I recently gave an interview on Economics Detective Radio with Garrett Petersen to talk about my forthcoming article in Economics & Human Biology (with Vadim Kufenko and Alex Arsenault Morin). In the interview, I explain why anthropometric history is important to our understanding of living standards, their evolution and short-term trade-offs in economic history. The interview is below, but you should subscribe to Garrett’s podcast as he is well on his way to becoming a serious competitor to EconTalk with the bonus that he does lots of economic history.
A professor at Chico recently asked his critical thinking class about noise ordinances: “Why should a few people get to shut down a few hundred people having fun?” The question is about our intuitive response to questions of utility. However, it goes beyond that.
Recently, students at Chico State tried to organize support for shutting down noise ordinances (after the penalties became harsher), which would mean more loud parties. It’s unlikely to go anywhere since there are thousands of non-collegiate adults living in the immediate vicinity who have to put up with noise on a regular basis and need police power to shut down public disturbances.
Nevertheless, the college was established in 1887, and everyone who chooses to live in the city has been here a much shorter time than the campus. Its reputation precedes itself. Chico State came in 59th place out of 1,426 colleges for its party scene for 2017. In 1987, Chico came in first place in a Playboy ranking, and since then, its status has been for general excess.
With a population of 90,000 when school is in session, that’s a lot of partying hard. President Paul Zingg, who resided over Chico from 2004 to 2016, made a crack-down on partying central in his mission statement. Zingg, 70, entered Chico administration after a fraternity hazing death and sought to reduce the school’s notoriety for binge drinking. Since his arrival Chico dropped another twenty or so notches in partying prestige.
There are many programs on campus to discourage binge drinking and equip students with the knowledge of how to proceed if alcohol poisoning does occur. Further, the local fines for minor-in-possession charges are exceedingly costly. However, policing parties harder – both academically and politically – might have some unintended consequences. Driving out parties means young people will have to entertain themselves in other ways, and, barring 20 year olds spending their nights at the science museum, different drugs may show up to occupy them.
There are many Californian cities where there are no parties but recurrent drug abuse. My hometown is one such place. Nevada County, composed of Grass Valley, Nevada City, Penn Valley, Alta Sierra, and, sort of, Truckee, has a problem with homelessness, youth homelessness and youth drug abuse; all misdemeanor offenses, however, so Nevada County has a low felony rate per capita compared to neighboring counties and the state as a whole.
When I went to middle and high school in Nevada City and Grass Valley, there was an impressive issue with teen drug abuse and recidivism. I knew many students without stable living conditions. Many graduates lacked any occupational motivation, while the area offered an extensive and encompassing drug culture. Narcotics and experienced vagrants provided a rubric against which a hopeless mentality prospered. (The Nevada County Sheriff’s activity website boasts largely of public disorder or drug-related arrests.)
The city of Chico, meanwhile, is adjacent to methamphetamine giants like Oroville and Marysville. The city itself has eleven suspected clandestine drug laboratories as of 2014, compared to Oroville’s twenty. (Residents know there are more.) The governance of Chico, in terms of partisanship, is not unique; nor is its relative adolescent-adult ratio peculiar for a college town. Yet it manages to get by without excessive hardcore drug use or addiction rates like its neighbors. I think it’s plausible that, among other factors, Chico’s party scene helps keeps out the harder drugs.
Parties mean marijuana, alcohol and cocaine. These are staples in any festive town. However, without parties, there are less party drugs, and instead a window opens for more deadly drugs. People don’t party on deadly drugs, like those that slow heart rate, so when there’s parties, more designer drugs appear rather than lounge-around, do-nothing narcotics, like opioids or barbiturates. (I think this effect holds for towns of a certain population, but once that population and acreage is large enough, the effect may begin to work in the opposite direction.)
