What’s Historic?

I regularly read Wikipedia’s “Historical Events on This Day.”  It’s fun, and I learn new history.  But I’m still puzzled by the selection criteria.  Wikipedia casually blends three very different kinds of events:

1. Critical political, diplomatic, and military events that plausibly changed the lives of millions or even billions of people.

2. Terrorist attacks.

3. Natural disasters and major accidents.

“Historical events” for February 11, for example, include crucial events like the beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and the establishment of Iran’s theocracy.  But it also lists two plane crashes and a small terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.

It’s tempting to say, “Terrorism might be a tiny issue by itself.  But since it provokes massive overreactions, it’s indirectly important.”  But why would a couple of old plane crashes be on a list of events of historical importance?  And most acts of terrorism, of course, have little or no effect on policy.

The obvious explanation, sadly, is that the innumeracy of the news infects the study of history.  One of the main goals of history is to create enough psychological distance (and hindsight!) to sift the fundamental from the ephemeral.  But doing this is easier said than done.  Without a strong default view that vivid, emotionally engaging headlines aren’t worth remembering, even people who think about history for a living fail to see trivia as trivial.

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Immigration and Redistribution: The Research to Trust

Evaluating the quality of research is laborious.  Unless you re-do the whole paper yourself, how do you know the authors were not only truthful, but careful?  Faced with this quandary, one of my favorite heuristics is to ask: Did the authors want to find this result?  If the answer is No, I put a lot more credence into the results.  In research as in the law, statements contrary to interest count more.

For example, when I learned that most economists find little effect of national education on national GDP, I was simultaneously surprised and convinced.  Surprised, because I know that most economists want to find a big effect of national education on national GDP.  Convinced, because if legions of smart people fail to find the result they want, the best explanation is that what they want to believe isn’t true.

Moving along…  Many people debate the effect of immigration on redistribution.  Libertarians (like me) want to find that immigration reduces redistribution, because we like immigration but dislike redistribution.  As a result, non-libertarians sensibly discount libertarian claims that this is so.  Sensible libertarians would do the same.  People who agree with you are still flawed human beings, right?

So how can we approach the truth despite these impediments?  Well, most of the researchers who study the effect of immigration on redistribution are, in fact, left-wing.  They like immigration and redistribution, so they want to find that immigration increases redistribution.

In practice, however, they usually don’t.  And it disturbs them!  Here are two notable examples.

First, Alesina, Miano, and Stantcheva’s recent NBER working paper:

Support for redistribution is strongly correlated with the perceived composition of immigrants — their origin and economic contribution — rather than with the perceived share of immigrants per se. Given the very negative baseline views that respondents have of immigrants, simply making them think about immigration in a randomized manner makes them support less redistribution, including actual donations to charities. We also experimentally show respondents information about the true i) number, ii) origin, and iii) “hard work” of immigrants in their country. On its own, information on the “hard work” of immigrants generates more support for redistribution. However, if people are also prompted to think in detail about immigrants’ characteristics, then none of these favorable information treatments manages to counteract their negative priors that generate lower support for redistribution.

While Alesina et al. maintain a scholarly tone, their sympathies are pretty clear:

Anti-immigration parties have an incentive to maintain and even foster the extent of misinformation. Because information is endogenous, a vicious cycle of disinformation may arise. The more natives are misinformed, the more they become averse to immigrants and redistribution, and the more they may look for confirmation of their views in the media.

Second, Soroka, Banting, and Johnston’s chapter in Globalization and Egalitarian Redistribution (Princeton University Press and Russell Sage Foundation, 2006):

International migration does seem to matter for the size of the welfare state. Although no welfare state has actually shrunk in the face of the accelerating international movement of people, its rate of growth is smaller the more open a society is to immigration. To the extent that spending growth is inescapable, mandated by the aging of populations in industrial societies, specific parts of the welfare states—especially the parts that redistribute from rich to poor or from the old to the young—may truly have shrunk in the face of migratory pressures. Whatever the details, the typical industrial society might spend 16 or 17% more than it now does on social services had it kept its foreign-born percentage where it was in 1970.

Their sympathies, too, are also pretty clear:

What do the propositions imply? They do seem to vindicate Miller’s (1995) worries about threats to the national basis of the welfare state… The attitudinal problem is more among natives than newcomers and reflects more the apprehension of cultural threat than the fact of threat. But those apprehensions, combined with often realistic appraisals of cost and benefit, mean that the human component of globalization may represent a constraint on the expansion of welfare states that seemed fully consolidated two decades ago.

If you want to go meta, you could naturally object, “Libertarians want to believe that non-libertarian researchers support their desired conclusions.  So why should I trust Bryan’s summary of the research?”  Yes, it’s a problem, but it’s not insuperable.  Try reading Alesina et al.’s literature review and see for yourself if I’m being unfair.

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“No-Knock Raid” is Just Another Term for “Violent Home Invasion”

On January 28, home invaders murdered 58-year-old Rhogena Nicholas and 59-year-old Dennis Tuttle of Houston, Texas. Nicholas and Tuttle wounded five of the (numerous) armed burglars before being slain.

