Thought Experiments

I was just discussing with a friend a thought experiment I put together years ago during a debate on whether or not inequality is a prerequisite to economic exchange.

The claim I heard from some economists was that you can’t have trade without inequality. While I believe inequality is inescapable, natural, not undesirable, and an inevitable outcome of freedom and prosperity, I don’t think it is logically necessary in order for mutually beneficial trade to occur.

I emphasize logical, because thought experiments can be useful for finding errors in reasoning, but they are almost never useful for finding better explanations for the real world. I think I can construct a thought experiment that reveals that inequality is not logically necessary for win-win trade, but that doesn’t do much to improve understanding of the world. In the real world, everyone is unequal, period. We differ in taste, preference, ability, biology, etc. Even small divergence leads to different subjective valuations which is the major driver in gains from trade.

The point of the claim the inequality is needed for trade is to reveal that, for from being a danger to be feared, it’s a necessary part of human flourishing. That is true. Still, I don’t think it is logically required for trade to occur.

Here’s my thought experiment:

Two perfectly identical people live on an island. To survive, they need both fish and berries in their diet. Both have identical preferences for types of work, and identical abilities at fishing and berry picking.

In 1/2 a day, one can collect 100 berries, and in 1/2 a day one can catch 2 fish. So each individual splitting the day between berries and fish will end up with 100 berries and 2 fish, for a combined total of 200 berries and 4 fish.

But there are more abundant berries high up on the mountain. The catch is it takes an entire day to get there and back, leaving no time for fishing. And there are more fish deeper in the ocean, but it takes an entire day to paddle there and back leaving no time for berries.

The two identical people could specialize. One spends the whole day fishing in more abundant waters and catches 6 fish. One day one spends all day in more abundant berry bushes and picks 300 berries. They can trade and end up with 150 berries and 3 fish each. Both individuals have gained (50%!) from the trade due to the division of labor.

This does not require either individual to become more skilled than the other at one task. They could alternate each day who does which and still win. Division of labor and specialization coupled with trade is a better outcome than self-sufficiency even for two completely equal individuals because of the uneven nature of production itself. Each unit of time does not produce an identical outcome, and duration spent at a task may affect the marginal productivity, even without new skills gained or new capital employed.

See, trade is beneficial even in a world of perfect equality!

The problem is every assumption in the thought experiment is far fetched beyond belief. It can reveal an error in the logic of the original claim, but not its reality. Trade always arises between unequal partners because no two people are equal in the real world. Even identical twins stranded on an island aren’t. Even engineered clones under my scenario wouldn’t be, because in reality they would enhance their skill with more time invested in one task than another.

Thought experiments are not “gotcha” moments for real world claims. They may be mild rebukes of the certainty of the logical necessity, but they are so divorced from the real world, and so stripped down of variables that they allow the real world to contradict them all the time.

Just ask those economists who couldn’t discover any logical way lighthouses could be funded without government so they declared it an impossible wish, even while the very lighthouses outside their window were currently funded without government. Thought experiments are fun and occasionally useful, but more often arrogant, blinding, and dangerous.

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Police Violence: “Reform” Is Not Enough

Every few years, some particular instance of a pervasive phenomenon — police violence in the form of unjustified or at least highly questionable killings — “goes viral” with the result that America’s cities explode in protest.

Every time that happens, some American politicians complain about a non-existent “war on police,” while others promise “reforms” such as closer supervision (like the increase in body camera use following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri), civilian review boards to investigate complaints, better training, and of course more money.

After each round of “reforms,” the problem continues.

“We can’t settle for anything other than transformative structural change,” says US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). She’s right, but the bill she’s  promoting — the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 — isn’t any such thing.

The bill isn’t likely to become law. It may pass the Democratic House, but the Republican Senate and White House are already busking for support from police unions and their faux “law and order” base in November’s elections.

And even if it did pass, it’s a glass not even half full. Pelosi herself contradictorily describes it as both “full, comprehensive action” and “a first step” with “more to come.”

The bill would “reform,” rather than eliminate, “qualified immunity.” It would reduce some of the barriers that plaintiffs have to get over in holding police accountable for rights-violating misconduct, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Cops need to be held to EXACTLY the same standards as civilians when it comes to use of force.

The bill would also outlaw “no-knock raids,” but only for drug cases. “No-knock raids” are nothing less than violent home invasion burglaries. They’re precisely the kind of “unreasonable searches” forbidden by the Fourth Amendment and need to be outlawed entirely.

The Justice in Policing Act isn’t “transformative structural change.” It’s a band-aid on a gaping, traumatic wound that is, indeed, structural.

