Off to Turkey

After the Nudge forum tomorrow afternoon, Kerry and I are off to Turkey for about a week and a half. The deafening silence you will hear is me on a beach worrying about work. Anyway, we've made absolutely no plans, other than arranging a rental car in Istanbul. For all I know we'll be sleeping in it. If you've been to Turkey and know of awesome stuff to do and see, please report below. If you can (in)validate guidebook stuff, that's terrific, but if you know anything weird, out of the way, or word-of-mouthy, even better.

False Consciousness, Psychological Freedom, and Pluralism

Some thoughts relevant to general issues about kids raised on isolated compounds by religious fanatics…

There's nothing wrong with false consciousness explanations, as long as they are actually explanatory. You've just got to specify actual mechanisms. Political freedom loses much of its point in the absence of psychological freedom. Rationality and the capacity for moral agency develop. That's why we do not think children have the same rights and responsibilities as adults: they haven't developed the requisite capacities. But this development can be retarded, creating adults with little more than a child's capacities, reinforcing childlike dependency. If you don't worry about this, then I wonder in what sense you care about human freedom.

It is tyrannical for parents to attempt to reproduce their ideologies and prejudices in their children, especially when this requires social isolation and emotional coercion. Liberals who worry about religious home schooling are not wrong to worry. I defend home schooling not because parents have a moral right to indoctrinate their children. Indeed, parents have a moral obligation not to. They just have a political right to not be stopped, within bounds. Many parents, though they intend the opposite, are in fact guilty of wrongful disregard for the development of their children's psychological freedom. They deserve condemnation and ostracism, not interference from the state. I defend their political right to potentially behave immorally — to harm their children's capacity for the full exercise of their rightful freedom — in part because I appreciate how accommodating pluralism reduces social conflict. But, perhaps more importantly, because I think that full-fledged competitive diversity in education will help erode superstitious thick identities, that it will help fosters a sense of contingency in inherited identities that make it easier to slough them off, or at least easier to wear lightly. But, even then, the scope of liberal pluralism has its limits, and it is neither right nor desirable to avoid the conflict inherent in debating and enforcing those limits.

Down on the Compound

I agree with Kerry in being a bit perplexed by what seems to me unreflective anti-gubmint reactions of libertarians to the FLDS imbroglio. It seems clear enough to me that these kids are basically brainwashed, isolated, and made dependent in a way that makes it all-but-impossible for them to freely choose this way of life or ever to have the capacity to exercise their liberty in a meaningful way. Individuation and the minimal conditions for self-government don't develop all by themselves, but we each have legitimate moral and political claims against our parents for their development. The state should step in if parents violate their kids' basic rights, because protecting rights are what states are for.

I understand the slippery slope argument here. But this is child abuse and evangelical homeschooling isn't, and it's important to be able articulate the difference. If you can't figure out how to articulate the difference, then you don't infer that child abuse is OK. You infer that evangelical home-schooling is child abuse, too — so you'd better be able to articulate the difference. If the government has overstepped its legal powers in this particular case, then they've overstepped their legal powers. But that might just mean that it needs to be easier for the state to protect children against brainwashing and rape. Apologizing for it doesn't seem to me a coherently libertarian position.

The libertarian point is that the illegality and attendant marginalization of polygamy pushes it into isolated, authoritarian, quasi-state cult compounds where these kinds of crimes are most likely to take place.

Econonerd Shindig

Tyler and Alex's son give their impressions of the party at Robin Hanson's lovely home yesterday afternoon. It's a special kind of relief to be able to spend a few hours with a whole house full of people with whom one does not have to be defensive about thinking rationally (i.e. “reductively”, “autistically”, “soullessly”) about tough questions. This is a party where you're the weird one if you don't think it's appropriate to apply cost-benefit analysis to the choice to have kids, or if you don't think it's more or less obvious that open immigration is welfare-enhancing, or that robots are awesome. Good times. Here's some pics.

Geoffrey Sayre-McCord on Free Will

That's “appearing on” not “talking about”. This week on Free Will, I chat with philosopher Geoffrey Sayre-McCord about the nature of metaethics in general and moral realism in particular. Since metaethics was, at one point, my academic specialty (I went into the Ph.D. program at Maryland with a mind to work on the nature of moral concepts), I really, really enjoyed this chat. I hope to have Geoff back on to talk about issues of naturalism and evolutionary thinking in moral philosophy.

Non-Uniform Inflation and Nominal Income Inequality

When Tyler says to shout something from the rooftops, I comply. From Zubin Jelvah's summary of a new paper from Christian Broda and John Romalis [pdf]:

Instead of focusing purely on what's produced outside of the country, Broda and Romalis turn their attention to an interesting but obvious relationship between imports and consumption within our border: The goods exported by poorer countries are typically consumed by lower-income Americans. Our typical methods of quantifying inequality, however, don't take this into account.

At the same time, inflation in the price of these goods has fallen behind inflation in services, which make up a greater portion of what wealthier people buy. Taken together, these trends imply that official measures may be overstating the rise in inequality.

Looking at trade data between 1994 and 2005, Broda and Romalis construct inflation rates for different income groups and find that rates for the richest outpaced rates for the poorest by about 4 percent over the period. Since income inequality between the top and bottom 10 percent of earners grew by about 6 percent, the different inflation rates among income groups wipes out about two-thirds of the rise in inequality.

China's role in this new way of analyzing inequality is large, accounting for about 50 percent of the total reduction.

(A very interesting aside. Broda and Romalis also find that the poor are more likely than the rich to buy newer goods. Because of the lag in how quickly the CPI tracks new products, the researchers argue that once this “new goods bias” which serves to keep official inflation rates higher than they actually are since newer goods are typically cheaper, is factored out, inequality between the rich and the poor between 1994 and 2005 may not have changed at all.) [emphasis mine]

When I talked to Jeffrey Sachs briefly (at the Economist debate) about my project on thinking clearly about inequality, he suggested that constructing inflation indices for different income groups would be a good idea, and I said I wish I had the wherewithal to do that. I'm thrilled to see someone has done it.

Optimal Carbon Tax

Carbon emissions aren't a negative externality of energy consumption. Global warming isn't a negative externality, either. Warming will have some positive effects, too. It's the damage or harm from global warming that's the negative external effect of energy consumption. But that's not quite right, either. Because it's not clear that all the warming is the effect of human activity. Some warming might have been in the cards anyway, in which case, we're just exacerbating the trend. So in order to estimate the optimal pigouvian tax, we not only need a solid estimate of the net harm of warming, but we also need a good estimate of how much of that is the external effect of human activity. I don't think there exists a good estimate, which I think gives us good reason to worry about proposed carbon taxes. Any tax, unless we are very lucky, will either be too low or too high. If it is too low, we'll get too much carbon emission. But if it's too high, we'll get too little and I think that's likely the more worrying scenario, especially if it slows growth for poor countries. And I worry that harm could turn out be larger than the harm the tax is meant to prevent.

This whole area confuses me a lot because I see a lot of smart people who seem to be acting like they have a good idea about what the optimal tax rate is, but I am pretty certain no one does.

Robert Frank Missing the Story on Schools and Positional Competition Again

I've been complaining for a while now about Robert Frank's insistence on using the contingent house-school link to make his positional externalities argument. Tim Lee catches the latest instance in Frank's recent WaPo piece. Tim nails it:

This is an eloquent indictment of our perverse system of linking schools to real estate. We don’t generally limit access to hospitals, libraries, or colleges by geography, and there’s no good reason children’s schools should be determined that way either.


The most important thing to note, though, is that the scarcity of good schools Frank identifies is not an inherent fact about the universe, but a consequence of the public school monopoly. In a competitive education market, a shortage of good schools in a given area would spur people to either start new schools or expand the best of the existing ones. But the public school system has few mechanisms for doing either of those things (charter schools are a very limited mechanism for starting innovative public schools). Which means that the supply of good public schools is artificially limited, leading parents to bid up their price. The way to alleviate the shortage of good schools is not to re-regulate the mortgage market, but to reform the education system so that it’s easier to start and expand high-quality schools. Few things would do that as effectively as a robust program of school choice.

But that would make sense!