A Modest Proposal for Compromise on “Confederate” Military Bases

In July 1864, Confederate forces led by General Jubal Early attacked Fort Stevens and Fort DeRussy on the outskirts of Washington, DC. Union forces drove them away after two days of skirmishes, but the battle threw a scare into the capital city and constituted a high point in the Confederacy’s Shenandoah Valley campaigns.

More than a century and a half later, the Confederates are back in Washington, meeting stiff resistance on Capitol Hill but garnering support from the White House.

This June, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sought the removal of portraits and statues honoring Confederate figures from the Capitol and its grounds.

Meanwhile,  the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the annual National Defense [sic] Authorization Act, offered by US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). The amendment would give the Pentagon three years to re-name military bases named after Confederate figures.

US president Donald Trump says he’ll veto the NDAA if it comes to him with that amendment intact.

Will he? Almost certainly not.

The NDAA is the US government’s largest annual corporate welfare and middle/lower class workfare bill. This year’s version isn’t even at full pre-passage bloat yet and it already tops $740 billion in sweetheart payouts for “defense” contractors, plus salaries and benefits for more than three million jobs in, or related to, the military.

If Social Security is a political “third rail” (touch it and you die), the NDAA is the train that runs down the tracks on either side of that rail (get in its way and you’ll be run over and smooshed).

So no, Trump’s not serious about a veto. He’s just virtue signaling to those members of his southern and rural base who were weaned on pro-Confederate “Lost Cause” mythology (basically every southerner and most midwesterners who came of age before the 1990s). And yes, Pelosi and Warren are virtue signaling to their side of Culture War, 2020 Election Edition, too.

Both sides will drag this fake, silly fight out until after Election Day because it’s the fight itself, not the outcome, that brings in the campaign contributions and the votes. Style over substance, as usual.

But just for laughs, let’s think about what a compromise could look like if the two sides actually worked for the taxpayers instead of for the military industrial complex. How about this:

Don’t rename those “Confederate” bases. Instead, shut them down. Completely. Move or destroy the weapons, move or discharge the troops, and sell the real estate (with contract clauses forbidding use of the bases’ names or namesakes in subsequent uses).

For the sake of balance, shut down an equal number of bases named after Union military figures, on the same terms.

Then cut that NDAA by $100 billion or so, and call it a good start.

No, that’s not going to happen, at least while we keep sending Republicans and Democrats to Washington. They’ll occasionally slap new labels on their wicked and murderous behaviors, and sometimes assign blame to the old labels for those behaviors, but they won’t willingly change.

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Abolish The Police (and Then What?)

The completely rational idea of abolishing the police scares some people.

They think “But who would I call if someone is breaking into my house in the middle of the night?

Chances are, if that’s happening, it’s a wrong-address police raid and you’re about to be killed, and calling more police to the scene isn’t going to help you. I’m sorry if this news upsets you, but you need to face reality eventually.

On the off-chance it’s a freelance thug breaking in, you have better options than calling the police even now.

Take responsibility for your own defense— you ought to be doing this first anyway. Calling someone else should always be a last-ditch response. You are there now; they aren’t. What could happen before someone arrives to save you? Almost anything. You are the first responder, and you always have been. Act like it.

If you still feel the need to call back-up: Call your neighbors. If any of my neighbors called in the middle of the night, I’d respond.

If that doesn’t work for you, there are still options better than inviting the Blue Line Gang to your house and facing the very real possibility they’ll shoot you by “mistake”.

Use Cell411.

Or call a crackhead.

Or, use the money you should be saving by not being “taxed” to fund those badged tax junkies to hire private security– ones who will actually be contractually obligated to protect you, individually … unlike police.

Or think of another option that suits you better.

The thing is, to imagine that abolishing the police would leave you helpless is what the police would like you to believe, but it’s not even close to reality. The “reasons” to not abolish the police are as flimsy as the “reasons” people once used to say it wasn’t possible to abolish chattel slavery. In hindsight, those “reasons” look stupid, dishonest, or evil.

You have options; better options. You can create new options. Police must be off the table to free you to find better solutions.

Abolish the police!

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What I’m Thinking

1. Getting people to be rational about politics is an uphill battle during the best of times.  During a global hysteria, it’s hopeless.

2. Due to this doleful realization, I refrained from discussing the lockdown when it first emerged.  The best course, I deemed, was to wait for readers to simmer down.

