Pulling a Hopkins

In honor of intellectually squeamish MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, I officially propose the following addition to the vernacular:

pull a Hopkins
intr. v.

1. to become faint or nauseated upon hearing a statement contrary to one's ideology or dogma.
2. to leave the room, usually dramatically, because of such faintness or nausea.
3. to feign such faintness or nausea as part of a ploy to establish or reinforce a social convention about the limits of acceptable discourse.

e.g.: “I pulled a Hopkins when I heard Bob say that, even though it has never worked, communism is 'a good idea.'”

Historical source:

“I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill. I would've either blacked out or thrown up.” – Professor Nancy Hopkins, in response to Harvard President Larry Summer's conjecture that women are scarce in certain mathematical disciplines because of genetic differences between the sexes.

Inauguration Speech: Trotskyite Christian Big-Government Libertarianism

I was surprised by the international focus of Bush's speech. And I doubt that there has ever been an inaugural speech that mentions 'freedom' and 'liberty' more often. (I count 27 instances of 'freedom' and 15 instances of 'liberty' in the speech). I ardently hope that the universal and eternal longing for liberty will awaken in the breasts of all the world's billions, and that the flame of freedom will burn bright over every nation, etc., etc., Nevertheless, I found Bush's bold proclamation of universal liberation somewhat troubling. Whatever he actually means, it sounds expensive and dangerous. That said, I admire the sentiment, and a pledge of solidarity with the world's oppressed can by itself have a powerful effect.

The striking thing about Bush's speech is the rhetorical thematic coherence it lends to his entire package of policies. Bush's vision is one of liberation. Here's my take on the argumentative structure underlying Bush's speech…

God gives each person intrinsic dignity and worth, and freedom is required for the full expression of that dignity and worth. Morality requires that we respect others' intrinsic worth not only by not trespassing against their liberty but also by securing the conditions of the full expression of their human dignity. Furthermore, freedom is interdependent. We are not fully free until all are free. So we must strive for the liberation of those abroad both because morality demands it, and because the full expression of our own freedom requires it. The United States is special because we have, more than any other nation, realized a system of freedom, and thus a system of respect for human dignity. Yet the work of America is not complete. Our system of freedom remains only partial. So we must attempt to bring to fruition the task of devising a system that fully respects the dignity and worth of each individual. The social expression of freedom is ownership, and the fulfillment of the promise of America lies in expanding ownership. We owe this to ourselves. Moreover, we also owe it to the rest of the world, for the American example of freedom is the most powerful force for human liberation.

You've got to give it Bush, he's got “the vision thing.” And it is, on the surface, a coherent and compelling vision. I particularly like the implied idea that we can respect the intrinsic worth of oppressed foreigners by implementing personal retirement accounts. Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming volume of rhetoric about freedom, Bush's speech paints a picture of a muscular and powerful American state willing to project itself out into the world as a missionary for liberty, which, I fear, does not bode well for liberty at home.

[Update: I think Sullivan says it well:

There were times when the liberty theme became repetitive. And, of course, the relationship of rhetoric to reality is, as always with Bush, problematic. How do you reconcile the expansion of freedom with Bush's expansion of government? How do you square domestic freedom with the curtailment of civil liberties in a war on terror? How do you proclaim that America is a force for freeing dissidents, when the government now has unprecedented powers to detain anyone suspected of terror across the globe and subject them to coercive interrogation techniques that the government will not disclose? Perhaps these questions do not need to be answered in an inaugural address. But they linger in the air, even as Bush's eloquence and idealism lifts you up and gives you hope.


The Forecasting Debate and the Brittleness of PAYGO

I've become frustrated with what I'll call the “forecasting” debate over social security. And my frustration has turned around into an additional argument against the PAYGO system.

It is now clear to me that the forecasting debate works by choosing your favored assumptions about growth, aging, immigration, etc., extrapolating into the future, and then arguing either that we are “headed for an iceberg” or that there is no iceberg, or at least there is no iceberg that can't be evaded with marginal tinkering.

