In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt cites Dave Wasserman,
Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves,” in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned. If you find yourself in a Whole Foods store, there’s an 89 percent chance that the county surrounding you voted for Barack Obama. If you want to find Republicans, go to a county that contains a Cracker Barrel restaurant (62 percent of these counties went for McCain).1
It turns out that there’s a decisive break between Democratic and Republican support at a population density of 800 persons/per square mile. Why might that be? Colin Gordon suggests,
There is, of course, a lot going on here, including a long history of regional and metropolitan patterns in partisan alignment. But a hopeful reading of the map would go something like this: People who live close to one another are more likely to know someone of a different color, a different income group, or a different sexual orientation. They therefore rely upon and appreciate the provision of public goods and public services (transit, parks, garbage collection), even as they consume fewer public dollars than their less-densely populated counterparts.
On Quora, Kelly Martin, answering a question about why Manhattan overwhelmingly votes Democratic, explains,
For the same reason that virtually every densely populated urban area in the United States overwhelmingly votes for Democrats: because Republican principles of governance would leave highly developed urban areas with insufficient tax revenue to maintain the infrastructure services without which those densely populated areas could not continue to support human habitation at those densities. (For those who don’t believe this, consider this: the third rail of Chicago city politics is snow removal, and an administration that fails at snow removal will not survive the next election.)
Population density is one of the best predictors of partisan voting outcomes: the higher the population density of a voting precinct, the more likely that precinct will vote Democratic. Indeed, the only large cities in the US that do not reliably elect Democrats are cities (such as Indianapolis, Indiana and Jacksonville, Florida) that have incorporated large tracts of lower-density suburban territory into their municipal boundaries. Manhattan is the most densely populated tract of land in the United States, and thus on that basis alone one can predict—correctly—that Manhattanites will reliably elect Democrats.
It’s a compelling argument, but it could be mistaken in one of two ways. First, greater density generally implies economies of scale, so government outlays per capita for infrastructure might be lower than in rural areas. For instance, Internet access is more costly in rural areas than urban areas.
Perhaps Martin’s unstated premise is that the output of critical infrastructure specific to dense urban areas is above the minimum long run average cost, and suffers from diseconomies of scale. Given Tiebout competition, cities might offer value in many other ways that attract and retain residents, despite an inability to minimize the long run average cost of infrastructure.
Second, even if urban-specific infrastructure would benefit from economies of scale, it’s possible that there are systematic ideological biases that obscure this knowledge from urban Democratic voters.
Might it be that cities attract and breed people who have high openness to new experiences? Linda Krueger on Quora supposes,
Those in urban areas are simply exposed to more people, more diversity, more cultures, more ideas. They know the world is made up of differing religions, beliefs, and lifesyles because they see it outside their door every day and coexisting peacefully as everyone moves through their day.
Rural areas are isolated from much of the world because the world and all its diversity is not right outside their doors. Instead they get to create a view of others and of opposing beliefs that will not be challenged to any great degree simple because their environment is more homogeneous. In that scenario fear is built on the unknown. They can assume immigrants are taking jobs even though none have taken their jobs. They can assume terrorist are just waiting to destroy them because they fear and are leery of outsiders. They can assume homosexuality is a curse to a moral society because a foundamental religious foundation gives them a sense of community, a strength of righteousness, and a guide to follow that comes from a high authority they can rely on and refer to.
Without any definitive answers, I’d guess that a difference in tolerance and openness to new experiences is what’s primarily driving the effect, and the other political beliefs follow via irrational clustering.
1 Based on research by David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, reported by Stolberg 2011, as cited in Haidt, Jonathan (2012-03-13). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Kindle Locations 6731-6732). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Haidt, Jonathan (2012-03-13). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Kindle Locations 5210-5213). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
CC BY-ND 2.0-licensed photo “night density” by urban feel
What underlies the debate about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border?
As with so many seemingly intractable political arguments, debaters usually don’t explicitly state their premises describing which moral values are informing their position, because they rarely even realize their opponents are even operating on different moral dimensions.
A compressed argument from the right might take the form:
- Premise 1: The government’s primary role is to provide security, in the form of law enforcement, to its citizens and legal aliens.
