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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The Benefits of My Evangelical Upbringing

I grew up in a pretty conservative Midwestern protestant situation. I was homeschooled and church was a big part of our social life. There are plenty of things to mock and joke about in this milieu (and I do!) but there are some under-appreciated benefits.

There are benefits to not getting into sex, drugs, and partying as a young person, but that’s not what I’ve appreciated most. As time has passed, I’ve seen other benefits I didn’t think about at the time. I took them for granted and assumed they were omnipresent.

Those benefits are philosophical. Epistemological, not aesthetic.

While not ubiquitous in Christian upbringings, the particular niche of Evangelical Protestantism I came up in was very focused on intensive Bible study, theology, and examining questions of meaning, free will, good and evil. There was an expectation that you should be able to logically prove every belief, examine arguments against it, and wrestle until you had coherent, non-contradictory ideas. Discussing claims made in sermons and questioning their accuracy, alignment with scripture, or logical consistency was normal.

There was utmost respect for reason and analytic philosophy. Difficult scriptures were studied in depth, arguments on all sides examined, original Greek and Hebrew checked, historical context learned, and commentaries consulted.

I always enjoyed this. I liked studying the Bible and various theologians. I loved their debates and disagreements. I was fascinated by questions of fate vs. free will.

There was a sense in which we Christians always felt the need to, “Be ready always to give an answer for the hope that you have”. You didn’t just believe stuff, it was incumbent on you to really examine it and understand it, and be able to explain it even to antagonists. I remember diving into apologetics and preparing to be attacked from all sides by classmates and professors when I took college philosophy classes.

I was disappointed.

Everyone in the class was an atheist (this was the very early 2000’s, before the resurgence of spiritual interest common today), but reflexively so. It was a default setting. No one had any arguments. None of them seemed to have examined anything. And it didn’t seem to trouble them. I was looking for some fights! I wanted to challenge and be challenged. It was as if everyone – even those wanting to major in philosophy – didn’t much care to examine the most fundamental questions of being and existence and morality and meaning. They would laugh at or dismiss ideas sometimes, but freeze up if asked to explain.

This was a real shock to me.

I had one TA who asked any theists to raise their hand. I was the only one. Some people snickered. He said, “Don’t laugh. All the best analytic philosopher were theists. Aquinas would run circles around most of you. Do you know why? Have you engaged this stuff?” He was an atheist moving towards agnosticism, but he had mad respect for anyone who did good philosophy (I later discovered he became a Bhuddist and quit academia. He was my favorite philosophy professor, so I’m not surprised). There was one other philosophy prof who was a Christian, and everyone was afraid to debate him. I think he dreamed in airtight symbolic logic.

I didn’t realize at the time that the intellectual tradition I’d inherited in all those Bible studies and debates and books was straight from Aristotle. The more I studied the history of philosophy, the more I realized I wasn’t the one who was wacky or out of step. Questions of God and religion had been taken the most seriously by the most serious thinkers. The whole Protestant project was, in a way, a big philosophical “eff you” to those who said don’t think for yourself, just act out the rituals. It was a celebration of reason. (This is not to say Orthodoxy and Catholicism do not retain a lot of sound philosophy, or that Protestantism always does. All religion tends to have interesting ideas at its core, and devolve into a less rigorous social movement subject to capture as it grows).

I often wonder how people go about their lives acting on important core ideas and assumptions without seeming to have any interest in or feel any necessity to examine, define, and make logical sense of those ideas and assumptions. Being wrong is one thing. Being uninterested in examining tacit truth claims is another.

I’m not looking down on people who are uninterested in or not conversant in inquiry into these things. I just don’t understand it. And because I value getting to the why of things, I am very grateful that I grew up in an arena that prized the most foundational questions, and expected one to be intellectually and morally accountable for their own beliefs – and comfortable being a bit of an outsider.

I must’ve seemed so weird. An early teen spending hours underlining, cross-referencing, diagramming, checking translations in my Hebrew-Greek keyword Bible, writing arguments and counter-arguments. Fortunately in my social circles, it wasn’t weird at all.

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Crazy People Work on the Most Interesting Stuff

Think of the most exciting possible inventions and discoveries you can imagine.

Deep space travel. Telepathy. Wireless electricity. Anti-gravity. Cold fusion. Terraforming. etc.

If you poke around YouTube or podcasts or badly designed websites, you’ll find people working on them. Devoting years to research and experimentation. You’ll notice their passion and conviction. But you’ll also notice something else: most of them are kinda crazy. Whether or not they are discovering anything true, you suspect they would be the last people on earth capable of bringing their idea to market or even credibly explaining it outside their niche circles.

