Scenes from a Moral Panic

From Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine (1997), The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in the Crack Scare.
On September 5, 1989, President Bush, speaking from the presidential desk in the Oval Office, announced his plan for achieving “victory over drugs” in his first major prime-time address to the nation, broadcast on all three national television networks. We want to focus on this incident as an example of the way politicians and the media systematically misinformed and deceived the public in order to promote the War on Drugs. During the address, Bush held up to the cameras a clear plastic bag ofcrack labeled “EVIDENCE.” He announced that it was “seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” (Washington Post, September 22,1989,p.A1). Its contents, Bush said, were “turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children.” The president proclaimed that, because of crack and other drugs, he would “more than double” federal assistance to state and local law enforcement (New York Times, September 6, 1989,p.A11). The next morning the picture of the president holding a bag ofcrack was on the front pages of newspapers across America.

About two weeks later, the Washington Post, and then National Public Radio and other newspapers, discovered how the president of the United States had obtained his bag of crack. According to White House and DEA officials, “the idea ofthe President holding up crack was [first] included in some drafts” of his speech. Bush enthusiastically approved. A White House aide told the Post that the president “liked the prop….It drove the point home.” Bush and his advisors also decided that the crack should be seized in Lafayette Park across from the White House so the president could say that crack had become so pervasive that it was being sold “in front of the White House” (Isikoff,1989).

This decision set up a complex chain of events.White House Communications Director David Demarst asked Cabinet Affairs Secretary David Bates to instruct the Justice Department “to find some crack that fit the description in the speech.” Bates called Richard Weatherbee, special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh,who then called James Milford, executive assistant to the DEA chief. Finally, Milford phoned William McMullen,special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington office, and told him to arrange an undercover crack buy near the White House because “evidently, the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere” (Isikoff,1989).

Despite their best efforts,the top federal drug agents were not able to find anyone selling crack (or any other drug) in Lafayette Park,or anywhere else in the vicinity of the White House.Therefore,in order to carry out their assignment, DEA agents had to entice someone to come to the park to make the sale. Apparently,the only person the DEA could convince was Keith Jackson,an eighteen-year-old African-American high school senior. McMullan reported that it was difficult because Jackson “did not even know where the White House was.”The DEA’s secret tape recording of the conversation revealed that the teenager seemed baffled by the request: “Where the [expletive deleted] is the White House?” he asked. Therefore, McMullan told the Post, “we had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy” (Isikoff,1989).

The undesirability of selling crack in Lafayette Park was confirmed by men from Washington,D.C., imprisoned for drug selling, and interviewed by National Public Radio. All agreed that nobody would sell crack there because,among other reasons, there would be no customers. The crack-using population was in Washington’s poor African-American neighborhoods some distance from the White House. The Washington Post and other papers also reported that the undercover DEA agents had not, after all, actually seized the crack, as Bush had claimed in his speech. Rather, the DEA agents purchased it from Jackson for $2,400 and then let him go.

This incident illustrates how a drug scare distorts and perverts public knowledge and policy. The claim that crack was threatening every neighborhood in America was not based on evidence; after three years ofthe scare, crack remained predominantly in the inner cities where it began. Instead, this claim appears to have been based on the symbolic political value seen by Bush’s speech writers. When they sought, after the fact, to purchase their own crack to prove this point, they found that reality did not match their script. Instead of changing the script to reflect reality, a series of high-level officials instructed federal drug agents to create a reality that would fit the script. Finally, the president of the United States displayed the procured prop on national television. Yet, when all this was revealed, neither politicians nor the media were led to question the president’s policies or his claims about crack’s pervasiveness.

