There are few examples where obesity is anything but bad for your health. Obesity—as measured by a body mass index (BMI) above 30—is associated with a significantly reduced lifespan and an increased likelihood to suffer from:
- Heart Disease
Given the overwhelming evidence for a causal—rather than just associative—link between obesity and at least some forms of poor health, public policies that promote exercise and healthy eating are likely to be highly beneficial to overweight individuals who pay heed. Less straightforward, could these policies also be cost-effective for healthier (or "thin") individuals through reduced public health spending and lower pooled insurance rates? In other words, do the health costs incurred by the obese create a negative externality borne by the rest of society?
Daniel Kahneman has done as much to change the way we think about economics as anyone—and yet, he is no economist, or at least not as we would traditionally think of one. Kahneman is a psychologist; a psychologist, however, with a Nobel Prize in Economics and the acclamation for having:
"Pretty much created the field of behavioral economics and revolutionized large parts of cognitive psychology and social psychology."
To illustrate how our brain works, Daniel Kahneman devised two systems of thinking. System 1 is the unconscious thought process that effortlessly manages the majority of our behavior (generally, without error). System 2 comprises our active cognitions and requires concentrated effort to apply. System 1, unbeknownst to System 2, automatically makes a number of serial errors that Kahneman has masterfully identified.
Parking tickets are irritating. They are especially irritating in Los Angeles where a failure to properly feed your meter can run you nearly $70—and even more if you forget to pay it on time, as I regrettably learned this summer.
To be fair, parking violations play a necessary role in deterring scofflaws, easing mobility, and creating equitable opportunities for commerce in commercially vibrant urban centers. There is an economic cost for businesses and consumers if parking spaces are not optimally utilized (consumers may waste fuel searching for parking or forgo shopping altogether) and this must be safeguarded against. As we learned from Seinfeld, the scarcity of parking can be the source of considerable agony:
Comedy aside, there must be a point where the cost of a parking ticket transcends from a socially just deterrent to a punitive and regressive gouge—regressively taxing low income residents who lack access to off-street parking and can least afford to pay.
A few weeks ago, I posted on how policymakers are increasingly using a "happiness" indicator to inform public policy. Ironically, while writing that piece, I was very unhappy and not as a result of any of the factors traditionally deemed significant. Rather, my unhappiness was singularly due to my neurotic and perpetual search for updates on a pending federal court case related to the eligibility of my favorite NFL quarterback--who, thankfully, has now been vindicated. Despite my own proclivities, sports and their related scandals were not deemed an important driver of happiness by the United Nations (unless being a rabid sports fan is a form of mental illness).
My own sporting biases aside, this got me thinking. How many others around the world are, far more often than not, made miserable by their favorite sports teams?
From a policy perspective, there will never be just one legacy for the September 11th terrorist attacks. As that day's 14th anniversary came and went this past Friday, it was hard not to see how the fissures of its aftermath continue to color our political discourse.
To the neoconservatives in power at the time, the attacks necessitated a massive expansion of domestic surveillance powers, the adoption of "enhanced" interrogation techniques for intelligence gathering, and a policy of regime change for noncooperative states with links to violent Islamic extremism. Tax cuts, a massive expansion of government (notably the mess that is the Department of Homeland Security), and our country's two longest wars were, in their view, justified by the magnitude of the tragedy.
Until sectarian violence started to choke the dream of a small footprint in Iraq, the Democrats played the role of quiet passengers along for the ride. After awakening to the looming economic and political calamity, their narrative has been that Republicans ignored the necessary war (Afghanistan) while bungling a needless one (Iraq); all the while overstepping their constitutional bounds in Guantanamo and in CIA detention centers around the world—all of which Democratic leaders had been thoroughly supportive of, or at least unquestioning of, while it seemed to be working.
Unlike the empire that first concocted it, the sun will never set on the Gin and Tonic—or the “G n’ T” to its most loyal imbibers. However, before this vaunted alcoholic brew acquired its current state of ubiquitousness, it needed a push from science and historical happenstance.
Every four years we are put through the increasingly prolonged charades that are the Iowa (IA) caucus and New Hampshire (NH) primary. Research across countries has found that campaigns of a sufficient duration allow voters to more accurately assess economic conditions. In the case of the United States, we have by leaps and bounds eclipsed this threshold and in its place constructed a money-sucking circus that benefits the near-pathological who want to endure it.
While the country is surely losing out in the dysfunctional process, NH and IA continue to benefit from political empowerment (otherwise obscure local chieftains can elicit legislative pledges—subsidized farming being paramount), the framing of winners and losers (catapulting obscure candidates or dethroning anointed ones), and a windfall of local economic benefits (In 2000, and it is surely larger now, it was estimated that the NH primary generated $147 million in additional economic activity).
