David R. Henderson  

Using Economics to Make Judgement Calls

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There are few student species more nakedly ambitious, focused, and future-oriented than the average Harvard law student. Having likely spent his undergraduate years planning admissions maximization strategies, he now has the Holy Grail almost within his grasp. Let him but graduate with a Harvard J.D. and he will face a wealth of job offers from prestigious law firms, government agencies, judicial clerkships, and businesses.
This is the opening paragraph of Heather MacDonald's "Don't Bet on the Harvard Law School 'Hate Crime.'"

She then writes:

Yet according to student activists, as well as the media and Harvard law school dean Martha Minow, an as yet unknown Harvard law student has risked destroying everything he has so assiduously worked for in order to commit a childish act of defacement ready-made for labelling as a racial hate crime. On Thursday morning, black tape was found on the portraits of black professors in a Harvard law school building. The tape had allegedly been used previously to cover up the Harvard seal in its various iterations across campus in protest against the seal's supposed racist connotations. The discovery of the taped portraits triggered the inevitable protests and a meeting with Dean Minow, who announced that racism is a "serious problem" at the Harvard law school and at Harvard University. The incident will be leveraged into the usual demands for an even larger and more useless diversity bureaucracy.

Perhaps there exists a Harvard law student so unable to control his impulses, or so clueless about today's political environment, that he is willing to risk being expelled and banished from every high-powered job that would otherwise be available to him, simply in order to engage in a juvenile prank. But I am not betting on it. Don't expect Harvard to disclose the outcome of its investigations into this latest "hate crime," just as the UCLA law school never disclosed the outcome of its investigations into its own alleged hate crime a year ago.

Ms. MacDonald is thinking like an economist--using reasoning about incentives to make a judgement call. Of course, it's possible that a student with a huge stream of income in front of him/her could make such a bad decision. But it seems unlikely.

Her reasoning reminds me of a conversation that I had with a colleague, Gregg Jarrell, when I was on the faculty at the University of Rochester in the late 1970s. We were talking about a recent baseball game in which a batter had hit a long ball and the umpires had trouble deciding which side of the foul pole the ball had gone on. I forgot what call they made, but Gregg pointed out that the pitchers in the bull pen were in a much better position to tell. Of course, they were all biased and so an umpire could hardly ask them what they thought. But Gregg pointed out that the ump would not need to ask--he could just look at their behavior. When they saw the ball coming their way, they were all looking at it. When it went by the foul pole, they all immediately went back to their conversation, with no show of emotion. Bottom line: foul ball. This was another instance of using economics to make a judgement call. The umps didn't do it, but they could have.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Jon Murphy writes:
The umps didn't do it, but they could have.

Interesting. I wonder how often this does occur and we, the spectators, never notice it. I doubt an umpire or ref would ever admit to it, but I do wonder if they ever steal a glance toward the bullpen or the sidelines to see players' reactions. Maybe that's why players "plead their case" so hard to refs, even when the call seems clear cut?

Michael Stack writes:
The umps didn't do it, but they could have.

Once. ;)

Andy writes:

Michael Stack is correct - solve for the equilibrium! The players will find out pretty quickly if the umps are looking at their reactions and adjust accordingly.

bill writes:

Sadly, I disagree about the economic analysis on the Harvard matter (I know nothing of the Harvard matter itself other than what is written here, so I have no opinion on that.) In equilibrium, I believe it could be rational for one vandal because they could make a very nice living as a hero to the subset of people that are enraged by things like Black Lives Matter and that think there is a huge War on Christmas.

TMC writes:

bill, it's more likely to be someone stirring up the backlash that will occur from the vandalism. As seen before, it's often a member of the insulted part that is the culprit. Economically - this type of act brings more attention to a cause than any other. Makes more sense for a sympathizer to commit the vandalism than any other person.

Sean L. writes:

Jon Murphy --

I believe umpires never do it. I was sitting almost directly under the left field foul pole one summer. The ball was a home run, the crowd went wild. The umpire improperly called it foul. In that case he had the support of thousands of people who would have reacted very differently had it actually been foul. I don't think a few thousand people (the ones who could clearly see what happened) can collectively 'fake' screaming at top volume.

The umpire was mercilessly ridiculed by crowd for the rest of the game.

Jr writes:

Two points:

Economics and incentive thinking work tolerably well on average but you can't use it to rule that one person (out of thousands) might have acted in a particular way. So yes the Black tape incident might be racist, though I accept we have no proof of that at the moment.

I do not see the economics angle in the baseball example. Of course the batting team would react differently to a home run but that is a) common sense which you do not need economics to tell you and b) not a reaction to incentives. What economic reasoning would tell you is that if umpires started to the emotional reactions of teams as a guide you would see a whole lot of faked emotion soon.

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