The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave

That’s the title of  a forthcoming book by Mark Schrad, which looks very interesting. I’ve read a paper on this topic by the author, which has been very useful to the chapter I’m currently writing of my thesis (basically analyzing the consequences of  what Schrad calls “bad policy ideas” on constitutional effectiveness). I really wish the book were out now. Here’s the blurb:

In The Political Power of Bad Ideas , Mark Lawrence Schrad looks on an oddity of modern history–the broad diffusion of temperance legislation in the early twentieth century–to make a broad argument about how bad policy ideas achieve international success. His root question is this: how could a bad policy idea–one that was widely recognized by experts as bad before adoption, and which ultimately failed everywhere–come to be adopted throughout the world? To answer it, Schrad uses an institutionalist approach, and focuses in particular on the US, Russia/USSR (ironically, one of the only laws the Soviets kept on the books was the Tsarist temperance law), and Sweden. Conventional wisdom, based largely on the U.S. experience, blames evangelical zealots for the success of the temperance movement. Yet as Schrad shows, “prohibition was adopted in ten countries other than the United States, as well as countless colonial possessions-all with similar disastrous consequences, and in every case followed by repeal.” Schrad focuses on the dynamic interaction of ideas and political institutions, tracing the process through which concepts of dubious merit gain momentum and achieve credibility as they wend their way through institutional structures. And while he focuses on one episode, his historical argument applies far more broadly, and even can tell us a great deal about how today’s policy failures, such as reasons proffered for invading Iraq, became acceptable.

Private Policing I Find Disturbing

Some residents of New Brighton, Christchurch are sick of the police failing to control crime and have taken to patrolling the streets. I would be all for that were these guys not a bunch of white supremacists.

A “white pride” group, Right Wing Resistance (RWR), claims to be patrolling New Brighton streets that “the police and the system has all but given up on”.

The group, linked to North Island-based white power activist Kyle Chapman, says Christchurch is the centre of a “white pride” revival.

Films of their initiation ceremonies were listed on an internet site for “white nationalists” called WNTube.

A message board used by the group, Stormfront.org, said the group was performing “crimewatch patrols” aimed at “cutting down on homie [American rap-style] vandalism and muggings that have become common on the east side of CHCH”.

“The police and the system in general has all but given up on the poor areas and it is left to us to sort this out now,” it said. (…)

Locals were getting very upset with youths, particularly Polynesian youths, standing over people and vandalising.” (…)

If a European youth was found vandalising property: “We’d probably say `Hey, what are you doing? That’s not really the white way’.” (…)

New Brighton Residents Association member George Aorangi Stanley said “boot boys” had been spotted “hanging around looking menacing”.

“I don’t know if you’d consider it patrolling. I just consider them as contributing to the tension.”

The group had correctly tapped into local concern about crime and safety, she said. “It’s the main topic of conversation at the [Residents Association] meetings.”

Aorangi Stanley said the association had discussed doing their own patrols – a “reclaim the night” action – to increase safety.

This is the kind of thing Eric Crampton and I worry about in our paper on meddlesome preferences in anarchy, recently discussed here and here. (New Brighton, by the way, is Eric’s neck of the woods – I wonder if he has noticed anything?) Without government to provide public or quasi-public goods like policing, private clubs will step in to fill the gap. Of course, not all private clubs are created equal and those most able to overcome collective action problems will become more common in anarchy (or, as we see here, dysfunctional government). Further, small groups with intense preferences will have more power relative to large groups with weak preferences in anarchy compared to democracy.

The economics of religion pioneered by Larry Iannaccone, another of the amazingly interesting economists at GMU, suggests that clubs which require costly signals of commitment to the group – often including the internalization of wacky beliefs and efforts to make oneself stigmatized by the outside world -  will be more successful. Iannaccone is interested in sects, but his logic also applies to secular gangs like skinheads. Costly signalling means that we can’t rely on the standard incentive arguments against bigotry being expressed through markets. Beating up Polynesian kids is costly, but if it works to signal one’s commitment to the group, the costliness is a feature rather than a bug. On average, then, high-commitment clubs will instill preferences which favour the violation of others’ rights more than low-commitment clubs. Since these small groups with intense have more say in anarchy (where willingness to pay largely determines outcomes)  than democracy (where the raw numbers supporting some policy largely determines outcomes) , anarchy produces the situation it is least able to handle. So, by the way, does democracy.

