employment.

Indian airport police are going to smile less

Airport police in India are being instructed to smile less.

This is over concerns cheerfulness could lead to a perception of lax security and a threat of terror attacks.

The country’s Central Industrial Security Force, which is in charge of aviation safety, wants its staff to be “more vigilant than friendly”.

They will move from a “broad smile system” to a “sufficient smile system”, the Indian Express says.

Officials are said to believe that excessive friendliness puts airports at risk of terrorist attacks.

The organisation’s director general, Rajesh Ranjan even said the 9/11 attacks had taken place because of “an excessive reliance on passenger-friendly features”.

Here is the full story, via Anecdotal.