Assistant Professor of Law, Economics, and Data Science
ETH Zurich
IFW E47.1
ashe@ethz.ch

Curriculum Vitae

Google Scholar Page

Research Interests:

Law and Economics, Political Economy, Public Finance, Applied Micro, Machine Learning, Text Data


Published Papers

Sequential decision-making with group identity” (with Jessica Van Parys), Journal of Economic Psychology (forthcoming). Abstract

In sequential decision-making experiments, participants often conform to the decisions of others rather than reveal private information — resulting in less information produced and potentially lower payoffs for the group. This paper asks whether experimentally induced group identity affects players’ decisions to conform, even when payoffs are only a function of individual actions. As motivation for the experiment, we show that U.S. Supreme Court Justices in preliminary hearings are more likely to conform to their same-party predecessors when the share of predecessors from their party is high. Lab players, in turn, are more likely to conform to the decisions of in-group members when their share of in-group predecessors is high. We find that exposure to information from in-group members increases the probability of reverse information cascades (herding on the wrong choice), reducing average payoffs. Therefore, alternating decision-making across members of different groups may improve welfare in sequential decision-making contexts.

Mapping the geometry of law using document embeddings” (with Daniel L. Chen), in: Law as Data, Santa Fe Institute Press (forthcoming). Abstract

Recent work in natural language processing represents language objects (words and documents) as dense vectors that encode the relations between those objects. This paper explores the application of these methods to legal language, with the goal of understanding judicial reasoning and the relations between judges. In an application to federal appellate courts, we show that these vectors encode information that distinguishes courts, time, and legal topics. The vectors do not reveal spatial distinctions in terms of political party or law school attended, but they do highlight generational differences across judges. We conclude the paper by outlining a range of promising future applications of these methods.

What kind of judge is Brett Kavanaugh? A quantitative analysis” (with Daniel L. Chen), Cardozo Law Review (2018). Abstract

This article reports the results of a series of data analyses of how recent Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh compares to other potential Supreme Court nominees and current Supreme Court Justices in his judging style. The analyses reveal a number of ways in which Judge Kavanaugh differs systematically from his colleagues. First, Kavanaugh dissents and is dissented against along partisan lines. More than other Judges and Justices, Kavanaugh dissents at a higher rate during the lead-up to elections, suggesting that he feels personally invested in national politics. Far more often than his colleagues, he justifies his decisions with conservative doctrines, including politicized precedents that tend to be favored by Republican-appointed judges, the original Articles of the Constitution, and the language of economics and free markets. These findings demonstrate the usefulness of quantitative analysis in the evaluation of judicial nominees.

Judge, Jury, and EXEcute File: The brave new world of legal automation,” Social Market Foundation (2018).

Emerging tools for a ‘driverless’ legal system: Comment,” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (2018).

Elections and divisiveness: Theory and evidence” (with Massimo Morelli and Richard Van Weelden), Journal of Politics (2017). Abstract

This paper provides a theoretical and empirical analysis of how politicians allocate their time across issues. When voters are uncertain about an incumbent’s preferences,  there is a pervasive  incentive to “posture” by spending too much time on divisive issues (which are more informative about a politician’s preferences) at the expense of time spent on common-values issues (which provide greater benefit to voters).  Higher transparency over the politicians’ choices can exacerbate the distortions. These theoretical results motivate an empirical study of how Members of the U.S. Congress allocate time across issues in their floor speeches.  We find that U.S. Senators spend more time on divisive issues when they are up for election, consistent with electorally induced posturing. In addition, we find that U.S. House Members spend more time on divisive issues in response to higher news transparency.

New Policing, New Segregation: From Ferguson to New York” (with Jeffrey Fagan), Georgetown Law Journal (2017).Abstract

Modern policing emphasizes advanced statistical metrics, new forms of organizational accountability, and aggressive tactical enforcement of minor crimes as the core of its institutional design. Recent policing research has shown how this policing regime has been woven into the social, political and legal systems in urban areas, but there has been little attention to these policing regimes in smaller areas. In these places, where relationships between citizens, courts and police are more intimate and granular, and local boundaries are closely spaced with considerable flow of persons through spaces, the “new policing” has reached deeply into the everyday lives of predominantly non-white citizens through multiple contacts that lead to an array of legal financial obligations including a wide array of fines and fees. Failure to pay these fees often leads to criminal liability. We examine two faces of modern policing, comparing the Ferguson, Missouri and New York City. We analyze rich and detailed panel data from both places on police stops, citations, warrants, arrests, court dispositions, and penalties, to show the web of social control and legal burdens that these practices create. The data paint a detailed picture of racially discriminatory outcomes at all stages of the process that are common to these two very different social contexts. We link the evidence on the spatial concentration of the racial skew in these policing regimes to patterns of social and spatial segregation, and in turn, to the social, economic and health implications for mobility. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of the “new policing” for constitutional regulation and political reform.

