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The Future of Work

In Sunday's Washington Post, first-rate economic historian Gregory Clark lays out his dystopian case for greater redistribution in the future. Basically, unskilled labor will become worthless with increasing automation and robotic technology:

In more recent decades, when average U.S. incomes roughly doubled, there has been little gain in the real earnings of the unskilled. And, more darkly, computer advances suggest these redoubts of human skill will sooner or later fall to machines. We may have already reached the historical peak in the earning power of low-skilled workers, and may look back on the mid-20th century as the great era of the common man.

I recently carried out a complicated phone transaction with United Airlines but never once spoke to a human; my mechanical interlocutor seemed no less capable than the Indian call-center operatives it replaced. Outsourcing to India and China may be only a brief historical interlude before the great outsourcing yet to come -- to machines. And as machines expand their domain, basic wages could easily fall so low that families cannot support themselves without public assistance.

I think Will Wilkinson does an admirable job here of explaining why this outlook is excessively pessimistic. But what I'd like to address is the question of what will these people be doing, if not manufacturing.

Now, I don't think it's incumbent on technological optimists such as myself to answer this. Two hundred plus years of the Industrial Revolution have taught us that labor market adjustments will eventually take place. But I'd like to take a stab at it anyway: Where will the new jobs come from? (Note: I'm leaving aside scenarios such as true, human-or-greater level AI. I'm talking about "mundane" technological progress here.)

Myself, I think it's pretty clear, actually. The growth sector of the future is in personal service. As automation reduces the cost of physical goods, the relative value of things like massages or even basic housecleaning rises. In the robot-dominated future, no capitalist is going to want to waste his scarce time cleaning or cooking. He'll outsource that, and it's difficult to imagine robots taking over cooking for a long time.

Is that a society we want? Many people of an egalitarian outlook seem to recoil at the notion of servants. Myself, I don't find it particularly bothersome; I do not find plowing through exams as a grader much more dignified than being a chauffeur would be. Nevertheless, it's not about what I would want, it's about what society will look like. And I think the future is servants.

Does anyone else want to take a stab at it? When robots handle manufacturing, what will the low-skilled do?


National Health Care and Innovation

Megan McArdle has a very long, very good post about why she opposes national health care. In a nutshell, she thinks it would have a deleterious effect on innovation. I agree with her, but here's a simpler "proof" of why I think she's correct: How many times does Obama (or any other supporter for that matter) mention improvements in innovation as a motivation for health care reform?

Politicians, generally speaking, will promise that any particular program will deliver a cornucopia of riches if there is any remotely plausible rationale. So if they fail to mention a potential benefit, it's either because (1) there's no good argument for it, or (2) they think the public doesn't care.

(2) strikes me as possible, but pretty unlikely. Although a depressing number of comments on McArdle's post take an extraordinarily blase attitude towards the importance of new medicine, I still think most Americans see the potential benefits of innovation. Think back to the embryonic stem cell debates. How many times did politicians trump them as the cure for virtually any disease you can think of? At least in that context, the public seemed to care a great deal about curing Parkinson's.

So I think we're left with (1). I think people can, and do, make reasonable arguments about why national health care would be cost saving, and more short-run efficient (I believe those arguments are wrong, but not self-evidently stupid). But the arguments that it wouldn't harm innovation mostly amount to some handwaving about the NIH and the evils of pharma advertising.

Don't believe me? As of right now, there are 165 largely hostile comments on McArdle's post. I did a word search for "innovation", after having trudged through the entire thread. Only one pro-nationalized care poster used the word trying to defend national health care, and it was basically "what about the NIH"? That is not an argument.

If the left thought national health care was pro-innovation, for sure you'd be hearing about it, but you're not. What does that tell you?


Against the Horse Race

In the run-up to the 2008 election, virtually all of my friends became devotees of Nate Silver's 538.com analysis. A number of people thought the popularity of this site said something positive about American civic engagement, but I was aghast, and not just because I find Silver's tone off-putting and social science simplistic (although I do). It seemed to me to perfectly encapsulate the us-them, tribal nature of politics to be worrying about war gaming the Electoral College.

I bring this up nine months after the fact because over at Cato Unbound, Clay Shirky (in the midst of an argument for newspaper subsidies that I disagree with, but that's a story for another day), made this statement:

I am an avid New York Times reader, and love the work of both Gretchen Morgenson, a financial reporter, and Eric Asimov, a restaurant reviewer. I am also a politics junkie, and was glued to Nate Silver’s 538.com, which tracked electoral votes in the 2008 presidential election. Subsidizing newspapers would help Asimov but not Silver, a perverse outcome if the goal is civic value. The ideal would instead be a subsidy that aids Morgenson and Silver but not Asimov, not because his work isn’t terrific, but because the behavior of the nations’ banks and the outcome of its elections are critical public issues, but the quality of that new restaurant in the East Village isn’t.

