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Why is the government so good?

Reading Bryan Caplan talk about how voters are irrational leads me to ask a question. Given the level of irrationality among voters, why aren't our economic policies worse? Since protectionism is so popular, why has the level of tarriffs been going down for over fifty years? If taxes on the rich are so popular, why have the top rates been in decline for most of the past 25 years?
I think one reason is that politicians know that if the economy goes down they will get blamed. They saw what happened to the first George Bush because of a recession and don't want that to happen to them. If the economy does poorly, they will receive no credit for having enacted popular proposals. So it is their best interest to seek out the best policies to keep the economy strong.
Secondly, politicians need economists to give them ideas. If a candidate has policy ideas that no reputable economist will sign on to, his opponent can use that to attack him. Also, politicians are too busy campaigning to think of ideas so they hire economists to do their thinking for them. As the profession of economics grows toward consensus, the politicians will follow them. The success of the free market economics is because the battle of ideas has been won. Once the battle of ideas is won, those ideas will slowly seap into platforms, and from there into policy. That is why the battle of ideas is so important even though most voters will be ignorant of those ideas. And why rationality has a chance against irrationality.


Why people oppose immigration

Most of what I have read about the immigration debate seems to focus on the economic implications of mass immigration to the United States. Maybe that is because it is the easy to quantify the arguments for or against immigration in economic terms or maybe it because most of the blogs I read are economic blogs. From my reading on this issue the pro-immigration people have the better argument. The tradeoff seems to be that some low income people are harmed by immigration while most of the rest of the country and the immigrants themselves are helped. Many people are genuinely interested in the fate of low skilled American workers, but for the most part the economic arguments against immigrations are superstructure.
One of the surprises (to some) that came about after the civil rights era is that even if you remove the laws that mandate segregation people will then voluntarily self-segregate. This is because people like being around people who are similar to themselves. One of the great attractions of living in small town America is that sense of similarity to ones neighbors. People feel that their norms of behavior are shared by those around them, and that feeling produces a peace of mind that whatever comes up they will be able to act appropriately. Constantly being around those who are different than us can produce feelings of normlessness. People feel as though they are playing a game where the rules are unclear. If people feel that the norms they grew up with are stifling they tend to move somewhere diverse, like a big city. This feeling of normlessness can be thrilling for short periods of time, but most tend not to like it over the long term. That is one of the reasons people have been moving away from cities and to the suburbs.
The sudden influx of immigrants to a community can replicate this feeling of normlessness. Studies have shown that people living in diverse communities feel less safe than those living in non-diverse communities even after adjusting for crime rates. Suddenly being confronted everyday by people, who look, talk and act differently makes people feel anxious even if the statistics do not show they have a reason to be. One of the differences in the most recent wave of immigration from previous waves is the extent that it has hit places that are not big cities. People are responding negatively to this wave of immigration not just because of largely mistaken economic concerns, but understandable psychological ones.