Grass Valley and Nevada City have a large proportion of young adults but a microscopic party scene. They are sister towns where the borders are relatively undefined, and have a combined population of about 16,000, made up of mostly middle-aged adults and a subsection of retired elderly folk. Nevada City came in eighth place for most dangerous city in California in a Telegraph Today poll. This is partially explainable in terms of population – the total amount of people is so small that any violence means, per 1,000 people, the likelihood of being a target of violence grows heavily. Like I said, violent crime appears relatively absent. Nonetheless there is an inordinate amount of drug use, from harmless depressants like marijuana to titans like methamphetamine.
Grass Valley teenagers don’t have many all-night ragers to shotgun cans of Pabst at. This means they don’t have an environment to learn how to party hard safely, and also that they become dependent on drugs that can fit any occasion.
There’s a reason why alcohol is the most popular drug for people under 21: it’s illegal until you turn 21. Similarly, I think crackdowns on drug use – common and relatively harmless drugs like alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and cocaine – may lead to backfires and encourage kids to move into more unexplored narcotic territory. (I also wrote a paper last year illustrating that several non-profit efforts to quell methamphetamine use across the nation had a negligible effect or the reverse effect.)
The drugs of today are a new type of foe. The lost war on drugs is getting the tar kicked out of it by Vicodin and OxyContin in the age of the highest recorded overdoses of all time. Smart drug policy would investigate the positive effects that parties have in the broader neighborhood, like tourism, promotion of social behavior, and promotion of drugs that are better understood by medical professionals and users alike.
The hazing overdose death that President Zingg came to office on was not from alcohol, nor any party drug, but from excessive water intake. The mistake is to infer a causal connection between dangerous partying and deaths like these, when there are causal events underlying both. Loud, boisterous parties are preferable, any day, to equally illicit, but infinitely more dangerous, covert drug use.
So, to answer the original question, “Why should a few people get to shut down a few hundred people having fun?” They shouldn’t. Screw them.
When I began dipping my toes into game theory and rational choice theory, like many others, I learned about the Median Voter Theorem (MVT). This theory is essentially the Hotelling’s Law of voting, in which two competing politicians, on any given issue, will adopt views similar to the median on a spectrum of views of that issue, in order to maximize the number of votes they receive. Any movement toward either extreme, so the theory goes, would allow the opponent to gain the votes of centrists by moving in the same direction, but not as far, effectively gaining all voters on the other extreme AND the centrists. According to MVT, the most successful politicians should, if rational choice theory can be said to apply to elections, represent (if not hold) the views closest to those of the median voter, who should be relatively “centrist” even if extremist voters outnumber centrists.
This is, rather dramatically, not the case. History and current events offer a plethora of examples: a brief look at the makeup of the US government implies that centrist voices (and especially centrist voters) are outnumbered and drowned out. If MVT has any effect at all, why is increasing political polarization such a hot topic?
What are the possible explanations for this? Is MVT fundamentally wrong in its core idea, and is voting in fact not possible to model in rational choice theory? I do not think so, so here are several ideas, some old and one novel, about why the application of MVT does not lead to centrist politicians winning most elections in practice:
- Voter preferences are polarized. If voter opinions are not only not normally distributed, but are in fact gathered at two poles with no centrist voters, MVT may actually function, but it would predict that centrists would lose a lot (because the median voter would be at one pole or the other). The idea that voters resemble a barbell graph more than a normal distribution may be very salient, because many issues are dominated by extreme views. However, the voting population is demonstrably more centrist on some issues, so this cannot fully explain the difference between reality and MVT.
- Third parties spoil things. This hearkens back not only to Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, but also to the influence of Ross Perot and Ralph Nader on presidential elections. Third party participation does not spoil MVT, because it still fundamentally follows the idea of rational choice theory about elections, but it complicates two-candidate models.
- Further note: multi-party systems are vulnerable to extremists. The possibility of invasion by extreme views is higher in multi-party systems, because if multiple centrist parties compete for median voters, extreme groups gain power disproportionate to their constituency.
- Primaries spoil things. This is an old idea in US politics: in primaries, you have to run to the extremes, and then in the general election, run to the center. The very logic behind this idea, and any empirical evidence of it, proves the viability of MVT, but it does introduce complications to any model of it that fails to account for the two different elections many politicians must win. Also, we must remember to factor in the fact that politicians have a negative utility in abandoning past positions (especially recent decisions) of seeming inauthentic or losing their base.
