John Lott Strikes Again

by Kieran Healy on May 10, 2005

Tim Lambert catches John Lott “with his hand up a sock-puppet’s backside”: yet again. Under the reviewer name “Economist123”:, Lott puts up a signed review of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s “Freakonomics”: — a book that criticizes Lott’s work in passing. Lott says:

Not surprisingly, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s new book “Freakonomics” ignores their academic critics. … If Messrs. Levitt and Dubner were correct, crime rates should have first started falling among younger people who were first born after legalization. … But in fact the precise opposite is true. …

John R. Lott Jr.
Resident Scholar
American Enterprise Institute

Now, if you scroll down through Economist123’s “other Amazon reviews”:, you get to a review of John R. Lott’s “More Guns, Less Crime”: There, Economist123 doesn’t sign his review, but neither does he mince his words:

This is by far the most comprehensive study ever done on guns. … it is important to note how many academics have tired to challenge his work on concealed handgun laws and failed and that no one has even bothered to try and challenge his work on one-gun-a-month laws and other gun control laws.

I am constantly amused the lengths to which reviewers here will go to distort Lott’s research. … These guys will do anything to keep people from reading Lott’s work.

Given the way he’s misrepresented by his critics, it’s a good job Lott has defenders like Economist123 (“amongst others”: to back him up.

Rum, Sodomy and the Nash

by Henry Farrell on May 10, 2005

Stephen Bainbridge ruminates on Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels and the reasons for the success of the British Navy in its wars against Napoleonic France and the US. He gives a brief discussion of a “paper”: by Douglas W. Allen, which analyzes the institutions of the British Navy as a solution to a set of principal-agent problems. Now, the paper is interesting, but it seems to me to be flawed, in a manner that’s unfortunately rather typical of many economists who analyze social institutions. Allen treats the rules of the Navy as an efficient solution to a set of monitoring problems, where the British state wanted to make sure that its captains, officers and seamen fought well on its behalf. In other words, he’s making a functionalist argument.

Now the functionalist part of the story is an important one; the British Navy clearly existed for a reason. But if the Aubrey-Maturin novels provide any sort of an accurate picture of the institutions of the British Navy, there’s strong countervailing evidence to suggest that many of the institutions of the Navy were less intended to maximize the overall efficiency of the Navy as a fighting machine, than to provide powerful actors in the Navy with the opportunities for individual gain. Viz., the institutionalized prerogatives of pursers to engage in certain forms of peculation. The right of admirals to a third-share of any prize money won by captains under their command. The need to pay sweeteners to those in charge of the docks to provide timely repairs. The arbitrary system of promotion, which depended at least as much (and probably rather more) on patronage and political connections as on merit. Not to mention Aubrey’s (and Hornblower’s) continual source of complaint – the miserable official allotment of gunpowder, which meant that captains had to lay in their own supplies to have any chance of fighting successfully at sea. Now I imagine that one could construct “just-so” stories which explained why most (or all) of these institutionalized features of Navy life contributed to the overall goal of maximizing the Navy’s efficiency as a fighting machine. But they would be just-so stories – not especially convincing on their merits. To the extent that O’Brian is right (and he clearly did a hell of a lot of research), the institutions of the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars weren’t even a second-best solution. They were an ungainly compromise between a wide variety of different actors, each of whom had a strong streak of self-interest, and the ability and desire to bargain in order to achieve that interest, whatever this meant for the British Navy as a fighting force.

Update: title changed following comment from Kieran

Art of Science

by Eszter Hargittai on May 10, 2005

For some neat images, check out the Art of Science online exhibition hosted at Princeton. [thanks]

The realist case for electoral reform

by John Q on May 10, 2005

Via Australian Senator Andrew Bartlett, I see that The Independent is campaigning for electoral reform in the UK, following Labour’s re-election with only 36 per cent of the vote.

Leading opponents within the government are named as John Prescott and Ian McCartney and the story also mentions that Many union leaders also fear it will lead to coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, and prevent Labour from governing again with an absolute majority.

I imagine that the opponents regard themselves as hardheaded realists, but it would be more accurate to view them as reckless gamblers.

[click to continue…]