Now, if the skinheads in New Brighton really are making the streets safer (which I doubt), the benefits will be enjoyed by residents regardless of whether they join or not. The fact that the group can get a bunch of guys to produce a public good (even if it’s intimidation of Polynesian kids) indicates that they’ll also be pretty good at producing a whole lot of club goods only enjoyed by members. If the role of government decreases, then, the skinheads will attract more members and we should expect more racist violence in New Brighton.

I still favour anarchy, but I do think this is something to worry about. Fortunately, it’s also something that reasonable people can work towards avoiding. The community association conducting its own patrols will reduce the leverage the skinheads can get in the community. More generally, efforts to create non-bigoted groups to voluntarily produce public goods will fill the void sects emerge to fill.

Illiberal Anarchy

John Humphreys critiques the paper Eric Crampton and I are writing on the effect of meddlesome preferences in market anarchy. His argument is that we’re talking about outcomes we don’t like but aren’t really unlibertarian, and that we overestimate the sway crazy bigots could exert under real anarchy.

Eric responds here. See also the comments on John’s post. I have nothing to add here.

Quote of the Day: Mises Edition

Another from the “I want to make a note of this for future reference and a blog post seems like the easiest way to do it” files. From Theory and History, chapter 7:

In the world of reality, life, and human action there is no such thing as interests independent of ideas, preceding them temporally and logically. What a man considers his interest is the result of his ideas.

If there is any sense in the proposition that the interests of the proletarians would be best served by socialism, it is this: the ends which the individual proletarians are aiming at will be best achieved by socialism. Such a proposition requires proof. It is vain to substitute for such a proof the recourse to an arbitrarily contrived system of philosophy of history.

All this could never occur to Marx because he was engrossed by the idea that human interests are uniquely and entirely determined by the biological nature of the human body. Man, as he saw it, is exclusively interested in the procurement of the largest quantity of tangible goods. There is no qualitative, only a quantitative, problem in the supply of goods and services. Wants do not depend on ideas but solely on physiological conditions. Blinded by this preconception, Marx ignored the fact that one of the problems of production is to decide what kind of goods are to be produced.

With animals and with primitive men on the verge of starvation it is certainly true that nothing counts but the quantity of edible things they can secure. There is no need to point out that conditions are entirely different for men, even for those in the earliest stages of civilization. Civilized man is faced with the problem of choosing among the satisfactions of various needs and among various modes of satisfying the same need. His interests are diversified and are determined by the ideas that influence his choosing. One does not serve the interests of a man who wants a new coat by giving him a pair of shoes or those of a man who wants to hear a Beethoven symphony by giving him admission to a boxing match. It is ideas that are responsible for the fact that the interests of people are disparate.

Incidentally it may be mentioned that this misconstruing of human wants and interests prevented Marx and other socialists from comprehending the distinction between freedom and slavery, between the condition of a man who himself decides how to spend his income and that of a man whom a paternal authority supplies with those things which, as the authority thinks, he needs. In the market economy the consumers choose and thereby determine the quantity and the quality of the goods produced. Under socialism the authority takes care of these matters. In the eyes of Marx and the Marxians there is no substantial difference between these two methods of want satisfaction; it is of no consequence who chooses, the “paltry” individual for himself or the authority for all its subjects. They fail to realize that the authority does not give its wards what they want to get but what, according to the opinion, of the authority; they ought to get. If a man who wants to get the Bible gets the Koran instead, he is no longer free.

That’s about the best summation of the subjectivist position I’ve come across.

Coherence versus Political Reality

Arnold Kling tries to categorize current attitudes towards markets and state intervention as combinations of three points on an ideological triangle; Libertarian, Conservative, and Progressive:

1. Point L, where you believe that markets are effective at processing information and solving problems. This position is to take a radically pro-market view, and to let markets fix their own failures.

2. Point C, where you believe that tradition incorporates the evolved use of information to solve problems. This position is to be very cautious about overthrowing existing institutional arrangements.

3. Point P, where you believe that expert technocrats should be in charge. You are comfortable with throwing out tradition and markets in order to cede power to experts.

I think something like this would be the best framework within which to think about policy, but I think it only works as a descriptive model of actual beliefs for a small subclass of people: those with both a decent knowledge of the social sciences and a broadly consequentialist worldview. Politics as it’s practised on the ground isn’t a competition between alternative coherent worldviews, but competing myths, symbols, and identity groups.

The difference between Arnold’s description and political reality is most obvious in the case of conservatives. Hayekian conservatism is certainly a reasonable argument against the reformist zeal of either libertarians or progressives, but most self-identified conservatives surely don’t base their preference for existing institutions and norms on arguments from institutional evolution. They see existing institutions and norms as right – not merely stable equilibria which it would be unwise to mess with.

Arnold is talking about policy, but politics is an entirely different thing.

Smoking Bans and Norms

Henry Farrell has an excellent post at Crooked Timber on smoking bans and public norms:

I haven’t seen any research on this (if someone knows of any, let me know in comments), but my best guess in the absence of good evidence would be that the success of the ban reflected instabilities in previously existing informal norms about where people could or could not smoke. Laws that work against prevailing social norms face an uphill battle in implementation – unless people come to a general belief that non-compliers are highly likely to be sanctioned by the public authorities, they are likely to carry on doing what they always do. Hence, for example, the continued failure of the RIAA etc to stop file-sharing – file-sharers who both (a) think that there is nothing wrong with swapping music and movies, and (b) that the chance that they are going to be punished is low, are going to go on sharing files (current US law tries to counterbalance this problem by applying relatively draconian penalties to the few file sharers who are caught, but this strategy carries its own problems). Laws that broadly fit with prevailing informal norms, will, obviously, have few implementation problems.

But what we may have seen (if my guess is right) with smoking bans is an unusual case in which prevailing norms (that Irish people can smoke in pubs to their hearts’ content, and that others will just have to put up with it) were much more fragile than they appeared to be, and that the change in law made it easier for those disadvantaged by the prevailing norms to challenge smokers and to shame them into stopping smoking in certain places, hence creating a new set of robust norms.

I think that’s about right. Jonathan Adler, Stephen Bainbridge, and Patri Friedman also have interesting posts on norms and smoking bans.

For the record: I smoke, but hate the smell of stale smoke and generally have a preference for it being done outdoors (below-freezing Christchurch nights excepted). New Zealand banned smoking in all indoor workplaces a few years ago. I think this was very bad policy – I oppose coercive solutions to minor or nonexistent problems – but don’t feel particularly put out myself.

It seems pretty obvious that the optimal market outcome would involve some smoking and some non-smoking bars. This is what the market was moving towards, with a small but growing number of smokefree bars here in New Zealand before the ban. Due to the stickiness of social norms, though, this movement might have been slower than we might prefer. I have no idea what the optimal mix would be, but I’m fairly comfortable saying there were too few non-smoking bars in New Zealand before the ban.

I’ll put on my vulgar utilitarian hat for a second and offer some thoughts. My feeling is that the situation in which all bars ban smoking would be preferable to the situation in which all bars allow it. I can even buy the idea that the new blanket ban increases welfare relative to the old situation with few non-smoking bars. To simplify things horrendously, I suspect there’s a relationship between utility and the proportion of non-smoking bars which looks something like this:

smokingban

Before the ban, we were somewhere near the far left of the curve. With the ban, we were pushed to the extreme right. This is welfare improving in the short run, but if we think we were slowly moving towards the centre anyway – which seems undeniable – the ban precludes the optimal long-run equilibrium. Whether the ban is welfare-improving depends on the relative magnitudes of the short-term and long-term welfare effects, as well as the appropriate discount rate. As a vulgar utilitarian, I have no way of knowing which dominates without some sort of revealed preference mechanism. The aggregate welfare implications of the ban are not obvious. What is obvious, though, is that a removal of the ban would improve things, as Jonathan Adler argues:

What would happen were such bans to be repealed? My best guess is that relatively little would change. When I think about my favorite local restaurants, I cannot see any of them allowing patrons to smoke even if the law were changed. There are one or two local bars, however, that I suspect might allow smoking on the premises, but they would be the exception. So whereas before the smoking ban here in Ohio, most restaurants and bars allowed smoking in a separate room or at the bar, were the ban repealed today I would be willing to bet that most restaurants and bars would remain entirely smoke-free.