With such obvious and undemocratic advantages afforded NH and IA, why is the process allowed to continue? And how did it begin?
You can be forgiven for not knowing where Bhutan is. It is a small country—its first ever census in 2005 revealed less than one million inhabitants--sandwiched between China and India, governed by a very poor monarchy, that exports little, has no formal diplomatic relations with the United States, and generally embraces reclusion.
Internationally, Bhutan is known for two things. First, they exiled more than 100,000 of their ethnic-Nepalese minority, whose religious and linguistic views made them unfit for citizenship, to live in refugee camps in Nepal--where they were also not wanted and subsequently resettled by third parties (more than 66,000 of them in the United States since the mid-2000s). Second, ironically, is the notion of measuring national success, not by gross domestic product, but by gross national happiness. Measuring wellbeing by contentment rather than income is certainly a noble goal in our gilded age, but how can it be appropriately measured?
Summer is for baseball… and Bernie Sanders. Like baseball, Bernie Sanders relies on the sweltering malaise (baseball and Bernie are both slow news cycle summer games), lack of competition (there are no other sports—or Democratic campaigns—on TV), and an illusory yearning for an older and simpler time (America’s past-time is fading like a middle class supported by manufacturing). While Bernie Sanders will, like baseball, never compete with the true titans of the fall, as Hillary bides her time to intervene, he is opening the pathway for a qualified compromise candidate to knock her off the mantel.
Hillary Clinton has no shortage of vulnerabilities, despite having been in campaign mode for much of the past 25 years. But when it comes to her time as Secretary of State, her opponents continue to be distracted by details and not the underlying strategic failures (Benghazi and private servers are—largely irrelevant—details, Libyan intervention and the Arab Spring are—at least optically—blunders). While it is important to remember that foreign policy, at least since the Nixon Administration, has been increasingly conducted from the White House rather than the State Department, Hillary Clinton will remain accountable in the public eye for the international initiatives undertaken at President Obama's behest. Of the international conflagrations of Obama’s time in office, none should more worry Hillary than the, now infamous, “reset” with Russia.
What needed to be reset?
President Bush’s relationship with Russia—and its imperial despot, Vladimir Putin—began with great promise. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia undertook a rocky transition to democracy: gangsters fought in the streets for the remnants of denationalized industries, former satellites exploded into civil war, and the country defaulted on its debts in 1998. Following the bombing of an apartment complex in 1999 (an act that many conspiracy theorists, and scholars, believe to have been covertly orchestrated by the state), Putin acted decisively to punish the Chechen separatists assumed responsible and brought relative stability and security back to Russia.
For President Bush, there was reason to believe that Putin was a competent leader with a moral compass—sage counsel advised Putin to emphasize his Christian roots in conversations with President Bush, leading Bush to declare that:
"I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul"
However, despite the warmth of initial dialogue, the interests of the US and Russia diverged, and a spike in the price of oil (which accounts for ~52% of the Russian state’s revenues) emboldened Putin’s global ambitions.
In response to an increasingly assertive Russia, President Bush pressed forward with plans to build a NATO antiballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe—specifically, a radar facility in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland. While purportedly to counter Iran, and positively unable to intercept the barrage of nuclear warheads Russia could hurl at Western Europe, the NATO stations were important as the preface to extending the NATO response force to the boundaries of the alliance (rather than in Italy, Germany, and the UK where they are rather useless in propelling an initial ground attack, stationing US military personnel in the Czech Republic and Poland would raise the ante for Russia to conduct an initial incursion—the US can far more credibly commit to retaliate when its soldiers are killed).
In August of 2008, Russia invaded Georgia—although the European Union later found that it had been initially provoked by Georgia—and US-Russia relations reached their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union. The push for a missile shield seemed as prescient as ever and Republican nominee John McCain declared, "Today we are all Georgians" (below)—it seems to have rang on dead ears.
The Obama Administration, and by association Hillary Clinton, had grand ambitions for the hope and goodwill Obama inspired during the election. Whether it be removing troops from Iraq, nonproliferation, or pressuring regimes in North Korea and Iran, President Obama believed that a partner, or at least not an opponent, in Moscow would be necessary. But how could they reach an understanding?
Obama and Clinton may have believed that by making concessions to Russian President Medvedev—Putin in 2008 had acquiesced to the Russian constitution and temporarily taken over as Prime Minister--and politically empowering him, the US could detach the puppet (Medvedev) from the master (Putin). They may have also discounted the risk of future Russian aggression after say, another rise in oil prices, in the belief that political turnover could change international dynamics and kick-start cascading disarmament and cooperation.
