Primary Sources

Percent saying each is “very important” for a successful marriage

Homeland Security

Money for Nothing
State governments are receiving homeland-security grants faster than they can spend them, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Homeland Security. Since 2002, the department has awarded $16 billion, but so far states have picked up only $11 billion; the remainder is sitting unspent in the nation’s capital. Even attractive targets for terrorists, like the District of Columbia and New York state—both of which have complained about grant cuts—haven’t been able to keep up with the federal government’s largesse; New York has spent only 52 percent of its grants, the District 62 percent. New Mexico has been the stingiest (or the most prudent, depending on your point of view), spending only half of its grants to date, while South Dakota has burned through 86 percent of the $96.5 million earmarked to thwart threats in the Badlands. The states say that matching-fund requirements, bidding and contracting procedures, and back-ordered goods have kept much of the money on ice.

—“Agency Roll-up,” Department of Homeland Security (Study not available online)


Mrs. Pascal’s Wager?
Does a fear of hellfire make women more religious than men? “Risk preference theory—which holds that because females are more risk-averse than males, they are, for example, more likely to attend church as a hedge against the possibility of spending eternity in hell—is the latest attempt to explain the piety gap between men and women. (Other proposed hypotheses suggest that women traditionally have had more time to attend church and that they’ve seen religion as a source of affirmation in male-dominated societies.) Now a study by two researchers at the University of Arizona aims to dispel the hellfire argument, noting that it presupposes that speculation about the afterlife determines people’s religiosity. Researchers studied people who believed in an afterlife and people who didn’t, and found not only that women who don’t believe in life after death are more religious than men who don’t expect an afterlife, but that the gap between the sexes was larger among those who don’t anticipate an eternal reward or punishment. Women who don’t believe in the afterlife are nearly twice as likely as men with similar beliefs to view the Bible as the literal word of God; women who do believe are only 1.27 times as likely to take the Bible literally. Similarly, women who don’t believe in hell attend church more frequently than men who share their skepticism, but women who do believe in hell don’t attend church much more often than their male counterparts.

“Risky Business: Assessing Risk Preference Explanations for Gender Differences in Religiosity,” Louise Marie Roth and Jeffrey C. Kroll, American Sociological Review

Public Health

Big Government, Small Results

Turns out Uncle Sam hasn’t done that much to stop teens from drinking and driving. The official story goes that the 1984 Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act, which threatened to withhold federal funds from states that didn’t raise their drinking age to 21, ended the glory days of teens driving to another state to get drunk and then careening home. According to federal estimates, pushing a uniform minimum drinking age nationwide saved 21,887 lives through 2002. New research argues that it wasn’t so: By studying state-by-state data, the authors found that most of the reduction in fatalities came from states that had raised the drinking age before the federal law went on the books; in states that raised the drinking age to comply with the federal pressure, there was little effect. Furthermore, fatalities in states that raised the age early dipped only briefly; in the other states, they either remained steady or increased after the age was changed. The authors conclude that the overall reduction in traffic deaths has had more to do with safer cars and better medical treatment for accident victims than with policies handed down from on high.

“Does the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Save Lives?” Jeffrey A. Miron, Elina Tetelbaum, National Bureau of Economic Research


Random Justice

If you’re a Chinese refugee seeking asylum in the United States, what’s your best bet? First, move to San Francisco. Then try to find an immigration lawyer, prove that a dependent is counting on you, and pray for a female judge. According to a recent study by three law professors, factors like ethnicity, geography, and the gender of the judge—along with a healthy dose of luck—play a far bigger role than the merits of the case in determining whether a refugee is granted asylum in the United States. The authors analyzed hundreds of thousands of cases and found a huge geographic variance in the rates at which applicants prevailed. In 2005, for instance, the Houston field office granted asylum to only 17 percent of applicants; the Arlington, Virginia, office approved 52 percent. Between 2000 and 2005, 74 percent of Chinese refugees in San Francisco won asylum, whereas only 18 percent of their compatriots in Newark, New Jersey, did. Demographics may account for some of this variance, but they don’t explain the discrepancies that the authors found in the judgments of officials in the same buildings: At the federal immigration court in Miami, one judge granted asylum to 88 percent of Colombian applicants, yet another ruled in favor of just 5 percent. The researchers also discovered that asylum seekers with lawyers were granted refuge far more often than those without, that those with dependents had slightly better odds, and that female judges granted asylum at a substantially higher rate than their male counterparts.

“Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication,” Jaya Ramji-Nogales, Andrew I. Schoenholtz, and Philip G. Schrag, Stanford Law Review


Empty-Nesters, Unite!
The kids are, eh, all right. A new poll from the Pew Research Center shows that more people now consider adequate income and an equitable division of household labor more essential to a happy marriage than having children. Researchers asked more than 2,000 adults what they considered important for a successful union; having children ranked eighth out of nine choices, ahead of only “agreement on politics.” Just 41 percent said that kids were “very important”—a plunge of 24 percentage points since the last such study, in 1990. (“Sharing household chores” shot up 15 percentage points over the same period, landing in third place.) The report attributes the shift in part to a change in moral thinking that has also led to greater social acceptance of cohabitation, premarital sex, and unwed childbearing. As a result, the authors say, “In the United States today, marriage exerts less influence over how adults organize their lives and how children are born and raised than at any time in the nation’s history.”

“As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned About Social Impact,” Pew Research Center


Standing Tall
One hundred thirty-five years ago, Charles Darwin wondered whether pride led to good posture, or whether it was the other way around—that a ramrod back inspired self-confidence. A little of both, says a new study—but only for men. The authors asked participants to take a math test while sitting either slumped or upright; they found that men felt better about their performance on the test if they sat upright. Women, however, felt more confident about their performance if they slouched. The men who’d been sitting up straight went on to score better than their hunched counterparts; the women’s scores showed no such disparity. The authors suggest that men rely more on internal cues when determining how they feel and that women rely more on external ones—an upright posture forces them to be more self- conscious, which previous studies have shown can hurt how well they do on math tests.

“Not All Who Stand Tall Are Proud: Gender Differences in the Proprioceptive Effects of Upright Posture,” Tomi-Ann Roberts and Yousef Arefi-Afshar, Cognition and Emotion


The Way of the Gun

Don’t blame the collapse of the Soviet Union for the widespread popularity among arms dealers and insurgents of the AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle, a new study on “weaponomics” advises. Blame the Soviets: Not only has the AK-47 been widely copied, but “large caches of these weapons were freely distributed to regimes and rebels sympathetic to the Soviet Union” well before its collapse. Drawing on field reports and journalistic accounts, the study claims to be the first effort to quantitatively document the market for small arms, which are responsible for between 200,000 and 400,000 deaths each year. The AK-47 merits particular attention because its “ease of operation, robustness to mistreatment and negligible failure rate” make it the weapon of choice for small armies and bands of marauders: Of the 500 million firearms estimated to be in the world today, some 100 million are Kalashnikovs. The study reports that assault rifles are on average at least $200 cheaper in a typical African country than elsewhere, thanks to porous borders (as conflict moves across the continent, the arms freely follow). It also finds that the small-arms trade tends to be weaker in countries with high military spending, because a strong military makes it “imprudent for non-government entities to openly trade or parade about with large quantities of conflict-grade weapons.” Most surprisingly, the study cites research suggesting that having more arms in the marketplace makes running a counterinsurgency easier, presumably because it tends to fragment rebel groups: “The more easily individual combatants can obtain weapons through independent suppliers,” the author writes, “the more difficult it will be to mount and maintain a united and coordinated insurgency.”

“Weaponomics: The Global Market for Assault Rifles,” (PDF) Phillip Killicoat, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper


Hoop Schemes

When NBA Commissioner David Stern acknowledged in July that referee Tim Donaghy may have gambled on games he officiated, Stern called him a “rogue, isolated criminal.” But a paper by an undergraduate student in the Stanford Department of Economics suggests that Donaghy may not have been a rogue element after all—there’s a distinct likelihood, the author argues, that NBA players (or coaches) are also betting on games. The author observes that conventional economic theory supports conflicting claims about pro basketball’s betting market: On the one hand, that market displays a measure of inexplicable irrationality that typically would point to untoward business transactions (like insider trading); on the other hand, NBA players make so much money that the odds of their intentionally shaving points, and thus jeopardizing their careers, seem quite slim. Still, pro ballplayers may not be immune to the lures of the sports book, given the brevity of their careers, their willingness to put personal interest ahead of team success, and their drive to compete, which they share with gamblers. The author studied betting lines and game results from the previous 14 NBA seasons and then analyzed how scores tended to move in a game’s last five minutes—to his mind, the period when it was easiest to cheat. He found that heavily favored teams failed to cover the spread often enough to suggest that some funny money may have crept into the market. He estimates that players or coaches on the take skew perhaps five games a season, adding that since “referees are no less principal characters in basketball games,” future researchers might investigate whether there are more bad apples in the officiating ranks.