- Premise 2: A government has the right to control who enters its borders.
- Conclusion: Therefore, the government’s policy should be to spend more resources enforcing laws against illegal border crossings, and one such tool would be a wall to help prevent said illegal border crossings.
Some on the right might find the above argument completely obvious and convincing, but the argument has many unstated premises with which to disagree. A decompressed form of the argument with more premises stated explicitly, might take the form:
- Premise 1: The government’s primary role is to provide security, in the form of law enforcement, to its citizens and legal aliens.
- Premise 2: A person’s national origin conveys probabilistic information about their security risk inside the United States.
- Premise 3: Legal immigration channels provide a necessary audit of the security risks of foreigners entering the country.
- Premise 4: It is possible and practical for unskilled workers to enter the country legally and work legally, but illegal immigrants are criminals who merely prefer to cut corners.
- Premise 5: A foreigner’s proclivity to circumvent legal immigration channels into the United States demonstrates a disrespect for the rule of law and an unhesitating willingness to commit criminal acts.
- Premise 6: Law enforcement should devote resources to prevent criminal activity, including illegal border crossings.
- Premise 7: A wall would be an effective tool to restrict illegal border crossings.
- Premise 8: The marginal financial costs of a wall are less than or equal to the combined marginal economic and security benefits of a wall.
- Premise 9: Deference to authority moral foundation: Following the law is an important moral value in and of itself, so it’s wrong for rule-violators to go unpunished.
- Premise 10: In-group loyalty moral foundation: The government should grant preferential treatment to United States citizens and legal aliens in the form of economic protectionism.
- Premise 11: Fairness and reciprocity moral foundation: By selling their labor off-the-books and without paying taxes, illegal immigrants don’t contribute to paying for government-provided infrastructure and services.
- Conclusion: Therefore, the government should construct a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Contrast the above argument from the right to the below argument from from the left:
- Premise 1: Harm and care moral foundation: There are desperate, impoverished people who are attempting to improve their lives by crossing the border to work in the U.S.
- Premise 2: Fairness and reciprocity moral foundation: Such impoverished people are poor from circumstances beyond their control, based on wherever they happened to be born.
- Premise 3: In-group loyalty moral foundation: There’s no special moral obligation to confer privileges, rights, or resources on the basis of national origin.
- Premise 4: Deference to authority moral foundation: It’s not particularly important to follow or enforce unjust laws.
- Premise 5: Liberty and oppression moral foundation: Laws restricting the free movement of people are oppressive.
- Conclusion: Constructing a wall to more strongly enforce an unjust law is undesirable.
Spelling out all of the unstated premises improves the discourse and reveals what exactly the impasse is. This is a similar technique to “Tabooing the words.”
The argument for or against a border wall actually follows a distinct pattern observable in many other political debates. The specific “wall” debate is generalizable to more-or-less any debate about harsher crackdowns on victimless crimes.
What were the policy objectives of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s? The intended objectives were to (1) reduce alcohol consumption in order to (2) reduce the the social ills caused by alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, when governments successfully achieved (1), they made (2) much, much worse. The policy problem with prohibition wasn’t that the government failed to reduce alcohol consumption—the problem was that by harshly cracking down on a victimless crime, they drove the activity underground into a black market, fueled organized crime, and made production, sale, and consumption of alcohol much more dangerous. The costs created by prohibition proved much higher than when alcohol had been legal.
The logic of harsher crackdowns for victimless crimes almost always fails, 180° from the intended policy objectives. Some other examples:
- Modern-day marijuana prohibition
- Modern-day marijuana prohibition fuels violent, depraved Mexican drug cartels.
- There are no equivalent “tobacco cartels” or “alcohol cartels,” because neither tobacco nor alcohol are traded on a black market.
- The illegality of prostitution
- Prostitution is largely an illegal, underground business, which makes it more dangerous for prostitutes and their johns. Prostitutes or johns who find themselves in danger can’t rely on law enforcement for protection or recourse.
- Driving prostitution underground makes sex slavery and human trafficking a viable business model. Ceteris paribus, pushing the supply curve to the right with legal, regulated prostitution businesses would obliterate the slavery business model.
