Videos and papers from the “Secession Redux: Lessons for the EU” conference, sponsored by the LBJ School at the University of Texas, are now online. My presentation was part of the “Current EU Challenges” panel.
Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
The new edition of Econ Journal Watch has a wonderful symposium on Milton Friedman entitled “Why No Milton Friedman Today?” (h/t Marginal Revolution). Some of the essays argue that Friedman’s influence was possible, in part, because the profession itself was less specialized and less technical. As Richard A. Epstein notes:
Once the level of sophistication goes up in any field, specialization starts to exert its influence. Niche players claim greater expertise in particular areas, and they start to push the all-purpose stars to the side. That tendency is accentuated in economics as high-powered mathematics and large data sets gain prominence. They make it ever more difficult for any person to be expert in more than one or two subfields of inquiry.The demands of the profession influence the kinds of students who enter into it, so that free-spirited intellects like Milton Friedman are less likely to be drawn to the field than they were 100 or even 50 years ago.
Friedman’s influence may have been a product of the times. As Epstein suggests, the question that animates the symposium also asks “why there are no Keyneses, no Hayeks, no Wittgensteins, no Russells, no Eliots, or other giants who once strode the earth.”
Other essays address Friedman’s personal attributes. David R. Henderson’s brief essay, “Why Milton Friedman was Rare,” for example, takes this approach and provides some useful insights into the man and the influence he had on the author. Henderson recalls how he first discovered Friedman as a 17-year old, after having worked through the works of Ayn Rand. A few years later, he would have the opportunity to meet with Friedman. As Henderson recalls:
Friedman had what I regard as the two main characteristics that lead to warmth: he was totally comfortable in his own skin, and he genuinely liked people. At age 19, a few weeks after graduating from the University of Winnipeg, I flew down to Chicago and went to his office at the University of Chicago. Friedman invited me in warmly and took about ten minutes of his time to convey two main messages to me. The first was that there’s more to intellectual life and development than Ayn Rand. The second—and these were his exact words—was, “Make politics an avocation rather than a vocation.” Then he gently escorted me to the door. But he gave a 19-year-old kid ten minutes.
The essays are brief, chocked full of personal anecdotes, and well worth a few minutes of your time. I look forward to comparing their insights to those of a new intellectual biography of Friedman that I have on pre-order.
This from NBC’s Lisa Meyers (via RealClearPolitics video):
[The IRS commissioner] has known for at least a year that this was going on and that this had happened. And did he share any of that information with the White House? But even more importantly, Congress is going to ask him, why did you mislead us for an entire year? Members of Congress were saying conservatives are being targeted. What’s going on here? The IRS denied it. Then when — after these officials are briefed by the IG that this is going on, they don’t disclose it. In fact, the commissioner sent a letter to Congress in September on this subject and did not reveal this. Imagine if we — if you can — what would have happened if this fact came out in September 2012, in the middle of a presidential election? The terrain would have looked very different.
All scandals are not created equal. But I don’t see how even the most rabid left-wing partisan would not find Meyer’s point pretty compelling.
Great quote from Jonah Goldberg: ”It’s a very exciting time to see the press corps interested in its job all the sudden.”
The NY Times main home page, of all places, has a video about the IRS story with Richard Nixon on the cover.
Not a good week for our President.
Pileus blogger Jason Sorens is the founder of the Free State Project. Thus our regular readers may be interested in hearing about the progress of his baby in this article in the June edition of Reason magazine. Like libertarian academics before him such as Milton Friedman, Sorens is both an idealist and a realist – which is part of the reason for the FSP’s success. Sorens talks about that in this nice section of the Reason piece:
Sorens thinks the project’s success stems partly from its modest approach. “The whole point behind the FSP was to avoid utopianism,” he says. Rather than trying to “build this new society,” he says, Free Staters “opted instead for incrementalism, making small but noticeable, meaningful changes.” Building an entire new world requires a massive investment before anybody sees results, big or small. The Free State Project already has won victories without spending much money or ripping up social architecture.
At a recent Porcfest (a summer gathering of Free Staters and fellow travelers), it was fun to see our friend and colleague treated like a rock star. May the legend – and the FSP – grow!
So, the recent numbers suggest the short-term (next few years) outlook don’t suck as bad as it used to: deficits significantly lower than previously projected and debt as a percentage of GDP holding steady. Ross Douthat has an interesting summary of why everyone hates these numbers (except the Obama administration). Nothing to get giddy about, to be sure, but better than bad news.
The long-term fiscal picture of the US is still scary; entitlements are still un-reformed; the expansive federal state continues to march on mostly unabated, sucking up economic capacity and squashing the entrepreneurial spirit. But, you know what I think is still the most likely outcome, the only one that is backed-up by roughly four centuries of evidence?
America is still likely to outgrow all the problems our knuckle-headed leadership in both parties have created for us. It always has before.
Increased sodium consumption raises blood pressure, and high blood pressure is strongly correlated with (and perhaps causes) heart disease. Thus, a low salt diet reduces the risk of heart disease.
Sounds reasonable. But apparently wrong. A committee set up by the National Institute of Medicine (part of the CDC) just released their review of the research: no benefits from low salt consumption. The leader author on the report says, according to the NY Times:
Although the advice to restrict sodium to 1,500 milligrams a day has been enshrined in dietary guidelines, it never came from research on health outcomes… Instead, it is the lowest sodium consumption can go if a person eats enough food to get sufficient calories and nutrients to live on. As for the 2,300-milligram level, that was the highest sodium levels could go before blood pressure began inching up.
In its 2005 report, the Institute of Medicine’s committee said that sodium consumption between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams a day would not raise blood pressure.
That range, Dr. Strom said, “was taken by other groups and set in stone.” Those other groups included the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, which formulated dietary guidelines in 2005.
This reveals a lot about how government guidelines are made:
- Lack of a research foundation was not a significant obstacle to creating the guideline.
- The upper end of the “safe” range was dropped in favor of the lower end.
- The lower end that became the guideline is that minimum level necessary to maintain life; thus it is not surprising that some studies have shown that as salt intake approaches that 1500 milligram level that other bad things start happening.
- There are a lot of warnings (for good reason) about the political power of the food industry in setting dietary guidelines. Manufacturers of high sodium foods make lots of money, yet this low guideline still persisted. Lesson: the political power of those who oppose processed foods should not be ignored. [Interesting political query: how did this diffuse interest conquer the concentrated interest?]