But if you poke around places full of high achieving people with sharp minds, big vision, and lots of ability, you won’t hear them say stuff like, “I’m working on faster than light travel. I think the current model of physics is all wrong, and I suspect it’s possible so I want to prove it.”

Most of the best, most respected minds seem to be employed on the more mundane stuff. Sure, they’re doing cool valuable stuff (except when they go into politics), but how often does it question the most fundemental assumptions?

We know so very little about reality. We don’t even know what we don’t know, or whether what we know is actually true. And the most fundamental stuff – the nature and origin of the universe, our planet, our species, the basic rules of the physical strata, consciousness, death and beyond – is the stuff most of us spend the least time on.

Except the crazy people. They live there.

Part of the crazy label comes because they are working on this stuff. To examine widely accepted beliefs is often considered crazy. Part of the label is because most of the time these people are crazy. So it feeds itself. People who don’t know how to be normal are more likely to go into crazy stuff because they have less to lose. The more they do, the more the belief that “only crazy people study that” is re-enforced and better minds are repelled.

I’m not trying to place blame or cast judgement. I’m trying to understand this phenomenon. It’s the same thing that causes most conversations with neighbors and acquaintances to be so boring. Most of us – myself included – are not willing to dive into crazy stuff most of the time. If your reputation is shot, say, because you’re crazy, it’s easier.

Conformity is a powerful force. I try to do a little something every day to combat it. A world of crazy questions is much more interesting than a world of probably wrong answers no one wants to talk about.

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Honor Is a Game of Chess, Not Checkers

“It’s chess not checkers.”

That’s what my jiu jitsu coach told me once when I asked about when to or how to use a takedown. In as complex a fighting style as jiu jitsu (just like in chess, as opposed to the simpler game of checkers), there isn’t really a clear answer about when to use a “move.”

I’m learning that honor is that way, too. Honor is complex because life is complex. Rarely does it fit into a one-dimensional ruleset.

There is honor in going to bat for an ideal. But there will be times when honor requires that you prioritize a person over an ideal.

There is honor in being truthful about your own faults. But there will be times when standing proud is the most honorable thing you can do.

There is honor in standing up for someone else’s reputation. And there may be times when sacrificing your own reputation for honor may be the honorable thing.

There will be times when it is honorable to call things out. There will be times when it is honorable to stay silent.

There is honor in fighting an enemy, but there may be times when honor may require you to forgive or even work with an enemy for the sake of a greater good.

There is honor in disrespecting the disrespectable. And yet there may also be times when honor requires you to admit your foolishness to fools or your guilt to the guilty.

Honor is complex. It’s a strange, evolved code of lived-out truth, courage, loyalty, fairness, and personal risk. All of these dimensions of honor have to be combined in an honorable decision.

But all of this is not to say that the honorable way is hard to recognize. Honor is complex because life is complex, but we are ourselves complex beings. We have evolved with honor, and (somehow) we always know how to head in the direction of honor. We won’t know the exact steps to get there, or exactly where we will end up, but after all, that is what makes the game interesting.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Gods Whose Sacrifices We Neglect

The old gods have a lot to teach us.

Sure, we all know that the Greek pantheon – Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Hades, Ares, Athena, Artemis, Demeter, Dionysus, and the rest – don’t *really* exist.

But there is a reason people chose these characters to personify their understanding of the world. As psychologist Jordan Peterson points out, each god (in all of his or her power and pettiness) represents some of the fundamental human drives or attributes – sex, intelligence, wrath, independence.

The old Greek pantheon is a sophisticated way for understanding the complex human mind, which is home to many powerful needs and drives that sometimes act like personalities.

Like the gods of legend, these “gods” of our personality don’t like people who spurn them. And it doesn’t take a long look into Greek mythology to know that the gods do awful things to people they don’t like. Afflictions of madness, afflictions of lust, transformation into animals – it’s not pretty.

Aren’t fighting for your rights, your ideas, or your self-respect? You are neglecting Ares (the god of war) and he will exact his sacrifice someway. Usually this will look like a gradual building resentment, with an explosion of anger toward someone who doesn’t deserve it at a time it’s not called for.

Aren’t honoring or expressing your own sexuality? You may be offending Aphrodite (who brought about the downfall of Heracles – so not someone to be messed with). She’ll have her due, in uncontrolled, warped, or frustrated desire.

Aren’t preserving your independence and purity? Giving in to the crowd? Surrendering what makes you unique? In a sense you are offending the virgin goddess Artemis, who is perhaps the scariest of them all (she’ll turn you into a stag and have your own hounds kill you).

