The Evidence for Syringe Exchange Programs and Drug Decriminalization

Image result for syringe exchange programAn article in The New York Times last month highlights some important policies that could be more effective than our currently abysmal War on Drugs: syringe exchange programs. “Evidence abounds that they work,” writes economist Austin Frakt.

A study of the first American program–started in the Tacoma, Wash., area in 1988–found that use of the exchange was associated with a greater than 60 percent reduction in the risk of contracting hepatitis B or C. Another study of over 1,600 injection drug users in New York found that those who didn’t use a syringe exchange in the early 1990s were more than three times as likely to contract H.I.V.

It turns out these programs are also cheaper for taxpayers:

A cost-effectiveness analysis published in 2014 replicated the findings of others that came before it: A dollar invested in syringe exchange programs saves at least six dollars in avoided costs associated with H.I.V. alone. 

But don’t these programs promote drug use and crime? Well, “according to many studies, that isn’t so. Instead, they are associated with increased participation in treatment programs.” When taken with the evidence of the positive effects of Portugal’s drug decriminalization, it seems we have multiple reasons to give up the War on Drugs and the programs to erect in its stead.

Human Violence: High for Mammals, Average for Primates, Less Than Before

As reported in The Atlantic,

Which mammal is most likely to be murdered by its own kind? It’s certainly not humans—not even close. Nor is it a top predator like the grey wolf or lion, although those at least are #11 and #9 in the league table of murdery mammals. No, according to a study led by José María Gómez from the University of Granada, the top spot goes to… the meerkat. These endearing black-masked creatures might be famous for their cooperative ways, but they kill each other at a rate that makes man’s inhumanity to man look meek. Almost one in five meerkats, mostly youngsters, lose their lives at the paws and jaws of their peers.

Gómez’s study is the first thorough survey of violence in the mammal world, collating data on more than a thousand species. It clearly shows that we humans are not alone in our capacity to kill each other. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, have been known to wage brutal war, but even apparently peaceful creatures take each other’s lives. When ranked according to their rates of lethal violence, ground squirrels, wild horses, gazelle, and deer all feature in the top 50. So do long-tailed chinchillas, which kill each other more frequently than tigers and bears do.

The article continues:

The point of this macabre census was to understand the origins of our own behavior. Gómez typically studies plants and insects, but he realized that the techniques he uses to study their evolution can be used to study our own. In particular, he noted that closely related species tend to show similar levels of lethal interpersonal violence. He could use those similarities to predict how violent any given mammal should be, and whether it meets, exceeds, or defies those expectations.

It turns out that humans “were six times more lethally violent than the average mammal, but about as violent as expected for a primate. But time and social organizations have sated our ancestral bloodthirst, leaving us with modern rates of lethal violence that are well below the prehistoric baseline. We are an average member of an especially violent group of mammals, and we’ve managed to curb our ancestry.”

By how much though? After “poring through statistical yearbooks, archaeological sites, and more,” the researchers were able “to work out causes of death in 600 human populations between 50,000 BC to the present day. They concluded that rates of lethal violence originally ranged from 3.4 to 3.9 percent during Paleolithic times, making us only slightly more violent than you’d expect for a primate of our evolutionary past. That rate rose to around 12 percent during the bloody Medieval period, before falling again over the last few centuries to levels even lower than our prehistoric past.”

The reason? Organization.

[O]nce we formed large states, “institutions like the rule of law reduced rates of lethal violence below what one would expect for a mammal with our ancestry and ecology, and below what has been observed in human societies in earlier periods and with simpler forms of social organization,” says Steven Pinker from Harvard University. He argued as much in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, but says that Gómez’s team have done so “with greater precision, rigor, and depth; I wish this study had been available when I wrote the book.”

Racial Bias & Policing: A Rundown of the Data

With protests in Charlotte and the shooter of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa being charged with manslaughter, the question of systemic racism and #BlackLivesMatter has risen again. The following is meant to be a helpful list of relevant data regarding the current state of police force and racial bias:

  • The Rarity of Force: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it is “[k]nown with substantial confidence…that police use force infrequently. The data indicate that a small percentage of police-public encounters involve force. For example, about 1 percent of people who had face-to-face contacts with police said that officers used or threatened force, according to preliminary estimates based on the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 1996 pretest of its Police-Public Contact Survey…In 7,512 adult custody arrests, another study…notes that fewer than one out of five arrests involved police use of physical force (defined as use of any weapon, use of any weaponless tactic, or use of severe restraints). That can be considered a low rate in view of the study’s broad definition of force” (pg. vii). By highlighting this first, “the intention is neither to minimize the problem nor to suggest that the issue can be dismissed as unworthy of serious attention. Society’s ends are best achieved peaceably, and we should strive to minimize the use of force by police as much as possible. However, it is important to put police use of force in context in order to understand the potential magnitude of use-of-force problems. Although estimates may not completely reassure everyone that police are doing everything they can to minimize the use of force, the data do not support the notion that we have a national epidemic of police violence” (pg. 3). In summary, the vast majority of civilian/police interactions involve no violence whatsoever.
  • Increase in Police Shootings: However, the above study was done in 1999. Both private and federal data since then suggest that the use of lethal force by police is increasing (see the graph below). Nonetheless, even with upticks in killings by police, the use of lethal force would still be exceedingly rare.

  • Lack of Prosecution: Very few officers have been prosecuted for fatal shootings since 2005 according to a 2015 analysis by The Washington Post. This could very well be for good reasons, but the point is that it is rare for an officer to face prosecution.
  • Police Officers Are Safer: Murders, assaults, and shootings of police officers have thankfully declined over the last few decades (for example, see the graph on assaults and injuries below). We should want to keep it that way.

  • Unreliable Data: Unfortunately, the data on use of force by police aren’t very helpful. Reporting on a 2013 survey conducted by the Justice Department, The New York Times stated, “But when the data was issued…the figures turned out to be almost useless. Nearly all departments said they kept track of their shootings, but in accounting for all uses of force, the figures varied widely. Some cities included episodes in which officers punched suspects or threw them to the ground. Others did not. Some counted the use of less lethal weapons, such as beanbag guns. Others did not. And many departments, including large ones such as those in New York, Houston, Baltimore and Detroit, either said they did not know how many times their officers had used force or simply refused to say. That made any meaningful analysis of the data impossible.” USA Today found similar problems. For example, University of Nebraska criminologist Samuel Walker said that the uptick in police shootings could simply be due to more departments reporting. The Washington Post‘s Radley Balko summarizes, “The point is, it’s nearly impossible to know all the details behind all of these shootings. We have to rely on reports filed by the officers themselves. We know more details about these particular cases because an attorney or a journalist took the time to investigate, file open records requests, and look beyond the police reports and press accounts (which, less face it, too often are too reliant on the police reports).”
  • Individual Racism: Rhetoric from critics of police sometimes gives the impression that police shootings of blacks stem from individual racism. According to a 2015 survey, 12.2% of all U.S. local police officers are black. Interestingly enough, one study found that black officers are 3.3 times more likely to discharge their weapon than white officers on the scene of the same incident. A 2015 study of the Philadelphia Police Department by the U.S. Justice Department found that black officers had a threat perception failure (TPF) rate of 11.4% with black suspects, while white officers’ TPF rate was only 6.8% with black suspects (see pg. 32). A Washington State University study found that “[p]articipants were…more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects than black or Hispanic ones and more likely to fail to fire at armed black suspects. “In other words,” wrote [Lois] James and her co-authors, “there was significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were concerned.” When confronted by an armed white person, participants took an average of 1.37 seconds to fire back. Confronted by an armed black person, they took 1.61 seconds to fire and were less likely to fire in error. The 240-millisecond difference may seem small, but it’s enough to be fatal in a shooting.” The reason may be “rooted in people’s concerns about the social and legal consequences of shooting a member of a historically oppressed racial or ethnic group.” The case for individual racism in a general sense is hard to make.
  • Systemic Racism: However, criticism from groups like Black Lives Matter and others are not so much focused on individual racism as they are on systemic racism. The claim is not that cops are individually racist (“some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses“), but that the system in which they operate is biased against vulnerable black communities. For example, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander details how the War on Drugs disparately impacts black and poor communities more than white and prosperous ones. Blacks are far more likely to be charged with and convicted of drug crimes, yet blacks use drugs at roughly the same rates as whites while being less likely to sell. While this doesn’t address violent crimes–of which blacks commit a disproportionate amount–it’s worth noting that drug crimes “have been the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons in recent decades.” Nathaniel has an excellent review here, which covers the book’s claims regarding racially-disparate stops, arrests, convictions, and consequences that come with the scarlet-F of a felony conviction.
  • Black-on-Black Crime: This is a largely irrelevant talking point. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 93% of black murder victims were killed by other blacks between 1980 and 2008. Similarly, 84% of white murder victims were killed by other whites (pg. 13; see graph below). In other words, most violent crime is intraracial. Furthermore, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that–between 2008 and 2012–those “in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) (39.8 per 1,000) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households (16.9 per 1,000).” It turns out that “[p]oor urban blacks (51.3 per 1,000) had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites (56.4 per 1,000).” Between 2007 and 2011, the black poverty rate was 25.8 percent, while the white poverty rate was 11.6 percent. In short, poor whites and blacks commit violent crimes at about the same rate. There are just more poor blacks than poor whites. And considering that there is strong empirical support for poverty as a predictor of crime, lifting communities out of poverty may be one of the best crime prevention programs.