- Exploiting tax loopholes instead of paying taxes
- U.S. corporations hire lobbyists, lawyers, and accountants to create, find, and exploit tax loopholes—if taxes were simply lower, it would be more cost-effective just to pay the taxes. The stated intent of high corporate income tax rates is to extract more revenue from corporations, but the higher tax rates spur firms to find clever ways to pay less in taxes.
- Even though Arthur Laffer was empirically wrong about his parabola’s numerical values, his concept was more or less correct. Hauser’s law holds.
The logic of harsher crackdowns applies in the same way to human migration. By driving the victimless crime of human migration underground, the government is spurring social ills—funding organized crime through cayotaje, and making living and working more dangerous for laborers who are merely seeking to sell their labor.
Much of the immigration debate can be stripped down to two opposing outlooks. The core question is whether, on net, outsiders are:
- Either a cost to the United States, consuming resources and predating on American citizens;
- Or a benefit to the United States, looking to improve their lives by consensually selling their labor and participating in positive-sum economic transactions in iterated games.
The explanation from Matt Taibbi on the rise of Trump, the leftist-style economic protectionism on the right, and the “politics of resentment” applies to the immigration debate as well.
It seems like a historical accident that the left and right divided on the immigration debate in the way that they did. Why didn’t we see labor unions on the left promote economic protectionism against immigrants, and the free-marketeers on the right promote free markets for unskilled labor?
One cliché heard from the right is “being only against illegal immigration, and for legal immigration,” which presumes that it’s at all possible for unskilled workers to enter the country legally. It’s not.
The same logic of 180° unintended consequences from harsh crackdowns on victimless crimes applies for “national security” concerns as well. It would merely promote cayotaje to crack down more harshly on current immigration laws before actually reforming laws to make immigration for unskilled immigrants legal.
Because immigrants are primarily seeking to sell their labor, there would be no reason migrate illegally if legal immigration were actually a viable option.
Just as the repeal of alcohol prohibition eliminated the revenue stream to organized crime during prohibition, legalizing immigration for unskilled workers would eliminate cayotaje. At the moment, potential terrorists and dangerous criminals are free to use the cayotaje infrastructure, which decreases national security.
Last year, in reference to the Trayvon Martin case, Matt Yglesias wrote a great short explanation of how racism is a kind of ignorance of Bayesian updating. In short, racists justify their racism by neglecting base rates. It’s a fallacious form of the availability heuristic.
Bayesian reasoning can be difficult to understand when it’s presented formally with equations and formulas, so let’s illustrate the concept with Venn diagrams.
Consider two populations, white and black. The white population is larger than the black population.
Assume that the amount of crime that occurs in the two populations is roughly proportional to the size of each, represented by the red circle below.
Assume that police attention, due to institutional racism, is disproportionately focused toward black criminals, as represented by the blue ellipse below.
The population of convicted criminals would be represented by the purple shading below.
A racist observing racial discrepancies between the inmate population and the general population is myopically only seeing the purple shading. The racist sees that blacks make up a disproportionately large fraction of the purple shading while falsely assuming the inmate population is an unbiased sample. The racist neglects what the true parameter is.
Disproportionately punishing criminals in minority communities would be horrible in and of itself, but the War on Drugs has subverted the criminal justice system in an even worse way, and exacerbated institutional racism. How?
Conducting the War on Drugs requires the violation of civil liberties. Why? Whereas victims of crimes cooperate with police and offer evidence to bring criminals to justice, victimless crimes produce no such cooperative victims. Without victims pointing toward any kind of offender, the primary method to catch violators of victimless crimes is to preemptively assume some fraction of a population is criminal and use sweeping powers to arbitrarily detain and search.
Without any victims, from where would probable cause originate? Terry v. Ohio paved the path for Arizona v. Johnson, and now the police act on “reasonable suspicion,” which in practice has turned into arbitrary officer discretion, far beyond the original scope of the standard to ensure officer safety. “Reasonable suspicion” is a lesser degree of certainty than probable cause, and as such, was always obviously unconstitutional.
If a police department were already predisposed to target a black community, instructing them go after victimless crimes would intensify their biased policing, giving them cover to target whomever they already were going to target.
