Reverse Birth Control: A Thought Experiment

Some prominent sociologists argue that teen pregnancy, when it occurs, is functional.  Teen pregnancy is a foolish life choice for middle-class teens, because they’re sacrificing bright futures.  Lower-class teens, in contrast, don’t have bright futures to sacrifice, so why wait to become a parent?  I’m skeptical of the underlying counter-factuals, but never mind that.  Frank Furstenberg’s “Teenage Childbearing and Cultural Rationality” (Family Relations, 1992) rebuts the functionalists with a thought experiment that is as powerful as it is concise:

[I]f they had to take a pill for a month in order to become pregnant, relatively few teenagers, especially those of school age, would become parents. And, if they had to obtain permission from their parents to take that pregnancy pill, very few parents would give their consent.

In other words, the main source of teen pregnancy is just impulsiveness.  If youths act on their immediate feelings, pregnancy swiftly follows whether they want to get pregnant or not.

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Socialism Sucks, and Everyone Ought to Know It

Today my friends Bob Lawson and Ben Powell have released their new Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World.  Intellectually, EconLog readers will know the score, but Socialism Sucks embeds good economics and economic history within an irreverent travelogue.  Modern socialist rhetoric is so ahistorical and otherworldly that it’s great to hear reports about what North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba are actually like.  Along the way, Lawson and Powell thoughtfully explore the whole “That’s not real socialism” slogan. Quick version: Contrary to First World socialists, it’s the hell-states that are real socialism, and the success stories of Scandinavia that are fake socialism.

I actually had the privilege of workshopping the draft of this book.  Some of the attendees urged Bob and Ben to rewrite the book to appeal to young progressives, but I insisted that this was a task for a completely different book.  Socialism Sucks speaks to people with common sense and a sense of humor who simply don’t know much about socialism.  That includes 95% of American conservatives, who normally have negative feelings about the socialist label but who couldn’t tell you about the Holodomor, the Gulag, the Great Leap Forward, or the Laogai, much less the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Killing Fields.  Talk radio is going to try to angry up its listeners anyway, so it might as well angry them up against smug nostalgia for a totalitarian idea that murdered over a hundred million people and reduced dozens of nations to slavery while claiming to be the greatest of heroes and humanitarians.

Do Lawson and Powell really think that young self-styled American socialists are plotting mass murder?  Do I? My answer, at least, is, “I severely doubt it, but I shouldn’t have to wonder.”  When activists gush about the glories of socialism as if the Soviet Union never existed, all people of common decency should be horrified.  The right response to the slogan, “We want Sweden, not Venezuela” really is, “The Venezuelans didn’t want Venezuela either, but that’s what they got.”

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The Bayesian Prisoners’ Dilemma

Suppose someone sends you a new article claiming X.  Intuitively, we think, “This will either make you more likely to believe X, or have no effect.”  Once you understand Bayesian reasoning, however, this makes no sense.  When someone sends you an article claiming X, you should ask yourself, “Is this evidence stronger or weaker than I would have expected?” If the answer is “stronger, ” then you should become more likely to believe X.  However, if the answer is “weaker,” then you should become less likely to believe X.

Thus, suppose you initially consider X absurd.  When someone sends you some evidence in favor of X, you should update in favor of X if the evidence is less awful than expected.  You should update against X, in contrast, only if the evidence is even more awful than expected.

Similarly, suppose you initially consider X absurd, but your brilliant friend nevertheless defends it.  The fact that a brilliant person believes X is evidence in its favor.  Given his brilliance, however, his arguments should only persuade you if they are even better than you would have expected from one so brilliant.  When a great mind offers mediocre arguments, you shouldn’t merely be unmoved; you should be actively repelled: “That’s the best you can do?!”

Example: One of the smartest people I know routinely sends me pro-“social justice” links on Twitter.  As a result, I think even less of the movement than I previously did.  If even he fails to defend his view effectively, the view is probably truly devoid of merit.

What, however, should I conclude if this mighty intellect simply stopped sending me links?  One possibility, of course, is that he’s given up on me.  Another possibility, though, is that he’s exhausted his supply of evidence.  At this point, he’s got nothing better than… nothing.

