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Just the Facts Ma’am

Dragnet’s Joe Friday may have never uttered those words, but he would be impressed nonetheless by the facts on crime. There was a fascinating piece by Erik Eckholm in yesterday’s New York Times on the Drop-in-crimedramatic reductions in crime over the past several decades. Overall, crime peaked in 1991 and has fallen steadily since then.

 

All of this leads to the big question: why? Is it a change in tactics (e.g., aggressive policing, the “broken window” theory)? Is it a product of an increase in the costs of criminality (e.g., mandatory sentencing and the decision to keep 1.5 million people in prison)? Is it a product of good economic times? Perhaps it simply reflects demographics (e.g., the aging of the population, the decline in teenage pregnancy)? In the end, law professor Franklin E. Zimring (UC-Berkeley) is quoted as describing the search for an explanation as “criminological astrology.”

 

Max Ehrenfreund (Washington Post Wonkblog) has designated the above “chart of the day” as “something of a Rorschach test. Everyone sees what they want to see in it.” That may be something of an overstatement. Certainly, the advocates of the war on drugs, police militarization, aggressive policing and harsh sentencing laws will view it as evidence that their strategies have worked. They will have the challenge of explaining why similar trends are evident elsewhere, including Canada, that have not embraced the US model. And I am not at all certain of how the Left would make sense of the fact that crime has fallen as inequality has increased.

Will the decline in crime have an impact on public policy? Will it lead to a rethinking of police militarization and mass incarceration? I hold little hope given that public opinion seems immune to the facts.

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Even if crime has fallen dramatically, according to Gallup the majority of Americans in most years on record believe that crime is getting worse. As Gallup observes: “federal crime statistics have not been highly relevant to the public’s crime perceptions in recent years.” A public concerned with crime and (willfully) ignorant of the long-term trends will continue to demand an aggressive police presence. And that demand will be met.

The number of people ages 18-64 receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) under the Old-Age, Survivors and Disability (OASDI) program has increased dramatically in the recent past. Ana Swanson (Washington Post, Wonk Blog) has brief piece that focuses on SSDI. It includes a map (by Seth Kadish, Vizual Statistix) graphically representing the percentage of beneficiaries who are retired  (the lighter the color, the lower the percentage retired).

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The expansion of disability is partially an exercise in cost-shifting in an economy that is failing to provide jobs. As Swanson notes, some of the increase is a product of aging (the older you get, the more likely it is that you will become disabled). “But it’s also due to efforts by states, often in cooperation with private companies, to move people off of unemployment benefits, which states need to pay for, and onto disability, which is a federal program.” All of this has an additional benefit: the 9 million disabled workers are not counted as unemployed.

The cost shifting strategy has its limits, of course. The SSDI trust fund runs dry in 2016, which will result in a 20 percent reduction in disability payments. In the past, transfers from the larger OASDI trust fund would have covered shortfalls, thereby delaying the pressure for reform. But this week, the House GOP adopted a rule prohibiting transfers from the OASDI trust fund, suggesting that reform of Social Security Disability Insurance may finally be forced on to the agenda.

Over at Reason, Stephanie Slade has a nice, thoughtful piece on whether watching football – providing the NFL and college football programs with revenue – is unethical, given the immense harms to players through traumatic brain injuries and the diseases they cause. A selection:

A person can believe an action is wrong even if she doesn’t believe it should be legally prohibited. As libertarians, we generally respect a person’s autonomy under the law to weigh risks against benefits and decide how to make a living. But we aren’t required to accept or encourage her behavior if we believe what she is doing is objectionable. Even if this particular example [prostitution] doesn’t strike you as immoral, chances are you can think of something you view as wrong without believing it should be illegal. Adultery is often a good example. Could playing professional football be one as well?

Now, adultery is wrong because it is a breach of the marriage contract. Even a “libertine libertarian” could acknowledge that. But I agree that there are some moral obligations that have nothing to do with respecting rights, like being kind and considerate to people, acting with beneficence toward those whom one can help, and, yes, respecting one’s own body and mind. If it’s immoral to do heroin, then a fortiori it’s immoral to play football, because football does much more damage to the mind than heroin, and the mind is what really gives us personhood and moral worth. And if it’s immoral for us to play football, it’s also immoral for us to encourage others to do so through financial incentives.

