Deadlock and Partisan Bitterness

Why does American politics seem so deadlocked?  The media mostly focuses on issues where Democrats and Republicans refuse to compromise because they strongly disagree: immigration, guns, health care.  But American politics often seems deadlocked even when both parties agree.  For example, supermajorities of both parties want to protect DREAMers, but they’ve never reached an agreement to do so.  How is this possible?

1. Transactions costs.  Hammering out a deal is hard work, so many mutually beneficial deals don’t happen.

Critique: Economists routinely appeal to these alleged costs, but how high can they possibly be?  Seriously, why should it take more than a single day for the DREAM Act to become a law?  Vote, vote, sign, done.

2. The hold-out problem.  Suppose we agree that X is good, but you want X a lot more than I do.  In this situation, it makes sense for me to demand some “compensation” from you even though we basically agree.

Critique: This might make sense for a year or two.  But if we’ve failed to reach an agreement after many years of negotiation, you’d expect both sides to moderate their demands to cut their losses.  Yes, they could conceivably be investing in their reputations for intransigence to secure favorable terms in the future, but does anyone seriously expect to see the day when one party finally submits to the other?

3. Insincerity.  For example, perhaps Republicans only claim to want to protect DREAMers in order to seem nice and reasonable.  In fact, however, they never genuinely favored the DREAM Act in the first place.

Critique: This is often plausible, but it’s hard to see it as a general explanation.  Politicians have clear incentive to lie about their goals, but why would average citizens bother to lie in anonymous polls?

4. Partisan bitterness.  The two main parties intensely dislike each other.  Like a quarrelsome couple, they could find something to fight about at a fancy restaurant on Valentine’s Day.  As a result, the two parties have trouble cooperating procedurally even when they agree substantively.

Critique: This is my preferred story.  What I wrote about divorce a decade ago cleanly explains political deadlock as well:

Unfortunately, the Coasean argument overlooks a pretty obvious fact: Couples contemplating a divorce often hate, loathe, and despise each other. We’ve all heard of stories of divorcing couples deliberately destroying objects of sentimental value to each other. Indeed, many couples in this situation wallow in petty spite; they can’t stop bad-mouthing each other to anyone who will listen.

With these facts firmly in mind, how confident are you that Coase’s zero transactions costs assumption is remotely true? At risk of sounding Austrian, transactions costs are subjective: Bargaining with your mortal enemy hurts.

If this story seems grim, I should add that bitter politics has one major advantage over bitter divorce.  Namely: Partisan bitterness throws much-needed sand into the gears of the state.  Given public opinion, amicable government is likely to be big government.  As long as political antipathy is too shallow to cause civil war, both libertarians and pragmatists should welcome it.  Will Rogers once mused, “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.”  I’d add, “Be thankful we’re not even getting all the government both parties support.”

P.S. I’m well-aware that deadlock locks existing bad policies in place, too.  But I see little political support for repealing such policies, and broad political support for adding new bad policies.  Tragic, but that’s the world we live in.

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US Schools Are Leaving Students Ill-Equipped to Compete with Artificial Intelligence

We have long known that the robots were coming, but now that they are here, the mismatch between our modern education system and the technology-fueled workplace is glaringly apparent. As robots expertly perform routine tasks and increasingly assume broader workforce responsibilities, we must ask ourselves an important question: What is our key human differentiator?

The Power of Creativity

According to Boston University professor Iain Cockburn, who just published a new paper on the impact of artificial intelligence, the human competitive advantage lies in optimizing “what we can do better than machines, which is imagination, creativity, judgment.” In the paper, Cockburn and his colleagues suggest that it’s possible the robots will catch up to us soon in these realms, but they are not there yet. They write:

Instead, recent advances in both robotics and in deep learning are by and large innovations that require a significant level of human planning and that apply to a relatively narrow domain of problem-solving (e.g., face recognition, playing Go, picking up a particular object, etc.). While it is of course possible that further breakthroughs will lead to a technology that can meaningfully mimic the nature of human subjective intelligence and emotion, the recent advances that have attracted scientific and commercial attention are well removed from these domains.

