Thursday, December 23, 2010

social technology

In an effort to reintroduce myself to blogging after my long absence (because I was busily completing my thesis!) I thought I would briefly comment on a Will Wilkinson piece from last week. In discussing the inevitability of regulatory capture in the specific case of financial regulator Peter Orszag accepting a gold-plated private sector finance position, he writes:

The classically liberal answer is to make government less powerful. The monstrous offspring of entangled markets and states can be defeated only by the most thorough possible separation. But public self-protection through market-state divorce can work only if libertarians are right that unfettered markets are not by nature unstable, that they do not lead to opressive concentrations of power, that we would do better without a central bank, and so on. Most of us don't believe that. Until more of us do, we're not going far in that direction. And maybe that's just as well. Maybe it's true that markets hum along smoothly only with relatively active government intervention and it's also true that relatively active government intervention is eventually inevitably co-opted, exacerbating rather than mitigating capitalism's injustices. Perhaps the best we can hope ever to achieve is a fleeting state of grace when fundamentally unstable forces are temporarily held in balance by an evanescent combination of complementary cultural currents. This is increasingly my fear: that there is no principled alternative to muddling through; that every ideologue's op-ed is wrong, except the ones serendipitously right. But muddle we must.

Maybe it's obvious that no single ideology gives the right prescriptions for all circumstances, though one would hope if it were obvious we would more effectively internalize the fact. Less obvious is that even in principle no self-contained ideology *can* be "right" because of the continuous coevolution of policy, political opinion, and individual and collective action. Maybe we can think of social policies and institutions as technologies, and technologies have the property of using existing technologies as infrastructure. Like a physical technology, policy or institutional changes can bring on as many or more problems as they solve, though "problems" might also be called opportunities. We have no choice but to muddle through as we slowly, imperfectly adapt social technologies to the ever-changing social environment.

Monday, August 23, 2010

New Atheism and the Evolution of God

I've been basically supportive of the New Atheism, but Robert Wright's new book, the Evolution of God, really made me reconsider. There seem to be three broad pushes in New Atheism. The first is proselytizing, and I think this is perfectly healthy. I think a lot of modern, sensitive atheists have taken "live and let live" too far, and have sought some sort of moral high ground by attempting to not be like the religious folks in trying to convert other people to their beliefs. But this attitude, besides acquiescing to a double standard, implicitly grants religious folks one of their most nefarious weapons, the notion that religion is "special", and off the table for rational discussion. But it should be no more off the table than politics or any other ideology-fraught topic. Of course rules of engagement need apply, namely the Don't be a dick rule.

The second push is PR and consciousness raising, and this is great. From Richard Dawkins' insistence that people stop referring to children as "Catholic" or "Hindu" children to Hemant Mehta's really powerful perceptual tool of replacing "atheist" with "Jew" or "Christian" in any statement about atheists to see if it would still pass muster with common tolerance norms. For instance, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels' statement that "Atheism leads to brutality" does not jar the typical American brain the way "Judaism leads to brutality" does, and this needs consciousness raising.

But the third push of New Atheism is intolerance of believers. Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris especially harp on the idea that in a world of nuclear weapons and means of large scale destruction, we can't afford to tolerate irrational belief systems. Atheists (not just New) spend a lot of time finding ridiculous and/or evil passages in holy texts, passages where the deity in question commits genocide or encourages his (almost always 'his') followers to slaughter a people wholesale in his stead, advocates stoning or other brutal punishment for homosexuality or menstruating on the sabbath or whatever, or describes reality in some way modern science has rendered fanciful, to put it generously. The atheists are obviously right in these criticisms, but they're wrong in the "Ha! I've got you now!" that follows.

This exercise usually seems to be used more to persuade other atheists just how crazy believers are. It would fail to persuade most believers even if they deigned for a moment to listen. One reason, I think, is that they don't believe whatever absurd scriptural story you just regaled. How could they? You've probably just pointed out that they'd never heard it before in an attempt to prove their ignorance of their own revealed Truth. When they see for themselves it really is right there in the scripture (call it the Bible, say), they might claim they believe it, because they think they should (because it's right there in the Bible!), but they won't understand why they should. It will be something like a symbolic belief. And chances are they won't try very hard to integrate these uncomfortable stories into their belief systems, because they like their belief system just the way it is thank you very much, and anyway listening to some atheist isn't their preferred method of learning moral and spiritual truths. 

And do you really want them to incorporate these stories into their worldview? There's a great gotcha here. You've just shown an inconsistency. They say they believe everything in the Bible and you've demonstrated 1) there's something in Bible they've never even heard of and 2) they can't integrate the whole scripture into their worldview. But you already knew this, because you already knew what a hodgepodge, multi-author, contradictory mess the Bible was. What was the point again?

The far more interesting question Robert Wright tackles in his book is why you had to point out the ugly Biblical tale in the first place. These darkest bits of the Bible are left out of sunday school classes, and pastors and priests leave them well alone. In many Christian churches in the west, the ridiculous and awful passages about women are quietly retreating into obscurity. The Roman Catholic church, among others has accepted the reality of biological evolution. (About time, I know). This doesn't excuse anything, certainly not the sexism, homophobia, other bigotries, and anti-science stances that persist in different pockets of the religious world. But clearly progress is possible, and it's interesting to ask how it happens.

This kind of rhetoric coming out of the New Atheism, rhetoric I've been guilty of in the past, suggests a certain scriptural determinism. That is, believers are liable to behave in the ways they do because they take their scriptures literally, just as they claim they do. So whatever darkness dwells within the pages of the holy text will manifest in the actions of the believers. This is suspect in principle, because as atheists unceasingly point out, scriptures offer contradictory advice. Believers simply must project prior preferences onto their religion. But more importantly, empirically it just doesn't seem to be the case that people get their world view from their religious texts.

Wright takes the Judeochristian faiths as his example, and plots out the way the stories, translations, and interpretations evolved against what was happening to real people at the time. He argues, I think persuasively, that people changed their God to fit their experiences down on earth, rather than fitting their experiences to the prior desires of their God. So when the Israelites were incorporated into the Persian empire and began to trade peacefully with similarly subjugated former foes, Yahweh started describing these old enemies as not so bad, even human and worthy of respect and fair treatment. Or now, as more religious people realize they actually know and like a homosexual or two, they're less inclined to persecute them, and consequently their God is much less likely to command such persecution. God evolves to fit circumstances.

The point, finally, of this rambling post is that the intolerance of believers coming from the New Atheists is counterproductive in the extreme. If the vilest excesses of religious belief can be tamed by positive-sum interactions between peoples, as they have in most of the developed world, then such interactions should be pursued. Sowing hostility, as many of the New Atheists do, indeed by dehumanizing believers as shallow zombies capable of any bloody act mentioned in a book, will never change beliefs, because that's by and large just not how beliefs change. Instead, it creates a zero-sum atmosphere between believers and non-believers. God will evolve accordingly. This is not to say that faith and absurd beliefs shouldn't be challenged; they should. But the most effective way to neuter faith, and bring about a world where weapons of mass destruction are less likely to be used regardless of irrational beliefs, is to build bridges, and act in such ways that make it as easy as possible for the faithful to humanize the rest of us. God is infinitely adaptable; steer her in a benign direction.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

the moral imperative of economic growth

I haven't been following the brouhaha over the Cordoba House/Park 51 very closely. In part this is because when the issue came up I thought some people would say some stupid things and then we would all get on with our lives. But people keep talking about it, from Harry Reid and other prominent Democrats opposing its construction to Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin making some shockingly disgusting utterances. And the opposition to mosques and Muslims is not limited to Lower Manhattan, as this Yahoo story discusses:
Public protests against three planned mosques have made news in the past week: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin joined others in opposing the building of a mosque a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. Hundreds demonstrated against a proposed mosque in a small town in Tennessee (pictured above). And some residents of Temecula, California, are opposing the local Muslim community's plan to build a bigger mosque, saying it could become a hotbed of radical Islam.
And something like two-thirds of Americans polled oppose the building of the Cordoba House.

After 09/11/2001 I remember there was a great fear that there would be some dreadful backlash against Muslim-Americans and, at least to my recollection, it just didn't materialize. What's going on now seems like some nine year delayed reaction. One big difference that springs to mind about our relatively enlightened reaction to a terrorist attack (at least in terms of our behavior to Muslims within our borders, if not our foreign policy or surveillance apparatus) nine years ago compared to our current reaction to a building explicitly devoted to interfaith dialogue is the normal state of low unemployment and economic growth then and our high unemployment and stagnant growth now.

Our less-than-generous attitude to immigrants now, in a time of decreased immigration rates, compared to just a few years ago, when prominent politicians from both parties could be found to advocate immigration reform, is another example of the same phenomenon. In times of economic expansion, we appear to be more gracious with one another. In times of stagnation, we're less so. This is the argument Benjamin Friedman apparently makes in his book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (which I would know if I'd read it, but it's reviewed here by Brad DeLong).

It's striking to me how all these issues are related. High unemployment is not just an issue narrowly for the sake of creating employment for those unemployed; it's an issue broadly for the sake of the rest us. We will become better people again when the economy resumes more robust growth and employment returns to normal. And for those of us concerned about the plight of immigrants, about the religious freedoms and property rights of Muslims, and about our moral growth generally, perhaps the surest way to return to sensibility is to return to prosperity.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

on Mehserle

I don't have strong feelings on the verdict of this case. I haven't been following the case in detail. I understand the defense claimed Mehserle meant to grab and use his other potentially lethal weapon while Grant was face down on the ground. Mistakes can be made very easily in high stress situations. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to give the benefit of the doubt in such conditions.

However, benefit of the doubt in uncertain, high stress conditions should be given to more than just police officers. Another example of uncertainty and high stress that could possibly lead to honest mistakes is when police bust down a door unannounced in the middle of the night, shooting every dog in sight. A sleepy resident might be confused, frightened, and unprepared as to the best way to react, possibly leading to violence by mistake. But non-police are not always given the same benefit of the doubt.

If anything, the police should be held to a higher standard, given their training and their status as bearers of the public trust. But really, it would just be nice if the law applied to police and non-police civilians with the same presumptions and the same force.

Monday, July 5, 2010

the ethical emigrant

On a gut level, I really loathe the argument against expanding immigration (in this case specifically for skilled immigrants) that it will result in a brain drain for the poorer sending country, hurting that society by removing its top talent. Counter-arguments point to the role of remittances; the often temporary nature of the migration, as in the case of education; and possibly the value to the sending country of expanded networks and further global integration. But regardless of the economics, the argument bothers me because this should be the choice of the individual migrant, based on her own wholly personal motivations, whatever they may be. The idea that receiving nations would adjust their immigration policies based on such considerations is disturbing, the mirror image of the Berlin Wall.

And yet, from that individual's perspective, there are ethical considerations. One of the main reasons I support more open migration policies worldwide is because I like the idea of a world where people can vote with their feet, where they might travel the world not only for work or fancy but also to shop around for public goods jurisdictions to their liking. An aspiring migrant might want to leave a really bad situation, like a totalitarian regime. The enlightened emigrant's departure from a particularly benighted realm will make that realm marginally more benighted. Of course the negative effect on the country of one departing migrant would be minuscule compared to the benefits accruing to that migrant, but they shouldn't be discounted from an ethical calculation altogether. After all, the same argument could be made for any private, voluntary effort to correct for negative externalities or majoritarian ethical hiccups; doing what you can to reduce your greenhouse gas footprint in the absence of a price on carbon dioxide comes to mind.

I've been thinking of this because lately I've been in an uncharacteristically anti-American mood, almost certainly because I've been reading too much Glenn Greenwald. Really though, the American government in the last ten years has launched two aggressive wars, killed God Knows How Many innocent human beings in Predator drone strikes in foreign countries we're not even at war with (not that the USA has officially been 'at war' since WWII), locked up GKHM innocent human beings in cages without any kind of due process, tortured GKHM innocent human beings, and asserted the authority to assassinate American citizens, again, without due process. This is all sold as necessary to win a phantom conflict against an idea. And these abrogations of the rule of law join the police militarization, weakening of the Fourth Amendment, and racist horror resulting from our drug war (another war on a concept) that has resulted in America earning the dubious distinction of imprisoning more of its citizens, by both percentages and naked numbers, than any other nation.

While I realize that if I die in Canada, I'll die in real life, it does not seem unreasonable to consider getting up and leaving as an appropriate response. After all, I'd prefer to live in a place where the government, after determining an individual has been wrongfully caged and tortured for eight years, gives him an apology and a cool $8 million, rather than a place where the government does everything in its power to deny him his day in court.

Finding much of the American government's activities unconscionable, the eager young Enlightenment idealist might consider leaving its jurisdiction, only to remove her positive influence and have the vacuum filled with the likes of Sarah Palin and Barack Obama. On the other hand, from the cosmopolitan perspective, the important thing is only that the Open Society flourishes somewhere for its ideals to remain alive; in the end it doesn't matter if America succumbs to its worst demons. Well, it does matter for the people affected, which is why the ethical emigrant might consider sending back moral remittances, money sent back to liberal institutions fighting the good fight, like the ACLU.

Perhaps it's not a thorny question after all. I think in the end this post was just a vehicle for grievance airing.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

blood, commerce, and culture: another immigration post

Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior has an interesting post with some less commonly mentioned aspects of immigration. After noting the scale of the situation, that if everyone who expressed a desire to emigrate to the United States did so, the US population could surge by as much as 180 million, he writes

First, an increase in immigration permanently dilutes the costs of military action. Military expenditures are invariant to the population. Yet, over the long term this is actually a much larger concern than either Social Security or Medicare. As China, India and Brazil industrialize, either the United States will have to drastically increase the percentage of GDP spent on the military or it will have to relinquish its position as a world superpower.
I know that seems like a fine idea to many, especially to many libertarian minded folks. However, liberal democracy has flourished almost entirely under the canopy of Anglo-American hegemony. It is entirely possible that a truly multi-polar world could sustain liberalism but it is not, however, entirely certain. To my mind the maintenance of the Open Society is our primary responsibility and I am not inclined to leave it to chance.
Now let me be clear. I am not an evangelical liberal. I don’t see it as necessary or even in all cases desirable to attempt to spread the basic principles of the Open Society.  I do see it, however, as crucial to maintain the Open Society where it currently exists.
All emphases in block quotes are his. This is a fascinating point. I think it's an uncomfortable fact that many periods of globalization throughout history have been supported by empire: The Romans, the Mongols, the British, etc. One really hopes that this will not always have to be the case, that we will one day be able to harness the benefits of globalization without needing to suffer the violence of imperialism. In any case it appears impossible to maintain hegemony in perpetuity. In light of this I actually think diluting the cost of the military is an argument against liberalizing immigration because cheapening military action will lead to more ill-considered adventurism, leading to more suffering abroad and loathing of the hegemonic power. Loathing from inevitably rising powers will not help to preserve the Open Society.

But there are clearly countervailing effects of immigration as well. Since Smith pointed out that over 20 million of those 180 million aspiring immigrants are Chinese, I was reminded of one of my all-time favorite Brad DeLong posts:

Think of it this way: Consider a world that contains one country that is a true superpower. It is preeminent--economically, technologically, politically, culturally, and militarily. But it lies at the east edge of a vast ocean. And across the ocean is another country--a country with more resources in the long-run, a country that looks likely to in the end supplant the current superpower. What should the superpower's long-run national security strategy be?
I think the answer is clear: if possible, the current superpower should embrace its possible successor. It should bind it as closely as possible with ties of blood, commerce, and culture--so that should the emerging superpower come to its full strength, it will to as great an extent possible share the world view of and regard itself as part of the same civilization as its predecessor: Romans to their Greeks.
In 1877, the rising superpower to the west across the ocean was the United States. The preeminent superpower was Britain. Today the preeminent superpower is the United States. The rising superpower to the west across the ocean is China. that was the rising superpower across the ocean to the west of the world's industrial and military leader. Today it is China.
Throughout the twentieth century it has been greatly to Britain's economic benefit that America has regarded it as a trading partner--a source of opportunities--rather than a politico-military-industrial competitor to be isolated and squashed. And in 1917 and again in 1941 it was to Britain's immeasurable benefit--its veruy soul was on the line--that America regarded it as a friend and an ally rather than as a competitor and an enemy. A world run by those whom de Gaulle called les Anglo-Saxons is a much more comfortable world for Britain than the other possibility--the world in which Europe were run by Adolf Hitler's Saxon-Saxons.
There is a good chance that China is now on the same path to world preeminence that America walked 130 years ago. Come 2047 and again in 2071 and in the years after 2075, America is going to need China. There is nothing more dangerous for America's future national security, nothing more destructive to America's future prosperity, than for Chinese schoolchildren to be taught in 2047 and 2071 and in the years after 2075 that America tried to keep the Chinese as poor as possible for as long as possible.
Immigration is 'blood, commerce, and culture' all at once. Happily, I reckon the illiberal effects of cheaper military aggression are overwhelmed by the formation of peaceful bonds that immigration facilitates.
Second, immigration temporarily dilutes expenditures on Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the national debt. However, temporary counts for a lot. The future is inherently uncertain and so truly pushing off consequences into the future is inherently a net gain. There is a chance of catastrophe, in which case your sacrifices were useless and there is a chance of explosive growth, in which case your sacrifices were unnecessary. These are real possibilities and should not be ignored.

It also gives additional time to prepare for changes in Social Security. One possibility is that the continued shift away from physically intensive jobs will mean that in 50 years a retirement age of 70 is feasible even if in 25 years it is not.
True enough. The advantages of a younger society are ample and fairly well known.
Third, the rate of world wide technological progress is likely proportional to the number of people living in countries at or near the technological frontier. Increasing the number of Americans increases the growth of technology generally.
This is a favorite of mine, and a point that applies equally to charter cities as to expanding immigration. From a brute counting perspective, a large, dense, well connected population simply affords more opportunities for serendipitous collisions of ideas. Perhaps the analogy is too simple, but likening society to a big brain can be illuminating. A large population has more neurons making possible vastly more neural connections. This is true in any case, including cities in developing countries, but as Smith suggests, it seems likely the innovation generating quality of population density will be even greater if more of those innovators have access to the tools, resources, and institutions of the rich world.
Fourth, immigration is the most effective poverty elimination program known. Not only does it dramatically increase the standard of living of the immigrants but remittances to home countries by immigrants represents a greater transfer of resources than all foreign aid combined.
This cannot be shouted from the rooftops loudly enough or often enough. If you are at all concerned with improving the welfare of the world's poorest human beings and you do not support liberalizing immigration, then you have a damn lot of explaining to do.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Glenn Beck and F.A. Hayek

As of the time of this posting, Hayek's the Road to Serfdom was at the top of the bestselling list. Apparently this is all because of a Glenn Beck show, wherein he says it's the best book you can read, a "Mike Tyson right hook to socialism."

I'm not sure what I think about this. On the obvious hand, it's awesome Hayek is selling like hotcakes. At least some Beck fans will read it and gain enough sophistication points to level up.

But I'm guessing most Beck viewers will buy it, page through it, and let it collect dust thereafter, expecting that Glenn Beck has already told them everything they need to know about it (take home message: the folks in Washington are planning to enslave you!).

Worse, the few liberals curious enough to give Hayek a fair shake will have second thoughts after associating him with Glenn Beck. And it doesn't help that, in at least the first ten minutes of the show (all I watched) he kept waving around Atlas Shrugged, implicitly comparing Hayek to Rand the Reviled.

This is unfortunate because Hayek was quite a bit more nuanced than Rand (she thought he was a statist of the most dangerous kind) and quite a bit more liberal than most conservatives and liberals probably realize. I'm guessing, for instance, this passage out of the Road to Serfdom (chapter 9) will surprise recent buyers:
There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained [the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance] should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom ... An incautious handling of these questions might well cause serious and perhaps even dangerous political problems; but there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody.
Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance--where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks--the case for the state's helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong.
I doubt Hayek would have had anything kind to say about recent health care legislation. But his objections would not have been motivated by knee-jerk opposition to government spending for social insurance.