- Lots of people think that sodium is bad. How many of them know that a sodium deficiency will kill you? Really fast.
Before you start adding more salt to your potatoes, however, it is good to remember that this new body of research is not based on the carefully controlled experimental framework that we would like to see. Indeed, much of what we “know” about nutrition is similarly suspect because it is very, very hard to do those types of studies on human beings.
Dietary guidelines are largely based on pieces of empirical observation connected by theories–not on RCTs of real diets. The same could be said of a lot of social science work, including economics, so I’m not picking on nutritionists. And if you think nutrition science is suspect and politicized, just take a little trip through psychology. Those folks have been fighting about revisions to the DSM for a long time, and the casualty count is very high.
Because people are much harder to study than laboratory mice, we know much, much less than we think we do. Even about mice, I presume.
Ezra Klein altered my thinking a tad on campaign finance with his recent discussion of the effects of “big money” and “small money.”
On a gut level, I vastly prefer the passionate party activist who sends $200 to her favorite fire-breather to the lobbyist who coolly covers his bets by supplying $2,000 to both candidates in a race. One is acting as an engaged citizen. The other is a glorified bagman. But both have the potential to break our political system.
Just as big money is corrupting, small money is polarizing. And it’s polarization that probably poses the bigger threat to American politics right now. Big money, for example, generally wants to raise the debt ceiling. Small money is one reason Republicans in Congress came close to breaching it. Big money often wants the two parties more or less to get along; no one gets a tax break if legislation dies on the floor. Small money will turn on you if you dare cut a deal with the other side. Big money erodes what little trust Americans still have in their political system. Small money attacks the bipartisanship that, for better and worse, is required for the system to function.
When I said “altered my thinking,” I did not mean, of course, that he led me to where he (and many other MSM types) want election financing to go, namely in the direction of public financing. I hadn’t really thought of this big money/small money distinction before, and I think the point about small money and partisanship makes a lot of sense. But I part ways with Klein (who is mostly borrowing the ideas here from Sen. Chris Murphy) regarding the normative implications of this theory. As is so often the case, Klein jumps from the positive to the normative and assumes that everyone will jump with him without even realizing it.
When Klein says that bipartisanship is “required for the system to function,” what he is really saying is “required for the Congress to pursue a centrist agenda.” To his ilk, functioning means what we have seen steadily over the past century–an ever increasing scale and scope of the federal government (nicely illustrated in Marc’s recent picture of the uninterrupted trend in per-capita spending).
Klein goes on to say that we “need to change the rules and incentives to keep polarized parties from undermining the well-being of the country.” Again, to translate, by “well-being of the country” he means “the centrist, statist, country that I value.”
One of my colleagues argued with me awhile back that it is not an unreasonable normative theory to give weight to the preferences of the median voter, which will always be centrist. But those preferences, facilitated by bi-partisan cooperation over the years, have led to the steady creep, creep, creep of the federal state. As we inch closer to a debt crisis, it is hard to imagine a centrist, bi-partisan solution to those problems unless someone’s feet are held to the fire through some combination of the many anti-majoritarian safeguards infused into the Constitution.
The problem with turning our Republic over to the median voter is that the median voter really sucks at math. He is like the accountant that has hidden the cost column on his spreadsheet and cannot understand why the company seems to be unraveling.
Centrists (both those who lean right and those who lean left) have the right to argue their ideology as much as any non-centrist. I just get really annoyed that their ideology is couched in terms of ”functioning” or “getting things done.” Non-centrists want to get things done, too, they just have different visions of what that means.
As for me, nothing could be better describe as “getting things done” than putting the brakes on Leviathan. Perhaps small money and anti-majoritarian safeguards can accomplish what bi-partisanship probably never will.
Sad to just learn that Kenneth Waltz, one of the most influential international relations scholars of the last 50 years (perhaps only rivaled by Sam Huntington), passed away today. More later once I finish my grading. But love or hate his work, it is impossible not to agree that he was a giant in the field who had a massive impact on how we think about international politics. Here is Walt on Waltz.
It is not surprising that Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman is in the Rutgers University Hall of Distinguished Alumni. Indeed, he must be one of the most successful graduates of that New Jersey state school.
Can one be a distinguished alum – or even an undistinguished alum, by definition, without actually graduating? According to Merriam Webster’s definition, it seems possible: “a person who has attended or has graduated from a particular school, college, or university.” But is that the common sense understanding of the term? For those readers of ours who attended college but never graduated, do you consider yourself an alum of that school? Is my wife an alum of Harvard University since she took a class there once? When do we get the invites to the alumni reunions (and the awesome networking opportunities)? And what class are you placed in if you never graduate?
The Miami Dolphins (and several other professional sports teams in Florida) deserve our severe disapprobation and should be ashamed of themselves for attempting to steal money from Florida taxpayers. According to ESPN, “The Dolphins wanted both state and local help to pay for $400 million worth of renovations to 26-year-old Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins wanted $3 million a year for the next 30 years from the state.”
But they weren’t the only rent-seekers attempting to eat from the public trough: “The professional sports teams were all backing a Florida Senate proposal that would have allowed each of them to compete for a share of state tax dollars. The measure would have created a process for pro teams to vie for $13 million a year in state incentives.”
Fortunately, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford wasn’t willing to go along and didn’t allow the funding package through the legislature. However, his remarks suggest that we should only give Weatherford one cheer for his move:
“I think part of the complication was the fact that it wasn’t just the Dolphins,” Weatherford said Friday. “You had five or six different franchises that were looking for a tax rebate, and that’s serious public policy. You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, and I think the House just never got comfortable there when the session ended.”
So would Weatherford have been comfortable giving away tax dollars to make rich men richer if only one pig had sidled up to the trough? The Dolphins tweaked their logo this year. Perhaps they should have changed their name to another animal.
Recently Jason Collins became the first current athlete in major professional sports in the US to come out as gay. This earned him the cover of Sports Illustrated and more attention than he ever received for actually playing basketball. Reaction of other athletes and the general public to the announcement seems to be extremely supportive.