If human imagination, creativity, and judgment are our primary tools for competing successfully with today’s robots, then it would make sense for current education models to focus on cultivating these qualities. The sad fact, however, is that most schooling is stuck in a 19th-century system of command and control, memorization, and regurgitation that may successfully train young people to be robotic workers but not innovative thinkers.

It’s Time to Adapt

Recognizing the inevitable effects of automation, artificial intelligence researchers have been calling for dramatic changes in the education of our youth since computers first appeared. One futurist was Seymour Papert, a renowned mathematician who became co-director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s.

Papert was a critic of education models based on top-down instruction and passive learning. He believed that “the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching.” So firm was his vision of the ways technology could facilitate authentic learning, Papert foreshadowed the end of conventional schooling. In his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert writes that “schools as we know them today will have no place in the future.”

Of course, Papert’s vision hasn’t emerged. Other than the ubiquity of computers, most present schooling looks remarkably similar to schooling in the 1980s, and passive learning and a teach-and-test approach to education endures. American public school students now take more than one hundred required standardized tests from preschool through high school graduation—a number that has skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, their creativity scores are plummeting. College of William & Mary professor Kyung Hee Kim discovered that American creativity scores have been falling precipitously since the early 1990s, with elementary school-age children experiencing the sharpest drop in creativity.

We should all be alarmed. If human creativity is our key competitive advantage against robots, and that creativity is declining, the forthcoming workplace disruption and job losses that will accompany increased automation will be more severe than they otherwise should be. Some educators suggest doubling down on efforts to foster creativity. John Maeda, the former president of Rhode Island School of Design, said in an interview:

I wouldn’t say [creativity] can be taught in the normal sense of adding knowledge and wisdom to someone. I would say instead it can be re-kindled in people—all children are creative. They just lose their capability to be creative by growing up.

But it’s not a consequence of growing up that causes creativity to decline: It’s our antiquated system of forced schooling that was designed to crush creativity in the name of conformity. As I spotlight in my upcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, young people who learn without school, or in other non-coercive learning environments, retain their natural creativity and curiosity. We don’t need to rekindle creativity; we need to stop destroying it.

To compete with robots, we need an education model that nurtures human imagination and ingenuity. Forced schooling is ill-equipped to do this, but models of learning without conventional schooling are ideally positioned to take on the pending robot challenge.

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A One-Page Hop from Bleeding Heart to Mailed Fist

Sometimes the hop from bleeding heart to mailed fist is only one page wide.  From Oscar Lewis, Ruth Lewis, and Susan Rigdon’s ethnography Four Men: Living the Revolution: An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba.

p.105:

Illiteracy is at the bottom of juvenile delinquency because illiterate parents don’t understand the development of the Cuban Revolution.  I’ve always been an enemy of slavery and illiteracy… My dearest wish is that every person, not only in Cuba but in the whole world, should know how to write his own name.

p.106:

Drastic measures are needed to fight delinquency.  First, I’d give a juvenile delinquent good advice.  Second, if that didn’t help, I’d suggest going to the work farms, along with study.  That way I’d gradually try to perfect the individual’s feelings and conscience.  And finally, if the first two measures brought no improvement, I’d send him before the firing squad.  Or maybe I’d advise Fidel to have an incinerator dug about 40 or 50 meters deep, and every time one of those obstinate cases came up, to drop the culprit in the incinerator, douse him with gasoline, and set him on fire.  The incorrigible delinquent is a blot that can’t be washed out.  If he’s allowed to go on living in our society, his influence will carry into the future.  So it’s best to make an example of him for future generations.

(interview with Lazaro Benedi Rodriguez, 70-year-old Defense Committee President for his housing project)

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Living In (All) the Moment(s)

For me to “live in the moment” isn’t really different than most people’s meaning for the term: I’m focused on the now, instead of the past or present.

I typically find this state when I’m facing fear. I can tend to dwell on the past or dream and plan about the future, so often I have to be scared and/or adrenaline-d into the moment (maybe this is a fault). A good hard run brings me into touch with the moment, as do most hard conversations or difficult acts of self-integration. It’s very hard to go through these experiences or most challenging new experiences while on autopilot.