Not only does the War on Drugs erode the potency of the Constitution, it erodes the trust between the public and law enforcement. Whereas the public might, in ideal theory, primarily rely on law enforcement for protection from criminals, the War on Drugs has subverted the relationship, and given the public a reason to fear the police. The War on Drugs distracts the police with incentives to maximize drug arrests, drawing their focus drawn away from putting away the harmful elements of society.
The War on Drugs produces a more disturbing Venn diagram.
Assume a majority white population and a minority black population.
Assume that victimless crimes in the two populations are occurring proportionally to their populations, because the drive to alter consciousness is a human universal.
Assume that a smaller amount of crimes with victims are occurring in the two populations proportionally.
The encouragement of police attention to victimless crimes gives the police cover to disproportionately target the black community.
Racists incorrectly infer biased police attention as a proxy for societal harm, failing to distinguish between malum in se and malum prohibitum. The purple shading below represents an entire group of people who are being oppressed by a criminal justice system that is consistently and repeatedly violating Mill’s harm principle.
Edward Said claimed,1 and Noam Chomsky agreed, that the acceptable range of political attitudes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are much more diverse among Israeli Jews than American Jews. I’ve been searching for some hard evidence that American Jews are more hawkish toward Palestinians than Israeli Jews, but haven’t found any.
The claim is plausible, though. Conflict-generated diaspora groups might feel a stronger urge to demonstrate in-group loyalty to compensate for their absence. Terrence Lyons explains in his 2004 paper,
One dynamic that tends to make conflicts in the homeland more protracted, therefore, is the existence of certain types of diaspora groups with strong symbolic attachments to a territory and uncompromising views on how conflict there should be understood and contested.
The hawkishness from without actually seems to aggravate the homeland conflict. Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler hypothesize in their 1999 paper,
A further potentially important source of start-up finance for rebellion is a diaspora living in OECD countries. Such diasporas are usually much richer than the population in their country of origin. They are better-placed for collective action: emigrants have a cultural incentive to create diaspora organizations which can then discipline free-riding. They do not suffer the consequences of the conflicts they finance. As with grievance among the local population, in the greed-model grievance among the diaspora is assumed to be manufactured by the rebel organization rather than being an original cause of conflict. Hence, the diaspora increases the risks of conflict renewal, but not the initial risk of conflict. We measure the size of diasporas in the USA relative to the population in their country of origin.
By far the strongest effect of war on the risk of subsequent war works through diasporas. After five years of post-conflict peace, the risk of renewed conflict is around six times higher in the societies with the largest diasporas in America than in those without American diasporas. Presumably this effect works through the financial contributions of diasporas to rebel organisations.
Collier and Hoeffler also controlled for how large diasporas might be because of the size of conflicts themselves.
The case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular isn’t so straightforward. Jonathan Rynhold, writing in 2008, explains, “Prior to the 1980s Diaspora identification with Israel was expressed in unwavering support for Israeli policies. Since then Diaspora support for Israeli policies cannot be taken for granted.” Rynhold holds that the 1982 Lebanon War dissolved the unanimity of opinion in the diaspora, due to the media coverage of Sabra and Chatilla. The 1980s brought the Jonathan Pollard affair, as well as the First Intifada, which impelled liberals to contemplate the policies in the Palestinian territories.
It would be useful to collect opinion data from emigrant communities connected to current ongoing conflicts, and compare them to opinion data in the homelands. Where can I get some good, current research on this?
Both This American Life and Tina Rosenberg recently covered GiveDirectly, a charity started by a few grad students who understood that social programs that provide specific kinds of goods or services can’t be as efficient as simple cash transfers.
What’s efficiency? Laypeople incorrectly assume that efficiency, for any given process, has to do with maximizing output while minimizing input. When economists discuss efficiency, it’s actually shorthand for Pareto efficiency. An allocation of resources is Pareto efficient if no individual can be made better off without making another individual worse off.