Am I the only one who finds the popularity of horse-race style election coverage negative and bad for society, certainly not something to be subsidized?

To be sure, I don't care if some people find political races thrilling, in the same way I find the ACC standings interesting. But I wish people wouldn't confuse caring about issues with caring about elections.

My second post ever here was in praise of not caring about politics. I still believe that if we took 90% of our time spent thinking about and discussing politics and applied it productively in our own lives, the world would be a better place. And if we took 90% of our politics time and spent it thinking about and debating issues rather than looking at logit regressions to predict Lancaster County's Democratic party vote share, that would be a plus too.


Anti-democratic rant from the bottom of my drawer

Cleaning my desktop today I stumbled upon a small article I wrote back when Thiel made his infamous comment on women's suffrage. I have unfortunately little time to edit it or finish it, but I don't want to let it sink in abandon either, so here's the raw footage.

Ah come on !

Following Thiel's comment on women's suffrage, there's been a lot of talk about democracy. I keep trying to write a post about that and always end up thinking. Bah, I should just tell people to read "Democracy, the God that failed". So I'll start with that. Read it. I'm not a fan of Hoppe cultural conservatism, but he makes compelling argument against democracy. Now let me explain a few personal qualms I have with democracy.

Democracy is like the movie Titanic or Obama. I dislike democracy, but it's really people's opinion surrounding it that makes it fucking hatable. I have been an anarcho-capitalist and a libertarian for only a few years, but as long as I can remember, democracy and the high esteem it is held into have always struck me as silly.

First of all, people hold democracy as a political ideal. If there is a political ideal, it should be defined parsimoniously, it should be an extremum for some form of criterion. The idea to let-all-people-but-maybe-not-children-queue-every-two-to-ten-years-no-more-or-it's not-democracy-anymore-to-put-in-a-secret-ballot-in-a-box-so-that-the-ballot-be-counted-and-some-aggregate-be-formed-deciding-who-will-make-the-laws-according-to-a-set-of-rules-called-constitution-that-can't-be-bent-but-can is *NOT* parsimonious. There is no way this is a political or moral ideal, there is no way this is "the opposite of tyranny" (which is parsimoniously defined). Democracy as it is most often defined occupies a tiny region in the space of political systems. It's incredibly unlikely that broad ideal principles command such a precise organization system.

There is a conservative argument for democracy. If somehow society has organically evolved and settled with democratic institutions, then this tiny region of political system is optimal for some criterion. This is a valid criticism, and I understand why a conservative would be attached to democracy and democratic institutions. However, such a reason would not be idealistic. It wouldn't claim there's something grand about democracy, only that we should exercise caution in changing these institutions.

Anyone who claims democracy as an ideal is a moron.

A great point Hoppe raises about democracy: who are the democratic thinkers? The Athenian democracy had nothing to do with the democracy as broadly understood, Rousseau envisioned something radically different at a very small scale, based on consensus more than majority rule. Montesquieu had in mind something closer to a random selection of representatives. There is simply no serious thinker behind democracy.

One of the reason democracy enjoys such popularity is that is has been adopted by the left as a way to separate itself from the atrocities of communism. Communism was simply not democratic enough. While it is true that free elections could have quickly ousted Stalin, it's obvious that the problem with communism is much deeper than that. Instead of being opposed to free market capitalism, communism was opposed to democracy by the likes of Fukuyama.


Intertemporal redistribution, a logical conclusion

This idea came to me while watching HBO's "Rome:" Despite being a pinnacle of ancient civilization, Rome was poor. The very few aristocratic families scraped out an existence comparable to a middle-class American (They had the bonus of having slaves but also lacked medical technology that we take for granted.) The vast majority, from the mercantile class downward, are arguably materially poorer than inhabitants of third-world countries today. If Rome existed today, without technology diffusion it would be perhaps one of the worst-off countries in the world. Slave labor is nice but it cannot get you past primitive technology and (at this point) poor governance.

What this implies is that if you're really concerned about income inequality, you should be just as concerned about temporal inequality as with inequalities in a static time frame, such as in the present-day USA. (This is forgetting about concerns about redistributing from the rich US to the global poor, which no serious politician places as a high priority). Redistribution to those poor blokes in the past is, of course, impossible. But - again, if you value equality - what we should really be worried about is improving our own lot at the expense of those lucky bastards who live in the future, where technological progress makes material goods increasingly cheap, and who will probably look at our living conditions as backward savagery.

What policies achieve this? Higher consumption, and lower investment. Spending more money today will make us better-off today. The downside is that we don't get the payoff of investment in the future - but they almost certainly won't "need" it, what with their Playstation 10,000s and flying cars. Yes, at some level, underinvestment will decrease the total welfare of humanity, but this is a tradeoff that current static-time-frame redistributionists are already willing to make to some extent. (Again, the people who lose from this policy are those well-off far-future people.)

