Class Information

Economics 336: Public Economics II (Public Choice)

2008 Edition (second semester)

Times and places

Class meets Mondays. 2:00-4:00, Commerce 118

Tutorial Sessions: Friday 10-11, Room C540; Friday 2-3, Room C536.

Mid-semester exam: 6:30 - 9:30, Wednesday 20 August, A6

CDF of econ 336 scores


Update 5 December 2008. This will be the last update of this page. Over time, link rot will set in, so don't expect that all the links will continue working forever. I'm not going to be going back and fixing things as this happens. The url for this page will eventually be migrated to 336-2008.html in order to make room for next year's version of the site.

The cumulative frequency distribution of grades for the course should appear at left if everything's working correctly. The bottom axis traces the percentage of people in the class earning the score listed on the y-axis or lower. So if you trace upwards from 50 on the x-axis, you'll find the median grade for the class (a 59).

Feedback on the Stearns-Zwycki text would be greatly appreciated. For next year, I'm dropping the Kurrild-Klitgaard paper on the Condorcet paradox and adding instead Bill Riker's chapters on same; other recommendations on papers that should be considered for keeping or dropping will of course be considered. Feel free to pop in for feedback on the take home.

Update 9 October 2008. Voter abstinence. Where do I get my purity ring?

Update 7 October 2008. If you're going to vote, you have a duty to do it well. If you aren't up to that, you are committing a moral error by voting. So says Jason Brennan of Brown University's philosophy department. He's interviewed by Will Wilkinson. They talk about Brennan/Lomasky (different Brennan), among other things. I'm about 10 minutes in, it's very interesting. Have a listen!

Update 30 September 2008 For those of you who thought I was lying when I said the Endangered Species Act kills endangered species, consult the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. Check the link to the article by Ferraro, McIntosh and Ospina. Abstract copied below.

The effectiveness of the US endangered species act: An econometric analysis using matching methods.

Abstract: Diametrically opposed views of the effectiveness of the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA) co-exist more than 30 years after the Act's creation. The evidence marshaled to date for and against the ESA suffers from a problem common in analyses of biodiversity protection measures: the absence of a well-chosen control group. We demonstrate how matching methods can be used to select such a control group and thereby estimate how species listed under the ESA would have fared had they not been listed. Our results show that listing a species under the ESA is, on average, detrimental to species recovery if not combined with substantial government funds. In contrast, listed species with such funding tend to improve. Our analysis offers not only new insights into a controversial debate, but also a methodology to guide conservation scientists in evaluating the effectiveness of society's responses to biodiversity loss.

As Robin Hanson reminds us,

Food isn't about Nutrition
Clothes aren't about Comfort
Bedrooms aren't about Sleep
Marriage isn't about Romance
Talk isn't about Info
Laughter isn't about Jokes
Charity isn't about Helping
Church isn't about God
Art isn't about Insight
Medicine isn't about Health
Consulting isn't about Advice
School isn't about Learning
Research isn't about Progress
Politics isn't about Policy

Update 28 August 2008 Seasteading on CNN. The host is annoying, but the video's worth watching.

Update 26 August 2008

Folks have asked for data on US political polarization: the Volokh Conspiracy (the single best Law and Economics blog in existence, the blog posts of which now frequently are cited in US judicial decisions!!) has the data from Keith Poole.

Update 21 August 2008.

I'd mentioned in lecture Tullock's story about beggars in China who would mutilate themselves so as to be more attractive objects of charity. The story comes from chapter 4 of Tullock's monograph "Rent Seeking", published by the Locke Institute. I'd mentioned a more recent case in India. I've now found an archived copy of the news story from 2006 via ChinaDaily. Whenever there's a transfer available, there will be competition to attract the transfer. And that competition wastes real resources. This case is perhaps more dramatic than most.

Update 11 August 2008. Study questions for the upcoming midterm. Share and enjoy! I'm likely to add in some questions about stuff from the Stearns and Zywicki readings that folks in tutorials demonstrated not having read.

Update 6 August 2008. For folks having a hard time getting to the Cowen Cowen Tabarrok reading, try this link: An Analysis of Proposals for Constitutional Change in New Zealand. The link is identical to the one in your syllabus, but hitting the link in the PDF has problems because the URL wraps several lines and Adobe doesn't handle that well at all.

Update 5 August 2008. Your first assignment is copied below and due 2:30 PM, Tuesday 12 August.

Assignment 1.

It appears that, very soon, it will be economically viable for people to build offshore platforms on which to live. Called "Seasteading" and described in detail at , the proposed autonomous ocean communities would be outside the legal jurisdiction of any existing states and consequently could experiment with a wide variety of social, political and legal arrangements.