- The Electoral College spoils things. Outside of US presidential elections, “swing states” may not have the same power, but in the US, candidates would be “rational” to pursue votes in swing states much more assiduously than they do in states that are nearly sure bets. This is only narrowly applicable, but the campaign focus on swing states indicates that candidates do at least campaign rationally (see academic studies or news reports), in that they seek votes strategically and not indiscriminately.
- Voter turnout skews MVT. In elections without mandatory voting, those who are less committed to the issues at stake—who are more likely to be centrists—tend to vote less than those who care greatly one way or another. Therefore, voting may be more about mobilizing one’s base than appealing to centrists. (Note: this is not an endorsement of mandatory voting, which can allow more zero-sum games in politics and the enforcement of which seems worse than the problem).
- People do not vote based on rational weighing of stances. This would be a troubling conclusion, and suggests that people may align with parties and candidates based on motives other than matching candidate views to their own. While this is certainly true to some extent, MVT can still predict the overall “centrism” of politicians. Also, just because many people have an irrational method of weighing stances does not mean that the aggregate result does not mean that the utility of favoring centrist positions would not be positive.
- Voting is multidimensional. Since single candidates represent dozens if not hundreds of salient issues in a single election, voters are forced to compromise on some issues in order to win others. This multidimensionality is not a counterargument to MVT, but an extreme complication, because “median” politicians could lose based on voter preference not within an issue, but between issues. That is, a politician can gain voters by recognizing weighting each voter’s stance by how likely that issue is to change their vote. This can be observed in the fact that referenda tend to follow MVT in a more straightforward fashion than elections. It is also a possible explanation for the rise of certain coalitions: no matter if constituents have deep disagreements on many issues, they end up aligned behind the same candidate based on inter-issue preferences. This may have been a major motivation for federalization and separation of power: different decisions are constrained to certain elections, allowing voters to communicate on each individual issue more clearly because of the reduced multidimensionality. The game theory on multidimensional voting is well developed, but still has some complications that have not been specifically argued:
- Complication: Special interest compared to general interest. Multidimensional voting allows politicians to promise concentrated special interest to voters on certain issues in order to gain votes rather than appeal to general interest across many issues. The implications of this have been shown in game form, especially in special interest influence on enforcement. In this, public choice theory proves the idea that governments tend to favor dispersed costs and concentrated gains.
- Complication: Singe issue voters. This is a subset of the above, or at least related to it. In multidimensional elections, voters obviously have to weigh issue preferencing. However, if a voter decides that they would choose a candidate so long as he agrees with the voter on a single issue, then on that issue, the single-issue voter has a hugely disproportionate influence on the candidate’s opinion on that issue. The reason: if the candidate runs to the center on that single issue, he risks his opponent capturing the vote of all single-issue voters on that side by running slightly more to the extreme. The Nash Equilibrium of such a situation would depend on how many single-issue voters there are at either extreme (I assume here that single-issue voters are not centrists, based on examples shown below, but I am open to argument) and how much of the non-single-issue constituency is ceded by focusing on single-issue voters, but it is distinctly possible that issue preferencing, especially the power of the ultimatum implied in single-issue voting, makes it rational for politicians to run to the extremes. Interesting examples of this phenomenon include background checks for guns, defense spending, and possibly marijuana legalization. (Please note that this does not constitute an endorsement of these ideas—whether the majority is correct is a different question from whether the majority idea is enacted by politicians).
- The single-issue voter idea continues to fascinate me. Most of all, it fascinates me how little (apart from some basic preferencing models in the literature) I can find that either theorizes or empirically examines the specific influence of single-issue voters and voter preferencing. I hope it is out there, and I just can’t find it (so send it to me if you have found one!). But if not, is anyone out there a public choice theorist who wants to help me figure this out?
Thanks for sticking with a long read, and please give me feedback if you have any examples of this phenomenon or another angle on MVT!
Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.
