A Matter of Justice

Typically excellent stuff from Tim Lee:

I think a far more effective approach [than cost-benefit analysis] is to use what is probably the most powerful weapon in American politics: our now deeply-rooted and emotional commitment to the principle of equality before the law. Over the last 50 years, American society has undergone wrenching transformations that moved us toward equality for Catholics, blacks, Jews, women, gays and lesbian, and other traditionally disfavored groups. We achieved these reforms not by emphasizing how reform would benefit straight white men, or by building complex models of how oppression depressed GDP, but by focusing on the cruelty of the status quo and appealing to America’s founding ideals. We’ve now reached the point where opponents of equality for blacks or Jews are not only in the minority, but are among the most despised people in society.

I think the same strategy needs to be employed on behalf of immigration reform. The problem with our immigration laws is not primarily that they are economically inefficient (Jim Crow wasn’t efficient either). The problem is that they deny civil rights to millions of hard-working individuals based on a factor over which they have no control: their place of birth. I’m sure Dixon and Rimmer mean well, but their narrow focus on the costs and benefits of immigration to American households not only ignores powerful arguments about justice, it actually undercuts them by accepting the premise that we’re justified in ignoring the welfare of the millions of people who are in such deep poverty that they’re willing to risk their lives for the privilege of picking our strawberries and scrubbing our toilets.

Preach it brother. Showing that increased immigration tends to benefit natives reduces resistance on the margin, which is worth doing. But, in my experience, laying out clearly the immense benefits to the immigrants is extremely powerful. It highlights the needless misery caused by the heartless status quo. Even then, it is more powerful still to illustrate clearly how the status-quo system of borders, passports, visas, and citizenships systematically violates basic human rights to free movement and association.

Here is a border patrol officer doing his job:

Border Patrol Agent shoots Illegal Alien

Unholy Trinity

Kevin Grier's take on our likely health care reform legislation fairly well sums up my own feelings:

I actually think we are going to get a reform that is both worse than the status quo and worse than a pure single payer system.

Kudos to our Congress!
As I understand it, insurance companies will not be able to refuse to cover some one, nor will they be able to charge high risk people a premium that reflects their risk. The price won't be uniform, but the maximum variation will be well below what it would take to correctly price the variation in risks.
As I noted before, this will make premiums for healthy people extra high. And as the WSJ pointed out yesterday, at least on the margin, it will make healthy people want to hold off from getting any insurance until they are actually sick.
Problem solved, you say?
Ahh, but now it appears that the third leg of the trinity will be rule that it will be illegal to not have insurance!
So young healthy people will be forced to buy way overpriced (relative to their risk) insurance. Plus if said young healthy people make good money, they can look forward to paying more taxes to subsidize the purchase of said insurance by others.
Guaranteed Issue, Community Rating, Individual Mandate.  They sound so reasonable and innocuous, but they are freakin' lethal.
I guess it shows that we care.

Music to My Ears

Roman Frydman and Michael Goldberg at the FT's Economist's Forum:

Behavioural economists have uncovered much evidence that market participants do not act like conventional economists would predict “rational individuals” to act. But, instead of jettisoning the bogus standard of rationality underlying those predictions, behavioral economists have clung to it. They interpret their empirical findings to mean that many market participants are irrational, prone to emotion, or ignore economic fundamentals for other reasons. Once these individuals dominate the “rational” participants, they push asset prices away from their “true” fundamental values.

I've been harping on this error for years, but it has seemed to me that economists generally don't grok what the error is. It's good to see economists who get it.

Learning from Milton Friedman's Rhetoric

via Mark Perry, here's a delightful video of Milton Friedman arguing for the abolition of licensure for doctors at the Mayo Clinic. (Busting the monopolies in health care provision is the first item in my fantasy of health-care reform!)