“Point Shaving in the NBA: An Economic Analysis of the National Basketball Association’s Point Spread Betting Market,” (PDF) Jonathan Gibbs, Stanford Department of Economics

Personal Finance

Better With (Middle) Age

Maybe it’s time to rethink what we mean by the “golden years.” As Americans get older, they tend to make better and better financial decisions—but only up to a point, a study finds, and then their hard-earned skills decline. Researchers from Harvard, Princeton, and the Federal Reserve—drawing on consumer financial data from 10 sources, including mortgages, credit cards, and car loans—observed an overall U-shaped pattern of financial mistakes, with the best performance occurring among people in their early 50s. On average, financial perspicuity peaks at 53, which the study designates the “age of reason.” The age of peak discernment when it comes to picking the best home-equity loan is 56; for a mortgage, it’s 62, and for a car loan, it’s 50. Both older and younger borrowers are more apt to make poor decisions that result in higher interest rates and fee payments. The researchers (all on the cusp of middle age themselves, incidentally) suggest that the financial acumen of 50-somethings demonstrates that experiential capital trumps the analytical capital that quick-thinking youngsters enjoy, but that it follows a pattern of diminishing returns as old age encroaches.

“The Age of Reason: Financial Decisions Over the Lifecycle,” Sumit Agarwal, John C. Driscoll, Xavier Gabaix, and David Laibson, MIT Department of Economics Working Paper


No Exit

The recent British experience in Basra offers a glimpse of what might happen in Baghdad after the current surge of U.S. troops recedes, according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group. The British aimed to “pave the way for a takeover by Iraqi forces” through a security plan dubbed Operation Sinbad, which was conducted between September 2006 and March 2007. The operation was “a qualified success,” insofar as it drove down crime, assassinations, and sectarian killings and produced a “relative calm.” But the calm proved “both superficial and fleeting,” giving way to renewed violence that has left the British hunkered down inside their compounds. This intra-Shiite strife, the report suggests, in a city far from Iraq’s major Sunni-Shia fault lines, is more evidence that the lack of a functioning state is as much to blame for the chaos as sectarian rivalry and antipathy toward coalition troops. In the absence of dependable state institutions or local leaders, the withdrawal of coalition troops risks creating further instability. Power in Basra increasingly lies in the hands of militias entangled with incompetent police forces and political parties, the authors note, and local leaders often resolve conflicts outside of official institutions, undermining the judiciary and its role in mediating disputes. As Congress and the White House consider options for Baghdad and the rest of the country, the report urges them to recognize that “their so-called Iraqi partners, far from building a new state, are tirelessly working to tear it down.”

“Where Is Iraq Heading? Lessons From Basra,” International Crisis Group


Democrats of the Caribbean

In the 18th century, Britain’s Royal Navy may have been defined by rum, sodomy, and the lash, but the sailors often thought that there was too little rum and way too much lash. According to a study by a George Mason University economist, the navy’s cruelty and authoritarianism drove sailors to join pirate ships—by 1716, the pirate population was one-fifth that of the British navy. The pirates devised a separation- of-powers system to ensure that their new captains treated them better. They elected a quartermaster from within their ranks to mete out provisions and booty, and captains got only an equal share. Common sailors could barge into a captain’s quarters, “swear at him, seize a part of his Victuals and Drink.” Only in battle did pirate captains wield total authority, allowing their crews to profit from the quick decisions a unitary executive could provide. The sailors, before setting out, would agree on guidelines—known as the “Custom of the Coast” or “Jamaica Discipline—for settling disputes, doling out punishment, and deciding living arrangements. (Some ships even had strict no-smoking policies.) The author notes that the separation of powers on pirate ships slightly predates England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution, and he suggests that the American system of checks and balances appears to have a little Captain Morgan in it.

“An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of a Pirate Organization,” Peter T. Leeson, George Mason University