Harness your compulsions

Every year the writers on this blog each recommend a product or gift. My recommendation for gifts to others remains the same: buy them two hours. But what about yourself?

My advice for you is this: what are the things you are compelled to do that runs against the preferences of your past and future selves? Make that list in your head or on paper. Okay, now make a second list of the things your past and future selves wish that present you would do more often? Great.

Are there activities on that list that you can bundle together into a single activity?

For example, and directly from my personal life, I am a middle-aged man who can get wrapped up in video games to the detriment of the rest of his life. I’m pretty sure that 10 hours in a given week would never make the grade of “video game addiction”, where whole lives are left to erode into dust while a soul spends every waking our gaming. But 10 hours is really costly in my current life.

Like, I don’t know, very nearly every middle-aged American, I should exercise more. We all know this, that’s why we pay for memberships in gyms we never use and buy exercise equipment that finds greater use drying our clothes.

Rather than purge my house of video games, I have instead located them strategically in a room with no chairs save an exercise bike and no TV save a one in an elevated position. I have two choices: I can either stand while I play or sit on the bike. Once on the bike, I have two choices: I can pedal or sit there stewing in my own sloth.

I bike 3-4 hours a week now.

Now, let’s be clear. I’m not telling you to buy a Playstation, TV, wallmount, and an exercise bike as the solution to your deficiency of exercise.* That’s a pretty privleged set of advice to give, especially the presumption you have the living space for all of that. What I am saying, however, is that if you already have a video game system that you know you use too much and an exercise bike you know you use too little, you may find a benefit in bundling the two together in a manner that your future self cannot easily un-bundle. [Sidenote: if you’re only short the bike, stationary bikes are (relative to my expectations), shockingly cheap. If you’re short on space, get one that folds so you can lean it against a wall while you are not using it.]

We all have our compulsions, the activities we can’t resist. Most of us also have the beneficial activities that we know will improve our lives, we can’t just through that initial inertia. Bundle them together. Draw in your sketchbook at an easel set up where you watch crappy reality TV. Keep the good whiskey and glasses wehre you write your weekly blog entries. Rack up 100 hours of Civilization 6 while doing those lying on a yoga mat doing those boring exercises your physical therapist prescribed.

Managing ourselves is often a tug of war between who we wish we wanted to be and who we actually want to be. If there is an opportunity to align the two a little better, that’s worth investing in. Now if you any of you know of a way I can harness my tragi-comic addiction to Cheetos into greater research productivity and physical strength, I’m all ears.

*I’m also not not telling you to buy those exact things.

Elite private schools and the rents of early talent filters

An email from a (no doubt loyal) reader about my post last week:

“I’m a big believer that – for all the problems with our educational system – it’s a strength of the US that it’s possible to be a late bloomer and still succeed. But your piece also resonated with me because I’ve been revisiting  my thoughts about [Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology of Northern Virginia, a public magnet school] through all of the recent controversies over promoting diversity. (Not my topic here. I’m for it, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

I will state up front that my opinion is not a popular one among the TJ crowd (as evidenced by the bemused reactions it got at my 25 year reunion), but here goes: 

I believe people are using the wrong baseline when they point to the success of TJ – most wonder “what would my life have been like if I hadn’t gotten into TJ?”   but I think the proper question is “what would my life have been like if TJ didn’t exist?” 

I think that is well observed, but lets unpack it a bit more. The broader framing of “Would admitted students’ lives be different if schools like TJ didn’t exist?” is an extremely useful one, especially if you compare them to the elite private schools whose entire sales pitch boils down to “For $60K a year we’ll give your child a real shot at getting into the Ivy League or the Supreme Court“. When that is your pitch and your price tag, schools have no choice but to invest significant resources ensuring that their graduates have not just an advantage, but pre-designated slots in the incoming classes of the elite undergradute institutions. They aren’t passively part of a filter system, they are actively working to ensure that their admissions process for those 13 or younger serve as a talent filters for the Ivy League.

Full Disclosure: I attended the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in the mid-90s. It was no doubt less competitive to get in then, so don’t feel obligated to update your prior beliefs regarding my intelligence or insight. My time there was a lovely experience that I am grateful for, though, so I am no doubt biased.

For all of it’s incredible local reputation, TJHSST isn’t nearly as big a deal in the broader world, in part because it remains very much a public school, albeit one with an admissions process beyond pure geography. There is no board of trustees working actively to promote it as a filter, no club structure committed to the long-term prestige of the institution to be passed down through legacy admission​s. Part of the reason I find the TJ model more tolerable is that it promotes itself as an educational opportunity and adjuvant for its students, rather than a probabilistic ticket to the next stage of the social ladder.

The cost of TJ not existing is roughly equivalent to that borne by students who applied but were not admitted: a set of kids each year who receive an arguably inferior education, nothing more, nothing less. The external cost imposed by TJ admissions on the rest of the school system is largely neglible. Yes, the peer networks within each of the schools they pull from will be slightly weaker academically, but they are pulling from a lot of schools, so that cost is spread pretty thin.

