uncommon knowledge

I don’t like your kind. . . of spending

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I don’t like your kind . . . of spending

What happens when you add some ethnic diversity to a small group of politicians? Apparently, it makes them small-minded. Two economists compared city budgets in California before and after the election of a new councilor whose ethnicity increased the diversity of the city council. To make the comparison more like a controlled experiment, the economists focused on close elections. They found that the addition of diversity to a city council resulted in less spending on infrastructure and services. This was true for both high- and low-spending cities and was amplified for cities with more segregation and income inequality. And it wasn’t just residents who were deprived: All councilors got a lower share of the vote in the next election, suggesting that voters weren’t happy with the gridlock.

Beach, B. & Jones, D., “Gridlock: Ethnic Diversity in Government and the Provision of Public Goods,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy (forthcoming).

Minimally sane wage

A study of the implementation of a national minimum wage in Britain in 1999 found that the higher wage boosted mental health. Comparing workers who had been earning less than the minimum before the change to workers who were earning slightly more than the minimum or whose employers didn’t comply, researchers found that the wage boost caused workers to report fewer mental health problems, with an effect similar to antidepressant medication. This was not explained by preexisting differences in health or demographics.

Reeves, A. et al., “Introduction of a National Minimum Wage Reduced Depressive Symptoms in Low-Wage Workers: A Quasi-Natural Experiment in the UK,” Health Economics (forthcoming).

Criminal justice reform, by filibuster

It’s not just Supreme Court vacancies that are going unfilled; vacancies have become an acute problem throughout the federal judiciary. A recent study by a professor at Harvard Law School finds that these vacancies are causing prosecutors to drop more cases and offer lighter plea deals than they would otherwise, which has “led to approximately 1,000 fewer federal prisoners per fiscal year . . . largely from drug offenses.” While this may be letting some criminals off easy, the professor suggests that “judicial vacancies may have had an unintended benefit of reducing the prison population toward the optimal level of incarceration. Fewer resources may be a second-best solution in a criminal justice system characterized by over-prosecution and over-criminalization.” The main losers appear to be defendants who can’t get out on bail, whose odds of getting a prison sentence go up, perhaps because they’re more willing to accept a plea deal in the face of court delays.

Yang, C., “Resource Constraints and the Criminal Justice System: Evidence from Judicial Vacancies,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy (forthcoming).

Take a chance on me


If you don’t think there are many people to date in your area, be careful not to put all your eggs in one basket. In a new study, both men and women who were led to think that there were fewer members of the opposite sex in the population were subsequently more willing to choose a risky lottery ticket bet, less willing to diversify stock market or retirement investments, and more willing to have the government concentrate its vaccine research funding in one company. This seems to reflect a natural instinct to take bigger risks for bigger rewards in hope of securing a mate.

Ackerman, J. et al., “Going All In: Unfavorable Sex Ratios Attenuate Choice Diversification,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Colonial gerrymandering

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When most people think of Europeans exploiting Africa, they think of the slave trade. But even after the slave trade ended, Europeans bestowed another gift on Africa: colonial borders. During the “Scramble for Africa” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European powers carved up the African continent among themselves with little knowledge of, or regard for, local geography and ethnic groups. Later, in the mid-20th century, when many African countries gained independence, the arbitrarily drawn colonial borders were locked in, since changing them would have been difficult to negotiate and could have been destabilizing. This legacy had consequences. In recent years, there has been more conflict in the homelands of ethnic groups split by a border, often because of ethnic rebellions and proxy wars with the neighboring country. Moreover, ethnic groups that are split have lower standards of living than ethnic groups that aren’t split.

Michalopoulos, S. & Papaioannou, E., “The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa,” American Economic Review (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at