Category Archives: Uncategorized

Book deal

I have just signed a book deal with Stanford University Press to write about women’s empowerment and how gender equality promotes economic development.

Simon Hedlin

America’s next recession

Since its founding, the United States has gone through 49 recessions.

The average period of time between recessions is less than 4 years. Since World War II, that figure has been 58 months, or close to 5 years.

In America’s history, the longest expansion lasted 120 months, or exactly 10 years.

The last recession ended in June 2009. The next recession will most likely happen before January 2021.

Simon Hedlin

Cass R. Sunstein and Simon Hedlin: Is greener always better?

Today I write in Los Angeles Times with Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School about positive and negative stereotypes of environmentally friendly goods and services.

Simon Hedlin

Prostitution and sex trafficking paper

I have just accepted an offer to publish one of my papers on the relationship between prostitution laws and sex trafficking in the Michigan Journal of Law Reform.

Simon Hedlin

Paper published in Ecology Law Quarterly

A paper related to environmental law and behavioral economics that I have co-authored with Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School has just been published in Ecology Law Quarterly.

Simon Hedlin


Journal of International Women’s Studies

I have recently joined the board of the Journal of International Women’s Studies (JIWS), an open-access, peer reviewed journal on gender issues, as an Editor. Check out the current issues here.

Simon Hedlin

How Marco Rubio proved the polls wrong

In another column in Swedish, I explain how Marco Rubio’s mastery of retail politics helped propel him to a strong third place in the Iowa caucus. In over fifty polls leading up to the Iowa contest, Rubio received over 20 percent in just one poll, and yet he ended up with 23 percent when the votes had finally been cast. The column can be found here.

Simon Hedlin

Review of “Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind”

In my latest article for The Economist, I review an interesting book about the notion that makes us human. An excerpt:

ABOUT a century and a half ago, an American railway worker named Phineas Gage was setting an explosive charge near Cavendish, Vermont. While he was tamping down the charge with an iron rod, it went off and sent the rod through his head. Gage miraculously survived—or least part of him did. But contemporaries thought that his personality had changed; where once he had been well-behaved, now he was downright antisocial. The incident raised questions about what constitutes the self and to what extent it is influenced by the body.

Although Phineas Gage is cited in medical and psychological literature as one of the earliest known cases of brain damage and personality change, the debate about what makes people human had, by then, already been going on for centuries. In “Soul Machine” George Makari, a psychiatry professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, presents an electrifying narrative of the intellectual disputes that gave rise to the Western conception of the mind.

Read the full piece here.

Simon Hedlin

Both Republicans and Democrats are pandering to public fear

Today I write in Sweden’s second largest morning newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, about terrorism and gun violence, both of which are used by politicians to the left and the right to pander to public fear. The column can be found here.

Simon Hedlin

Unfair criticism of Obama on domestic terror

I am by no means a staunch supporter of Barack Obama, but I still do think that some of the criticism that he has received with respect to dealing with terrorism has been unfair. In particular – while one might argue that he has not done enough to suppress the threat from the Islamic State (IS) – it does not seem right to claim that he has systematically underplayed the threat from domestic terrorism. On this topic, the following is my letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal:

Your editorial about a jihadist revival misrepresents President Obama’s position on domestic terrorism (“The Terror This Time,” Review & Outlook, Dec. 5). You claim that Mr. Obama systematically has tried “to minimize the terror risk on U.S. soil” and cite as evidence his May 23, 2013 speech at National Defense University.

But if you read the transcript from that very speech, the president clearly said both that “we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States” and that “alienated individuals—often U.S. citizens or legal residents—can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad.”

It is also available to read here.

Simon Hedlin

Changing the fact instead of fighting the stereotype

In the student newspaper of my alma mater, I write about the lack of political interest among many Asian-Americans. Some claim that Asian-Americans are held back by the stereotype that we are apolitical. But the problem here is that the stereotype actually appears to be true. An excerpt:

In 1990, the Asian-American voter turnout rate was significantly higher than that of Hispanics. But in 2010, it had dropped by almost 10 percentage points, and Asian Americans were suddenly lagging behind Hispanics, as well as whites and blacks.

