Primary Sources

Bush administration officials (and fellow travelers) aren’t the only ones who believe that when Americans talk about withdrawing from Iraq, it “emboldens the enemy.” Two Harvard researchers recently found that in periods following intensified criticism of the Iraq War by the American public and in the U.S. media, insurgent violence in Iraq increased by 5 to 10 percent. Using data on rates of insurgent attacks, Iraqi access to international news, frequency of antiwar statements in the American media, and U.S. public opinion polls—and controlling for other factors—the authors found that insurgents do not just randomly wreak havoc, but react strategically to developments in American politics. Specifically, when insurgents perceive a drop in American resolve, they unleash more destruction, thereby increasing the cost of fighting for the U.S. military and, they hope, tipping the scales toward a withdrawal. The authors conclude that a “systematic response” in the form of “emboldenment” is evident among insurgents. Of course, the report doesn’t suggest simply cutting off Iraqi access to CNN. Given that insurgents appear to act rationally to achieve their goals, the authors instead suggest a shift in counterinsurgency strategy away from search-and-destroy, and toward deterrence and incapacitation.

Economists have long argued that a rational person should walk around with a fat roll of cash—$551.05, to be precise, based on factors like interest rates, ATM fees, and time wasted making withdrawals. But evidence (and common sense) shows that Americans carry far less: roughly $100. In a new paper, a researcher at Bard College explains this apparent contradiction by calculating the hidden costs of theft. Classic models predict that the probability of getting robbed decreases only slightly the amount we should hold, to $510.05 (using 1995 rates, for technical reasons). But in his new model, the author incorporates two important concepts—the “don’t flash your cash” theory (in which the probability of getting mugged increases with the amount of cash held) and the indirect costs of robbery (such as injuries, psychological trauma, medical bills, and time off work)—and finds that carrying a lot of cash is riskier than once thought. As a result, he concludes that prudent Americans should actually carry about $76. The new model, though rough, helps measure the sum of our fears: Americans had $96 billion less in their pockets, at the time the data were collected, than they would have had in a crime-free world. Although this provides some benefits (interest gained while the money sits in an account), it has more costs (the time it takes to go to the bank). All told, the author estimates, the fear of being robbed now saps us of $14.6 billion a year.

“Can Robbery and Other Theft Help Explain the Textbook Currency-Demand Puzzle?,” Greg Hannsgen, Levy Economics Institute of Bard College


Tutor Dynasty

The private-tutoring industry is reshaping the education landscape of both rich and poor nations, yet policy makers largely haven’t noticed, argues a new report from the World Bank. The authors survey evidence from 22 economically diverse countries, including the United States, and find that between 25 and 90 percent of students have worked with tutors at some point. In countries such as Turkey and Korea, spending on private tutoring nearly matches the percentage of GDP spent on the formal public education system. Although the authors conclude that strong tutoring programs do increase student achievement, they caution that without stricter government regulation, widespread tutoring could block much-needed improvements in the public system, increase inequality among students, lead to teacher corruption (particularly in developing countries), and eventually erode the “quality and efficiency of the public schools.”

“How to Interpret the Growing Phenomenon of Private Tutoring: Human Capital Deepening, Inequality Increasing, or Waste of Resources?,” Hai-Anh Dang and F. Halsey Rogers, World Bank Development Research Group

What would happen if no one believed in free will, but instead assumed that all their actions were predetermined? For one thing, according to a recent study, we’d end up with a lot of greedy cheaters. A psychologist and a marketing professor asked two groups of undergraduates to read passages from a book by the biophysicist Francis Crick. Students in one group read a passage that argued against the possibility of free will, while students in the other group read a neutral passage on consciousness. The subjects then took a basic arithmetic test on a computer but were told that, because of a glitch in the program, the computer would automatically feed them the right answer to each question unless they pressed a key to stop it. The computer secretly recorded what they did. The researchers found that those students who had read Crick’s argument against individual agency were substantially more likely to cheat, and that they showed less faith in free will than their counterparts in a follow-up survey. The authors conclude that even if free will is an illusion, it is “an illusion that nevertheless offers some functionality” when it comes to encouraging moral behavior.

