The Editors

In this issue, we’re talking about mistakes. Big mistakes with tragic consequences for tens of millions of people. Small mistakes, the kind you might make every day (at least if you’re the sort of person who spends your days participating in forecasting tournaments). And if not quite every mistake in between, then what we hope is at least a representative sample. 

Ricki Heicklen walks us through what has to be the flashiest demonstration of human error in the past two years in her review of Michael Lewis’s Going Infinite. And in lieu of a forecast for this issue, Molly Hickman explains where would-be superforecasters (and a few of the pros) most often go wrong. 

We talked to railfan extraordinaire Alon Levy about the pile-up of mistakes that have made American public transit infrastructure the most expensive in the world, which countries can build cheaply, and why we need more and better bureaucrats. John Yasuda helps us understand how China’s experimental policy regime proved so successful at helping the country industrialize but seems incapable of providing effective regulations for a modern economy. 

You may suspect that your HVAC guy isn’t very good at his job. According to Jesse Smith, you’re probably right. After fifteen years in the business, he’s learned that the American HVAC workforce is frequently dishonest, unable to meet industry standards, and unprepared for the new technologies that could bring us safer, cleaner air. 

Some mistakes turn out for the best — at least when the people making them are autocrats. Contrary to political science consensus, Daniel Treisman finds democratization is neither inevitable nor deliberate. More often than not, it happens when dictators mess up. 

What’s the best way to learn from our mistakes? We could do worse than to copy the National Transportation Safety Board. Kyra Dempsey dives into the history of commercial aviation to show us how regulators arrived at a more forgiving approach to human error — and how it keeps all of us safe. 

Justin Sandefur takes a hard look at why some economists initially dismissed PEPFAR — a program that has since saved millions of lives. If we want more huge successes in global health, we'll need to study what they got wrong. 

If you thought finding an apartment in San Francisco or New York was bad, it will seem simple compared to apartment-hunting in Mumbai — a city of 17 million, half of whom live in slums. Saarthak Gupta shows how this overcrowding isn’t an inevitable result of developing-world poverty: it’s the consequence of decades of ruinous land-use policies across the subcontinent. 

Alec Stapp and Brian Potter take us back to the 1970s for a look at the birth of modern environmental legislation. Some of those laws gave us clean air and clean water, fixed the ozone layer, and all but eliminated lead contamination. Others left us with a legacy of obstruction. 

Finally, we open our coverage of the 2024 election with Jeremiah Johnson’s essay on why prediction markets falter when it comes to electoral politics. If you want to make some free money, read this piece (not financial advice). 

Not a mistake: reading this issue of Asterisk. (That said, we’re sure we’ve made plenty.) As always, we hope you enjoy. 


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