The extent to which we are underrepresented in politics because of discrimination is a legitimate topic for discussion, but that does not explain why our voter turnout is so embarrassingly low. If blacks had the same low voter turnout as that of Asian Americans in the 2012 presidential election, five million fewer blacks would have cast their ballots.

Nor do Asian Americans show a particularly strong interest in politics in other realms either. As Janelle Wong and co-authors point out in the book “New Race Politics in America,” data suggests that only 12 percent of Asian Americans donate to political campaigns, compared with 25 percent of Hispanics and 22 percent of blacks.

Moreover, a survey found that among Asian Americans, over the past four years, only 11 percent had contacted a government official, merely seven percent had protested, and an abysmal two percent had worked for a political campaign.

Even if we were to broaden the definition of political interest to cover public service in general, it does not make us Asian Americans look better—as a group, we are less likely than blacks to do volunteer work and less likely than Hispanics to serve in the armed forces. If Hispanics would have done military service to the same lesser extent as Asian Americans, the number of Hispanic veterans would be cut by a third down to just over one million people.

Of course, we Asian Americans face many unjust stereotypes that have little basis in reality. But a lack of civic participation is not one of them. In this case, instead of fighting the stereotype, we ought to change the fact.

Read the full piece here.

Simon Hedlin

Guns, but not just guns

I comment in The Washington Post on the fact that some states that have lax gun policies and high firearms ownership rates have relatively low rates of gun homicides. This means that although gun access certainly contributes to homicides and mass shootings, it cannot be the only factor that matters. We therefore need to ask ourselves: why is America such an outlier in the Western world when it comes to gun violence? What can we do to keep pushing gun violence rates down to stop the horrific killings of innocent people? An excerpt:

I agree that gun ownership matters, but this can hardly be the sole explanation. Wyoming has the highest gun-ownership rate in the nation, yet its number of gun murders per capita is lower than Israel’s. Vermont, North Dakota and Idaho are other states with easy and widespread access to firearms, but the homicide-by-gun rate in Vermont is lower than in Italy. In North Dakota, the rate is on par with that of Taiwan; and in Idaho, it is substantially below the rate in Macedonia.

Read the full comment here.

Simon Hedlin



Sex trafficking a problem near and far away

In The Wall Street Journal, I write today in a letter to the editor that sex trafficking is a problem everywhere:

I commend Sohrab Ahmari for helping to raise awareness of the gruesome enslavement practices by Islamic State in “Helping the Escaped Slaves of ISIS” (op-ed, Nov. 24). However, when your readers learn about the many women and children who are kept in bondage in Iraq and Syria, it is important to remember that deprivation of liberty and property isn’t merely a distant phenomenon halfway around the world. Human trafficking is also a serious problem in our own backyard.

Those who are trafficked in the Western world are, similar to the slaves of Islamic State, often subject to sexual violence. Because of its secretive nature, nobody knows for certain exactly how many people are trafficked for sexual exploitation. But low, conservative estimates suggest that we are talking about at least several thousand individuals every year in the U.S. alone—and the figure in Europe is probably in the same range. Victims of slavery, in countries far away as well as in our local neighborhoods, deserve greater attention and much better support.

Read it here, too.

Simon Hedlin

A different perspective on Pearl Harbor and World War II

“Growing up,” writes conservative blogger Erick Erickson, “I remember my parents never letting us have Asian food on December 7th. They were children of WWII.”

Given the vilification of Asians in the United States throughout the 20th century, it should perhaps not be surprising that some people stopped eating Asian food on the anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

For instance, about a century ago, Organized Labor, the official publication of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, wrote: “Chinatown with its reeking filth and dirt … is a menace to community; but the sniveling Japanese … is a far greater danger to the laboring portion of society than all the opium-soaked pigtails who have ever blotted the fair name of this beautiful city.”

But that does not mean that the practice made any sense whatsoever, especially considering the sacrifices that Asian-Americans, particularly of Japanese descent, made during World War II.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced relocation of over 100,000 individuals of Japanese heritage to internment camps.