The stark contrast between this class act and the histrionics of conservatives today got me thinking about Friedman's rhetorical style. What's so compelling about Friedman is his winsome combination of logic, lucidity, confidence, and geniality. He behaves as though the attention of even a hostile audience is a generous gift to be repaid with respect. And respect is paid by taking for granted the listeners' intelligence and good will in the search for truth. He gladly accepts the burden of laying out the case for controversial propositions and addressing seriously even badly mistaken objections. He never assumes an antagonistic or combative stance, no matter how antagonistic or combative the audience may be. He is neither apologetic nor defensive about his unpopular positions. He evidently does take some small pleasure in his iconoclasm, and I think this can come across as smugness or self-satisfaction to those inclined to disagree with him. But the same wry twinkle can be received as well as a manifestation of the calm confidence that makes his intellectual independence possible and of his basic happiness as a person. His happiness, I think, was his rhetorical secret weapon. One doesn't suspect a contented person of currying favor, seeking validation, or compensating for some unmet need. He makes it easy to believe in his good faith, and that makes him hard to dismiss.

Jonathan Chait on Ayn Rand

Jonathan Chait's review essay taking off from two new books about Ayn Rand, one of the most interesting and influential intellectual figures of 20th century, somehow manages to take the form of an extended defense of the redistribution of income and wealth. The bizarro-Rumpelstiltskin of the welfare state, Chait could spin gold into a defense of the redistribution of income and wealth, and he probably has! The problem with his Rand essay is that he spins away with only haphazard reference to Rand's work or thought. The root of the problem, I think, is twofold. First, Chait doesn't much care to know about Ayn Rand's work or thought, but wanted to pen a good Tea Party-pooping Ayn Rand slapdown anyway. Second, he lazily confuses a certain syndrome of anti-redistributive thinking common among Glenn Beck aficionados, in which some Randian themes certainly do appear, with Rand's own thought.

The meat of Chait's essay is devoted to beating up the false idea that levels of income and wealth roughly correspond to levels of effort, productivity, or some other exercise of virtue. This line of thinking eventually leads Chait into an examination of the overall progressivity of the American tax system. (Less progressive than you might think!) But what does this have to do with Ayn Rand?

Chait writes:

[T]he Randian inversion of the Marxist worldview … rests upon a series of propositions that can be falsified by data.

Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue–thrift, hard work, and the rest–and poverty the lack thereof.

He then proceeds to beat up on some Republicans.

As Chait points out, Rand plumped for Wilkie in 1940, but she was no Republican. More to the point, Rand did not think income and wealth represents a sign of virtue — of hard work, productivity, or anything else. Being an intelligent person, she thought that who got how much of what depended on the complex interplay of culture and the structure of the political economy. She did think that those who through effort or industry improve others' lives ought to see the value of their work acknowledged and rewarded in some form or other. But no one would infer from Rand's novels and nonfiction that the United States looks, or in her day looked, anything like her ideal.

Rand was a radical critic of what she saw as our debased culture and “mixed economy.” In her biting words, a mixed economy is

a mixture of capitalism and statism, of freedom and controls. A mixed economy is a country in the process of disintegration, a civil war of pressure-groups looting and devouring one another.

Hey! That's us! Massive political bailouts to banks and auto manufacturers and seething political strife over the expansion of redistributive “entitlements” are precisely the kinds of things Rand had in mind.

Let's take a moment to think of the many ways worldly success and moral merit come apart in Rand's immensely influential fiction. In The Fountainhead, Peter Keating traces the trajectory of the sell-out. He achieves professional success through slavish conformity to banal popular taste. He is the archetype of Rand's despised “second-hander.” Rand's point is not that pathetic second-handers with desperate cravings for external validation do not work their way into the top income decile. Her point is that they do! But they don't really deserve it. If there's cosmic justice, it's in the fact that successful second-handers are miserable because they know they don't deserve it. Rand's condemnation of Keating is also a not-very-subtle condemnation of popular taste, which she generally judges execrable. Whatever else it might be, The Fountainhead is a searing critique of getting ahead by giving the people what they want. From a quick read of Rand's lesser doorstop, one might suspect that, exceptional cases aside, the distributions of both income and social esteem bear a strong relationship to skill at peddling popular bullshit.