However, the fact remains that no one knows what the growth rate is going to be in ten years. No one can tell you whether there will be a huge jump in life expetancy due to technological innovation in 20 years. No one can tell you whether President Jeb Bush will usher in a new era of mass immigration. Maybe those fascistic millenials will have six kids per pair!

Whatever the case may be, whether or not social security-as-we-know-it is sustainable depends on a lot of what we don't know and can't know. We can and should try to see what the future will look like if certain trends continue, given various different assumptions. Yet, we don't know how to assign probabilities to the assumptions or to the possible futures. It is likely that some unpredictable exogenous factor will render any such assignment moot.

But frustrations about the futility of the forecasting debate point to a deep flaw in the design of social security: the system is fragile. Brittle, even. The fact that the projected sustainability of social security is so sensitive to fairly small changes in growth rates, demographic change, unemployment rates and is a sure sign that it is extremely poorly designed policy.

Advocates of status quo-ish approaches are stuck arguing that the future's going to thread the needle of conditions under which the system is viable. Now, I don't know, and neither do they, whether their favored forecast will become reality. But it remains that a well-designed institution should be robust under a broad range of future conditions. Our PAYGO system just isn't. Small differences in the rate of growth, rate of increase of life expectancy, and so on, shouldn't make or break the system. Of course, there is no system that can reliably withstand dramatic changes in any variable. But we should at least aim for a system that is fairly adaptive and robust against moderate changes in growth, population, employement, and aging.

The Moral Case for Social Security Privatization

I have only begun to plumb the depths of Cato's resources on Social Security. In the process, I ran across this excellent paper, “The Moral Case for Social Security Privatization,” by Daniel Shapiro. It turns out that Danny made most of the arguments I've been trying to formulate back in 1998. It's time for this paper to get the attention it deserves.

Here's a taste:

The most important arguments for Social Security privatization are moral, not economic. Privatization would not be justifiable if it were economically beneficial but morally suspect.

However, a privatized Social Security system meets moral criteria far better than does our current, bankrupt, pay-as-you-go system. A privatized Social Security system gives individuals more freedom to run their lives, is fairer, provides more security, and creates less antagonism between generations, fostering a greater sense of community.

In fact, privatization is defensible not only from the classical 1iberal or libertarian perspective, based on maximizing individual choice and liberty, but from virtually every perspective in political philosophy. Egalitarians, who frame their arguments in terms of fairness, welfare theorists who frame their arguments in terms of economic security, communitarians who frame their arguments in terms of community, and anyone who frames an argument in terms of whether average citizens understand the institutions or programs which they are asked to support, should all support privatization.

UN Millenium Project

From the NYT:

“We're talking about rich countries committing 50 cents out of every $100 of income to help the poorest people in the world get a foothold on the ladder of development,” said Professor Sachs, who was appointed to lead the project by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2002.

Sachs no doubt understands that “countries” don't have income. People who live in countries have incomes. So “we're talking about” the state apparatus in charge of “rich countries” appropriating 1/2% of their citizens' incomes, and transferring it to the UN, an institution of extremely doubtful moral legitimacy, who will then distribute the money in the form of development aid, a strategy for creating prosperity about as successful as the use of leeches for the treatment of leukemia. Great.

And this is the sort of reporting that is not quite reporting:

Britain itself has pledged to double aid by 2013 to 0.7 percent of its national income. The United States, which currently allocates less than 0.2 percent for aid, has not made a comparable pledge.

It is hard to imagine that the author does not intend us to think, “Why not?”

Why not, indeed. Well, why is the “allocation” of the United States government more significant than the money voluntarily allocated by residents of the United States through remittances and charitable giving to aid efforts? See today's Cato Commentary by Ian Vasquez.

