Essays on the Behavioral Responses to Institutional Design
Caspi, Aviv Michael
This dissertation studies the ways agents respond to institutional design decisions in three contexts. Questions of institutional design are fundamental to traditional economics but also a natural application for behavioral methods. These three essays straddle this line by bringing data-driven approaches to document how individual behavior change in response to institutional constraints, incentives, and design features. In Chapter 1, I study the effects of overburdening public defenders (PDs). Most U.S. criminal defendants are represented by government-employed PDs, who consistently face higher caseloads than recommended by professional guidelines. However, systematic evidence of the impacts of excessive workloads on defendants is lacking. I use novel case-level data from three U.S. counties and an instrumental variable approach to study the causal impacts of high caseloads on PD time allocations and defendant outcomes. I exploit variation in case assignment timing, which can lead to unexpected increases in PD workloads, to instrument for workloads and find that an increase in workload does not change the probability of an acquittal/dismissal but lengthens an average sentence, conditional on conviction, significantly. Depending on the county, shifting a given PD from the 25th to the 75th percentile of workload lengthens a sentence by 82–101%. I observe PDs shifting time away from misdemeanors and low-severity felonies when caseloads increase to maintain the time they spend on high-severity felonies. I also find suggestive evidence that outcomes are worse for minority, particularly Hispanic, defendants. Taken together, my findings suggest PD overwork negatively affects the fairness of the legal system across multiple dimensions, and jurisdictions that invest in reducing PD caseloads can expect to more than offset those costs in reduced spending on incarcerations. According to my estimates, every dollar spent hiring an additional PD in Berrien County, Michigan would save $5.56 in short-term incarceration costs. In Chapter 2, I (joint with Edward H. Stiglitz) evaluate how introducing more transparency to the U.S. Senate changed Senator discourse and the quality of debate. Reforms commonly call aim to increase the transparency of collective decision-making, lobbying for instance for the Supreme Court to televise proceedings. We examine reasoned discourse in the U.S. Senate and study how increasing transparency through the introduction of C-SPAN changed legislative discourse. We find that the introduction of C-SPAN encouraged member discourse to herd with co-partisans and to anti-herd with cross-partisans; it also appears to have led to the restructuring of Senate time to facilitate performative speech. Suggesting the information problems and career incentives at play, these herding and anti-herding effects seem strongest for those closest to an election and for those with less sophisticated constituencies. In Chapter 3, I document the coordination failures from differential punctuality in the remote workplace. Videoconferencing has recently become ubiquitous due to the COVID-19 pandemic but has been growing in importance for decades. Despite this growth, we have limited understanding of the costs associated with adopting this technology. I leverage a novel dataset tracking 1.7 million individuals attending 1.2 million videoconference meetings over 6 months to evaluate individual punctuality in the remote workplace. I find that participants spend a significant amount of time waiting for others to arrive. An average meeting causes 6 minutes of per participant waiting time and even small meetings (<6 participants) waste 14 minutes of total participant time. I investigate the predictors of these coordination failures and find that punctuality is best (and waiting time is minimized) for smaller, shorter meetings scheduled on the hour and half hour. I find some evidence for the development of norms that lead to relatively lower coordination failures than the distributions of arrival times might suggest. First-time users are more likely to join meetings on time, but converge to a pattern of later arrivals. I discuss the implications of these findings to a time of many new users of this technology. Each of these chapters focuses on a different element of institutional design. Policymakers must routinely make decisions on the constraints they set for decision-makers, the way policies affect career concern incentives, and mundane design decisions that can have unexpectedly large effects. I hope that these essays help inform those policy decisions in their relevant contexts and to continue to study the ways individual behaviors interact with institutional design questions in the future.
law and economics; public defense; punctuality; transparency; videoconferencing; workloads
O'Donoghue, Ted; Rees-Jones, Alexander Robert
Ph. D., Economics
Doctor of Philosophy
dissertation or thesis