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Social Studies: Money wasted on red-light cameras and military aid

Unexpected findings from the world of social science.

This sign warned motorists of the presence of a red light camera in Chicago in 2015. Texas banned them last year.M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

The medium is the message

A new study finds that statements on the floor of the US Senate became more partisan after C-SPAN began televising Senate proceedings in 1986, particularly for senators facing re-election sooner and in states with lower levels of education. Television also induced a shift away from making statements during debate on live bills, resolutions, and nominations, and toward making statements — ostensibly for posturing purposes — during the Senate’s free time.

Stiglitz, E. & Caspi, A., “Observability and Reasoned Discourse: Evidence from the U.S. Senate,” Cornell University (June 2020).

Photo finish

Comparing accident data before and after Houston removed its red-light traffic cameras, a study published in a top economics journal found “no evidence that cameras reduce the total number of accidents or injuries.” After accounting for the types of injuries that occurred in traffic accidents and the costs of the camera program, the researchers believe that the system had an overall negative effect on well-being in the city.

Gallagher, J. & Fisher, P., “Criminal Deterrence When There Are Offsetting Risks: Traffic Cameras, Vehicular Accidents, and Public Safety,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy (August 2020).


Regime pocket change

Analyzing US military aid over the past half century, researchers found that when aid fluctuated because of changing political dynamics in the United States (rather than factors controllable by the recipient country), increases in aid money resulted in more anti-American (and anti-Western) terrorism in that country. Aid did not appear to increase the country’s military and administrative capacity, but instead appeared to enhance corruption and hoarding by the regime and its allies, spurring resentment in the rest of the population.

Dimant, E. et al., “Paying Them to Hate Us: The Effect of U.S. Military Aid on Anti-American Terrorism, 1968-2014,” University of Pennsylvania (July 2020).

Shady discrimination

Using data from a nationwide sample of young adults who were interviewed once a year for over a decade, researchers found that men were less likely to be employed if their area had gotten more sun during the previous three weeks and they had an intermediate skin tone (i.e., not pale white and not dark, making them more prone to visible tanning), even controlling for other factors like demographics and occupation. In other words, even minor darkening of the skin in the same person appears to make it harder to get a job.


Kricheli-Katz, T. et al., “Those Who Tan and Those Who Don’t: A Natural Experiment on Colorism,” PLoS ONE (July 2020).

Death of a salesman

Passage of laws restricting business takeovers increased life expectancy by two years on average for CEOs of corporations in affected states, controlling for industry and CEO age. A similar, but opposite, effect occurred for CEOs who experienced an industry-wide downturn. Likewise, Fortune 500 CEOs in industries that experienced a severe downturn as a result of the 2007-2008 financial crisis were judged to be a year older in post-crisis photos compared to CEOs in other industries.

Borgschulte, M. et al., “CEO Stress, Aging, and Death,” University of California (July 2020).