What about the filter effect, you might ask? Are the students not admitted to TJ suffering at a disadvantage later applying to college? There may be some small signal disadvantage at the margin, but my suspicion is that it is pretty small. There are no resources dedicated to creating dedicated pipelines into elite schools, and absolutely no legacy systems incentivizing the creation of those generational pipelines. For an institution to become a talent filter it has to on some level, I believe , dedicate resources towards becoming a filter. It has to not just want that status, it has to have club members willing to invest in it acquiring that status.

Conversely, the effect of Georgetown Prep, the Phillips Academy, and others of their ilk not existing is, similarly, a probable decline in the quality of education of some subset of students. It would also mean, however, that the pool of consideration for Harvard and Yale would get wider and the relevant talent filters would be applied 4 years later in student development. As it stands, students not being admitted, not being unable to afford, or not even being aware of the existence of these educational institutions and opportunities is that they’ve been removed from the track to the professional elite. The composition of the Supreme Court and Congress are being indirectly determined by the admission boards (and legacy donors) sorting children before they’ve learned algebra or finished growing.

You want my opinion? Well here it is: we need more TJHSST’s, not less. We need more public magnet schools, more elite public colleges and universities. Schools where, yes, students are competing for admission, but for whom the prize of admission is the education itself and not entry into a club whose principal endeavor is procuring rents for their matriculants and the offspring of their alumni by offering signal value through their admission. If a filter occurs, it should occur through the quality of their educational outputs, not the narrowness of their admission criteria inputs.

In the end, private schools as early talent filters are an institution prime for capture by highly capitalized rent-seekers. Truly great public schools are not part of that problem. They may even be a solution to it.

Professional Hunger Games and the costs of filtering out talent too soon

For all the fuss over whether schools provide actual skills or merely signal underlying ability, I think we may underappreciate the consquences of internalizing education within employment tournaments. “Neurotic parents worry for their kid’s future if they don’t get into the best pre-school” is a fairly trite sitcom premise at this point, but like a lot of tropes it bears enough truth to carry an episode. Parents “red-shirting” their kids to give them a competitive advantage in both academics and sports has received plenty of attention. Researchers have observed that birthdays early in the calendar year are overly predictive of selection into hockey at the advanced amateur and professional levels. These are all products of, and reactions to, the long and grueling tournaments that portend to identify talent.

We are rightfully obsessed with how to best identify talent at the micro level, but I spend more of my time thinking about the broader consequences that emerge from how we sort talent. More specificly, when and how we sort talent out. The filters.

The above is two academics arguing, both quite reasonably, about how a department should hire faculty. What I want to focus on is that last line of the second tweet:

“are you arguing we should hire.. (people) who weren’t competitive for higher-tier PhD programs?”

And there it is. The filter. If you weren’t good enough to get into a good PhD program at 22-25 years old, why should we waste our already thin resources considering you for position when we have plenty of candidates who did get into a higher-tier program? That’s a completely reasonable argument. The candidates at the best programs are, on average, better than those from less prestigious academic pedigrees.

What I want to do now is persuade you that this is a deeply flawed strategy. To overweight entry into your pool of consideration based on these early filters is bad for your academic department, company, or your hockey team. It will not only cause you to miss out on whole swaths of talent, but will have long run consequences upstream as well, as more and more resources will be wasted within an increasingly desperate all-pay auction to avoid being filtered out. In fact, those resources will be worse than wasted, as growing resource demands to survive the filter will result in both a shrinking and homogenizing final talent pool, condemning departments and disciplines to the stultifying malaise of sameness.

(From here on I’m going to overly lean on an academic framing here becuase it’s what I know best, but I think the story and argument are broadly applicable.)

Surviving the academic filter

I myself am part of a generation of tenured academic economists that can’t help but quietly wonder if we would have made it to the other side of what is now less a path to an academic career and more a post-baccalaureate Hunger Games. Two years predoc, six years of graduate school, three years postdoc, six years on the tenure clock at your first job, a-hopefully-shortened-to-four-year clock at your second job. That’s a 17 to 21 years of often brutal competition for publications at journals and grants from institutions with <5% acceptance rates. But now let’s walk backwards through that path.

Getting published in top outlets and getting funding for your research is a lot easier given the resources available to junior faculty at elite research institutions, appointments which are almost exclusively available to graduates of elite PhD programs. Even if one fails to receive an appointment or receive tenure at a top research institution, the networks you build in a top graduate program will bear fruit your entire career. You will get invited to present in seminars, join the right clubs, and disseminate your work through the best working papers series.

So how do you get into a good graduate program? I haven’t inspected the numbers personally, but I have been told by colleagues that the vast majority of students at top programs have at least near-perfect GRE scores and GPAs. These standard performance metrics left insufficient for final decisions, what’s left is the the prestige of your institution, extraordinary non-traditional undergraduate performance (i.e. writing an outstanding senior thesis), or procuring a prestigious post-baccalaurare research experience (a predoc). The net of this is that when you weight faculty appointmentss disproproportionately towards the prestige of a graduate academic program, you are indirectly weighting your decisions towards the selective criteria of undergraduate admisisions and a young person’s ability to independently network with faculty. You are effectively filtering out candidates based on attributes they failed to display when they were teenagers.