But more powerful even than adrenaline is gratitude. And ironically, I find this key to present awareness in past-awareness and global awareness.

When I stop to think about my life (typically this happens when I’m driving), I might come to realize that – compared to both most humans who have ever lived (past awareness) and most humans who are living (global awareness), I have been given so many gifts that I should appreciate. I’m reasonably industrious, reasonably open, healthy, gifted with resources, free. I have stability and live in a peaceful place. In the big picture, I live in a true paradise.

When I do become aware of this, I can be overwhelmed with the input of everything that is blessing me: health, opportunity, skills, family, friends, good memories, good role models, and so on. I become present to the beauty around me in that moment – the sunlight, the skyscrapers – and to the things that have happened to get me to a place of such beauty.

I remember all of the things I’ve done and left undone, and I either celebrate them or resolve to do what needs to be done so I can experience these moments of gratitude and presence without conflict.

So maybe living purely in the moment is overrated anyway. Maybe the best state is really to be able to live in all the moments: to be able to see how your past connects to your present connects to your future.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The FDA’s Assault on Tobacco Consumers

We’ve all heard horror stories about the run-amok regulatory state. Enabled by open-ended statutes passed by Congress and signed by presidents, regulatory agencies have acquired virtual carte blanche to write rules governing peaceful behavior. Even when a seemingly narrow purpose has been set out, regulatory rule-making has engaged in mission-creep with alarming frequency.

Here’s an example that gets little attention because it directly impinges on the freedom of only a small number of Americans. For the last 10 years the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been writing draconian rules governing the makers and sellers of cigars, smokeless tobacco, pipe tobacco, and even the pipes themselves (which of course are not made from tobacco) in what appears to be part of an effort aimed indirectly at eradicating these products from the marketplace. The fanatical campaign, reminiscent of America’s earlier campaign to prohibit alcoholic beverages, ought to concern everyone, including nonsmokers, because if it succeeds, other products could well be targeted on the grounds of public health. It is not just tobacco users who need to worry about the regulatory state’s tactics.

The assault on all forms of tobacco use, as well as the use of vaping devices, or e-cigarettes, which don’t use tobacco, is defended on public-health grounds, but we must not be fooled by this appeal. As Thomas Szasz showed throughout his career as the top critic of what he dubbed the “therapeutic state,” this assault is moral, cultural, and political, not scientific or medical. The anti-tobacco campaigners are not content merely with providing useful information, leaving people free to use it and the products as they wish. Instead, they support the use of state force to achieve their objectives; their advocacy of force is aimed not only at ostensibly protecting other people from smokers (which could be accomplished through contract and other consensual practices), but ostensibly at protecting smokers from themselves. (I should say “ourselves” because I’ve been a devout pipe smoker for over half a century.) Medical science can tell you what may happen to your body if you ingest a substance, but it cannot reasonably assert that in light of that information the state ought to prohibit or penalize the use of that substance. A physician qua physician has no special qualification to counsel when the use of force by the state or anyone else is justifiable.

Before describing the insidious campaign now underway (which will span a few of these columns), I want to establish a badly overlooked fact. The anti-smoking, or more generally, anti-tobacco, or more generally still, anti-nicotine campaign assumes that use of the relevant products entails costs but no benefits to “society.” Of course, that cannot be correct. How do we know? We know this because individuals choose to consume the products; what’s more, they pay money (that is, they give up something of value) to do so. If consumers received no subjective benefit from the products, they would not buy or consume them. Lots of people have quit consuming them after deciding that the benefits outweighed the costs to them.

Among the benefits, which people of many cultures have enjoyed for centuries, are the well-known pleasant and useful effects of nicotine (as an aid to relaxation and concentration) and the palate-pleasing nature of the tobacco leaf. That those benefits can’t be quantified is no good reason to pretend that they do not exist. If tobacco products could effectively be banished (which they can’t be because of the robustness of black markets), the people who now enjoy them would be less well off in their own eyes; that is, the quality of their lives would be diminished. Why don’t those individuals count in the public-policy discussion? Are they lesser persons?

