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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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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The Fatal Weakness of the God of Cynicism

We live in a culture of overpowering cynicism.

We assume the media is bending truth. We assume people won’t speak their full minds to our faces. We assume companies, organizations, and governments will try to pull one over on us. We assume love, friendship, and honor are hollow ideals.

As products of this overpowering cynicism, we tend to view sincerity as impractical. And so we hardly ever encounter it.

It would be reasonable to view the rarity of sincerity as evidence of its weakness. That would be a mistake. To a culture of overpowering cynicism, sincerity is now rare enough to have the strategic advantage of being a surprise.

To tell the truth at risk to your own reputation? To celebrate virtue? To say what you think to someone’s face? No one expects this behavior anymore, and so it is unsettling and difficult to counter.

If you set yourself against a cynical society, your sincerity can be a great advantage.

This relentlessly sincerity can’t be born of naivete. It has to look cynicism straight in the eye and know it. It has to be a sincerity “in spite of” – in spite of the cost of doubt, in spite of excuses, in spite of accusation, in spite of mockery, and in spite of the fact that cynicism is a “safer” and more “realistic” option.

No one will know what to do with a sincerity like that. A sincerity that can persist despite a culture of cynicism unsettles that culture of cynicism. It’s what might start to change things.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Black America Before LBJ: How the Welfare State Inadvertently Helped Ruin Black Communities

“We waged a war on poverty and poverty won.”

The dust has settled and the evidence is in: The 1960s Great Society and War on Poverty programs of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) have been a colossal and giant failure. One might make the argument that social welfare programs are the moral path for a modern government. They cannot, however, make the argument that these are in any way effective at alleviating poverty.

In fact, there is evidence that such aggressive programs might make generational poverty worse. While the notion of a “culture of dependence” is a bit of a cliché in conservative circles, there is evidence that this is indeed the case – that, consciously or not, the welfare state creates a culture where people receive benefits rather than seeking gainful employment or business ownership.

This is not a moral or even a value judgment against the people engaged in such a culture. Again, the claim is not that people “choose to be on welfare,” but simply that social welfare programs incentivize poverty, which has an impact on communities that has nothing to do with individual intent.

We are now over 50 years into the development of the Great Society and the War on Poverty. It is time to take stock in these programs from an objective and evidence-based perspective. When one does that, it is not only clear that the programs have been a failure, but also that they have disproportionately impacted the black community in the United States. The current state of dysfunction in the black community (astronomically high crime rates, very low rates of home ownership and single motherhood as the norm) are not the natural state of the black community in the United States, but closely tied to the role that social welfare programs play. Or as Dr. Thomas Sowell stated:

“If we wanted to be serious about evidence, we might compare where blacks stood a hundred years after the end of slavery with where they stood after 30 years of the liberal welfare state. In other words, we could compare hard evidence on “the legacy of slavery” with hard evidence on the legacy of liberals.”

Here’s a peek into how black America has been a victim of LBJ’s Great Society and War on Poverty.

Continue reading Black America Before LBJ: How the Welfare State Inadvertently Helped Ruin Black Communities at Ammo.com.

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Was a Crime Committed?

Someone I know was told to show up for grand jury service this morning. So this seems like a good time for a link-heavy refresher on what is and isn’t a crime.

No victim; no crime.

Unless there is a “somebody” who can be pointed to (or specifically named) who had their life, liberty, or property harmed, there is no crime. There is nothing to take to court regardless of the legislation alleged to have been violated, and no matter how much evidence there may be that the legislation was violated, or how “serious” the employees of the state seem to think the violation to be. Somebody was murdered, somebody was raped, somebody was robbed, somebody was intentionally hurt, somebody was kidnapped, somebody was archated against– crime. Otherwise, no crime.

With a bit of a qualifier I’ll get to momentarily, accidents can’t be crimes even if somebody was harmed. There has to be intent for it to be a crime. The courtroom is not the place to decide on restitution for accidental harm done.

