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Uncommon Knowledge

Supreme Court insights, and beyond

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Win McNamee/Getty Images/Getty


Just when you thought Supreme Court nomination battles couldn’t get any more consequential, a new study finds that justices sway each other more than you might think — so much so that “the indirect effect of a justice’s vote on the outcome through the votes of their peers is several times larger than the direct mechanical effect of the justice’s own vote.” For example, relative to current nominee Neil Gorsuch (who is ideologically similar to Justice Antonin Scalia), blocked nominee Merrick Garland would have made “each other justice 5.1 percent more likely to vote liberal on a given case.” This effect appears to be less pronounced in the most politically charged cases.


Holden, R. et al., “Peer Effects on the United States Supreme Court,” Harvard University (February 2017).

Bienvenidos, this sales tax is for you

An analysis of state and local taxes found that they became more regressive, and placed a larger absolute tax burden on low-income residents, when the percentage of Latinos in the state increased, even controlling for other factors. This was not the case for African-Americans. Likewise, in a survey experiment, whites who were asked to imagine that their county experienced an influx of low-income minorities, particularly Latinos, became less supportive of raising taxes — and men became less supportive of progressive taxes — than when the hypothetical newcomers were white .

O’Brien, R., “Redistribution and the New Fiscal Sociology: Race and the Progressivity of State and Local Taxes,” American Journal of Sociology (January 2017).

Cheat with flair

In experiments, people judged behavior such as cheating, stealing, and hacking to be less immoral if done more imaginatively. In an experiment with groups of MBA students, one member of the group was in cahoots with the researchers and tried to induce other members of the group to cheat on a task. The planted ring-leader was more successful — and judged to be less immoral — when the cheating technique he or she suggested was more creative.

Wiltermuth, S. et al., “Creativity in Unethical Behavior Attenuates Condemnation and Breeds Social contagion When Transgressions Seem to Create Little Harm,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (March 2017).

Pro-Trump but anti-Sadiq

On the Illinois Republican presidential primary ballot, voters indicate their preference by selecting the names of delegates pledged to their favorite candidate. Data from recent Illinois primaries suggest that “delegates receive approximately 10 percent fewer votes when their names indicate they are not white.” (Among would-be Donald Trump delegates, for instance, Doug Hartmann far outpolled Raja Sadiq.) This effect was strongest for Trump, Rand Paul in 2016, and Ron Paul in 2012, and weakest for minority candidates like Ben Carson and Marco Rubio. The effect was also stronger where whites had lower income per capita.


Soltas, E. & Broockman , D., “Taste-Based Discrimination Against Nonwhite Political Candidates: Evidence from a Natural Experiment,” Stanford University (February 2017).

Terminating the bail hearing

Lest you think that only blue-collar and clerical work can be automated, a new study suggests that we can and should take judges out of bail hearings. Researchers trained artificial intelligence with data on defendant rap sheets and post-bail offenses. The computer significantly outperformed the judges in making bail decisions: It could reduce post-bail offenses while maintaining the current release rate, or free more people while maintaining the current post-bail offense rate — all while reducing racial disparities.

Kleinberg, J. et al., “Human Decisions and Machine Predictions,” National Bureau of Economic Research (February 2017).

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