Image result for Homicides, by race of offender and victim, 1980–2008

  • Stops, Searches, Arrests: Numerous studies find that blacks are stopped and searched at far higher rates than whites. A July 2016 report on police practices in San Francisco found that statistics “suggest there are racial disparities regarding SFPD stops, searches, and arrests, particularly for Black people.” Black adults were 7 times more likely to be arrested than whites along with having higher rates of searches without consent after stops and lower hit rates (i.e., rate at which searches turn up contraband). The Justice Department’s 2015 investigation into Ferguson police behavior found that “African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search” (pg. 4). A 2016 study of Chicago PD found that “black and Hispanic drivers were searched approximately four times as often as white drivers, yet CPD’s own data show that contraband was found on white drivers twice as often as black and Hispanic drivers” (pg. 9). A 2014 ACLU analysis of Illinois Department of Transportation data found that “African American and Latino drivers are nearly twice as likely as white drivers to be asked during a routine traffic stop for ‘consent’ to have their car searched. Yet white motorists are 49% more likely than African American motorists to have contraband discovered during a consent search by law enforcement, and 56% more likely when compared to Latinos.” A New York Times analysis found that officers in Greensboro, N.C. were “were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason. And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance.” A 2016 Justice Department investigation of Baltimore PD found that “BPD engages in a pattern or practice of making stops, searches, and arrests in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and Section 14141. BPD frequently makes investigative stops without reasonable suspicion of people who are lawfully present on Baltimore streets. During stops, officers commonly conduct weapons frisks—or more invasive searches— despite lacking reasonable suspicion that the subject of the search is armed. These practices escalate street encounters and contribute to officers making arrests without probable cause, 36 often for discretionary misdemeanor offenses like disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, loitering, trespassing, and failure to obey” (pg. 24). It also found that “BPD disproportionately stops African Americans standing, walking, or driving on Baltimore streets. The Department’s data on all pedestrian stops from January 2010 to June 2015 shows that African Americans account for 84 percent of stops55 despite comprising only 63 percent of the City’s population. Expressed differently, BPD officers made 520 stops for every 1,000 black residents in Baltimore, but only 180 stops for every 1,000 Caucasian residents. The high rate of stopping African Americans persists across the City, even in districts where African Americans make up a small share of the population. Indeed, the proportion of African-American stops exceeds the share of African-American population in each of BPD’s nine police districts, despite significant variation in the districts’ racial, socioeconomic, and geographic composition” (pg. 48-49). This was true for traffic stops as well: “BPD likewise stops African-American drivers at disproportionate rates. From 2010–2015, African Americans made up 82 percent of people stopped by BPD officers for traffic violations, compared to only 60 percent of the City’s driving age population. As with pedestrian stops, BPD stopped a higher rate of African American drivers in each of the City’s districts, despite large differences in those districts’ demographic profiles and traffic patterns. For example, African Americans accounted for 80 percent of vehicle stops in the Northern District despite making up only 41 percent of the district’s population, and made up 56 percent of stops in the Southeast District compared to only 23 percent of the population living there” (pg. 52). And yet, BPD hit rate data “suggests that officers’ search decisions are biased against African Americans. Indeed, BPD’s data on all stops from 2010–2015 shows that searches of African Americans have significantly lower hit rates than other searches. During vehicle stops, BPD officers reported finding some type of contraband less than half as often when searching African Americans—in only 3.9 percent of searches of African Americans, compared to 8.5 percent of other searches” (pg. 53). A 2011 Justice Department report found, in 2008, that whites, blacks, and Hispanics were stopped at about the same rate, yet blacks were searched about 3 times more than whites (pg. 10). A 2016 study of North Carolina’s database found “that black drivers (men and women) are 75% more likely to be searched than whites, 5% less likely to be ticketed, and 43% more likely to be arrested…In 2002, black men were 70% more likely to be searched than whites and this disparity has grown steadily over the period of study. Beginning in 2007, black men were twice as likely to be searched and by 2013 this difference had grown to over 140%. Black men are also more likely to be arrested; however, this disparity has remained stable at about a 60% increased likelihood. We also see that black men are marginally less likely to receive citations and there is almost no variance; NC police are highly consistent over time in their relative treatment of whites and black men when it comes to ticketing…Compared to white men, black men are more likely to be searched and arrested for every type of stop, with the exception of driving while impaired” (pg. 10). According to the database, “[i]n 2002, officers were almost 125% more likely to search black men than white men using a probable cause search. By 2013, officers were almost 250% more likely to use probable cause as a justification for searching blacks – essentially doubling the disparity in the use of probable cause searches. Tracking the contraband hit rate associated with this type of search reveals that officers’ suspicions of wrongdoing have always been less accurate when engaging with black motorists; officers consistently find contraband on black males at modestly lower rates than white males. So the increased reliance on probable cause to search blacks is not associated with more accurate assessments of the likelihood of blacks engaging in criminal behavior. And the increased racial disparities in probable cause searches over time appear to be unjustified in terms of any increased likelihood of finding contraband” (pg. 13).
