If the Only Way You Can Get Your Great Idea Implemented…

Economics textbooks are full of clever-and-appealing policy proposals.  Proposals like: “Let’s redistribute money to the desperately poor” and “Let’s tax goods with negative externalities.”  They’re so clever and so appealing that it’s hard to understand how any smart, well-meaning person could demur.  When critics appeal to “public choice problems,” it’s tempting to tell the critics that they’re the problem.  The political system isn’t that dysfunctional, is it?  In any case, reflexively whining, “The political system will muck up your clever, appealing policy proposal,” hardly makes that system work better.  The naysayers should become part of the solution: Endorse the clever-and-appealing policy proposals – and strive to bring them to life.

When you look at the real world, though, you see something strange: Almost no one actually pushes for the textbooks’ clever-and-appealing policy proposals.  Instead, the people inspired by the textbooks routinely attach themselves to trendy-but-awful policy proposals.  If you point out the discrepancy, they’re often too annoyed to respond.  When they do, reformers shrug and say: “The clever-and-appealing policy never has – and probably never will – have much political support.  So we have to do this instead.”

Examples?  You start off by advocating high-impact redistribution to help poor children and the severely disabled… and end defending the ludicrously expensive and wasteful Social Security program.  “Unfortunately, the only politically viable way to help the poor is to help everyone.”  Or you start off advocating Pigovian taxes to clean the air, and end up defending phone books of picayune environmental regulations.  “Unfortunately, this is the way pollution policy actual works.”

Don’t believe me?  Here’s a brand-new example courtesy of Paul Krugman:

But if a nation in flames isn’t enough to produce a consensus for action — if it isn’t even enough to produce some moderation in the anti-environmentalist position — what will? The Australia experience suggests that climate denial will persist come hell or high water — that is, through devastating heat waves and catastrophic storm surges alike…

[…]

But if climate denial and opposition to action are immovable even in the face of obvious catastrophe, what hope is there for avoiding the apocalypse? Let’s be honest with ourselves: Things are looking pretty grim. However, giving up is not an option. What’s the path forward?

The answer, pretty clearly, is that scientific persuasion is running into sharply diminishing returns. Very few of the people still denying the reality of climate change or at least opposing doing anything about it will be moved by further accumulation of evidence, or even by a proliferation of new disasters. Any action that does take place will have to do so in the face of intractable right-wing opposition.

This means, in turn, that climate action will have to offer immediate benefits to large numbers of voters, because policies that seem to require widespread sacrifice — such as policies that rely mainly on carbon taxes — would be viable only with the kind of political consensus we clearly aren’t going to get.

What might an effective political strategy look like? … [O]ne way to get past the political impasse on climate might be via “an emphasis on huge infrastructural projects that created jobs” — in other words, a Green New Deal. Such a strategy could give birth to a “large climate-industrial complex,” which would actually be a good thing in terms of political sustainability.

Notice the pattern.

Step 1: Economics textbooks offer a clever-and-appealing policy proposal: Let’s tax carbon emissions to curtail the serious negative externalities of fossil fuels.  It’s cheap, it’s effective, it provides great static and dynamic incentives.  Public choice problems?  Don’t listen to those naysayers.

Step 2: Argh, Pigovian taxes are going nowhere.

Step 3: Let’s have a trendy-but-awful populist infrastructure program to get the masses on board.

So what?  For starters, any smart activist who reaches Step 3 tacitly concedes that public choice problems are dire.  You offer the public a clever-and-appealing remedy for a serious social ill, and democracy yawns.  To get action, you have to forget about cost or cost-effectiveness – and just try to drug the public with demagoguery.

Note: I’m not attacking Krugman for having little faith in democracy.  His underlying lack of faith in democracy is fully justified.  I only wish that Krugman would loudly embrace the public choice framework that intellectually justifies his lack of faith.  (Or better yet, Krugman could loudly embraced my psychologically-enriched public choice expansion pack).

Once you pay proper respect to public choice theory, however, you cannot simply continue on your merry way.  You have to ponder its central normative lesson: Don’t advocate government action merely because a clever-and-appealing policy proposal passes a cost-benefit test.  Instead, look at the trendy-but-awful policies that will actually be adopted – and see if they pass a cost-benefit test.  If they don’t, you should advocate laissez-faire despite all those shiny ideas in the textbook.