The trap of failed forecasting and early filters

When hiring and admitting talent, you are playing a statistical game. You’re not just trying to maximize the expected value (the mean), you’re also pursuring optimal variance, specifically upside variation. An NBA team would rather draft 1 hall of famer, 2 all-stars, and 7 busts that never play a minute than 10 players with average NBA careers. Pursuing upside and the upper tail, pursuing outliers, has a strange alchemy to it. To say that outliers and the rest of extreme upper tail is less understood than average outcomes is almost tautalogical, but in this case it’s important. To pursue upside variance in recruitment is, at least partly, an effort to forecast that upper tail. Forecasting these people is not only hard to do, it’s hard even to tell ex post if someone has been successful at it for reasons attributable to skill or merely luck.

When we filter out candidates based on where they went to graduate school, we are indirectly saying we believe that undergraduate admissions can forecast outcomes of considerable rarity. That’s quite the leap of faith.

I don’t get the impression that venture capitalists are particularly concerned with the prestige of their entrepreneur’s undergraduate education. Some people might use this as a cudgel to demean the value of a college education or an opportunity to extoll the greatness of genius that refuses to be suffocated by a structured education, blah blah blah. You will be shocked to learn that I think both of these strawmen arguments I’ve created are entirely silly. I think venture capitalists place so little weight on educational prestige because they are looking for extreme outliers in dimensions that are not necessarily orthogonal to education, but are simply unforecastable at any sort of scale. They can’t be predicted, only observed retrospectively in evidence of successfull entrepreneurship.

I put it to you, humble department hiring committee, that attributes that make for a high quality researcher are similarly difficult to forecast early in life. Further, the skills that make for great student, I am sorry to say, do not correspond all that well to successful research. While perhaps not as extreme as professional basketball players or billionaire entrepreneurs, top researchers are in many ways outliers. They are strange amalgams of, yes, intelligence, but also conscientousness and rebelliousness. They are creative and pragmatic, capable of working with other outliers and managing teams while also tolerating long periods of loneliness and even professional derision. These combinations of characteristics are not necessarily special, but they certainly are unusual.

Mechanisms that maximize the mean of your recruited talent will not maximize the upper bound on the pool you are choosing from. It will not maximize your upside outliers. Maxmizing the mean, however, is exactly what undergraduate admissions are largely doing. They are maximizing the SAT scores and GPAs of their incoming class and, in doing so, they are maximizing expected 5-year graduatiuon rates, post-graduation employment, medical school admissions, etc. They are maximizing the quality of each admission cohort. They are maximizing the mean and, in the process, minimizing the variance of those cohorts.

When you are recruiting talent to your research faculty you are looking for upside variance, the exact statistical characteristic that undergraduate admissions are often minimizing. When you overweight your hiring decisions based on whether candidates were competitive when applying to graduate school, you are likely increasing the mean of your pool of consideration but also reducing it’s variance. You are indirectly filtering your candidates through a chain of graduate and undergraduate admissions criteria that are minimizing upside variance.

Now, to be clear, this may be exactly what you want. If you’re recruiting to a job or field that is about minimizing downside risk, then this may be the optimal strategy. I’d be thrilled to learn that the mechanism that produced primary care physicians was explicitly designed to maximized the mean and minimize the variance of physician quality. But for a research department recruiting junior faculty (or a basketball team, or entrepreneurial tech incubator,…), downside risk is fairly minimial while upside potential remains enormous.

The cost of early filters

Early sub-optimal talent filters are costly in two ways. First, they filter out talent before its value can be observed. Second, they incentivize individuals and households to commit resources to wasteful tournaments.

The first, micro, costs of early filters are pretty obvious: we miss out on the contributions of potential stars because of decisions overweighted towards criteria that reflected mean cohort maxmization, an attribute at least orthogonal, if not explicitly counter to, the qualities you are recruiting. The second, more macro, costs should be considered as well.

If an individual identifies a career they want, whether its professor, medical doctor, or professional athlete, and observes institutions that filter people out of consideration, they will invest resources to survive the filter. If slots that survive the filter are a fixed quantity, it will quickly devolve into a tournment, where surivival will depend, at least in part, on the resources an individual is willing to commit. These resources are largely unrecoverable. This is an all-pay auction. It’s a trap where social welfare goes to die.

This is a trap in which diversity dies, too. Social and economic diversity for sure, but also diversity of ideas, perspective, patterns of though, and intuition. The fraction of households that can commit significant resources to gain admission to top secondary and undergraduate institutions, that can endure the opportunity cost of unpaid internships and underpaid “predocs” is not representative of the broader population. It is wealthier, Whiter, and far more educated. As Schultz and Stansbury note, 65% of U.S.-born economics PhDs had at least one parent with a graduate degree, while only 14% of those PhDs were first-generation college graduates.