3. Since many have now simmered down, here’s what I was thinking three months ago.

4. I was convinced that coronavirus was a dire threat by early March, but I opposed the lockdown from day 1.

5. Why?  Because per Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority, I accept a strong presumption in favor of human liberty.  You cannot rightfully shut businesses and order people to “stay at home” out of an “abundance of caution.”  Instead, the burden is on the advocates of these policies to demonstrate that their benefits drastically exceed their costs – by at least 5:1.  Almost no one even tried to discharge this burden.

6. Telling government to “err on the side of caution” is a recipe for severe oppression.  Individuals, in contrast, have every right to personally “err on the side of caution.”  In early weeks of the crisis when risk information was scarce, erring on the side of caution was reasonable.

7. Nevertheless, I was initially moderately optimistic that lockdown policies would, in hindsight, at least pass an ordinary cost-benefit test.  I no longer think so.  Even draconian measures have mostly failed to put R0 far below 1.

8. Due to the absence of Paid Voluntary Human Experimentation, we still lack definitive answers to almost every crucial coronavirus question.  Over the last two months, though, I have raised my best estimate of the Infection Fatality Rate from .3 to .6.

9. During the same time, initial claims about the age and especially the pre-existing health status gradient of mortality have been confirmed even more strongly than I expected.  Near-zero people known to have no underlying conditions have died of coronavirus.  There is a middle category of “underlying conditions unknown” with fairly high mortality.  I wish we knew more about such people, but my best guess that 90% have underlying conditions (versus about 40% for the general population).

10. Roughly 5% of survivors seem to have long-run problems, but risk of serious long-run problems almost certainly correlates highly with risk of death.  (And of course a wide variety of other risks, like car accidents, commonly maim survivors.  Coronavirus is not remotely a sui generis package of dangers).

10. Am I saying that I don’t care if old and sick people die?  No, but I confess that I would care even more if young and healthy people died.  I know this sounds terrible, but my view is not eccentric.  It’s implied by the standard notion of QALYs, and almost everyone I surveyed agrees with me.

11. QALYs aside, the extreme heterogeneity of risk highlights a cheap, humane alternative to the status quo: Healthy people should return to approximately normal life, while people with underlying ailments should maintain elevated to extreme caution.

12. Why “approximately normal” rather than “fully normal”?  Because healthy people should make reasonable efforts to protect vulnerable people.  This obligation should be legally enforceable in extreme cases, like deliberately coughing on others.  Otherwise, we should trust to conscience and social pressure.

13. Why “elevated to extreme caution”?  Because though the data on underlying conditions is binary, the actual severity of conditions like diabetes varies widely.

14. Following this dual path would get us to herd immunity with few deaths, especially when combined with multiple other layers of reasonable precaution.  Hopefully I’m wrong, but waiting around for a vaccine seems like wishful thinking.  Nor should we forget that unemployment is a grave evil.

15. What’s my risk of death if infected?  Being a 49 year-old gives me roughly the average risk; being white and male roughly cancel.  Since I have no underlying conditions, I estimate my risk at about 5.4% of the base risk of 0.6%.  That comes to about 1 in 3000.*  That’s about three times my annual risk of dying in an auto accident.  That gives me pause – I’ve long told my kids that driving is the most dangerous thing we do.  When choosing my behavior, however, I have to remember that I might still contract the disease despite exercising extreme caution, and might avoid the disease despite exercising merely reasonable caution.  I’d put the former probability at about 15%, and the later probability at about 40%.  So the marginal cost of hewing to reasonable (versus extreme) caution is only a 1 in 12,000 risk.

16. Driving, moreover, imposes roughly equal risks on all my family members.  Coronavirus, in contrast, poses near-zero risk to my children.

17. The U.S. has ample state capacity to follow the advice of a few reasonable economists.  But no wise policies will be adopted, because we have bipartisan dysfunctional state priorities.  You might think a crisis would bring demagoguery under control.  Alas, it hasn’t and it won’t.

18. Alex Tabarrok is wrong to state, “Social distancing, closing non-essential firms and working from home protect the vulnerable but these same practices protect workers in critical industries. Thus, the debate between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy is moot.” Moot?!  True, there is a mild trade-off between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy.  But if we didn’t care about the vulnerable at all, the disease would have already run its course and economic life would already have strongly rebounded.  Wouldn’t self-protection have stymied this?  Not if the government hadn’t expanded unemployment coverage and benefits, because most people don’t save enough money to quit their jobs for a couple of months.  With most of the workforce still on the job, fast exponential growth would have given us herd immunity long ago.  The death toll would have been several times higher, but that’s the essence of the trade-off between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy.

