Friday, 24 April 2009

In which the masthead is explained, and homage is paid unto Tullock

Don Boudreaux reminds us of the greatness of Gordon Tullock. I tell my students of the Pantheon of the Econ-Gods. At the summit of Olympus, hurling thunderbolts at all those who displease Him, sits Gordon Tullock. The Elder Gods then include Becker, Friedman, Buchanan, Coase, Alchian, Demsetz, Hayek. But Tullock stands above all. Indeed, Tullock is the middle name of the little fella accompanying me in the picture above right.

Sometimes, students would deny that they drive more recklessly when wearing a seatbelt. Tullock liked to illustrate the idea of offsetting behaviour for them by asking what they'd do if a large spike extended from the steering wheel and pointed directly at their heart. Wearing a seatbelt is a mild form of that effect, but in reverse. Tullock's students came to call the thing the "Tullock Spike". And so we have my masthead picture.

Paul notes that Tullock once threatened to have me killed. This is true. In the spirit of sharing Tullock Tales (and see also here), here's mine.

Gordon Tullock and I share a birthday. While we were walking together over to Buchanan House for a seminar, I noted that we have something in common. Tullock replied, "Well, I guess we'll have to do something about that then, won't we." (the italics are for added ominous intonation).

I later ran into him at Carow Hall and asked him what he planned on doing about our having a shared birthday. He told me that he'd arranged for some boys from upstate to have me shot.

Towards the end of his 80th birthday party (a very nicely-catered event), I thanked him for throwing me such a great birthday party. He laughed and replied that he'd be sending me the bill for it.

In his class in public choice, he asked us to identify the best form of government. I of course replied "Eric dictator." He laughed again and said that was strictly dominated by one other form of government: Tullock dictator.

Do read the Cafe Hayek piece on some of Tullock's more important contributions. He's a living god. If Stockholm doesn't award him the Nobel before t=T, the committee ought to be rounded up and shot. Or at least have spikes attached to their steering wheels.


  1. I'm not sure that public choice could have existed as a field without Tullock. Alchian has some great stuff, but he didn't found a school in the same way.

  2. True. And I was mainly trying to wind you up.

    Surely North deserves to be in the Pantheon too. Though I'm undoubtedly biased, not being a real economist and having associations and sympathies with the enemy.

  3. Brad. True, North should be there. But Coase should be at the top!

  4. North and Olson are certainly in the pantheon. Should they be among the Elder Gods? Olson's Logic is the elaboration of two sentences in Downs....

  5. Yes, add the possibility that Tullock misses out on his Prize to the various costs of last year's award.

    Grumble grumble.

  6. I'd say North deserves to be an Elder God just as much as Friedman. North seems to me the deepest and most original thinker of the lot. He would have founded a school if others were smart enough to use his insights.

    Depends on the criteria, though. Friedman has done much more to promote sensible ideas than he has to advance economic understanding (without meaning to belittle his contribution). If I were simultaneously all of Nobel committees, I'd have given Friedman the Peace Prize before the Econ Prize.

  7. Brad: North is part of the new institutional school founded upon the work of Coase. North makes the point, for example, that a satisfactory theory of the firm would would contribute immensely to the development of a theory of the state. He cites Coase 1937 in this regard. So Elder God for North.

  8. Paul: North's more recent work, particularly Understanding the Process of Economic Change, surely moves beyond NIE. He begins with Coasean insights but brings in cognitive science and the sociology of knowledge to produce something utterly different.

  9. I'm happy to include him as an elder god. I've never quite fixed the composition

  10. There's no Wikipedia entry on Tullock. Perhaps someone in the know could start one?

  11. Oh. Yes, there is. It just doesn't come up in a search.

  12. All part of Tullock's self-effacing nature.

  13. I am biased in this: I was told that Ross Parish came up with the spike idea when he was a post-doc fellow at Chicago. I have thought of it as the 'Parish Spike' (a name reminiscent of Orwell's "Down and Out In Paris and London".