Rand emphasizes that in a world of second-handers, a great single-minded artist might die broke and mostly forgotten. That's the sub-plot of Henry Cameron in The Fountainhead. And if not for the intervention of the surprising philosophical and oratorical talents suddenly summoned by the book's taciturn hero at his bombing trial (one man's terrorism is another man's unflinching aesthetic vision!), Howard Roark would have gotten a good harsh dose of criminal justice and ended up rotting in jail, like notable theory-driven bombers Ted Kazcynski and Timothy McVeigh, instead of skating like Bill Ayers. That Roark ends up surveying the world that has become his oyster from his uncompromising skyscraper with his uncompromising gal is a triumph of hopeful narrative malfeasance over the bitter penniless ruin that is otherwise depicted as the great man's predictable lot.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand doesn't much conceal her disgust at James Taggart, the immensely wealthy heir to a railroad fortune who tries to consolidate the position of his inherited company through political pull. In Rand's taxonomy of villains, he is a “looter.” Rand's point is not that looters don't get ahead. Her point is they do. And it works because actually productive people are either too dumb or guilty to grasp that moralizing political rhetoric is as often as not a bullshit front for corporatist political predation. From a quick read of Atlas Shrugged, one might expect that the distribution of income and social esteem in a “mixed economy” bears a strong relationship to membership in pressure groups, and the quality of their lobbyists and PR flaks.

The mostly tragic world of Atlas Shrugged is one in which the truly creative and productive are rewarded with unending resentment and exploitation while politically-connected corporations pay Washington insiders to rig the mechanisms of redistributive democratic politics to reel in and lock down unearned gains. Rand thought the world we actually live in is dangerously close to the one she depicted.

Rand does not valorize the wealthy. She valorizes the uncompromising integrity of creative visionaries and the productivity of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs. But there is little to assure the reader that the virtues she extols really pay. Rand's view of the world was actually pretty bleak, pretty Russian. Her best novel, We the Living, is best precisely because she had yet to philosophically suppress her tragic instincts. One of the least plausible and certainly the saddest aspects of Rand's thought is what she called the “benevolent universe premise” — a kind of as-if attitudinal stance of positivity meant to ensure “the inability to believe in the power or the triumph of evil.” She goes on:

No matter what corruption one observes in one’s immediate background, one is unable to accept it as normal, permanent or metaphysically right. One feels: “This injustice (or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony) is the exception in life, not the rule.” One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters.

“One feels…” This is Rand's leap of faith, her animal spirit, her will to believe. She needed her silly, contrived happy endings — and she thought we needed them — to maintain the will to do the right thing, to fight for justice, despite every indication that it's a bad bet. Rand thought we need to feel that effort and virtue will be rewarded, or else we will, rationally enough, stop supplying effort and virtue. And then we'll all be good and truly screwed. Make of this what you will, but it is very far from the vulgar Calvinism that sees a person's level of success as an indicator of their merit.

Now, I'm more than willing to snicker right along with Chait at ridiculously puffed-up computer engineers who threaten to “Go Galt” at the first hint of an impending tax hike while blithely enjoying the wage subsidy of the United State's super-stingy H1-B visa cap. But he's really just careless in conflating the views of Ayn Rand's confused fans with Ayn Rand's own. I'm delighted there are two important new books that take Rand seriously as a woman, writer, and thinker. It's too bad that Chait uses their publication as an occasion to once again take a brave stand for the redistributive state.

