Predatory Fines

Toward the end of last year, I did a rundown of the data on racial bias and policing. A new study is worth adding to the list. According to its findings,

Ferguson was unlikely to be a unique outlier, and other cities engaging in similar practices might well have continued outside of the national spotlight. A new paper by Michael Sances of the University of Memphis and Hye Young You of Vanderbilt University published this month in the Journal of Politics found that Ferguson was indeed more of a rule than an exception. After examining data on 9,000 American cities, they found that those with more black residents consistently collected unusually high amounts of fines and fees—even after controlling for differences in income, education and crime levels. Cities with the largest shares (98%) of black residents collected an average of $12-$19 more per person than those with the smallest (0%) did.

However, there was one subgroup of cities that bucked the trend: the relationship between race and fines was only half as strong in places whose city councils included at least one black member. This may be because black politicians are likelier than white ones are to respond to complaints from black constituents. Black councillors might also intervene to stop certain policies, like increasing court fees, from going into effect to begin with.

What fines are we talking about exactly?

For example, in Peoria, Arizona, two people were jailed for not trimming weeds more than six inches tall. In Ferguson, a black man resting in his car after playing basketball in the public park was stopped by police and charged with, among other things, not wearing a seat belt in his (parked) car and making a false declaration after giving the officer a shortened name (like “Bob” instead of “Robert”). Such fines may fall disproportionately on the backs of black citizens, because they tend to be poorer and lack the resources to contest the penalties.

Despite the exhaustive controls the authors included in their study, the strong correlation they found does not demonstrate decisively that race is the ultimate cause of higher fines. However, it does put a very high burden of proof on researchers arguing that some other factor is responsible. Now that the pattern has been identified across the country, city governments that rely heavily on fines would be well-advised to consider more transparent sources of revenue, and ones that do not place an additional burden on a subset of residents who are already disadvantaged.

Check it out.

Consistent Warnings

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

In his talk, Ready to Work Long Hours, Elder Tanner cited an address to BYU by Dr. John A Howard contrasting the challenges faced by the pioneers with the challenges facing todays Saints:

The work that faces your generation is no less arduous. The deserts you must bring to blossom are no less arid, but your mission may demand even more of you, for unlike the early pioneers of this state you are confronted by a wilderness which is subtle and fluid and elusive. Indeed the wilderness which you must conquer is disguised as a civilization so that there is the double necessity to unmask the deceit, to distinguish between what is authentic and what is counterfeit, and to labor to support the one and oppose the other.

Later on in the talk, Elder Tanner explained the three worst components of the danger Dr. Howard referred to:

First, failure to keep the Sabbath day holy; second, breaking the Word of Wisdom: third, unchastity. There are many others.

I don’t hear as much about Word of Wisdom violations from the pulpit today as was common during General Conferences of the 1970s, but there is no doubt that it remains one of the greatest crises facing our nation. From a Vox article that came out today:

The scale of America’s opioid epidemic is shocking.

It is the deadliest drug overdose crisis in US history. In 2016 alone, drug overdoses likely killed more Americans in one year than the entire Vietnam War. In 2015, drug overdoses topped annual deaths from car crashes, gun violence, and even HIV/AIDS during that epidemic’s peak in 1995. In total, more than 140 people are estimated to die from drug overdoses every day in the US. About two-thirds of these drug overdose deaths are linked to opioids.

As for the other two—the Sabbath and chastity—that is precisely what the Church has been emphasizing as of late.

We cannot say we haven’t been adequately warned.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

Drug Overdose in Portugal

This is encouraging. From The Washington Post:

Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it — Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The drugs were still illegal, of course. But now getting caught with them meant a small fine and maybe a referral to a treatment program — not jail time and a criminal record.

Whenever we debate similar measures in the U.S. — marijuana decriminalization, for instance — many drug-policy makers predict dire consequences. “If you make any attractive commodity available at lower cost, you will have more users,” former Office of National Drug Control Policy deputy director Thomas McLellan once said of Portugal’s policies. Joseph Califano, founder of the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, once warned that decriminalization would “increase illegal drug availability and use among our children.”

But in Portugal, the numbers paint a different story. The prevalence of past-year and past-month drug use among young adults has fallen since 2001, according to statistics compiled by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which advocates on behalf of ending the war on drugs. Overall adult use is down slightly too. And new HIV cases among drug users are way down.

Now, numbers just released from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction paint an even more vivid picture of life under decriminalization: drug overdose deaths in Portugal are the second-lowest in the European Union.