I met other interesting characters at the Moulin Rouge (a bar in San Francisco where I spent much of my time after immigrating for good). One was a Frenchman in his early forties who told me he was a pirate on vacation. He said he owned an old surplus US Navy PT boat armed with a machine gun he used to prey on Chinese ships in the Celebes (Indonesia). “How come you are not in prison for 20 or 25 years? How about the police, the local coast guard, the navy?” I asked. “Nobody cares about the rich Chinese in Indonesia; besides, we never, never kill anyone. We wave big guns at them, my crew and I, and they always pay up. Sometimes, they bargain a little with me. I am not unreasonable,” he explained. He invited me to join him in a piracy campaign on my next summer vacation. I told him that I would like to but I would probably have to study in the summer, too. Even at a young age, seasoned as I was by military service, I had my values straight: junior college first, piracy second, and the latter, only if there was time.
Now that the Dutch elections for the Lower House are over, as well as the unprecedented international hype surrounding it, it is time for a few pointers and reminders.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte used the crisis with Turkey to his greatest advantage. When the crisis just loomed he escalated, helped of course by the increasingly hysterical reactions of the Turkish authorities, particularly the President.
I have not been able to get figures, but it is rather normal for foreign ministers, including from Turkey, to visit the Netherlands and address their nationals, also for political purposes. This is just the consequence of allowing Turkish people to have dual nationality and -in the Turkish case- also double voting rights. With the referendum in Turkey coming up, it is only logical to allow proponents and opponents to campaign as well.
This said, any thinking person would strongly object to the plan to give even more power to the already way too powerful Turkish executive. Dictatorship looms (please read Barry’s much better informed blogs on this).
Politicians almost always choose the short term over the long term. Certainly four days before elections. Still, the downside of Rutte’s actions are immense, as they also serve the interest of Erdogan, enabling him to play the victim of the ‘racist Dutch’. It might even pull the deciding number of voters into his camp. That would be bad for Turkey, and for Europe.
Chances for Turkey joining the European Union were already small, but have now disappeared completely. (Which I personally do not mind much, but others differ, including many in Rutte’s own party).
Another topic of international concern surrounding the election was the rising populism and its alleged ending by the electorate at the ballot box. Indeed, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom did not become the biggest party, yet he did win votes again. An increase of a third actually, from 15 to 20 in the 150-seat Lower House. His party thus became the second largest party in parliament.
He was never going to be Prime Minister anyway, as all parties had said before the elections they would not collaborate with him. This was important as the Dutch electoral system has a low threshold, which means many parties can enter parliament and no party has ever won a majority of 76. It demands parties to negotiate a governing coalition. After Wednesday at least four parties are needed for such a majority, which will take months.
There is a less-noted, other ‘bad populism’, which includes the largest winner, the Green Left party. This party represents are the radical environmental left, led by a young good looking leader who has been able to attract a lot of young people, in particular women, according to electoral research. There are also other populist parties elected, most notably the party for pensioners, the Islamic party DENK, and the Forum for Democracy, the intellectual version of Geert Wilders’ party.
It remains to be seen whether Green Left will get a seat in government, given the large differences with the other parties who will be negotiating the new government: the centre right VVD of Rutte, the social liberals of D66, and the Christian democrats.
This process is slow and boring for most people, except for political junkies like myself. So chances are you will not hear about Dutch politics until a new government has finally been installed. Do not be surprised if this does not happen before Christmas.
A couple of thoughts about immigration. It seems that there is a widespread belief in the US that immigrants take jobs from Americans. It makes superficial sense if you also assume that the number of jobs to be filled is fixed and that just about anyone can do any kind of work.
Both assumptions are mostly false. Here is an example that illustrates why.
I keep hearing native-born Americans trained in various high-tech fields who claim that they are unemployed because of competition from low-cost H1B visa holders. H1B visas go to foreigners with skills deemed to be needed by the American economy. A large number of H1B visa holders are from India and many are from China; they also come from a wide variety of other countries, including Russia, France, Bulgaria, etc. The implicit affirmation is that were such visas stopped completely, those who complain would step right into the vacant jobs.