The strange upshot: While Bayesian reasoning seems to imply that persuasive efforts are, on average, ineffective, there is a reason to keep arguing.  Namely: Failure to argue is, on average, an admission of intellectual defeat.  And by basic Bayesian principles, this in turn implies that the continuation of argument is at least weak evidence in favor of whatever you’re arguing.

Stepping back, you can see a somewhat depressing conclusion.  When people are perfect Bayesians, argument is a kind of Prisoners’ Dilemma.

If your opponent keeps arguing, you want to keep arguing so it doesn’t look like you’ve run out of arguments.

If your opponent stops arguing, you want to keep arguing to emphasize that your opponent has run out of arguments.

As a result, both sides have an incentive to argue interminably.  Which, as you may have noticed, they usually do.

Is there any ejector seat out of this intellectual trap?  Yes.  You could build a credible reputation for talking only when you have something novel to add to the conversation.  Then instead of interpreting your silence as, “I’ve got nothing,” Bayesian listeners will interpret it as, “I’ve rested my case.”

[silence]

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The Discouraged Suitor

Labor economists occasionally have a crisis of faith.  After years of scrutinizing the unemployment rate, they suddenly remember… discouraged workers.  Who are they?  They’re people who want a job, but aren’t officially unemployed because they aren’t actively searching for work.

This is a serious problem – and a serious flaw with official unemployment rates.  True, we should not forget the Prideful Worker Effect – the workers who say they want a job, but refuse to do any job for which they’re genuinely qualified.  But if you take introspection half as seriously as I do, you can hardly deny that lots of people find job search extremely demoralizing.  When your whole ego and sense of self are on the line,  one needs Stoic determination to keep looking in the face of multiple rejections.  Every parent has seen even the sweetest of children surrender to despair.  Does anyone seriously believe that human beings cease to have these emotions by their eighteenth birthday?

Happily, there’s a silver lining: If you ever become a worker, strong social norms rise to your defense.  Imagine you fail to find a job.  If anyone mocks your failure, virtually everyone will take your side.  The same applies if a bystander snarks, “I guess your very best just isn’t good enough, haha.”  Until you finally land a job, parents, friends, and total strangers will share a bounty of comfort, hope, and friendly advice on how to do better.

Yes, you may prefer to brood alone.  Social norms, however, insist that discouraged workers need to be encouraged even if they don’t want to be encouraged.  If you say, “I can’t find a job,” you will hear a barrage of questions: “Where have you looked?”  “Are you using social media?”  “Maybe you’re aiming too high?”  “Have you asked your friend, Jim?”  Or even: “The economy’s picking up; have you tried re-applying anywhere?”  You’ll also enjoy an abundant supply of truisms: “You’ve got to keep trying,” “We all fail, but you can’t give up hope,” and “There’s no harm in asking.”  A tad annoying, but these questions are the expression of a valuable social norm: Encourage the discouraged.

Once you take the plight of the Discouraged Worker to heart, you might wonder, “Are there any major analogous social ills that I’ve also overlooked?”  The first that comes to my mind is what I call the Discouraged Suitor.  Lonely people normally search for a mate; they’re analogous to the conventional unemployed.  Some lonely people, however, are analogous to Discouraged Workers.  Such people want to find love, but the dating experience is so depressing they stop trying.

Denying the existence of Discouraged Suitors is as dogmatic as denying the existence of Discouraged Workers.  In both cases, people face a challenge of epic proportions: convince an employer to hire you… or convince a stranger to love you.  When the stakes are this high, failure is scary.  Unsurprisingly, then, we commonly respond to failure with despair: “I’ll never find a job” or “I’ll never find love.”  Discouraged Workers silently endure deep feelings of uselessness.  Discouraged Workers silently endure deep feelings of loneliness.

There is however one major difference: Social norms on the treatment of Discouraged Suitors are none-too-supportive.  Parents and friends naturally urge the lonely to persist in the pursuit of true love: “There’s someone out there for everyone!”  Yet social norms have also long allowed public mockery of the socially awkward and unattractive: “You’re 25 and never had a girlfriend, heh!”  In recent years, moreover, norms against sexual harassment have become stricter and vaguer.*  Is asking a co-worker out on a date sexual harassment?  What about asking twice?  Sure, the probability that you will be fired for one vague affront remains low.  The typical Discouraged Suitor, however, is already petrified of rejection.  When the norm shifts from “Let them down easy” to “Zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” many lonely people choose the safe route of silent sorrow.