Friday, June 4, 2010

framing innocents with immunity (impunity)

Here's something interesting from the CS Monitor:
The US Supreme Court on Wednesday is set to consider an unusual question: Do Americans who have been framed by unscrupulous prosecutors for crimes they did not commit have a right to sue the prosecutors when the fraud is finally exposed?
According to the Obama administration, the answer is no.
Solicitor General Elena Kagan argues in a friend of the court brief that local, state, and federal prosecutors must enjoy absolute immunity from citizen lawsuits – even when they sent innocent men to prison for life by fabricating incriminating evidence and hiding exculpatory evidence.
In the case at hand, two Iowa prosecutors solicited false testimony leading to the conviction of two (black) teenagers, Curtis McGhee and Terry Harrington, for the murder of a retired (white) police officer. They were sentenced to life in prison and served 25 years before their innocence came to light.

The right to sue prosecutors in this sort of case would put them on par with law enforcement agents who can face such consequences. Kagan doesn't buy it: "But absolute immunity reflects a policy judgment that such conduct is properly addressed not through civil liability, but through a host of other deterrents and punishments." Very reassuring.

I'm open to the idea of having some form of limited liability for prosecutors who are just doing their job. I can see how lawsuits might get out of hand if prosecutors can just be sued for losing their cases, or making honest mistakes. But this, for instance, was a clear case of criminal intent.

Friday, May 28, 2010


I thought this was an interesting bloggingheads video between Charli Carpenter and Dan Drezner. Carpenter makes a hypothetical case for South Korea (and allies) trying to "out-crazy" North Korea, that is, keep playing chicken and even step it up a notch, basically gearing up for combat. The motivation is the fairly overwhelming likelihood that North Korea will lose any war (on the principle that fewer desperately poor people lose to many more very rich people). The problem of course is the million or more dead people, in Seoul as elsewhere. How many depends on China. If China actually militarily aided NK, then it's a very very bad idea. If China looked the other way and did nothing, it's a bad idea. If China actually signed on to the idea, in the form of amassing armies near the border and effectively saying "Sure, flatten Seoul, whatever. We're tired of having a batshit crazy neighbor." the idea starts to seem ... worth putting in the general vicinity of the table of consideration.

This is just a thought experiment, not something I'm advocating, as my anti-war bias runs deep. People do crazy things when backed into a corner. I don't think anyone knows what already-crazy people with nuclear weapons do when backed into a corner, even given the presumably offered cozy diplomatic exile for the thugs in power. (I'd be willing to give Kim Jong Il all the Hennessey he wants and not put him on trial at the Hague if it meant allowing North Korea to modernise.) And I realize it's the people on both sides who get maimed and killed in any war, regardless how the political wins and losses distribute amongst the ruling classes on both sides. On the other hand, this whole story is set against the backdrop of the starvation and oppression of the North Korean people; it's not like they have too much to gain from patiently waiting several generations for a liberal to be miraculously born on the slopes of Mount Paektu.

Enough with toy soldiers. Back in reality, everything still depends on China. I usually think of the Chinese government as being fairly well approximated as a rational actor, but if that's the case, I've never understood why they put up with North Korea. I guess the common knowledge says North Korea serves as a buffer state betwixt the mainland and US-backed South Korea. And China doesn't want to deal with millions of NK refugees, something SK doesn't want to deal with either. On the other hand, it seems to me like China's economic ties to SK, America, and cetera are worth more by orders of magnitude. China's rulers act as if they want to be seen as a responsible rising power and this seems like a relatively inexpensive opportunity to do the right thing, especially if oodles of Western aid were assured to help both China and SK with the transition. The ruling elite in China must understand the benefits of cooperation on this particular issue, and the benefits for history of confidence-building cooperation exercises with the West generally, or have I been blinded by my Western liberal biases?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

the big picture from the Left

Matt Yglesias gives his thought on what the coarse-grain, long view agenda for the Left should be in this post.
As anyone who reads me regularly knows, I am not good at coming up with the sort of ideas that can excite enthusiastic commitment among a large number of people. But I think the analysis with regard to capitalism is mistaken. It turns out that welfare state capitalism just is the alternative to capitalism. After all, if you look at how life in the developed countries has changed from 1930 to 2010 what you see is that people spend more and more time in school, more and more time retired, and more and more time on vacation. In other words, people are step-by-step liberating themselves not from market capitalism as a means of obtaining consumer goods but from wage slavery in the worker-capitalist relationship.
First, one of the reasons I keep reading Yglesias as my preferred progressive thinker is that he doesn't "come up with the sort of ideas that can excite enthusiastic commitment." He's wonkily incremental, something I find appealing because status quo welfare state capitalism is really fairly successful. I appreciate that he wants to persuade liberals that welfare state capitalism just is the alternative to hated capitalism, implying the heavy lifting of the progressive agenda is already done.
And you can see that the basic architecture of this trend is fiercely and passionately contested. When I was in Finland, where they have quite a mild right-wing, the thing that the conservative politician I spoke to seemed really upset about was the idea that Finnish kids are spending too much time in university. Too many students in college! Too many of them getting master’s degrees! Sometimes people would even take time off from their studies to travel! Here in the United States a huge swathe of the pundit class seems to deem it outrageous that the Social Security retirement age hasn’t increased as rapidly as average life expectancy. Don’t people know that they were put on this planet to work! How dare we, as a society, take some of our increased productivity in the form of an increased measure of liberation from our employers rather than more material possessions? The public, sensibly, doesn’t see it that way. When life expectancy grows faster than the retirement age, humanity is making progress.
Yes! Humanity is making progress, and it's perfectly fine, even great that many people are spending less time working. But how did it become society's decision how individuals would take their increased productivity? The concern about the Social Security retirement age does not come from some puritanical notion that people are born to toil until they die. The concern is that ever lengthening spans of publicly funded retirement make for an ever increasing burden for newer generations who don't really have a choice in the matter. Yglesias writes (with all his talk of 'wage slavery' and the 'bonds of commercial work') as if a higher Social Security retirement age would mean people would be forced to keep working until that age. Much of the non-commercial work and leisure he rightly celebrates throughout the post is due to capitalism and economic growth, and would have occurred at various levels of welfare state spending.
So that’s the agenda I have to offer. For rich countries—productivity growth, social insurance, and efforts to improve public health all aiming at allowing people to live more and more of their time outside the bonds of commercial work. For poor countries—capitalism, to get the process of prosperity and social betterment rolling. At the interface between the two—a generous and humane approach to migration issues so that people can have the freedom to escape bad situations, and a trade regime that aims at facilitating the exchange of goods rather than coercing poor countries into adopting the preferred policies of rich world companies. And for all of us, an overhaul of energy systems so the world doesn’t boil and we all get to keep enjoying our prosperity.
My favorite paragraph. I think generous and humane migration policies are going to become important between rich countries as well as between the rich and poor as more rich countries make bad 'social' decisions. Think of California's net negative migration flux.