Assume that X represents a specific good or service, and Y represents all other possible goods or services. Without any help, an individual with budget constraint BC would consume at E. A social program that distributes only X would shift the recipient’s budget constraint from BC to BD, and the recipient would then consume at F. However, if the recipient were to receive cash, the budget constraint would shift to AD, and the recipient would be on an even higher indifference curve, and would consume at G.
BC is parallel to AD. It’s important to realize that, in either case, the donor would be spending the exact same amount of money. The donor has no way of knowing the recipient’s precise consumption preferences, so donating cash gives the recipient the freedom to more precisely choose how much to purchase of X and Y.
Tina Rosenberg discusses how politically unpalatable cash transfers are,
Those on the left tend to believe that the differences come from giant structural problems: bad or no education, health, transport, housing, few jobs. Giving cash to the poor, while helpful, solves one of these problems: credit constraints. It’s a big problem. But once it’s solved, another problem is likely to get in the way.
The right-wing argument is that the poor are poor because of the culture of poverty: people make bad choices, lack discipline, look for short-term gratification. This argument holds that giving cash to the poor doesn’t help much — and many people will misspend it in ways that make things worse.
Standard consumer choice theory dissolves these kinds of left-wing and right-wing superstitions. Unfortunately, such flawed political narratives tend to be based more on availability heuristics than sound systematic analyses.
I was recently driving across the state of Virginia, and a trip that should have taken me about four hours via the highways actually took me about seven, due to heavy congestion. This is so beyond unacceptable for modern, civilized society. Such congestion is not inevitable.
Most road warriors I talk to about the problem of traffic seem to think the problem is intrinsic to our road system, which is simply not true. The existence of such horrible traffic frustrates me enormously, but each conversation with people who take it as a given compounds my frustration even more.
Just a little bit of basic economic theory points to an extremely obvious solution, but discussing such solutions triggers predictable political irrationality. A fee-for-service model is an obvious way to correct a commons problem, but for temperamental reasons, some individuals lack the ability to think systematically or partake in proper epistemic hygiene.
Congestion is not inevitable
I can’t stress enough that traffic congestion is not inevitable. Some common refrains include: “There are just too many cars on the road,” or “This is just rush hour traffic.” Such fatalism is unwarranted.
Even meta-political public choice fatalism usually reserved for the federal government is unwarranted, because policy changes only need to be passed through state and local municipalities. Local governments are subject to Tiebout competition.
While unexpected accidents can always cause traffic jams, we can completely eradicate cyclical “rush hour” traffic.
A commons problem
Congestion on highways is a clear instance of a tragedy of the commons. Without tolls, highways are open-access resources. Individual motorists using open-access highways aren’t paying for the full social cost of consuming the scarce resource at the point of service.
When a motorist takes a car onto an open-access public road, they enjoy the private benefit of using the road to travel to their destination, but they impose a public cost of increasing the probability of traffic congestion. The cost to any one individual motorist is low; no one car causes heavy congestion. When too many motorists add in their externalized costs onto the road, congestion results. It’s a giant prisoner’s dilemma, because no one motorist faces the incentives to limit their usage, and motorists have no way of cooperating with each other to ration out the resource in any logical way.
Tolls are a way of exacting the costs from each motorist adding one more car onto the road.
The efficiency gains come about from changing behavior
Unsophisticated opponents of tolls have argued that cars unequipped with E-ZPass have to stop at tolls to pay, and actually cause buildups.
Where have we seen this flawed mental model before? Marx theorized that the base unidirectionally influenced the superstructure. Marx would have argued that tolls, as technologies in the base, constrain motorists by extracting money out of them. Marxist analysis can’t account for motorists’ individual cognitions. Dialectical materialism fails.
It’s the sort of mistake a child makes before developing a theory of mind. In reality, different motorists have different preferences and resources, and don’t want or need to use roads at the same quantity.
With tolls in place, individual motorists can decide on the margin whether or not to bear the cost of adding one more car to the road.
In technical economic terms, a toll’s fare needs to be high enough to change the price elasticity of demand from being inelastic to elastic. Increases in fares need to rise so that the percentage change in quantity demanded is greater than the percentage change in the price. If the price of a toll isn’t high enough, then the price elasticity of demand would remain inelastic, and cyclical traffic would persist.
What about the poor?
