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.