Comments on Siegel’s “Fewer, Richer, Greener”

Last week, I was part of the Cato Institute’s book forum on Laurence Siegel’s Fewer, Richer, Greener: Prospects for Humanity in an Age of Abundance.  Here’s my commentary on the book.


1. Vast areas of agreement:

a. Until March, the world was getting richer at a marvelous pace. Absolute poverty has been disappearing before our eyes after ten thousand years of apparent permanence.

b. Conventional measures sharply understated the glorious reality, because the environment keeps getting cleaner and the quality of the goods keeps getting higher.

c. Like it or not, global population is leveling off.

2. Overarching complaint: Siegel is so excited to share his conclusions that he rushes through the arguments in their favor. When the arguments are strong, the rushing is harmless. When the arguments are weak, the rushing leads Siegel to embrace errors.

3. Error #1: Leveling off of population now is a good thing. Siegel has no argument for this other than to say that population growth can’t be a good thing forever. But this argument would have been just as true when global population was 8000, 8M, or 800M.

True, Simon dodged the question of when population would start to be a problem.  But he genuinely demonstrated vast neglected upsides of population – especially the effect on innovation.  Almost all innovation really does come from high-population areas – and this can hardly be a coincidence.  Furthermore, the main downsides of population – pollution and congestion – can be easily mitigated with pollution taxes and tolls, rather than fewer births.

Key point: Siegel presents no evidence that extra population has ceased to be a good thing overall yet, so why is he so happy about falling birthrates?  The world is still mostly uninhabited – you could fit the entire world’s population into the continental U.S. at the density of Los Angeles.  So why not hope for a world population of 20B, 50B, 100B, or even a T?  If this seems absurd, imagine how absurd multiplying humanity 25-fold would have seemed 1000 years ago.  Yet this “absurdity” turned out to be awesome.

4. Error #2: We should just live with (or even celebrate) declining birth rates. If you do the math (as I have in an earlier Cato Unbound piece), you’ll discover that large tax credits for births are the holy grail of tax policy: They more than pay for themselves in the long-run. We can reasonably expect a $10k per birth one-time tax credit to increase fertility enough to ultimately yield about $250k in net present value for the Treasury.  A fantastic deal!

Also: Housing deregulation.  City-dwellers have few kids because they’re so cramped for space, but this is largely a product of zoning and land-use policies that grossly inflate the price of housing, especially in the country’s most desirable areas.

5. Error #3: Becker’s economics of the family readily explains declining family size. Reality: Kids were never a good financial investment. As a business model, hiring able-bodied farmers makes far more sense than breeding helpless infants and waiting 15 years for help.  Yes, modern economies offer many extra opportunities for child-free fun, but they also drastically reduce the pain of child-rearing and offer many extra opportunities for family fun.  Why rising wealth causes falling birthrates is a fascinating question that social scientists have still failed to successfully answer.

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Two-Bedroom Rentals, Comfortable Life, 10-Hour Workweeks, & Cocaine Piracy (31m) – Episode 335

Episode 335 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following entries to r/shitstatistssay: CNBC writes, “Full-time minimum wage workers cannot afford a two-bedroom rental anywhere in the U.S. and cannot afford a one-bedroom rental in 95% of U.S. counties.”; GoAheadAndH8Me writes, “Free consent cannot be given in a society that lacks a UBI providing a comfortable life as the worst possible outcome.”; the Hampton Institute writes, “If capitalism were suddenly outlawed & we all began working for each other (instead of for a handful of rich people), we’d have 10-hour workweeks, no poverty, no war, no crime, more time with our families & communities, creative/productive outlets, and sustainable/healthy living.”; and Talos-Valcoran writes, “The government takes a part of the money it gave to the companies, who gave it to you, back so that it can improve your life. Without taxes the whole government wouldn’t work.”

Listen to Episode 335 (31m, mp3, 64kbps)

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Progressive Policies Keep Failing

I laughed when I saw The Washington Post headline: “Minneapolis had progressive policies, but its economy still left black families behind.”

The media are so clueless. Instead of “but,” the headline should have said, “therefore,” or “so, obviously.”

Of course, progressive policies failed! They almost always do.

“If you wanted a poster child for the progressive movement, it would be Minneapolis,” says Republican Minnesota Senate candidate Jason Lewis in my new video. “This is the same city council that voted to abolish the police department.”