Would you watch a consensual gladiator show in which someone is killed? Or would you think it barbaric and wrong? If a gladiator show is barbaric and wrong, why not a football game? The argument against such a view might be that we don’t think coal mining or deep-sea fishing are immoral occupations even though they carry above-average risks.

To this I would pose three counterarguments. First, the severity of the risks of playing football were not fully known until quite recently. Thus, players have not been adequately compensated for the dangers. Second, even if they were adequately compensated, it seems wrong to accept extreme risks to oneself even for compensation. Would it be morally OK to pay someone to play Russian roulette for one’s own amusement, or to accept such a bargain? There’s good reason to think not. An elevated risk to one’s life – like the risks carried by deep-sea fishing or coal mining – is different from an extreme risk like that carried by football players (you are likely to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy). What’s the line where risk moves from acceptable to unacceptable? I don’t know. We have to be comfortable with moral gray areas if that means not implausibly drawing the line at either the black or white extreme. Third, there’s something relevantly different between entertaining yourself by watching people injure or kill themselves (like paying someone to play Russian roulette or fight to the death or play football) and paying someone to do a risky job that results in a valued good or service. In the first set of cases, the viewer risks debasing herself by taking pleasure in the violent, destructive activity itself, not just in the outcomes of that activity (like a fish or a warm house).

Now a defender of football might say she doesn’t enjoy the violence of the game, but Continue Reading »

At the meeting of the American Economic Association in Boston last weekend, there were protests organized by a group calling itself “Kick It Over,” who, as the Washington Post styled it, were “battling for the soul of economics.” Their protest included heckling and disruptions of the talks given by Gregory Mankiw, Larry Summers, and Carmen Reinhart.

For his part, Mankiw wrote a short post on his blog after the conference recounting some of the protesting and responding to the charges of the protesters. He reports that one of them asked him how much the Koch brothers had paid him:

After the first session was over, one of the hecklers came up to me and asked, “How much money have the Koch brothers paid you?”  My answer, of course, was “not a penny.”

Mankiw argues in his post that if he is making mistakes, it is in good faith: “If I am wrong, it is sincere wrong-headedness, not the result of being on some plutocrat’s payroll, as some on the left want to believe.”

That is an important point to make. Assuming bad faith on the part of a person holding a position different from one’s own poisons, rather than furthers, the conversation. It is also, as Mankiw notes, not an effective strategy to get people to change their minds. Insulting people rarely is.

But there is an even more important point to make: Even if it is true that a person received funding from a donor or foundation with a specific point of view, nevertheless his or her arguments, claims, and positions should be evaluated on their merits. One’s motives—whatever they are, good or bad—are irrelevant to the truth of one’s positions and to the soundness of one’s arguments.

This is an elementary point in logic. Attacking the motives of a person is an example of the ad hominem fallacy, or more generally the genetic fallacy—both of which are, in fact, fallacies.

Now, it is true that there might be cases in which attacking a person’s credibility might be effective, and possibly even relevant. The testimony of a witness in a trial who stands to gain depending on the outcome of the trial might for that reason warrant less credibility. But merely pointing out that the source of one’s arguments might be questionable does not suffice to refute those arguments. The arguments might still be sound, after all.

Thus Mankiw concedes too much when he denies having received funding from the Koch brothers. What he should have responded to that protester instead is: “What difference does it make? If I’m wrong, demonstrate my mistake.”

Too often today speculation about people’s motives passes for acceptable rational discourse. But it is not acceptable. Whether you received funding from Charles Koch or George Soros or anyone else, we owe you the respect of assuming that you are a rational and autonomous person presenting a position in good faith. Our job, then, is to evaluate your position, charitably yet critically, on the merits.

Assuming that one’s intellectual opponents must be some combination of naive, ignorant, or evil is easier than attempting to refute their position. But it is not only disrespectful, it is also pointless. You do not know what your opponent’s motives are. One might be the most evil person in the world, but one’s claims might still be true.