  • Driving Patterns and Traffic Violations: Are there alternative reasons for these stops besides racial bias and is there any evidence for them? The National Institute of Justice finds three potential reasons that blacks are pulled over at higher rates based on various studies: (1) “The representation of minority drivers among those stopped could differ greatly from their representation in the residential census. Naturally those driving on the road, particularly major thoroughfares, could differ from those who live in the neighborhood”; (2) “If minority drivers tend to drive in communities where there are more police patrols then the police will be more likely to notice any infractions the black drivers commit”; (3) Seatbelt usage is chronically lower among black drivers. If a law enforcement agency aggressively enforces seatbelt violations, police will stop more black drivers.” As a Washington Post article concludes, “Ethics aside, this is where the research leaves us: Black drivers certainly get more face-time with traffic cops. But to what extent that reflects discrimination, and whether that discrimination is based in racial prejudice, is more of an open question.”
  • Unarmed Shootings: A 2015 study found “the median probability across counties of being {black, unarmed, and shot by police} is 3.49 (PCI95: 1.77, 6.04) times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police}.” However, some are hesitant to declare racial bias due to the amount of violent crimes in black communities. Blacks are more likely to be stopped and therefore more likely to end up in a violent conflict with police due to heavier policing of these crime-ridden areas. Yet, the evidence seems to be against this line of reasoning. The study found “no evidence of an association between black-specific crime rates (neither in assault-related arrests nor in weapons-related arrests) and racial bias in police shootings, irrespective of whether or not other controls were included in the model. As such, the results of this study provide no empirical support for the idea that racial bias in police shootings (in the time period, 2011–2014, described in this study) is driven by race-specific crime rates (at least as measured by the proxies of assault- and weapons-related arrest rates in 2012).” Similarly, another 2015 analysis found that the levels of violent crime in US cities had no correlation with that area’s police killing rates. However, just because one is unarmed does not make one a non-threat or the intended target. Some unarmed shooting victims attempt to wrestle the officer’s gun away from them, while others are unfortunate and unintended collateral damage (e.g., caught in crossfire). How threatening blacks are–armed or unarmed–is one variable controlled for in a new study analyzing The Washington Post‘s 2015 database. The study “used multivariate regression models to determine whether the findings were attributable to race or another factor and found that, among the 990 civilians fatally shot by the police last year, black civilians were more than twice as likely as white civilians to have been unarmed. This was true after controlling for threat level, the age and gender of the civilian, signs of mental illness, region of the United States, crime rate according to 2012 UCR data, size of the agency involved, and whether or not the agency operates its own basic training academy. In fact, the only other variable that was significant was, not surprisingly, threat level (meaning civilians in the “attack” category were far less likely to have been unarmed). In regards to the relationship between race and threat level, the data indicate that black civilians were not significantly more or less likely to have been attacking the police officer(s) or others than white civilians. However, Hispanic or Latino civilians and civilians from other minority groups were much less likely to have been attacking the police officers or others than white civilians. Again, these results held up after controlling for the influence of each of the other variables” (italics mine). However, it is paramount to note that the study found that the “majority of civilians shot and killed by the police in 2015 were male (96 percent), armed with a deadly weapon (82 percent), and attacking police officers or others (74 percent). Half of the civilians were white (50 percent). About one out of every four civilians fatally shot by police displayed signs of mental illness.” While bias in shootings is an extremely important issue and should be investigated, it is absolutely essential to remember that the majority of police shootings are due to legitimate threats. These are the kinds of incidents that provoke the #BlueLivesMatter counter. It is also worth acknowledging Harvard economist Roland Fryer’s recent study, which found no racial bias in police shootings across 10 major police departments in Texas, California, and Florida (check out The New York Times write-up and follow-up). However, there have been significant criticisms of Fryer’s study.
  • Non-Lethal Force: Yet, Fryer’s study also found that officers were far more likely to use non-lethal force on blacks than whites, including hands on civilians (e.g., slapping or grabbing), pushing into a wall, use of handcuffs, drawing weapons, pushing to the ground, pointing weapon, pepper spraying, and striking with a baton (see graph below). A July 2016 study found that the mean rate of use-of-force incidents “for Black residents was 273 per 100,000, which is 2.5 times as high as the overall rate and 3.6 times as high as the rate for White residents (76 per 100,000)” (pg. 15). It also concluded “that crime rates are an insufficient explanation for disparities in the application of police force” (pg. 18).

