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Archive for September, 2013

A new study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that social and political activists may be harming their own causes.  Here is a piece in the Pacific Standard that highlights the study and summarizes its finding thusly:

Why don’t people behave in more environmentally friendly ways? New research presents one uncomfortable answer: They don’t want to be associated with environmentalists.

That’s the conclusion of troubling new research from Canada, which similarly finds support for feminist goals is hampered by a dislike of feminists.

Participants held strongly negative stereotypes about such activists, and those feelings reduced their willingness “to adopt the behaviors that these activities promoted,” reports a research team led by University of Toronto psychologist Nadia Bashir. This surprisingly cruel caricaturing, the researchers conclude, plays “a key role in creating resistance to social change.”

Or as the study itself notes:

Ironically and despite good intentions, therefore, the very individuals who are most actively engaged in promoting social change may inadvertently alienate members of the public and reduce pro-change motivation.

This is probably not that surprising to many libertarians who have seen “civilians” turned off by their fellow libertarians, especially Randians, Free Keeners, and drug legalization advocates, who act in socially inappropriate or off-putting ways.  Repeat after me: public displays of nudity in the town square are not going to make people excited about the ideas espoused by libertarians.  It might be fun to do (political activism as consumption behavior), shock Mom and Dad (political activism as rebellion), or show your purity (political activism as religious signaling).  But it isn’t all that likely to make people want to join your cause – and may help create negative stereotypes that harm it.

And now we have some social science research to support my own position that we have a better chance of winning if we make the case for liberty calmly, rationally, and with a good sense of humor (and intellectual humility).  This will be aided by not dressing like a radical, even donning a tie, and maybe even bringing the non-political wife/husband along* to show you are a relatively “normal” person who has been able to convince at least one other person to freely associate with you!  Being rude, looking scrubby, and libertarian-logic-weed-guns-ban-pineapple-politics-1364612547smelling of pot probably isn’t going to win the day.  And yes, I’m engaging in grossly wrong stereotypes.  But the fact that these exist (and we know they do – just see to the right of this post one among many internet images mocking libertarianism), even if untrue, could mean a lot to the cause of liberty given the findings of this study.

Indeed, I may type up an IRB request soon to try and see if this research works with libertarians.

* Be careful using kids for this purpose unless they are old enough to be consenting adults.  I don’t like to see kids manipulated for the political causes of their parents.  So at least keep the kids from holding signs if you must drape them around you when you campaign for yourself or your cause.  The exception is showing your children on campaign literature since it signals important information about the person running (especially that the person may discount the future less than those without children).

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Bryan Caplan has responded to my post opposing natalism, the view that we should try to create many more human beings because doing so will make us better off. This is a brief rejoinder to his post on the most important issues outstanding (Bryan’s quotations are in blockquotes).

In fact, there’s a good reason to think that innovation will rise at more than a proportional rate [to population]: Population increases not only the supply of innovation (more people to create ideas) but the demand for innovation (more consumers around to pay for ideas).

This is just restating the division-of-labor argument, though. A more extended market allows more specialization. One man’s demand is another man’s supply. But a market of 7 billion allows quite a lot of specialization, especially if it’s actually fully integrated. And the next billion will increase specialization less than the previous billion. We don’t know where the “social marginal benefit” and “social marginal cost” curves cross, but given the large human population, there are reasons at least not to be confident that they have not yet.

Environmental economics teaches us far cheaper and more humane alternatives [to limiting population]: taxes and tradeable permits. Questioning a person’s existence because he drives a car is severe overkill.

The problem is that the optimal tax rate in future might actually make it very difficult for some people to live good lives. Even now we are nowhere near the optimal tax along several dimensions.

Some people don’t like being crowded. But most seem to love it. Real estate prices are much higher in densely-populated areas, and the reason is simple: People prefer (all the benefits of population + all the drawbacks of population) to splendid isolation. If Jason were right, real estate would actually be cheaper in big cities. It’s not.