The root of the problem isn’t police violence.  It’s police themselves, and the system they serve. The purpose of police as we know them is to hold the productive class down so that the political class rule and rob us, full stop. Everything else — “serve and protect,” etc. — is incidental or illusory.

Progressives calling for “defunding” of the police are on the right track, or would be if they were serious. Most of them seem to use “defund” to mean “shift funding between state activities,” not to mean “eliminate a state activity.” They don’t want the pepper balls and rubber bullets, but they refuse to abandon the system the pepper balls and rubber bullets prop up.

“Transformative structural change” would require more than re-training and de-militarizing the police. It would require dis-empowering them and going back to voluntary community “peace officer” models of law enforcement.

Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, et al. know their control over the rest of us relies on the existing police state model. The only way for it to go is for them to go as well.

We need a real revolution, not fake “reform.”

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My Upcoming Debate with the Harvard Professor Who Wants a “Presumptive Ban” on Homeschooling

When I told my 13-year-old homeschooled daughter that I would be participating in an upcoming debate with the Harvard professor who recommends a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling, she asked incredulously, “Why would anyone want to prevent people from homeschooling?”

I told her that some people worry that children could be abused or neglected by parents who choose to homeschool, which is why in a recent Arizona Law Review article, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet called for a “presumptive ban” on the practice, allowing the state to grant permission to homeschool only after parents first prove that they are worthy of the task and after they also agree to other state interventions, such as regular home visits by government “mandated reporters” of child abuse and ensuring that their children still take at least some classes at their local government school.

My daughter was baffled. I asked her what she thinks my response to the professor should be in the upcoming discussion hosted by the Cato Institute on Monday, June 15th, that will be livestreamed to the public. She said that many of the young people who attend the self-directed learning center for homeschoolers where my daughter and her siblings take classes chose homeschooling to escape abuse in their previous school. Many of them were bullied by peers or otherwise unhappy there, and homeschooling has been a positive game-changer for them. “Maybe the professor doesn’t really know homeschoolers,” my daughter said. “You should explain to her what it’s really like.”

That is what I intend to do. My argument in favor of homeschooling and against “presumptive bans” and regulation hinges on three primary principles:

Principle 1: Today’s Homeschoolers Are Diverse, Engaged, and Competent

As my daughter suggested, opponents of homeschooling or those who believe in greater state authority over the practice may not really know a lot about today’s homeschoolers. Stereotypes of homeschoolers as isolated radicals were rarely true even a generation ago when homeschooling became legally recognized in all US states by the mid-1990s, and they are even less true now.

Twenty-first-century homeschoolers are increasingly reflective of the overall US population, demographically, geographically, ideologically, and socioeconomically. They choose homeschooling for a wide variety of reasons, but a top motivator cited by homeschooling parents in the most recent US Department of Education data on the topic is “concern about the environment of other schools, including safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure.” Only 16 percent of homeschooling parents in this nationally representative sample chose a “desire to provide religious instruction” as their top motivator. Much of the growth in homeschooling over the past decade has come from urban, secular families seeking a different, more custom-fit educational environment for their kids.

Homeschoolers are diverse in many ways, from their reasons for homeschooling, to the educational philosophies they embrace, to the curriculum they use (or don’t use). Homeschooling is also becoming much more racially and ethnically diverse, with federal data showing that one-quarter of the nearly two million US homeschoolers are Hispanic, which mirrors the population of Hispanic children in the overall US K-12 school-age population. Black homeschooling is also growing, with many African American parents choosing this education option for their children to “protect them from institutional racism and stereotyping.”

Additionally, recent research by Daniel Hamlin at the University of Oklahoma finds that homeschoolers are highly engaged in their communities with frequent opportunities to build “cultural capital” through regular visits to libraries, museums, and participation in cultural events. Hamlin states: “Relative to public school students, homeschooled students are between two and three times more likely to visit an art gallery, museum, or historical site; visit a library; or attend an event sponsored by a community, religious, or ethnic group. Homeschooled students are also approximately 1.5 times more likely to visit a zoo, aquarium, or bookstore during the course of a month.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic led to massive school shutdowns this spring, over 50 million US schoolchildren found themselves learning at home. Whether because of ongoing virus fears and concerns about school reopenings with strict social distancing requirements, or because they found learning at home more rewarding than they expected, many parents are seriously considering opting out of conventional schooling—at least in the short-term. A new poll by USA Today/Ipsos found that 60 percent of parents say they will likely choose at-home learning rather than sending their children to school in the fall even if they reopen.