* The rough math: In NYC data for my age bracket, (deaths with no underlying conditions + .1*deaths with unknown conditions)/total deaths=3.4%.  40% of the adult population has underlying conditions, so their risk is 1.5*.966/.034=42.6 times as high as mine.  Setting my risk equal to x, we have .6x+.4*42.6x=.006, so x=2940.

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Too Terrified to Talk About It

I recently compared the fear of contracting coronavirus to the fear of sexual harassment accusations:

Am I really comparing the risk of contracting coronavirus with the risk of being accused of sexual harassment?  Verily, because the parallels are loud and strong.

In both cases, people use social distancing for risk reduction.  In both cases, the risk of most specific interactions is low.  At the same time, however, people encounter an endless succession of risky situations – and the bad outcomes are very bad.  Many (most?) men would rather endure sickness than public accusation.

When I said “many,” I was picturing 10-20%, but I felt genuinely uncertain.  So I decided to run some Twitter polls to get a better handle on the situation.  The results suggest that I was much too cautious; almost 90% of all respondents (not just men) would rather endure sickness than public accusation.  About two-thirds of respondents “definitely” prefer coronavirus.

The results are only slightly milder if you specify a social media scandal rather than a work scandal:

The implied terror made me wonder: If coronavirus pales before sexual harassment accusations, what doesn’t?  So I tried something extreme: work accusation versus a lifetime of celibacy.

Even here, about 25% of respondents prefer celibacy.  While I’m tempted to disbelieve, I guess I can accept that 25% of people fall into at least one of the following categories: (a) highly risk-averse people; (b) people who are no longer very interested in sex; (c) people who think their mating options are very poor.  More strikingly, just over one-third of respondents definitely prefer to endure an accusation.  Notice, moreover, that accusation need not imply the harsh consequences of firing or ostracism.  Celibacy, in contrast, is a life sentence by construction.

At this point, I decided to flip the survey around.  Sure, being accused of sexual harassment is bad; but perhaps it’s comparable to the badness of being sexually harassed.  The result?  Only about a third of my respondents deem workplace sexual harassment worse than coronavirus:

Kahneman’s work on focusing illusion reminds us that, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you’re thinking about it.”  Inspired by this insight, I maintain that people are overly worried about coronavirus, sexual harassment, and sexual harassment accusations.  Why?  Because society keeps reminding us to think about these specific traumatic experiences.  Still, I see little reason to doubt the relative importance that people assign to these dangers.  In absolute terms, most people remain terrified of coronavirus, so it’s hardly surprising that sexual harassment worries them less.  The fact that sexual harassment accusations actually worry the average respondent even more than coronavirus, however, suggests that most workers really are living in fear during normal times.

Why then don’t we hear more about their terror?  Because people – especially men – are too terrified to talk about it!  At risk of hyperbole, the situation brings to mind the Twilight Zone classic, “It’s a Good Life,” where the whole world lives in mortal fear of omnipotent child-tyrant Anthony Fremont… including his father, Mr. Fremont.

Anthony Fremont No kids came over to play with me today, not a single one, and I wanted someone to play with!

Mr. Fremont Well, Anthony, you remember the last time some kids came over to play. The little Fredricks boy and his sister.

Anthony Fremont I had a real good time.

Mr. Fremont Oh, sure you did, you had a real good time, and it’s good that you had a good time, it’s real good. It’s, uh, just that…

Anthony Fremont Just that what?

Mr. Fremont Well, Anthony, you, uh, you wished them away into the cornfield.

Catching coronavirus is bad, but apparently not as bad as the cornfield.

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Social Anxiety, #MeToo, and COVID-19

The last two months, I’ve spent many extra hours walking and biking.  Encountering other people outdoors – and watching all parties avoid each other like lepers – is an eerie experience.  Few human societies have ever made severe social anxiety so blatant.   Viewing strangers with fear is the new normal.

How would you react, though, if someone got angry at you for avoiding them?  The conversation might go like this:

Angry: Why on Earth are you avoiding me?

Anxious: I’m scared of getting sick.

Angry: I don’t have any symptoms.

Anxious: Great, but I’m still scared.

Angry: Of what?!

Anxious: Of what might happen.

Angry: The risk is very low!

Anxious: But the damage is severe, and the list of potential risks is endless.

Most people today would probably strongly side with Anxious over Angry.  If Angry grew despondent, however, you might (remotely) offer some constructive advice.  Starting with: If you want someone to interact with you despite the risk, strive to put their mind at ease.  Empathize with their fear even if you don’t agree with it.  Humor them.  Adjust your behavior to make them feel safe – and be friendly about it.  It may not seem fair, but you’re the person who seeks more social interaction.

