Question of the Day: Should We Just Let Murderers Do Their Thing?

A reader named Mark Kozel writes to say:

I heard that Chicago will be pouring up to $14 million into police overtime to prevent murder and violent crime.

It got me thinking: is it cheaper to prevent this kind of crime, or to just let it happen and clean up the mess afterwards?

It would be hard to find many people, even economists, who would arguing that "just letting it happen" isn't an outcome that society should even think about accepting.

Solving Problems in the Real World

I owe my favorite local bookstore, the Harvard Bookstore, for making another day for me. Wandering the tall, packed shelves on a warm and breezy evening, I ran across Schaum's Outline of Principles of Economics. One subtitle on the cover: "964 fully solved problems." The problems include, for example (from page 50): "True of false: As used in economics, the word demand is synonymous with need," or "True or false: A surplus exists when the market price is above the equilibrium price."

I didn't long much for either answer.

Instead, as the U.S. mortgage market has, as James Kunstler predicted on October 10, 2005, imploded "like a death star" and dragged "every tradable instrument known to man into the quantum vacuum of finance that it create[d]," as euros flee from Greece, and as bank loans dry up in Spain, I wished that the 964 fully solved problems included one or two of the real problems.

Acemoglu and Robinson Answer Your Questions

Last week, we solicited your questions for economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist Jim Robinson, who just published a new book called Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty and are now blogging on a variety of interesting development topics.

Their thoughtful responses below cover everything from robber barons to the artificial construction of African nations to whether the race of a country's leaders determines its success.  A big thanks to Daron, Jim, and all our readers for another great Q&A.  

First, a note from Daron and Jim: "We thank everybody for these excellent questions and comments. We had to pick a few to be able to provide detailed answers.

Wondering Why Nations Fail? Bring Your Questions for Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

When it comes to economic ideas, Daron Acemoglu never thinks small. Widely acknowledged as one of the most insightful economists alive, Daron seems to have brilliant things to say about any and all things economic.

When you have that sort of gift, you might as well go after the biggest problems imaginable.  Thus his latest book, Why Nations Fail, written with Harvard political scientist James Robinson.

It is an awesome piece of work.  So full of ideas and wisdom, but still so easy to read.  I just love it.  Daron and Jim have agreed to take your questions about their new book, so please leave them in the comments section below.  To get you started, here's the table of contents:

Why Nations Fail

One of the great experiences of my stint in grad school was taking Advanced Macro classes from a fellow who at the time was regarded as a promising young professor at MIT -- Daron Acemoglu.  It was well worth making the bike trip from Harvard, down Mass. Ave., to learn from him.  He is surely the most productive economist alive.  And his frequent collaborator Jim Robinson may just be the most interesting political scientist.  Their joint research program — figuring out what works and what doesn't in economic development -- involves asking some of the most important questions any social scientist can ask.  

Is The Big Bang Theory Producing More Physics Majors?

That's the (tenuous) claim of this Guardian article:

According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), there was a 10% increase in the number of students accepted to read physics by the university admissons services between 2008-09, when The Big Bang Theory was first broadcast in the UK, and 2010-11. Numbers currently stand at 3,672. Applications for physics courses at university are also up more than 17% on last year. Philip Walker, an HEFCE spokesman, said the recent spate of popular televisions services had been influential but was hard to quantify.

Hard to quantify, indeed.

FWIW, we've been told by a lot of youngish readers that Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics led them to major in economics. John J. Siegfried addressed this possibility in a Journal of Economic Education paper called "Trends in Undergraduate Economics Degrees, 1991-2010":

Lessons in Dr. Seussonomics

Every year, I have my 500 intro students write vignettes like those in my little book, Economics Is Everywhere. This year, I got one which is the most clever and original of the roughly 2,000 submitted in the past four years. It's by my student Kourtney Kech, and appears below.

As a small child, I remember quite clearly, a book that my mother read and loved dearly.

The Lorax, by Seuss, a doctor of rhymes, provided us both with some great pre-sleep times.

The idea of scarcity is not that complex and is shown in great detail through Lorax’s text.

The World's Best Economics Department?

A new website, from the University of Chicago's Initiative on Global Markets (IGM), will "pose one question a week, and post answers from 40 senior professors at elite U.S. universities" in an effort to create "the world's best economics department."

"We're doing this because we think economists have a distorted role in policy debates," said Brian Barry, the director of IGM. "When experts fight about minor points they get much more attention than when they broadly agree about important ones. And when they disagree about big issues, the reasons don't often come through clearly. Sometimes, ideas that are shaky or on the fringe get passed off as mainstream."

So far, economists have responded to questions about federal "buy American" mandates, education and taxes.

Beware: This Blog Apparently Causes Academic Fraud

Way to scapegoat, Chronicle of Higher Education!

An article about a Dutch psychologist accused of faking his research data wonders if academic fraudsters are responding to the wrong incentives:

Is a desire to get picked up by the Freakonomics blog, or the dozens of similar outlets for funky findings, really driving work in psychology labs? Alternatively—though not really mutually exclusively—are there broader statistical problems with the field that let snazzy but questionable findings slip through?

Cornell Economist Robert Frank Answers Your Questions

We recently solicited your questions for Cornell economist Robert Frank, whose new book, The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, argues (among other things) that competition has made the U.S. economy less efficient. Frank now returns with answers to your questions. Thanks to everyone who participated.