From Mark Perry

Furthermore, “the use of “legal highs” — like so-called “synthetic” marijuana, “bath salts” and the like — is lower in Portugal than in any of the other countries for which reliable data exists. This makes a lot of intuitive sense: why bother with fake weed or dangerous designer drugs when you can get the real stuff? This is arguably a positive development for public health in the sense that many of the designer drugs that people develop to skirt existing drug laws have terrible and often deadly side effects.” In short, “[a]s the Transform Drug Policy Institute says in its analysis of Portugal’s drug laws, “The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise.””

Still think the Drug War is a good idea?

Be Creative, Boost Your Well-Being

Related imageSo says a new study:

Tamlin Conner, a researcher at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and two American researchers analyzed surveys from over 650 young adults who had filled out daily online diaries for 13 days. Among other things, the questions asked how much time they’d spent in creative endeavors each day, and about their well-being: their levels of positive emotion, negative emotion, and what the researchers called “flourishing”—an overall sense of meaning, purpose, engagement, and social connection in their lives.

To tease out what causes what, the researchers compared measures of creativity on one day to measures of well-being on the next day, and vice versa.

Results showed that people who were engaged in more creative activities than usual on one day reported increased positive emotion and flourishing the next day, while negative emotions didn’t change. However, the reverse effect did not seem to occur: People who experienced higher positive emotions on day one weren’t more involved in creative activities on day two, suggesting that everyday creativity leads to more well-being rather than the other way around.

The researchers also

found that people who were more creative on one day still experienced more flourishing and positive emotions like energy, enthusiasm, and excitement the next day (though not other positive emotions, like cheerfulness). This led Conner to conclude that engaging in small daily acts of creativity may influence overall well-being rather than simply making us feel good in the moment. But can everyone reap these benefits? Certain personality traits have been linked to creativity in the past, such as openness to experience. Yet, when Conner and her colleagues ran the analyses, they found that the benefits of engaging in creativity were similar across different personality types…Conner believes her findings suggest that people should incorporate more creativity into their week—perhaps learn to knit, take up cooking, sing in a group, paint, or play music. She also suggests tapping into creativity at work, by trying to come up with novel solutions to problems or writing creatively.

Persuasion in the Economy

Over 20 years ago, economists Deirdre (then Donald) McCloskey and Arjo Klamer argued that a quarter of GDP is due to “persuasion”: the sweet talk that is inherent in economic activity and transactions. A 2013 report by the Australian Treasury updates their findings and concludes that 30% of U.S. GDP is persuasion:

Chart 1 displays the steady rise of persuasion content in US employment. To focus on the biggest grouping — those having a persuasion content of three-quarters — in 1983, they accounted for 19.7 per cent of total employment and grew by two percentage points to 21.8 per cent by 1993. And again, from 22.1 per cent in 2003 the proportion of these workers increased to 22.3 per cent in 2009. Overall persuasion employment appears to have settled at around the 30 per cent mark.

How much of national output is attributable to persuasion? McCloskey and Klamer derive an estimate through the production measure of GDP: the ‘more obviously “talkie” parts of production are a large part of production for final consumption, and much of it is persuasion rather than information or command’. And since these ‘talkie’ parts, such as wholesale and retail trade, finance and general government, add up to 58 per cent of US GDP in 1991, they conjecture that ‘it would not be hard to see … a figure of about a quarter (of GDP) devoted to persuasion’ (p. 193).

An alternative guess could be made from the income side of the national accounts — GDP(I). Since the persuasion content of employment is 30 per cent and the proportion of national income accruing to labour is around 60 per cent in the US (Jacobson and Occhino (2012)), that gives the labour income component of persuasion in the national accounts of around 18 per cent. If a fifth to one-quarter of capital income represents persuasive activity, that accounts for another 8-10 per cent (that is 20-25 per cent x (1-0.6)) of persuasion in GDP(I).7 The digital economy’s rapid advance has meant that brand names, commercial trademarks and other intellectual property are playing a bigger role in economic transactions and by their nature may not be well reflected in the national accounts. Therefore it is quite possible that the persuasion content of GDP may now be closer to 30 per cent.

While it is likely that persuasion GDP has risen above one quarter, it also bears entertaining the possibility that some of that effort could be dissipated by economic contests and positioning à la Skaperdas and Vaidya (2009).

The report concludes,

Since the inspired guesstimate of McCloskey and Klamer, the economics profession launched itself into modelling many aspects of persuasion. Insights are to be had for sure, particularly in how regulators might mandate minimum product or service disclosure standards or how persuasion is deployed in economic contests. There might even be lessons as to how to communicate difficult economic reform proposals and how to navigate tricky political economy landscapes.