Every academic scholar knows the pressure to conform to trends in models, theories, hypotheses, sometimes even explicit policy prescriptions. This pressure comes in the form of editorial, hiring, and promotion decisions. This pressure is only further augmented by the forces that filter talent into these positions. Filters that may, in fact, increase the how smart and diligent we are on average, but in doing so sand off the fat tails of our distribution of colleagues. The very people perhaps most likely to think of something completely different. The people most likely to change our minds.

To lose them for the possibility of being a little smarter on average? That is costly indeed.

Why are racists all the same?

If you were worried that we haven’t spent enough time and intellectual energy pondering terrible people, I give you this thought-provoking tweet from Zach Weinersmith:

There’s a million unsatisfying answers to the question “Why are terrible people terrible?”, but maybe we can get a little traction here from a few simple economic concepts. Why are racist people and groups so often racist in the same way? Why do we observe so little innovation in racism?

Let’s sketch a toy model.

The production of social goods (mutual support, friendship, community, etc) can be reductively modeled using labor inputs (human time and energy) and social technology. One very important strain of social technology is the amalgam of ideas, identities, and institutions that groups leverage when producing the mutual support systems and emotional goods that all but the most pathologically isolated of us depend on.

Ideas have the important property that they are unaffected by parallel use i.e. use comes at zero marginal cost. That means they offer the possibility of not just significant returns to scale, but in some contexts increasing returns to scale. In this case, the path to massive scale returns through social technology will come through network effects. Goods that are consumed within social networks, and where the value of the good being consumed is positively increasing with the number of other people who use ie (i.e. social media, media formats, etc), will often be characterized by critical mass thresholds beyond which use rapidly escalates as each marginal consumer increases the value of consumption, attracting more subsequent consumption.

Racist ideas as zero-marginal cost network social technology

Let’s model racism as a set of ideas that serve as social technology that serve to increase the output from labor inputs into the production social goods. Internalization of stupid racist ideas by one person does not diminish the stock of stupid racist ideas (they have zero marginal cost), but the output elasticity from that labor is actually increasing as more people contribute to the production of social goods using the same set of ideas. The network effects of production using zero-marginal cost racist ideas gives them a least some range of increasing returns to scale.

What’s the net of all this? There will be extremely powerful incentives to return to the oldest forms of racist ideology because the pre-existing body of believers grant significant scale advantages over newer racist ideologies. For both your everyday racist looking to enjoy the social goods of mutual admiration and support from your fellow bigots or the aspiring leader of a racist faction aiming to effect social change through the scale of your community of monomaniacal twits, the returns to scale to be enjoyed by leveraging a set of racist beliefs that have already achieved historical critical mass are too attractive to pass up.

The pre-existing body of zero marginal cost ideas, in this model, endows a tremendous amount of path dependence to the ideas being leveraged by communities seeking to produce social goods using the technology of racist ideas. The deck is stacked against innovation, which means we should expect endless regurgitation of the same racist bullshit.

Path dependence is a systemic property where the current state is heavily influenced by past events and states. Much of the “Guns, Germs, and Steel” model of the world is that the current state of things is heavily determined by past states (widespread animal domestication and husbandry in the Old World) and events (Europeans bringing germs from those animals to the new world) that can never be undone. In much the same way, I suspect we observe the same racist tropes over and over simply because the old tropes got there first and there’s no undoing the past.

Or maybe racists are all just stupid and lazy? Who knows, I can barely even tell most racists apart.

What should we expect from civilian parking enforcement bounties?

A NYC councilman has proposed a reward system for civilian-provided evidence of parking violations. The revenue motivations are obvious, but the consequences are far easier to speculate upon than confidently predict. I’m usually reluctant to make policy forecasts, but in this one case it is probably fair to say I am unusually qualified. So how’s this going to play out?

Well, first of all, this is a relatively narrow set of bounties that promise a person 25% of the resulting $175 ticket for providing evidence of an illegally blocked bike lane, sidewalk, or school entrance (five minutes of googling did not yield insight into any associated fees that might be applied on top of the fine). Not only is it relatively specific in its aims, it’s also not unprecedented: rewards for NYC citizens who report illegally idling vehicles “generated 12,267 reports in 2021… netting the city $2.3 million and $724,293” for the reporting citizens. Which is to say that relatively modest rewards appear to be more than sufficient to get New Yorkers to snitch on each other, and the institutions appear to be more than comfortable issuing fines based on a civilian-provided evidence. Ninety-two percent of the idling vehicle reports lead to a fine being issued (though not necessarily paid), each generating a $87.50 bounty for the reporting party. One man has reportedly earned $125,000 from reporting idling vehicle.

For a bounty to be earned “a citizen needs to submit a time- and date-stamped video taken during the time of observation that shows the commercial truck or bus continuously idling for more than three minutes,… needs to contain the license plate and the company information [and] the sound of the idling engine needs to be clearly heard”. Given those standards, the 92% issuance rate is perhaps less surprising. It only takes a little reflection for $87.50 is seem a pretty healthy bounty. If we consider that affordablity of modern digital equipment (i.e. your phone) and video editing software (often bundled free with your phone or computer), opportunistic enforcement seems more than sufficiently incentivized.