This material doesn’t even get into post-arrest injustices like harsher sentences for blacks or historical issues like redlining, but I think this list is a good starter. As you wade into the controversies and debates, try to be as accurate as possible. Know the numbers. Be rigorous. Be willing to admit it when the evidence doesn’t favor “your side.” Most of all, be charitable towards one another. These are people’s lives, both black and blue. We want a system that is just and serves all members of society fairly. And we want officers coming home safely to their families at the end of the day.

Image result for free hugs police

Don’t Trust Your Gut

Image result for empathy gifWhat works better when it comes to interpersonal relationships and inferring the feelings of others: trusting your intuition (your gut) or being systematic (facts and reason)? A new study suggests the latter. From the abstract:

To determine which view is supported by the evidence, we conducted 4 studies examining relations between mode of thought (intuitive vs. systematic) and empathic accuracy. Study 1 revealed a lay belief that empathic accuracy arises from intuitive modes of thought. Studies 2 through 4, each using executive-level professionals as participants, demonstrated that, contrary to lay beliefs, people who tend to rely on intuitive thinking also tend to exhibit lower empathic accuracy. This pattern held when participants inferred others’ emotional states based on (a) in-person face-to-face interactions with partners (Study 2) as well as on (b) pictures with limited facial cues (Study 3). Study 4 confirmed that the relationship is causal: experimentally inducing systematic (as opposed to intuitive) thought led to improved empathic accuracy. In sum, evidence regarding personal and social processes in these 4 samples of working professionals converges on the conclusion that, contrary to lay beliefs, empathic accuracy arises more from systematic thought than from gut intuition.

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has actually argued against empathy in favor of a more distanced compassion. Bloom argues that empathy causes us to focus attention on suffering at the cost of the bigger picture, leading to harmful policies and outcomes (including an increased capacity for violence and aggression). The study above seems to indicate that a more distanced compassion–one that is a bit more cold and calculated–may be the answer to achieving the intended goals of empathy.

 

Think of the Children: Teacher Collective Bargaining

Cornell’s Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willen had an article earlier this year in the journal Education Next discussing their research regarding teacher collective bargaining. “In this study,” they write,

we present the first evidence on how laws that support teacher collective bargaining affect students’ employment and earnings in adulthood. We do so by first examining how the outcomes of students educated in a given state changed after the state enacted a duty-to-bargain law, and then comparing those changes to what happened over the same time period in states that did not change their collective-bargaining policies.

We find no clear effects of collective-bargaining laws on how much schooling students ultimately complete. But our results show that laws requiring school districts to engage in collective bargaining with teachers unions lead students to be less successful in the labor market in adulthood. Students who spent all 12 years of grade school in a state with a duty-to-bargain law earned an average of $795 less per year and worked half an hour less per week as adults than students who were not exposed to collective-bargaining laws. They are 0.9 percentage points less likely to be employed and 0.8 percentage points less likely to be in the labor force. And those with jobs tend to work in lower-skilled occupations.