But as McCloskey (2011) suggests, some research effort may be falling back into the trap of treating persuasion as just another factor in formal optimisation exercises. In that sense, McCloskey and Klamer’s (1995) original hope remains unrealised. They had hoped that a renewed awareness of the importance of persuasion might encourage the modern economist to augment her technical tools of trade by taking seriously the potential of language in economic discourse and by utilising the power of interpretation in distinguishing between competing ‘hard results’. In this way, McCloskey’s agenda goes beyond evidence-based policy evaluations, useful and necessary as they are in policy discourse.

On a positive note, might it be time to update the McCloskey-Klamer catch phrase to ’30 per cent of GDP is persuasion’? Such renewed speculation would of course merely inform because the persuading was eloquently done by McCloskey and Klamer.

An Ordinary Man

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Elder Faust’s testimony resonated strongly with me:

As I come to a new calling, I recognize that I am a very ordinary man. Yet I gratefully acknowledge one special gift. I have a certain knowledge that Jesus of Nazareth is our Divine Savior. I know that He lives. From my earliest recollection I have had a sure perception of this. As long as I have lived, I have had a simple faith that has never doubted. I have not always understood, yet still I have known through a knowledge that is so sacred to me that I cannot give utterance to it.

I have a similar testimony. My certain knowledge is not about Jesus Christ. It’s more general and abstract. Ever since I was a little kid I can remember a conviction I’ve had that this world is not my original home. I have always felt, at a level deeper than any argument or theory, that there is more out there than what we see around us.

It is not even a belief that life will continue on after the grave, but simply an understanding that it didn’t start with birth. I came from somewhere else.

It also gives me comfort to hear an apostle say “I am a very ordinary man.” It’s vitally important, I believe, not to place our leaders on tall, narrow pedestals and entrust them with our testimonies. If we do that, then when they fall, our testimonies fall with them.

This is a Church for ordinary men and women.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

Humane Liberalism

Related imageAs mentioned before, the newest issue of Dialogue was just released. The first article of the new issue is Robert Rees’ “Reimagining the Restoration: Why Liberalism is the Ultimate Flowering of Mormonism.” Rees attempts to redeem the word from its current negative connotations in American society, reviewing its meaning in the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. He further connects to Joseph Smith’s statement that God “is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive” (pg. 4). Rees goes on to emphasize liberal commitments to earth stewardship, gender equality, the poor, peace, education, etc.

The article reminded me of a recent essay by economic historian Deirdre McCloskey titled “Manifesto for a New American Liberalism, or How to Be a Humane Libertarian.” As McCloskey notes, “Outside the United States libertarianism is still called plain “liberalism,” as in the usage of the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, with no “neo-” about it” (pg. 1). “Liberals 1.0 don’t like violence,” she continues. “They are friends of the voluntary market order, as against the policy-heavy feudal order or bureaucratic order or military-industrial order. They are, as Hayek declared, “the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution,” against the various parties of left and right which wish “to impose [by violence] upon the world a preconceived rational pattern.” In McCloskey’s view, “humane liberals are very far from being against poor people. Nor are they ungenerous, or lacking in pity. Nor are they strictly pacifist, willing to surrender in the face of an invasion. But they believe that in achieving such goods as charity and security the polity should not turn carelessly to violence, at home or abroad, whether for leftish or rightish purposes, whether to help the poor or to police the world. We should depend chiefly on voluntary agreements, such as exchange-tested betterment, or treaties, or civil conversation, or the gift of grace, or a majority voting constrained by civil rights for the minority” (pg. 2). She explains,

Such a humane liberalism has for two centuries worked on the whole astonishingly well. For one thing it produced increasingly free people, which (we moderns think) is a great good in itself. Slaves, women, colonial people, gays, handicapped, and above all the poor, from which almost all of us come, have been increasingly allowed since 1776 to pursue their own projects consistent with not using physical violence to interfere with other people’s projects. As someone put it: In the eighteenth century kings had rights and women had none. Now it’s the other way around. And—quite surprisingly—the new liberalism, by inspiriting for the first time in history a great mass of ordinary people, produced a massive explosion of betterments. 

…The Enrichment was, I say again in case you missed it, three thousand percent per person, near enough, utterly unprecedented. The goods and services available to even the poorest rose by that astounding figure, in a world in which mere doublings, increases of merely 100 percent, had been rare and temporary, as in the glory of fifth-century Greece or the vigor of the Song Dynasty. In every earlier case, the little industrial revolutions had reverted eventually to a real income per head in today’s prices of about $3 a day, which was the human condition since the caves. Consider trying to live on $3 a day, as many people worldwide still do (though during the past forty years their number has fallen like a stone). After 1800 there was no reversion. On the contrary, in every one of the forty or so recessions since 1800 the real income per head after a recession exceeded what it had been at the previous peak. Up, up, up. Even including the $3- a-day people in Chad and Zimbabwe, world real income per head has increased during the past two centuries by a factor of ten, and by a factor of thirty as I said, in the countries that were lucky, and liberally wise. Hong Kong. South Korea. Botswana. The material and cultural enrichment bids fair to spread now to the world.