But what about more than opportunistic enforcement? There is the very real possibility that private enforcement could scale, and not in the way a city would at least purport to hope. If we may recap the context in question:

  • There is an unending supply of vehicles
  • low cost carried video equipment
  • low cost video editing software
  • Individuals with a high material reward for submitting evidence sufficient to receive a reward
  • A city whose revenue needs provide it every incentive to be entirely credulous of any evidence provided
  • A relatively high cost (if only in time spent) of challenging a violation

Revenue incentives distort police discretion. While it may feel like this bounty system is outsourcing the work to civilians, but what it’s really doing is moving the discretionary moment institutionally downstream to the court system that must now adjudicate the quality of the evidence provided. I expect the chain of command within a court system to be no less effective at channeling budget incentives down their own hierarchies of supervision and reporting.

Okay, I’ve laid out enough bread crumbs leading from incentives to potentially unintended consquences. What do I think will happen when this and other similar civilian traffic law bounties go into effect?

  • Non-trivial revenue will be generated, which will accelerate contagion to other municipalities
  • Violation issuance rates will be >85% (comparable to anti-idling laws)
  • Violent confrontations will occur around people who appear to be taking videos with their phones. Many of these people will just be taking selfies.
  • Most violation reporters will be one-offs, but a small number will make a very large number of reports (i.e. the distribution will be long-tailed).
  • These “super-reporters” will focus on hot spots where pick-up/drop-offs are inconvenient. Some will use long range microphones to avoid conflict.
  • Some super-reporters will be credibly accused of submitting videos with edited sound.
  • This will hurt ride share drivers more than anyone else, lowering their supply, while simultaneously reducing passenger convenience and reducing demand. The net price effect is uncertain, but I expect that the supply effect will dominate.

I expect that other cities will introduce civilian bounty systems unless there is a news-worthy spike in violent interactions around traffic-snitching accusations. Most municipal governments are strapped for cash at the moment, especially those who saw their traffic enforcement revenues plummet during lockdowns.

Lastly, I would only remind you that revenue-motivated law enforcement always has social consequences. Anyone who has ever lived under an HOA has had to deal with busy-bodies operating with a low opportunity cost of time and an eagerness to exert power in the smallest of fiefdoms. Bounties systems may end up creating exactly the institutional structure needed to increase the social footprint and subsidize the lifestyle of the most annoying person you know.

What I’ve been reading

Inflammatory Political Campaigns and Racial Bias in Policiing

Simple, clever, poignant. I wish I’d thought of it.

Congressmen earn disproportionate returns in the stock market

File under: duh, but that doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t reinvestigate this every 12 months.

Pounds that Kill: The External Costs of Vehicle Weight

This is the kind of thing that basic economic theory combined with Force = Mass X Acceleration will get you all the way to the conclusion, but that doesn’t have a chance at affecting policy until someone credibly estimates the costs. These estimates are credible and they should effect policy. I’ll give you my takeway though: this matters more as we transition to electric vehicles. As the cost incentives of gasoline become a weaker constraint on vehicle size, we will need to introduce new ways to internalize the external costs. Obvious policy solution: tax vehicles by the pound.

Monopsony in the US Labor Market

I’m working on monopsony in the paper I’m presenting at Geoerge Mason University next week. This is the final published version of the paper that presents the bleeding edge of the research in question. You should come to my talk if you’re in town.

Firearms, research, and controlling the narrative

I was happy to see the Wall Street Journal write a staff editorial about my recent paper with Patrick Warren, “Firearms and Lynching“.

I was made aware of the editorial on Saturday and I’ll admit I was a little nervous when I first clicked, only to be relieved to find an accurate summary of the research and a relatively restrained commentary.

But why was I nervous, you may ask. Isn’t media attention something scholars want? Yes. Earlier in my career, that was an unqualified “yes”, but I’ve been doing this long enough now that I appreciate just how little control a scholar has over the conversation that can happen around their work. I’ve had a couple papers get non-trivial media attention over the years and each time it’s a reminder that the research itself is not just the subject of a conversation, it’s a prop that gives people an opportunity to have the conversation they already wanted to have. The findings of the research in question can prove quite immaterial to that conversation.

When I posted a thread about the paper two weeks ago, I was happy to see enough retweets to pass the paper around and get it some attention.

What was less fun was the predictably over-reductive quote tweets and comments excitedly parading the paper as evidence of “guns are good.” Not unlike people excited to reduce a paper to “minimum wages are good” (or “this paper is bad because minimum wages are bad”), it can be frustrating to try to make a nuanced contribution towards understanding a complex context, only to see it reduced to a television debate chyron.