You could argue that we already do this tradeoff to some extent, saving below the welfare-optimal amount. But I think that we naturally care about our children and descendants, more so than we care about our poor neighbors, and more so than would be welfare optimizing. Given this powerful emotion I think it's safe to say that we aren't consuming anywhere near what intertemporal redistribution would imply.

So this is basically the logical conslusion of the idea that we should forcibly redistribute from the rich to the poor, for the greatest income inequalities are between those separated by time, not space. One bonus from it is that next time you hear criticism of Americans spending too much and saving too little, you can smile and say that we're not being selfish; we're just ensuring equality!

Another consequence of this belief, by the way, is that we shouldn't do that much about global warming. People in the future will be better-off and will be better able to deal with the problems. This is in contrast to those climate-change activists today, who use literature like the Stern Report which have a positive discount rate: ie they value future welfare more highly than present-day welfare. Temporal redistribution means that we should have a highly negative discount rate.


Procyclical State Policy

James Surowiecki blames federalism and the state governments for holding back recovery:

Fiscal policy at the national level is countercyclical: as the economy shrinks, government expands. At the state level, though, the opposite is happening. Nearly every state government is required to balance its budget. When times are bad, jobs vanish, sales plummet, investment declines, and tax revenues fall precipitously—in New York, for instance, state revenues in April and May were down thirty-six per cent from a year earlier. So states have to raise taxes or cut spending, or both, and that’s precisely what they’re doing.

But is it really the case that federalism dooms states to running pro-cylical fiscal policy? Consider this seemingly unrelated story from Chile from a few months ago:

Thousands of government workers marched on downtown Santiago last November, burning an effigy of Chilean Finance Minister Andres Velasco and calling him “disgusting” as a strike for higher wages paralyzed public services.

Five months later, polls show that Velasco is President Michelle Bachelet’s most popular minister. During a three-year copper boom he and central bank President Jose De Gregorio set aside $48.6 billion, more than 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, that he is now using for tax cuts, subsidies and cash handouts to poor families.

The Chilean peso has risen almost 10 percent against the dollar this year to become the best-performing currency among emerging markets. The country’s economy is expected to grow 0.1 percent in 2009, as the region contracts 1.5 percent

There is no reason California could not have done the same thing. The growth of Silicon Valley has been a tremendous windfall for California. Revenue for the state government soared over the past decade. It, and more, was all spent. California could be cutting taxes and boosting spending simultaneously if they hadn't squandered their money on reckless spending.

So why the difference? It isn't federalism, but rather leadership. Chile had a finance minister with guts and intelligence (Harvard professor in economics). California had dysfunction and ill-designed referenda. The blame for the current sorry state of state finances lies not in federalism.


The Age of Diminished Expectations

Megan McArdle laments the loss of imagination in the United States, reflecting on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's walk:

During the incomprehensibly lengthy interval between you and adulthood, man would surely prepare itself to go to Mars and beyond, and you were going to be among the pioneers.

Four years before I was born, man walked on the moon for the first time, the most magnificent single feat our little tribe of East African Plains Apes has ever managed. Now we don't even do that. What happened to the dream? Government mismanagement, yes, but something more than that, too, some failure of imagination and will.

I'm in complete agreement, and I don't think the blame for this state affairs lies with government interference. Although I don't doubt that space travel would be in a more advanced state with a freer market, there seems to have been a deeper, psychological shift in the nation's psyche. We just don't want to build big anymore.

A few weeks ago while researching something else, I ran across one of the odder transportation ideas I've ever heard of:

A vactrain is a proposed, as-yet-unbuilt proposal for future high-speed railroad transportation. This would entail building maglev lines through evacuated (air-less) tunnels. Though the technology is currently being investigated for development of regional networks, advocates have suggested establishing vactrains for transcontinental routes to form a global subway network. The lack of air resistance could permit vactrains to move at extremely high speeds, up to 6000-8000 km/h

And these ideas were not coming random kooks writing in their parents' basement. The vacuum tunnel high speed train proposal was published by RAND, one of the most respected research institutes of the time (and today). Serious proposals about space colonization were being published by NASA in the 70s.

I'm not saying these particular projects made any sense. Rather, there's something sad about a society that doesn't even dare dream of wild, even stupid things, preferring a sedate existence. But is it true that we have lost all ability to think big? I don't think so. Projects like the sequencing the human genome are huge undertakings too, to say nothing of, say, Aubrey De Grey's SENS proposal. And yet these manage to capture at least some of the public's attention.

It seems more to me that we've lost the interest in building things, even if our imaginations still run wild in other areas. And if that's the case, why has this happened? And does anyone else see this is as a bad thing?