And the enrichment has been equalizing. Nowadays in places like Japan and the United States the poorest make more, corrected for inflation, than did the top quarter or so two centuries ago (pgs. 4-5).

The whole thing is worth reading. Check it out.

The Long-Term Effects of the African Slave Trade

According to economist Nathan Nunn, the African slave trade (unsurprisingly) had numerous negative long-term effects, economically, socially and culturally. He writes,

An empirical literature has emerged that aims to supplement these historical accounts with quantitative estimates of the long-run impact of Africa’s slave trades. The first paper that attempted to provide such estimates was Nunn (2008). In the study, I undertook an empirical test, with the following logic. If the slave trades are partly responsible for Africa’s current underdevelopment, then, looking across different parts of Africa, one should observe that the areas that are the poorest today should also be the areas from which the largest number of slaves were taken in the past.

To undertake this study, I had to first construct estimates of the number of slaves taken from each country in Africa during the slave trades (i.e. between 1400 and 1900).

These estimates were  constructed  by  combining  data   on   the   number   of   slaves shipped from each African port or region  with  data  from  historical documents that reported the ethnicity of over 106,000 slaves taken from  Africa. Figure 1 provides an image showing a typical page from these historical documents. The documents shown are slave manumission records from Zanzibar. Each row reports information for one slave, including his/her name, ethnicity, age, and so on.

After constructing the estimates and connecting these with measures of modern day economic development, I found that, indeed, the countries from which the most slaves had been taken (taking into account differences in country size) were today the poorest in Africa. This can be seen in Figure 2, which is taken from Nunn (2008). It shows the relationship between the number of slaves taken between 1400 and 1900 and average real per capita GDP measured in 2000. As the figure clearly shows, the relationship is extremely strong. Furthermore, the relationship remains robust when many other key determinants of economic development are taken into account…According to the estimates from Nunn (2008), if the slave trades had not occurred, then 72% of the average income gap between Africa and the rest of the world would not exist today, and 99% of the income gap between Africa and other developing countries would not exist. In other words, had the slave trades not occurred, Africa would not be the most underdeveloped region of the world and it would have a similar level of development to Latin America or Asia.

“In a series of studies,” Nunn continues,

Whatley and Gillezeau (2011) and Whatley (2014) combine slave shipping records with ethnographic data and estimate the relationship between slave shipments and institutional quality and ethnic diversity in the locations close to the ports of shipment. Their analysis, consistent with Nunn (2008) and Green (2013), indicates that the slave trades did result in greater ethnic fractionalisation. In addition, their analysis also shows that the slave trades resulted in a deterioration of local ethnic institutions, measured in the late pre-colonial period.

Another subsequent study, undertaken by Nunn and Wantchekon (2011) asks whether the slave trades resulted in a deterioration of trust…In our study, Wantchekon and I extended the data construction efforts in Nunn (2008) and constructed estimates of the number of slaves taken from each ethnic group in Africa (rather than country). The ethnicity level estimates are displayed visually in Figure 3. The analysis combined the ethnicity-level slave export estimates with fine-grained household survey data, which reports individuals’ trust of those around them, whether neighbours, relatives, local governments, co-ethnics, or those from other ethnicities. The study documented a strong negative relationship between the intensity of the slave trade among one’s ethnic ancestors and an individual’s trust in others today.

The study then attempted to distinguish between the two most likely channels through which the slave trades could have adversely affected trust. One is that the slave trades made individuals and their descendants inherently less trusting. That is, it created a culture of distrust. In the insecure environment of the slave trade, where it was common to experience the betrayal of others, even friends and family, greater distrust may have developed, which could persist over generations even after the end of the slave trade.

Another possibility is that the slave trades may have resulted in a long-term deterioration of legal and political institutions, which are then less able to enforce good behaviour among citizens, and as a result people trust each other less today.

The study undertook a number of different statistical tests to identify the presence and strength of the two channels. They found that each of the tests generated the same answer: both channels are present. The slave trades negatively affected domestic institutions and governance, which results in less trust today. In addition, the slave trade also directly reduced the extent to which individuals were inherently trusting of others. We also found that, quantitatively, the second channel is twice as large as the first channel.