As a side note, this "liberation from our employers" and "wage slavery" and "bonds of commercial work" talk is annoying. I imagine this is just another instance of his penchant for needlessly using language that will irritate readers who don't already fully agree with him. Implying that activities within the marketplace are coercive doesn't do him any favors in making the case for market liberalism that he seems to want to make.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

encouraging development in Asia

The Banyan column in the Economist was the most encouraging thing I read this week. Much like eighteenth century America, for commercial purposes east Asia has consisted of a long stretch of coast via which maritime trade occurred. The vast interior didn't contribute much to international trade.
Road networks are also expanding, led by India (in Afghanistan, for example) and, especially, China. Dusty Myanmar is now plugged into China’s spanking new highway complex. New roads bind neighbours along the Mekong River. Central Asia is also seeing a flurry of road-building.
Railways reflect the boldest ambitions. China has already pushed a railway up the Himalayas to Lhasa in Tibet, on which 5m people have travelled since 2006. Now it wants to push lines down them into Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. As for high-speed railways, from a standing start China’s are the world’s fastest and longest. The government has plans to roll out a high-speed network across Asia and even Europe. It proposes three main routes to connect two dozen countries, from Singapore in the south to Germany in the west (with a tunnel from mainland China to Taiwan to boot). By 2025, if the railway ministry is to be believed, it will take two days to travel from Shanghai to London.
Immense financial, not to mention political, obstacles stand in the way of such ambitions. But these projects are starting to redefine what people mean by Asia. It is no longer mainly a coastline with strong trade links to the rest of the world. Now, links across Asia matter just as much. Trade within the region is growing at roughly twice the pace of trade with the outside world. From almost nothing 20 years ago, China is now India’s biggest partner, with bilateral trade that may top $60 billion this year. Central Asia’s trade with China jumped from $160m in 1990 to $7 billion in 2006. And China is the biggest merchandise exporter to the Middle East. The crowds of worshippers at the mosque in Yiwu, a town in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang with a vast wholesale market, hint at the scale of the links. On the continent’s western edge it is getting hard to know where Asia ends.
The integration of the coastal world-connected cities with the interior hinterlands seems like an immense opportunity for everyone involved as gains from trade accrue. And it's an immense opportunity for those only indirectly involved (like the West), as these bigger markets mean more ideas are generated and shared.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

President asserts authority to order assassinations

President Obama has arrogated himself the power to authorize assassinations of American citizens, without trial, far from any battlefield. I think assassination of foreign entities is shady enough, and I don't understand the legal complications of 'enemy combatant' status or the importance of 'distance from a battlefield'. I am predisposed to limit any such authority, but this is a different ballpark altogether. An American citizen certainly has a constitutional right to due process and a trial before execution is exacted. This goes beyond anything even Bush's legal gymnasts asserted.

This news makes good companion reading for this Gene Healy essay. We are doing extreme violence to the rule of law to combat terrorism, which is nowhere close to being an existential threat. Terrorism is  made more damaging by the resources we expend in retaliation and the legal and ethical contortions we engage in. I've always thought terrorism should be viewed as something akin to a natural disaster. Crazy, evil, and violent people will sometimes manage to inflict damage regardless what we do. Preventative measures are well and good, but only insofar as the costs of these measures do not exceed the benefits. There's nothing special about terrorism that makes all costs worthwhile.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

health care and immigration

Health care reform has passed. I'm mostly ambivalent about this. I've heard of a lot of good cost-saving measures that are going to be tried, and the excise tax is good. I'm ambivalent about making universal health care the federal government's prerogative. But I'm skeptical that a giant new entitlement is going to go hand in hand with cutting health care inflation. And I also just have no idea of all of the nasty little surprises that are doubtless in the bill because, despite appearances, I'm actually a graduate student in physical chemistry and not a professional policy blogger. When congressional proponents of the bill say we'll have pass the bill to see what's in it, my confidence is not enhanced. And while everyone likes to say this isn't the last word on health care and we can fix the sundry fuck-ups later, some nasty surprises are really sticky. Of course my favorite example is the employer health insurance tax subsidy itself, which had innocuous beginnings in WWII wage and price controls and didn't start causing problems until decades later, by which time it had become politically untouchable.

I'm not inherently interested in health care policy, so when it all got very complicated my eyes started to glaze over, even though I think the health care status quo is truly lamentable. I wonder how my interest in and attitude toward all the compromises and horse-trading will differ for an issue I am deeply interested in. Murmurs around the campfire suggest that Obama wants to tackle immigration reform next. The current immigration policy is also lamentable, with 12 million or so immigrants under the radar and therefore easily taken advantage of and unable to seek legal recourse; it's my impression that immigration enforcement has become more brutal since 9/11, though it's been a couple years since I read Edward Alden's great book, Closing of the American Border. 387,790 illegal immigrants were deported by the Obama administration in fiscal year 2009, a 5% increase from Bush's last year in office. And 5,600 migrants have died crossing the border over the last fifteen years. And I just generally think it's crass that all visa applicants are treated as if they're potential terrorists instead of welcome visitors, whether they're well-regarded academics, businesspeople, or anyone else.

But the last time immigration reform was attempted, Bush's mostly laudable effort in 2007, the result was easily worse than the status quo. A 700 mile fence was commissioned and a few thousand more border guards were hired. Will the new immigration reform include stretching the fence across the whole border? Or doubling the fence? I'm sure some asshole out there has already suggested electrifying the fence. One idea for the new attempt at immigration reform includes mandatory biometric IDs for all individuals working in America. Maybe it's just my libertarian paranoia that makes me uncomfortable with getting saddled with yet more documentation to keep for perusal of the authorities. There's a general allergy to the dreaded amnesty, and any reform that has a hope of passing will include fines for current illegal immigrants and measures to make current illegal immigrants go "to the back of the line". I'm not even sure what "back of the line" means. Seeing how we always have more people wanting to immigrate than our visa caps allow, will this mean effective deportation? A fine is reasonable depending on the size of the fine. A fine too large will keep illegal immigrants in the shadows. There are many ways immigration reform could make things worse than the status quo. I hope for the best.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

ten 'books' that have influenced my thinking

Maybe it was just my corner of the Nets that was boring last week, but about the most interesting thing I read was a meme from Tyler Cowen, picked up by Matt Yglesias and Will Wilkinson, among others. I tried to come up with ten books and came up short. Like Ezra Klein, I've grown up in a time when books are not the primary source of even the big chunks of information or worldview I get. Following a blog over the course of years is an intellectually comparable endeavor to reading a book, and I think it can be just as rewarding. The existence of hyperlinks and real time rebuttal and fleshing out from other bloggers adds real value as well. Of course, books are often more carefully researched, but it's fine for the different media to fill different needs. Anyway, on to a rough and ready list of ten big influences.