Lovenheim and Willen explain how states–beginning with Wisconsin in 1959–began passing “union-friendly legislation.” “Between 1959 and 1987, 33 states passed duty-to-bargain laws (see Figure 1); just 1 (New Mexico) has done so since. Of the 16 states without such a law, 9 have legislation that permits teachers unions and districts to bargain if both sides agree to do so. In the remaining 7 states (Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia), collective bargaining is prohibited either by statute or by court ruling[.]”

The debate over teacher collective bargaining is heated, which makes empirical evidence all the more important. The researchers found that teacher collective bargaining has several adverse long-term effects on children:

  • Earnings: “Attending school in a state with a duty-to-bargain law for all 12 years of schooling reduces later earnings by $795 dollars per year…This represents a decline in earnings of 1.9 percent relative to the average. Although the individual effect is modest, it translates into a large overall loss of earnings for the nation as a whole. In particular, our results suggest a total loss of $196 billion per year accruing to those who were educated in the 34 states with duty-to-bargain policies on the books.”
  • Hours worked: “exposure to a duty-to-bargain law throughout one’s school years is associated with a decline of 0.49 hours worked per week. This is a 1.4 percent decline relative to the average, and it suggests that a reduction in hours worked is a main driver of the lower earnings.”
  • Wages: “the evidence suggests a negative relationship between collective-bargaining exposure and wages. While this relationship is not statistically significant, it is consistent with our other results and suggests that teacher collective bargaining may also have a modest adverse effect on average wages.”
  • Employment: “when we use the share of individuals who are employed as the outcome variable, we find that duty-to-bargain laws reduce employment. Specifically, exposure to a duty-to-bargain law for all 12 years of schooling lowers the likelihood that a worker is employed by 0.9 percentage points.”
  • Occupational skill level: “being exposed to a duty-to-bargain law for all 12 years of schooling decreases the proportion of such workers in an occupation by almost half of a percentage point (or 0.6 percent relative to the average). This effect is modest in size, but it implies that teacher collective bargaining leads students to work in occupations requiring lower levels of skill.”
  • Educational attainment: “The reduced earnings and labor force participation associated with teacher collective bargaining raise the possibility that affected students may have completed less education. Our analysis, however, finds little evidence of bargaining power having a significant effect on how much schooling students completed…Even if students do not complete fewer years of education, they may be acquiring fewer skills while they are in school.”

The authors note that “in 2011 Wisconsin passed legislation that greatly reduced the ability of teachers to bargain with school districts…and in 2014 Michigan passed a public employee right-to-work law that sought to limit union negotiating power. Not surprisingly, teachers unions and their allies responded to these laws with fierce opposition.” Yet, the “results suggest that lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan have evidence on their side.”

Image result for think of the children gif

 

What are the Chances?: American Deaths via Foreign Terrorists

Image result for skittles trumpWith skittles and terrorists in the news, it might be worth assessing the risks that immigrants pose to U.S. natives. How likely are Americans to be killed by a terrorist attack committed by a foreigner? A new policy analysis from the Cato Institute finds that the chances are vanishingly small:

Including those murdered in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11), the chance of an American perishing in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil that was committed by a foreigner over the 41-year period studied here is 1 in 3.6 million per year. The hazard posed by foreigners who entered on different visa categories varies considerably. For instance, the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year while the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year. By contrast, the chance of being murdered by a tourist on a B visa, the most common tourist visa, is 1 in 3.9 million per year. Any government response to terrorism must take account of the wide range of hazards posed by foreign-born terrorists who entered under various visa categories.

Given that Americans are as likely to be killed by falling furniture as a terrorist attack, maybe we should ban all new purchases of televisions and couches. Add this to the evidence that immigrants are less criminal than native-born Americans and we end up with nothing more than a fear-mongering blowhard.