Guess what? The slave trade likely boosted the practice of polygyny in West Africa:

This is due to the fact that it was primarily males who were captured and shipped to the Americas, resulting in a shortage of men and skewed sex ratios within many parts of Africa. Interestingly, Dalton and Leung (2014) found that there is no evidence of such an impact for the Indian Ocean slave trade, where there was not a strong preference for male slaves. This has led the authors to conclude that Africa’s history of the slave trades is the primary explanation for why today polygyny is much more prevalent in West Africa than in East Africa.

Nunn concludes,

Although research understanding the long-term impacts of Africa’s slave trades is still in progress, the evidence accumulated up to this point suggests that this historic event played an important part in the shaping of the continent, in terms of not only economic outcomes, but cultural and social outcomes as well. The evidence suggests that it has affected a wide range of important outcomes, including economic prosperity, ethnic diversity, institutional quality, the prevalence of conflict, the prevalence of HIV, trust levels, female labour force participation rates, and the practice of polygyny. Thus, the slave trades appear to have played an important role in shaping the fabric of African society today.

GMO Yields

Image result for gmos

There’s a new paper out on genetically-engineered corn. Its results?:

This paper sought to identify whether, in fact, for corn “the nation-wide data . . . in the United States do not show a significant signature of genetic-engineering technology on the rate of yield increase,” as was indicated by NASEM (2016). Using corn yield panel data corresponding to roughly 28,000 U.S. county-years before and after adoption of GE corn, a simple model only including a time trend confirms NASEM’s assertion, as the effect of GE adoption appears, if anything, to have had a negative effect on yields. However, subsequent analysis reveals this simple model is biased. After controlling for weather and soil characteristics, and assuming a homogeneous effect of adoption, we find that adoption of GE corn has led to an approximate 17 percent increase in corn yields. We also find significant heterogeneity in the yield-effect that is not related to state-boundaries but rather to soil characteristics. On average, adoption of GE corn has led to an 18.5 bushel per acre increase in yield, but the effects range from 12.5 to 25.1 bushels per acre depending on soil characteristics. We conjecture that the variation across soil types may be related to differences in insect pressure.

While we found important soil-GE adoption interactions, there were no significant interactions related to weather. The findings suggest that the current GE traits have not led to more resilience to heat or water stresses. Moreover, while we find that the variance in corn yield has increased over time, adoption of GE corn has not lowered the variance. Nonetheless, if as our results show, adoption of GE corn increases yield without affecting variance, the coefficient of variation on yields has fallen as a result of GE corn adoption. This suggests GE corn is less risky as, for example, the actuarially fair price of insurance to indemnify a given yield falls as the coefficient of variation falls (pgs. 21-22).

So, once again, maybe we should calm down about GMOs.

DR Editors in Dialogue: Worship Through Corporeality

Dialogue, a Journal of Mormon ThoughtI’m excited to announce that the newest issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought features an article by yours truly and fellow DR editor Allen Hansen. The piece is titled ““All Things Unto Me Are Spiritual”: Worship Through Corporeality in Hasidism and Mormonism.” As we explain in the introduction,

[W]e seek to draw useful parallels between Hasidic Judaism and Mormonism by presenting the former’s concept of “worship through corporeality” as a theologically rich source for understanding and describing Mormonism’s materialist merging of heaven and earth, sacred and mundane. If, as one scholar has stated, “an examination of other revival movements and their characteristics will also provide a new background against that which is distinctive in Hasidism will stand out in clear relief,” the same holds true for the study of early Mormonism. In this paper, we will outline Hasidism’s concept of “worship through corporeality” and its roots in Enochian folklore. We will also briefly touch on the Mussar movement’s connection to these Enoch stories and how it shaped their ethics and worldview. Finally, we will explore multiple sources throughout early Mormonism that similarly demonstrate an overlap of the spiritual and temporal in the minds of many Saints, leading them to view their labors as sacred tasks in the building of Zion (pgs. 59-60).

It’s a relief to finally see this in print. The seeds of it were sown with a comment by Allen on a 2013 post at The Slow Hunch. The idea eventually became a twopart blog post at Worlds Without End, which evolved into a presentation at the 2014 conference for the Mormon Transhumanist Association and later the 2015 Faith & Knowledge conference. It sat at Dialogue for a long time due to management changes. We withdrew it and submitted to BYU Studies Quarterly, which deemed it “too specialized and not right for a large enough segment of our target audience.” So we resubmitted a more focused version to Dialogue, much to the enthusiastic support of the editor.

And now, at long last, it’s here. Enjoy!