What does this all mean? On the one hand, if most restaurants and bars would remain smoke-free, it seems to me the argument for allowing some establishments to adopt different rules is that much stronger. Remove the bans and us libertarian-types can still toast to the free market system in a smoke-free pub. But it is important to acknowledge that this state of affairs exists today because of the initial government intervention. The smoking ban appears to have helped solve a collective action problem that had kept a suboptimal norm in place. So even if a ban limited the ability of business owners to set the rules for their own businesses, it may have also helped them shift toward preferable business practices. Non-governmental efforts may have produced the same result eventually, but it would almost certainly have taken longer. So smoking bans have been beneficial, but it may also be the case that the maintenance of such bans is unnecessary to retain most of their benefits.

The initial ban shifted us to the extreme right of the graph, which was preferable to the old situation. A removal of the ban would allow us to move towards the centre as some bars would allow smoking, presumably right up until the optimal point. This would be the best of all possible worlds. Unfortunately, I can’t see the New Zealand smoking ban being repealed anytime soon. The normally-dominant angry libertarian in me still thinks the anti-smoking movement is all bigotry, by the way. At worst, I think smoking in bars bothering others is a small problem. Social norms are only going to stop people voting with their feet for smoke-free bars when they are pretty close to indifference.

Preference Falsification and Support for Gay Marriage

Andrew Gelman is stunned that support for gay marriage has increased more in states with already liberal attitudes:

In the past fifteen years, gay marriage has increased in popularity in all fifty states. No news there, but what was a surprise to me is where the largest changes have occurred. The popularity of gay marriage has increased fastest in the states where gay rights were already relatively popular in the 1990s.

In 1995, support for gay marriage exceeded 30% in only six states: New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Vermont. In these states, support for gay marriage has increased by an average of almost 20 percentage points. In contrast, support has increased by less than 10 percentage points in the six states that in 1995 were most anti-gay-marriage–Utah, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Idaho.

Here’s the picture showing all 50 states:

lax6

I was stunned when I saw this picture. I generally expect to see uniform swing, or maybe even some “regression to the mean,” with the lowest values increasing the most and the highest values declining, relative to the average. But that’s not what’s happening at all. What’s going on?

Gelman offers two possible explanations: First, gays are more likely to come out of the closet in liberal states, and so the average person in these states knows more openly gay people. Second, politicians in tolerant states have electoral incentives to argue for the liberal position, thus pushing public discourse in that direction.

I suspect both of these factors have some influence, but I think another may be more important. I suspect that public opinion on highly salient issues with strong signalling value tends to be self-reinforcing. A useful framework for thinking about this is Timur Kuran’s model of preference falsification.

Kuran distinguishes between an individual’s public opinion – the views he openly expresses on a particular issue – and private opinion – the way he privately feels about this issue. Since there are social costs to expressing unpopular views, public opinion will be systematically biased towards the social consensus compared to the underlying distribution of private opinions. There is social pressure for those in Utah to express opposition to gay marriage, while there could well be social pressure to express support in New York. If few people share your opinion, you’re more likely to keep quiet or actively falsify your view. Via this mechanism, social pressure leads to homogeneity in public opinion, but leaves private opinion unchanged.

If we think socialization matters in creating private opinion, though, preference falsification will also affect private opinions. When there seems to be a strong consensus on some issue, social learning will bias the underlying distribution of private opinions towards the consensus view relative to the situation without preference falsification. This is obviously pretty closely related to the psychological phenomenon of group polarization.

The preference falsification view is pretty close to Gelman’s hypothesis that liberal states encourage gays to come out of the closet. Social environments which reduce the costs of coming out as gay also reduce the costs of coming out as gay-tolerant. Beyond some threshold, the social payoff from expressing gay-tolerant attitudes becomes positive, which means we’re likely to have closeted bigots rather than closeted liberals. This pro-gay preference falsification will then reinforce pro-gay private opinion, accelerating the liberalization of attitudes in already liberal states.

