Update your priors
According to Bayesians, rational people should update their beliefs about the world as new information becomes available. But do people actually do this? In a recent post I discussed how the Ukraine conflict provides new information about the costs and benefits of engaging in trade with our adversaries.
The New York Times has another good example:
Anne Fuqua keeps a list of suicide deaths. She’s chronicled hundreds of cases of chronic pain sufferers who have killed themselves after losing access to opioid medication since 2014. . . .
Between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s, the number of opioid prescriptions written for Americans roughly doubled, driven by dishonest pharmaceutical marketing campaigns and unscrupulous entrepreneurs who opened so-called pill mills to sell drugs. Medical guidelines, legislation, law enforcement and other measures have since returned painkiller prescribing to pre-crisis levels. But because people who lose access to medical opioids are rarely provided with immediate treatment (whether they are experiencing pain or addiction or both), the result has been more overdose and suicide deaths, not fewer.
Despite these dismal facts, American medicine and law enforcement continue to fight the last war. Policymakers still operate under the assumption that too many opioids are being prescribed. Overdose deaths — including those among adolescents — are now overwhelmingly caused by street fentanyl, not prescription medications. And fatalities have nearly doubled since 2012, in concert with the decline of the medical supply.
So why don’t policymakers update their priors? The federal government tried a new policy, hoping it would make things better. Instead things got much worse. Why not go back to the old policy?
Or take pot legalization. Before some states began legalizing marijuana, drug warriors warned about specific consequences from this policy change. For the most part, those consequences did not pan out. (A study by provides another example.) And yet I see very few pundits change their mind on policy questions, as new information comes in. What’s going on?
One possibility is that the actual reasons for policy views are not the same as the stated reasons. In the 1990s, anti-immigrant people warned that immigrant communities would stick with their home language and fail to learn English. We now know that the children of these immigrants do learn English, and that the language problem is temporary, just as with European immigrants in the 1800s. But the anti-immigration people typically did not change their minds with confronted with this new information, rather they looked for other reasons to oppose immigration—say crime. And if it turns out that immigrants have a lower crime rate than the native born, another reason will be found.
I suspect that in many cases, there are unstated reasons for policy views, which remain in the background. Perhaps opponents of pot legalization worry that it would “send the wrong message”. They might realize that this reason is unpersuasive to many people, and thus seek more “consequentialist” reasons, say increased pot addiction among teenagers. When pot use among teenagers doesn’t rise, they don’t change their views, as the anti-pot view was actually based on a different factor.
Perhaps some anti-immigration people are simply uncomfortable with lots of new people who look and act differently, but are embarrassed by their concern. The stated concern about language ghettos then becomes a sort of respectable reason to oppose high levels of immigration.
PS. This graph shows how the crackdown on legal painkillers led to a much greater loss of life from illegal opioids such as fentanyl, where the dose is hard to ascertain and thus overdoses are common:
Jan 29 2023 at 9:34am
On the contrary, German language communities did not effectively disappear until an abrupt preference cascade during World War I.
Jan 29 2023 at 7:40pm
But the children tended to learn English. This “problem” goes away on its own.
Jan 30 2023 at 11:50am
Not exactly on topic, but neat factoids:
Seibel brewing school in Chicago taught in German until WW1.
Budweiser brewmaster meetings were conducted in German until the late 50s/early 60s. You couldn’t be promoted past a certain level as a brewer without speaking German.
Jan 29 2023 at 10:22am
“One possibility is that the actual reasons for policy views are not the same as the stated reasons.”
The most common example I regularly see for this on on immigration. I frequently hear people say “I’m not against immigration. I’m just against people coming hear illegally.” When I suggest that we could solve the illegal immigration policy by increasing the amount of legal immigration to accommodate most the people that want to come here, suddenly there is another objection.
Jan 29 2023 at 2:26pm
One predictable consequence of pot legalization is the most egregious crony capitalism ever encountered! In our little town, an outfit out of Chicago had to pay like a $5 million license fee to set up a pot factory (you can smell it from the interstate) on land owned by the wife of the town judge of course. Meanwhile, the same draconian laws banning growing a little of your own homegrown are still on the books — of course.
As for fentanyl, no discussion is complete until the role of the CCP Empire is included. Just look at the chart: synthetics start ramping up in 2014, the same year that General Secretary Xi acceded to power. They could put a stop to it yesterday. Cripes, our own journalists know where they make the stuff; they walk right up there and conduct televised interviews! If it were any place else on Earth, they’d have been droned out of existence years ago. Moreover, illicit drug exports are considered an acceptable doctrine according to the PLA’s own book Unrestricted Warfare.