I've begun to think that in some sense the state is parasitic on the cognitive limitations of the media. It's an old chestnut that the development of science largely involved evacuating magical intentional agents from our explanatory schemes. If something happens, the easiest explanation for humans to understand is that someone made it happen because they wanted it to happen. Explanations are like stories, and convincing stories have characters who do stuff. The media has to tell a story, and the simpler the better. Nation-states, it turns out, are like giant people who can do stuff and make things happen. So if people are mired in poverty, what can be done! Have the League of Magical Giants sprinkle manna on the heads of the downtrodden! This is a story even a journalist can understand. However, the story where millions of individuals give small amounts of money to intermediary institutions, who administer funds to projects helping poor people on the ground . . . well, millions of people isn't a good character, and all those different charities and institutions doing different things with their bits of money is hard to follow.

So journalists write about magical giants, reinforce the idea of the nation-state as magical giant in the minds of readers, and the individuals of the exploitative political class prosper.

Social Security and "Moral Values"

I really liked this Jonathan Rauch piece in National Journal. His conclusion:

The 2004 exit polls suggested, to many conservatives, that “moral values” won the election for Bush. It may seem odd, then, that his boldest post-election priority is not abortion or gay marriage or schools, but Social Security. The key to the paradox is that Social Security reform is not, at bottom, an economic issue with moral overtones. It is a moral issue with economic overtones.

That's right. I'm planning to write a couple longish essays on the moral dimensions of Social Security reform, which I think are far more significant than the immediate economic dimensions.

The strategy of the left is to try to spike reform on the model of the right's demolition of Hillarycare. The big difference, as far as I can see, is that Hillarycare was popular at the outset, but not because it struck the ordinary Joe as some kind of moral advance, but because it seemed like free stuff. The anti-nationalization coalition I think effectively destroyed that idea that anyone would really get a good deal from it, and, perhaps more importantly, plucked several resonant American moral notes about independence, autonomy, and choice.

It seems that the pro-reform coalition in the present case faces broad skepticism about changing social security. However, other than scare tactics about market Russian roulette, the only moral arrow in the quiver of the left is a dull social democratic conservatism about preserving a moribund social insurance scheme. The case depends implicitly on the rather bizarre and unmotivated notion that taking care of each other means offloading responsibility onto the political class. I don't think this tune really sings in the heart of Americans, no matter how “populist” the arrangement. The “save the New Deal” trope lost its luster long ago. So I don't know how well it will fly. The best thing anti-reformists really have going for them is that people are risk averse and are wary of change.

On the other hand, the reformers have a moral message about ownership, independence, choice, and equality that I think may prove popular. A problem for the left in the Hillarycare debacle was that they had no adequately resonant response to the moral argument of the anti-nationalizers (not to mention the practical arguments). I don't think they have an adequately resonant moral response in this case, either. So their success really depends on their ability to effectively plumb the depths of mammalian fear. Risky schemes! Grandma on cat food! Rapacious moneybag bankers!

Shuffle Game

Will and Amber and playing a fun game, this is what I got:

Stormy Weather, Jimmy Luxury & the Tommy Rome Orchestra
Options, Pedro the Lion
Highly Evolved, The Vines
Tears Are in Your Eyes, Yo La Tengo
If We Can Land a Man On The Moon Then Surely I Can Win Your Heart, Beulah
Gotta Get Away, The Offspring
Joe #1, Fugazi
Another One Bites the Dust, Queen
We Got the Beat, The Go-Go's
In Da Club, 50 Cent

How about you?

DeLong's New Song?

I'm pleased to see that Brad DeLong has endorsed the general principles of the President's (still indeterminate) plan for social security reform. DeLong is worried that the President's proposal will turn into some kind of monstrosity, given Bush's record, which is fair enough. It seems that DeLong is basically saying that he would endorse something like personal accounts if only it was proposed by a Democratic president. If he is saying that, it's pretty interesting, given the heated vehemence of his prior attacks on personal accounts and their advocates.