“The Value of Believing in Free Will,” Kathleen D. Vohs and Jonathan W. Schooler, Psychological Science [PDF]


Start the Presses

Could a say-nothing press be the cause of our do-nothing Congress? With fears growing that media consolidation is leading to less informed citizens and less responsible politicians, two economists measured how the quantity of local news coverage affects the quality of governance. They found that local newspapers—especially those with coverage areas that closely overlap congressional districts—are vital in keeping voters knowledgeable and congress members accountable to their constituents. Residents of districts with more press coverage of their delegations are better able to name their representatives, identify their political ideologies, and say whether they like them. Congress members in such districts are more likely to stand witness at hearings (by 46 percent), diverge from the party line to help constituents, and serve on important committees. They also steer 10 percent more federal cash back home.

“Press Coverage and Political Accountability,” James M. Snyder Jr. and David Strömberg, National Bureau of Economic Research


Map Test

GPS navigators have spared men around the world from having to roll down their windows to ask for directions, but the devices may not be leading them to their destinations any faster. Four researchers compared the effectiveness of a cell phone equipped with a GPS receiver to traditional paper maps and to “direct experience” (first walking through a route with a guide, then trying it alone). They asked 66 participants each to walk six different routes, finding their way each time using one of the three navigational aids, and later to sketch from memory the routes they had taken. The GPS users traveled longer distances, walked more slowly, and made more stops during the walk than the participants using the low-tech methods, and they made more directional errors and rated the overall experience as more difficult than did the direct-experience group. Perhaps because the GPS users were more focused on the information on their small screens than on their surroundings, the maps they drew showed a less accurate recollection of their routes. “For the GPS system to become a helpful ‘navigator,’” the authors conclude, “there is still room for improvement.”

“Wayfinding With a GPS-Based Mobile Navigation System,” Toru Ishikawa, Hiromichi Fujiwara, Osamu Imai, Atsuyuki Okabe, Journal of Environmental Psychology

The Chinese government has invested some $40 billion to remake Beijing—with broad streets and colossal skyscrapers—in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. But according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, much of this construction boom has been achieved on the backs of severely mistreated migrant workers. Between 1 million and 2 million construction workers, about 90 percent of them migrants, now work in the city. The authors of the study conducted interviews with workers at nine different sites and found widespread abuse: migrants routinely were not paid until the end of the year, and in some instances were not paid at all. They received only small amounts of food, “often inedible,” for which they were charged out of their paychecks. Most of them lacked insurance, despite the high rate of injury and death at construction sites, and those who tried to unionize and strike were harassed by “hoodlums” hired by the construction companies. When the authors visited the workers’ quarters, they found 20 men sharing 10 beds, without heat in the winter, and reported that on-site housing “is of poor quality, overcrowded and often lacks washing facilities.” The report demands that the International Olympic Committee do more to protect migrants working on Olympic sites, and threatens to publicize the workers’ conditions to spectators at the games if the IOC fails to act.

Despite all kinds of government tinkering, market forces and idealism (or at least the chance to righteously upstage one’s neighbors) seem to be the biggest motivations for buying hybrid cars. A new study by two public-policy scholars at Harvard finds that while federal and state tax breaks and other policy inducements encourage Americans to buy hybrids, the price of gasoline is a much bigger incentive—and “social preference” is the biggest of all. Carmakers sold more than 250,000 hybrids in 2006 alone, and governments have tried various novel policies to keep the assembly lines buzzing. States like California and New Jersey now give hybrid drivers the right to zip down high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, while cities like New Haven and San Jose have reduced or even waived public-parking fees for hybrids. But while sales-tax waivers seem to be the most effective government action, spurring an estimated 6 percent of hybrid sales, soaring gas prices provide an even more compelling inducement, associated with 27 percent of sales. And a buyer’s preference for leaving a smaller carbon footprint or for supporting energy security—or just for driving “an observably ‘green’ vehicle”—proves to be the most effective tool, accounting for 36 percent of all hybrids leaving the dealer’s lot.

“Giving Green to Get Green: Incentives and Consumer Adoption of Hybrid Vehicle Technology,” Kelly Sims Gallagher and Erich Muehlegger, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University