Obrigado gozaimasu

The popular idea that "arigato" derives from "obrigado" has been repeatedly debunked. However, every debunking I have seen is unsatisfactory. It is pointed out that the Japanese word from which "arigato" is derived long predates the Portuguese arrival in Japan. And that's it. But that's clearly unsatisfactory. A satisfactory debunking would claim, and demonstrate, that the word itself, in that specific use, predated the Portuguese arrival. Without this, it remains possible that the following happened:

1) "arigatai" meaning "difficult" long predated the Portuguese arrival, but the use of "arigato" to mean "thank you" did not predate the Portuguese arrival.

2) Observation of the Portuguese saying "obrigado" to mean "thank you" caused the Japanese to say "arigato" to mean "thank you".

I do not have specific examples, but I do believe I have seen genuine examples of this sort of thing happening with other words in other languages - that is, that one language has indeed affected another language by altering the second language's use of its own native words.

Nothing I have read anywhere specifically excludes this possibility. Talk is always about the word "arigatai" meaning "difficult" predating the Portuguese. In my experience (and I have looked into this multiple times over the years) no one ever offers any samples of Japanese writing "arigato" to mean "thank you", or even claims that they did so before the Portuguese arrived.

So, no one seems to have ever debunked this possibility. If this is what happening, then it is simply overstating the case to claim that:

"Superficial appearances notwithstanding, there is absolutely no linguistic relationship to the Portuguese word obrigado of the same meaning."

If the Portuguese use of "obrigado" shaped the Japanese use of "arigato" then that is a linguistic relationship.

I would be happy if either:

1) Someone finally specifically showed that "arigato" was used to mean "thank you" before the Portuguese arrived, or

2) People stopped overstating the case against the relationship between "obrigado" and "arigato".


Three meanings of "empathy"

This is a comment on Brandon Berg's recent entry. Empathy is:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner ; also : the capacity for this

This is a fundamental component of human cognition (and one might even say perception). For example both the ability to imitate and the contagiousness of emotion are obviously, observably present in small infants. Implying that someone does not have it or does not use it is an insult on the order of calling a person blind or retarded. People do, of course, call each other blind and retarded when they disagree. People, then, are in the habit of claiming, falsely, that the people they disagree with are missing fundamental components of human perception or cognition.

To accuse another person of blindness, stupidity, or a lack of empathy is an expression of contempt. It is almost always false; if someone is actually blind, literally sightless, we don't nastily accuse them of it. If a person is actually stupid, we are careful to avoid rubbing it in. If a person actually lacks empathy, which is surely possible (Oliver Sacks writes about similar people), then they are suffering from a neurological deficit.

The only reason we are talking about empathy is that Obama used the word. But we know that Obama has contempt for his opponents. He has used expressions of contempt throughout his time in office, thinly disguised. It is one of his favorite things to do.

Obama used both "compassion" and "empathy". Similar points could be raised about compassion. This is one of the problems that I have with "compassionate conservatism". It implies the lie that conservatism, plain conservatism, is uncaring. This is a lie that liberals tell about conservatives. It is also a lie that anti-capitalists tell about supporters of capitalism, and liberals tell the same lie about conservatives for the same reason: because conservatives support the free market and oppose forced redistribution (this is a matter of degree: they do it to a greater degree than do liberals). "Compassion" is code for "liberalism" - i.e., economic interventionism and tax and spend redistribution.

Meanwhile recall the ideal that justice is blind, and that a justice must be dispassionate. What can this mean? It doesn't actually mean all the things that it might mean. It doesn't mean that the judge has to literally be blind or literally uncaring. It means something specific. It is if you like code for something specific (maybe not exactly code in the sense that the meaning is buried deep - but code in the sense that it is a very specific meaning and should not be understood in just any old way). It is code for impartiality. So is the requirement that justices be dispassionate. So it is not a great stretch to read a demand for empathy and compassion as a demand for partiality.

So, take your pick. Maybe Obama is expressing contempt, maybe he's repeating the commonplace liberal lie about conservatism (which many pseudoconservatives, such as the Bushes, ultimately bought into, possibly leading to the current state of Washington conservatism from which free market advocacy has been surgically removed), maybe he's demanding judicial favoritism.

Personally, I think it's all three.


Why Bioconservatives will Lose

Here's an excerpt from an article in the Wall Street Journal three days ago:

A study published Wednesday found that rapamycin, a drug used in organ transplants, increased the life span of mice by 9% to 14%, the first definitive case in which a chemical has been shown to extend the life span of normal mammals.
[. . .]
Mice given rapamycin -- starting when they were 600 days old, or roughly the equivalent of 60 human years -- lived longer on average than mice who didn't get the drug. Their "maximal life span" -- meaning the age at which 10% of the mice were still alive -- increased to 1,245 days for females, compared with 1,094 days for those not fed the drug, or a 14% increase. For males, the maximal life span was 1,179 days, a 9% increase over the 1,078 days for those not fed the drug.