Personally, none of this affects me.  I met my wife when I was nineteen, and have never dated anyone else.  Along the way, though, I have met many silently suffering lonely souls.  If Discouraged Workers deserve sympathy, don’t Discouraged Suitors deserve the same?  Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that Discourage Suitors have a right to be loved or even liked.  Like everyone else, however, they should be treated with good manners.  Indeed, since Discouraged Suitors rarely speak up on their own behalf, should we not make an extra effort to consider their feelings?

* Morrissey, one of my favorite singers, has said made multiple inflammatory comments on sexual harassment, but there’s a kernel of truth here: “Anyone who has ever said to someone else, ‘I like you,’ is suddenly being charged with sexual harassment.  You have to put these things into the right relations. If I can not tell anyone that I like him, how would they ever know?”

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“España Es Como Una Madre”

Our most memorable Uber driver in Madrid was a young Pakistani man.  We gave him twenty minutes; he gave us his odyssey.  Too bad I failed to record the conversation, because this would have been a great interview to broadcast on Spanish radio.

Our driver’s story: Back in Pakistan, he lived in hunger, so he left home to seek his fortune.  In popular parlance, he became part of the “European migrant crisis.”  He traveled solo, journeying from Pakistan to Iran to Turkey.  Then he zigzagged around the EU, passing through Greece, Romania, Germany, Italy, and France.  Our driver gave few details, but each of these countries treated him badly.  He had to hide from the authorities, and could not legally work.

After three months, however, he reached Spain – and his life turned around.  My Spanish sources tell me that migrants must normally wait three years to receive work permission, but my driver somehow managed to get his work papers almost immediately.

Three years later, he speaks Spanish, has plenty to eat, and loves his new home.  Indeed, he practically describes Spain as a libertarian paradise: work hard, don’t hurt people, don’t steal, and you’ll have a good life.  Using his Spanish travel documents, he was even able to visit Britain.  He liked it, but saw no hope of ever legally working there.

My Spanish is very poor, but I had no trouble understanding our driver when he gushed, “España es como una madre” – “Spain is like a mother.”  He didn’t say a word about government benefits; he was overjoyed to live in a country where he could live in peace and get ahead by working hard.  Though we didn’t even have a language in common, he was my kind of guy.  The American Dream is also the Spanish Dream, because both are the World Dream.

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Reflections from Spain

I just got back from a five-week visit to Spain.  The first four weeks, I was teaching labor economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín while my sons took Spanish-language classes on Islamism, Self-Government, and the Philosophy of Hayek.  Then we rented a van and saw Cordoba, Seville, Gibraltar, Fuengirola, Granada, and Cuenca.  During my stay, I also spoke to the Instituto von Mises in Barcelona, Effective Altruism Madrid, the Rafael del Pino Foundation, and the Juan de Mariana Institute.  I had ample time to share ideas with UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián, UFM professor Eduardo Fernández, Juan Pina and Roxana Niculu of the Fundación para el Avance de la Libertad, and my Facebook friend Scott McLain.  Using my sons as interpreters, I also conversed with about 25 Uber drivers.  Hardly a scientific sample, but here are my reflections on the experience.

1. Overall, Spain was richer and more functional than I expected.  The grocery stores are very well-stocked; the worst grocery store I saw in Spain offered higher quality, more variety, and lower prices than the best grocery store I saw in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway.  Restaurants are cheap, even in the tourist areas.  Almost all workers I encountered did their jobs with a friendly and professional attitude.  There is near-zero violent crime, though many locals warned us about pickpockets.

2. The biggest surprise was the low level of English knowledge of the population.  Even in tourist areas, most people spoke virtually no English.  Without my sons, I would have been reduced to pantomiming (or Google translate) many times a day.  Movie theaters were nevertheless full of undubbed Hollywood movies, and signs in (broken) English were omnipresent.