John Rankin, a Democratic Congressman from Mississippi, said at the time: “Once a Jap, always a Jap. You can’t any more regenerate a Jap than you can reverse the laws of nature.”

Henry McLemore, a syndicated columnist, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in support of the internment camps: “I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast in a point deep in the interior. … Herd ‘em up, pack ‘em off and give ‘em the inside room in the Badlands. Let ‘em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it.”

In the words of Miné Okubo, a former internee in one of the camps: “We were suddenly uprooted—lost everything and treated like a prisoner with soldier guard, dumped behind barbed wire fence.”

Meanwhile, other Japanese-Americans, some of them having been recruited straight from the internment camps, were giving their lives for their country over in Europe by serving in the military to prove their innocence. Daniel Inouye, at the time an 18-year-old who would later become a U.S. Senator, explains: “I was angered to realize that my government felt that I was disloyal and part of the enemy, [an] enemy alien. And I wanted to be able to demonstrate, not only to my government, but to my neighbors that I was a good American.”

They served in the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, two military units that were comprised almost entirely of Japanese-Americans. The two units eventually became two of the most highly decorated and with two of the highest casualty rates in U.S. military history, earning a total of 18,143 individual citations, including eight Presidential Unit Citations, 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, and 9,486 Purple Hearts.

General George Marshall said of the Japanese-Americans who served: “They were superb! They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit. Everybody wanted them.”

Tim Tokono, who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, had prior to fighting in Europe seen his parents been forcibly relocated to two different internment camps. He explains the exceptional bravery that his unit showed in the following way: “We all had the idea of proving that we were loyal Americans. And so everything was ‘go, go, go forward, go forward.’ And so I understand it, we never retreated. We never took a backward step. Always forward.”

Simon Hedlin

Paranoid xenophobia in America

I write today in Financial Times that it is hardly surprising that Americans shun foreigners in light of the threat posed by global terrorism:

Virtually every nation state goes through episodes of paranoid xenophobia, and the US is no exception. After the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in 1886, for example, it was revealed that most of the suspects behind the attack were of German descent. Immigrants across the city were then promptly rounded up and arrested by the police.

A similar logic led President Franklin Roosevelt, after the attack on Pearl Harbor during the second world war, to order that more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the west coast be forcibly removed from their homes and put in internment camps surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. It did not matter that most of them were American citizens. Meanwhile, in Europe, thousands of Japanese-Americans were sacrificing their lives to protect their country against fascism while serving in the ethnically segregated 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Infantry Regiment.

During the same war, America also severely restricted migration flows from Europe, again citing national security concerns. Fear of Nazi infiltration was reflected in public opinion; Gallup released a poll that asked whether the government should permit “10,000 refugee children from Germany — most of them Jewish — to be taken care of in American homes”. More than 60 per cent said no.

Read the full piece here.

Simon Hedlin

Sweden’s refugee crisis

Today I write in The New York Times a response to those who argue that Sweden has brought itself to the brink of collapse by admitting too many refugees. It is true that Sweden has approached the situation naively, but it also seems unfair to me to blame the Swedes for being too compassionate:

Sweden’s overly generous asylum policy is not the main reason that the country is in serious trouble. The real cause, obviously, is the turmoil in the Middle East, for which Sweden bears very little, if any, responsibility. To tell the Swedes that they brought their refugee crisis on themselves is like telling firefighters who rush into a burning building and get injured in the process that they only have themselves to blame.

Read the full response here.

Simon Hedlin

Are politicians really no action?

Donald Trump says in one of his new ads that “politicians are all talk, no action.”

That may sound all good at first, but if you take a moment and think about it then it does not necessarily make much sense. America’s politicians do actually get a lot of things done. A few examples:

The federal tax code has grown by 18,700% over the past hundred years.

America spent over $2 trillion on the Iraq War.

The last Congress enacted more than 290 new laws, equivalent to 6,459 pages or 4,264,363 words.

President Barack Obama has issued more than 200 executive orders since taking office.