"This is really extreme," said David Harrison, who led the group studying the drug at Maine's Jackson Laboratory, in Bar Harbor. "No other intervention that I know of has been effective starting so late in life."

And this is a sponsored link that showed up in my gmail browser a few minutes ago:

Rapamycin - www.selleckchem.com - mTOR inhibitor,immunosuppressive 100mg $70; 500mg $275-- Bulk Also

Now, I know nothing about that website, could be straight scam artists for all I know. But what's notable to me is that within days of a publication of a story suggesting that the drug could be life extending, there's already an (illegal) market developing in it. Imagine something safer, and more effective. How quickly would people get their hands on it?

There are those out there who oppose research into extending human longevity. Good luck with stopping the spread of that technology, because it'll get out. Personally, I'd rather it be developed in the United States rather than in China or Singapore, but it doesn't much matter. Even the ultra-risk averse FDA won't stop an anti-aging hospital seastead, or the discreet delivery of pharmaceuticals from overseas when the demand is strong enough. And it will be.


Miminum wage hikes and the unseen

I left a monster comment over at Econlog and, rather than hiding it in shame, here I am displaying it for all to see. My behavior reminds me of the time when I wanted to drag a parent to the toilet to show off my tremendous poop. I believe the parent wisely declined and took my word for it but my memory is unclear.

I am responding to someone who argues (perhaps for good reason; I was not able to find empirical evidence either confirming or refuting his claim) that the empirical evidence is in and the effect of the minimum wage hike is net good (the increase in bottom wage outweighs the loss in employment). Here is my tremendous (in word count) reply:

Tom - it may be that economists (and libertarians) sometimes ask the argument to carry more weight than it really can. The basic argument is simply the point that there's a trade-off: if you raise the minimum wage, theory predicts that while the wage of some will be lifted, there will also be a countervailing tendency to increase unemployment. But this point (a) does not supply you with actual numbers (those, after all, depend on things which need to be empirically determined such as people's actual preferences, elasticity etc.), and (b) does not prove that the one effect (the increase in unemployment) "outbalances" the other effect (the rise in wages). Whether one outbalances the other is a judgment, not merely a prediction. Even if we could predict to the last penny what happens, in the end the assessment of which effect was the more important would be a judgment. You can, of course, try to mechanize the judgment by applying certain efficiency criteria, but the decision to treat the outcome of that calculation as the one to go by is itself a judgment.

However on the whole I am inclined to defend the argument against the minimum wage as far as it really does go.

However, I will say that those who support it *have* to be outside mainstream economic reasoning because mainstream economic reasoning doesn't match the actual experience of minimum wage laws (that the job loss is minimal or non-measurable).

That doesn't tell me very much because causality is very hard to measure in something like an economy. You can't do controlled experiments etc. So your claim that the job loss is non-measurable does not tell me that it is minimal.

Feel free to present me with some paper or somebody mentioning work that does the very, very hard work of trying to figure out the causality. But we remain ignorant of causality even in cases where the whole country hangs in the balance, for example the causes and therefore the cure of the current recession. I'm seeing a lot of strong opinions but I'm seeing a lot of conflicting opinions and nothing is really coming out of this as genuine knowledge. The wildly false prediction about the rise in unemployment and the apparently wildly false prediction about the effect of the stimulus do nothing to boost my confidence in our empirical tools for unraveling the causal factors in the economy. It's on point that one could argue that the stimulus may have indeed had a good effect because unemployment might have been even higher otherwise. That simply underlines the difficulty of empirically determining what the causality is.

Generally speaking, I predict that people will reliably make the error that Bastiat and Hazlitt both pointed out: people tend to see only part of the picture, in this case the easily visible boost that a minimum wage hike will have on those who are employed at minimum wage both before and after. This is the problem of the seen versus the unseen. See either Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson or Bastiat's What is Seen and What is Unseen. Since this is a reliable bias (in favor of the seen), I am not at all surprised that the widespread experience of wage control will be strongly biased in favor of noticing the benefit while missing the cost. Theory is useful in making us keenly aware of the potential for a perverse side-effect. And a moment's thought should make us realize that this perverse side-effect is by its very nature hard to see. It is hard to see what would have been. Causality needs counterfactuals. It is hard to see individuals who would have been hired but who are not now hired. It is hard to see individuals who have given up trying to find a job specifically because of the wage hike. We try to see these things by gathering enough data that we can infer, from the numbers, what must have happened in countless individual cases, but it is hard to disentangle these things even with lots of numbers at our disposal. For instance I recall reading that the unemployment statistic compares those getting to those seeking a job, but such a statistic by its very design happens to miss those who have stopped looking out of despair at ever finding a job - those who have given up. Those too are harmed but they are not counted in a figure that excludes them by design. (Wikipedia says: "Unemployment occurs when a person is available to work and seeking work but currently without work.")