    Parish is the man who is entirely responsible for my conversion to economics.

  14. Not sure if that went through...

    gist: I learned of this as the 'Parish Spike' - legend is that Ross parish thought it up while on a post-doc fellowship at Chicago late 50s, I think).

    'Parish Spike' is redolent, too- echoes of Orwell's life as a tramp.

    Parish is the man who convered me to economics when I was an undergrad. Peter Dixon failed to complete my journey (not his fault).

    I think t=T in 2001 for Ross, from memory. Vale.

  15. Sorry GT: comments are moderated after a certain date to avoid the spam.

  16. I thought that it was T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia") who came up with the spike idea.

  17. I have only just found your blog, so apologies if this point has been covered elsewhere. But I don't think Mr Tullock's example of the spike pointed at your heart ends where you think it does.

    The spike proves that incentives influence behavior. Of that, we can be sure.

    But the point you appear to be making is that the influence of the increased feelings of safety induced by the seatbelt outweigh the protective value of the seatbelt.

    This is a testable proposition: Have the number of deaths per kilometers travelled increased or fallen since the introduction of compulsory seat belts?

    The answer is patently that the rate of deaths has fallen.

    It raises a much more interesting point than Mr Tullock's spike: Cost benefit is much harder to asses than theory allows, and often cannot be assessed accurately by theory alone.

  18. @Anon: That seatbelts have an offsetting effect is pretty certain. It's unlikely that it's sufficiently large to result in net increases in deaths, but do be careful to count the death rate to pedestrians instead of just to drivers. Russ Sobel's piece on offsetting behaviour in NASCAR is also very good: increased safety yields more accidents but fewer fatalities. Of course, the pedestrians are pretty protected at NASCAR events.

  19. In the past 10-15 years, a number of papers have appeared in the public health literature claiming to find empirical support for the hypothesis that that circumcised men are less likely to contract this and that STD. Nearly all of these studies use observational data, but a handful are based on 3 randomised clinical trials conducted early last decade in the AIDS belt of eastern and southern Africa. I am sceptical about these studies but never mind, because my reasons would take me too far afield. Also, my comparative advantage does not lie in critiquing those studies.

    It is important to appreciate that no peer reviewed study has claimed that circumcision "prevents" this or that disease. The claim is only that it improves the odds of a healthy man not catching an STD from an infected woman in a given sexual interaction. This further translates into fewer cases of STDs only if the total number of unprotected sexual acts is held constant.

    The offsetting behaviour hypothesis (OBH) suggests that this constancy is unlikely to be the case. The OBH predicts that even if these claims are in some sense true, it is likely that circumcised African men will engage in more casual sex (e.g., with women who prostitute themselves casually) and will be more likely to disdain condoms. Sure enough, I have read that the urban myth that "circumcised men can't catch AIDS" is said to be going viral in the African AIDS belt.

    If you lower the "price" of unsafe sex, people will consume more of it. If the price elasticity of demand is at least one, then the total incidence of STDs could remain constant or even rise.

    Bii Gates's thinking is innocent of what I write here, so much so that he has donated circa US$10 million of his personal fortune to pay for free circumcision clinics in the AIDS belt. We will know in within 10 years or so which of the following models is the correct operative one: the CDC's or Tullock-Sobel-Peltzman.

  20. "The answer is patently that the rate of deaths has fallen."
    But did the number of accidents increase or decrease? Counting only deaths is not the full picture, and policy makers should understand the trade-offs. And what was the relative rate of driver death versus pedestrian death? They should be counted separately.
    It could be argued, for instance, that speeding-driver deaths should not be counted in the statistics to assess the cost - they made a choice, and took a risk. Their deaths may not be the purview of policy makers. Pedestrian injuries or deaths, and injuries and deaths in drivers of other cars, however, are an externality that policy makers should be trying to minimize. I know we don't have the data, but that does not excuse ignoring the problems.

  21. Surely any discipline that has "elder gods" is a religion, not a science.