3. I wasn’t surprised by the high level of immigration, but I was shocked by its distribution.  While there are many migrants from Spanish America, no single country has sent more than 15% of Spain’s migrantsThe biggest source country, to my surprise, is Romania; my wife chatted with fellow Romanians on a near-daily basis.  I was puzzled until a Romanian Uber driver told me that a Romanian can attain near-fluent Spanish in 3-4 months.  Morocco comes in at #2, but Muslims are less visible in Madrid than in any other European capital I’ve visited.

4. 75% of our Uber drivers were immigrants, so we heard many tales of the immigrant experience.  Romanians aside, we had drivers from Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Pakistan.  Even the Pakistanis seemed highly assimilated and almost overjoyed to reside in Spain.  By the way, Uber in Spain works even better than in the U.S.  The median wait time was 3 minutes, and the prices were about one-third less than in the U.S.

5. Refugees from Chavismo were prominent and vocal.  One Venezuelan Uber driver was vocally pro-Trump.  You might credit Trump’s opposition to Maduro, but the driver said she liked him because “He doesn’t talk like a regular politician.”  I wanted to ask, “Couldn’t you say the same about Chavez and Maduro?!” but I was in listening mode.

6. I’ve long been dumbfounded by Spain’s high unemployment rate, which peaked at around 27% during the Great Recession and currently stands at about 15%.  Could labor market regulation really be so much worse in Spain than in France or Italy?  My chats with local economists – and observation of the labor market – confirmed my skepticism.  According to these sources, a lot of officially “unemployed” workers are lying to collect unemployment insurance while they work in the black market.  Immigrants reported little trouble finding work, though they did gravitate toward “New Economy” jobs like Uber driving.  I still think that Spanish unemployment is a tragic problem, especially for the young.  Yet properly measured, finding a job in Spain is plausibly easier than finding a job in France or Italy.  (This obviously raises the question, “To what extent is unemployment in France and Italy inflated in the same way?”  If you know of good sources, please share in the comments).

7. If I didn’t know the history of the Spanish Civil War, I never would have guessed that Spain ever had a militant labor movement.  Tipping was even rarer than in France, but sincere devotion to customer service seems higher than in the U.S.  Perhaps my sons charmed them with their high-brow Spanish, but I doubt that explains more than a small share of what I saw.  A rental car worker apologized for charging me for returning my car with a 95% full tank, adding, “Sorry, but my boss will yell at me if I don’t.”

8. Catalan independence is a weighty issue for both Barcelona and Madrid libertarians.  Madrid libertarians say that an independent Catalonia would be very socialist; Barcelona libertarians say the opposite.  I found the madrileños slightly more compelling here, but thought both groups were wasting time on this distraction.  Libertarians around the world should downplay identity and focus on the policy trinity of deregulating immigration, employment, and housing.  (Plus austerity, of course).

9. UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián was originally an architect.  We discussed Spanish housing regulation at length, and I walked away thinking that Spain is strangling construction about as severely as the U.S. does.

10. Spanish housing regulation is especially crazy, however, because the country is unbelievably empty.  You can see vast unused lands even ten miles from Madrid.  The train trip to Barcelona passes through hundreds of miles of desert.  Yes, the U.S. has even lower population density, but Spain is empty even in regions where many millions of people would plausibly like to live.

11. The quickest way to explain Spain to an American: Spain is the California of Europe.  I grew up in Los Angeles, and often found myself looking around and thinking, “This could easily be California.”  The parallel is most obvious for geography – the deserts, the mountains, the coasts.  But it’s also true architecturally; the typical building in Madrid looks like it was built in California in 1975.  And at least in summer, the climates of Spain and California match closely.  Spain’s left-wing politics would also resonate with Californians, but Spain doesn’t seem so leftist by European standards.  Indeed, Spaniards often told me that their parents remain staunch Franco supporters.

12. My biggest epiphany: Spain has more to gain from immigration than virtually any other country on Earth.  There are almost 500 million native Spanish speakers on Earth – and only 47 million people in Spain.  (Never mind all those non-Spanish speakers who can acquire fluency in less than a year!)  Nearly all of these Spanish speakers live in countries that are markedly poorer and more dangerous than Spain, so vast numbers would love to migrate.  And due to the low linguistic and cultural barriers, the migrants are ready to hit the ground running.  You can already see migration-fueled growth all over Spain, but that’s only a small fraction of Spain’s potential.