A less covered aspect of this story is that Jason has an identical twin brother, Jarron, who is also an NBA veteran and who spent many years underperforming for my Utah Jazz. Jarron is straight and claims to have had no idea whatsoever that his twin brother is gay until very recently. Jarron and Jason have never publicly confirmed or disproven that they are monozygotic (identical) twins. My understanding of twins is that, especially as they grow older, identical twins prefer to emphasize their individuality rather than their genetic commonality, causing them to reject the “identical” moniker. For a variety of reasons, identical twins have slight variations in appearance that usually allow them to be differentiated by people who are paying attention, even though they have the same genes. But most people who have watched the Collins over the years would find it shocking if they were not monozygotic (more shocking than one of them being gay, actually).
There is a long history of studying variation in genetic phenotypes with twin studies . Homosexuality has always proven a genetic puzzle because it lowers reproductive fitness and, therefore, should die out over time. A recent study in the Quarterly Review of Biology (University of Chicago Press) says, “Pedigree and twin studies indicate that homosexuality has substantial heritability in both sexes, yet concordance between identical twins is low and molecular studies have failed to find associated DNA markers.” Thus, if the “born this way” mantra is true, it is clearly more complicated than a simple genetic story.
This same study offers a different account of the biological origins of homosexuality. The authors propose an epigenetic model of sexual orientation. Epigenetic studies (which try to understand how genes are expressed) are all the rage now (just last week I was at an NBER conference where there was an interesting paper on epigenetics and cognitive development in rhesus monkies), and many biosocial phenomena are thought to result from the combination of genes and the environment, where the prenatal environment of the developing fetus is particularly important. It seems that epi-markers are often heritable, which would account for observed heritability in the absence of DNA markers.
I have read a variety of twin research over my career, since twin studies are quite common in economics. Dabbling into this genetic research on homosexuality, I am struck by how little there has been in the past couple of decades, especially given the importance of gay rights as a social concern. But perhaps the politics explains the lack of science. It would be disconcerting, at least, to embark on a field of study where an increasingly large group of politically motivated, influential and often angry people are already convinced they know the answer: sexual orientation is innate and immutable. The activist community wants acceptance, not understanding. Hence, most people will avoid doing science that will cause people to hate them if they get unpopular answers (or, even worse, label them as hateful for even asking the questions).
Both the innate and immutable claims might prove to be true, but as more and more people buy the hype, the science gets harder and harder to do. What if, perchance, this new epigenetic research leads to a medical or other treatment (perhaps prenatal hormonal therapies) that could “turn off” the development of homosexual orientation in utero or sometime thereafter? How would this affect the gay rights movement?
Shouldn’t even people who are gay rights activists be in favor of the development of knowledge that might lead to such a discovery? A consistent theme I hear when homosexuals tell their stories about coming out is how hard it was to admit, first to themselves and then to others, that they are gay. Many of them tell stories of great pain and anguish prior to coming out (and sometimes thereafter). Wouldn’t eliminating that pain be wonderful?
The obvious response to this is that it isn’t homosexuality that causes the pain, but is instead the “homophobic culture” we live in. Fair enough. But consider the thought experiment where the culture is completely accepting of homosexuality. It seems that even in this homophilic wonderland, there are compelling reasons to prevent homosexuality. First of all, the desire to create biological children that are related to both parents seems a powerful (and biologically rooted) urge. Second, mate selection is much harder for homosexuals purely for statistical reasons. Third, the social self-sorting of homosexuals into urban environments, where mate selection is easier, can be costly, especially for individuals who don’t like those environments for other reasons. Finally, there is always stress (sometimes a lot) for growing up as a minority, whether minority status is defined, by race, religion, ethnicity, or sexuality.
In short, a central claim of the gay rights movement is that homosexuals do not choose to be gay. But if they could, would they? If there were a simple treatment that their mothers could have chosen, wouldn’t it be desirable? Sure, many activists are going to say, “No Way. Gay life is wonderful. We are proud of who we are.” I believe they are sincere. Yet I wonder, even for that group, what they would tell their mothers to do if they could go back in time. Would not even people who are completely accepting of homosexuality choose heterosexuality for their children if given the option? Certainly some would not, but I wager that the overwhelming majority would.
I know this language of “prevention” drives many people nuts. Homosexuality is not a deviation, not abnormal, not a disease, not something that needs to be fixed, etc., etc. Yes, yes, I know this rhetoric. But that’s what it is: political rhetoric. It used to be that large majorities of people (including scientists) had never even entertained the notion that homosexuality could have biological origins. Indeed, Franz Kallman, one of the earliest (and widely cited) advocates of genetic origins began his 1952 study in The American Journal of Human Genetics with the claim that “an allusion to a possible relationship between sex and organic inheritance is unlikely to provoke more than a polite smile of skepticism.” Yet his findings comparing monozygotic and dizygotic twins were quite striking, suggesting strongly that genetic origins are important. As most do, Kallman concludes his study with a plea for more research: “The urgency of such work is undeniable as long as this aberrant type of behavior continues to be an inexhaustible source of unhappiness, discontentment, and a distorted sense of human values” (p. 146). This from the guy who is fighting to get people to take genetic origins of sexual orientation seriously!
Since that time, public and scientific opinion has shifted considerably. But it is important to note that the science has never followed a pathway that supports the “innate and immutable” story. That mantra is political, not scientific. As the study cited earlier reminds us, the genetic concordance of homosexuality in identical twins is low, much less than 50% in most studies. The new epigenetic story is at its heart an environmental story, and environments can be changed (genes can, too).
My worry is that the quest to understand will be squashed before it really gets started. It would be a shame if acceptance and tolerance crowd out inquiry. When politics drives out scientific inquiry, nobody wins.
Two great pieces arguing against intervention in Syria but with slightly different takes on how President Obama has performed in the midst of it all:
George Will thinks Obama is right on Syria – but right in the sense of not ultimately being willing to back up the red line talk.
Damon Linker argues that Syria may be Obama’s biggest foreign policy blunder and that the U.S. needs – indeed, is duty bound – to follow a self-interested policy.
I think Linker’s is better because it provides a much broader perspective on whether states have moral duties to intervene that would be analogous to individual duties to help. He doesn’t think that the analogy holds. Here is my favorite part of Linker’s column that is straight out of the American liberal realist playbook stretching back to Washington and J.Q. Adams:
The primary duty of the nation’s commander in chief — the duty that overrides all others — is to uphold the common good of the United States and protect the rights of individual American citizens. If that sounds selfish, that’s because it is. And rightly so. The president’s duty is to us. He can have no duty to the citizens of another nation. That’s why the greatest acts of statesmanship will always be more self-interested than the highest acts of individual virtue.