Intrinsic motivation in public service: Theory and evidence from state supreme courts” (with Bentley MacLeod), Journal of Law and Economics (2015).Abstract

This paper provides a theoretical and empirical analysis of the intrinsic preferences of state appellate court judges. We construct a panel data set using published decisions from state supreme court cases merged with institutional and biographical information on all (1,636) state supreme court judges for the 50 states of the United States from 1947 to 1994. We estimate the effects of changes in judge employment conditions on a number of measures of judicial performance. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that judges are intrinsically motivated to provide high-quality decisions, and that at the margin they prefer quality over quantity. When judges face less time pressure, they write more well-researched opinions that are cited more often by later judges. When judges are up for election then performance falls, suggesting that election politics take time away from judging work – rather than providing an incentive for good performance. These effects are strongest when judges have more discretion to select their case portfolio, consistent with psychological theories that posit a negative effect of contingency on motivation.

On the behavioral economics of crime” (with Frans van Winden), Review of Law & Economics (2012).Abstract

This paper examines the implications of the brain sciences’ mechanistic model of human behavior for our understanding of crime. The standard rational-choice crime model is refined by a behavioral approach, which proposes a decision model comprising cognitive and emotional decision systems. According to the behavioral approach, a criminal is not irrational but rather ‘ecologically rational,’ outfitted with evolutionarily conserved decision modules adapted for survival in the human ancestral environment. Several important cognitive as well as emotional factors for criminal behavior are discussed and formalized, using tax evasion as a running example. The behavioral crime model leads to new perspectives on criminal policy-making.

Working Papers

“How do governments enact tax policy? Evidence from U.S. states”. Abstract

This paper contributes to recent work in political economy and public finance that focuses on how details of the tax code, rather than tax rates, are used to implement redistributive fiscal policies. I use tools from natural language processing to construct a high-dimensional representation of tax code changes from the text of 1.6 million statutes enacted by state legislatures since 1963. A data-driven approach is taken to recover the effective tax code – the set of legal phrases in tax law that have the largest impact on revenues, holding major tax rates constant. Exogenous variation in tax legislation from judicial districts is used to capture revenue impacts that are solely due to changes in the tax code language, with the resulting phrases providing a robust out-of-sample predictor of tax collections. I then test whether political parties differ in patterns of effective tax code changes when they control state government. Relative to Republicans, Democrats use revenue-increasing language for income taxes but use revenue-decreasing language for sales taxes – consistent with a more redistributive fiscal policy – despite making no changes on average to statutory tax rates. These results are consistent with the view that due to their relative salience, changing tax rates is politically more difficult than changing the tax code.

Elections as Incentive and Selection Device: The Case of State Supreme Courts (with W. Bentley MacLeod). Abstract

This paper exploits the variation in how U.S. state supreme court judges are appointed and retained to measure the effect of these changes upon performance using a panel of all judicial opinions written between 1947 and 1994. We find evidence of both incentive and selection effects due to electoral procedures. Election-year politics reduces the output of judges in non-partisan and partisan elections, but not in uncontested elections. Moving from non-partisan elections to uncontested elections causes an increase in work quality among incumbent judges, while moving from partisan to uncontested elections has no effect on performance. Judges selected by technocratic merit commissions produce higher-quality work than either partisan-elected judges or non-partisan-elected judges. These results are consistent with the view that technocratic merit commissions have better information about judge quality than voters, and that political bias can reduce the quality of officials selected.

Ideas Have Consequences: The Impact of Law and Economics on American Justice(with Daniel Chen and Suresh Naidu). Abstract

This paper provides a quantitative analysis of the effects of the law and economics movement on the U.S. judiciary. Using the universe of published opinions in U.S. Circuit Courts and 1 million District Court criminal sentencing decisions linked to judge identity, we estimate the effect of attendance in the controversial Manne economics training program, an intensive two-week course attended by almost half of federal judges. After attending economics training, participating judges use more economics language, render more conservative verdicts in economics cases, rule against regulatory agencies more often, and render longer criminal sentences. These results are robust to adjusting for a wide variety of covariates that predict the timing of attendance. Non-Manne judges randomly exposed to Manne peers on previous cases increase their use of economics language in subsequent opinions, suggesting economic ideas diffused throughout the judiciary.

Proportional Representation Increases Party Politics: Evidence from New Zealand Parliament using a Supervised Topic Model” (with Massimo Morelli and Moritz Osnabrügge). Abstract

This paper investigates how electoral systems influence political attention in parliamentary democracies. The empirical setting is the 1993 electoral reform in New Zealand, which replaced a first-past-the-post system with a mixed-member proportional representation system. To analyze how this reform changed the allocation of political attention, we use a new supervised topic model to learn the distribution of political attention in the text of 300,000 parliamentary speeches for the years 1987 through 2002. The main finding is that the reform increased the attention share devoted to party politics, which includes discussions of party competence or incompetence (rather than policy). Discussion of policy-oriented topics decreases. This finding highlights the perhaps under-appreciated cost of partisan conflict in proportional representation systems.

Civil Service Reform in U.S. States: Structural Causes and Impacts on Delegation” (with Massimo Morelli and Matia Vanonni). Abstract

This paper studies the causes and consequences of civil service reforms creating an independent bureaucracy — that is, moving from a spoils system (where the civil service is controlled by politicians) to a merit system (where bureaucrats are more independent). We first demonstrate theoretically that divided government is a key trigger of civil service reform: legislators have a stronger incentive to establish an independent bureaucracy when their interests diverge from the governor’s. Taking this idea to comprehensive civil service reforms in U.S. states in the second half of the 20th century, we find that states tended to introduce stronger merit systems when there was divided government. Next, we examine the impact of these reforms on legislation using new methods from computational linguistics. We find that after civil service reform, legislators start writing more detailed statutes that contain more legal provisions. This is consistent with an agency cost model where a more independent bureaucracy requires more specific instructions to avoid bureaucratic drift, rather than an expertise model where a more professionalized bureaucracy should be given more discretion.

Local public finance and discriminatory policing: Evidence from traffic stops in Missouri” (with Jeffrey Fagan and Allison Harris). Abstract

This paper provides evidence of racial variation in local governments’ traffic enforcement responses to budget stress using data from policing agencies in the state of Missouri for the years 2001 through 2014. Like previous studies, we find that local budget stress is associated with higher citation rates. In addition, we find that there is an increase in traffic-stop arrests. However, we find that these effects are concentrated among white (rather than black or Hispanic) drivers. This statistical difference is robust to the inclusion of a range of covariates for traffic stops and to the inclusion of local population features interacted with year. These results are consistent with a model where traffic police selectively target higher-income drivers to compensate for budget stress. Also consistent with this view, we find that the racial difference in citation and arrest rates is highest where the white-to-black income ratio is highest.

A research-based ranking of public policy schools” (with Miguel Urquiola). Abstract

This paper presents research-based rankings of public policy schools in the United States. In 2016 we collected the names of about 5,000 faculty members at 44 such schools. We use bibliographic databases to gather measures of the quality and quantity of these individuals’ publication output. These measures include the number of articles and books written, the quality of the journals the articles have appeared in, and the number of citations all have garnered. We aggregate these data to the school level to produce a set of rankings. The results differ significantly from existing rankings, and in addition display substantial across-field variation.
“Algorithms as prosecutors: Lowering rearrest rates without disparate impacts and identifying defendant characteristics ‘noisy’ to human decision-makers ” (with Daniel Amaranto, Daniel Chen, Lisa Ren, and Caroline Roper).

“The language of contract: Promises and power in union collective bargaining agreements” (with Bentley MacLeod and Suresh Naidu).

“Aging and retirement in a high-skill group: The case of state supreme court judges” (with Bentley MacLeod).

“Religious freedoms , church-state separation, and religiosity: Evidence from randomly assigned judges” (with Daniel Chen).

“Property taxes and local labor markets: Evidence from staggered property reassessments.”

“The making of international tax law: Empirical evidence from treaty text” (with Omri Marian).