Either way, Obama and his chief diplomat Hillary Clinton decided to “reset” relations with Russia and to open negotiations for a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce their respective nuclear arsenals. The policy shift showed signs of failure from the—pun intended—start.
The reset fails
In a hasty attempt at symbolism, Hillary Clinton delivered a red reset button to the Russian Foreign Minister. Unfortunately, and as a ringing endorsement of American language abilities, instead of writing ‘reset’ on the button they wrote ‘overcharged’—the Russian words peregruzka and perezagruka are notably similar. Overcoming the initial gaffe, Clinton set out to negotiate the START treaty and generally renew ties.
As the signed-START treaty was being pressed through the U.S. Senate, the Obama administration decided to scrap plans for the antiballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe in favor of a naval destroyer-based system stationed in the Mediterranean. While we may never know for certain, the optics and timing of the missile realignment make it look likely that the move was in part inspired as a quid pro quo for Russian cooperation on Iran and other international issues.
So, what has come of Russian cooperation? START passed, but while cutting the number of deployed nuclear warheads is a step in the right reduction, it does not change any strategic calculations; both Russia and the US will still have more than 3,000 deployed nuclear warheads—more than enough to destroy the planet.
The Russians cooperated in Afghanistan, permitting US supply chains to run through its airspace and sphere of influence—thus allowing Obama's troop surge and expansion of the war. This one is a real doozy: the US spent much of the 1980s financing an effort to bleed out Moscow in Afghanistan, just to turn around and pay for Moscow for the right to waste our money there. Like Iraq, Afghanistan will collapse shortly after our exit, as it has done throughout history, and revert to its natural state as a collection of warring fiefdoms. It is likely that we would have been better off without Russian cooperation on this one.
In contrast, the Russians have reasonably cooperated on Iranian nuclear sanctions. This may have been genuinely beneficial to the US, as the collective financial pressure likely pushed Iran to the negotiating table. But was it really a concession? The Russians likely calculated that reducing their trade with Iran in the short-term would be well compensated by a corresponding rise in energy prices (as Iranian oil is sanctioned from the market). More recently, they have preempted the enactment of the Iranian disarmament treaty to renew their own trade with Iran—including the sale of sophisticated air-defense missiles. This is not to mention their shared bankrolling of the Syrian regime—although given the alternative, the West may now ultimately decide against pushing Assad out the door.
Still worse, the Russian annexation of Crimea and ongoing proxy war in Eastern Ukraine have made the US commitment to Eastern Europe appear ever more hollow. Would NATO bases in Poland and the Czech Republic have altered Russian decision-making? You can never draw a straight line across history, nor will there ever be a sufficient counterfactual. However, there is without a doubt a growing consensus that a NATO military presence on Europe's Eastern periphery would be a highly valued deterrent--General Wesley Clark (a Democrat and former NATO supreme allied commander in Europe) and Radek Sikorsi (a former Polish Foreign Minister) have both called for one.
Back to Hillary
All of the US actions I have written about, rightly or wrongly, will be easily attributable to the tenure of Hillary Clinton as chief diplomat--asked recently, she sticks by the reset policy. It is interesting that Hillary has been hawkish on Iraq (which still haunts her), Libya (which should haunt her), and Afghanistan (which will haunter her), but initially dovish with a country, Russia, long known for its taste for realpolitik. These topics will certainly be broached should Hillary make it to the general election, but will they appear in the Democratic primary?
Bernie Sanders will certainly skewer Hillary on the Iraq invasion—he voted against the war authorization as a congressman. However, it is less clear if he has any incentive to attack foreign policy decisions that are also linked closely to President Obama. Nor is it likely that the next presumptive challenger, Vice President Biden, will be able to attack these decisions due to his own association with them (Biden supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but actually had the foresight to suggest outright partition of the country rather than the bloody and prolonged partition we are getting).
Hillary’s diplomatic career may just be more writing on the wall for the same Democratic coalition that coalesced around Obama eight years ago. What should be an asset, her fluency in international relations, may be pinned up as yet another problem area where a practitioner's record is worse than a novice’s blank slate.
Cause of death can vary widely across racial groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 7% of Hispanic deaths in 2010 were the result of accidents compared with only 4.2% for non-Hispanic blacks (maybe the result of occupational differences?). More worryingly, while homicides accounted for 0.3% of non-Hispanic white deaths in 2010, they accounted for 2.7% of non-Hispanic black deaths. While the overall homicide rate has been in major decline for the past two decades, these lingering racial disparities are proving resilient and there are troubling signs of a resurgence in violence.