“We can point out a number of other means and methods used to fight a non-military war, some of which already exist and some of which may exist in the future. Such means and methods include psychological warfare (spreading rumors to intimidate the enemy and break down his will); … drug warfare (obtaining sudden and huge illicit profits byspreading disaster in other countries) …”(page 55)
Thus it is hard to believe that the killing of close to a hundred thousand American civilians per year through fentanyl exports is not an explicit policy.
Jan 29 2023 at 4:58pm
“Thus it is hard to believe that the killing of close to a hundred thousand American civilians per year through fentanyl exports is not an explicit policy. ”
And doesn’t most of it get smuggled through our porous southern border?
Jan 29 2023 at 7:44pm
So you are blaming China for our fentanyl problem? That’s quite a stretch, given that most of the product comes from Mexico.
But this is a good example of the way that many people are determined to blame China for everything from Covid to unemployment to our drug problem.
Jan 29 2023 at 9:38pm
Prior to any manufacturing in Mexico, almost all fentanyl came from China. How much you should blame them is one question, but the lax controls around fentanyl manufacture and distribution in China have been no secret for at least 8 years (when I first read some reporting on it).
Jan 30 2023 at 12:19am
Illicit Fentanyl from China (uscc.gov)
Jan 30 2023 at 11:59am
Oh, please: Objective data strongly indicate the fortune cookies are simply inaccurate. Nevertheless, you can bet that Sumner will come up with some excuse why this doesn’t justify boundless vitriol toward China. Just watch.
Jan 30 2023 at 3:34pm
So both the US government and the Chinese government fail to stop all drug dealing. And that shows that . . . China is to blame for our drug problems?
I fail to see the logic.
Why not blame the US for all the drug gangs in Mexico and Colombia? Isn’t it our demand that drives those industries, corrupting their societies?
Jan 31 2023 at 10:46am
The difference is in Mexico, the government is simply too incompetent to put an end to the cartels; the mountains in places like Sinaloa & Chihuahua are absolutely lawless, dangerous places. Moreover, Mexican generals don’t write books on how to conduct asymmetric warfare against the United States by using, among other methods, the deliberate export of illicit drugs. Meanwhile, the CCP has suspended counternarcotics cooperation (such as it was) with the U.S. because of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. So the PRC is not even pretending to put a stop to it anymore.
Jan 31 2023 at 12:59pm
Is the US government also too incompetent to control the drug trade? Why blame China?
I do agree that it is foolish for the US to provoke China unnecessarily (especially on trade)—it will make them less likely to cooperate with us on all sorts of issues.
seer of things
Jan 30 2023 at 8:44am
Warren Platts, if it is the explicit policy of the CPC to export fentanyl to the United States, are you planning to open such an enterprise in China and become wealthy as such a supplier? Are you willing to do so openly and advertise your goods and services?
Jan 30 2023 at 3:14pm
In our little town, an outfit out of Chicago had to pay like a $5 million license fee to set up a pot factory (you can smell it from the interstate) on land owned by the wife of the town judge of course. Meanwhile, the same draconian laws banning growing a little of your own homegrown are still on the books — of course.
That’s because you have the misfortune of living in the chronically corrupt, pay-for-play state of Illinois. It’s not that way everywhere. It’s not here in Michigan where marijuana was legalized by a simple ballot initiative, rather than by legislative log-rolling. Taxes are relatively low (a flat 10%) and growing for personal consumption is allowed (up to 12 plants).
Jan 29 2023 at 3:12pm
I’m reluctant to recommend strong policy decisions based on the little data presented, and I think your claim in your P.S. is a bit too strong. The person mentioned in the article focused on deaths from losing access to medical opioids. I have no doubt that this happens, but are those the majority (or even large minority) of drug overdose deaths? Here are some basic data about overdose deaths (https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates). Total opioid overdose deaths somewhat plateaued in 2016 before skyrocketing in 2020. Total overdose deaths involving any opioid in 2015 was about 35,000 and in 2020 it was almost 69,000 (in 2019 it was about 48,000… opioid dispensing rates went from 46 prescriptions per 100 persons in 2019 to 43 in 2020). The number of overdose deaths involving cocaine and synthetic opioids increased by about 14,000 during the same time period (people dying from cocaine and synthetics are probably not taking those drugs because of lack of access to opioid prescriptions but probably because the cocaine is cut with some fentanyl). The number overdose deaths involving prescription opioids in combination with synthetics increased by about 8,000 during the same time period (so those don’t seem to involve a lack of access to prescription opioids… given that they involved prescription opioids). There was also a huge increase in deaths involving psychostimulants (primarily methamphetamine) and synthetic opioids (about 13,000)… probably not getting killed by synthetics because of lack of access to prescription opioids but probably because the meth is cut with some fentanyl. That is about 35,000 deaths from mixing drugs with fentanyl, about equal to the increase in overdose deaths involving opioids. And despite the dispensing rate going from 81 prescriptions per 100 persons in 2012 to 43 in 2020, the number of overdose deaths involving prescription opioids has stayed approximately level due to synthetics.
