Orthogonal Projections

Biased but consistent commentary on economics, politics, sports, and life.

Morality and Upward Mobility

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In a recent blog post Noah Smith wonders about the connection between the “loss of morality” and many of the social ills cited in a recent NY Times column penned by David Brooks.

Brooks presents an argument similar to the one pushed by Charles Murray and others: the problems faced by the poor and less educated in US society are largely a function of the decline in appropriate social norms. The successful in society have chosen the “right” course in their own lives but, in abiding by the liberal ethos of avoiding judgment of the behavior of others, no longer attempt to promote such values and norms among the less successful. As a result, the differences in lifestyles and outcomes between the affluent, educated classes in US society and others are not only growing, but are becoming intractable.

Smith argues that if a loss in morality is indeed the root cause of this rising inequality, then why do we see such improvement on all these other social indicators. As Smith notes:

In other words, Americans are becoming better and better behaved in almost every way.

Although the statistics he cites could all be a function of more restrictive laws, increased policing, and more punitive laws, I’m inclined to agree principle with Smith here. All of the markers of societal decline cited by these commentators have always been present among the wealthier and poorer segments of society. Plenty of richer people have drug and alcohol problems, self-control problems, children out of wedlock, and so on. Rather, the interaction of wealth and such behaviors in a world of growing inequality, leads to wildly different consequences and outcomes. Wealthier people can more easily weather any mistake by virtue of more money and social capital than poorer people. Recall the particularly egregious example  the “affluenza” case; society is just more sympathetic to the wealthy and educated.

I actually believe that Murray, Brooks, and others understand this. And I agree with them insofar as that avoiding some of these behaviors is certainly a necessary condition – though far from sufficient –  for being upwardly mobile. But I  believe that for them to admit that people are people and that many differences in observed outcomes may be partly due to initial conditions is a little dangerous to their social program. In their view, wealthier, educated people got there by inherently being smarter and better people; poor people  would be ok if they just get with the program. The evidence supporting this view seem to be rather thin.

Written by marcdcase

March 28, 2015 at 11:22 am

Posted in Economics, Policy, Social Science

Tagged with

Public Housing Shortage?

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Something odd is going on at the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). Apparently CHA, in a rare situation for a public agency, is running a surplus– after bolstering its pension funds.

Unfortunately, this development has been met  with disappointment and even anger in some circles.  This anger stems from a belief that the current administration does not care that Chicago has a serious public housing shortage and the CHA neither seems to be bringing new units on the market nor the filling existing units in some areas.

Ultimately, whether this a “bad” thing or not is a, is a matter of perspective. It is well-known from public goods theory in economics that such goods, in this case high – quality public housing, will likely be underprovisioned in part because it requires a fair bit of redistribution (via taxes) to match people’s preferences. Plus, the below market prices will generally induce a lot of people into the market leading to about who is entitled to it since you have taken away price as the chief rationing mechanism.

Certainly, the current situation is a bad thing if you have difficulty obtaining market-level housing as more units available means you have a higher probability of obtaining one and if there are negative externalities (more crime, disease, and so on) arise from housing shortages. Alternatively, using some of the money to bolster the pension fund and pay down debt probably contributes to the agency’s long-term solvency. Given that most public agencies, especially in Chicago, have little to no reserves and are running red and that expected future funding for public projects is probably declining, it makes sense. Plus, with respect to public housing in very desirable areas, a question arises with respect to allocative efficiency. Though the welfare of citizens who would live in places like the Lathrop Homes or places like them might be improved by the the prosperous neighborhoods around it, it comes not only at the direct cost of management and maintenance but at the opportunity cost of taxes on residential and commercial real estate lost because the projects are there. These funds could potentially contribute to improving quality of life and public goods in other parts of the city.

Written by marcdcase

March 22, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tom Magliozzi, 1937-2014

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So many great Saturday mornings were spent listening to this man spar verbally with his brother. And I didn’t own a car until I turned 27.


Originally posted on Longreads Blog:

Tom Magliozzi, the popular co-host of the public radio show Car Talk, passed away today at the age of 77. In 1999, Tom and his brother Ray gave a commencement address at MIT. Tom talked to the graduating class of engineers about a Latin mantra, non impediti ratione cogitatonis, which means “unencumbered by the thought process.”

TOM: I was once trapped by the scientific, logic, left brain life. I graduated from here and I went to work as an engineer. And I will tell you about my defining moment. I was driving — I lived in Cambridge at the time — I was driving from Cambridge to my job in Foxboro, Massachusetts, and I was driving in a little MG. It weighed about 50 pounds and on Route 128 I was cut off by a semi and I almost, as they say, bought the farm. And as I…

View original 319 more words

Written by marcdcase

November 5, 2014 at 6:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ex-post outrage

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Ray Rice had his contract with the Baltimore Ravens terminated and was suspended indefinitely as a result of the release of video details the domestic violence incident that left his fiancee – now wife – unconscious. The video shows him striking her in the face and knocking her into the wall of the elevator — it is amazing she was not hurt more. After knocking her unconscious, in possibly the most disturbing part of the video, Rice dragged her out the elevator.

It is a harsh, though deserved punishment. A question arises, of course, as to why the NFL had to go through this twice. It doesn’t take much imagination to surmise what must have happened in the elevator as reports of Mrs. Rice being knocked unconscious were well known. If they thought the act merited serious punishment, they should have done it initially, not after this video surfaced; even if the concern was the public relations, they should have meted out strong punishment at first with the option of walking it back later when things were a little less hot, so to speak.

