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Utilitarian U.K. Torture Policy

The Guardian has gotten hold the U.K. interrogation policy: In deciding whether to give permission [for overseas interrogation], senior MI5 and MI6 management “will balance the risk of mistreatment and the risk that the officer’s actions could be judged to be unlawful against the need for the proposed action”. At this point, “the operational imperative […]

Did Torture Generate The Lead To Osama Bin Laden?

The sources in this report say yes.  These reporters look again and conclude no.  I don’t believe any of them.  The basic fact is that we have no good data on the costs and benefits of torture and we never will. Once you have decided whether you or not you believe the practitioner/advocates of torture when they […]

Poe on Torture

In the last of our weekly readings, my daughter’s 4th grade class read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Pit And The Pendulum” (a two minute read) and today I led the kids in a discussion of the story.  Here are my notes. The story reads like a scholarly thesis on the art and strategy of torture. […]

Torture and the Theory of the Second-Best

I was taught the example below as an undergrad and I think it may originally be due to Pigou (or perhaps, as you will see, it was made up by British Rail): Suppose travelers can either drive to get from A to B or take the train.  The road is free and tolls are technologically […]

A Summary of the Torture Model

Sandeep and I are very close to finishing a first draft of our paper on torture.  As I was working on it today, I came up with a simple three-paragraph summary of the model and some results.  Here it is. A number of strategic considerations play a central role in shaping the equilibrium. First, the rate […]

The Morality of Torture

In a classic article “The Problem of Dirty Hands”, the philosopher Michael Walzer offers the following scenario: [C]onsider a politician who has seized upon a national crisis-a prolonged colonial war-to reach for power. He and his friends win office pledged to decolonization and peace; they are honestly committed to both, though not without some sense […]

Torture Memos

Jeff and I had a look at the torture memos which attempt to delineate prosecutable offenses from acceptable interrogation techniques.  There are many interesting passages.  On “interstate stalking” (page 32): To establish the requisite intent, the prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant undertook the travel with the specific intent to harass, or intimidate another. See […]

When Would We Learn What We Got From Torture?

Jeff Miron writes If the CIA had convincingly foiled terrorists acts based on information from harsh interrogations, the temptation to shout it from the highest rooftops would have been overwhelming. Thus the logical inference is that harsh interrogations have rarely, if ever, produced information of value. Without taking a stand on the bottom-line conclusion, I […]

Torture: Incentive Compatibility

Sandeep has previously blogged about the problems with torture as a mechanism for extracting information from the unwilling. As with any incentive mechanism, torture works by promising a reward in exchange for information.  In the case of torture, the “reward” is no more torture. Sandeep focused on one problem with this.  This works only if […]

Torture: A Knee-Slapper

From Michael Schwarz: A Russian soldier comes home after years as a POW in Afghanistan. He tells his story: “I was cold, hungry, beaten, tortured and interrogated every day.”  Asked if he confessed to anything, the soldier says,  “Not a word, they would beat me and beat me but I simply told them again and […]

Torture “Confessions” are Cheap Talk

The main logic of torture is to inflict so much pain that the victim reveals all his information to make the pain stop.  Incentives for truth-telling in this situation are eerily similar to those in the bank stress tests. All banks want to report that they are healthy.  To distinguish the lying sick banks from […]

The Psychology of Queuing

SOME years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. […]

Chicken Everywhere: Inelastic Demand And NFL Replacement Referees

  For the casual fan such as myself, the final second of the Packers-Seahawks game had the thrill of the Roman circus – an arbitrary, conflicted decision was handed down by emperor referees.  For the real fans and the teams, it must be torture.  But is it painful for the owners? After all, they will […]

It Happened That Way

Some of these things are coincidences, some not: The Bad Plus premeired their arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at Duke University on March 26, 2011. I happened to be at Duke University that day because the day before I presented “Torture” at the Economics Department. Atila Abdulkadiroglu and Bahar Leventoglu are my two favorite people […]

Conflict and Cooperation: Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Non-state actors with extreme agendas try to influence state actors.  This class overviews a potpourri of models that explore why a player might join a non state organization, the logic of non state actor strategy and the costs and benefits of torture. Iannaccone has a classic paper on religious sects and their purpose and strategy. […]