Capital prefers big cities for production, but there’s evidence that households don’t. The places with highest quality of life should have the highest property values relative to wages. And we actually find that non-urban areas have a higher property value-to-wage ratio than urban areas. To quote Chen and Rosenthal (2008: 523), “[T]hose locations most preferred by households often are non-metropolitan areas and cities in warm, coastal locations, including Santa Cruz, Honolulu, and San Francisco… Those areas least preferred by households tend to be old, industrial cities, especially in the rust belt.” Even within metro areas, suburbs tend to have higher property values than central cities (with the exceptions of places like Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco). For instance, in southern N.H., the suburbs have higher property values than Manchester or Nashua. In western N.Y., the suburbs have higher property values than Buffalo or Rochester.

[I]n a world of largely closed borders, there’s an obvious benefit of large polities: They create big free-trade and free-migration zones, with all the attendant wonders.

Persuading governments to open to goods and investment may be much easier than persuading lots of people to have lots more children. It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose, but I don’t see the world of today as having “largely closed borders.” To immigrants, yes, but not to goods or investment — and the latter substitute significantly for the former.

But mankind has gotten much healthier during the population explosion of the last two centuries, and there’s a simple explanation: Larger populations lead to more innovation, including more innovation in medicine and sanitation.

Is population growth the main reason for the innovations of the last two centuries? I would say it’s more an effect than a cause. Liberalization of the economy seems far more important for innovation; nonliberalized but big economies like China and India have fostered very little innovation.

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Against Natalism

There seems to be very little disagreement among market-oriented economists that the optimal number of people on the planet is much larger than the number of people currently alive (see here, here, and here for examples). Here are some reasons for skepticism about that claim.

  • The main advantage of more people is a deepening of the market and the division of labor. More people means more ideas and more specialization. But the law of diminishing marginal productivity suggests that each additional unit of labor and of human capital is of less value. Furthermore, in a world of 7 billion people we are going to get roughly as many outlier geniuses as we do in a world of 9, 10, or 15 billion.
  • Along with diminishing marginal benefits of people, there are rising marginal costs. The human footprint on the natural environment increases with population, and intrudes ever more into ever scarcer (and more socially valuable) undisturbed habitats. Some free-market types like Ron Bailey suggest that this is not the case by pointing to the possibility of peak farmland in the near future. But peak farmland is only achievable (if it is) through ever more intensive applications of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide. In one sense this capital-intensive agriculture may be “sustainable,” in the sense that human ingenuity will always find new fertilizers and new pesticides to keep agricultural productivity growing, but the negative externalities of these methods are considerable. The economic costs alone of invasive species are immense: think about the costs associated with the chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, hemlock woolly adelgid, and emerald ash borer in North America alone. They run into the billions. A lot of people look around and say, “Well, I see a lot of green, so the environment must be doing OK.” But 91% of all land in the United States consists of human-disturbed habitats. Disturbed habitats are not necessarily bad for biodiversity, but undisturbed habitats are also important — and the fewer there are, the more valuable each remaining one is. More people means more disturbance, more invasions, more “dead zones,” and the like. And yes, the costs are not just economic, but aesthetic. I have no shame in admitting that I aesthetically value the environment, that other people do as well, and that those values should matter in any schedule of “social welfare.” Is a world without butterflies a world worth living in?
  • People don’t like being crowded. Part of the reason why people move to suburbs and exurbs is not just high crime and costs in central cities, but distance from other people. Where do people go to “get away”? Generally rural and wilderness areas. The U.S. still has a lot of open space and could perhaps tolerate 50% more population without feeling intolerably dense, but even in this country, much or most of the wilderness is found in areas with little water or harsh climates.
  • More people in a country mean more agency problems with the government. The people find it more difficult to constrain their rulers when their rulers don’t pay attention to individual voices, or even small clusters of people. As a country of over 300 million, the U.S. would face severe agency problems were it not for the federal system — and even so, agency problems are significant. In essence, the rulers are less constrained by the people. Higher populations around the world will mean more prevalent problems with mass democracy and mass dictatorship.
  • More people will mean more infectious disease. It is a basic principle of ecology that a higher population of a species encourages greater parasitism on that species. As human populations have increased, so have human diseases. Epidemics of influenza have become more frequent. These viral infections are difficult to prevent and treat. Of course, as medical technology proceeds, humans will fight better against infectious diseases of all kinds. But organisms adapt, and medical technologies will of necessity focus on life-threatening diseases rather than chronic and periodic diseases that are not life-threatening. But even the common cold significantly decreases human well-being. In a future world much more densely populated, we could expect human beings to spend much of their lives ill with minor diseases.

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As we all know, if a continuing resolution (or CR) is not passed by the end of the day on September 30, the government will shut down. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has threatened to filibuster the House CR because if debate is suspended, the provisions defunding Obamacare will be eliminated via majority vote. If Senator Cruz is successful–or if he is not, and the House refuses to pass a revised CR–then the government will shut down. But ironically, this will have little impact on Obamacare. As Timothy Carney explains in the Washington Examiner:

But for the most part, no CR will fund Obamacare, even if Obama wrote it himself. You know what funds Obamacare? A bill called HR 3590, also known as the Affordable Care Act.

Obamacare funds Obamacare.

The reason is simple: most of the Affordable Care Act does not depend on annual appropriations. The House CR, in contrast, could defund Obamacare (“Notwithstanding any other provision of the law, no Federal funds shall be made available to carry out any of the provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”). All the House GOP needs to do is convince the Senate majority and President Obama to follow its lead.

So here are the possible outcomes in the next few days:

  1. The Senate strips the defunding language from the House CR, the House approves it, the government shutdown is avoided, and Obamacare is left untouched.
  2. Senator Cruz succeeds in mounting a filibuster, the debate on the CR is not suspended, the government shuts down temporarily, and Obamacare is left largely untouched.
  3. Senator Cruz fails, the Senate strips the defunding language, the House rejects it, the government shuts down temporarily, and Obamacare is left largely untouched.
  4. The Senate accepts the House CR and with the President’s approval, Obamacare is defunded.

Does anyone think that the last is a live option? If it is not—and recall: a government shutdown will not have a significant impact Obamacare—what is the larger strategy? Is this simply a means of throwing red meat to the rubes and preventing primary contests from the Right? Or, if you are Senator Cruz, are the goals to maximize face time on the Sunday talk shows, attract donations, and build a mailing list for the 2016 presidential race?

Any insights would be appreciated.

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The German Election (update)

In yesterday’s German federal election, the Christian Democrats dramatically increased their seat share and moderately increased their vote share, while their coalition partners, the classical liberal Free Democrats, lost all their seats for the first time in party history. Since the Christian Democrats came five seats short of a majority, it looks as if they will have to form a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats, who improved slightly. A few observations:

  • The right improved their vote share, despite the FDP’s losses, because of the good performance (but not quite enough to win seats) of the moderately euroskeptic Alternative for Germany. The left lost vote share. Nevertheless, the central result of this election will be that the German government will move to the left, replacing the FDP with the SPD as the CDU/CSU’s junior partner.
  • Looking at the party list votes, 15.8% of the vote went to parties not winning seats. This is, by far, a new record.
  • The foregoing outcomes are due to the relatively high 5% threshold parties face for winning seats in the Bundestag.

As for what this means for the future of the Eurozone, I have no idea. Status quo, I suppose. But if the economy remains poor in four years’ time, I think we can expect quite a shakeup. The two biggest parties are now in the hotseat.

UPDATE: These interesting charts show that the euroskeptic AfD received almost as many votes from former supporters of left parties as from the right. That may explain why the left, overall, is down.

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A Fine Metaphor

This ad is quite amazing (and yes, more than a bit creepy). While it is focused on Obamacare, it seems an apt metaphor for NSA surveillance and so much more.

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Ezra Klein has an interesting piece (Wonkblog) on the collective-action problem facing the GOP with respect to Obamacare. Stated concisely:

Here’s the Republican Party’s problem, in two sentences: It would be a disaster for the party to shut down the government over Obamacare. But it’s good for every individual Republican politician to support shutting down the government over Obamacare.

These smart-for-one, dumb-for-all problems have a name: Collective-action problems.

As Klein correctly notes, ideally,  party leadership plays a critical role in managing these problems through the use of various carrots and sticks (“Threats, flattery, fundraising money, and plum committee assignments are all deployed to keep members of Congress from undermining the group in order to help themselves”). But the GOP leadership appears to lack the power to control the behavior of its members, particularly those who are aligned with the Tea Party.

It should prove interesting to watch the collective-action problem unfold in the next few weeks as Congress turns to the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling (not to mention broader issues like immigration reform). (more…)

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