Look, all I am saying is that minimum wage arguments are a classical case of economists with physics envy. The theory is nice and beautiful, and those messy humans are fouling it up with their non-conforming behaviour.

Some people may be using the arguments that way, but there's another way to use them, and that is to overcome the above-mentioned bias in favor of the seen over the unseen. It is to let people understand precisely how a wage hike (and price controls generally) could have a perverse incentive. People's knee-jerk, un-tutored intuition completely misses the perverse effects on supply and demand of price controls. Okay, so maybe it's theory, but people come at the world already armed with a folk theory that just simply ignores effects on supply and demand. Thus, people don't come equipped with the mental tools to realize how it is that (to shift to another common example) when you tax one party of the transaction, this changes his supply curve which, in effect, causes both parties to the transaction to share the cost of the tax, and that the proportion shared by each depends on their supply and demand curves. Okay, granted, this is "merely" theory, but it's superior to the folk "theory of the stupid" which simply takes product availability for granted. "Huh, government introduced price controls on bread and gas and now the shelves are bare and there are these long lines at the gas pump, gee, who could have predicted that", or even worse, "the suppliers are evil, just look at how they're maliciously reacting to the new laws by deliberately refusing to sell products with a price ceiling, these are wreckers, let's string them up."

This means that they end up defending what much of the populace knows is 'wrong', where wrong can encompass a great deal from the simple facts to the failure to take into account human factors such as fear, status games, disgust, etc.

Much of the population "knows" it is wrong often because much of the population suffers from biases such as the tendency to be completely oblivious to that which is unseen, allowing the populace to fall for such things as the broken window fallacy.

Sorry for going off topic, but I find this tendency in economics quite distressing as it causes the general populace to devalue economics far more than they should. After all, if it's so obviously wrong about what they can see, why should they think it is right about what they can't?

I seriously question the judgment of any individual who thinks it is trivial to see such things as the full effects of a minimum wage hike. A person might go around, see people working at a new higher minimum wage, and conclude, "wow, it worked". He is not equipped to measure the less easily seen effects.


Think tanks and activist organizations are complementary

From an email I received from an FSP participant:

David Boaz just spoke at Dartmouth and had this response to a question about the FSP:

"My own attitude towards the Free State Project is that the federal government should move to New Hampshire and leave the rest of us free,” Boaz joked."

He just blew an easy opportunity to say something nice about a fellow libertarian organization.

(Boaz is the Executive Vice-President of Cato).

This attitude is silly. Yes, national reform would be way better. It would also be way better if I shat gold bricks instead of poop and the Miss America Pageant included a category on sexual prowess with me as the judge. The FSP's goal may be far more modest, but at least their goal is not a fantasy and their methods have at least some chance of working.

Policy think-tanks have a valuable role in helping libertarians signal affiliation, showing how flawed the current system is, and generally building culture and momentum. But that diffuse culture and momentum have to be eventually concentrated so that our small movement can have real impact. Projects like the FSP and seasteading are examples of concentrated efforts.

I'm glad that Cato helped promote seasteading, and I wish they would work with and promote the FSP. The apparent attitude that the FSP is a quaint provincial group makes no sense given the strategic landscape for libertarianism. Only such groups have a chance at radically increasing liberty, and that is (or should be) Cato's ultimate goal.


Secession Week Blogging Begins!


"Randy" likes Distributed Republic

Though we don't do scheduled TV, my family has been a fan of "My Name is Earl" for the last several years. We watch the episodes at the Official NBC Show Site.

The show is about a bunch of redneck scofflaws. The main character, Earl, is on a mission to right all the wrongs of his past. Ethan Suplee plays "Randy", his little brother sidekick. Randy gets to deliver great lines--after a guest character returns from a "cavity search" at a government building security checkpoint, he asks, "Did they find any? Or have you been brushing real good?"

I ran across Ethan Suplee's blog a while ago and found out he was a fan of Thomas Jefferson, Gerald Celente, and Ron Paul. I left a comment on his site pointing him at Stefan Molyneux's great "Matrix" video. Ethan not only liked that, but also said he liked the link to Distributed Republic that was attached to my name.

Now, if we could just get him to introduce us to Nadine Velazquez from the show! Here she is in character as the illegal immigrant Catalina...


Cap and Trade

The destruction continues. I'm too bleak to write anything, so instead I'll listen to this a few times. No, it has nothing to do with it, it's just something to listen to.


Privately Funded Public Transportation

From the Detroit News,

Private investors have stepped forward with enough money to build a prototype for a futuristic elevated rail system that would race along freeway routes between Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit, according to experts who testified at a hearing on the proposal Monday.

