Statistically informed ideas on how to make the world work better.

Category: Ideas

Why we should punish white-collar criminals more severely than violent criminals



Most of us subscribe to a model of crime and punishment in which we punish criminals with a severity proportional to the nature of the crime, and in particular proportional to the nature of the depravity or bad intentions required on the part of the criminal to commit the crime. This makes intuitive sense – we want to see criminals get their just deserts, and those are very different in the case of a shoplifter and a serial rapist-murderer.

This is, however, a very individualistic perspective that takes into account individual criminals and their intentions and victims. True to form for this blog, I will present a counter-individualistic alternative: that we need to consider much more carefully the larger societal implications of how we punish criminals. More specifically, I argue that we should develop a series of punishments that do not necessarily fit the crimes, but that are best suited to minimizing the impacts of crime on society. A politician who takes a bribe may be more sympathetic than a serial killer, but, indirectly, his action can cost more lives and harm society much more. His punishment should reflect this. The formula I propose: the punishment should fit the large-scale societal impact of the crime, inversely weighted by the probability of getting caught. I’ll explain…

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Idea: Fixing the US primary election system with rotating county primaries

John Tillinghast recently wrote me with a clever idea to fix the US primary election system. Since it’s very much in the spirit of this blog, I’ll present it for your comments. The text is a mix of what he sent me and some broader framing of the problem.

The problem: US presidential primary elections (and caucuses – let’s ignore the difference for now) are held first in Iowa and New Hampshire every year. The ostensible reason for this is to choose two small states that will give the politicians a chance to meet many voters face-to-face and not just saturate major media markets with ads. While the record of these states at choosing the eventual nominees of the parties is mixed, it is certainly true that many candidates drop out at this stage of the race. The problem is that these two small, highly non-representative states thus have quite disproportionate power over a national process. So the challenge is to find a way to preserve the need for politicians to succeed at convincing voters face-to-face to choose them, while removing the disproportionate role of these two states.

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A pharmaceutical insider’s take on a National Institute of Pharmaceutics

I have a friend who works as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, and he recently emailed me with some thoughts on my post regarding a National Institute of Pharmaceutics. It’s clear that he knows a lot more about what he’s saying than I do, and a really interesting idea emerges at the end. The rest of this post is his email (slightly edited for context), and I respond in a comment:

“I’ve been following your blog and I read your NIP idea with a lot of interest, as someone making a living as a storm trooper for the evil big pharma empire, and as someone that has also been wondering if there is better way to develop and distribute new drugs.

“My biggest concern is how we’ll decide who will get funding. People carefully move a drug candidate from one development stage to the next, especially since it is going to cost a lot more money at the next stage than all the money spent so far combined. Those decisions are made by each company. If we now move this responsibility to the NIP, are we sure that they will do at least as good a job as current pharma CEOs do?

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Idea: To fix the filibuster, make it harder to overcome

Yesterday, I wrote about how political (and other) systems can be shaped by culture as well as the rules that govern them. Today, based on this, I am going to post a relatively radical idea about how to fix the gridlock in the US Senate. (I’ll assume you’re familiar with the info in the previous post on the filibuster and the functioning of the Senate.)

Most Senate-watchers suggest that the filibuster should be eliminated, since it has become just a tool for obstruction. Those that don’t are usually thinking in the short-term about aiding their party, which would be the current minority. I will suggest the opposite: strengthen the filibuster by increasing the number of votes needed to override one. In the short-term, this will produce more gridlock. In the long-term, it will restore a culture of collegiality and compromise.

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The value of a dollar depends on who you are: Why we all need to understand utility functions

How much is a dollar worth? (Forget about exchange rates and inflation for a minute.) It’s a funny question because we’re used to measuring the value of other things in dollars, so we have a tendency to assume that the value of a dollar is thus a rigid scale, an invariable standard for comparisons. It’s like asking, “How long is a meter?”

One way to answer it is to inverse the relationships: a meter is 0.54 Alan-heights, for example. A dollar in about 1 candy bar, or 0.67 Starbuck’s coffees. And this is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t get us very far. A meter is a more useful general measure of length than Alan-heights, and a dollar is a more useful measure of value than candy or coffee. But the problem here is that dollars are supposed to measure value, and value is a tricky thing to pin down. Length is pretty darn invariable (unless you happen to be traveling at near-light speed), but value is subjective. Subjective, but important: most of the fields of economics and finance, as well as much of government, is devoted to trying to generate value for individuals, companies, and society. And the problem is that a dollar (or a euro, or a yen…) is actually a very bad measure of value: in statistical terms, it not only has a lot of variance (i.e., measurement noise), but also a systematic bias. While measurement noise can often be worked around, bias is usually much trickier. And that, it turns out, is something that is hugely important but underappreciated, even by economists…

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Idea: NIP, National Institutes of Pharmaceutics

The problem, in brief: Drugs are expensive. This is not because they are expensive to make, but because they are expensive to develop, and because pharmaceutical companies hold patents. The high drug prices mean that many who need them don’t get them, and that many who do get them become impoverished as a result. Drug costs represent a substantial and growing percentage of medical expenditures, regardless of how they are paid for. However, pharmaceutical companies argue (reasonably) that without patent rights, they would have no incentive to conduct the risky, billions of dollars of research necessary to develop the drugs. So, how can we get cheap drugs to the population without slowing down future drug development?

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Idea: How to design a nearly perfect electronic voting system

This idea’s been bouncing around in my head since not long after the 2000 Florida election fiasco. A simple solution to allow fair, non-manipulable vote counting, easy to use, and easy to audit.

The problem: Existing voting systems have problems, as witnessed in Florida. All paper systems have problems with unclear choices, legibility, and so forth. Most existing or proposed electronic systems (at least those I know of) raise fears of tampering by those who design or program the machines. Also, it takes a long time for votes to get counted, there are often discrepancies and a need for recounts, which can be laborious, or, in the case of machines, impossible…

The idea: Use two different electronic machines made by different manufacturers, and print the results to create a paper trail. The voter goes to Machine 1, chooses her candidates and issues, sees a summary screen telling her who she’s chosen, prints two copies of her vote out (including an identifying bar code), deposits one in a ballot box, and takes the other home with her to keep or destroy as she sees fit. The votes in the ballot box then get scanned into a second computer, and the two tallies from the two computers are compared at the end of the day (neither machine should be connected to the internet or any centralized network). They should match exactly; if they don’t, it should be straightforward to identify which ballots are causing the discrepancy and find the paper copy. The results can be posted online by barcode number (no individually identifying info), allowing the voter to check and make sure her vote got properly counted. If it didn’t, she can show up in person with her hard copy.

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