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Marc earlier noted the depressing state of political literacy in the US.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to see a remarkable statement of economic literacy in the news today – and by someone who isn’t a trade economist.  In this case, the example came from entrepreneur Elon Musk (who was seconded by fellow businessman Lyndon Rive). He, unlike most Americans, seems to totally get one of the reasons why protectionism designed to offset foreign “external” subsidies (subsidies allegedly aimed at helping domestic – in this case Chinese – companies compete in a foreign market) is unwise:

When asked whether or not the U.S. should erect trade barriers designed to protect American solar-panel manufacturers, Mr. Musk said: “If the Chinese government wants to subsidize the rollout of solar power in America, OK, it is kind of like ‘thank you’ is what we should be saying.”

Now I’m not sure the Chinese people would want to thank the government for such actions!

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Airpower is the simple but wrong/naive answer to complex problems. It just doesn’t work as advertised by the airpower enthusiasts.  If you will the ends, you will the means. So those who want to wade back into Iraq or jump into wherever to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL” should be honest and note that ground forces are likely to be necessary unless the local partners are stronger than I think they are.  But Americans so want to believe in Santa Claus… I mean immaculate warfare.  

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University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer’s book The Problem of Political Authority deservedly made a large splash when it was released last year. The book consists of two parts, the first making the case that states enjoy no moral right to rule and that subjects have no moral duty to obey them, and the second laying out a new case for anarcho-capitalism, a justice system based on competitive, private security agencies and arbitration services.

Huemer’s great strength is his ability to bring together arguments in the literature and add a few of his own to make a compelling case for surprising conclusions. The writing is clear and easy to follow. Huemer relies heavily on commonsense intuitions to make his case. He concedes that commonsense intuitions hold political authority to be real, and that his position against political authority therefore faces a burden of proof, one that he meets. While I don’t think that ethical intuitionism is the One True Moral Methodology, starting with commonsense intuitions has the advantage of making the argument relevant to people working from all sorts of different moral theories, from deontology to consequentialism.

Huemer’s method is to think of things that governments do, and ask if individuals who are not part of the government would be justified in doing them. For instance, governments purport to make drug possession by consenting adults illegal and punish violators of these laws with imprisonment in cages. Would it be justifiable for me to declare X substance illegal and kidnap and confine in my basement those I find in possession of X? If not, why not? Any answer would depend crucially on a persuasive account of political authority.

Huemer goes through various accounts of political authority and carefully and patiently explains where they go astray: consent, democracy, gratitude, good consequences, etc. None of them succeed in showing that people who are part of the government have rights that people who are not part of the government lack. Huemer’s book is certainly the best summation of the case for philosophical anarchism that has yet been written.

Part 2 of the book, on the other hand, is considerably less successful. (more…)

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“Good Corruption”

Thomas Edsall:

Covering Baltimore politics some 45 years ago, I was struck by how newly empowered ethnic groups used political power to acquire economic power, often dodging city laws and rules to benefit favored constituencies with city contracts, engineering and architectural awards, bond counsel, and so forth. These deals made headlines. But there was a degree of ambiguity to this so-called corrupt activity – it might even be called “good” corruption, which it famously was by George Washington Plunkitt, the turn of the century Tammany Hall enthusiast who coined the phrase “honest graft.” Politicians representing ascendant ethnic constituencies skirted legal and regulatory systems purposely designed by powerful entrenched interests to block emerging competitors.

Johnson, Ruger, Sorens, and Yamarik:

We use data on corruption convictions and economic growth between 1975 and 2007 across the U.S. states to test this hypothesis. Although no state approaches the level of government intervention found in many developing countries, we still find evidence for the “weak” form of the grease-the-wheels hypothesis. While corruption is never good for growth, its harmful effects are smaller instates with more regulation.

Note: I still think the earmark ban is a good thing.

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Jason Sorens:

Via Eric Crampton:

Originally posted on orgtheory.net:

A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reports a recent attempt to curb grade inflation. High GPA departments at Wellesley College were required to cap high grades. The abstract:

Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on receipt of top honors, but affected…

View original 148 more words

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The New York Times

The editorial board of the New York Times has supported liberty twice in the past few days. First, there was the editorial calling for a repeal of the federal ban on marijuana.

There are no perfect answers to people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana use. But neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol, and we believe that on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization. That will put decisions on whether to allow recreational or medicinal production and use where it belongs — at the state level.

On July 27, the board supported Senator Patrick Leahy’s bill to reign in the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records “and bring needed transparency to the abusive spying programs that have tarnished the nation’s reputation.”

Both positions are good ones (even if Leahy’s bill may be weaker than one might like). Of course, it won’t be long until the editorial board makes me grit my teeth again.

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I know of quite a few people who harbor rather dark conspiratorial theories of how government works. There is this sense that the government possesses some malevolent genius and the technical expertise to execute the most complex strategies with speed and accuracy. Yet, I always respond: “show me the evidence.” There is ample evidence of sloppy, buffoonish, and ham-handed behavior and unintended consequences, often cloaked in arrogance and obscured by the opacity of thousand-page statutes. Of course, this shouldn’t give anyone too much cause for relief. A bully with an IQ of 80 is still worrisome. And government can still cause a lot of damage through its inattentive and sloppy actions. There is a reason why a common response to mediocrity is: “close enough for government work.”

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