In keeping the United States out of the Syrian conflict for the past two years, Obama has showed that he understands this. But in laying down his now-transgressed “red line” on chemical weapons, he showed that he doesn’t understand it well enough. It’s as if the president wants to have it both ways: to be a tough-minded realist who puts American interests first, but also to become an idealistic do-gooder (who, like all presidents, salves his conscience by ordering other people — the nation’s soldiers — to sacrifice themselves) once a certain line has been crossed. And Assad has called Obama’s bluff.
And I particularly like the parenthetical since too often the history books that praise presidents for their statesmanship and character forget that it is other people who have to fight, suffer, and even die to make good on the easy promises and claims of moral duty that leap forth so easily from their mouths and alleged hearts.
The new TFAS video starring economist Michael Cox of SMU:
I’ve been on the road a lot this spring and have saved up a number of notes from the road to pass along. James Otteson, the TSA’s #1 fan, will need to put down any sharp objects before reading.
1. During my most recent trip, my crotch was frisked so intensely by a TSA agent that I thought he was going to need a smoke afterwards. I jest, but this is no laughing matter. I did not enjoy the experience at all and felt that my rights and dignity were violated. Given the power differential between me and the TSA, I was helpless to respond in any way that would protect my rights and dignity without incurring very large costs. I really wanted to punch the guy right in the head and get him the heck away from me. Fortunately, it was over quickly but it is sad that TSA agents are essentially empowered to do what they will while we suffer what we must (FN: Thucydides). I really wish that my head instantly thought “voice” rather than “violence” at the moment of the frisk since I should have used what I could to counter his aggression with the only weapon I reasonably had available under the circumstances. By the time I did start thinknig, I just thought how pathetic it would be to have a job involving regularly bending over and feeling up other people of the same sex as part of some “security theatre” designed to make us “feel” more secure. So I walked along mourning our relative powerlessness in the face of the modern bureaucratic state.
2. On another trip, I opted out of the ”naked picture” machine while going through security. The TSA agent told me to step to the right and wait for a screener. I complied. He then instructed a passenger behind me who was walking towards the machine that she needed to take all the money out of her pockets (which was a considerable amount of change, actually). I then decided quickly to test my theory that people in such circumstances will essentially do what they are told if instructed with considerable confidence by someone seemingly authoritative. Sheep go where the shepherd tells them. So in an official sounding voice (and I was well-dressed, if memory serves), I said, “Please place the money in my hand” or something like that. And as I guessed, she started to do so before I quickly told her I was joking. And no, that did not result in a cavity search by the screener.
3. On the way to the airport for a return flight home, I had a long cab ride with a Somali immigrant. I love to hear about the lives of my immigrant cab drivers for some reason, and they always seem so excited when you actually know something about where they live (perhaps because most Americans are so ignorant about the rest of the world?). Anyway, we eventually got onto the subject of daily life in the Horn of Africa and khat comes up. He proceeds to tell me that it isn’t illegal in the US – by which he meant, as our conversation later showed, that one can do it with a fair amount of immunity. I probed him a bit and suggested gently that it is indeed a controlled substance in the US. And he actually knew that given this interesting story he told me about another immigrant: A Somali immigrant he knows owns a little shop in a big American city and was openly selling khat. Why not, it is perfectly legal back home and his clients were others from the Horn of Africa where it is part of the daily life of many people. Apparently he had no idea (or so the cab driver said) that he was essentially a drug dealer according to the laws here! Long story short but eventually the cops get wise. I had a bit of trouble understanding the rest but it seemed to end with some measure of common sense as he was informed of the law and had to stop. I’m just not sure if there was any arrest, fine, or jail time involved.
“For the GOP, politics is not a zero-sum game — and I don’t mean this in a good way. It is entirely possible for Obama to lose on a variety of issues and for Republicans to lose as well, in ways that make future victories less likely.”
Michael Gerson (Washington Post) decries those in the GOP who are “convinced that the only duty of an opposition party is to oppose” rather than to offer a compelling alternative. Greg Sargent agrees (the Plum Line), referring to the GOP’s “post-policy nihilism.” Both are worth reading.
The case being made by Gerson and Sargent may be a bit overstated. However, it seems like the GOP was the party of ideas for much of the last few decades, likely the product of heavy investments in think tanks and the vigorous interplay of competing factions of the conservative coalition. While the Democrats sought to preserve the status quo and maintain a disintegrating New Deal coalition, conservatives and libertarians were often deeply engaged in a serious examination of core public policies and the generation of alternatives. Much of this, in turn, influenced policy decisions. Whether one is speaking of economic management, education, tax policy, regulatory design, or welfare reform, the story of post-1970s domestic policy simply cannot be told without referencing these debates.
To say that the GOP was the party of ideas is not to say that all the ideas were good ideas (are they ever?). To claim that the GOP is no longer the party of ideas is not to suggest that the Democrats have somehow assumed this role. Indeed, it may be the case that no party can make this claim. If this is the case, we may have competition between two parties of “no” in an era when ideas are critically needed.
Quick but effective video from the Cato Institute:
Grading time is here, but these pieces/stories might provide some helpful between-papers distraction:
1. More violence in Iraq. According to CNN, “At least 25 people were killed and 69 others were wounded in five car bombings in Iraq on Monday.”
2. Friend of Pileus Damon Linker finds a Christian message in Terrence Malick’s ”To the Wonder.” Apparently everyone else in the movie crit biz missed it – which isn’t surprising considering how illiterate so many American elites are (including Christians!) about religion. This was a real problem when I was teaching ethics at an elite northeastern SLAC and tried to discuss the Christian pacifist tradition. The students had no ability to critically engage the arguments in the reading on the many sides of that issue. It was a very depressing teaching experience. Whether one is a believer, a deist, an agnostic, an atheist or otherwise, it is impossible to deny that religion is an important force in the world and liberally educated students should know a bit about the major traditions.
4. O. Henry’s fictional “A Newspaper Story” might be a good medium through which to teach the difference between correlation and causation if the usual ways aren’t working or you want to try something new and different. A three page short-story (in my edition), it is a fun but quick read. See here.
Columbian Centinel editorial, January 4, 1794:
It is unworthy of the dignity, as well as equity, of Americans, to become partizans of either of the belligerent nations. We are bound to wish liberty and good government to every people under heaven—Having professed an impartial neutrality, public exultation shewn on one side, and goading the other with scorn, reproach and obloquy, gives the lie to our profession of hostility. We solemnly announce to the world that we shall not inter-meddle. Where then is the propriety of our newspapers, clubs, and some of our public bodies, shewing dispositions the very reverse of our professions?
And I highly recommend dipping your toe into the great primary resources available in the Document Library at the Teaching American History website.
Celebrate Earth Day by reading about “Free Market Environmentalism.” Here is a short essay on FME by Richard Stroup. It starts this way:
Free-market environmentalism emphasizes markets as a solution to environmental problems. Proponents argue that free markets can be more successful than government—and have been more successful historically—in solving many environmental problems.
A book length treatment of FME can be found in Terry Anderson and Donald Leal’s classic Free Market Environmentalism. Of course, everything I’ve ever read by Anderson has been thought-provoking, so check out his Amazon page (here) or the many resources at the website for Anderson’s wonderful (as I’ve seen first hand on several occasions) Property and Environment Research Center. KPC recommends reading this Anderson piece on property rights for Earth Day.
However, if you think property rights (and the markets that develop when property rights are well-defined and protected) are anti-environment, you might also want to think about what happens when land, water, and other natural resources are held in common. One place to start is with Garrett Harding’s classic “The Tragedy of the Commons.” There is certainly a lot in this piece to disagree with, but the following section is seminal – and useful for debunking a lot of the garbage you’ll usually hear on Earth Day:
The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.
1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of Ã¢ÂˆÂ’1.
Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
Hmmmm…..what might be the answer to this problem?
“It’s perfect, too, that this message [the libertarian/Ayn Rand strand in their earlier music, especially Trees] is married to music so over-the-top in technical skill, as if they’re out to prove how superior and worthy of distinction they are.”
Very well said. For more on prog rock and Rush in particular, see the erudite dean of prog rock commentary, Brad Birzer (here is a recent example).
Here is the video for “Trees” (Caveat: not even close to a top 10 Rush song in my book though I certainly appreciate the lyrics and Lee is as great as usual on the bass):
And here are the lyrics:
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas
The trouble with the maples
(And they’re quite convinced they’re right)
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light
But the oaks can’t help their feelings
If they like the way they’re made
And they wonder why the maples
Can’t be happy in their shade
There is trouble in the forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the maples scream ‘Oppression!’
And the oaks just shake their heads
So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
‘The oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light’
Now there’s no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe and saw
While many (justly) enraged Americans would probably like to see Suspect 2 meet his maker today, let’s remember that we will almost certainly learn more about the attacks if he is taken alive than if he is killed or blows himself up, etc. Here is the National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen last year on capture vs. killing (in the context of drone strikes): ”I have a strong preference for gaining intelligence.”
The standard American government textbook discussion of our bicameral federal legislature will often note that the Senate is the body that is more deliberative and that acts, like a saucer, to cool the more passionate House’s hot teacup. Indeed, the Senate itself says this on its own website:
In selecting an appropriate visual symbol of the Senate in its founding period, one might consider an anchor, a fence, or a saucer. Writing to Thomas Jefferson, who had been out of the country during the Constitutional Convention, James Madison explained that the Constitution’s framers considered the Senate to be the great “anchor” of the government. To the framers themselves, Madison explained that the Senate would be a “necessary fence” against the “fickleness and passion” that tended to influence the attitudes of the general public and members of the House of Representatives. George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the framers had created the Senate to “cool” House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea.
Recently, though, the Senate has been the body acting on the fickle political winds and intemperate passion (see John McCain’s behavior, for examples). Fortunately, the House has taken on the role of being a “necessary fence” against rash actions (like a gun bill that if in place before Newtown would have done absolutely nothing to stop that tragedy) through its use of “regular order.” This braking-device – and Republican use of it in the House – is explained in this nice piece by Robert Costa in National Review. There, Costa notes that ”‘Regular order’ allows House Republicans to dictate the pace of legislation and makes ‘grand bargains’ of any sort harder to pass.” Of course, there have been some exceptions (such as Sandy Relief) even of late to regular order that prove why faster action isn’t necessarily going to produce better policy. But it is a way to keep Boehner from selling out in hopes of some grand bargain or fleeting good press for the party. So three cheers for slowing down the legislative process to cool the passion of the demos, the Senate, and the President. But it certainly seems like the legislature is upside down.
Libanius, a 4th century (non-Christian) Greek, saw God’s hand in trade:
God did not bestow all products upon all parts of the earth, but distributed His gifts over different regions, to the end that men might cultivate a social relationship because one would have need of the help of another, and so He called commerce into being, that all men might be able to have common enjoyment of the fruits of the earth, no matter where produced.
Quoted in Pietro Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy.
My book, The Value of Living Well, now exists in physical form, for those who are interested. It looks like Oxford plans to ship next month, but it can be ordered now from Amazon. It is a work in contemporary ethical theory: I try to flesh out a view of the nature of practical rationality (in particular, norms for successful practical rationality, or practical wisdom), conjointly with an account of living well. This I take it is the structure of ancient eudaimonist theories, such as Aristotle’s. But Aristotle wasn’t worried about a lot of the things we are, after two millennia of philosophical ethics. So I give it a shot. There are lots of words, so some are probably true! Oxford may not get it out in time for Mother’s Day (more’s the pity), but it will be just in time for Father’s Day and lots of graduation days! Buy all you like! — OUP will print more.
Rob Farley over at LGM makes two key points about the bombings that are worth passing along:
1. Our thoughts are with anyone injured in the bombing.
2. Initial reports are very likely to be wrong; this is inevitable, and does not mean that a conspiracy is afoot.
I’d add a few others about terrorism:
1. The President should not be criticized for not calling, initially, the Boston attack a “terrorist” bombing. As the Washington Post reports, he “was careful not to use the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorism’ as he spoke at the White House Monday after the deadly bombings, but an administration official said the bombings were being treated as an act of terrorism.”