New at Cato Unbound: Scott Sumner on the Monetary Flubs that Caused the Crash

This month's edition of Cato Unbound on “The Monetary Lessons of the Not-So-Great Depression” kicks off with a probing, provocative essay by headliner Scott Sumner, “The Real Problem Was Nominal.” He says things like this:

We cannot hope to understand what happened late last year without first recognizing that the proximate cause of the crash was not a financial crisis, but rather a steep decline in nominal spending. Like any other fall in aggregate demand, this represented a failure of monetary policy. Severe demand-side recessions are almost never the result of special interest politics — the losses are too great and too widespread — but instead represent an intellectual failure by well-meaning public servants and the academic economists who advise them.

And this:

The real problem was not a “real” problem at all. It was a nominal problem, and the severe intensification of the debt crisis was a symptom of an ordinary Humean nominal shock. Furthermore, monetary policy was not “easy” but rather was highly contractionary in the only sense that matters, that is, relative to the stance expected to hit the Fed’s implicit nominal targets.

On deck we've got James Hamilton, George Selgin, and Jeff Hummel.

Causes of the Crisis

Critical Review has started a new blog “Causes of the Crisis” featuring contributors to the journal's stellar issue on the topic. The papers in CRs special issue add up to the best and most comprehensive autopsy of the financial collapse available anywhere. The blog looks terrific too. Some excerpts…

David Colander:

Using models within economics or within any other social science, is especially treacherous. That’s because social science involves a higher degree of complexity than the natural sciences. The reason why social science is so complex is that the basic unit in social science, which economists call agents, are strategic, whereas the basic unit of the natural sciences are not. Economics can be thought of the physics with strategic atoms, who keep trying to foil any efforts to understand them and bring them under control. Strategic agents complicate modeling enormously; they make it impossible to have a perfect model since they increase the number of calculations one would have to make in order to solve the model beyond the calculations the fastest computer one can hypothesize could process in a finite amount of time.


This recognition that the economy is complex is not a new discovery. Earlier economists, such as John Stuart Mill, recognized the economy’s complexity and were very modest in their claims about the usefulness of their models. They carefully presented their models as aids to a broader informed common sense. They built this modesty into their policy advice and told policy makers that the most we can expect from models is half-truths. To make sure that they did not claim too much for their scientific models, they divided the field of economics into two branches—one a scientific branch, which worked on formal models, and the other political economy, which was the branch of economics that addressed policy. Political economy was seen as an art which did not have the backing of science, but instead relied on the insights from models developed in the scientific branch supplemented by educated common sense to guide policy prescriptions.

In the early 1900s that two-part division broke down, and economists became a bit less modest in their claims for models, and more aggressive in their application of models directly to policy questions. The two branches were merged, and the result was a tragedy for both the science of economics and for the applied policy branch of economics.

Vernon Smith:

Hayek made a similar charge [to Krugman's in his long NYT piece] in his Nobel Lecture of December 11, 1974, The Pretence of Knowledge:

… the economists are at this moment called upon to say how to extricate the free world from the serious threat of accelerating inflation which, it must be admitted, has been brought about by policies which the majority of economists recommended and even urged governments to pursue. We have indeed at the moment little cause for pride: as a profession we have made a mess of things.

Although Hayek saw the problem as stemming from an inappropriate “scientistic” attitude, he explicitly wanted “…to avoid giving the impression that I generally reject the mathematical method in economics.” Rather, his main message was that

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible…The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

Economic scientists have precious little understanding of this rule governed complex order, and how to keep it on its demonstrated long term path of growth and human betterment without suffering too irreparably from the kind of unpredictable reverses that we are now mired in. Less pretence and a commitment to learn from the new data being generated as I write, will be both humbling and informative, after the inevitable human political impulse to blame one's long standing political adversaries has run its course.

I look forward to posts from the other contributors.

For a 9/10 America

Watching and reading the various 9/11 remembrances this year, I get the sense that a lot of Americans are ready to move on but are hesitant for fear of seeming either callous or negligently complacent about the country's security. But it's past time to move on.