Krugman could naturally reply, “I’ve done the math.  Global warming is so terrible that trendy-but-awful policies are our least-bad bet.”  To the best of my knowledge, though, this contradicts mainstream estimates of the costs of warming.  That aside, why back a Green New Deal instead of deregulation of nuclear power or geoengineering?  If recalcitrant public opinion thwarts your clever-and-appealing remedy, maybe you started out on the wrong path in the first place.

Unfair?  Well, this is hardly the first time that Krugman has rationalized destructive populism when he really should have reconsidered.  Krugman knows that immigration is the world’s fastest way to escape absolute poverty.  He knows that standard complaints about immigration are, at best, exaggerated.  But he’s still an immigration skeptic, because:

The New Deal made America a vastly better place, yet it probably wouldn’t have been possible without the immigration restrictions that went into effect after World War I. For one thing, absent those restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.

Notice the pattern.

Step 1: You start with the textbook case for a welfare state to alleviate domestic poverty.  Public choice problems?  Bah.

Step 2: Next, you decide that you can’t get that welfare state without horrible collateral damage.

Step 3: So you casually embrace the status quo, without seriously engaging obvious questions, like: “Given political constraints, perhaps its actually better not to have the New Deal?” or even “How close can we get to the New Deal without limiting immigration?”

The moral: If the only way you can get your great idea implemented is to mutilate it and/or package it with a pile of expensive junk, you really should wonder, “Is it still worth it?”

Well, is it?

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Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nobody asked but …

I am late for MLK’s birthday’s anniversary.  It happened a week ago according to a record source I have seen.  MLK’s real birthdate occurred on January 15, 1929.  Every year we are reminded of the contributions that Martin Luther King, Jr. made to our society.

What I fear now is that we are doing it wrong.  We gather in public places to observe this holiday, but we treat it as though this man was principally a patriot and his campaign was to elevate a noble characteristic among the citizens of the USA.  His real hope was to correct a grievous set of errors made by the original founders and their hand-picked constituents.  Let us never forget, that MLK wanted society reorganized to fit the formulation that the USA had been officially lying about for 200 years or more.

I suppose that the thing that galls me most is that politicians hi-jacked civil rights, and made the story about politicians, not the Golden Rule.

A few years ago someone said to me that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a libertarian because he chose the state as his main tool for setting things right.  Malarkey!  There was likely no way that MLK could have achieved what he did while keeping the politicos at bay.

Reverend King never once asked for the state’s intervention.  Ironically until the old white boys club saw the handwriting on the wall, “political glory,” they stonewalled MLK and his constituents at every turn.  Then the worms turned.  The politicos were responsible for the bandwagon, and the self-congratulations.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was responsible for the conscience of America.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Democracy: Holy Mob Rule

Holy Pole Quilt isn’t the only vulgar thing considered holy by “American” government supremacists.

Many have joined the international cult of democracy worshippers.

They worship Holy Mob Aggression.

The Holy Hive Mind or the Holy Mindless Mob. However you want to describe it.

Some try to hide this uncomfortable truth by claiming America is a “constitutional representative republic”, not a democracy. This is evidence that many worship the Holy Slave Documents as well.

It’s also a denial of the fact that all republics will devolve into democracies– given time and politics.

But in practice— Right boot, left boot, crushing the throat… what difference is there?

I don’t need to be ruled, nor do I need you to be ruled on “my behalf”. Not by a dictator nor by a dictating mob.

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Two-and-a-Half Cheers for Elizabeth Warren’s Student Debt Plan

On January 14, Elizabeth Warren released a “Plan to Cancel Student Debt on Day One of My Presidency.”  Warren would use the US Department of Education’s “broad legal authority” to cancel up to $50,000 of debt on behalf of up to 42 million borrowers.

Warren’s plan makes a lot of sense politically.  She’s struggling for traction in the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination race. Big promises to  millions of borrowers and their families could make a big difference in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

As for the larger problem of college costs, Warren’s overall approach is a mix of some bad things ($150 billion in taxpayer money for Pell Grants and “minority serving institutions,” plus the costs of “universal tuition free public college”) and one and a half good things above and beyond her debt forgiveness plan.

The one good thing: She proposes to eliminate the “undue hardship” standard for discharging student debt in bankruptcy.

The half a good thing: She wants to ban federal funding for for-profit colleges.

That second thing would be a full good thing, instead of just half a good thing, if Warren removed the word “for-profit.”

There’s a strong historical correlation between easy availability of student loans and soaring costs of a college or university education.  It’s basic economics. By artificially lowering loan risk to direct money at a good or service, government increases debt and drives up the price of that good or service.

Under the present system, naive 18-year-olds are swindled into borrowing  more and more insane amounts of money to spend on less and less valuable college degrees. Then when they find themselves barely scraping by under the burden of repaying those loans, they can’t resort to bankruptcy.

Think about that for a minute.

I’m 53. If I go out tomorrow and take out a sub-prime mortgage on a home and a loan for a $40,000 car, then max out a bunch of credit cards, I can substantially get out from under that debt in bankruptcy court.

The 18-year-old who trusted others when they said “you need to go to college and here’s how” doesn’t have the same recourse as spendthrift Tom, who was old enough to know better and then some, but partied hearty anyway. That’s not right.

No, everyone does not need to “go to college.” That’s becoming more true than ever as inexpensive distance learning options and non-school certifications in various fields prepare Americans for many jobs better than seeking a degree does. We need to stop lying to America’s kids about both the costs and the benefits of a college education.

I’m all for Warren’s idea of “forgiving” a bunch of the existing debt. But any kind of lasting solution calls for less, not more, government involvement in general.

The Libertarian Party’s platform offers a better direction: “We support ending federal student loan guarantees and special treatment of student loan debt in bankruptcy proceedings. … Education is best provided by the free market, achieving greater quality, accountability, and efficiency with more diversity of choice.”

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Elitism for Everybody

While not everyone is great, everyone can be.

This may be my most American idea.

As Gordon Wood argues in American Characters, we live in a populist country founded by elitists: a strange twist in history that has given to a mass population personal role models who had extraordinary (if flawed) personal character.

We’re taught from an early age that we should look up to and imitate founders like George Washington – a landed aristocrat – and Thomas Jefferson – who was reading Latin and Greek classics in his teens. There’s an idea in most of our educational systems that we can be like these men.

That’s a pretty crazy idea. It’s a pretty wonderful one, because it’s true (we can exceed those men). And it breaks categories.

It’s not a pure egalitarian idea. Egalitarianism is a leveling force. This idea calls us to go higher, and to be as good or better than men who were superior to their cultures.

But it’s also a revolutionary idea. In calling everyone to become elite, this American idea redefines aristocracy. It offers admission to anyone – if they’re good enough, that is.

It’s a hard belief to maintain, but I want to believe and try to act in a way that assumes that everyone can (in some way) become great and virtuous. It may be the idea that makes America special. It’s the idea that makes it possible for me to work hard to make the world better. I want to believe that there is some profound and great potential in every person.

As far as I know, that idea hasn’t been disproven. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the idea of “egalitarian elitism” may not have been tried and found wanting, but found difficult and left mostly untried.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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It’s Not Just Trump Supporters: Politics is a Pile of Shared Psychoses

Dr. Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist affiliated with Yale University, posits a “‘shared psychosis’ among just about all of Donald Trump’s followers.”

Her claim came in the context of a discussion of Alan Dershowitz’s use of the word “perfect” to describe his sex life, mirroring Trump’s use of that word regarding a well-known phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Dershowitz has complained to Yale about the claim. He considers it an ethical violation of psychiatrists’ duty not to diagnose conditions absent personal examinations.

This particular version of the claim has a pretty thin basis, but it’s not incorrect. The big problem with it is that it’s too narrow. Donald Trump isn’t some lone Typhoid Mary of “shared psychosis,” nor are his supporters its only victims. Politics as we know it is made up almost entirely of shared psychoses.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines “psychosis” as “conditions that affect the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality. … Symptoms of psychosis include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others do not see or hear). Other symptoms include incoherent or nonsense speech, and behavior that is inappropriate for the situation.”

If that doesn’t sound like the daily grind of American politics to you, you haven’t been paying attention to Trump’s Twitter timeline, the Democratic Party’s presidential primary debates, or Congress’s perpetual bickering.

The primary delusion of politics is the notion that someone out there is more qualified to run your life, or at least your neighbor’s life, than you or your neighbor.  In the advanced stages of the psychosis, the victim becomes convinced that he or she IS that someone and decides to seek political office.

By any measure, the psychosis is pandemic. In the US, more than  45%  — at a bare minimum, the entire adult population minus the half who don’t vote and the tiny percentage who vote Libertarian — clearly suffer from it.

To make a bad situation worse, the American political system is set up to ensure that the most delusional patients get put in charge of running the asylum.

While I’m a partisan Libertarian, I have my doubts that we can vote our way out of this epidemic by electing my fellow partisans to office and having them re-jigger the system to stop spreading the contagion and exacerbating its symptoms.

Perhaps we should consider adding clozapine to the water supply.

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