Instead, they have made a mess of it. Their actions in response to this video make them seem less concerned for Janay Rice than for the NFL. Many of its formal and informal spokespeople are outraged — now.  Rather than making a point, they reinforced the cynical opinion of them that they only care about profits and image. Probably because it’s true.

Written by marcdcase

September 8, 2014 at 8:36 pm

Posted in Crime, Tragedy, Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

Misconduct and Norms

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The Chicago Tribune featured a story this morning about a  Chicago police commander  relieved of his duties pending indictments for aggravated battery and official misconduct. The commander, Glenn Evans, is accused of placing his gun in a suspect’s mouth during an interrogation. 

While  certainly unwelcome  news for the CPD and its constituents,  the case highlights why focusing solely on the incidence of interracial  police brutality and excessive force cases misses the point. Excessive force and brutality by police  is not a “white officer” problem; changing the composition of police forces in the absence of changing the underlying culture is unlikely to reduce the incidence of such claims. Police brutality is a law enforcement problem. While  it is true that it often occurs in racialized settings, this fact is partly driven by the composition of the police force and the spatial concentration of enforcement. Rough treatment is not reserved solely for blacks and Hispanics.  Recall, for example, the “don’t tase me bro” and University of California protest incidents in recent years. These incidents, ostensibly not about race, reflect something  that appears endemic among police forces: a belief that people that do not adhere perfectly prescribed behavior should be punished. 

In my experience, as a black male, I have been involved as many negative situations with black policemen as I have had with white. In fact, the worst situation: where a police officer forced my cousin and me to place our hands on the hot hood of his car while stood behind us with gun drawn instructing us that “if you move your hands off the f*cking car, I’ll blow your head off” involved a black police officer. What prompted this little brouhaha? He felt we didn’t give him “sufficient respect” when he rode by our perch on my cousin’s stoop; we were apparently supposed to signal our subordination by looking away or down when he passed. It ended ok, of course; neither my cousin nor I had  warrants or criminal records so we were able to continue our visit — within the house. 

If  not only race, what then?  First,  policing is a very difficult. My uncle, who happens to be a retired policemen, has also suggested that (A) the set of people for whom policing is attractive has changed in recent years and (B) their is a lot more latent fear and stress that becomes aggression in frustrating situations. The latter wouldn’t be surprising to me. As the rewards and barriers to talent have changed, who actually signs for this potentially hard, dangerous, and relatively low paying job should change. We could fix this by raising pay and imposing stronger screening mechanisms. The latter, however, seems to be  a bit more intractable as it is unclear what is driving these fears. On-the-job deaths and injuries among policemen have apparently dropped over the years. Violent crime, in general, has fallen as well.  

What is clear, however, is that we need to figure it out before more tragedies like those seen in Ferguson, NYC, and Oakland occur.

Written by marcdcase

August 29, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

City on Fire

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In response to the apparent shooting of an unarmed (black) person, some residents of the St. Louis suburb decided to stage a riot last evening. As such things go, civil disobedience devolved into looting; a number of news agencies captured footage of young black males running from stores with wine and various other items they did not purchase. It ‘s reprehensible, but rather than focusing on yet another incident where a member of the police shot  an ostensibly unarmed citizen, the media and bystanders focus on the behavior of a small number of  bad actors.

There is  malfeasance on all sides. Certainly the use of deadly force in the course of an interaction with an unarmed individual, despite whatever is ruled by police board and grand juries, must constitute a failure of training or judgement. But for some reason much of the attention is placed upon looters. I’ve heard some people suggest that, perversely, these episodes justify the quick triggers of the police. Absurd.  Of course, thieves should be admonished, caught, and punished. Such people are opportunists,  typical of many crises where there arises substantial human pain and suffering. Nevertheless, the constant refrain whereby people focus on looting takes away from the real tragedy: another young man has been killed  I think the former will be taken care of, once we deal with whatever ails the police – citizen interactions that often yield these awful outcomes.

Written by marcdcase

August 11, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Posted in Crime, Tragedy

The End is Near

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The end is near; summer, that is. In two weeks, the semester begins and another summer is in the book. Of course, I was nowhere near productive as I initially planned. But, it has been an eventful one.

A quick recap of some eventful things :

  • Lebron is going back to Cleveland: Talk about an exercise in swallowing one’s pride. After Dan Gilbert’s infamous ad hominem letter, it was really amazing to see Lebron decide  to accept a paycheck from him when he could have gone anywhere. But he wanted to go home. And he probably has the long game in mind. If he makes Cleveland a winner, he will be a lifelong here. And will probably become a billionaire at some point in the process.
  • Gaza and Israel are at war again: A serious war in which Israel sought to neutralize the tunnels Hamas has dug all over Gaza. This particular conflict will be memorable  in part because Israel took the gloves off and  eschewed bombings and targeted killings that typically characterized their earlier fights. Lots of people died: soldiers, militants, and civilians. Moreover, the infrastructure damage in Gaza was catastrophic. Although they are currently under a ceasefire and negotiating a more permanent end to the hostilities, I think that the political  implications of this recent war will be felt for a long time coming.
  • Ebola is running rampant: This recent outbreak is quite scary. Unlike the past, the outbreak has emerged from isolated areas of Congo and has made it as far as the major cities in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. We even have Americans infected in Atlanta. If Ebola ever got loose in a major American city, all hell would break loose.

Written by marcdcase

August 7, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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