The council, which has no Republicans, spends taxpayer money on most every progressive idea.

They brag that they recycle most everything. They have a plan to stop climate change. They tell landlords to whom they must rent. They will force employers to pay every worker $15 an hour. They even tell supermarkets what cereal they must sell.

Despite such policies, meant to improve life for minorities and the poor, the Minneapolis income gap between whites and blacks is the second highest in the country.

While that surprises the media, it’s no surprise to Lewis, who points out, “When you take away the incentive for work and savings and investment, you get less of it!”

Exactly. When government sends checks to people who don’t work, more people don’t work. Guarantees like a high minimum wage raise the cost of potential workers, so some never get hired. High taxes to fund progressives’ programs make it difficult for businesses to open in the first place.

Lewis says; ” I’ve been touring businesses that were burned. They did not mention global warming, recycling, or the environment one single time. You know what they say? Give me low taxes and give me public order.”

Lewis says Minnesota is now a “command and control economy….They’re not even shy about it. (Congresswoman) Ilhan Omar said we need to abolish capitalism!”

Not exactly. But Omar did call for “dismantling the whole system of oppression,” including America’s economic systems that, “prioritize profit.”

Lewis says she wants to create “equal poverty for everybody.”

No, I push back, “She thinks her ideas will lift everybody up.”

“Show us, Ilhan,” he responds. “Where has it worked? Everything that you’re proposing hasn’t worked!”

He’s right.

But Cam Gordon, a current Minneapolis councilman, tells me the city’s economic “disparities were caused by a long trail of historic racism.”

He tweeted: “Time to end capitalism as we know it.”

He says that would be good because “we could have more democratic control of our resources.” Cam Gordon is the kind of guy who gets elected in Minneapolis.

“Every alternative to capitalism brings stagnation and poverty,” I say to him.

Gordon answers, “I think we can take care of each other better.”

Lewis points out that before COVID-19, “the people gaining the most were at the bottom end of the wage scale. Women, Hispanics, African Americans were gaining the most. A rising tide truly lifts all boats.”

He’s right again. In the past 50 years, while progressives attacked profits, capitalism—the pursuit of profit—lifted more than a billion people out of extreme poverty.

When I point that out to Gordon, he simply ignores my point about fabulous progress around the world and says: “The problem with capitalism as we know it is this idea that we have to have constant growth….Capitalism got us the housing crisis right now and…climate change. It’s actually going to destroy the planet.”

Sigh.

His Green Party’s “community-based economics” would give the community control over private property. Seems to me like community-based economics is just another way to say socialism. That’s brought poverty and tyranny every time it’s been tried.

“When socialism fails,” says Lewis, “the apologists always say, ‘We just didn’t do it enough, just didn’t do it the right way.’ (But) it’s always failed.”

Sadly, today in America, the progressives are winning.

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It’s Time to Change the Status Quo

This is a painful time for so many of us. There is anger, outrage, pain, fear, racism, injustice, sadness, exhaustion — and it’s not just a recent thing, it goes back generations, as far as our country has existed.

It’s heartbreaking.

We need to let our hearts be broken by how minorities, but especially black people, are treated in this country. Let our hearts be broken by the fear they have to live through, the injustice they’ve suffered, the way they’re perceived by everyone else, the way they’re put down, incarcerated, stomped on, segregated, outcast, spit on, villainized, criminalized, demonized, slurred, patronized, marginalized, rejected, and put into poverty … and then blamed for all of that. Let our hearts be broken by how long this has been allowed to go on, how exhausted they must feel from all of it.

We start with the heartbreak, and then let this move us to finally take action.

Let’s end this now. Change is possible faster than we usually believe, if there’s a will. Gay marriage, decriminalization of marijuana, and a black president have proven that, just to start with. Change is possible now, if we decide it needs to happen.

It needs to happen.

We’ve allowed this to go on for too long. And let’s not be mistaken: we’re all culpable in this. All of us. For pretending it’s not real, for ignoring it, for allowing our own biases and racism to go unchecked, for not calling out racism and oppression in our institutions and society, for not talking about it, for not marching on it, for not demanding that change happen now. We all share responsibility.

