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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Walter Block: Defending the Moneylender (15m)

This episode features an audio essay written by economics professor and Austro-libertarian Walter Block from 1976, and which comprises Chapter 17 of Defending the UndefendablePurchase books by Walter Block on Amazon here.

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Fake Credentials

You might have a medical degree and be a doctor. You might be an expert in your field. People might come to you for medical advice and help. Some patients might even get better while you are “caring” for them.

But if you were trained to believe in (and treat) the four humors or that evil spirits cause disease, you aren’t credible as a doctor. Your degree is worthless in the real world of medicine. You’re a fake doctor.

You might have a degree in economics and call yourself an economist. You might be an expert in your field. People might seek your advice on economic matters, and you might have a newspaper column or write scholarly books on the topic. You might even sometimes get an economic prediction right, and you might be rich.

But if you operate on the flawed foundation of Keynesian economics you are basically an expert in humors and evil spirits, not on real-world economics. Your degree or expertise is worthless as a way to understand real-world economics. You’re a fake economist– just like John Maynard Keynes was.

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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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Donald Boudreaux: Market Failure, Government Failure and the Economics of Antitrust Regulation (1h6m)

This episode features an interview of economics professor Donald Boudreaux from 2007 by Russ Roberts, host of EconTalk. They talk about when market failure can be improved by government intervention. After discussing the evolution of economic thinking about externalities and public goods, the conversation turns to the case for government’s role in promoting competition via antitrust regulation. Boudreaux argues that the origins of antitrust had nothing to do with protecting consumers from greedy monopolists. The source of political demand for antitrust regulation came from competitors looking for relief from more successful rivals. Purchase books by Donald Boudreaux on Amazon here.

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David Friedman: A Consequentialist Theory of Anarcho-Capitalism (1h47m)

This episode features a lecture by economics professor David Friedman from 2013. He looks at anarcho-capitalist political theory from its consequences in the economy and to society. Purchase books by David Friedman on Amazon here.

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