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    Uncommon Knowledge: Municipal police spending

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    Neighborhood watch

    Between 1992 and the Great Recession, municipal police spending per capita was rising, while municipal crime rates per capita were falling. Sociologists connected that divergence to two other trends happening at the same time: The urban real estate market was booming, creating a greater demand for police protection; also, social welfare spending fell as a share of municipal budgets, reflecting a greater tendency to address problems through the criminal justice system. Both dynamics, the researchers conclude, were associated with subsequent growth in police spending, controlling for the crime rate and other municipal characteristics. Some of these other characteristics were important too, as the sociologists note that a 1-percent increase in the young male minority population was associated with an increase in police spending of around 11 percent.

    Beck, B. & Goldstein, A., “Governing through Police? Housing Market Reliance, Welfare Retrenchment, and Police Budgeting in an Era of Declining Crime,” Social Forces (forthcoming).

    What’s the problem, officer?

    Some Florida Highway Patrol officers write stiffer speeding tickets than others. Princeton economists took advantage of those differences to assess the consequences of leniency. Over 30 percent of tickets are written for exactly 9 miles per hour above the limit, researchers note, while fewer than 3 percent are written for 10 miles per hour over — as the fine jumps at 10. Drivers who got lucky with the lower fine were significantly more likely to get a new speeding ticket, and somewhat more likely to get in an accident, in subsequent months.

    Goncalves, F. & Mello, S., “Does the Punishment Fit the Crime? Speeding Fines and Recidivism,” Princeton University (October 2017).

    Welcome sign

    In several experiments with cisgender college students and cisgender heterosexual minority men, participants viewed digital mock-ups of an office where the bathroom sign was labeled as either an “all gender restroom” or just a typical two-gender “restroom.” Participants perceived the company with the gender-inclusive bathroom as more welcoming and fair to women and minorities.

    Chaney, K. & Sanchez, D., “Gender-Inclusive Bathrooms Signal Fairness across Identity Dimensions,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

    EPA: Ethics Protection Agency


    An analysis of air-pollution and crime data across US cities and towns found that more pollution was associated with more crime, even controlling for local socioeconomic characteristics. To test this experimentally, people were randomly assigned to contemplate either polluted or unpolluted city photos and then assessed on measures of unethical behavior. Those who contemplated pollution were subsequently more unethical, on account of increased anxiety.

    Lu, J. et al., “Polluted Morality: Air Pollution Predicts Criminal Activity and Unethical Behavior,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

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    Right on the frontier

    In an extensive study of the cultural legacy of the American frontier, economists at Boston University show that the “rugged individualism” that initially characterized the frontier still colors these areas today. In fact, counties that were on the frontier (i.e., unsettled) for longer during the period from 1790 to 1890 are more conservative today and have increasingly voted Republican in recent presidential elections, even controlling for other factors.

    Bazzi, S. et al., “Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of ‘Rugged Individualism’ in the United States,” National Bureau of Economic Research (November 2017).

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