The key to surviving this process is accepting that a scholar, even those of tremendous standing inside and outside of the academy, has little to no control over the narrative that emerges around their work. Holding strong preferences over the surrounding narrative is folly varying only in consequences. You can try to fight the narrative, which typically results in the world either ignoring you or, worse, joyfully inviting you to wrestle in the mud. [Good rule of political discourse: never wrestle with a pig. You can’t win, you end up covered in mud, and the pig loves it.] Some scholars, though not as many as the more skeptical fear, prefer to shape the research to serve a narrative from the outset. This, of course, is no longer research, it’s advocacy masquerading as science. Don’t do this. And lastly, some create great research, only to apologetically bear the burden of the unintended narrative that emerges around their work. If you recognize yourself in this description, my only advice is a) don’t apologize and b) go easy on the sauce.

For what it’s worth, my view of “Firearms and Lynching”, in the context of the broader literature on firearms and public safety, is that things have to be horrifyingly bad before greater availability of firearms make for a safer public. Foreign invasions, institutionalized segregation, pogroms, lynch mobs, these are all contexts where an armed population can make for a better outcome. Probably not a happy ending, but maybe a less tragic one. The Jim Crow South was such a context. That’s how bad it was. That’s the takeaway.

If you want to translate this piece of historical research as evidence that a greater saturation of firearms in modern American society will make for better and safer lives, then I’ll admit that I think you are too pessimistic about the current state of the world. You’ve spent too much time reading about burning cities that actually aren’t burning. If you think that a greater taking up of arms by Black Americans will make their lives safer and better, then I’ll admit I still think that is probably wrong, but maybe less wrong. Black Americans have brought their reality to the eyes of broader America and that reality questions whether or not the police serve their communities or threaten them. It is certainly a legitimate question whether they can rely on police protection to secure their homes and their communities.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to make the next logical leap here. If police can’t be counted on, we’ll protect ourselves, and firearms are a tool to do that. That sort of thinking, however, is exactly why making leaps from history to contemporary contexts is so fraught. As bad as things are today, even in the most violent districts with the most contemptable police departments, it’s not the Jim Crow South. Lynch mobs are not roaming the streets and selling photos of their victims as postcards. Groups of young white men are not wandering into homes and stealing from them without fear of retribution. Firearms are tools of death, and their presence bring benefits and costs. To exceed the costs of broadly deadlier conflict throughout your community, the benefits to other dimensions of public safety have to be significant.

And we’ve haven’t even confronted the additional reality that an armed Black man in the United States should probably not feel safe in the presence of a police officer, no matter if that firearm is licensed, registered, and transparently revealed to the officer. In a land of no-knock raids, where police are bursting into homes under cover of night with fingers on triggers, I’m not sure a more heavility armed Black America leads to fewer men and women being killed by police.

I’m sorry, did you think that I was going to close out this post with a solution to modern violence and policing in America? With an answer? The world is complex and difficult, policy for it doubly so. My colleague and I wrote a paper that tried to answer the question of whether a minority living under an indifferent regime that condoned terrorism could better live their lives armed. That’s the question we made a contribution towards answering, and our results point towards “Yes”. If you want me to make big claims about what that means today, well, get used to disappointment.

Welcome to Wrexam

I want to write about the economics of the Wrexam football club. They have docu-series currently airing on FX weeking until late October. They have two celebrity owners whose level of wealth falls squarely within the range of optimum dramatic tension i.e. rich enough to buy and improve a tiny Welsh football club, but so rich that they can buy their way out of every problem without utterly ruining themselves and their families.

I want to write about it, but I won’t. I’ll be patient and wait until the first season is over. Instead, I want to encourage you to watch all or part of the season with an eye towards the drama and risk there is to be found in solving such a complex economic problem. Pay attention, there will be a quiz in two months:

  1. How do you optimize your committment to an investment whose financial payoff is gaining access to a higher revenue stream via a process as unpredictable as finishing at or near the top in a 24 team football league? How do you cope with that much noise in a system with such poor underlying odds?
  2. How do you optimize your committment to an investment whose payoff has an enormous non-pecuniary element (i.e. joy from the success of the team) and that non-pecuniary element is a true local public good (non-excludable and non-rival) that represents a significant portion of total utility in local households?
  3. How should local stake holders treat their relationship to the team? The supporters group has significant voting power when transitioning ownership. What should they be maximizing when they cast their votes? On what observables should they base their decisions?
  4. In what ways are the owners failing to optimally allocate resources within the team?
  5. In what ways is the manager and coaching staff failing to optimally manage the player resources they have?
  6. Are incentives aligned top to bottom in the organization? Within the team?
  7. How do you measure success and failure with a sports club? Should these metrics, or the relative weights on these metrics, change with the scale of the club, it’s resources, and its fan base?

When the season is over we will revisit these questions and more. Running a sports team is an incredibly complex problem to solve. Most previous inside looks have been pure PR projects for the very biggest clubs, worth billions of dollars. These clubs/teams are enormous enterprises, with vast hierarchies and narrowly divided tasks. They are in many ways simply too big to fit into frame for an intimate documentary. If that’s what you’re interested in, fiction is the better channel because it can abstract away from all the field maintence and beer pricing, and just show you Brad Pitt cutting deals over the phone while stuffing food into his beautiful face.