Still trying not to vote stupidly

The second issue I use to determine who to vote for is abortion. I feel that an unborn baby is a human life and as such should be protected. My reasoning comes from my conviction that human life is the most valuable thing in the world and if there is a question about it one should always err on the side of protecting life. I don't think an unborn baby is the same as a human, but it is definetly close enough to protect. I can see the arguement that a unborn baby in the first two months is not developed enough to warrant protection but am not persuaded. I think the likelihood that I am right about this position is 75%. If I am wrong hundreds of thousands of women will bear unwanted children, though most will probably grow to want them. Also millions of women will have to more careful in their birth control, and hundreds of women will die in botched illegal abortions. If I am right millions of babies' lives will be saved, and although the crime rate may go up, I think it would be worth it.
The next issue I use to decide on a candidate is economic growth. I want a candidate to whom growth is the number one priority economically. I believe that governments that have low taxes, a small number of clear and simple business regulations, and a strong belief in fair trade encourage growth. I think that economic growth improves life for everyone, especially the poor. It will lead to healthier lives, a cleaner environment and happier lives for ourselves and our descendants. I think that the likelihood that I am right about this is about 90%. I am not worried about income inequality or the prospect of the superrich taking all of the money and making everyone else poor. The reason I feel so confident in my opinion is that I like to read economists and, even if they worry about the side effects of growth alot more than I do they seem to agree for the most part about what causes growth. I think that the government's role in the economy is overblown in the US so even if I am wrong about what causes growth I think that the national economy can overcome most anything without a catastrophe. If I am right the lives of hundreds of millions of peoples' lives will be improved slightly at first, and then more and more as time passes.
The last issue that I use to decide on a candidate is gay marriage. I feel that if gay marriage is allowed it will change the definition of marriage in a fundamental way. If marriage becomes more about love and the feelings of those involved and less about obligation to the spouse and the raising of children people will enter and exit marriage more frequently and with less thought than now. Marriage will lose some of its specialness and become just another option. Children will suffer as more people will have children out of wedlock and divorce will become more common. Poor children will be hit especially hard, as they benefit most from two paychecks and the stable environment that traditional marriage provides. On the other hand, maybe the ship has already sailed and traditional marriage will continue its downward trend no matter what the government says. Perhaps gay marriage is just a symptom of the culture change surronding family issues and will do nothing but provide recognition to what has already happened. I think the likelihood of my being right about this is around 65%. If I am wrong tens of thousands of gays and polygamists will be inconvenienced and may feel slightly worse about themselves. If I am right millions of children will grow up in better environments and will lead happier more productive lives.
If mutliple candidates agree with me on the issues I base my vote on effective they have been in the past in getting their policies implented and how well I think they will be in communicating their policy preferences to the people and getting more people to subscribe to those policies.
On the whole the likelihood that my vote will influence the world for the better is 0%, but the likelihood that my policy preferences would lead to a better world is about 75%. That is much better than deciding my vote based on race or sex or the flip of a coin, but I wish it were higher.


Trying not to vote stupidly

The two main Democrat contenders for the presidency Barak Hussein Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have both attracted much of their support because of their identity. Most of Obama's support is because he is black. Much of Clinton's support is because she is a woman. If either is nominated I expect thousands of arm injuries at the Democrat convention from delegates patting themselves on the back over being enlightened enough to pick a woman or black man. To my way of thinking choosing a president because of the color of their skin or their sex is a pretty stupid way of picking someone for this important job. However it does have one major advantage over picking a candidate because of policy proposals and experience. If you pick a candidate based on who you think has the best policy, you could be wrong. If you want a candidate who will improve health care policy and you end up supporting the wrong candidate your choice has had the exact opposite effect as you intended. Instead of helping to fix health care, you have screwed it up even more. If you had picked a candidate based on race, there is no chance for you to find out later you actually voted for a white guy instead. No matter which issue your vote is based on, the other candidate will have a smart, well respected person who had studied the issue much more completely than you ever could supporting them. Both sides have experts much more knowledgeable than I that will say their candidate is the one. Is it possible for me as a layperson to actually choose the right side of an issue, so my choice isn't any stupider than picking by race or sex? Probably not, but my ego is big enough that I think I can and so have voted in every federal election since I turned eighteen. These are the issues that determine who I vote for, my reasons for picking these issues and my certainty about the issues.

I want a president who will keep fighting the war on terror until we win. I want someone who will keep trying tactics and generals until he finds one that works. The reason is that I think that the only way to make the world safer is to violently oppose those who would attack us. The terrorists think that we are a paper tiger. My reading of history says that people rush to join the winner's side and abandon the loser's. If we abandon the war in Iraq before it is won, we will have confirmed the terrorists idea of the US as a bully with a glass jaw. On the other hand my concern is that the war in Iraq is unwinnable, and like in poker, the moment you don't think you can win you should get out rather than throw good money after bad. Civil war in Iraq may be inevitable because it does not have a tradition of good government and is filled with people who would crawl over broken glass to spit at each other. On the whole I think the war in Iraq is winnable and must be won. I put the likelihood of my being right at 60%. Thus even though it is the top issue I use in evaluating candidates it is the one I am least opitmistic about being right. If I am wrong the price would be hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American casualties to delay the inevitable by a year or so. However, if I am right hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved by preventing an all out civil war in Iraq. Also dealing the terrorist a decisive defeat in Iraq would be huge victory in the war on terror and save trillion of dollars and tens of thousands of lives in the long run. Because of the stakes involved the war in Iraq is my number on issue in choosing a candidate.
This is already a long post so I will post on my other issues later today.