But let’s not get into finger pointing and blame. Point the finger at ourselves, own our own part, and then let’s make it right. Own our impact, and clean up our mess.

Let’s change the status quo. Not allow police brutality, to start with. Not allow racism or sexism in our institutions. Not criminalize being black, or being an immigrant. Not allow voices to be oppressed. Not allow segregation and oceans of minority poverty. Not allow our political, economic, social, educational systems to be systems of oppression, but to become systems of positive change.

We have the power to do that. Let’s claim it.

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COVID-19: What Would Rosie The Riveter Do?

Half the readers I hear from accuse me of Trump Derangement Syndrome. The other half accuse me of rabid Trump fandom. In truth, I think of US President Donald J. Trump in exactly the same way I think of most other politicians: He’s usually wrong and often dangerous. But when he’s right he’s right.

He’s right when he says that America needs to “open up” soon.

If anything, his target date of Easter is too distant.

The longer we wait to get moving again, the longer it will take to recover.

The longer we wait, the more Americans will descend into, or fall deeper into, poverty.

The longer we wait, the more Americans will die of causes other than coronavirus.

If we wait TOO long, starvation and malnutrition will be among those causes.

We don’t have to like it. That’s how it is whether we like it or not.

One of the oddest assertions I’ve heard from American politicians is that the COVID-19 outbreak is “our generation’s World War 2.”

I’m far too young to remember World War 2, but I’ve listened to veterans talk about it, read its history, and love the era’s propaganda posters. Rosie the Riveter in “We Can Do it!” “Lay-Offs Cost Lives!” “Work To Win.”

I’m trying to imagine a propaganda poster for “our World War 2,” and all that comes to mind is a hand reaching out from under a bed to grab a government check.

That image isn’t nearly as inspiring, is it? Nor is the sentiment nearly as practical.

America won World War 2 by working and fighting. It isn’t going to beat COVID-19 by shutting down and cowering.

Our politicians are thoroughly enjoying their extended Mussolini cosplay holiday, but their “lockdown” orders and such are merely feeding their egos, not starving the virus. The longer we continue to put up with that authoritarian nonsense, the harder it’s going to get to reclaim our rights and put them back in their places. Once they get used to filthy serfs like you and me taking a knee when they pass by, they’re not going to want to give it up.

The more quickly we seize back control of our lives — from the virus and from the politicians — the more quickly our lives will start getting better again.

Call me a Trump fanboy if it makes you feel better, but I’m with the president on this one.

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Don’t Need Rescue from Everything

I’m surprised at how seriously people are taking the coronavirus. I’m even more surprised at how many believe government can save them from it, or that it’s even government’s job to do so.

This is the same sort of thinking that has led to the recent plague of “red flag” legislation.

If you believe you need politicians to save you from a virus or from someone’s gun, then you’ll keep handing control of your life over to anyone who promises to rescue you. Whether they actually can or not.

It’s not only diseases and guns. It seems almost everyone wants to be saved from something. Maybe they fear immigrants who don’t comply with unconstitutional anti-immigration legislation. Or maybe they want to be rescued from “inequality,” whatever they imagine it to be.

Others may want to be saved from weather, poverty, different political ideologies or other religions they don’t follow, or from rich people. Some beg to be rescued from their student loan debt or their own bad choices.

Drugs, other drivers, people who might appear to be smoking but aren’t, messy yards, backyard chickens, loud parties, tall grass, and more are all things someone out there wants government to save them from.

If this seems like a long list, you are right. Yet it barely scratches the surface. There appears to be no end to the number of things you could list that some people, somewhere at some time, have begged government to save them from.

Government encourages this pandemic of cowardice.

H. L. Mencken, a favorite writer of mine from early in the 20th Century, noticed this and called it out. He wrote: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

He’s right, and it’s working.

Were your hobgoblins listed above or are yours something else entirely?

It’s not that these things don’t exist, but making them into hobgoblins you fear irrationally is a path to slavery. You become so desperate to be saved you’ll accept those fanning the flames of fear as your self-proclaimed saviors.

Fear is the reaction to feeling you won’t be able to cope; of suspecting you aren’t enough. It’s a lie. You are enough.

You don’t need to be rescued from every little thing. I know you can do it without depending on government or its legislation. To conquer fear, get busy doing what needs to be done.

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