Why crime went down
Violent crime peaked in the United States in 1991. Since that time, homicides are down 54% nationally and a once violent city like New York has seen them fall by 76% from a peak in 1985. Policymakers, academics, and special interest groups have offered an array of explanations for this precipitous decline— from imprisonment to less lead in paint. While establishing causality is incredibly difficult outside of a control trial, by examining policy variations over time and across states some insights can be extracted. So, what do we find?
The Brennan Center at NYU Law School econometrically tested many of these theories in What Caused the Crime Decline and arrived at some ballpark estimates.
The authors were able to estimate likely benefits from increased incarceration and policing, aging, income growth, decreased alcohol consumption, and fluctuations in unemployment. Notably, they were unable to estimate a non-zero impact for increased gun-carrying rights or use of the death penalty. In addition to the graphic above, the authors ran regressions on the data from 2000-2013 and found different explanations for the decline in crime—importantly, incarceration no longer played a significant role as its usefulness had apparently been saturated.
A violent summer
It has undoubtably been a difficult year for law enforcement. The media's awakening to disproportionate violence in black communities has made local cooperation with police fraught with tension. In turn, police morale is down. Nowhere more starkly than in New York, where the NYPD very publicly turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio.
Although the summer months are always more violent—people are out on the streets and tempers flare with the heat—this summer appears to be a major step backwards for many cities. According to USA Today, crime rates in 2015 are up 19% in Chicago, 11% in New York, 18% in Washington D.C. and more than 33% in Baltimore, New Orleans, and St. Louis compared with this time last year. While it will be impossible to quantify the exact mechanisms, the post-Ferguson struggle for the future of urban policing is likely leading, unintentionally, to an increased loss of life.
Why? As cooperation with and trust in law enforcement decline, the likelihood of witnesses to testify and for arrests to be made decline with them— altering the decision to commit homicide. As police feel greater scrutiny of their actions, they may have begun patrolling less or less effectively. As a narrative (rather than the longstanding reality) of overt discrimination and economic stagnation spreads, desperation may be leading to more violence.
Time to buy a gun?
The evidence against gun ownership is overwhelming. It is beyond rebuke that having fewer guns in your country drastically reduces the murder rate. In a country of guns, it has been a bit murkier whether an individual is incentivized to buy a gun. However, in a study published by the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that, compared with their unarmed neighbors, gun owners in the United States are on average three times as likely to kill themselves and twice as likely to be the victim of homicide. While there is an inherent difficulty in estimating these figures, as owning a gun is likely correlated with other causal variables like occupation or a personal proclivity for violence, these findings have been replicated so many times now that one can feel confident in their findings. So with 122,000 gun deaths between 2007-2010, why would a rational person still buy a gun?
Expected utility theory tells us that the rational choice for a typical consumer would be against purchasing a firearm. The gun has a (often high) cost to purchase, there is an overwhelming probability of never needing it, an infinitesimal chance of requiring it for life-saving protection, and a much greater chance of its unnecessary use resulting in your death. Weighing the probabilities results in a negative expected value and you not purchasing a gun. However, prospect theory, a much more accurate measure of human decision making, may make the decision less obvious.
Humans do not have the balanced view of expected outcomes that utility theory would have one believe. As anyone who has followed the news of a mass shooting (which have been markedly more common of late) knows, there is a great psychological weight associated with their imagery. The evoked emotion of helplessness in the face of indiscriminate danger, no matter how improbable, and only for those with a high risk aversion, outweighs the much higher (but seemingly controllable) probability of self harm and the financial cost of the gun. To state plainly, while you are three times more likely to use the gun for suicide and twice as likely to have it otherwise lead to your death (the expected gains of not owning a gun), the psychological perception of the loss is greater than the gains—only if the risk of accidental death were exponentially higher would you not buy the gun.
Back to the current crime wave
Gun ownership is a classic tragedy of the commons—individuals acting rationally create massive problems for the public at large and by extension themselves. Because handguns can be easily concealed, police (and the public at large) experience elevated stress levels when in disputes. The associated fear (with an upward bias against racial minorities), and first-mover advantage (you don't want to be the second person to pull their gun), leads to many unnecessary deaths—to say nothing of the role of guns in intentional homicides.
In 2013, there were an estimated 14,196 murders of which 69% involved a firearm. While driving a media narrative against gun ownership might alter the individual calculation for gun ownership on the margin, because of the elevated risk aversion of most gun-owners, it is likely that only imposed regulation would substantially reduce the number of handguns.
Please fill in the contact form below to have new articles emailed to you directly!