That’s not how the news accounts put it, of course.  Typical headline (from the Houston Chronicle): “4 HPD officers shot in southeast Houston narcotics operation, a fifth injured.”

A number of claims relating to the fateful “no-knock raid” remain in dispute, not least whether or not Nicholas and Tuttle were, as the search warrant leading to the raid alleged, selling heroin from their home (their neighbors characterized them as quiet people who didn’t have lots of company, and scoffed at the notion that they might be drug dealers).

Setting aside those disputes, let’s give the benefit of doubt to Houston police chief Art Acevedo on two things.

Acevedo says that his officers “announced themselves as Houston police officers while simultaneously breaching the front door.”

And Acevedo admits that immediately upon breaching the front door, one of the officers shot and killed the residents’ dog.

Ask yourself this: If armed men break down your front door and shoot your dog, are you going to notice (if you can even hear) the invaders saying “police, police?” Are you going to just automatically believe the claim even if you do hear and notice it? Or are you going to act to defend yourself?

It was only after the officers’ violent entry and after one officer killed their dog that Tuttle shot and wounded the dog-killer and Nicholas attempted to disarm him. Both  paid with their lives for their forlorn resistance to a gang of armed invaders.

Naturally, Acevedo blames the victims — and the availability of guns with which mere civilians might conceivably defend their homes and their lives from violent intruders.

No, the cops didn’t find any heroin on the premises, although they did claim to have found marijuana and a white powder that Acevedo thought might be cocaine or fentanyl.

No, neither Nicholas nor Tuttle had  criminal pasts which might have justified a John Dillinger style takedown. Tuttle had no criminal record at all. Nicholas had a single (dismissed) bad check charge on hers.

The Houston PD brought guns, battering rams, and overwhelming force to what they didn’t even expect to be a knife fight. It was supposed to just be a quick episode of “law enforcement theater,” a show of force to show the mere mundanes who’s in charge.

That it went terribly wrong isn’t on the victims. It’s on Acevedo and company, and on Gordon G. Marcum II, the judge who signed a warrant specifying that police were “hereby authorized to dispense with the usual requirement that you knock and announce your purpose before entering” the residence.

Acevedo, Marcum, and the officers at the sharp end of the stick will never be charged with armed criminal action and conspiracy to commit same. But they should be. And we need a much higher bar for “no-knock” warrants, if they’re to be allowed at all.

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Groundhog Day

Nobody asked but …

I don’t get it.  Why this human propensity to wig out over an excruciating obsession with air currents?  The physics behind weather has long been known.  The Earth has a tilt and rotation, an orbit about a living sun.  It’s cut and dried.  The poor weatherman on TV has to come up with something to keep us buying pork’n’beans.

This year and last it was the Polar Vortex (with a spooky voice like Count Floyd’s), as if there were some new phenomenon delivered by aliens, to replace the scary Alberta Clippers from prior years.

Here in Kentucky, we talk about Groundhog Day like this:  If Punxsutawny Phil sees his shadow we expect 6 more weeks of Winter, otherwise we may see about 42 days of Winter.  In either event, the Ides of March is the beginning of the end.  We’ll be mowing grass soon.  It’s like clockwork.

In Kentucky, we also observe that everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.  We can’t, because it’s in the stars.

I’m not a climate change denier.  I am a natural law affirmer.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Poverty and Success

Perhaps the most unpopular opinion I hold is that—in spite of the myriad obstacles to success instigated by the state—success is still achievable by a significant percentage of the population (>95%) and poverty is a result of one’s own choices in a similar percentage of cases.

I am not suggesting that everyone’s idea of success necessarily requires financial wealth or that poverty (a lack of financial wealth) is always an undesirable state of existence. Some people do indeed choose to prioritize other goals above wealth, and that is certainly their right. I also acknowledge that there are some people (<5%) in any population who, due to severe disability or state maleficence (typically through the so-called “criminal justice system“), have limited or no ability to achieve financial success.

Caveats aside, my basic thesis is that greater than 95 percent of people are capable of and have the opportunity to achieve financial success, but that many (and even a majority) do not take advantage of their opportunities. There are numerous decisions, reasons, and alternative priorities that explain this phenomenon and the following are far from an exhaustive list.

  1. Not taking advantage of educational opportunities. In the U.S. and most developed countries, basic education is available to all at no charge and higher education is available inexpensively or even at no charge to those who can demonstrate financial hardship. In addition, the information age has led to an unprecedented increase in the quantity and quality of educational materials available at little or even no charge. Nearly anyone can learn to do anything if they are willing to put in the effort. Those who choose to live their lives in ignorance have almost always chosen that path.
  2. Having children (they cannot afford) too young. This is another huge predictor of one’s likelihood of achieving financial success. Having children represents nearly a quarter-million dollars’ worth of expenses taken on which will have to be paid in a span of fewer than two decades. Why do people make this foolish choice? If your finances would not support the purchase of a Lamborghini Huracán, they also don’t support you having a child. Wait or abstain!
  3. An unwillingness to relocate. Here we see another significant problem that plagues the perpetually poor. Sometimes opportunity doesn’t knock on your door. Sometimes you have to go hunt for it. Cost of living is also a major factor here. The Apartment List National Rent Report found that the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City was $2,523. It was even higher at $2,621 in San Jose, CA. Compare that to Phoenix, AZ or Houston, TX where the averages were $1,061 and $1,024 respectively.