The campaign against tobacco and its consumers goes back several decades, but in 2009 it took a giant leap. In that year Congress and President Barack Obama enacted the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the statute empowering the FDA to regulate whatever it deems “tobacco products.” Later, we will see why the word deems is so important. That authority would be given to the FDA should seem odd since tobacco is neither a food nor a drug in the pharmaceutical sense; people don’t eat it or treat (real or imagined) illnesses with it. (Recreational drugs are under the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency — unfortunately.) If the issue were consumer welfare, establishment types might have wanted the authority given to the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Federal Trade Commission. So why should the FDA have anything to do with tobacco? The answer lies in Szasz’s term the therapeutic state. The government can claim plenary power over virtually any peaceful behavior simply by claiming that the public’s health is at stake.

At any rate, the word family in the name of the legislation is meant to suggest that the goal of the legislation is to keep children from becoming cigarette smokers, a worthy goal if pursued without the help of government. The first “finding” listed in the act is this: “The use of tobacco products by the Nation’s children is a pediatric disease of considerable proportions that results in new generations of tobacco-dependent children and adults.” (We’ll leave aside the Szaszian question of how the use of a product can be a disease. Behavior may lead to a disease, but it is not in itself a disease.)

While we can stipulate that smoking cigarettes constitutes a personal health risk (as many other legal things do), we may reasonably doubt that children are all that the bill’s supporters have in mind. Children are unlikely customers for premium cigars, tobacco pipes, and premium pipe tobacco, which are not within a typical child’s means. (Government campaigns to keep children from doing something will likely be undercut by the forbidden-fruit phenomenon: if the government thinks an activity or substance is that much fun, then it must be tried. Better leave such matters to families and voluntary associations.) Thus, it is hard not to see the act as part of the larger campaign to rid America of tobacco and non-tobacco nicotine products. Through this lens, the FDA’s actions since 2009 have a certain logic, but it is a logic that is inimical to individual liberty and responsibility. We’ll explore other features of the anti-tobacco campaign in future columns.

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A Campaign Finance Proposal: Let’s Do Away with SOTU

Well, Trump blinked. In his standoff with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) over the 2019 State of the Union address, the president finally conceded that he doesn’t get to deliver the speech before a joint session of Congress unless he’s invited to do so — technically by the House and Senate, but as a practical matter by Pelosi herself. She’s going to wait until the ongoing “government shutdown” ends to invite him. He’s going to impatiently await that day.

It’s not very often that I agree with any politician, let alone Pelosi. When I do, it’s usually on “even a stopped clock is right twice a day” grounds. This matter included. I don’t really care WHY she withdrew the invitation. I just hope it stays withdrawn. Forever.

The Constitution requires the president to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

It does not require the president to do so in the form of a live speech. While the first two presidents (George Washington and John Adams) gave State of the Union speeches, the third (Thomas Jefferson) just sent a written report — as did every subsequent president for more than a century, until Woodrow Wilson revived the speech ritual.

Radio, then television, transformed the State of the Union address from mere constitutional busy work into something else entirely: A free campaign commercial for the sitting president and a shorter one for the opposition party.

The sitting president gets as long as he cares to take — Bill Clinton is the record-holder at 89 minutes — to harangue his cabinet, the Supreme Court, and both houses of Congress, in front of the American people, on all the major broadcast TV networks and cable news channels). The opposition party gets to respond in kind, usually at much shorter length, with a likely future presidential contender sometimes chosen as that party’s face.

Now, I am not a fan of campaign finance law. In my opinion, anyone who wants to donate his or her money to a political candidate should be allowed to do so in any amount.

But that body of law does exist, and the value of, say, two hours of prime time television on all the biggest challenges (not counting the “newsy” countdown stories and post-speech “analysis”) far exceeds maximum legal campaign contributions limits. If all of the declared candidates for the next presidential election were given “equal time,” that might make it legal. But it would also be boooorrrrring.

It’s 2018. The president of the United States doesn’t have to schlep down to Capitol Hill to deliver a speech. He can fulfill his constitutional duty with a written report. Or, heck, with a constantly updated website that automagically updates statistics revealing the “state of the union.” If he wants to speechify, he can embed a YouTube video or set up a Google Hangout.

End the “State of the Union” dog and pony show. Permanently.

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