All politics is local (Electoral College reform edition)

Instead of wasting time with term limits, codes of ethics, or campaign finance reform laws, what if we redesigned the federal electoral process by allocating electoral college votes by county, with one county = one electoral college vote? In the alternative, what if congressional districts for the U.S. House of Representatives were based on the existing map of counties within each State, with one member of Congress per county? One problem with our proposal, however, is practical: the House would have to increase in size from 435 members to over 3000! According to Wikipedia, for example, there are 3007 counties, 64 parishes, 19 organized boroughs, 11 census areas, 41 independent cities, and the District of Columbia, for a total of 3,143 counties and county-equivalents in the U.S. We would thus need to build a bigger Congress or find another way to house so many congressmen.

Unit of selection?

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Why doesn’t Starbucks recycle?

Shout out to Elizabeth Drivas, a student in my undergraduate business law class at the University of Central Florida, who posed this provocative question to me during office hours on 21 October. In other words, when a successful firm like Starbucks touts its commitment to “reducing waste” and “reusable cups” (see this press release, for example) how much of this shameless self-promotion is just a marketing ploy to attract high-end customers, i.e. the type of customers who are willing to pay $3, $4, or even $5 for a cup of coffee? After some preliminary research (check out this helpful article by Adam Minter on Bloomberg View), it turns out that recycling is not yet cost-effective for Starbucks. Why not? Because those paper cups aren’t just made of paper; those cups have a plastic lining that complicate the recycling process. But isn’t ethics about doing the right thing, regardless of cost? Not necessarily! In my business law class, for example, I take time to compare and contrast various theories of normative ethics (e.g. Kantian ethics, Rawls’s theory of justice, and various theories of pragmatism and consequentialism) to illuminate contemporary debates about sustainability, corporate citizenship, and corporate social responsibility. Bonus questions: If you were Howard M. Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, how much of your firm’s resources would you invest in creating a non-plastic lined cup? In the alternative, what cost-effective steps could you take to reduce the use of paper cups in your coffee shops? Is this even a problem worth solving, given the small fraction of trash Starbucks generates relative to other firms? These are hard questions. If you have any thoughts, we would be happy to pass them along to Mr Schultz.

Posted in Bayesian Reasoning, Current Affairs, Economics, Law, Questions Rarely Asked | 2 Comments

Greer on Thucydides (part 1)

Via Tyler Cowen (once again), we discovered this beautiful introduction to the work of Thucydides (written up by T. Greer, who blogs at Here is an excerpt:

Thucydides earned a place at my “internal council” table. A spot has been saved for him near the doorway, between the seats given to Xunzi and Ibn Khaldun. One day he might sit opposite to Tocqueville; the next he will debate with Madison. In all cases I will be glad to hear his voice. But Thucydides is a wily one, and I am not quite ready to let him in yet. I have too many questions that must first be answered. So I invite him instead (or, at least, so I imagine) to a cozy side room, warmed by a great fire place and graced with two old armchairs. I ask him to sit down and bear kindly the interrogation that is to follow.
“How should I read your book?”

“Should it be understood as a work of what we call history, or literature, or social science?”

“How can I distinguish between your narrative of events and the events themselves?”

“Could your explanations be wrong? How would I know?”

“And why, for heaven’s sake, did you not tell us when and how the Athenians passed the sanctions on Megara?”

Thucydides smiles, pulls out his manuscript, and begins his reply. I listen carefully, questioning here, prodding there, occasionally crying out, “You rascal, you almost fooled me!” and then arguing furiously against what I hear. I know these questions will not all be resolved in one sitting. It will go on for weeks, I think, and even then some queries will remain unanswered. But by then the old Hellene will be ready to take his seat place at my table. I, in turn, will have learned a great deal about the world and its workings that I’d never considered before.

How should we read this book?

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Rules of ethics or rules of etiquette?

Image Credit: The Wall Street Journal

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Tail wags dog (airport noise edition)

Here is the full report, via the hyper-productive Tyler Cowen. So, should airports have the right to make noise, or should residential neighbors have the right to silence?

Posted in Bayesian Reasoning, Economics, Game Theory, Law, Politics, Property Rights, Questions Rarely Asked | 3 Comments

Review of Stigler (2016)

We just finished reading Stephen Stigler’s latest book The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom (Harvard, 2016), pictured below. (Spoiler alert: Professor Stigler, a historian of statistics at the University of Chicago, summarizes the seven most revolutionary and counter-intuitive ideas in the history of statistics: such as the root-n rule, e.g. the idea that the second set of n observations is not as informative as the first set of n observations, and the concept of likelihood, i.e. the use of probability to measure the strength of an inference.) Here’s what we liked most about Stigler’s book (the good): his use of historical examples to explain the origins of each fundamental idea, such as an ancient Sumerian example of what today we would call “data visualization” (pp. 27-28) and “the trial of the Pyx” (pp. 47-50), a medieval test conducted by the London Mint to measure the accuracy of the weights of British coins. Here’s what we liked the least (the bad): Stephen Stigler is no Richard Dawkins or Nate Silver. That is, Stigler’s explanation of each statistical idea is hard to follow, and he makes no genuine effort to explain these important ideas to readers with no prior knowledge of statistics. Lastly, here’s the ugly: Stigler does not bother to cite the work on error statistics by Professor Deborah Mayo, even in his chapter on experimental design (Ch. 6).

Image result for seven pillars of statistical wisdom

Not suitable for Statistics 101.

Posted in History, Probability | 1 Comment

A tax on rudeness

Have you noticed how more and more cafes and bakeries are employing the strategy pictured below? But who is acting more rudely? The customer or the business owner? After all, isn’t it just as rude to charge higher prices to people who are either themselves rude or just in a hurry or distracted?

File under: incentives matter

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