Note: I am not saying that this comment constitutes a rigorous analysis. But I don’t think the raw numbers show a clear causal story between access to medical opioids and increased overdose deaths (or that that issue is the main story to be told). From what I understand, the crackdown on heroin (especially by the US military in Afghanistan starting in 2010/2011) made synthetic opioids a more profitable market opportunity (or at least… suppliers became aware of the profit opportunity once they had to start finding substitutes for heroin). The industrialization of the trade in synthetics by the Mexican cartels has to be considered in the story. And again, the spike from 2019 to 2020 can’t be explained by changes in opioid dispensing rates.
Jan 29 2023 at 7:48pm
Those are fair points, but it does seem plausible that the crackdown was what got the ball rolling. Admittedly, the fentanyl industry has grown well beyond merely replacing illegal opioid use.
And even if only a small portion of fentanyl is replacing Oxycontin, it’s still the more dangerous option, and thus a net negative.
Jan 29 2023 at 9:44pm
One thing that crops up in articles I’ve read over the years: the spike also coincided with new formulations of prescription opioids that came to market that made abuse much harder. This pushed more people towards heroin, which began being cut with fentanyl (as did many other drugs). So it’s hard to distinguish the effect of the change in prescribing behavior with the effect from the change in formulation. I don’t know how plausible this story is (and I’ve heard addicts can get pretty creative about getting around things), but it’s something that many books and articles have mentioned.
Jan 29 2023 at 5:06pm
“Perhaps some anti-immigration people are simply uncomfortable with lots of new people who look and act differently”
“… the language problem is temporary, just as with European immigrants in the 1800s. ”
If they had automated voicemail systems in the 1800s, I doubt that in our country it would have started with: If you want to continue in German, please press 1.
Jan 29 2023 at 7:50pm
If they had automated voicemail systems in the 1800s, I doubt that in our country it would have started with: If you want to continue in German, please press 1.”
That’s not obvious. Why would profit maximizing companies in the 1800s have not wanted to cater to immigrant communities, whereas today they do wish to cater to those communities? Weren’t there German language newspapers back then?
Jan 30 2023 at 2:55pm
In Milwaukee in the late 1800s, most companies would have answered the phone in German.
Jan 30 2023 at 8:07pm
See also my not-quite-so-off-topic-as-I-thought comment above.
Jan 30 2023 at 2:45pm
When you make a good cheaper, people buy more of it. Most people intuitively understand this, even if they don’t think of it in econ terms. On marijuana, it’s easy to find and cherry pick studies that show that usage didn’t rise after legalization, just as it’s easy to find and cherry pick studies to show that it did.
See also https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3735171/
Jan 30 2023 at 3:30pm
The War on Drugs are extraordinarily costly. It can only be justified if there are great benefits to this war. Whether or not pot use increased slightly for some groups it’s clear that the warnings of the drug warriors proved false. Legalization simply did not have the extremely dire consequences that were predicted. I don’t see how that’s even debatable.
Jan 31 2023 at 11:03am
Smoking pot is one thing. It’s probably not the greatest thing one should be doing, but it’s arguably less damaging than drinking alcohol. However, drugs like fentanyl and meth are an entirely different matter. What’s the statistical value of a life? $10 million? So if 100,000 Americans are dying from overdoses, it’d be worth spending $1 trillion per year on a war on drugs that actually worked.
Jan 31 2023 at 12:55pm
“What good is it to have a huge supply of something people cannot afford?”
Isn’t the point here that drug wars don’t work? So why keep doing what doesn’t work?
Jan 31 2023 at 6:28pm
10 M is too high a value, as it would imply basically shutting down the streets to everything except ambulances and food provision to prevent car accidents.
On potential consequences of legalization of all drugs, look what happened in Russia in the 1990s when alcohol taxes were suddenly slashed.
Jan 30 2023 at 2:50pm
I suspect that in many cases, there are unstated reasons for policy views
Indeed, and in a lot more than just “many”. Motivated reasoning is the norm in life, not just in policy decisions. If one sees it only in others, and as to a few specific issues (like immigration or whatever), one is like a fish who has just barely noticed a bit of water.
See Jonathan Haidt for the differing emotions driving policy opinions at the different points of the political compass. It’s very hard to get past it until one realizes how much one engages in it oneself.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman
“We have met the enemy, and it is us.” — Pogo
Jan 30 2023 at 2:53pm
This point came up in the Huemer book-club discussion. As I quoted from Knowledge, Reality and Value:
Jan 30 2023 at 2:55pm
Looks like formatting got removed.
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