Media Fragmentation and Political Polarization

I’ve written about political polarization beforeRecent research suggests that media fragmentation is the culprit behind growing political polarization. A new study finds that

  • The growing plurality of news sources as well as the increasing access to cable television made the greatest contribution to political polarization. Two phenomena, or a combination of the two, are responsible: Individuals seek out “self-reinforcing viewpoints rather than be exposed to a common ‘nightly news’ broadcast” — this is sometimes called siloing. Also, individuals are jettisoning news programming for entertainment, “thereby reducing incidental or by-product learning about politics.”
  • The decreasing exposure to alternative views and the increasing buttressing of one’s own views has combined to create less sympathy for others’ views and less of an ability to understand others’ views. “This may be reinforced by a tendency for political differences to be decreasingly addressed through genuine debate and increasingly replaced with media coverage of political vilification or grandstanding.”
  • Inequality — the divide between rich and poor — may have contributed to political polarization, but less than media fragmentation.
  • Duca and Saving test for a number of trends but find no statistically significant associations with generational attitudes, voter partisanship, economic conditions or campaign contributions. But they do find associations with income inequality and media fragmentation.
  • There is some evidence that Congress is more polarized at the beginning of a president’s second term.

Despite these findings, there may be room for caution. According to a new paper by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, the average American has not followed the political class to the fringes. Reason‘s write-up draws five lessons from Fiorina’s work:

  1. The political class is becoming more polarized: “If you limit its scope to elected officials and professional activists, the polarization thesis has some truth to it. Since the early ’70s, the parties have gone through a sorting process, to the point where the most left-wing Republican in either house of Congress is now more conservative than the most right-wing congressional Democrat.”
  2. The general public has not followed suit: “Over the last four decades, there has been little change in how Americans describe themselves ideologically—the most popular category in such surveys is still “moderate,” without a big exodus to the liberal and conservative poles. Opinions have shifted on some specific topics, but not always in the same direction: Americans have gotten more liberal on certain issues, such as health insurance, and more conservative on others, such as aid to minorities.”
  3. The more politically active you are, the less well-informed you are about these trends in grassroots opinion: “Both normal Americans and the political class tend to exaggerate the extent that the general public is polarized. But the politicos do much more of this, projecting their divisions onto the electorate at large. “Ironically,” Fiorina writes, “the great majority of Americans whose lives do not revolve around politics are more accurate in their political perceptions than their more politically involved compatriots.””
  4. The stronger your partisan affiliations, the more likely you are to misconstrue what life is like at the other end of spectrum: For example, “Democrats think that 44 percent of Republicans make more than $250,000 per year, when the actual percentage is 2, and that 44 percent of Republicans are senior citizens, when the actual percentage is 21. For their part, Republicans think that 36 percent of Democrats are atheists or agnostics, when the actual percentage is about 9, and that 38 percent of Democrats are LGBT, when the true percentage is about 6. Once again, the more politically involved the respondent, the greater the misperception.”
  5. We’re not retreating into smaller bubbles: “A paper on Twitter users…found that “Twitter networks tend to be fairly heterogeneous politically, in part because many of those in them are connected by only ‘weak ties.’ Contrary to the fears expressed by those worried about ideological segregation, social media actually may lessen people’s tendency to live in echo chambers.””

All of this reinforces something Georgetown professor Peter Jaworski said: “Partisan politics corrupts your character. Instead of trying to get votes for your favoured tribe, try to make money instead. Engaging in markets makes mean people nicer, makes you more trustworthy, more charitable, and more beneficent.”

The Stock and Flow of Drug Offenders

Last month, Nathaniel penned a critique of criminal justice scholar Barry Latzer’s WSJ piece on the supposed “myth” of mass incarceration. The impact of the war on drugs tends to be minimized by counting the amount of drug offenders vs. violent criminals in the prison population (hint: there are more of the latter). In his critique, Nathaniel wrote, “Drug sentences are generally shorter than violent crime sentences, and so taking a headcount of prisoners artificially increases the appearance of violent incarceration simply because those criminals spent more time in jail.” This, of course, was noted by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow. But what do the data say? According to Brooking’s Jonathan Rothwell,

There is no disputing that incarceration for property and violent crimes is of huge importance to America’s prison population, but the standard analysis—including Alexander’s critics—fails to distinguish between the stock and flow of drug crime-related incarceration. In fact, there are two ways of looking at the prison population as it relates to drug crimes:

  1. How many people experience incarceration as a result of a drug-related crime over a certain time period?
  2. What proportion of the prison population at a particular moment in time was imprisoned for a drug-related crime?

The answers will differ because the length of sentences varies by the kind of crime committed. As of 2009, the median incarceration time at state facilities for drug offenses was 14 months, exactly half the time for violent crimes. Those convicted of murder served terms of roughly 10 times greater length.  