Last year, Congress spent $120 million on upgrades of the M1 Abrams tank that the Army does not want; $15 million on the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund; $5.9 million on the East-West Center; and $4 million on the aquatic plant control program.

So to the extent that there is a problem, it does not seem to be “no action,” but rather too much action, or at the very least misdirected action.

Simon Hedlin

Ben Carson’s kryptonite is substance

My prediction is that Ben Carson will flame out as soon as the Republican voters start to look for substance and qualifications. The interview that Carson did with George Stephanopoulos on ABC This Week a couple of weeks ago is pretty revealing.

On his best example of negotiating in his professional life that has prepared him to sit down with Russia, China, and Iran, he mentions the Carson Scholars Fund, and the fact that its awardees hail from all fifty states, which “is not done without the ability to negotiate.”

Sure, because asking people to help dole out $1,000 scholarships is similar to sitting down with vicious dictators and deal with the extreme zero-sum game that is international politics.

Carson also reiterated his claim that Saudi Arabia would have turned over Osama bin Laden on a silver platter if only America had declared itself petroleum-independent. When faced with the fact that bin Laden already had been expelled from Saudi Arabia and had seen his Saudi citizenship revoked, Carson merely says, “Well, you may not think that they [the Saudis] had any loyalty to him. But I believe otherwise.”

So the Saudis were in fact still loyal to bin Laden, they actually knew were he was, and if they only had wanted to, they could have easily got him out of the tribal areas of Afghanistan and extradited him to the United States?

When asked to explain how this Saudi Arabia-Afghanistan-bin Laden-process would have worked in practice, Carson simply responds:

My point is: we had other ways that we could have done things. I personally don’t believe invading Iraq was an existential threat to us. I don’t think Saddam Hussein was an existential threat to us.


Simon Hedlin

Do Long Ballots Offer Too Much Democracy?

As (some) people are heading to the polls today to vote in the off-year election, I write in The Atlantic about decision fatigue and how people make biased selections when they are faced with a long list of choices.

When fatigue kicks in, voters may be more likely to vote “no.”

On November 3, voters at polling stations across the country cast their ballots in state and local contests. In addition to elections for offices such as school boards and city councilor, state and local ballot measures will also be decided. Texans, for instance, are voting on seven constitutional amendments, including a proposal that would repeal the requirement that elected state officials reside in Austin, the state capital. People living in Portland, Maine, are deciding whether or not to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour for private employees.

To persuade voters, some campaigns have spent millions of dollars, particularly on controversial issues. One hot button in this election is Issue 3 in Ohio, which would legalize limited sale and use of marijuana, if it is approved. The backers of the yes campaign, named ResponsibleOhio, have reportedly committed more than $20 million. But campaign spending is not the only factor that can sway voters. Research suggests that even the position on the ballot where a certain contest appears will determine how some people vote. If the proposal appears earlier on the ballot, it is more likely to pass. And the difference between a “good” and a “bad” position on the ballot is not small: It can result in a swing of several percentage points.

Read the full article here.

Simon Hedlin

Overestimating the significance of the Asian-American vote

Understanding Asian-American political behavior is surely interesting, but I am sorry to tell you that it does not have “important electoral ramifications,” as Cecilia Mo claims in this piece for The Conversation today.

Mo overestimates the significance of the Asian-American vote for several reasons. First, she confuses population size with population growth; the fact that the Asian-American vote has grown a lot over the past two decades does not matter because the share of the American population that is of Asian origin is tiny.

Second, the turnout among Asian-Americans is still embarrassingly low, and it is lower than among Hispanics, blacks, and whites. This is unlikely to change much any time soon.

Third, more than half of all Asian-Americans live in California, New York, Hawaii, Washington, and Massachusetts. These are hardly lean-Republican swing states where a few more Democratic votes could make a big difference and hurt the GOP.

Simon Hedlin

Gun violence? Insurmountable challenge. ISIS? No problem!

Donald Trump has said that he “would knock the hell out of” ISIS.

But on gun violence in America, he is strikingly passive:

You know, no matter what you do, guns, no guns, it doesn’t matter. You have people that are mentally ill. And they’re gonna come through the cracks.