Critics of tolls charge that the poor bear the costs of tolls disproportionately. Such a claim is incoherent.
It’s important to remember that the problem the poor have is that they don’t have enough money. If we’re concerned in society with redistributing from rich to poor, we should redistribute the most liquid resource available, which is money, in the form of a transfer as close as possible to a lump-sum subsidy. Redistribution does not justify social engineering via taxes and subsidies on specific goods, services, or behaviors.
It doesn’t make sense to justify the continued existence of a market inefficiency on the basis that it puts the poor on an “equal” footing with the rich. At first glance, it may seem more fair to keep the resource unpriced. The underlying narrative is that not even the rich would be able to bypass the traffic in an open-access resource, and that if the rich were able to pay to exit, they would leave the poor either stuck in traffic, or unable to afford the new price of the tolls.
The narrative is wrong because when externalities exist, Pareto improvements are available by internalizing such externalities.
Tolls would actually help the poor, because the poor, along with everyone else, would experience the roads without traffic. Time wasted in traffic has the opportunity cost of foregone wages, commissions from sales, visits to clients, or valuable leisure time. Traffic also wastes gasoline. Dissolving traffic would increase the amount of resources available to all motorists, including the poor.
With the roads clear of congestion, people could still choose to substitute money for time by deciding how much to work. It makes no sense to lock people into a system that precludes any deliberate tradeoff, and it makes no sense to lock people into a system that just wastefully and unidirectionally converts money into time.
We can model the market for a toll road as having two segments, rich, R, and poor, P. The rich’s price elasticity of demand for a toll road () might remain inelastic, while the poor’s price elasticity of demand () might turn elastic:
This is a feature, not a bug. Income is one of the factors that affects elasticity. By converting the price elasticities of some motorists from inelastic to elastic, we can reveal preferences. Without any sort of bureaucratic central planning, motorists would find creative solutions to use toll roads at the point where marginal costs equal marginal benefits. Some motorists would turn to carpooling or slugging. Some would choose to not use the road during rush hour, and instead use the road only when the fares are lower. Some employers would adjust employees’ schedules accordingly.
In the interest of fairness, don’t we need tolls installed everywhere, all at once?
Some critics charge that if tolls are only installed on a few key roads, the motorists who use the toll roads bear some cost, while the motorists of other open-access roads avoid such a cost. Such thinking is exactly backwards.
Money, for all its usefulness in fueling civilization, is still abstract enough to severely confuse people. The fact that money is exchanging hands doesn’t automatically mean that costs are higher. On the contrary, tolls internalize the externality of traffic, and thus, using a decongested toll road costs less than a clogged open-access road. A congested road has the high cost of wasted time; a decongested toll road has a lower cost that’s exactly reflected in the price of its fare.
Patients committed to a Catonsville, Maryland psychiatric hospital have been consistently assaulting the hospital staff and generally causing chaos:
The chaos at the state’s largest psychiatric hospital, the consultant found, is fueled by a few patients who “prey upon patients and staff with relative impunity” after being ordered by courts to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation — sometimes with dubious symptoms.
The findings are contained in a report created for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in response to safety complaints from hospital staff. The report by Dr. Kenneth Appelbaum, an expert in forensic psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes a number of violent incidents over the past year. It also highlights an ongoing dispute between judges and clinicians over patient admission standards.
Remember Rosenhan’s 1973 experiment? Rosenhan challenged the validity of psychiatric diagnoses by having sane “pseudopatients” fake symptoms to be admitted into psychiatric hospitals, then immediately cease simulating any symptoms of abnormality. The hospitals never recognized the pseudopatients’ sanity.
The Maryland criminal justice system faces latent incentives to medicalize criminal behavior. Maybe prisons are overcrowded, or there’s pressure to cook statistics so as to disingenuously minimize the number of crimes, or there’s something else going on. We may never know. Regardless, the violence to the hospital staff is another example of an unintended consequence when a government co-opts a nexus of power.
The Wire: The Musical perfectly describes the nefarious spontaneous order:
There are complex problems inherent in the bureaucratic institutions of the state, but there’s no one to blame. It’s a vast array of personal interests that conflict in a way that undermines the overall system.