Which reminds me: Before the coronavirus crisis, anger was building against “#MeToo backlash.”  First-hand experience suggested, and research confirmed, that many men were avoiding close contact with female co-workers.  In particular, men were reluctant to socialize with or mentor women.  Why?  Because they were afraid of being accused of sexual harassment.  The conversation went much like this… or would have, if the Anxious felt free to speak:

Angry: Why on Earth are you avoiding me?

Anxious: I’m scared of getting #MeToo’d.

Angry: I haven’t #MeToo’d anyone.

Anxious: Great, but I’m still scared.

Angry: Of what?!

Anxious: Of what might happen.

Angry: The risk is very low!

Anxious: But the damage is severe, and the list of potential risks is endless.

This time around, though, most people would vocally side with Angry over Anxious.

Am I really comparing the risk of contracting coronavirus with the risk of being accused of sexual harassment?  Verily, because the parallels are loud and strong.

In both cases, people use social distancing for risk reduction.  In both cases, the risk of most specific interactions is low.  At the same time, however, people encounter an endless succession of risky situations – and the bad outcomes are very bad.  Many (most?) men would rather endure sickness than public accusation.

While you can protest that, “the rate of false accusations is low,” that’s a lot like saying, “the rate of deliberate infection is low.”  In both cases, the main danger is not intentional harm.  The main danger is that social proximity allows unintentional harm.  People don’t just infect others without meaning to.  They also offend others without meaning to.  If your motto is “safety first,” you naturally keep your distance to avoid both contracting disease and giving offense.

I grasp that #MeToo was partly motivated by the desire to reduce social anxiety of women.  Unfortunately, instead of reaffirming universal good manners, #MeToo fought social anxiety with social anxiety, all but heedless of collateral damage.

As you can gather, I was disturbed by the rise of social anxiety years before the virus.  Now social anxiety has reached pandemic proportions.  What is to be done?  Rather than counter-productively condemn others for their paranoia, my goal is to deescalate the tensions.  “Safety first” is a tempting but dangerous motto.  Instead, let us all try to “Make risk reasonable again.”  Use moderate caution yourself- and kindly invite others to do the same.  Listen to both Anxious or Angry.  Side with neither.

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Reflections on the Krikorian-Caplan Soho Forum Debate

Thanks again to Gene Epstein and Reason for sponsoring last week’s immigration debate between myself and Mark Krikorian.  Thanks to Mark, too, for debating before an unsympathetic audience.  The resolution, you may recall, was: The current pandemic makes it all the more necessary for the federal government to tighten restrictions on immigration.

Here are my extra thoughts on the exchange.

1. I was stunned that Mark did not think we should limit immigration to help fight contagious disease.  While this position is deeply flawed, it has great surface appeal.  I have to think that most of his supporters would endorse it enthusiastically.  Hopefully he’ll strive set them straight, though I doubt it.  (Prove me wrong, Mark, prove me wrong).

2. Instead, Mark dusted off the classic populist argument that we should limit immigration to fight high unemployment.  Since he never argued in favor of immigration a few months ago when unemployment was at a 50-year low, one can’t take him too seriously.  As I keep saying, immigration restriction is a solution in search of a problem.

In any case, this is a textbook example of misguided recession policy.  Yes, deliberately restricting production during a recession can help some workers, but only at the expense of consumers (most of whom are workers in other industries).   When Roosevelt ordered the destruction of food during the Great Depression, he helped farmers, but only by depriving the rest of the population of affordable calories.  Excluding immigrants, similarly, helps competing native workers, but only by depriving the rest of the population of the goods and services immigrants produce.  Wise recession policy focuses on reviving production, not destructive redistribution.

3. Curiously, Mark granted that during this crisis, we should not exclude foreign agricultural workers.  His logic is hazy.  Today offers a prime opportunity to help native farm workers at the expense of native food consumers.  If you think that’s good policy in general, why not here and now?  The real story, I suspect, is that slashing the food supply during a crisis would be highly visible – and Mark wants to keep the costs of immigration restriction hidden.  I’d be amazed if Mark thought now was a good time to let in more foreign agricultural workers; if the existing number is temporarily good during this emergency, though, why stop there?

4. Mark combines this concession on immigrant farm workers with a bizarre long-run plan to wean U.S. agriculture off its “addiction” to cheap foreign labor.  Yes, a large fall in labor supply would induce mechanization.  But as long as human labor is cheaper, what’s good about switching?  Mark’s central argument is aesthetic; in this modern age, people shouldn’t be digging around in the Earth like “serfs.”  (His word).  This is economically absurd.  As long as the low-tech approach is cheaper than the high-tech approach, the low-tech approach is better.  Sure, we could force-feed mechanization.  If we taxed human-powered lawn-mowers, we’d switch sooner to robotic mowers.  The wise course, though, is to wait until upgrading actually makes us better off.