Two things. First the claim that foreign H1B visa holders work for less is largely unsubstantiated although it should be easy to investigate such abuse. Second, I think it’s illegal to pay H1B holders less than Americans. Why would many employers risk a distracting lawsuit? Of course, a few might because there are irrational people everywhere.
Next and last: Hundreds of thousands of high-tech jobs are going begging as I write. Are employers so vicious that they would rather have the work not done at all than to give it to a credentialed American? Or is it more likely that the unemployed native-born high-tech workers have skills that do not match demand? If the second supposition is correct, ending the H1B visa program would cause even more high-tech positions to remain empty. Of course, this would have a negative effect on everyone, on every American’s prosperity.
Missing from this narrative: the possibility that high power, accelerated re-training programs would bring unemployed Americans the skills the high-tech sector requires.
I have to begin a confession that’s going to make me even more unpopular locally than I already am. I mean unpopular among my conservative friends. I taught in an MBA program in the middle of Silicon Valley for 24 years, two quarters each year. It was an evening program squarely directed at the ambitious hard-working. During that span of time, I must have had 150 students from India. I remember only one who was a bad student. I was intrigued, so I made inquiries. Sure enough, he had an Indian first name and last name, and the corresponding appearance but he was born in the US.* I cannot report so glowingly about other, non-Indian students that sat in my classroom through the years.
This little narrative proves nothing, of course. Consider it food for thought. Do it especially if you voted for Pres. Trump – as I did.
Reminder: H1B visas are awarded to individuals with an occupational qualification deemed to be in short supply in the US. Right now, it’s likely that most of those who get an H1B are trained in some IT area but that’s not all. For a long time, farriers from everywhere could easily get one. (If you don’t know what a farrier is, shame on you and look it up.)
There are other – presumably non-specialized – categories of immigrants who are widely suspected of taking jobs from Americans. The truth is not always easy to discern, not even conceptually. Five or six miles from where I live in Santa Cruz, there are growers who are tearing off their hair. Their problem is that they can’t figure out who is going to pick the crops they are now putting into the ground. As I have said repeatedly, the Mexicans they counted on in years past have largely stopped coming.
A quarter of a mile from where I live, and in the same direction, there are dozens of perfectly healthy US-born Americans who are working as “sales associates.” The apparent conceptual issue is this: sales associates earn $10/hr while a moderately experienced crop picker earns $15. The question arises of why we don’t see a full exodus from the sales positions to jobs that pay 50% more?
I think it’s lazy to call the US-born sales associates “lazy.” The reality is that the Mexicans who came, and are still coming, to pick vegetables and fruits in California overwhelmingly came from a rural population. They were reared under conditions where almost everyone around them labored in the fields. When they arrive in the US – legally through family reunion – or illegally, they are ready to take picking jobs. They then just do here more or less the same work they would do at home but for five times the pay or more.
In American society that kind of population disappeared several generations ago through mechanization and, of course, through the importation of foreign labor, precisely. Native-born Americans won’t do the work because it’s alien to their background. I think US-born people of Mexican ascendancy whose parents labored in the field won’t do the work either. Their parents do what they can to make their own work experience alien to their children. I am not surprised, that’s another expression of the American dream. It’s what many would do back in Mexico but then, why emigrate?
I am pretty sure that any immigration reform should include a temporary agricultural program, a sort of H1A ( “A” for “Agriculture”) visa. It would allow foreigners to come to the US legally, just to work in the fields and for a set period only. It would not lead to permanent residency, nor, of course, to citizenship. Such a program existed between the forties and the early sixties, if memory serves. It was called the “Bracero program.” I don’t know why it was terminated. (Perhaps a reader can tell us.)
Mexicans would be the first to take advantage of such a program. As Mexico’s economy develops, they may be replaced by Central Americans and, eventually, by Africans. Such a program would sidestep the kind of assimilation problem France, for example, is facing right now with its North African population.
PS Personally, I think Mexicans make good immigrants to the US. I would bet than in ten years we will be begging them to come.
* Disclosure: I am married to an Indian woman. She is not in high-tech unfortunately.