In Week 2, we discussed "free-market" anarchy, Olson's "bandits", and James Buchanan's contractarian constitutional political economy. To what extent does Seasteading look like any or all of these? Which desirable or undesirable features of any of the models are likely to be replicated in Seasteading? So, for example, would the owner of a Seastead platform be an Olsonian permanent bandit, or would she be more constrained? Would we typically expect problems between competing defense agencies or would such problems be unlikely to arise? Are there any public choice problems that make it seem likely that things wouldn't work well, or do Seasteads potentially solve public choice problems? Does the size of individual Seasteads or the number of Seasteads matter in answering the questions?

Don't worry about "engineering" problems: assume that the platforms can be constructed economically and that either wind or tidal power is available. In 4 pages, typed, double spaced, 12 point font, provide a public choice analysis of Seasteading. A great answer will address the questions raised within a coherent framework that sees the bigger picture; an O.K. answer would stick to answering only the precise "for example" questions asked.

The assignment is due in 7 days, so 2:30 PM next Tuesday. Submit your assignment by that time in electronic form (MS Word). Hand in a paper copy, with signed cover sheet (the cover sheet is on your CD-Rom), before the end of the day on Wednesday. The electronic version is considered the real submission in case of differences between the two.

Update 31 July 2008. Folks have asked for a primer on how the US government works and comparison to ours here. Unfortunately, the very nice primer to which I once linked is now no longer around and I can't quickly find an adequate replacement! The Wikipedia articles on the Federal Government of the United States and comparing the US and British governments might prove useful though.

Update 14 July 2008. The Learning Skills Centre would like me to inform you of courses they're offering this term. I strongly recommend their courses to any student who needs to build experience in essay-writing. From their email:

Lectures offered this term

Workshops offered this term

Enrol online: click on "Undergraduate Students" then either click "Lectures" or "Workshops".

Update 11 July 2008. The updated syllabus and reading lists are available via the links at the top of the page. Enjoy! See you Monday!

Update 27 March 2008. This year's required text, Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter, is available for purchase at It will also be available at the book store. The Amazon price is about $20 US.

25 January 2008 Public Choice is on again for 2008, semester two. I will be updating the syllabus and reading list as semester two draws neigh. To get a feel for what the course is like, consult last year's edition of the page. I'm currently checking over last year's reading list, seeing which readings need updating. I'm also likely to be trialing chapters from a textbook currently being written by Max Stearns and Todd Zwicki that I hope will cover some of the material on voting paradoxes and the median voter rule a bit better than my current readings. You can also consult my teaching evaluations going back to the 2004 edition of this course at my teaching page. Selected comments from the 2007 evaluations (each from a different respondent, do check the full evaluations if you're worried about selection bias):

Summary statistics:

QuestionEcon 336Commerce Average (2005)
This was a well organised course 4.643.90
The course helped to stimulate my interest in the course area4.363.60
The overall workload was reasonable (high = heavy)3.903.20
The level of difficulty was reasonable (high = difficult)3.453.30
Developed my ability to engage in research related activities4.363.10
Assessment encouraged learning for understanding4.503.50
Overall, a good quality course4.643.80
The lecturer was able to communicate ideas and information clearly4.64n/a
The lecturer's attitude towards the students has been good4.27n/a
Overall the lecturer is an effective teacher4.64n/a

Most folks don't put all of this out there. If you've taken game theory, you might wonder about courses where you can't get this kind of information. Oodles of learning goodness for your tuition dollar: that's the Crampton promise. 2005 is the most recent year in which we can compare course evaluations; that year, it had the highest score in the Commerce Faculty on each of the bolded categories above.

Course synopsis

Public Choice applies economic theory and methodology to the study of nonmarket decision-making (typically political decision-making). As economists, we look not to the benevolence of the butcher for our meat but rather to his self-interest. What happens when we realize that politicians and voters are no different? Simply put, we achieve a much better understanding of real-world policy, economic and otherwise. The course provides an overview of positive and normative public choice theory, highlighting work in the economic theory of constitutions, voting rules, bureaucracy, democracy, collective action, dictatorship, the theory of clubs, expressive voting, political business cycles, lobbying, legislative structures, political competition, as well as criticisms of public choice theory. A familiarity with algebra is assumed on the part of students, as is a strong background in microeconomic theory; I will attempt to keep the calculus to lim x --> e (very little).


Evaluation will consist of:

Readings and texts

See the reading list for the assigned readings. This is last year's list and will be updated as semester approaches. There is only one required text for purchase. You can get it now from Amazon, cheap! Or, you can wait 'till the last minute and pay Book Store prices.

Course style

This course is taught very much in the arts tradition within economics. What does that mean?

I'm looking forward to meeting you in a few weeks; last year's Econ 336 was great fun and I hope that this year's will be as well. Get ready to do lots of reading and debating of the topics...see you soon!

Please feel free to contact me via email if you have any questions about the class or if you're wondering about taking it. Also check out the page I maintained for last year's Econ 336 class as that gives a decent feel for what the class is like. Hope to see you in the spring!


Valid HTML 4.01! Coded in Notepad in the HTML I learned in 1995