I heartily endorse Gelman’s call for further study:

We can look at other issues, not just on gay rights, to see where this sort of divergence occurs, and where we see the more expected uniform swing or regression-to-the-mean patterns.

My guess is that issue salience would be a good predictor of divergence. It would also be informative to try and break things down to areas smaller than states. If the preference falsification explanation works, opinion converges within social networks. County or town data should show a stronger effect, as people are more likely to interact with those geographically close to them. Social networking sites could provide some pretty awesome data if you could get entire tightly interconnected networks to share their opinions.

Kuran on the Collective Nature of Public Opinion

Timur Kuran has a great response to Robert Wright at Cato Unbound:

Wright’s three claims contain many grains of truth. Moreover, there is no doubt that changing Muslim and Western perceptions concerning their interactions with one another would diminish interreligious tensions, facilitate solutions to various global crises, and make it easier to generate effective responses to chronic problems of the Muslim world. Yet, achieving these desirable outcomes requires much more than campaigns to alter perceptions. Two of Wright’s claims are only partly true, and the missing factors have critical policy implications.

People’s actions and reactions depend on more than their mental models. They depend also, and in politically charged contexts primarily, on the prevailing social pressures. Consider the resident of an impoverished, Taliban-controlled area of Pakistan. When he opts to participate in an anti-American demonstration, he need not be acting on the belief that global trade produces zero-sum effects. His principal motivation may well be that by endorsing Islamism publicly and openly aiding a Taliban-supported cause he gains social status, economic advantages, and even physical security. Suppose we pluck that person out of the Pakistani-Afghan border area, place him in a peaceful neighborhood of Lahore, and give him a lucrative job. Living among Muslims at ease with modernity and facing a different set of social pressures, he will no longer feel compelled to demonstrate against foreigners. Obviously, what goes for one demonstrator goes for the rest. Each joins the demonstration, in part, because others in his neighborhood are demonstrating. Hence, what explains the anti-American demonstration in question is a collective process, not simply a faulty mental model that shapes myriads of individual actions independently. (…)

My two key points are (1) that Muslim hostility toward the West, such as it exists, is a collective process and (2) that the individuals who join anti-Western movements are motivated substantially by their opportunities. It follows that teaching radical Muslims to view their interactions with non-Muslims as positive-sum processes will not necessarily turn them into friendly, peaceful, and democratic-minded negotiators. For one thing, wealth-generating positive-sum processes are of no use to them if they themselves have no hope of sharing in the benefits. Although Pakistan as a whole benefits handsomely from producing footballs for Nike and Adidas, its youth in Swat and Waziristan remain mired in poverty. For another, Muslims trapped in radicalized areas will not consider themselves free to cooperate with even secular Pakistanis, let alone foreigners. Knowing that abandoning the radical cause is to risk severe retaliation, they may refrain from publicizing their changes of heart and mind in the interest of self-preservation.

Read the whole thing.

Understanding Economic Change: The Impact of Emotion

An interesting looking paper in Constitutional Political Economy by Roberta Patalano.

Abtract: In this paper we aim to conceptualize the involvement of emotion in the processes of institutional emergence and change. The starting point of our proposal is the theory of change that has been developed by Douglass North since the 1990s and has recently culminated in the publication of “Understanding the process of economic change” (2005). We agree with North in considering change as an endogenous process which starts in the individual mind through a modification of mental models and beliefs. However, notwithstanding the value that North attributes to the cognitive components of change, his approach assigns no specific role to emotion. Based on recent findings on emotions and their contribution to the process of thought, we will suggest how North’s approach may be extended in order to explore some basic mechanisms of the interaction between institutions and feelings.

I think Northian cognitive institutionalism is going to produce some very interesting stuff in years to come as our understanding of the human mind improves. Economists and other social scientists have produced some great insights taking perceptions and preferences as given, but endogenizing the mental opens up a whole lot of new possibilities in advancing our understanding of how humans interact to produce social outcomes.

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