However, negligence which accidentally results in harm to somebody might be a crime in some cases, depending on how likely the act was to cause harm and how easily that harm could be foreseen by rational people. Hypothetical example: If I’m shooting at a paper target on the other side of a crowded room at my house and just as I squeeze the trigger someone steps into the bullet’s path, I was criminally negligent. Shooting the person might have been an accident, but any reasonable person could have foreseen the result of my action. It would be different if I were shooting at a target outdoors, having made sure of my target and the surroundings, and a time traveler suddenly materialized in my bullet’s path. In most cases, it’s not that obvious, though. Since this is subjective, tread carefully in this area. It’s always more ethical to let the guilty “get away with it” than to punish even one innocent person. And restitution instead of punishment is always the ethical choice, especially in the case of accidents or negligence.

Being offended doesn’t qualify as being harmed.

The State isn’t a “somebody” and neither is society.

Possession of anything, absent someone besides the someone doing the possessing being specifically harmed by that thing, can never be a crime.

The State’s courtrooms are probably not the proper place to seek justice even in cases of actual crimes.

To be better informed, learn from the Fully Informed Jury Association.

And this is why they’ll never let me on a jury.

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The Social Conservatism of Hollywood

[warning: spoilers]

The new Uncut Gems is further evidence for a thesis I’ve long maintained: Contrary to popular opinion, Hollywood makes a lot of socially conservative movies.  When you strip away the glamorous actors and cool music, the message is clear: Live a responsible bourgeois life or you will soon be severely punished.

This is most obvious for hard-boiled crime films.  The lead characters in such stories engage in an array of impulsive, brutal, and parasitical behaviors.  Before the movie ends, almost all of the characters have been shot, stabbed, beaten, imprisoned, or ostracized.   Many are dead, often in grotesquely inventive ways.  Howard Ratner, the lead character in Uncut Gems, repeatedly commits fraud and adultery.  He spins a web of lies and makes high-stakes gambles.  In each scene, he acts on his worst impulses.  For every success his duplicity brings, two failures spring.  When he thinks he’s won, another criminal murders him.  Even if Ratner had survived, though, his dishonesty and lechery would have cost him his family.

The same goes for The Godfather saga, Goodfellas (or any Scorsese crime movie), Pulp Fiction (or any Tarantino crime movie), Fargo (or any Coen brothers crime movie), Snatch (or any Cockney crime movie), as well as Scarface, New Jack City, and Boyz n the Hood.  In crime movies, people who engage in criminal behavior suffer, usually at the hands of their fellow criminals.  If they don’t get you, the cops will.

While crime movies focus on men, their female characters also catch hell.  Women who sleep with criminals – usually against their family’s advice – end up pregnant and abandoned, if not beaten or murdered.  Don Corleone treats his wife with old-world gentility, but she still lives to see her eldest son full of lead.  (Michael, her youngest son, has the filial piety to delay the murder of his elder brother until after her death).

The message of all this cinema: Follow the path of bourgeois virtue.  Work hard, keep the peace, abstain from alcohol, have very few sexual partners, and keep your whole family far away from anyone who lives otherwise.  Think about how many fictional characters would have lived longer if they never set foot in a bar.

Is this the message the writers intend to send?  Unlikely.  Instead, they try to create engrossing stories – and end up weaving morality tales.

True, Hollywood could make movies where criminals are “victims of their toxic social environment.”  It could make movies where the people who face retribution are the self-righteous bourgeoisie who “created toxic social environment in the first place.”  (This is arguably the plot of Natural Born Killers, though that’s giving it too much credit).  Such stories, however, would be sorely lacking in emotional truth.  You can’t credibly depict the life of a criminal without showing his choices; and when you see his choices, you see all the ways he could have done otherwise, “toxic social environment” notwithstanding.

Similarly, you could make crime movies that end before the criminals get their comeuppance.  Yet such stories would be dramatically inert.  If a bank robber gets killed on his eighth heist, audiences want to see heists number 1, 2, and 8.  If the bad guy gets it in the end, who cares about his intermediate successes?  Let’s fast forward to the Day of Reckoning.

Does this mean that Hollywood movies actually crime?  I doubt it.  The viewers most in need of lessons in bourgeois virtue are probably too impulsive to reflect on the moral of the story.  They’re captivated instead by the gunplay and machismo.  Yet if you’re paying attention, the moral of these stories remains: Unless your parents are criminals, listen to your parents.

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