Some of these parents may be glad to know that a recent literature review on homeschooling conducted by Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation finds excellent academic outcomes for homeschooled students. She concludes that “the outcomes of those who homeschool, whether the result of homeschooling itself or other unobservable characteristics of families who homeschool such as greater parental involvement, shows positive academic outcomes for participants.”

The wide variety of reasons for and approaches to homeschooling means that subjecting homeschooling families to the education and oversight requirements of government schools, or requiring homeschoolers to take regular classes at these schools, imposes conformity on a population of families that is deeply heterogeneous. It may seem neat and easy to mandate government schooling regulations and expectations on families who opt out of this method, but it limits individuality, experimentation, and divergence. We may not like how different families choose to live and learn, but that is no excuse to intolerantly impose our own preferences on them through government force.

Principle 2: Parents Know Better Than the State

My husband and I chose homeschooling right from the beginning of our childrearing days, recognizing that it would provide a more expansive, interest-driven, academically challenging educational environment for our four children than would be possible in a conventional school. Instead of going to the same building every day, with the same static handful of teachers and the same age-segregated group of peers doing the same curriculum, our children are immersed in the people, places, and things of our city and, with the exception of this pandemic, spend much of their time outside of our home interacting with friends and mentors in our community. We rejected schooling from the start, but as my daughter suggests, many families use homeschooling as an exit ramp from an unsatisfactory or abusive schooling experience.

Peer abuse in the form of physical and emotional bullying is rampant in schools, and is one reason why some parents choose to withdraw their children from school for homeschooling. Data suggest that nearly half of children in grades four to 12 experience bullying at least once a month, and peer sexual assaults at school are alarmingly common. Depression and anxiety are rising among children and teens, and the youth suicide rate climbed 56 percent between 2007 and 2017. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found a strong seasonal relationship between youth suicide and school attendance, with suicidal acts and tendencies declining during the summer months and soaring at back-to-school time. This is an opposite pattern to adult suicide rates and tendencies, which peak in July and August.

Opponents of homeschooling point to rare examples of abuse or neglect by parents who identify (or who the state identifies) as homeschoolers to argue for heightened homeschool regulation. Yet, government schools are heavily regulated and surveilled, and abuse still regularly occurs there, and not only in the form of bullying.

Headlines abound of educators abusing children on school premises, and a 2004 US Department of Education study found that one in 10 children who attend a government school will be sexually abused by a government school employee by the time the child graduates from high school. Child abuse tragically happens in all types of settings, but some research suggests that homeschooled children are less likely to be abused than their schooled peers. This shouldn’t be surprising, as homeschooling parents are often choosing homeschooling, while making significant personal sacrifices, to ensure their child’s safety and well-being.

Child abuse is horrific and anyone convicted of this crime should be severely punished, but it is absurd to suggest that homeschooling parents need to be frequently monitored and evaluated by government officials who struggle to keep children safe within their own government institutions. Clean up your own house before telling others how to clean theirs.

Parents are not perfect and they do commit crimes, sometimes against their own children, just as educators sometimes commit crimes against the children in their schools. But if we are to grant power to families or to the state to protect children, we should side with families who have shown for millennia, well before governments were instituted, that they are capable of raising and educating their own children.

Principle 3: In America, We Have a Presumption of Innocence

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of proposals to presumptively ban or heavily regulate homeschoolers is the deep suspicion it betrays toward a group that chooses to live and learn differently. The suggestion is that because some tiny fraction of homeschooling parents could commit a crime against children then all homeschooling parents should be subject to increased scrutiny and surveillance. This says that homeschoolers should be presumed to be guilty until proven innocent, with frequent monitoring to ensure no wrongdoing.

We rightfully condemn racial profiling and other attempts to single out an entire group for increased suspicion out of concerns about the actions of a few. We should criticize efforts to monitor and control the beliefs and behaviors of people who live differently, valuing the pluralism of American culture. We must recognize the cost of trading individual liberty for some alleged security. It is a dangerous exchange.

If a parent, educator, or any person is suspected of abusing a child, then that individual should be arrested, charged, and tried. But to single out an entire group for pre-crime surveillance with no evidence of lawbreaking is wrong. Critics might argue that if homeschoolers have nothing to hide, they shouldn’t mind more state intrusion if it could protect children.

By this same logic, we should allow periodic police inspections of our homes to protect our neighborhoods and make sure none of us are thieves. If we have nothing to hide, we should allow the government to routinely read our emails and listen to our phone calls. We should be okay with stop-and-frisk. In a free society, we should not be okay with these violations of privacy that expand state power and make us less free and less safe.

The central question is what kind of society do we wish to live in? Do we want entire groups subject to special scrutiny and suspicion just because they are different? Do we want to accept a legal regime of guilty until proven innocent? Do we want government to serve families, or families to serve government? At the heart of a free society is tolerating difference and accepting diversity—in lifestyles, in beliefs, in values, and in parenting and educational practices.