This seems like a good idea, instead of demanding money from the government, they are actually coming up with money. I have often heard people saying things like "if high speed trains are such a good idea, then private industry would build one". Well, here they are, trying to build one. The only thing they are asking from the government is permission to build the track along the interstate corridor. If they build it and have a reasonable fare, I might use it every once in a while; I live in Lansing and my parents live near Detroit.

Now, my question is, what if the business fails? This may be economically viable, and it may not. If the business goes bad, what will happen with the miles of track along the highway? Will they come and ask for a government bailout if there are no riders? I would like the company to address this possibility, I certainly don't want to fund a loser and I would hate to see deteriorating tracks crossing the state.

In another developement, the Michigan State Department of Transportation is asking for Federal money to build a high speed rail from Detroit to Chicago. Of the two plans, I like the private venture better, just because it is privately funded. It will be interesting to see how the two projects turn out.


Are civilians legitimate targets or aren't they?

Jonathan Wilde summarizes comments made by Bill Whittle that sum up the defense of Harry Truman's decision to drop the bomb:

  • The US made some effort to warn the Japanese citizens about what was coming.
  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, in some ways, military targets.
  • Conventional bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have cost as many lives, if not more, than the atomic bombing.
  • Dropping the bombs killed fewer people than not dropping them would have killed on both the American and Japanese side.
  • The Japanese citizenry were probably not ready to surrender anytime soon before the bombs were dropped.

I have my own take on this issue that I don't want to share. However, I ask that you read these points and just try to evaluate the quality of the arguments made.

Ask, for example,

  • Does it really matter whether a warning is made? Would a Japanese citizen have taken this seriously or even have the power to heed this warning?
  • How can a city be "in some ways" a military target? Is Seattle a military target because Boeing still has facilities there?
  • Let's say dropping the bomb actually saved lives. Do we want to set the precedent where this is an estimation that is made unilaterally by the country with the bomb? Can't this argument be used to justify pretty much any action in any war by countries other than the US?
  • Assuming the Japanese were not willing to surrender anytime soon, did they present a clear, proximate threat to the United States?

Ok, maybe Whittle's defenses aren't the best available. This is a relatively intelligent blog though, right? We should have something better show up in the comments. Let's see.

1. Armchair judges, sipping their beverages, declaring "murder!" this and "murder!" that.
Econ: I understand that this is a fair criticism if the judge is missing some of the relevant details due to being on the armchair. What exactly is the detail that's missing in this case though? (Keep in mind that the decision itself was an armchair decision. It was made by a grown adult in Washington who had the time to think about his decision.)

2. It is a terrible mistake- and unjust, to boot- to judge the actions of people in the past by the standards of the present.
Econ: How different were the standards in 1945? Was intentionally targeting civilians a permissible action?

I ask you: why are the arguments in defense of dropping the bomb so bad? Why are we all taught that it was something that we had to do and that there was no other choice when it seems that there clearly were? (I think I first got this indoctrination in 6th grade.)

More than that, why do we say with no uncertainty today that purposefully targeting civilians in unconditionally wrong when in fact there seems to be a glaring condition under which almost all Americans think it was the right thing to do? It seems like we either need to say targeting civilians is cool in some rare cases or that we goofed.


There is no distinction between law and morality.

Google law morality. The first hit is this page, and the first line on the page is:

At first there seems to be no distinction between law and morality.

The rest of the page is an argument against this naive impression. The argument fails and the naive impression holds. Here is the summary and my comments.

(1) The existence of unjust laws (such as those enforcing slavery) proves that morality and law are not identical and do not coincide.

An alternative interpretation of the same facts is that there are two distinct systems of law, one here being called "law" and the other being called "morality". We should not be surprised if two systems of law are not identical.

(2) The existence of laws that serve to defend basic values--such as laws against murder, rape, malicious defamation of character, fraud, bribery, etc. --prove that the two can work together.

This does not argue for a distinction.

(3) Laws can state what overt offenses count as wrong and therefore punishable. Although law courts do not always ignore a person's intention or state of mind, the law cannot normally govern, at least not in a direct way, what is in your heart (your desires). Because often morality passes judgment on a person's intentions and character, it has a different scope than the law.

A difference in scope may distinguish two legal systems from each other. Aside from this, it is unclear whether there is any real distinction. The author admits that law does not always ignore intention.

(4) Laws govern conduct at least partly through fear of punishment. Morality, when it is internalized, when it has become habit-like or second nature, governs conduct without compulsion. The virtuous person does the appropriate thing because it is the fine or noble thing to do.

Law can be internalized. When we drive we automatically move to the appropriate side of the road, and generally obey the rules of the road, without (direct) compulsion. On the other side, while we develop a moral conscience which then governs us, observation of children makes it hard to deny that compulsion plays a role in the development of a conscience.