(Mark did vaguely allude to a technological path-dependence argument, but those are a dime a dozen even when fully fleshed-out).

5. Toward the end of our debate, Mark claimed that our fundamental difference is that he takes our obligations to fellow Americans seriously, while I think our obligation is to all mankind.  I agree that this is a difference, but it’s not fundamental.  Why not?  Because if I were an American nationalist, I would still favor open borders in order to maximize Americans’ standard of living.

6. What then is our fundamental difference?  I say it comes down to misanthropy.  Mark hears about a human being who wants to immigrate here – and presumes he’s going to make our lives worse.  Sure, he’s glad that we got Albert Einstein on our team, but negativity is Mark’s default.  My default is exactly the opposite.  When I hear about a human being who wants to immigrate here, I presume he’s going to make our lives better.  Yes, he could be the next Hitler, but the odds are astronomically against it.  The vast majority of human beings make valuable contributions to the world, even though some of us contribute far more than others.  That’s what the history of the U.S. shows, and what our future history is going to show.

7. Is Mark really a misanthrope?  Notice how he responds when an audience member asks him about government regulation of natives’ child-bearing.  He doesn’t try to argue that native babies grow up to be better people than immigrants.  He explicitly disavows the idea that we’re “superior” to people from other lands.  The concrete social effects of an extra native or an extra immigrant should therefore be comparable.  And since he deems the typical immigrant to be a negative, he should think the same about the typical native as well.  While Mark opposes government regulation of natives’ child-bearing, his rationale is not about consequences, but our “social contract.”  Americans are entitled to have as many kids as they want, even if they’re a burden on society.  Would-be immigrants, in contrast, are only entitled to burden their own societies.  So while we’re obligated to put up with burdensome Americans, we can and should refuse all those burdensome foreigners.

By the way, the misanthropy is palpable if you peruse the main page for the Center for Immigration Studies.  See for yourself; it really is monomaniacal collection of complaints about immigrants.  Assembling an analogous collection of ceaseless negativity about any human group – or humanity in general – would be child’s play.  Just let your inner pessimist fly.

8. The most intellectually solid case for immigration restriction is that natives are civilized, while immigrants are awful barbarians.  (Remember “rapefugees”?)  Why doesn’t Mark defend this position?  The charitable story is that he knows it’s false.  But if so, why doesn’t he try harder to disabuse his fellow restrictionists of their xenophobic pessimism?  The better story, I’m afraid, is Social Desirability Bias.  Calling immigrants “awful barbarians” makes you sound like a mean person, so Mark won’t endorse this position – or even engage it.  Social Desirability Bias elegantly explains why his organization puts the nonsensical “low immigration, pro-immigrant” motto on its masthead instead of a more honest slogan like, “Savages are at our gates!”

9. Suppose we accept Mark’s view that we have special obligations to our fellow Americans, just as parents have special obligations to their own children.  If you take this analogy seriously, you should still be very nervous that the United States is callously violating the rights of foreigners.  After all, parents’ sense of love and obligation for their children often leads them to mistreat strangers for their children’s benefit.  (Remember the quaint “College-gate” scandal of 2019?)  Shouldn’t we similarly expect nations’ sense of love and obligation for their citizens to lead them to mistreat foreigners for their citizens’ benefit?  It would be amazing if it didn’t.

10. Mark casually dismisses estimates of the massive economic gains of open borders.  It’s only a model; and the problem with models, as faulty coronavirus projections show, is: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

The real story, though, is that economists who work with trade models are well-aware of their potential limitations.  If immigration leads to bad economic policies, for example, simple models are overly optimistic.  However, that realization is only the first step.  The next step is to look at the data and measure how much immigration is likely to degrade the quality of economic policy.  That’s what I do in Open Borders, and I conclude that the effect if any is tiny.  The same goes for the other major challenges to the simple model.  And while we’re checking the model for excessive optimism, it’s also worth checking it for excessive pessimism; most notably, the standard Clemens model completely ignores the effect of immigration on innovation.

Further point: Even if Mark were right to reject predictions about the economic effects of extreme liberalization, he has no reason to dismiss predictions about the economic effects of moderate liberalization.  Maybe letting in a billion foreigners would destroy our institutions, but letting in ten million won’t.  Frankly, it seems like he’s more interesting in categorically dismissing a model with uncomfortable results than in figuring out the extent to which the model is true.

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