Northwestern Economists Go Off The Rails

This was going to happen eventually. Una advertencia: el lector desprevenido podrá suponer que el contenido de este artículo es irónico, exagerado o hasta apócrifo. Han sido recurrentes las ironías acerca de los efectos letales de los planes de ajuste que han impulsado e impulsan ciertos economistas. Marcelo Matellanes, el fallecido filósofo y economista, sostenía […]


We have been blogging for two years now.  When we turned 1 I started writing a sequence of posts on Why I Blog.  Here’s a few of them.  As a final why-thought I would like to say that while blogging often feels like shirking, in fact the number one reason that keeps me going when […]

Shows What I Know…

Here is a paper by Hugo Mialon which examines titles of economics papers and how they correlate with publication success and citations. This paper examines the impact of titles and other characteristics of published economics articles on the ultimate success of these articles, as measured by their cumulative citations over the six year period following […]


Do you know the name of the first bank in the United States?  The First Bank of The United States of course.  How about the second bank?  The Second Bank of the United States.  And after that it seems like every time a bank opens in a new place for the first time that bank […]

Judiciously Sordid Links

I have standby jury duty today. Might make for some good blogging. The New York Times torture euphemism generator.  My contribution:  Logs show binding IC, no IR. How WSJ stipple drawings are made. (I came this close to having one but I was edited out of a story on latte art.) Nature scores a point […]

Waterboarding And The Ratchet Effect

For the sake of argument let’s take on the plain utilitarian case for waterboarding: in return for the suffering inflicted upon a single terror suspect we may get information that can save many more people from far greater suffering. At first glance, authorizing waterboarding simply scales up the terms of that tradeoff. The suspect suffers […]

This Daily Nuisance Is Brought To You By British Petroleum

Naming rights raise a lot of money.  Think of professional sports stadiums like Chicago’s own US Cellular Field  (does US Cellular still exist??)  The amazing thing to me is that when Comiskey Park changed names to “The Cell,” local media played right along and gave away free advertising by parroting the name in their daily […]

Does Economic Theory Assume Its Conclusions?

Answer:  only if it’s good economic theory. Any theory, not just economics has this structure: I assume A, I conclude C. It’s a good theory only if A logically implies C. And if A implies C then assuming A entails assuming C. Observations: If someone is not assuming their conclusion then you should ask them […]

The Ticking Time-Bomb

The hypothetical “ticking time-bomb” scenario represents a unique argument in favor of torture.  There will be a terrorist attack on Christmas day and a captive may know where and by whom.  Torture seems more reasonable in this scenario for a few reasons. It’s a clearly defined one-off thing.  We can use torture to defuse the […]

The Limits of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”

Sandeep and I are writing a paper on torture.  We are trying to understand the mechanics and effectiveness of torture viewed purely as a mechanism for extracting information from the unwilling.  A major theme we are finding is that torture is complicated by numerous commitment problems.  We have blogged about these before.  Here is Sandeep’s […]

Co-Authorships as Bands

Musicians and academics are promiscuous collaborators. They flit from partnership to partnership sometimes for one-off gigs, sometimes for ongoing stints. In academia, regardless of the longevity of the group, the individual author is always the atomic unit. Co-authorships are identified simply with the names of the authors. Whereas musicians eventually form bands. Bands have identities […]

Mechanism Design by the Taliban

For the operative who is confused about polite, Talibany behavior, the senior leadership has been kind enough to offer a code of conduct.  It is written in a spartan and logical fashion, point by point, a bit like the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Number 15 is their policy on torture: If some one admits that […]

What I’ve Been Reading

The Kindly Ones. Jonathan Littel is an American who adopted the French language to write this massive novel on the experience of a rising star in the SS during the Second World War.  I found that the detailed descriptions of torture and sodomy don’t work well in the English translation.  On the other hand Littel’s […]

I’ll Be in My Trailer

Today at Peet’s in Evanston I was trying to work out a model for this idea Sandeep and I are working on related to the game theory of torture.  I started drawing a litle graph and then got lost in thought.  I must have looked a little weird (nothing unusual there) because the woman next […]

Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Waterboarding

Everyone agrees that Mother Theresa was an irreproachable, wonderful human being.  Right?  Wrong, according to Christopher Hitchens. InThe Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, he argues she took money from disgraced banker Charles Keating, even writing a letter of support for him to the judge at his trial.  He claims she did not […]