The death penalty

Responding to an incompetent execution in oklahoma, one of the NYTimes op-ed columnists recently wrote the following:

But is state-sponsored eye-for-an-eye justice truly a mark of a civilized society? How do we not, as a culture, descend to the same depravity of the person who takes a life — or multiple lives — when, as citizens of a state or country, we, in turn, take the murderer’s life? Do our haphazard attempts to rid the world of evil imbue us with it?

This seems like a ridiculous argument to me. The state hauls people off to jail and holds them for years, all the time, which would normally be called a crime (namely kidnapping). Does that mean we have all descended to depravity (even in scandinavia!)? Or is there something special about murder/execution? Maybe so, but you can’t use a circular argument to get there.

I once discussed the death penalty with a european colleague. He is quite a rational person, but he was aghast at the idea that anyone intelligent and thoughtful (e.g. me) could imagine condoning this practice. I asked about self-defense, and war, and protecting one’s family, and he was forced to admit that the line was actually blurrier than he had thought. He and I would put that line in different places, which is fine, but I think it was a win for me that he acknowledged the existence of a line and of a range of defensible positions in which to place that line. I’ve never yet met anyone who, when faced with the hypothetical situation of a psychopath with the means and intention of torturing and murdering one’s entire family, wouldn’t push a magic button that caused the immediate death of the psychopath and the safety of the family. So everyone has a line.

Where the actual death penalty as currently instantiated in the US falls with respect to my own personal line is harder to say. I think probably it fails. Evidence on deterrence is mixed at best (which actually bolsters my conceptual argument in favor; see below). I think the punishment itself is just, but the process as it stands is far from just: high racial and income disparities in application, and an extremely high price in time and money (which has an opportunity cost of taking valuable resources away from the system). The physical pain inflicted in oklahoma may have grave constitutional implications, but it is much less important to me. I don’t think ten minutes of extreme pain changes the moral calculation very much at all (although my preference would be not to incur it), and in any case it would be incredibly simple to make the process painless if we wanted to (as is done for animals all the time, including pets not just food, and indeed for euthanasia).

Thus if I had to choose between our current system and a system with no death penalty, I would vote for the latter. But my first choice, which I think is entirely feasible with modern criminology and technology, is for a well-functioning death penalty, because I believe it is a just punishment for some crimes. People like to imagine that death is in a different category from everything else, but it isn’t. I am much more familiar with this reasoning from the public health literature on cost-effectiveness of interventions: no one likes to compare one death with three cases of quadriplegia, but we can and we are forced to and it would be immoral not to (when making certain kinds of decisions). The evidence regarding [non]deterrence of the death …

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Category: Philosophy, Policy

Kidney donation

A couple of years ago I had lunch (at Henrietta’s Table, I believe) with Al Roth and Sally Satel. I had given a guest lecture in Al’s class at HBS that morning, and he invited me to join them. That fall I would leave boston/cambridge for DC, and Al would leave harvard for stanford. He also won the nobel prize later that year, which was good timing for stanford. I didn’t.

Al is known for his work on how to design markets (e.g. matching markets for medical residents, or for students in the boston public schools), and one of his main applications is to organ donation. For example here is a recent paper of his on modeling the decision to donate. [unrelated fact: his coauthor Judd Kessler was a student of his at harvard; Judd and I used to be regular and studious participants in the CSAE*]  I have long been interested in the topic, and I always discussed organ donation in my intro micro class for MBAs at kellogg, as an example of a price ceiling: in this case $0, set by the 1984 congressional Organ Transplant Act.

Meanwhile Sally is a psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. I hadn’t met her before, but she has also thought and written a lot about the dynamics of organ donation, so it was a great conversation. What made me think of all this was that I noticed Sally has an opinion piece in the NYTimes this weekend arguing for compensation to induce more kidney donations. This will strike some people as a terrible idea, but please read the entire article before jumping to any conclusions – and keep in mind that several americans die every day from the lack of a donated kidney.

If you find this interesting, I would also highly recommend Al’s paper on repugnance as a market constraint from a few years ago.

*Cambridge Society for Alcohol and Economics…

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Category: Economics, Policy

A history of randomization

Much of my current research involves randomized control trials (RCTs), in which participants or clusters of participants are randomized into a treatment group (or groups) and a control group. The treatment group gets some sort of intervention and the control group does not. If the sample size is large enough, randomization ensures that each group is ex ante identical and that therefore any difference in outcomes can be causally attributed to the intervention and not e.g. to selection bias or existing trends.

A couple of colleagues and I started talking about the historical origins of randomization in science. Most people associate this approach with clinical trials in medicine and epidemiology, which is indeed where they gained fame, but I was pretty sure that they had earlier and first been used in agriculture by the pioneering statistician and biologist Ronald Fisher. I was half right: Fisher did use them earlier, and his text on experimental design is a classic treatise laying out the principles of randomization, but he was not first.

Apparently the first reference to comparing treatment and control groups is in the Book of Daniel in the bible, where King Nebuchadnezzar orders his people to eat only meat and drink only wine (for their health). When some object, he allows them to eat only legumes and drink only water for 10 days, after which he compares their health to the “control” group of meat-eaters. They do better, so he allows them to continue their diet. Note, however, the lack of randomization and hence the possibility of a strong selection effect. The king appears to implicitly understand this, since he does not order everyone to switch to the new diet.

That story is told in this interesting medical history of clinical trials (as well as this follow-up article). It also discusses the famous streptomycin (for tuberculosis) trial of 1946 (published 1948), which is generally considered the first random trial in medicine. Indeed the wikipedia article on RCTs calls it the first published RCT, although as we shall see this is essentially incorrect. One of the medical histories bizarrely states, without citation, “The idea of randomization was introduced in 1923.” This is wrong by approximately three centuries.

A few years earlier, during the war, the british Medical Research Council performed a trial of patulin (related to penicillin) for the common cold. They didn’t explicitly randomize; instead they alternated patients to treatment vs control. That strikes me as a generally valid approach, and they also deserve a lot of credit for carefully double-blinding the study. Apparently there was also an early randomized experiment to test a potential immunization against whooping cough. But neither of these interventions proved efficacious, and the streptomycin trial was published first, so it takes the credit (within medicine).

Meanwhile the medical literature points back to Dr. James Lind, an 18th-century physician who decided to test various methods for treating scurvy while serving as a naval ship’s surgeon in 1747. He took 12 diseased sailors, split them into groups of two, and gave each of the six groups a different treatment (cider, sea water, nutmeg, etc). After 6 days one group showed marked improvement: those who had received oranges and lemons. Formally this wasn’t randomized, and the sample size was very small, but this is probably the first rigorous experiment along such lines.

However, the idea of randomization dates back to 17th-century belgian physician Van Helmont. As everyone knew at the time, bloodletting was a great cure for most ailments. Van Helmont agreed, but he thought that evacuation (i.e. inducing vomiting and defecation) was even better. To …

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Category: Psychology, Research, Science

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Julian C. Jamison

I'm an economist, researcher, traveler, runner, and astronaut-in-waiting. I enjoy pondering human behavior, including both what we do and what we ought to do - either to maximize our well-being or in pursuit of some other goal.


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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of Julian C. Jamison and other occasional authors, and they do not necessarily represent the views of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the United States.