13. Won’t these migrants vote to ruin Spain?  I don’t see the slightest hint of this.  Migrants come to work, not to change Spain.  And it’s far from clear that natives’ political views are better than migrants’.  Podemos, the left-wing populist party, doesn’t particularly appeal to immigrant voters.  Vox, the right-wing populist party, seems to want more immigration from Spanish America, though they naturally want to slash Muslim immigration.

14. How can immigration to Spain be such a free lunch?  Simple: Expanding a well-functioning economy is far easier than fixing a poorly-functioning economy. The Romanian economy, for example, has low productivity.  Romanian people, however, produce far more in Spain than at home.  Give them four months to learn the language, and they’re ready to roll.

15. According to my sources, Spain’s immigration laws willfully defy this economic logic.  When illegal migrants register with the government, they immediately become eligible for many government benefits.  Before migrants can legally work, however, they must wait three years.  Unsurprisingly, then, you see many people who look like illegal immigrants working informally on the streets, peddling bottled water, sunglasses, purses, and the like.  I met one family that was sponsoring Venezuelan refugees.  Without their sponsorship, the refugees would basically be held as prisoners in a government camp – or even get deported to Venezuela.  Why not flip these policies, so migrants can work immediately, but wait three years to become eligible for government benefits?  Who really thinks that people have a right to the labor of others, but no right to labor themselves?

16. Our favorite day was actually spent in Gibraltar.  Highly recommended; you simply cannot overrate the apes.  I was astounded to learn that the border with Spain was totally closed until 1982, and only normalized in 1985.  In a rare triumph of the self-interested voter hypothesis, 96% of Gibraltarians voted against Brexit.  Crossing the border is already kind of a pain; pedestrians have to go through (cursory) Spanish and British passport checks both ways, and the car line is supposed to take an hour.  I’d hate to be living in Gibraltar if security gets any tighter.

17. Big question: Why is Spain so much richer now than almost any country in Spanish America?  Before you answer with great confidence, ponder this: According to Angus Maddison’s data on per-capita GDP in 1950, Spain was poorer than Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and roughly equal to Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama.  This is 11 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and Spain of course stayed out of World War II.

18. Related observation: Once you’ve seen Spain, the idea that underdevelopment and oppression are somehow “intrinsic to Islam” is ridiculous.  The monuments of eight centuries of Muslim civilization in Spain are all around you.  So are basic facts like: Muslim Cordoba was once the largest city in Europe – and plausibly the most tolerant as well.  While bad outcomes are somewhat persistent, dramatic turnarounds are also common.

19. Another example: In less than a century, Spain has gone from being a battleground between reactionary Catholicism and violent atheism to a land of extreme religious apathy.  Non-practicing Catholics now outnumber practicing Catholics 2:1.

20. After I visit a new country, Tyler Cowen always asks me, “Are you long or short?”  In terms of potential, I’m very long on Spain.  The trinity of “deregulate immigration, employment, and housing” is vital in almost every country, but this formula would do more for Spain than nearly any other country.  Wise policy would make Spain the biggest economy in Europe in twenty years flat.  Unfortunately, these policies are highly unlikely to be adopted anytime soon, so my actual forecast is only moderately positive.  At this point, I can picture Tyler aphorizing, “The very fact that a country has massive unrealized potential is a reason to be pessimistic about its future.”  But this goes too far.  All else equal, a higher upper bound is clearly a reason for optimism – and by European standards, the Spanish economy is now doing very well.

21. Overall, my visit has made me more optimistic about Spain.  Much of the measured unemployment is illusory, and immigrants are pouring in to profit from Spain’s combination of high productivity and linguistic accessibility.  Housing policy remains bad.  Since housing regulation is decentralized, however, some regions of Spain will be atypically tolerant of new construction.  Where is the Texas of Spain?  I don’t know, but that’s where the future is.

Correction: I originally stated that Spain had lower population density than the contiguous U.S., but I was mixing up population per square mile and population per square kilometer.

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