The enormity of the 9/11 mass murders will always stay with those of us old enough to remember. Terrorist acts are perhaps by definition political, in some broad sense of 'political'. So the terrible events of 9/11 have always been politicized. But 9/11 has been politicized in another way. The United States' government reacted to to 9/11 and that reaction has been, to my mind, an enormous disaster. Yet those responsible for this disaster have been successful in hiding behind the shock of the crumbling towers, as if support for their dangerous and deadly policies is inexorably implied by feeling deeply the full weight of 9/11's tragedy. Those most insistent that we “never forget” 9/11 are those who need our continuing collective complicity in the erosion of our civil liberties, in the weakening of the rule of law, in the unjustified invasion of unrelated foreign countries and the murder of their people, in the policy of state-sanctioned torture. The difficulty many Americans have in separating remembrance of an act of terror from an endorsement of the war on terror may turn out be George W. Bush's great legacy.

The United States was a better place on September 10th, 2001. We should not forget what happened the next day. Nor should we forget the wrongs the United States has subsequently done. That September 10th is long gone. But there will always be another one. Whether we will live in a 9/10 or a 9/11 world is a choice we have, and it is a choice we continue to make.

Queerly Canadian

My short “Dispatch” item on traveling to Ottawa to become suddenly always Canadian appears in the new issue of The Atlantic, which is now available online and at fine news stands everywhere. A snippet:

After dining with other lost Canadians the evening before I became a citizen, I found myself walking the not-so-mean streets of Ottawa alone an hour before midnight. So I wandered into the Royal Oak, an English pub on Bank Street. I persuaded some game locals, Austin and Rachelle, to share a toast and snap my picture in front of the Maple Leaf hanging behind the bar. Midnight! To gain a citizenship in one magical moment, without exertion or will, is to experience as an adult the national baptism that comes with birth. I felt exhilarated, if a bit of a fraud. Austin and Rachelle were exceedingly kind to me. We exchanged cell-phone numbers. We agreed to connect on Facebook. We all understood that I am a thoroughgoing American, qualifying as Canadian through a weird technicality. But they were happy for me, happy to have me. Because they’re Canadians, I suppose.

Thomas Friedman's New Math of Democracy

Thomas Friedman's New York Times column today would be astonishing in its incoherence if only Friedman hadn't long ago sapped us of our ability to be astonished by his incoherence. Like many capital-'d' Democrats, Friedman has soured on democracy for failing to deliver on his policy wish list.

Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

Why does Friedman say the United States has one-party democracy? Because the Republican Party is effectively opposing the Democratic Party's agenda! Not even kidding. Get this:

The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying “no.” Many of them just want President Obama to fail. Such a waste. Mr. Obama is not a socialist; he’s a centrist. But if he’s forced to depend entirely on his own party to pass legislation, he will be whipsawed by its different factions.

Only the Democrats are really playing! You might think that would mean they can do whatever they darn well please. But no! The Democrats can't do anything! Because the other party's opposition is so effective! So it's exactly as if there's just one party: nothing gets done!

My hunch is that the Times' editors see Friedman aiming the gun at his foot, but watching a man stupid enough to actually pull the trigger is so fun they hate to intervene. That or they're trying to explode the myth of American meritocracy.

So where were we? Oh, yes: one-party democracy is aggravating because sometimes one party can't do what it wants because the other party gets in the way. Sooo frustrating!!! Why have democracy at all when all you end up with is a single party stymied by the other one! And so it is that Friedman comes to wax romantic about communist central planning:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power.

Nikita Kruschev, the enlightened leader of a now-defunct one-party autocracy, was also committed to overtaking the United States in technology and so much more. “We will bury you” is how he put it. At the time, more than a few left-leaning American opinionmakers suspected he was right. After all, how can inefficiently squabbling democracies possibly keep pace with undivided regimes wholly devoted to scientifically centrally planning their way into the brighter, better future? And that, children, is why we speak Russian today.

[Cross-posted from Cato@Liberty]