Although forests have been cleared debating the definition of terrorism, a good definition I use is that terrorism is the intentional targeting of (or threat to target) innocent non-combatant civilians with physical violence for political ends by non-state actors. Given this definition and a lack of anyone apparently claiming public responsibility at the time, the President was likely not sure that this was at attack with political ends as opposed to criminal behavior. Therefore, circumspection and caution was warranted in his speech even as the administration worked to figure out what happened and who was responsible.
2. Given my working definition above, I would argue that the old saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is ridiculous. It is never morally acceptable in my view to intentionally target innocent non-combatant civilians with physical violence for political ends. And anyone interested in freedom properly deplores such attacks and anyone engaging in such actions is not a true freedom fighter. Of course, many governments around the world find it advantageous to call insurgents fighting against them terrorists but that doesn’t hold water (the Patriots at Lexington and Concord, for example, were not terrorists by my definition). This case was a pretty pure case of targeting innocents. So if there was a political agenda of any sort behind these attacks, we should properly label the perpetrators terrorists and the appropriate level of government should punish them to the fullest extent of the law (and, of course, if there was not a political agenda behind the attacks, the government should punish the criminals behind it).
3. If the attack was committed by terrorists, we need to remember that law enforcement and public resilience are two of the best means for winning the “global war on terrorism” (yes, I know, we don’t call it that anymore).
A few weeks ago, Jason responded to my critique of the new atheists (which was inspired by an excellent review done by Damon Linker). Jason’s response was interesting but (modestly) mis-characterizes my argument.
Jason boiled down what I was saying to a simple logical argument for the existence of God. Though I don’t mind such attempts, it was not my purpose. My key point was not about the existence or role of God (which would require some sort of definition for God, for starters). My essay was on the implications of denying the metaphysical.
Science is agnostic, and rightly so. Science is about drawing conclusions from observable phenomena. For instance, human beings have the capability to discuss moral values and can behave in ways consistent with moral values in observable and describable ways. A large body of neuroscience literature can tie these moral faculties, emotions, and reasoning back to basic brain chemistry. And evolutionary theory can describe the development of human morality through the powerful (yet often hard to falsify) theory of natural selection. Moral notions that improve reproductive fitness are more likely to be selected and become part of the human genome. Cultural evolution of moral notions happens, too, as those values which promote the survival of human societies are carried forth not only in our genes but in our cultural patterns.
But those observable patterns do nothing to answer the question of why one should care about them. And science has nothing to say about whether the existence of humanity, the world we occupy or even the universe is something we should care about. Indeed, why should the moral intuitions and reasoning of any species be of a concern unless there is a reason to care about that species in the first place. In the scientific view, the initial big bang created a universe of energy and matter. But there was no purpose for this, no cause, no choice, no reason, no intent. There was just the physical.
So, at every point in the natural history of our species we have consisted only of chemistry. We cannot be more because there is nothing more. The only difference between our world and the primordial soup from which crawled the first life forms is that the chemistry on the earth now (including the creatures known as human beings) is different than it was before. Not better or worse, just different. Creatures on the earth now are more capable of sustaining themselves against various environmental forces, but they consist, still, only of chemistry. Since all that existed at the beginning was chemistry, we can’t borrow from the metaphysical world and come up reasons for why some chemical compounds (humans) matter more than other chemical compounds (rocks). The period table contains all sorts of information about the universe. It contains no information about morality.
A simple process of water crossing cell membranes is, according to this hyper-naturalistic view, not fundamentally different than a complex mass of chemicals known as a human being offering assistance to another human being. Both are the result of chemical process that are entirely the function of a long string of pointless, random events occurring in a pointless, random universe. Chemicals do not make choices. They just obey the immutable laws of the universe. Do not the chemical interactions in our brain that precede the chemically-based signals from our brains to the different body parts (signals such as: do this, say that, pick that up) obey the exact same fundamental laws that cause osmosis to occur? Do chemicals stop and consider their actions? Well, maybe if you get the right combination of chemicals together in sufficient numbers in the right quantities and combinations, they will pause for a moment of reflection?
All the new atheists and their naturalistic brethren really have to tell me is a story of how the chaotic universe produced creatures that are capable of intuitions (both conscious and subconscious, perhaps) and reasoning, which they like to call morality. But that morality exists, according to them, only because it has selective value that produced and preserves our species. They have nothing to tell me about why the species or anything about it—including its ability to reason—has any value in the first place.
They can tell me, perhaps, how living a moral life might bring me or others more pleasure or satisfaction (all of which can be reduced, of course, to chemical reactions in the brain), or they can tell me how certain ways of living are consistent with respecting the dignity and autonomy of others. But they can tell me nothing about why I should care about any of it.
It is from that unobserved, unexplained wellspring of value that true morality comes. It is what gives us answers, however incomplete, to why one would care about humanity and the moral questions humans ask. One thing is sure. Those answers don’t come from the periodic table.
From Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence:
One of the paradoxes of the Angolan conflict was that Cuban forces were given the task of defending American-owned oil installations from attacks by American-backed rebels.
My position on the Reagan Doctrine and American intervention in places like Angola has changed a lot over time. As a much younger man, I bought into the administration’s (and Charles Krauthammer’s) argument and was led to believe that people like Jonas Savimbi could help increase human freedom in the Third World while aiding U.S. interests in the Cold War struggle with the Soviets. Oh, how time, experience, study, and data have changed my mind! Not only were peripheral conflicts like Angola unnecessary for beating the Soviets and securing US interests but many US proxies were ultimately found to be hostile to American values as well. And then we have the sheer human cost and blowback from US policies.
Here are some further points from Meredith about the war in Angola that may be useful when reflecting on the Reagan Doctrine, Jonas Savimbi, and other aspects of what today seems like an ancient historical contest:
The overall cost of the war was huge. During the 1980′s more than 350,000 died and a million more – deslocados – were uprooted from their homes (601). [GC - And this doesn't count the costs of the civil war that continued after the end of the Cold War)]
As for Unita, it was Savimbi’s personal fiefdom, a vehicle for his relentless drive for power. For all the praise heaped on him by President Reagan and other Western admirers, Savimbi was a ruthless dictator with a messianic sense of destiny, insistent on total control and intolerant of dissent and criticism from anyone in the movement (603).
