Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Christopher Walken's Lesser Known Brother, Jay

From the Twitter, an interesting conversation between EE peeps Pamela J Stubbart, Adam Gurri, and Zac Gochenour, plus commentary from "Dr. Phil of Economics", the content of which can be found here. Again, the threading is a little hard to follow, so let's see if I can parse.

Peej: Aggressive but genuinely competent jaywalking still has pretty serious negative externalities because other pedestrians are taking cues from you.

Zac/Dr. Phil: That's an abuse of the language of economics. You're talking about information transmission, and negative externalities are what happens when a third party incurs costs of a transaction of which they are not a part. This doesn't count, since the decision of the other pedestrians in your example still have to make the rational decision whether or not to jaywalk.

Peej: Rational? What are you talking about? I'm talking Kahneman here, not Demsetz. Try to keep up, boys.

Adam: lol, pwned. But it's still hard to call that an externality. Even if the mental processing is not de facto rationally conscious, it's not like the classical examples where avoidance costs come from outside sources. Think of Coase's train sparks and cornfields. There's no farmer mulling over a private calculus, there are burning crops. The two just aren't equivalent.

Peej: Theory of mind much, Adam? What happens in your head is as "real" as what happens in physical space. [SLW note: Pamela didn't actually press this point, this is more me furthering the argument for didactic purposes]

Dr. Phil/Adam: Information transmission is how civilizations happen. We are human thanks to our habit of mimicry.

Peej: So you admit I'm right. That's what I thought.

And then she took a picture of herself in a victory pose.

What do you think? Does jaywalking impose mimicry costs on others? In a court of law, you wouldn't be able to make a case of actual physical coercion, but what of a sort of soft coercion centered on a weakness of will or overconfidence or whatever other cognitive bias might influence a novice (or a child) jaywalker-to-be?

Can we extend the example? Does pro wrestling bear some responsibility for idiot kids breaking their necks in the backyard when they try to recreate Wrestlemania XXIX with their idiot buddies? Do savvy day traders bear responsibility for overenthusiastic amateurs' dabblings in uncovered short sales? I don't mean in a legal sense, I mean in a pedestrian heuristic sense.

I think the ol' "I learned it by watching you, dad" cry is commonly brought to bear when convenient. Parents will storm the studios of MTV when their kids parrot what they see on Jackass (can you tell how long it's been since I've watched TV regularly?), but they're more likely to do the Justification Tango when it's their own behavior that might be suspect. Construal Level Theory strikes again.

It's also very interesting to revisit Munger's norms arguments in light of jaywalking. Nobody, and I mean but nobody jaywalks in Seattle. This is not true in Boston. Why? Is it more euvoluntary in Beantown? How did it get that way? Curious stuff, people.


  1. Let's relate this to political externalities. The idea is that since you bear very little of the cost of your vote, you won't become informed or vote with instrumental values, so those are properly viewed as positive externalities and will be underproduced. So it's like political pollution. Similarly, if your behavior gets subconsciously transmitted to those who systematically overestimate the value of those cues, that's social pollution. Drivers and parents would both like to pay you to not do this, but cannot. There's no accounting for benefits here, so it could be (and likely is) that some jaywalking is beneficial, but its overproduced. So I think Pamela's victory selfie is totally justified.

    1. Maybe. Maybe. I still think there's a difference in mens rea here. When you step into a voting booth, you know your decision will affect others. When you belch smoke from your factory, you know someone might breathe it. When you get a bunch of chickens, you know your roosters could keep your neighbors up. I guess that if you know some little kids will dash into traffic copying you, you might be justified in feeling guilty. I'm not sure that intuition is so common though.

      Then again, right-minded people do mind their swearing when tender young ears are present, so perhaps this really isn't all that different.

      At least for kids. Adults should have their shit in one sock.

      Apologies to the parents for the salty language.

  2. It seems clear that you hurt others on average by giving them a bad example to follow, an example not labeled as bad. It couldn't really be good could it? And it is unlikely to be completely neutral. So of course it must be bad!


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?