How Drunk Is Too Drunk to Drive?

Our podcast "The Suicide Paradox" featured sociologist David Phillips, who spoke about his research on copycat suicides (a phenomenon he calls "the Werther Effect"). More recently, Philips has been studying drunk driving. Particularly, he's been looking at drivers who are merely "buzzed" -- with 0.01 percent blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) -- and has found that the severity of life-threatening motor vehicle accidents increases significantly at BACs far lower than the current U.S. limit of 0.08 percent. In an email, Philips describes his latest research on buzzed drivers:

My current research, just published in Injury Prevention, shows that even minimally buzzed drivers (with BAC=0.01%) are 46% more likely to be blamed for an accident than are the sober drivers they collide with. This indicates that there is no safe level of alcohol for drivers: any amount of alcohol markedly increases the risk to drivers and their passengers. We reached this conclusion after examining an official, U.S. dataset of more than 570,000 car crashes. The findings have implications for drivers, passengers, police, judges, lawyers, insurance companies, advocacy organizations (like MADD) and regulatory agencies.

An Economic Analysis of "Stop and Frisk"

A new working paper (gated) from Decio Coviello and Nicola Persico:

We analyze data on NYPD's "stop and frisk program" in an effort to identify racial bias on the part of the police officers making the stops.    We find that the officers are not biased against African Americans relative to whites, because the latter are being stopped despite being a "less productive stop" for a police officer.


New York City’s stop-and-frisk program disproportionally impacts minorities. The New York Civil Liberties Union makes this point forcefully by documenting that, in 2011, 52.9 percent of stops were of blacks, 33.7 percent were of Latinos, while whites accounted for only 9.3 percent of the stops. This disparate impact is unfortunate, but should not be surprising if we believe that crime and therefore policing are disproportionally concentrated in minority-rich neighborhoods.

However, mere disparate impact is not the same as impermissible behavior. Discrimination law in the United States generally does not prohibit disparate impact, as long as it does not reflect an intent to discriminate. Therefore, if one is interested in impermissible behavior, it is helpful to have an empirical strategy which goes beyond merely documenting disparate impact, and can detect racial animus on the part of the police.

How Political Are Judges?

Cass Sunstein, writing on Bloomberg View, reviews the research on judicial voting patterns to determine whether judges are really as "political" as people seem to think.  The good news: federal judges aren't nearly as bad as politicians.  "Judges are far from mere politicians; we don’t see anything like the kind of polarization found in Congress," writes Sunstein. "At the same time, judicial predispositions matter, and they help explain why judges are divided on some of the great issues of the day."  

The research also indicates that even judges are subject to a phenomenon called "group polarization."  "[J]udicial voting becomes a lot more ideological when judges sit on panels with two others appointed by presidents of the same political party," Sunstein explains. "For example, Republican appointees side with plaintiffs complaining of disability discrimination about 29 percent of the time -- but that number drops to 17 percent when they are sitting with two fellow Republican appointees."

As for the Supreme Court, Sunstein highlights research from a new book on the political leanings of Supreme Court justices since 1937:

Strikingly, they find that of the six most conservative justices in their entire sample, no fewer than three are currently on the court (Clarence ThomasAntonin Scalia and Samuel Alito). A fourth makes the top 10 (John Roberts). By contrast, none of the current justices ranks among the most liberal six, and only one makes the liberal top 10 (Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

What Do the Election Results Mean for I.P.?

In the wake of President Obama's solid re-election victory last night, we are left wondering (geeks that we are) about what (if anything) an Obama second term suggests about the future of IP law.  We'll talk mostly about copyright policy here: Any action on IP policy in the next couple of Congresses would probably focus on copyright, not least because we've just been through a substantial reform of the patent law and no one has any appetite to revisit that right away.

Even focusing only on copyright, the picture is far from clear.  Millions of people joined in a wave of online activism back in January to defeat the copyright expansions offered in the SOPA and PIPA bills.  But the coalition that defeated SOPA and PIPA is new and no one's sure whether it's a one-off or the beginning of a broader movement to slow, stop, or even reverse copyright's relentless expansion. We'd note also that two of the entertainment industry's favorite people in the House, Reps. Howard Berman and Mary Bono Mack, were both defeated last night. We doubt the losses have much to do with the pair's outspoken copyright maximalism, but losing Berman and Bono is a further blow to a pro-copyright side that is still getting its collective head around the SOPA/PIPA debacle.

Standing Your Ground

A new NBER paper examines the effect of Stand Your Ground self-defense laws, which “eliminate the longstanding legal requirement that a person threatened outside of his or her own home retreat rather than use force.”  Chandler B. McClellan and Erdal Tekin exploit cross-state variations in implementation dates to determine the effect of these laws on homicides.  Their findings are grim: 

Our results indicate that Stand Your Ground laws are associated with a significant increase in the number of homicides among whites, especially white males.  According to our estimates, between 4.4 and 7.4 additional white males are killed each month as a result of these laws.  We find no evidence to suggest that these laws increase homicides among blacks.  Our results are robust to a number of specifications and unlikely to be driven entirely by the killings of assailants.

How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor

The American Medical Association resolved this week that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”

The association has long-held that nothing about the process of recombinant DNA makes genetically engineered (GE) crop plants inherently more dangerous to the environment or to human health than the traditional crop plants that have been deliberately but slowly bred for human purposes for millennia. It is a view shared by the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., the European Commission, and countless other national science academies and non-governmental organizations.

Two Ways to Make Them Pay

A reader, who is also a lawyer, writes in with an interesting example of incentives in the courtroom. He tells us about a particular judge in New Hampshire, who developed a strategic approach to collecting fines: I thought you might be interested in this little experiment in economics. People cannot be sent to jail, under the […]

Why Online Poker Should Be Legal: A New Marketplace Podcast

In our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, Steve Levitt visits with Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal to discuss his poker research and his personal poker history. The episode is called "Why Online Poker Should Be Legal." You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.

In case you haven't been following the long-running legal story, here's the gist. Online poker was growing fast in the U.S. until Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, which pretty much shut things down. The ruling was based in large part on the government's reasoning that poker is predominantly a game of chance as opposed to a game of skill.  But is this classification correct?

Locally Produced Condoms?

The Los Angeles City Council may require condoms in porn movies produced in the city limits. How will this affect the market?  Whether companies stay in L.A. or leave, costs will rise (condom costs if they stay, the costs of relocation, loss of agglomeration economies, if they move outside the city limits).  If costs do rise, will that matter to producers? I imagine product demand is fairly inelastic, and they can easily pass the cost increase onto consumers. But even if costs were unaffected, consumer demand might shift far leftward if producers remained in L.A., since customers may not wish to view protected sex. Industry members lobbied strongly against the bill — perhaps because they feared the direct drop in demand rather than the cost increase.

Customer Dis-service

I recently had one of the strangest customer service episodes I’ve ever experienced. It took place at Café Bon Appetit in downtown Chicago. A group of twenty of us were eating lunch there. It is one of those places that has many food stations to choose from, then you pay for your food and find a table. There is no table service. It's a huge restaurant. I don’t think it's an exaggeration to say that the restaurant can seat 300 people. That is one of the reasons we go there in a big group -- there are always plenty of seats.

One of the diners, who is on some sort of vegan, non-gluten health kick, had brought her own lunch. The rest of us had bought our lunch there. We found a table in the nearly completely empty back seating area. About halfway through lunch, the restaurant manager appeared. I assumed it was to thank us for coming and to ask how the food was. It turned out his mission was quite different.