(5) Morality can influence the law in the sense that it can provide the reason for making whole groups of immoral actions illegal.

This does not argue for a distinction.

(6) Law can be a public expression of morality which codifies in a public way the basic principles of conduct which a society accepts. In that way it can guide the educators of the next generation by giving them a clear outline of the values society wants taught to its children.

This does not argue for a distinction.

Morality is not enforced by the state (except insofar as it coincides with the state's laws). It is a system of law that is characterized by non-state enforcement, generally social exclusion (including, for example, being fired) but also, on occasion, violence. It fits Webster's first definition of law:

a binding custom or practice of a community

There is, however, one commonly alleged distinction which never got mentioned, and that is that laws can change, but morality is unchanging. For example, it is immoral to keep slaves now, and (so people think) it always was immoral, even though no one realized it. But it was once legal, and is now illegal. There's your difference.

There are two concepts of morality in play now. Stanford explains the difference:

The term “morality” can be used either

1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or,
1a. some other group, such as a religion, or
1b. accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

I've been talking about morality in sense (1), and "unchanging" morality is sense (2), though I think as written (2) is much too specific about the required characteristics of unchanging morality.

Of course, like morality, law also comes in two varieties - natural law is unchanging. So the important distinction isn't really between morality and law. It's between the changeable varieties and the unchangeable varieties.


Western view on Iranian elections

Disclaimer: I don't know squat about Iranian politics. However my point isn't about Iran but about Western politics, which I know about.

I am under the impression that the Western support for Iranian protesters has nothing to do with defending democracy. It looks like the favorite was slightly more liberal than Ahmadinejad, and therefore he has more support in Occident, a good thing in my opinion.

However, if the more fundamentalist candidate had been defeated and the more liberal candidate had won, and if people had taken the street to contest the election, then no matter what the evidence for ballot fraud, I am sure that the press would be all over the violent anti-democratic protesters for being sore losers clinging to a past order. Similarly, if violent protests arose outside of the context of an election to oust the fundamentalist leader, the press would support them.

(This is only my intuition, but that doesn't mean it's not backed up, I just can't easily summon what backs it up)

What we're seeing now is that most people express outrage over voting fraud, but deep down, they're really outraged that a less liberal candidate is holding power. In a way this is very healthy, it's good that people care about Liberty and not Democracy. However, it'd be even healthier if they recognized democracy has nothing to do with it and left it out of the debate.


Immigration and Elections

Long before I started posting here at the DR, there was an interesting dust-up on immigration's effects on political culture, and whether we should care:

If you believe (as Russell claims to) that in a country like the US, an influx of people hostile to freedom will reduce the freedom of people in that country, one is led inexorably to an uncomfortable conclusion. Namely, that the impact on freedom is the combination of gains from the increased freedom of the immigrants and losses from the decreased freedom of the residents. We can let in the coercers and be coerced, or we can coercively keep them out.

Now, there is plenty of room for debate about the resulting net impact. But if immigrants truly are anti-freedom, then the real question is how to evaluate this tough tradeoff. Not whether libertarians can have their immigration and a small government too.

The Economist recently discussed [HT-Maggie's Farm] some recent research on this topic, and the news is not good for libertarians:

Mr Luttmer and Ms Singhal analyse data from the European Social Survey, a biennial multi-country exercise, on the attitudes of over 6,000 immigrants who have moved from one of 32 countries in the survey to another and they find precisely this result.

Even after controlling for income, education and other relevant economic and social factors such as work history and age, views about redistribution in an immigrant’s home country are a strong predictor of his own opinions. Indeed, this measure of “cultural background” explains as much as income levels, and three-fifths as much as income and education combined. These results hold even for immigrants who moved 20 years before they were surveyed; they cannot be attributed to people not having had time to adjust their views.

Nor is it true that simply waiting out for the next generation of immigrants will solve the problem:

Even more convincing evidence of the impact of culture comes from second-generation immigrants. The opinions of children born in the host country about the desirability of redistribution are strongly influenced by the norms that prevail in the countries their parents came from.

Now, there are several possible reactions one could take to this finding, assuming it holds up, which is always tricky in social sciences. One is to find that the net benefit of immigration for libertarians is still positive. Another is that free movement of people is simply a basic civil right, consequences be damned (I'm not wholly unsympathetic to this view). A third would be to blame this entire problem in the existence of the state, which strikes me as true but irrelevant (since anarchy isn't coming any time soon, I fail to see why we shouldn't consider how our policies on immigration will effect the world as it currently is).

But what is unacceptable is to just sweep aside concerns over the cultural and political effects of immigration as simple racism. What this study shows us is that it really does matter who constitutes the voting public, and that immigration could easily change the beliefs of the people in ways libertarians will find discomforting.