If the GOP is the party of small government, why isn't the government smaller

The past few years of GOP control of both branches of elected federal government have coincided with the growth of the federal government. This seems to falsify GOP claims to be the party of small government. However, this is not the case. The GOP hold on the government was very tenous with very small majorities in the house and senate and the president elected with a popular vote minority initially and relelected with a small majority. This is indicative of a voting populace split almost down the middle between the parties. The results of this split are growing government and growing deficit.
Neither party would like a deficit, but it results as a compromise between the parties. Both parties have a popular part of their agenda and an unpopular one. The GOP has low taxes as the popular part and small government as the unpopular part. The Democrat agenda has the opposite components with big government as the popular part and high taxes as the unpopular part. Both parties are able to pass the popular parts of the agenda, but are too weak to pass the unpopular parts. Thus we get bigger governnment but lower taxes. The deficits are the results even though neither party really wants them. The only way to break out of this equilibrium is for one party to gain a large enough majority of the voters to pass all of its agenda, or for smaller government or higher taxes to become more popular.


Will immigration lead to smaller government?

The increased diversity of the US has had many effects both positive and negative. From my perspective, the greatest positive effect is more ethnic food restaurants. However, the diversity may lead to an effect directly in opposition to what many marching in those rallies Tuesday may want. Support for income transfers is generally stronger if those receiving the transfers are like the voters. This is one explanation why support for wealth redistribution is higher in Europe which tends to be less diverse than the US (although they are getting more diverse recently). The surge in recent immigration from south america and mexico means that the face of poverty in America is changing. Although the idea of immigrants coming to America for the welfare payments seems to be largely a myth, myths can be very powerful things politically. I have heard several people who I consider to be solid Democrats complain about illegal immigrants getting benefits that should be reserved for Americans.
If the support for redistribution falls due to immigration, support for law and order may go up. A recent study claimed that people who live in diverse areas feel more unsafe than those who live in monocultural areas. If this is true it should translate into greater support for the Republicans who are seen to be the law and order party. If immigration undermines the Democrats call for more wealth redistribution and helps Republican calls for law and order, smaller government may be the result.


Is ending the drug war a free lunch?

We all know rationally that there is no such thing as a free lunch but politically everyone is still searching for one. Many Democrats seem to think that universal health care will be a free lunch. They plan to improve care, expand coverage, and reduce expenditures. They plan to do this without limiting choice and rationing coverage. If they ever get to implement their ideas failure is sure to be the result.
Likewise some Republicans seem to think that tax cuts are a free lunch. The government can raise more money by lowering taxes than by keeping taxes high. Thus you don't have to choose between low deficits and low taxes, you can have both. Now as the Laffer curve tells us this true when marginal rates are very high, but the rates where it is true have not been seen in America in decades. Thus the Bush tax cuts are responsible for about 1/3 to 1/2 of the deficits of the past few years. (Whether they were a good idea anyway is beyond the scope of this post)
The reason for not acknowledging the price of these policies is that politicians know that promises of a free lunch will get votes even if they cost the advocates intellectual credibility.
Libertarians seem to do much the same thing when talk about legalizing drugs. The benefits are well articulated, 1/3 less prisoners, more tax money available for other things, and less crime. However, the costs of legalization is that millions more Americans will try drugs and some percentage of them will get addicted. I would like to hear more on how much the cost will be. How many people are addiction prone? How hard is it to break drug addictions? Is the downward spiral of drug addiction inevitable or do only a small percentage of addicts bottom out? How addictive are certain drugs?
Being honest about costs give people more credibility when they talk about benefits. Since drug legalizers are not in a position to worry about elections yet, they need all the intellectual credibility they can get.


Parenting and Power

When I was a child parenting was about power. Parents had all the power. They decided when you went to bed, what you ate, where you could go, what you could watch on TV, etc. Their power seemed almost limitless. Read more »