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Uncommon Knowledge: Compromised refs, blaming the president for local taxes, and more

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Checking with the ref

Do regulators become too sympathetic to the people they oversee? To test that idea, economists at Northeastern University and West Virginia University analyzed thousands of regular-season NHL games and found that referees with more experience imposed fewer penalty minutes per game. Even more concerning, though, was that teams that played more games with a given referee received fewer penalty minutes.

DeAngelo, G. et al., “Examining Regulatory Capture: Evidence from the NHL,” Contemporary Economic Policy (forthcoming).

The buck stops with the president

An MIT-trained political scientist studied referendums on property tax hikes in Massachusetts towns. A successful municipal referendum in the year before a presidential election led to a nearly 2-percentage-point drop in the vote for the presidential candidate of the party occupying the White House , even controlling for economic conditions and demographics in the town. The effect was stronger for larger tax increases. In other words, town voters blamed the national president for a tax increase they themselves passed.

Sances, M., “Attribution Errors in Federalist Systems: When Voters Punish the President for Local Tax Increases,” Journal of Politics (forthcoming).

A big tradeoff for Asian-Americans


In a series of experiments online and at the University of Washington, participants were shown digitally manipulated photos of overweight or normal-weight individuals of different ethnicities. Unlike white, black, or Latino people, Asian people were judged to be more American if they were overweight. These individuals appeared to fit the stereotype that Americans are overweight and challenge the stereotype that Asians are not. Indeed, in another experiment, photos of overweight Asian individuals were only judged to be more American if their country of origin was portrayed as mostly not overweight, rather than mostly overweight.

Handron, C. et al., “Unexpected Gains: Being Overweight Buffers Asian Americans from Prejudice against Foreigners,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

The culture of climate change

Economists at Harvard and UCLA found that historical environmental instability at a particular location — as measured by variation in 20-year-average temperatures during the period from 500 to 1900 AD — was associated with less persistence in local cultural traditions. In areas with high temperature variation in the past, societies place less importance today on maintaining traditions, particularly about polygamy, women’s work roles, and consanguineous marriage. Native Americans were also less likely to speak their traditional language at home if their ancestral location experienced more historical variation in temperature.


Giuliano, P. & Nunn, N., “Understanding Cultural Persistence and Change,” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2017).

We will fix it later

Speaking a language that requires the use of a future tense induces a more present-focused mindset, because the future tense facilitates procrastination. For example, in a survey in Estonia, respondents who were bilingual in Estonian (which doesn’t require a future tense) and Russian (which does) were randomly assigned to be interviewed in one of the two languages. Those interviewed in Estonian were more likely to support a gas tax to help the (future) environment — an effect as powerful as that of ideology or gender — and were less likely to report being procrastinators. There was no such effect on an attitude (the legality of prostitution) that did not make reference to time. An analysis of global survey data confirmed that speakers of futureless languages reported more saving behavior and pro-environment attitudes.

Pérez, E. & Tavits, M., “Language Shapes People’s Time Perspective and Support for Future-Oriented Policies,” American Journal of Political Science (July 2017).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.