Using Economics to Make Judgement Calls
By David Henderson
There are few student species more nakedly ambitious, focused, and future-oriented than the average Harvard law student. Having likely spent his undergraduate years planning admissions maximization strategies, he now has the Holy Grail almost within his grasp. Let him but graduate with a Harvard J.D. and he will face a wealth of job offers from prestigious law firms, government agencies, judicial clerkships, and businesses.
This is the opening paragraph of Heather MacDonald’s “Don’t Bet on the Harvard Law School ‘Hate Crime.'”
She then writes:
Yet according to student activists, as well as the media and Harvard law school dean Martha Minow, an as yet unknown Harvard law student has risked destroying everything he has so assiduously worked for in order to commit a childish act of defacement ready-made for labelling as a racial hate crime. On Thursday morning, black tape was found on the portraits of black professors in a Harvard law school building. The tape had allegedly been used previously to cover up the Harvard seal in its various iterations across campus in protest against the seal’s supposed racist connotations. The discovery of the taped portraits triggered the inevitable protests and a meeting with Dean Minow, who announced that racism is a “serious problem” at the Harvard law school and at Harvard University. The incident will be leveraged into the usual demands for an even larger and more useless diversity bureaucracy.
Perhaps there exists a Harvard law student so unable to control his impulses, or so clueless about today’s political environment, that he is willing to risk being expelled and banished from every high-powered job that would otherwise be available to him, simply in order to engage in a juvenile prank. But I am not betting on it. Don’t expect Harvard to disclose the outcome of its investigations into this latest “hate crime,” just as the UCLA law school never disclosed the outcome of its investigations into its own alleged hate crime a year ago.
Ms. MacDonald is thinking like an economist–using reasoning about incentives to make a judgement call. Of course, it’s possible that a student with a huge stream of income in front of him/her could make such a bad decision. But it seems unlikely.
Her reasoning reminds me of a conversation that I had with a colleague, Gregg Jarrell, when I was on the faculty at the University of Rochester in the late 1970s. We were talking about a recent baseball game in which a batter had hit a long ball and the umpires had trouble deciding which side of the foul pole the ball had gone on. I forgot what call they made, but Gregg pointed out that the pitchers in the bull pen were in a much better position to tell. Of course, they were all biased and so an umpire could hardly ask them what they thought. But Gregg pointed out that the ump would not need to ask–he could just look at their behavior. When they saw the ball coming their way, they were all looking at it. When it went by the foul pole, they all immediately went back to their conversation, with no show of emotion. Bottom line: foul ball. This was another instance of using economics to make a judgement call. The umps didn’t do it, but they could have.