Yet, like the MPLA, Savimbi relied heavily on an extensive security apparatus to maintain his grip, using fear as a method of control. He systematically purged Unita of rivals and critic, ordering death sentences not only for party dissidents but for members of their family as well. Human rights groups reported incidents of how women and children, accused of witchcraft, had been publicly burned to death, on a bonfire (604).
Margaret Thatcher, the so called “Iron Lady,” died on April 8th at the age of 87. The White House released the President’s statement, characterizing Baroness Thatcher as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty.” (Note: In this instance, being a champion of liberty is a positive attribute). A poll conducted by the Guardian finds a mixed evaluation of various aspects of her legacy. A.C. Grayling (The New York Times), in contrast, sees little nothing to celebrate in Thatcher’s legacy:
The curious feature of Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy is that although she struck an ax-blow deep into the heart of Britain, it is society, not the political sphere, that remains deeply divided by a widening gap between rich and poor.
By contrast, the country’s politics have almost ceased to be ideological, as if exhausted by the Thatcher era. All the main British political parties now strive for the center ground, and the differences between them are about managerial style, not questions of principle.
For those who are interested, Reason has reprinted a 2006 article that Thatcher contributed. It is well worth a few minutes of your time. Here is a brief excerpt:
A system of state control can’t be made good merely because it is run by “clever” people who make the arrogant assertion that they “know best” and that they are serving the “public interest” interest which of course is determined by them. State control is fundamentally bad because it denies people the power to choose and the opportunity to bear responsibility for their own actions.
The Economist notes: “The essence of Thatcherism was to oppose the status quo and bet on freedom…She thought nations could become great only if individuals were set free. Her struggles had a theme: the right of individuals to run their own lives, as free as possible from the micromanagement of the state.”
Margaret Thatcher, RIP
Great piece in Slate that fits nicely into the relatively packed genre of recent works on the decision to go to grad school or not (which is probably just a subgenre of bearish pieces on academia). The bitterness just drips off the page, from the title (“Thesis Hatement: Getting a Literature Ph.D. Will Turn You Into An Emotional Trainwreck, Not a Professor”) through to the end. Here is just one awesome paragraph:
So you won’t get a tenure-track job. Why should that stop you? You can cradle your new knowledge close, and just go do something else. Great—are you ready to withstand the open scorn of everyone you know? During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do—your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why. (Bright side: You will no longer have any friends outside academia.)
I’m fairly ambivalent about my decision to go into grad school and then to double-down by ultimately staying within academia (and it didn’t help to hear tonight at dinner from an extremely successful lawyer who doesn’t b&lls^&t people that I would have been a great and very highly-paid lawyer). But right now I’m one of the 4-pack-a-day smokers among the 6% who survive small-cell lung cancer (see the Slate piece to get this reference). So life is good. And I love so much about my job and the human capital I’ve built. Yet I wouldn’t – and don’t – advise students to follow my path. Too many chances to fall off (or be pushed off) that path or to be extremely bitter and/or broken mentally even if you make it to the promised land. And let’s not even get into the personal wreckage one might face even in the promised land when creative destruction comes to higher ed. But if you must go to grad school, choose economics or something in the sciences that will give you more fungible capital.
I think I have now answered Steve Landsburg’s puzzle. The difference between his example (or mine) of an action that imposes only subjective costs and his example of an activity such as reading pornography, or Bork’s of using contraception, that imposes only subjective costs, is not the nature of the harm. The difference is that in the one case the cost is of a sort that can be measured, the action controlled, via a property rule. In the other, it is not.More precisely, the property rule under which I have a right to read porn and you can only stop me by offering to pay me not to do so produces its result by ignoring the cost my porn reading imposes on you, since, as with the case of risks imposed by careless driving, including that cost requires an unworkable contract between all of the prudes and all of the would-be consumers of porn. The property rule under which you have a right to forbid me, or anyone else, from reading porn, produces its result by ignoring the cost your ban imposes on me, for the same reason.Neither property rule gets the cost/benefit calculation correct, but the former rule is a great deal less expensive to enforce than the latter, which is an argument for it.What about a liability rule? That is the point at which the subjective nature of the harm comes in. It is true that, from the standpoint of economics, all harm is ultimately subjective—having my arm broken or my car dented would not be a cost under sufficiently bizarre assumptions about my preferences. But some subjective costs are a lot easier to measure externally than others. When I claim damages for my wrecked car, there are market prices out there for repairing or replacing it that provide a court with a reasonable basis for estimating the cost. When I announce that your reading of porn, or oil drilling in a wilderness I never plan to visit, inflicts large psychic harm on me, there is no such basis for checking my claim.
My Twitter feed has been filled with Americans and others expressing outrage about a Saudi court’s sentencing a man to be paralyzed from the waist down. He had stabbed a man in the back, paralyzing him.
I’m not going to defend or oppose the sentence, but I am going to defend a principle here: the violence inherent in the justice system should be obvious rather than hidden.
A couple of years ago, Peter Moskos suggested bringing back flogging as an option for prisoners: a year off your sentence for every stroke of the lash. He wrote eloquently of the horrors of the carceral state. And, so long as judges don’t simply respond by increasing sentence duration, it’s hard to see how the option to choose the lash would make prisoners worse off. As I wrote at the time:
I’m pulled to agree with Moskos. But I worry. I worry that the best evidence seems to suggest that prison deters crime mainly through incapacitation – criminals cannot commit crimes except against other criminals while behind bars. There’s good evidence for deterrent effects through things like California’s three strikes legislation, but incapacitation matters a lot. Longer term crime rates could go down with a switch from prisons to flogging if those committing crimes were better able to maintain a connection to the community and if prisons encourage recidivism. But rates would almost have to increase in the short term: those viewing flogging as much cheaper than a jail term would expect a reduction in the effective expected punishment for a criminal act. I’d hope that Moskos’s prescription would maintain the use of prisons as preventative detention for the really scary crazy dangerous cases.
A decade ago I would have worried that reducing the price of punishment experienced by the state would increase the total amount of punishment. If it’s expensive to keep a prisoner for a year, the state might be reluctant to put marginal offenders in jail. That’s not proven much of a constraint, so I worry rather less about that now.
But I do worry that the mob used to enjoy the spectacle of a public hanging.
When I read about cases like John Horner, (likely) entrapped by the DEA and facing a 25 year mandatory sentence for having sold his leftover prescription pain medicine to another man who had made him believe that he was in desperate pain, I wonder whether it’s the Saudis or the Americans who are really out of line. If you had two young daughters, and were facing 25 years delivered by the American justice system for doing no harm to anyone, wouldn’t you prefer surgical paralysation? I would.
Sometimes I wonder whether the focus on injustices committed abroad are a way of avoiding thinking of the ones at home.
In other news, we now have decent evidence that “tag and release” is more effective in preventing recidivism than incarceration. Here’s the abstract from the newly published paper by Di Tella and Schargrodsky in the Journal of Political Economy:
We study criminal recidivism in Argentina by focusing on the rearrest rates of two groups: individuals released from prison and individuals released from electronic monitoring. Detainees are randomly assigned to judges, and ideological differences across judges translate into large differences in the allocation of electronic monitoring to an otherwise similar population. Using these peculiarities of the Argentine setting, we argue that there is a large, negative causal effect on criminal recidivism of treating individuals with electronic monitoring relative to prison.
Lengthy carceral sentences for drug crimes are arguably behind much American inner-city disfunction. When a reasonable proportion of men of marriageable age are in prison, really bad things start happening to family formation.
Moskos is looking more right all the time.
It is a pleasure to introduce Eric Crampton as our guest blogger this week at Pileus. Eric is an economist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is currently working on projects relating to voter knowledge, electoral stock markets, alcohol regulatory policy and paternalism. He hails originally from Canada but earned his doctorate at George Mason University. He usually blogs at Offsetting Behaviour.
Pileus veterans may remember that Eric’s first attempt to guest blog here was interrupted by the 2011 New Zealand earthquake. We hope that nothing like that occurs this time. Welcome Eric! Looking forward to your always interesting thoughts.
David Stockman has an interesting piece in today’s New York Times (“State-Wrecked: The Corruption of Capitalism in America”). If the title doesn’t grab you, here is a paragraph from the last page of the article:
These policies have brought America to an end-stage metastasis. The way out would be so radical it can’t happen. It would necessitate a sweeping divorce of the state and the market economy. It would require a renunciation of crony capitalism and its first cousin: Keynesian economics in all its forms. The state would need to get out of the business of imperial hubris, economic uplift and social insurance and shift its focus to managing and financing an effective, affordable, means-tested safety net.
The article provide a taste of his new book, The Great Deformation. I have not read it yet (I believe I had it on advanced order at Amazon).
From a recent short posting by Steve Smith of the USD Law School:
Everyone favors equality: Everyone thinks that like cases should be treated alike. Nobody argues, “These groups are alike in all relevant respects, but they should be treated differently.” So when people disagree about legal or political issues, they aren’t arguing for and against equality. Instead, they are disagreeing about whether two cases, or two classes of people, actually are alike for the purposes of whatever is being discussed.
So the real disagreement is not about equality, but rather about what marriage is, or what it should be thought to include. Among the vast spectrum of human relationships, many of them valuable or ennobling, which ones should be classified under the heading of “marriage”? On that question, there are various views. Some think marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman. Some think it can include relationships between two committed adults, regardless of sex. Some would not limit marriage to only two persons. Some would not limit it to adults.
Reasonable people can debate these views in good faith and in various vocabularies—cultural, psychological, political, theological. So there are important debates to be had, and important decisions to be made. But the debates will only be cluttered up, and the decisions confounded, if the issue is framed in the question-begging terms of “marriage equality.”
Well said. And I would add that simplifying that which is not simple (human sexuality, for instance) does not make any group, in the long run, better off.
Roger Koppl argues this week at ThinkMarkets that “Income inequality matters.” He thinks it matters so much that he says it twice. He believes “Austrian,” pro-market, economic liberals should be speaking up more on this “central issue.” I think Koppl could not be more wrong. The issue deserves all the inattention we can muster for it.
The problem I think is not Koppl’s motives. He rightly says that we should “watch out for ways the state can be used to create unjust privileges for some at the expense of others.” He is certainly right about that. He argues that unjust state policies may be skewing market results in such a way as to increase inequality. He may be right about that. But he is wrong in suggesting that we ought therefore to be paying attention to income inequality. We ought therefore to be paying attention to those policies. Whether they produce greater inequality is neither here nor there.
Koppl gives four examples: (i) policies that privatize profits and socialize losses, (ii) bad regulation, (iii) collapse of the rule of law, and (iv) public schools. I can certainly join Koppl in a hearty wish that we not only attend to these unwarranted policies, programs, and tendencies, but that we do so with a degree of urgency prompted, in part, by their effects on the poorest and most vulnerable among us. But talking about inequality is precisely a distraction from doing so.
In a great paper of a few years ago, Harry Frankfurt argued that “Egalitarianism is harmful because it tends to distract those who are beguiled by it from their real interests.”* Frankfurt thought that focusing on equality was actually pernicious because it distracted us from attention to real harms, of which inequality is at most an indicator. And he was right. It may well be that, for example, the evisceration of the rule of law results in greater income inequality. But it also might not. Whether or not it does so, however, it is unjust, and it deserves our attention. Similarly for the increase in moral hazard and regulation, to say nothing of the deplorable system of public education. All of these need attention, and one prime reason they do so is because of their effects on those least capable of circumventing their evils. If we care about the poor, what we ought to care about is bad policy, not indicators that may or may not have anything to do with policies that are making people worse off. As long as we are worrying about income inequality, we are worrying about the wrong thing.
* In “The Moral Irrelevance of Equality,” Public Affairs Quarterly, April 2000.
More seriously, these disturbing cases illustrate how the irrational paranoia of an ethnic majority drives discrimination and repression toward minorities in several places around the world. In the case of Sri Lanka, the mostly-Buddhist Sinhalese feel themselves threatened by nearly a billion Hindus next door in India. In Burma, the state has long (falsely) accused the Muslim Rohingyas of being illegal immigrants and deprived them of citizenship. (Many Muslims have also immigrated to all parts of Burma over the years.) In my paper linked above, I find that a move to majoritarian political institutions is associated with greater likelihood of new discrimination. However, the executive-constraints aspect of democratization tends to inhibit discrimination. These are tensions that Burma and Sri Lanka will both have to deal with as they move toward more representative institutions.