To really understand this business from the inside, you gotta go small. To places where a small number of individuals are making an inefficiently vast range of decisions. Welcome to Wrexam so far looks to be one of the very best views into that world. I can’t wait to see more.

I just hope they find someone to update their zonal marking system on set pieces. I don’t know, maybe much some YouTube videos or something. Yikes.

Who’s afraid of ranked choice voting?

Alaska had it’s first election with a new voting rule and Tom Cotton is pissed.

I want very badly to be snarky here and make fun of the Senator for being so nakedly Trumpian in an effort to discredit any democratic institution the instant it doesn’t produce exactly the result he prefers. Fun aside, snark at Senator’s expense misses the bigger and more important mechanisms that are in play. I think the current instantiation of the Republican party is afraid of ranked choice voting. The Senator, in his angry little tweet, only lends greater credence to the theory. More broadly, its often worth unpacking when incumbents get upset about legitimate institutions, particularly when that anger is asymmetric across parties and coalitions.

What is ranked choice voting?

Quickly, ranked choice voting is any system where voters are asked to rank some number of candidates, n, from 1st to nth. Those rankings are then used to implement a runoff system, where a winner isn’t declared until a candidate he or she has a majority of the top choice votes. If someone has 50% of the first place votes, they win and it is effectively no different that a standard plurality system (i.e the standard system in most US elections). If no one has >50% of the first place votes, then the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated and all of their votes are then divvied up amongst the candidates based on those voters’ 2nd choices. The process then iterates, tallying up the votes, eliminating the last place candidates, and allocating votes from the eliminated candidates based on their 2nd, 3rd, etc choice preferences. The election isn’t called until someone has greater than 50% of the counted votes.

It’s not a point system, like a Borda count, so it doesn’t grant a specific weight to being a 2nd or 3rd choice, so the balance of outcomes is still heavily tilted towards a voter’s top choice candidate. It’s not explicitly an approval system, though voters are under no obligation to rank all of the candidates i.e. if you only want to choose a 1st and 2nd choice out of 10 candidates, that is fine. What the system is explicitly designed to do is reduce the impact of large numbers of candidates splitting the electorate so thinly as to increase electoral noise while also reducing the impact of otherwise irrelevant candidates. It’s not a perfect system (nothing is), and it certainly doesn’t magically nullify the irrefutable math of Arrow’s impposibility theorem. It’s just another way of counting votes, and one that is in no way controversial or even especially complicated compared to the variety of voting rules used in established democracies around the world.

So why the fuss?

Political fragility

Overspecialization is an ecological trap, just ask the koala. Sure, it’s great if you can digest and subsist off of a food source that no one else can, that sounds like a swell way to avoice resource competition. But if you overspecialize in that food such that you can no longer live off anything else, well, then you aren’t likely to survive any meaningful shift in you environmental context. What someone like Nicolas Taleb extolls the virtues of anti-fragility, a lot of what he is talking about is akin to adaptability to and tolerance for unforecastable events.

At the moment, if we can put aside policy positions entirely for a moment, there is an argument to be made that the Republican party is looking incredibly fragile. A sequence of events, some slow progressions over the last 20 years, others shocking events of the last 20 months, have left the Republicans looking highly specialized. Senator Cotton’s response to the outcome in Alaska leads me to wonder if they are electorally specialized to succeed in a context that doesn’t exactly exist anymore.

When I think of the Republican coalition and electoral base, what stands out in sharpest relief is:

  1. The urban-rural divide
  2. Single-issue voters, predominantly regarding abortion and firearms
  3. Trump

The urban-rural divide, specifically the overwhelming dominance of Republicans in rural settings, is the fulcrum upon which Republicans leverage their advantage through gerrymandered district maps. By cracking and packing districts, they’ve ceded a large number of landslide urban districts to Democrats for the express purpose of leaving them thinner elsewhere. The catch with gerrymandering as a minority party in the broader population, though, is that if you get greedy you can go grow accustomed to lots of predictable, but nonetheless narrow victories. Narrow victores, no matter how previously safe and easy to forecast, do not grant a lot of leeway for absorbing electoral shifts. Like, for example, significant numbers of educated urban voters moving to medium-sized cities in red and purple states.

Abolishing abortion has long been a rally cry to turn out voters, and seemingly a pretty good one at that. While pro-choice voters may be just as passionate, protecting the status quo has rarely the same draw as tearing down a cruel and unjust system. Voters may have remained the same, but the status quo has changed and, with it, the prospects for drawing voters to the polls.

Bizarre as it would have seemed to say this 10 years ago, Trump is a bonafide cult of personality. His people love him and he has as much influence with at least half the Republican party as anyone since Reagan, and probably more than even he did. I wouldn’t have said this 10 months ago, but there is a very real chance that he is going to prison. Even if he doesn’t, though, the investigation and trials are unlikely to put Republicans in a positive light with moderate and independent voters, and without the office of the presidency, Trump lacks the same power to shape the narrative that he previously enjoyed.

Actually, let’s revisit the Trump as Republican icon for a quick moment.