There is a delightful piece in the New York Times on the reaction of the Harvard faculty to the reality of health care reform:

For years, Harvard’s experts on health economics and policy have advised presidents and Congress on how to provide health benefits to the nation at a reasonable cost. But those remedies will now be applied to the Harvard faculty, and the professors are in an uproar.

Members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the heart of the 378-year-old university, voted overwhelmingly in November to oppose changes that would require them and thousands of other Harvard employees to pay more for health care. The university says the increases are in part a result of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, which many Harvard professors championed.

The article makes clear that many faculty members assumed that Harvard’s $36 billion endowment would shelter them from the costs imposed by the health care reforms. Now that this assumption has proven to be false, there is something of an uproar.

Yes, indeed, ideas have consequences and they can prove costly.

My paper on the political philosophy of secession is now out in Public Affairs Quarterly, an open-access journal. Read it here. Teaser:

The United Kingdom currently sets the gold standard for management of secessionist politics. The British and Scottish governments negotiated in good faith over the terms of the independence referendum that Scotland held on September 18, 2014. If Scotland had voted to secede, the British government would have recognized its independence, thus affirming that the United Kingdom is a free partnership among its peoples.

Spain presents a different scenario altogether. Catalonia intends to hold its own “consultation” on independence, but the Spanish government has denied its right to do so, thus denying that Spain is a free partnership. The Catalan government has repeatedly sought to hold negotiations on the self-determination process, but has been rebuffed. What ought the Catalan government to do? By the criteria set forth in this paper, Catalonia has tried to conform to a just institutional regime for regulating secessionist politics, while Spain has not. Catalonia would be justified in using all proportionate means to secure a just outcome.

Happy New Year!

I’d like to wish all Pileus readers a very happy 2015. The last three years, we have had a tradition of making predictions for the upcoming year and reviewing those of the past year. This year, I haven’t had time to come up with predictions for 2015, but here’s a look back at those for 2014:

Oklahoma will win its case (carry over from last year).

This is the Halbig case, where I have predicted for 2 years a defeat for the Obama Administration. This one is still wending its way through the courts, but one district court has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

U.S. real GDP growth will top 3% in 2014.

Final numbers are not in, but so far this one is looking good. Real GDP rose 5% in the third quarter of 2014 after an anemic start to the year. This was a pretty bold prediction given how poor economic growth had been from 2008 to 2013.

Obama’s net approval rating will be higher on election day 2014 than it is now (-11.3).

Bzzt. According to RealClearPolitics, election day job approval for Obama was…-11.3.

Republicans will pick up a few seats in both the House and Senate, but not quite enough to take back the Senate.

Half-right. The GOP did pick up seats in both houses, but took the Senate easily. Basically, I thought economic growth would pick up faster in 2014, boosting Obama’s JA and cutting Democratic Senate losses. I wasn’t quite right about the timing. Today, Obama’s JA stands at only -9, which might have been enough to give the Democrats a couple more Senate wins.

Dems will retain control of the executive council and the governorship in New Hampshire, but the GOP will retain the Senate and take back the House.

Got 3 out 4. The GOP took the executive council too.

The Scottish independence referendum will fail by about 10 percentage points.

Virtually spot on. The referendum actually lost by about 10.6 percentage points.

Catalonia will hold an informal “public consultation” with multiple options, in which “independence” will win a plurality and not a majority. Without a strong mandate for any particular alternative, political wrangling will continue indefinitely.

This one was pretty good, but for some reason I hadn’t counted on a boycott by the anti-independence side. Catalonia did hold an informal public consultation with multiple options, but independence won about 80% of the vote because of the boycott. Depending on how you calculate the electorate, the pro-independence side won 35-38% of the eligible voters, more than the other options (yes to statehood, no independence and no to both statehood and independence). Political wrangling has continued.

There will be no successful deal to roll back agricultural trade barriers in the Doha Round.

Correct but easy.

I’m gonna score it 5.25 out of 7 correct, with one still out.

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