Monday, August 24, 2020


So we can now ad Kenosha, Wisconsin to the list of places that is seeing unrest severe enough to call out the National Guard after a shooting of an unarmed Black man. One of the questions that comes up in all of this is "Why does this keep happening?" Although, all things considered, it doesn't happen that often. And maybe that's the problem. These events are rare enough that they always come across as unexpected.

But when the response to two women arguing in the street is to send armed police officers, why are we not expecting that someone is liable to be shot? If there is a general sense among police officers that they're in constant danger and their firearms are their best means of defense, why are we not expecting that they'll shoot at the hint of the threat? If there is an entire group of people who feel that the only way that anyone pays attention to their problems is when violence erupts, why are we not expecting street violence?

Sometimes, I get the feeling that there is an expectation that people will ignore all of the incentives that drive these sorts of events, specifically because they are rare. Because most times, placing people in situations that have the potential to end very badly doesn't blow up in society's face, there is a feeling that the problem is the specific people involved, and not the overall incentive structure. But maybe if there was a greater expectation that things that can end badly will end badly, there would be a greater push to avoid setting things up to fail. And to a certain degree, that means lowering expectations. Yes, the expectation is that when armed officers arrive on a scene that doesn't call for the use of lethal force, they won't use it. But use of lethal force happens often enough that banking on that expectation seems like a bad idea.

It's reasonable to set expectations in line with the most common outcomes. But when there are unacceptable outcomes, perhaps it makes sense to set expectations in line with the worst case, and then start changing the underlying incentives to alter that worst case.

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