  1. Atlas Shrugged. This is the only work of fiction on this list, and I don't know what that says about me. My pre-Rand worldview is hazy, but before I read AS in tenth grade I had been on the way to overcoming the conservatism of my family and becoming a liberal of some kind, mostly on the basis of my fresh distaste for religion and a perception of a lack of compassion among conservatives. AS persuaded me of the morality of pursuing one's own happiness, turned me into a cheerleader for laissez-faire capitalism, and conditioned me to more or less loathe the caricatures in my head of modern liberalism. Though I was already a deist at the time, I think AS hardened me against all spiritual mumbo-jumbo and quackeries.
  2. While I read a few books on libertarianism, what really influenced me further in that direction, and into full-on anarchocapitalism, was a group of websites I read regularly from late high school through college, including,, and There were also a bunch of random anarchist essays I found, like Wendy McElroy's Demystifying the State.
  3. The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. I was no creationist beforehand, but after reading this I felt like I really grasped the power and elegance of evolution by natural selection. I think here is where I was first introduced to game theory and the idea that unthinking automata blindly following simple algorithms can lead to incredible complexity. And I put a lot of stock in Dawkins' memes as well.
  4. Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. The broad swathes of history are determined by impersonal factors such as geography. This is humbling, and does a lot of damage to simplistic ideologies.
  5. Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett. Consciousness is distributed in time and space, and the brain is parallel. And we're all zombies and that's okay.
  6. The Myth of the Rational Voter, by Bryan Caplan. Voters have systematic biases that go predictably in the same direction and don't just happily cancel out. Though I'd given up on anarchism by the time I read this, it had left me with a distrust of democracy. This put that distrust on a firmer footing. Which is not to say the whole idea should be tossed aside. We work with what we have, and acknowledge the limitations.
  7. Constitution of Liberty, by Friedrich A. Hayek. Every liberaltarian's hero. He stresses a pragmatic case for liberty, that society is an evolutionary system, and liberty is what allows the system to sample the greatest space of possibilities. "It is because every individual knows so little and… because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it."
  8. Nonzero, by Robert Wright. History has a direction. We find new ways to tie our fates together, whether on purpose or not, whether we like it or not. This ratchets up complexity and leads to new opportunities for cooperation. This book (and Constitution of Liberty as well) made me way more comfortable than libertarians are supposed to be with welfare states and state aggregations (like the expanding EU and international organizations).
  9. Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism, by Joseph Heath. Aside from learning lots of interesting things, this book really made me think about ideological arguments in terms of tribalism. It's amazing how ideological tribes miss huge chunks of understanding. Cognitive biases and tribalism constitute the core of my thinking about politics and every ideology-prone topic.
  10. Reason Magazine and the Economist. That said, you can't get rid of biased and tribal thinking; I think the best you can do is name and understand the shortcomings of your tribe and biases. I get most of my news about the world through Reason Magazine, a libertarian movement magazine with a mostly cosmotarian flavor, and the Economist, a neoliberal source.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sure, Hayek is well and good for the easy stuff ...

Yglesias wrote a post short enough I'll just quote its entirety:
An offhand Twitter joke and some pushback I got led me to look up what Hayeks’ The Road to Serfdom says about universal health care. Some interesting stuff on Page 125 of the edition that’s in Google books:
Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance, where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks, the case for the state helping to organise a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong. There are many points of detail where those wishing to preserve the competitive system and those wishing to supersede it by something different will disagree on the details of such schemes; and it is possible under the name of social insurance to introduce measures which tend to make competition more or less ineffective. But there is no incompatibility in principle between the state providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom.
I take this as saying that Hayek would support a universal health care system but would prefer it to be financed with a flat or regressive tax base. One interesting issue here regards preventive care. Things like regular checkups, wellness advise, basic screening, etc. don’t meet the definition of “genuinely insurable risks.” At the same time, based on what we actually know about medicine an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure and as long as you’re going to be having the state pick up the tab for illness it seems very practically sound to also have the state invest in prevention. But defining what does and does not count as “prevention” would entail a degree of non-Hayekian planning. My take would be that these medical issues are sufficiently technical to think that Hayek’s general point about the superiority of the market to technocracy in organizing knowledge almost certainly doesn’t hold. But either way, we could have a much more constructive debate about health care if the right-wing took more of a Hayekian view and less of a Randian one.
I agree with the main thrust of this post unreservedly. America would be a better place with a better health care system if conservatives thought more like Hayek and less like Ayn Rand, either actual or bizarro (conservatives conveniently forget such things as her militant atheism).

I quibble with Yglesias's apparent complete miss the point of Hayek's ideas. Hard or "sufficiently technical" problems are precisely the sorts that benefit from decentralization, as it allows actors with local information to coordinate their activities by responding to price signals. This is like saying, because determining exactly how much steel should be produced to satisfy the needs of a large, industrial society is a hard, technical problem, the superiority of the market to technocracy almost certainly doesn't hold. Note how one criticism of the health care status quo from the ranks of the more Hayekian-minded among the commentariat is that consumers are shielded from price signals of the sorts of routine, preventative items Yglesias mentions because they're paid for via third parties.

Friday, February 26, 2010

universal acid

Via the Twitter, Will Wilkinson linked to this 2004 TCS Daily essay of his on meritocracy and redistribution. Wilkinson cites progressive thinkers like Matt Yglesias who argue that the self-made man is a pernicious myth, that "Being born with the inclination and ability to become financially successful is no more morally praiseworthy than being born with the inclination and ability to inherit a large fortune. It's chance all the way down either way." That from Yglesias. "Those of us who won the genetic and social lottery will naturally try to rationalize our great good luck. We will turn up our calloused palms and tell of the blood and sweat on our every red cent." That from Wilkinson. 

I think this is true for what it's worth. If you are naturally talented (or limited), where did the natural talent (limit) come from and why do you deserve credit (blame) for it? If you are not naturally talented and had to work hard for your successes,  where did this inclination or ability to work hard come from and why do you deserve credit for it? This seems to reduce to the problem of free will versus determinism. For two identical twins, one ambitious and hard-working, the other indolent and free-riding, what accounted for the difference in behavior? They chose? What made one choose the one path and the other the alternative? Like free will, the idea of moral desert for position in society requires a bit of magical thinking. 

Like determinism, the idea that no one deserves anything, while neat, implies no course of action whatsoever. 
Material inequality is one kind of inequality among many. Political inequality is more troubling by far, for political power is the power to push people around. Coercion is wrong on its face, and so the existence of political inequality requires a specially strong and compelling justification. However, if the luck argument cuts against moral entitlement to material holdings, it cuts equally against any moral entitlement to political power. 