So regarding 11,000 firearm-related homicides ever year in the United States (allegedly because of mental illness), “[n]o matter what you do, you will have problems and that’s the way the world goes,” but when it comes to tens of thousands of crazy terrorists some six thousand miles away that keep women as sex slaves and behead prisoners that is no problem because “there is a method of defeating them quickly and effectively and having total victory.”

Simon Hedlin

Feel guilty: You’ll help society

Today I write in The Boston Globe about guilt, which can really be a force for good. An excerpt:

“SO IF WE are going to be kind,” wrote the South African author J. M. Coetzee, “let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty.” The notion that we should give our time and resources to others because we enjoy being benevolent is a compelling ethos. But research shows that it is not that simple: Oftentimes when we feel bad about ourselves, we are, in fact, more likely to do good things.

Feelings of guilt, in particular, can prompt us to take action for the benefit of others. The reason for this is straightforward: Nobody likes regret or remorse, so we act in a way that we feel less guilty. Consider, for instance, one study that found that participants were more likely to want to reduce water consumption by reusing towels when staying in a hotel if they felt guilty about frequently changing their towels.

Cass Sunstein and I found a similar result — that guilt is a powerful motivator — in a recent experimental study at Harvard Law School. We surveyed some 1,200 Americans and asked them whether they would be interested in enrolling in a green energy program if their state government offered them the opportunity to join one. The respondents who said that they would feel guilty if they did not enroll had a higher likelihood of being interested in signing up.

In other words, when people regret making a choice that they think ultimately may harm others — such as changing towels or consuming less environmentally friendly energy — they can be spurred to do the right thing. And that can have serious implications for policy makers.

Read the full article here.

Simon Hedlin

Cash for clinics: When economic incentives may backfire

In a piece for the Behavioral Science & Policy Association, I write about new research that shows that economic incentives for hospitals in some cases may backfire. An excerpt:

As an example, the researchers point to the Hospital Value-Based Purchasing Program of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The program makes Medicare payments to hospitals conditional on how well the institutions perform on quality measures, health outcomes, and patient experience. Manary and colleagues suspect that because this incentive-based system singles out winners and losers, the hospitals that do poorly by the metrics and thus receive less funding may end up performing even worse as their financial health deteriorates. So well-intentioned—and to some extent well-founded—as monetary rewards for good behavior may be, they could ultimately backfire if the context is unfitting.

Read the full text here.

Simon Hedlin

Lessons from Vietnam

It appears that several presidential candidates would like to put American boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria to destroy the Islamic State. Here are two relevant quotes about the Vietnam War to bear in mind:

The Vietnamese, had we bombed them to the stone age, would have gone back into the jungle, waited us out. They knew something that we also knew but didn’t acknowledge and that was that someday we would go home and they could come back and rebuild what we had destroyed.

– James Thomson, Jr., National Security Council staff member under Lyndon Johnson

I think I have made two mistakes in judgment. One was that I underestimated the tenacity of the North Vietnamese. And I think I overestimated the patience of the American people.

– Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, 1961-1969

Simon Hedlin

Amnesty misinterprets evidence on decriminalization of prostitution

Amnesty International appears eager to decriminalize buying sex. In its draft policy proposal, as a model country, it points to New Zealand, where prostitution was decriminalized in 2003, and argues, among other things:

A literature review prepared for the New Zealand Ministry of Justice found that sex workers were less willing prior to decriminalisation to disclose their occupation to health care workers or to carry condoms.

First of all, even though the draft is nicely presented with footnotes and references to exact page numbers, the cited literature review actually presents no such evidence (which is logical since it was written so shortly after prostitution was decriminalized that it is hard to see that any research on the effect of the law could possibly have been conducted by then).

Second, if one instead turns to the actual data that was collected by the studies that were commissioned by New Zealand’s government, it is clearly concluded that when comparing the situation before and after decriminalization, there “was no significant difference in accessing of a GP [a doctor], disclosure of occupation to the GP and services accessed for sexual health check-ups.”


Simon Hedlin