Monday, June 30, 2008

The Limits of the Death Penalty part 2

In my last post, I said that if the death penalty is used to deter crime then it shouldn't be used to deter rape because then the state would have no additional penalty to discourage murdering rape victims. But what if the death penalty does not discourage crime? As suggested in this Freakonomics post, capital punishment is issued so rarely that criminals reacting to the probability of receiving the death penalty could not rationally be deterred by it.

That being said, does the death penalty serve a function aside from discouraging other would be criminals? Judging by the reactions of the presidential candidates to the Supreme Court decision, the death penalty functions not only as a deterrence for other crimes, but also as an expression of society's disgust for the most heinous of offenses. Is this function reasonable enough to continue administering capital punishment?

Though its impact on society at large is questionable, the death penalty does deter convicted criminals from committing further crimes.  Watching MSNBC's Lock Up has made me wonder if executing gang leaders serving life sentences for initiating the murders of other inmates would be an effective (or ethical) policy to deter violence within prisons.  At minimum, executing gang leaders would prevent them from promoting more violence, but it is also possible that gangs are a limited access order that minimizes violence, and upsetting the order that gangs establish would lead to chaos and greater violence.  

(Barry Weingast Gives a good description of Limited Access orders in this EconTalk)

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Limits of the Death Penalty

If the death penalty is the state's most extreme punishment, it should not be administered to rapists. My economics training teaches me this because murder is a marginal crime to rape, and if the maximum punishment is used to deter rapists, the state has no additional means to discourage the more heinous act of rapists murdering their victims to evade prosecution.

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed with this point as it declared the use of the death penalty unconstitutional as punishment cases that do not involve murder. The majority opinion declared, “We cannot sanction this result when the harm to the victim, though grave, cannot be quantified in the same way as death of the victim.” (Full Article Here).

Because I agree with the logic that rape should not be a capital offense, I was surprised to see that the Justices I tend to agree with were united against this decision. If I had thought beyond stage one, perhaps I wouldn't have been so surprised. I agree with this particular policy, but the broader issue is whether the Supreme Court should have veto power over laws it views as bad policy. My reading of Knowledge and Decisions leads me to believe it should not.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Gas: Dollars/Gallon or Gallons/Dollar?

It occurred to me today that even though gas is priced in dollars/gallon, I've never purchased it that way. I either pay with a credit card and fill the tank up, or if using cash I pay for an even dollar amount, like 20 bucks (or more often this summer, 40 bucks). I have never bought exactly one gallon of gasoline, though in high school I did once buy exactly one dollar of gasoline. This being the case, why aren't prices listed in gallons/dollar?

Displaying prices in this form would emphasise Bryan Caplan's point that the instability of the dollar is a significant factor in the current high price of gasoline. The national discussion would change from concern about high gas prices to how little gas each dollar purchases.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tabloid Crime and Punishment

Not one to regularly read the tabloids, I found myself on the Metro with nothing to do but peruse "Express", the Washington Post's pop culture spin off. To my surprise, however, there was an interesting article about Amy Winehouse's husband. Apparently, Blake Fielder-Civil, famous only as Winehouse's husband from what I can tell, assaulted pub owner James King and later offered him £200,000 to leave the country and refuse to continue prosecution. Now both men are being brought up on charges of "perverting the course of justice" (Does America have similar pervert statutes?).

My question is, if King agreed to the terms without coercion, what would make the resolution illegal? If the pub owner was the only one unjustly wronged in the assault, why can't determine justice in the situation? His choice indicates he believed himself better off from his attacker's financial compensation than from seeing his attacker detained in prison, and moreover state funds are no longer required to finance the expenses of a prison term. The only person who loses is Fielder-Civil's potential next assault victim, but it's not inconceivable that the financial and social penalties from tabloid exposure would do as much as a prison sentence to deter Fielder-Civil from committing another assault.

Coasian Scheduling

We did scheduling for my job with GMU housing last week in a manner that at times resembled varying degrees of mob rule and slightly organized mob rule. It took two hours, was not fun, and left everyone complaining that there must be a better way to do scheduling. There are 15 shifts/day, 7 days/week. The only condition is that nobody can work two shifts at once (some are duplicate shifts) nor can they work more than 40 hours in a week, while my boss would prefer that everyone work about 30 hours.

My first thought was to establish a market and have everyone bid on shifts, but as many of my co workers have other jobs that pay more per hour (Housing has a low hourly pay rate, but comes with the fixed benefit of no cost summer housing), it is easy to imagine enough employees strategically bidding to minimize their hours in a way that would make completing the schedule impossible without forcing some employees to work overtime.

Since it is easy for us to trade our shifts with each other, it seems like Coasian bargaining is a possibility. If original allocation doesn't matter, each employee could be given all 15 shifts for a particular day, and then made responsible for getting them filled. Or if employees wanted a greater sense of control, an order could be made and employees could be given 10 seconds to make their pick, failure to pick within 10 seconds would result in being assigned the earliest vacant shift (i.e. Monday at 8am, then 10am, then noon, until all of Monday is full, then Tuesday at 8am...). With 11 employees, this would mean that everyone would be given almost 2 minutes/ pick and 105 shifts/week could be filled at a rate of about 1 month/hour.

As it is, all employees submitted their hours of availability to a single employee now in charge of scheduling "on a trial basis". Since we are still able to trade our shifts, I don't see any problems with this aside from the fact that the scheduler will certainly receive the most convenient schedule. Are there any other methods for scheduling that could be employed?

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty