Policy lesson from a pro

Why did the chickens cross the road? To get their iodine pills—and get run over on the way.

Willie Brown on risk assessment (h/t: Dan Mitchell’s UCLA Faculty Association blog):

What a town. I was at Walgreens the other afternoon and was stunned by the number of people lined up to buy potassium iodide to ward off the possible effects of radiation wafting over from Japan.

Even more stunning was watching those same people, clutching their iodide protection, proceed to jaywalk across New Montgomery Street and dodge cars in their rush to get back to work.

Two points here.  First, there’s a reason I kind of miss Brown’s leadership of the State Assembly, corruption and all.  Second: if any doctrinaire microeconomist wants to claim that these shoppers weren’t being irrational but were simply “revealing” a “preference” for running a large risk of being flattened by cars rather than a tiny risk of thyroid poisoning, there’s a Viaduct in Oakland I’d like to sell them.

Collapsed Cypress Street Viaduct (Oakland, 1989)

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

15 thoughts on “Policy lesson from a pro”

  1. Second: if any doctrinaire microeconomist wants to claim that these shoppers weren’t being irrational but were simply “revealing” a “preference” for running a large risk of being flattened by cars rather than a tiny risk of thyroid poisoning, there’s a Viaduct in Oakland I’d like to sell them.

    Yes, exactly. Thank you.

  2. Funny, Google’s Street View for the intersection of Mission and New Montgomery shows pedestrians crossing in the intersection with the light, and vehicles turning both right and left onto Mission that have failed to yield. Perhaps the people Brown observed have concluded from experience that cars are going to try to flatten them whether or not they jaywalk.

  3. Marcel: I would say “Eureka!”–except that then you’d undoubtedly reply “You donta smella so gooda yourself.”

  4. Maybe I’m not understanding the concept, but can’t a revealed preference be irrational? Isn’t revealed preference about the difference between what people say and what they do, not whether or not what they do is rational?

  5. hilker: If the crosswalk is unsafe, that is just more proof that they are acting irrationally. Making that trip to Walgreens poses way more risk to their lives than just not getting the iodide tablets (which are totally unnecessary) in the first place. And that’s aside from the time and money cost of getting them.

    Sebastion, what you’re saying makes sense, but the economists he’s digging at tend to conflate consumers’ preferences with consumers’ best interests. Many people fail to even understand the concept of an irrational preference.

  6. That Willie Brown, he’s got a mouth on him: “The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life. But we politicians — pushed by our friends in labor — gradually expanded pay and benefits . . . while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages. . . This is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide . . . but at some point, someone is going to have to get honest about the fact.”

  7. The irrational part may be that people weigh unfamiliar risks more than normal ones.

    If I were a Bayesian type, I would note most folks have jaywalked and not been hurt many times. But your average person has not been exposed to radiation so much. (well, to their knowledge) So it’s legitimate for them to fear one more than the other.

  8. MobiusKlein: if that reasoning is valid (and I have no real idea, since my knowledge of Bayesian statistics is at Wikipedia level), it seems an outstanding reason not to be a Bayesian type. To fear the unfamiliar merely because it is unfamiliar is surely a definition of idiocy and superstition, not sound reasoning (statistical or otherwise). For one thing, a lot of things could be unfamiliar precisely because the risk of their happening is so small. There’s a reason I know personally lots of people who’ve been hit by cars but nobody who’s died from a radiation explosion.

    But my Wikipedia knowledge leads me to suspect that this is a very limited reading of Bayesianism. Surely vicarious experience, including reading and other sources of indirect information, legitimately feeds into one’s priors.

  9. Andrew, I failed Stat 120b after aceing 120a… So don’t take my word for it.

    The prior’s I have about radiation threats are that they are very rare, and potentially very spikey.

    My prior’s about govt and corp communications is that they downplay risks. At least when they’re not hyping them.
    The familiar warnings, eg the Prop 65 style notifications about possible cancer risks fade into the background noise. A new an novel risk stands out.

  10. I’m not sure it’s actually irrational as such, to make bad decisions, if it’s on the basis of having been fed bad information. There’s been an absolutely enormous amount of effort put into doing exactly that, on subjects such as nuclear power, gun control, vaccine risks, (Amazingly, the ‘link’ between mercury in vaccines and autism appears to have been paid for by trial lawyers looking to score against vaccine companies, not a revelation that got the headlines it should have.) you name it. Hilariously, liberals will often think it’s the other side that put all that effort in… Never stopping to think that a lot of their own attitudes on things like guns might result from that sort of push from sources they themselves trust. There are few things quite as hilarious as watching a liberal go on, entirely without any self appraisal, on the subject of “Agnotology”.

    I tend to think that, in the end, the truth will triumph. Because it has this big advantage over the lies: Once it triumphs, game over. While the lies are always having to be propped up. But, of course, the truth can take a damned long time to do so. And a lot of people can die from, say, coal pollution, in the meanwhile. You laugh so you won’t cry. Or I do, anyway.

  11. On the other hand, if having the potassium iodide makes people breathe a sigh of relief and get back to living their lives rather than worrying about unseen dangers they might even have the spare cognitive capacity to watch out for cars as the cross the street…

    I think that one of the reasons people are so excessively concerned about unknown risks is that we didn’t so much evolve in a world where risks were spikey. And in a world where you face pretty much the same risks day in, day out, anything that offers more than, say, a 1 in 10,000 chance of getting killed today means you and your clan are already extinct.

  12. People give much greater weight to risk they don’t have control over as compared to the ones they do. Someone might complained bitterly about the bad smell from a refinery while lighting up from their second pack of the day.

    In my neck of the woods, where most of the streets have a median, it’s safer to jaywalk. You only have to watch for traffic from one direction at a time whereas, at crosswalks, you have to check a number of directions and hope you didn’t miss the motorcycle speeding between cars.

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