The justification for political power is generally sought in the "consent" of the people through free, fair and open elections. Yet the fact that someone has gained power by a democratic ballot can be no more or less relevant than the fact that Warren Buffet gained his billions through a series of fair, voluntary transactions. John Edwards (who, by the way, is a mill worker's son) didn't deserve his luxuriant tresses and blinding grin. Reagan didn't deserve movie-star name recognition. Bushes don't deserve to be Bushes. Kennedys don't deserve to be Kennedys. Kerry's war medals? Please. 

If the luck argument is any good, then democratic choice and the resulting distribution of coercive political power is also, as Yglesias says, "chance all the way down." And if luck negates the moral right to keep and dispose of one's stuff, it also negates the right to take and dispose of others' stuff.
This luck argument can consume whatever argument it might be harnessed by.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Venezuela: your friendly neighborhood Marxist dictatorship

I read this article in the Economist this morning.
In his annual address to Parliament, earlier this month, the president announced (to no one’s surprise) that he was now a Marxist. He no longer pays lip-service to the separation of powers, which in practice disappeared some time ago. The head of the Supreme Court, Luisa Estella Morales, said last month that such niceties merely “weaken the state”. A leading member of the ruling United Socialist Party, Aristóbulo Istúriz, called for the dismantling of local government, which Mr Chávez wants to replace with communes.
The 1999 constitution guarantees property rights and the existence of private enterprise. But the president now says that private profit is the root of all evil. Callers to the government’s consumer-protection body, Indepabis, find its hold-music is a jingle about evil capitalists. Insisting that his recent currency devaluation was no excuse for price rises, Mr Chávez had Indepabis close down hundreds of stores for “speculation”. He told Parliament to change the law on expropriations and seized a French-controlled supermarket chain to add to the government’s new retail conglomerate, Comerso.
I have always thought that Hugo Chavez really meant business. I even have a bottle of wine riding on him still being in power in 2013 (Intrade is no help here, at least that I could find). But now he's talking about replacing localities with communes? What's next, Five Year Plans? He blinked a large amount of private wealth out of existence with his recent currency devaluation; he nationalizes a new enterprise every week; and he's gagged independent media. The Economist makes much of the fact that public opinion polls have turned against him lately, but he clearly isn't the slightest bit interested in giving up power should he lose his election in 2012 (or the parliamentary elections in September), not that that could possibly happen because he's certain to rig the elections.

Things will turn nasty as the economy falters under weight of Soviet-style central planning and uncooperative oil prices. I strive above all things to not be histrionic or paranoid. Am I being histrionic and paranoid by predicting there will be violence in South America in the next ten years, either by civil war or an attempt by Chavez to plunder his way out of the hole he's dug himself?

UPDATE: On second thought, I guess a lot of dictatorships over the past few decades have avoided war. Hopefully Chavez won't have the longevity of a Castro.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti and cognitive dissonance in immigration

Michael Clemens lays out a case for helping Haiti (and other nations of the poor world) by liberalizing migration policy in the Washington Post.
I am not suggesting that, if some of these people died in the earthquake, U.S. immigration policy is responsible. But it would be just as ludicrous to contend that we could not foresee very bad things happening to people forced to live in extreme poverty. Life in destitution is a brittle existence. There is no extra money to buy good building materials, invest in quality schooling or take preventive health measures. So when shocks arrive, as they must -- an earthquake, a job loss, a sickness -- problems become calamities. Such consequences are predictable. For this reason, the United States is complicit in the agony many Haitians are now suffering.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, one of the principal ways its victims helped themselves was by leaving. Katrina prompted one of the biggest resettlements in American history. Who would have blocked Interstate 10 with armed guards, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to suffer in the disaster zone, no matter how much assistance was coming in from outside? We wouldn't have done that, because it would have made us collectively responsible for their continued suffering. Why then, in the thoughtful debate that has emerged over how best to aid Haiti and help its citizens help themselves, are Americans still quiet about this sinister face of our immigration policy?
I think there is a cognitive dissonance common in thinking about immigration. Americans (and presumably most people in the rich world) clearly appreciate the common humanity of the world's poor. Hence the outpouring of aid (both private and government) to the victims of the Haitian earthquake and every other disaster that makes the news. According to this poll, Americans think we spend 15% of the federal budget on foreign aid ("Way too much! We should fix the problems in our own country first!"), but they don't want to completely ignore the needs of the truly destitute and so would be willing to spend 5%. Nearly 18% of respondents say that even the 1% of the federal budget we actually spend on foreign aid is too much, but I would bet most people in this category belong to churches that engage in mission work abroad, which generally has a humanitarian component. The point is Americans in general like the idea that we help the rest of the world out.

But we don't want them anywhere near us. Is this just because poverty isn't pretty? There is a strong tendency to ascribe to them unsavory motives when they arrive in the rich world. They will steal 'our' jobs, or worse, they come to America, not for work, but for welfare (a fear that keeps my retired mother awake at night), or they're simply criminals who will steal our stuff and engage in violent crime. From, perhaps, another ideological vantage, the poor of the world are seen as needing protection from emigration. Emigration will increase the emigrant's carbon footprint, lead to his exploitation by corporations and capitalism, or it will harm the sending country by effecting a brain drain and separating families.

As long as the poor stay well away from us, they share our common humanity, and deserve our aid and sympathy. But as a poor individual from afar approaches, his aims and designs become more nefarious, or he loses his agency all together. Well, this is preposterous, and it is hard to view such instincts as anything more than veneer over simple tribalism. Poor individuals from other parts of the world have all the agency, desires, innate potential, and humanity as those of us who, by arbitrary accident, happen to live in rich countries like America.

Clemens' Katrina example shows the consequence of this cognitive dissonance. Keeping migrants out of the country requires physical violence. Just because migrants are not citizens of a nation does not mean they should be subject to arbitrary coercion, at least not under any liberal theory of justice that we would instinctively apply to fellow citizens we have never met from three thousand miles away. But this logic is somehow difficult to apply to fellow human beings we have never met from three thousand miles away. Clemens (video!) and Lant Pritchett do a fantastic job of detailing the enormous benefits to alleviating poverty that lifting restrictions on migrant labor can do, but first we need to wrap our heads around the idea that those nice folks over there are still nice folks when they're over here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Citizens United and loosely related thoughts

Tim Lee says what I would like to say about today's Supreme Court decision.
It’s true, of course, that a corporation prepared to spend $1 million on ads criticizing a particular legislator will get that legislator’s attention. But there’s nothing unique about this. It can also get his attention by hiring a lobbying firm that employs a former staffer. It can get his attention by arranging $100,000 in bundled contributions from executives, clients, and friends of the company. It can get his attention by creating astroturf organizations. And there are probably lots of other mechanisms I haven’t thought of.

The key difference between independent expenditures and these other mechanisms is that the independent expenditures are the most open and transparent. To run an effective “issue ad,” a corporation has to make an argument that is persuasive voters. I don’t want to sugar coat the situation; sometimes independent expenditures finance ads that are sleazy and misleading. But given a choice between corporations spending their money on ads about how Senator Smith hates America or spending their money on K Street, I’ll take the ads, because at least voters still get the final decision.
Just as increased regulation tends to benefit large, incumbent economic actors, limits on campaign finance and speech seem likely to benefit entrenched political actors, not just politicians themselves but the party apparatuses.