The picture is clear: Drug crimes have been the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons in recent decades. In every year from 1993 to 2009, more people were admitted for drug crimes than violent crimes. In the 2000s, the flow of incarceration for drug crimes exceeded admissions for property crimes each year. Nearly one-third of total prison admissions over this period were for drug crimes:

Rothwell 1125001

In short, Alexander was right when she saw drug prosecution as “a big part of the mass incarceration story.” It turns out “drug crimes account for more of the total number of admissions in recent years—almost one third (31 percent), while violent crimes account for one quarter:”

Rothwell 1125002

As Nathaniel concluded,

First, you don’t have to go to jail at all to get a felony conviction on your record. Second, that felony conviction is going to stay on your record long after you have “served your debt to society.” If the criminal justice system is unfair, it’s not just about incarceration. It’s about losing the right to vote. It’s about losing access to government programs like student loans or food stamps. It’s about the government banning your friends and family from supporting you (if they live in public housing) when you get out. And–most egregiously of all–it’s about a scarlet-F that will follow you to every job interview and ensure that long after you are outside the prison walls you are still practically barred from building a new life for yourself.

There’s  lot at stake here, folks, and it’s not just about violent crime.

The Economics of Immigration: A Cato Lecture by Benjamin Powell

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Image result for the economics of immigrationImmigration has been getting quite a bit of attention in the news and here at Difficult Run lately. With political debates shifting from the typical Right/Left to Open/Close, tackling the economic literature on immigration became a priority to me. Hence, my recent completion of the Oxford-published The Economics of Immigration: Market-Based Approaches, Social Science, and Public Policy. And what does the research say?:

  • Eliminating policy barriers to international labor mobility would increase global wealth by between 50-150% of world GDP (pg. 13). “For all its radicalism, open borders’ main effects are fairly well understood. Open borders would dramatically increase global production. It would drastically reduce global poverty and global inequality. At the same time, open borders would make the remaining poverty and inequality much more visible for current residents of the First World” (pg. 185).
  • Immigration has little to no effect on native wages and employment. What effects there are tend to be negative, but small and temporary (pg. 30). In fact, it is mainly those without high-school degrees who lose out in the short run, yet see their wages increase in the long run (pg. 19).
  • Immigration generates an annual efficiency gain for Americans of between $5 and $10 billion (pg. 21).
  • Immigrants boost the demand side of the economy (pg. 42-43).
  • Immigration has little to no impact on the government budget (pg. 63). A typical immigrant may impose a $3,000 net fiscal cost herself, but her descendants have a positive net fiscal contribution of $83,000, producing an $80,000 surplus  (pg. 61).
  • Immigrants today tend to assimilate more than they did a century ago (pg. 90).
  • New research finds “that greater immigration was associated with small improvements in economic institutions or had no effect at all” (pg. 211). In other words, immigrants don’t import negative institutions.

And much more. You can see a Cato Institute lecture on the book below by editor and Texas Tech economist Benjamin Powell.

 

Marriage and Children Outcomes

 

The above graph comes from yet another post at the Brookings Institution, which finds that marriage leads to better outcomes for children. However, this study breaks it down into two main reasons:

  • More money: the income effect

  • More engaged parenting: the parenting effect

However, the authors come to an interesting conclusion:

If the benefits of marriage for children can be explained by other observable characteristics of the family, and especially money or parenting behavior, then policy may be more successful if focused on those pathways. It would be convenient to find the magic bullet – the one family input that really matters – but of course the truth is messier. Children’s life chances will be influenced by a complicated, shifting mesh of family characteristics (and many other factors outside the family).

Marriage is a powerful means by which incomes can be raised and parenting can be improved. But marriage itself seems immune to the ministrations of policymakers. In which case, policies to increase the incomes of unmarried parents, especially single parents, and to help parents to improve their parenting skills, should be where policy energy is now expended.

Yet, W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project points out that

marriage itself fosters higher income and better parenting among today’s parents. For instance, men who get and stay married work longer hours and make more money than their unmarried peers. And fathers and mothers who are in an intact marriage tend to engage in more involved, affectionate, and consistent parenting than their peers in single- or step-families.

The bigger point is this: you cannot easily strip marriage of its constituent parts, such as more money and a supportive parenting environment, give those parts to parents apart from marriage, and expect that children will do as well, apart from marriage.