It is not just rent either; today, the average cost for a gallon of gas in San Jose, CA, is $3.27 while in Houston, TX, it’s $1.93. Play with a Cost Of Living Calculator and observe the difference. Right now, the cost of living is 44.33% lower in Houston than in the San Francisco area and 56.82% lower than in the Manhattan area. Why do poor people stay in expensive cities?

What about finding a job? The lowest unemployment in the country right now is in the Ames, IA Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) at just 1.4 percent. That’s less than half the 3.6 percent unemployment rate in the New York MSA, and yet the cost of living in Ames, IA, is 59.19% lower than in Manhattan. If you are working full time earning $20 an hour (well above the minimum wage) in New York, you could move to Ames, IA, and take a job making $8.50 an hour and you would be better off ($8.17/hr. is the breakeven point.) Oh, and gas at Sam’s Club in Ames is going for $1.86 a gallon today.

So what is my point with all this information? My point is that if people would make smarter decisions—particularly about their education, when they have children, and where they live—they would have a far greater chance of achieving financial success. I’m not suggesting that it is always easy or that there are not obstacles to overcome, but I am suggesting that it is not nearly as difficult as some people claim. Poverty is not the fault of billionaires or of “greedy capitalists” or of some systemic injustice that keeps “po’ folks” down. Poverty is the natural and predictable result of ongoing poor choices, and until people realize this and start taking responsibility for their own culpability in their financial situations, we will continue to hear the growing chorus of complainers demanding political intervention to redistribute money from those who earned it to those who did not.

With few exceptions, it is fair to say that poor people make poor choices.

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Sorry, Innocent Bystanders

The world is full of problems, and most people want government to solve these problems.  When government solves problems, however, they usually create some new ones.  If you’re lucky, the victims of the new problems are the very bad guys who created the original problems.  Serves them right!  Yet more often, the victims of the new problems are innocent bystanders.  They’ve done nothing wrong; they’re just caught in the crossfire.

Like who?  Let’s start with babies in Nazi Germany.  The babies didn’t start the war.  They’ve never hurt a fly.  But it’s hard to kill the Nazis without putting the babies’ lives in grave danger.

You don’t have to be a pacifist to realize that this is a tragic situation.  Imagine trying to justify it to the babies: “You’re totally innocent.  I get that.  But Nazism is so horrible that I’m going to put your lives in grave danger anyway.  I’m so sorry.  I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”  This is an intellectually honest position, but oh so bitter.  It’s far sweeter to invoke collective guilt, say “They had it coming,” and kill indiscriminately.

You might reply, “Well, the intellectually honest position is demotivating.”  But that’s not quite true.  Yes, acknowledging innocent bystanders demotivates indiscriminate killing.  But it strongly motivates the search for an approach with lower collateral damage.  Given humans’ ubiquitous in-group bias, this is a feature, not a bug.

Wartime naturally highlights the most gruesome abuse of innocent bystanders.  But many peacetime policies have the same structure.

Take gun control.  Suppose strict gun control would eliminate all mass shootings.  Who could oppose such a policy?  Most obviously, the vast majority of gun owners who never have and never will murder anyone.  Gun control supporters will naturally be tempted to demonize them.  The intellectually honest thing to say, however, is: “99.99% of you gun owners are perfectly innocent.  I get that.  But mass shootings are so horrible than I’m still going to take your guns away.  I’m so sorry.  I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”  Demotivating?  Well, it demotivates the promotion of strict gun control, but motivates the search for ways to reduce violence with lower collateral damage.

Or take refugee policy.  Suppose banning all refugees would eliminate all terrorism.  Who could oppose such a policy?  Most obviously, the vast majority of refugees who are not and never have been terrorists.  Opponents of asylum will naturally be tempted to demonize them (remember “rapefugees”?).  The intellectually honest thing to say, however, is: “99.9999% of you refugees are totally innocent.  I get that.  But terrorism is so horrible that I’m going to refuse asylum anyway.  I’m so sorry.  I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”  Intellectually honest?  Check.  Demotivating?  Well, it demotivates indiscriminate rejection of refugees, but motivates the search for anti-terrorism tactics with lower collateral damage.

War, gun control, and refugees.  I deliberately chose three radically different illustrations.  I suspect that readers will angrily object to at least one of them.  But I really don’t see how.  Denying the existence of innocent bystanders is convenient; if they don’t exist, we don’t have to fret about them.  Denying the existence of innocent bystanders is also pleasurable; what fun it is to unequivocally unleash your full arsenal against the forces of evil.  Yet denying the existence of innocent bystanders is, above all, blind.  Innocent bystanders exist.  They have rights.  You should think long and hard before violating them.  And if you find no alternative, at least have the decency to tell them, “I’m so sorry.”

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