Monday, December 31, 2012

A year of living dangerously...

I've never much liked the social phenomenon of making a resolution for the new year. It seems to me that resolutions are the kind of thing that can be made any day, so why does January 1st get such a big share of the action? I've put this question to people before, and have received in response stares of caution, as though they feel themselves in the presence of a mad man. Maybe my delivery could use some work.


I guess this year I bow to social convention. While pondering the New Year, I suddenly remembered the closing chapter of Jason Brennan's excellent book The Ethics of Voting. He offers a list of suggestions on how to deal with cognitive biases, including the following.
Most of us read smart defenses of our own views. We look at only the dumbest defenses of opposing views, if we bother to look at all.

To counteract this bias: Seek out the smartest and best defenses of opposing views. Don't just read popular press authors. Read philosophers, political scientists, and economists from the other side. Try to learn as much as possible. Try to improve upon their arguments if you can.

Construct the best arguments against your own views that you can. Try to prove that you are wrong. Try to find puzzles and problems with your views that you don't know how to solve. Imagine what it would be like to believe the other side.

For a period of one year, don't read anything defending your current views. When you see criticism of your views, don't run to your intellectual heroes for help. Immerse yourself in doubt and uncertainty. You need it.  
Very well, Jason Brennan. Challenge accepted.

As an extension of this, I will spend the next year using this blog to keep track of my progress. I'll try to keep posting what I'm reading and what I think of it. At the end of the year, I'll try to summarize how and in what ways my views have changed or been refined.

I can already tell 2013 is going to be a fun year...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Somebody is misunderstanding what laissez faire means...

...and it's either me or these guys.

So this morning, I picked up a copy of the newly released second edition of The Moral Imagination by Gertrude Himmelfarb. The second edition of this book includes new chapters on Adam Smith, Lord Acton, and Alfred Marshall. I just want to take a moment, dear reader, to assure you that just because I have this book, that does not necessarily prove that I am cooler than you. Although it is pretty suggestive.

Anyway, something I read in his opening chapter on Adam Smith made me do a double take. Consider this statement.
His opposition to mercantilism is generally read as a criticism of government regulation and a defense of laissez faire. It is that, and much more, for his objection to mercantilism is not only that it inhibits a progressive economy by interfering with the natural process of the market; it is also unjustly biased against workers.
Now, wait just a minute. Why is thinking mercantilism is bad for workers taken to be separate from a defense of lassiez faire? Why isn't it part of a defense of laissez faire?

Monday, September 3, 2012

You Didn't Build That...Reloaded.

 The term "target rich environment" is a very context specific phrase. In my previous line of work, it rarely referred to a chance to explore the rhetoric of politics, but that's what it means tonight. Just in case anyone out there thinks that the now infamous You-Didn't-Build-That-Gate hasn't yet reached critical mass, allow me to toss in my thoughts.

 First, the full speech can be found here. I'll quote what I think is the most relevant section.
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.  (Applause.)
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  Somewhere, lurking on the internet, is a humorous list of Men's Rules for Women. One of my favorites on that list is "If we say something that can be interpreted in two different ways, and one of those ways makes you sad or angry, we meant the other one." Anyone who has ever met me knows instantly why I would like this rule. But let's not get off topic - I do have an actual reason for bringing up this obscure bit of internet humor. In any discussion, if someone says something that can be interpreted in different ways, it's best to assume a charitable interpretation of their words. This seems particularly difficult to accomplish when discussing political issues.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Selective sympathy

I think we should employ means testing in Social Security and Medicare. This idea has very little political traction, of course. As the great-warrior poet Dave Barry once said "If you dare to suggest that maybe we don't need to pay for the prescription drugs of wealthy retirees who own, say, more than three yachts, members of the American Association of Retired People will beat you senseless with handicapped parking placards." Luckily, small-time curmudgeons like myself are not likely to get the attention of the AARP, so I'll keep on saying it.

I was pondering last night about how I would structure means testing for Social Security. Right now, I lean toward looking at lifetime gross income. If you made more than X amount over the course of your life, you are not eligible to collect Social Security. Right now, the way we deal out payments toward Social Security is very odd. Your payments are positively correlated with lifetime income. That is, people who had the highest lifetime income, and were therefore in the best position to be able to save for and fund their own retirement, are the ones who get the most financial support! Even egalitarians should find that a bit off, no? Hence my idea - if you've made $10 million over the course of your life, and still didn't put enough away for retirement, then too bad for you. Your situation is entirely your fault.

Of course, many modern liberals like Karl Smith will reject the very idea of that. Smith argues that people who are lazy and behave impulsively deserve our sympathy just as much as people who are born blind. He does admit a moral hazard problem - people can just "pretend" to be lazy. He's willing to tolerate that, though, to make sure that society doesn't stop supporting those who are genuinely lazy, because "we lack the technology to distinguish them from those faking laziness."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A tale of two beatings, a question of motives.

Kelly Thomas was severely beaten by police officers on July 5th, 2011. He died of his injuries five days later. More details, along with videos related to the incident, can be found here and here. Fair warning - the images and video are NSFS (not safe for soul).