A more worthwhile effort at political reform would be to weaken the two-party system.
Of course, two-party power comes from more than just ideology. Around the turn of the century a wave of "good government" reforms began cementing the legal privileges of the two major parties. Through the 19th century, the government didn't control the printing of ballots. Parties themselves printed ballots for their candidates and supplied them for voters to cast. Within fairly wide parameters, all you needed was access to a printing press to be as legitimate a candidate as any other. The creation of state-issued ballots, with state rules for who could appear on them (rules designed by the two major parties for their benefit), helped destroy vital third parties by making it expensive -- often prohibitively so -- for them even to be on the ballot. The government takeover of the ballot was part of a general movement around the turn of the century to take power away from independent party structures and imbed it in the state, in the name of halting the evils of patronage and corruption. Not surprisingly, in doing so, the dominant Democrats and Republicans arranged it so that the new barriers and controls stymied their competitors more than they harmed the big parties.
I have to admit I hope something comes of the Tea Party movement. Not because it's respectable; it's odious, but it's impossible to predict how it would evolve, and how the two other parties would evolve in response. The current symbiotic duopoly is more harmful to the ideal of democratic self-governance than corporate political speech.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned the second quote was from a 2002 Brian Doherty piece in Reason, for those who don't click everything.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

the union exception

Ezra Klein explains the new version of the excise tax on Cadillac health plans.
The major elements of the excise tax are, first, the threshold at which plans begin getting taxed, and second, how quickly that threshold grows. In the Senate bill, the tax begins on family plans costing $23,000 a year, and that sum grows at the rate of inflation in the Consumer Price Index plus one percentage point (so if inflation that year was 3.3 percent, the threshold would grow by 4.3 percent).

The excise tax on expensive plans is one of the things I like about the Senate's health care bill. It gingerly steps toward counteracting the awful distortion that is tax code-induced employer-provided health insurance, the monster that veils health care costs from consumers, rigidifies labor markets, and inhibits entrepreneurial activity all at once. The employer health insurance tax subsidy should be got rid of completely; this threshold is moving in the wrong direction.
In the excise tax deal announced today, the threshold becomes $24,000, and the growth rate is exactly the same. The basics of the tax are virtually unchanged. The other elements of the deal are that vision and dental coverage aren't included in the taxable cost of the plan; there are adjustments for the age and gender of the pool (so if your insurance is expensive because everyone in your group is 52, there's an adjustment for that); and it doesn't hit union plans until 2018, which gives them time to renegotiate their contracts -- -- presumably rebalancing their compensation away from expensive insurance plans and towards higher wages, which is exactly what the tax is supposed to.
Why make vision and dental special cases? Whatever. The union bit is more interesting. I find it unlikely that, in these interim years, the unions will be renegotiate their compensation away from employer-provided, tax-free health insurance to normally taxed wages. They could just as easily lobby instead to keep the exception to the excise tax. If some union-busting Republicans gain power after the eight years are up, they can renegotiate then.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

government-loving libertarians

Here's an interesting article in Reason by a couple libertarian authors of a new book about why libertarians should care about improving the quality of government. Sounds interesting. Choice bits:
Incessant government-bashing may make you feel good, but alienates most everybody who knows and loves a police officer, firefighter, teacher, social worker, anyone who has ever collected an unemployment check, and anyone who saw NASA put a man on the moon.
In the short term, a philosophy of “government never works” might sell to the base but it’s not an effective strategy for building a broad-based electoral coalition or actually governing. Voters won’t trust people who hate government with the keys to City Hall.
After all, what is it that gets you so worked up about the current state of affairs? It is the human potential squandered by a government that isn’t the best that it can be. The ultimate goal is the pursuit of happiness, and when a properly limited government does its job well, it fosters freedom, peace, and prosperity. That is a noble goal. Why not embrace it?
It's fairly easy to become obsessed with the machinations of the enemy and forget all about the real reasons for your endeavors. While some libertarians find the very nature of government despicable, and thus its destruction or obstruction really is the whole point, I suspect most libertarians want most of all to expand liberty and advance human welfare; they just have a mix of biases and insights that make them keenly aware of the limitations of government in achieving these goals.

For incremental steps toward greater freedom and greater welfare, you have to use or adapt the institutions in place. (Revolutions are so last century?) This is one reason why I can't get behind the conservative criticism of value-added taxes, that their very clean, non-distorting efficiency will make it easy for the government to increase them. Reihan Salam speaks sense on this.

Or marriage of the gays. You're not doing good by harping on and on about how the state shouldn't be involved in marriage of any kind, however true that may be. When and where gay marriage is legalized, it will be an expansion of liberty over the status quo, even though one could perversely view it as an increase or entrenchment of government involvement.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

a cosmotarian view of the Aughts

In his Economic View column for the New York Times today, Tyler Cowen ably makes the case that the last decade was largely good for the world over all, whether or not it was good for America.

Choice bits:
One lesson from all of this is that steady economic growth is an underreported news story — and to our own detriment. As human beings, we are prone to focus on very dramatic, visible events, such as confrontations with political enemies or the personal qualities of leaders, whether good or bad. We turn information about politics and economics into stories of good guys versus bad guys and identify progress with the triumph of the good guys. In the process, it’s easy to neglect the underlying forces that improve life in small, hard-to-observe ways, culminating in important changes.
It might be pleasant to boast that America is — or should be — a world leader in every area, but the practical reality is that if some other country solves the problem of green energy, so much the better for us.

The subtler point is that a wealthier China, India, Brazil and Indonesia will lead to more customers for new innovations, thereby producing greater rewards for successful entrepreneurs, no matter where they live. There are so many improvements in cellphones these days because there are so many cellphone customers in so many countries.

To put it bluntly, if the United States takes one step back and the rest of the world takes two steps forward, even in purely selfish terms we should consider accepting the trade-off, if only for the longer run. Most of us gain from the wealth and creativity of other countries, even if we can’t always feel like the top dog.
Cowen links to Alex Tabarrok's TED talk, which always deserves a rewatch.

I want to beat people over their heads with this. There's no fundamental reason for America--or any one nation or people--to occupy some dominant place in the world. To think otherwise is to betray a misunderstanding of the positive-sum dynamics of the globalizing world. I will hate to see America lose its preeminence in the world because it's bound to do so in a ham-fisted, blundering way, hurting others in its decline. Observe America's behavior in the last decade. America's inevitable, relative decline could instead be part of the peaceful, cooperative rise of populous developing nations. If Americans want to avoid an absolute decline, they should adopt a more cosmopolitan worldview instead of wringing their hands over decades of self-injury.