Government schools have a lot to focus on, including reducing abuse in schools, raising reading scores, and getting more than 15 percent of students to be proficient in US history. Child advocates, educators, and policy makers should help these schoolchildren by making government schooling safer and more effective, while leaving homeschooling families alone.

Click here to register for Monday’s online discussion featuring Elizabeth Bartholet, Milton Gaither, Neal McCluskey, and me.

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POTUS Thirteen Through Eighteen

POTUS Thirteen Through Eighteen

I’ll say again, the Presidents of the United States are a motley crew.  So far the scorecard reads 45 attempts, 45 shortfallen.  I am not saying there were no honorable persons in the group (“honorable” itself is a very unwieldy word).  But I have practically no regard for the intellects of any of the half-dozen listed below.  With the exceptions of the monstrous pair, Lincoln and Grant, the other 4 are bound for the abyss of the forgotten.  But, to me, there is no such thing as a great President.  To have been a POTUS places a black mark on that career.  Few (ie none) have risen above.

On some occasions, some wisdom has been dispensed independently of the downward slide to the oval office.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the third six (13-18):

  • Millard Fillmore

It is not strange… to mistake change for progress.

  • Franklin Pierce

The dangers of a concentration of all power in the general government of a confederacy so vast as ours are too obvious to be disregarded.

  • James Buchanan

Has the Constitution delegated to Congress the power to coerce a State into submission which is attempting to withdraw or has actually withdrawn from the Confederacy?

  • Abraham Lincoln

No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.

  • Andrew Johnson

There are no good laws but such as repeal other laws.

  • Ulysses S. Grant

 … the most confident critics are generally those who know the least about the matter criticised.

But every person who has served in furtherance of this benighted office, in my view, has a great atrocity to their name.  Again, the list:

— Kilgore Forelle

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It’s Time to Change the Status Quo

This is a painful time for so many of us. There is anger, outrage, pain, fear, racism, injustice, sadness, exhaustion — and it’s not just a recent thing, it goes back generations, as far as our country has existed.

It’s heartbreaking.

We need to let our hearts be broken by how minorities, but especially black people, are treated in this country. Let our hearts be broken by the fear they have to live through, the injustice they’ve suffered, the way they’re perceived by everyone else, the way they’re put down, incarcerated, stomped on, segregated, outcast, spit on, villainized, criminalized, demonized, slurred, patronized, marginalized, rejected, and put into poverty … and then blamed for all of that. Let our hearts be broken by how long this has been allowed to go on, how exhausted they must feel from all of it.

We start with the heartbreak, and then let this move us to finally take action.

Let’s end this now. Change is possible faster than we usually believe, if there’s a will. Gay marriage, decriminalization of marijuana, and a black president have proven that, just to start with. Change is possible now, if we decide it needs to happen.

It needs to happen.

We’ve allowed this to go on for too long. And let’s not be mistaken: we’re all culpable in this. All of us. For pretending it’s not real, for ignoring it, for allowing our own biases and racism to go unchecked, for not calling out racism and oppression in our institutions and society, for not talking about it, for not marching on it, for not demanding that change happen now. We all share responsibility.

But let’s not get into finger pointing and blame. Point the finger at ourselves, own our own part, and then let’s make it right. Own our impact, and clean up our mess.

Let’s change the status quo. Not allow police brutality, to start with. Not allow racism or sexism in our institutions. Not criminalize being black, or being an immigrant. Not allow voices to be oppressed. Not allow segregation and oceans of minority poverty. Not allow our political, economic, social, educational systems to be systems of oppression, but to become systems of positive change.

We have the power to do that. Let’s claim it.

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Bullshit if True

Sometimes you don’t have to wait for the facts to come in to know if something’s wrong.

It’s easy to feel sophisticated by telling yourself you’re waiting until you’ve reviewed all the relevant data. The data become the focus, and you dissect and debate what it might mean and wait and seek for more. The better informed the better!

But sometimes, if you step back and ask what different data would do to change actions, there isn’t a clear answer. You’ve gotten sucked unto analyzing info, supposedly to help you form a deferred judgement, but the thing you’re forming a judgement about didn’t need more info in the first place and more info wouldn’t alter or clear it up.

Sometimes you just know. But you’re afraid. It feels too bold. Haphazard, radical, simple. Well, sometimes the right thing is.

Sometimes a spade is a spade, and info about where it came from, who put it there, or the odds of it showing up again are intellectual exercises not necessary to form a judgement and do what needs to be done.

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