It's natural to wonder how something like this could happen. It's also natural to conclude that the officers involved are terrible people. What they did was inexcusable, and they should be held accountable. But I don't think the core problem is that the officers are terrible people. I think the problem was that they were police officers.

Maybe I should clarify that a bit. Lord Acton's statement that "power tends to corrupt" isn't limited to just statesmen. Police officers have power too, and the people who enter the police force are no less prone to corruption than anyone else. Had they never entered the police force, and instead taken up careers as dental hygienists, they likely would have gone their whole lives without engaging in any activity more violent than working on cavities.

I doubt that these men were evil people who joined the police force because they wanted to lord over their fellow man. I think we all overestimate how well we would behave in such circumstances. The Stanford prison experiment comes to mind. In his excellent book The Lucifer Effect, Phil Zimbardo makes an interesting observation about the students who participated in the experiment. Before it began, they were interviewed and asked if they would prefer to be one of the prisoners, or one of the guards. Every single one of them preferred the role of prisoner. They were all hippies, anti-authoritarians who held police in disdain. But, somebody had to play the role of prison guard. And when you gave these anti-authority hippies a fake uniform and tell them they are in charge of a fake prison, they quickly became so cruel and sadistic to their fellow students that the planned two week experiment had to be cut short after six days.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A different take on standard of living

Sometimes looking at the numbers makes things more clear - other times, taking the numbers too literally leads to odd conclusions. I think a lot of recent discussion about inequality and the standard of living falls into the latter category.

To give you an idea of what I mean, consider something Paul Krugman says in The Accidental Theorist, p 58: "At the end of the 1983 to 1989 recovery, the bottom quintile was still worse off than it was in 1979." Or, for a more recent and broader example, in the introduction to The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti says "for the first time in American history, the average worker has not experienced an improvement in the standard of living compared to the previous generation. In fact he is worse off by almost every measure." (I still recommend both books, by the way.)

It's true that if you use particular measures, compute the numbers in certain ways, and kind of squint while looking at them, in low light, you can indeed get these readings.

I look at things differently.

The view Moretti and Krugman offer has a pretty clear implication: if I was offered the opportunity to go back in time to when my father was growing up, I should eagerly take it. (I'm assuming away issues such as taking those who are close to me back in time with me, for simplicity.) I am not now, nor have I ever been, a high income earner. So maybe to sweeten the deal, I could be offered a place back in time at a full quintile higher than the one my father occupied then, or I occupy now. If my standard of living is worse off by every measure now than a generation ago, I'd be a fool to not take that chance.

And I'd find myself living in a world where cars are heavy and slow and far less safe than they are today, and get terrible gas mileage and have no air conditioning. There would be about three television channels, and TVs would have tiny screens but still manage to be bulky and heavy. If I wanted to listen to music, forget about any kind of portable music player, and there certainly would not be one integrated into my cell phone. For that matter, forget about cell phones altogether. All my bills would be done through the mail - no home computers or internet. I could go on and on with such comparisons, but I'll outsource the rest of this to Louis CK:

So yeah...all this talk about how people like me have a "lower standard of living" than a generation ago...that doesn't pass the giggle test. The idea is so patently absurd that I'm more inclined to say that the numbers and measures people use to reach that conclusion have little practical relevance in the real world.

In which Brad Delong is kind enough to illustrate some things I find perplexing about Progressives these days...

Okay, Delong's post is a few weeks old, but give me a break - I'm just getting in to this blogging thing. Also, work and a full time school schedule. Also, shiny objects.

Where was I? Right, Delong. I'll get to him. First, some background.

So a while back, Mario Rizzo explains why he doesn't always tip New York City cab drivers. Brad Delong responds, if you can call it a response. And the issue came up with Delong again. Go ahead and read the posts - they're not too long. I'll wait here.

Back? Okay, good. When Delong says "I will never understand these people," I find myself saying much the same thing about him.

Note that Delong doesn't dispute that the taxi medallion system in New York City has the effect of limiting competition, thereby allowing taxis to charge artificially high prices to people who need a ride. When the cab driver is also the owner of the medallion, he pockets all the extra money. But even when the cab driver is leasing the medallion, Rizzo points out that higher tips to cab drivers results in medallion owners charging higher prices to drivers for the use of the medallion, so even in this case, the medallion owner will pocket the extra money, leaving the amount of money the driver keeps unchanged in the aggregate. All of this is ignored by Delong.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hitchens (and others) on the afterlife

Starting a blog by referring entirely to a conversation had by other people, years ago? That sounds like a great idea to me!

In the "There is a good reason to believe there is an afterlife" corner, we have two Rabbis - David Wolpe and Brad Artson. In the "No evidence that an afterlife exists" corner is Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

If you have an hour and a half of your life to spare, there are worse ways to spend it than watching this video. The debate itself is great, because Christopher Hitchens. Also, and this is sadly rare - the two sides actually do engage in a discussion with each other. It's a good natured and funny discussion too - no bile to be found.

The full debate can be found here.

If you feel in need of a preview, here are a couple of gems from Hitchens, to whet your appetite: