Michael Kinsley* Disease Outbreak at Harvard

It appears that some social scientists at Harvard have decided to cherry pick dubious data in order to justify a counterfactual argument, because even if arguing counterfactuals is stupid, it makes a stupid person look smart:

Two Harvard professors recently published an article called “The Injustice of Under-Policing in America” in the American Journal of Law and Equality. The Harvard professors call for 500,000 more armed cops, who will arrest 7.8 million more people per year.

In other words, these two professors are proposing the greatest expansion of militarized police and surveillance in modern Western history, and they call it “the only way” to live up to “progressive” and “egalitarian” commitments.


The entire article makes bad arguments with material omissions, lacking rigor that one would expect from serious academic writing. I’ll try to write a longer analysis of how every key claim in the article is either wrong, unproven, or unimportant. Here, I focus on a few egregious things though.

To start, the premise. The Harvard professors claim: 1) the U.S. has way more prisoners than other countries and 2) way fewer cops. This is bad, they say, because: 3) prisons bring little benefit for their costs and 4) cops bring big benefits for their costs.

Let me first address some initial falsities. I was particularly skeptical of claim (2), and the article’s presentation of claim (4) was ludicrous. I don’t want journalists repeating them uncritically. So, I emailed the professors to try to understand the basis.

Their response was alarming. I pointed out my skepticism of the primary claim that the U.S. has fewer cops than other rich countries. (It’s notoriously fraught to count cops, and to count them across countries with very different systems.) I asked for the data.

Setting aside other problems with trying to compare cops across countries that have different local/national approaches to civilian and criminal law enforcement (as well as to whether police are armed), I suggested to the Harvard professors that their U.S. data source appears to exclude all federal policing agencies (e.g., border patrol, ICE, FBI, DEA, ATF, capitol police, Park Police, military police, etc…), potentially many non-local state agencies, and ALL private police forces.

One of the professors responded that they chose to use the number 697,195 from the UCR (an FBI reporting survey) even though they knew many local agencies weren’t included. So, he admitted that the number may be much higher, like 900,000. (Note: Wikipedia, for example, says 900k based on a major police non-profit source).

The professor then admitted privately over email that the U.S. census count is actually 1,227,788 police. That’s 76% higher than the number they chose to use in their public article. What’s the significance of this? Using this number, they admitted to me, would mean the U.S. truthfully has “1.1 times the median rate in rich countries.”

The two authors, Christopher Lewis and Adaner Usmani, appear to be assistant professors at the Harvard Law School and the Department of Sociology and Social Studies respectively.

This means that they are tenure track professors, but they do not have tenure.

If they put out more crap like this, I don’t think that they should get tenure.

*Michael Kinsley founded Slate, and is known for making batsh%$ insane arguments unsupported by the data as a rhetorical technique to demonstrate that they are iconoclastic free thinkers, and totally not complete morons.



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