CO081 Jeffrey Miron on Health and Drug Policy

Jeffrey Miron is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, as well as being Director of Economics Studies at the Cato Institute.

We talked about the huge increase in the U.S. prison population – it really is striking:


By now you know all about the Mueller investigation, you know all about the Russian collusion allegations, you know all about the denials, you know all about the Don Junior meeting in Trump Tower.

You might have an opinion on it, you might think that anyone on the Trump campaign team was entitled to seek opposition information from wherever, you might think that they were entitled to hear out the Russians who contacted them, you might think that it doesn’t matter whether those turned out to be FSB spies, or that the Trump team had no way of knowing that so you can’t hold that against them.

You might even think that a president who commits a crime is entitled to pardon himself.

You could agree or disagree with any of those positions and still be a loyal American.

But that leaves out one thing. I’ll get to it in a moment, but one thing to understand first. It’s surprisingly difficult for humans to make up random numbers. Our brains like patterns, we can’t get away from them.

For example, during the years of the Vietnam war, at five o’ clock every day, the U.S. military briefers would tell journalists how the war was going. It took a long time for the journalists to notice that the number of enemy dead in any given week never ended in the figure 0 or 5. Never 65 people killed, 64. Week in, week out for several years, the enemy dead was Never 60 it was 59, or 69, or 71.

Needless to say, the military were lying. In trying to pick random, precise-sounding numbers, they choose a pattern that was vastly improbable. There are a lot of mathematical tools that clever people can use to analyse large volumes of data, and see if that data is really coming from the source that it claims to be coming from.

There’s a BBC programme that I’m a fan of, you might have heard me mention it before, it’s called More or Less, it’s a nerdy programme about statistics. They took a look at the Russian presidential election a while back. They didn’t report on the politics, they used those sort of mathematical tools to test whether the election results were real or not.

They discovered two things. The first was that there was massive electoral fraud. Don’t look so shocked. And the second thing is that, even without the fraud, Vladimir Putin would have easily won anyway. So why the cheating? Because Putin craves the legitimacy that a high turnout would give him. That tells us something about him. He wants to be seen as legitimate, he craves approval.

I thought of this when I heard another BBC programme in the last week. This was a major exposé, major in the UK anyway. It centres on political spending on the Brexit referendum in 2016, specifically spending on consultancy and Facebook ads from Cambridge Analyticia. They were up to their necks in that referendum, but the thing is that there are pretty strict spending limits in elections in the UK.

And the Leave campaign, the anti-EU campaign had a lump of money that they wanted to spend on campaign ads. That money is a problem for two reasons. The first problem, they had already hit their spending limit, so they laundered the money through a small Northern Irish political party called the DUP that were also supporting the Leave campaign. That’s a big problem for them now, but I’m not so interested in the problem of where the money went.

The real thing is where the money came from. It seems pretty clear that the money came from a businessman – maybe I should say it came via a businessman – who has deep connections to organised crime in Ukraine, and the previous, Putin-supported regime there. The former leader of Ukraine and his henchmen are now wanted in Ukraine, but are living under Putin’s protection in Russia.

It’s almost an aside that the far-right presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen got millions of euro in funding from a Kremlin-controlled Czech bank.

Don’t imagine that Putin supports any of these causes. Putin doesn’t support Trump, he doesn’t support Brexit, he doesn’t support French neo fascists. Putin supports Putin, and nothing else; and he sees the world as a zero-sum game. If you do worse, he does better.

Sure, it matters if Trump or people close to him colluded with a foreign power, and that’s a big issue, but it’s not the issue I’m talking about here. What I’m saying is that in world affairs, particularly in the eyes of someone like Putin, there are no friends, only interests. If anyone in America thinks that he’s on their side, they will regret that error.