One of Seventeen

In the aftermath of Trump’s surprising win of the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, there was floated the possibility that Trump was a Condorcet loser. That is to say, in a head to head election he would have lost to every other major candidate. A retrospective analysis challenged this idea, suggesting that Trump had far broader support in the party than just a loyal and dedicated minority, but I’m not sure how much of that is a product of post hoc endogeneity.

What is not argued is that the 2016 Republican primary still had a lot of candidates late in the game. Seventeen candidates qualified for the first debate. By the fifth debate there were still 13 candidates sufficiently viable to claim a spot on stage. Even if we can’t perfectly adjudicate who Trump would or would not have beaten head to head, the outcome of the eventual election was highly sensitive to the voting rule given the sheer number of candidates. If the primary had been subject to anything other than standard plurality rule voting, it is highly possible, if not probable, that a different winner would have emerged.

The thing about a polarizing candidate is that you are that much less likely to be anyone’s second choice. Under a plurality system you rely on the people who love you, attack the ones that hate you, and comfortably ignore the rest. But some voting rules increase the cost of those you ignore.

About that Alaska Primary

Did I mention that Alaska didn’t just change the voting system for the general election? They had an open primary (meaning candidates from any party competed to be one of the final four candidates). Through a simple plurality rule election, everyone voted for their favorite candidate and the top 4 advanced to the general election where the ranked choice rule was employed.

What would have happened if such a rule were applied in the Republican primary of 2016? What would happen if such a rule were applied across the country where

  1. Roe vs Wade has been overturned
  2. Trump may very well be going to prison.
  3. A lot of people are moving from big blue cities to low housing costs and adequate amenties of medium size cities in purple states

A Democrat hadn’t won a statewide election in Alaska since 2008. Less than a week ago they did it in an election against a former Alaskan governor and Republican vice presidential nominee who’s been on Saturday Night Live. In the second round of vote counting, the eventual Democratic winner received 29% of the votes redistributed from the Republican who finished in 3rd place. There are, it seems, a lot of Republicans who preferred a Republican to a Democrat, but nonetheless preferred a Democrat to Sarah Palin.

Cotton is right. Republicans should be freaked out

I don’t expect ranked choice voting to sweep the nation (though I do think it is better than a standard plurality rule). But I think it is one more sign that Republicans have become overspecialized as a party and are not well-suited to adapt to changing political landscapes. Big things, like Roe being overturned, happen. The public can turn on any celebrity, including your party’s talisman. Rural voters might still mathematically individually be weighted more in the broad political calculus (cough Senate cough), but there’s still the problem that fewer voters live there, which means it only takes a small percent of the population moving to break your map. And what happens when the baby boomers don’t dominate electoral math anymore?

No, the Republican’s aren’t doomed to irrelevance. Yes, they will adapt and rebrand…eventually. But the reality is that there is no greater sign that a party is forecasting electoral difficulty for themselves than declarations that the system is rigged against them, regardless of whether they are railing against fictional corruption or actual institutions that really do work against them. In both cases, however, they are signaling the same thing: we’re in trouble. The Republican strategy of recent decades has been to terrify and pander to the base, attack and ignore the rest. And it’s worked. Ranked choice voting is a threat to that strategy because it increases the cost of attacking and ignoring voters outside of your base.

Maybe that alone is a sufficient argument for ranked choice voting – it increases the cost of attacking people outside of your political base. Given the evidence of political polarization and associated social fracturing, anything that shifts the balance of political incentives from outgroup antipathy to big-tent inclusion is proabably a good thing for all of us in the long run.

Papers I’ve been reading

In no particular order:

Moonshot: Public R&D and Growth by Shawn Kantor and Alexander Whalley. Whether its going to the moon or vaccinating a country, government spending sure seems to have a much better impact when there is a big, bright, and highly-specific outcome target.

The Economic Consequences of Being Denied an Abortion by Sarah Miller, Laura Wherry, and Diana Greene Foster. Being denied an abortion leads to significant financial distress.

Preferences for Firearms and Their Implications for Regulation by Sarah Moshary, Bradley Shapiro, and Sara Drango. Different types of guns serve as strong substitutes for each other, which will likely temper any regulatory effects from limiting one or more specific strata of firearms. As with any regulation, narrowly identifying what it is you want and expect from the policy remains the key to making an evidence-based argument for it.

A panel-based proxy for gun prevalence in US and Mexico by Daniel Cerquiera, Danilo Coelho, John Donohue, Marcelo Fernandes, and Jony Pinto Junior. Using “percent of suicides committed with a firearm” remains a the best proxy for firearms. Regional variation across the US remains exactly what you’d expect in the US. Is the same true of Mexico?

BONUS PAPER. From twitter this morning:

How Much Should We Trust the Dictator’s GDP Growth Estimates? by Luis Martinez

I’d seen this before, but I think about all the time. We don’t give nearly enough time consideration ro the endogeneity of results to the incentives behind data creation/recording anywhere, let alone autocratic countries. I get why – it invites the dismissal of any data inconvenient to your status quo thinking, but ignoring it completely is foolish.