It’s all imagination, I know. But I still find it interesting to think of my own drives or needs as personalities. With personalities, at least we can bargain. We can make the sacrifices that all good Greeks knew to make. And we can remember that neglecting any of the gods has terrible consequences.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Open Borders Are a Trillion-Dollar Idea

Tearing down all barriers to migration isn’t crazy—it’s an opportunity for a global boom.

The world’s nations, especially the world’s richest nations, are missing an enormous chance to do well while doing good. The name of this massive missed opportunity—and the name of my book on the topic—is “open borders.”

Critics of immigration often hyperbolically accuse their opponents of favoring open borders—a world where all nationalities are free to live and work in any nation they like. For most, that’s an unfair label: They want more visas for high-skilled workers, family reunification, or refugees—not the end of immigration restrictions. In my case, however, this accusation is no overstatement. I think that free trade in labor is a massive missed opportunity. Open borders are not only just but the most promising shortcut to global prosperity.

To see the massive missed opportunity of which I speak, consider the migration of a low-skilled Haitian from Port-au-Prince to Miami. In Haiti, he would earn about $1,000 per year. In Miami, he could easily earn $25,000 per year. How is such upward mobility possible? Simply put: Human beings are much more productive in Florida than in Haiti—thanks to better government policies, better management, better technology, and much more. The main reason Haitians suffer in poverty is not because they are from Haiti but because they are in Haiti. If you were stuck in Haiti, you, too, would probably be destitute.

But borders aren’t just a missed opportunity for those stuck on the wrong side on them. If the walls come down, almost everyone benefits because immigrants sell the new wealth they create—and the inhabitants of their new country are their top customers. As long as Haitians remain in Haiti, they produce next to nothing—and therefore do next to nothing to enrich the rest of the world. When they move, their productivity skyrockets—and so does their contribution to their new customers. When you see a Haitian restaurant in Miami, you shouldn’t picture the relocation of a restaurant from Port-au-Prince; you should picture the creation of a restaurant that otherwise would never have existed—not even in Haiti itself.

The central function of existing immigration laws is to prevent this wealth creation from happening—to trap human talent in low-productivity countries. Out of all the destructive economic policies known to man, nothing on Earth is worse. I’m not joking. Standard estimates say open borders would ultimately double humanity’s wealth production. How is this possible? Because immigration sharply increases workers’ productivity—and the world contains many hundreds of millions of would-be immigrants. Multiply a massive gain per person by a massive number of people and you end up with what the economist Michael Clemens calls “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk.”

Or do we? An old saying warns, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Far lower levels of immigration already inspire vocal complaints. After presenting my basic case in Open Borders, I strive to evaluate all the common (and many not-so-common) objections to immigration. My bottom line: While open borders are undeniably unpopular, they deserve to be popular. Like every social change, immigration has downsides. Yet when we patiently quantify the downsides, the trillions of dollars of gains of open borders dwarf any credible estimate of the harms.

The simplest objection to open borders is logistical: Even the largest countries cannot absorb hundreds of millions of immigrants overnight. True enough, but no reasonable person expects hundreds of millions to come overnight, either. Instead, immigration usually begins slowly and then snowballs. Puerto Ricans have been legally allowed to move to the United States since 1904, but it took almost a century before Puerto Ricans in the United States came to outnumber the population left on the island. Wasn’t the European migration crisis an unmanageable flood of humanity? Hardly. Despite media outcry, total arrivals from 2014 to 2018 came to less than 1 percent of the population of the European Union. Many European countries—most notably West Germany during the Cold War—have swiftly absorbed much larger inflows in the past.

The standard explanation for these asymmetric public reactions is that resistance to immigration is primarily cultural and political, not economic or logistical. While West Germans welcomed millions of East German migrants, a much lower dose of Middle Eastern and African migration has made the whole EU shiver. Aren’t economists who dwell on economic gains just missing the point?

Yes and no. As a matter of political psychology, cultural and political arguments against immigration are indeed persuasive and influential. That does not show, however, that these arguments are correct or decisive. Does immigration really have the negative cultural and political effects critics decry? Even if it did, are there cheaper and more humane remedies than immigration restriction? In any case, what is a prudent price tag to put on these cultural and political effects?

Let’s start with readily measurable cultural and political effects. In the United States, the most common cultural complaint is probably that—in contrast to the days of Ellis Island—today’s immigrants fail to learn English. The real story, though, is that few first-generation immigrants have ever become fluent in adulthood; it’s just too hard. German and Dutch immigrants in the 19th century maintained their stubborn accents and linguistic isolation all their lives; New York’s Yiddish newspapers were a fixture for decades. For their sons and daughters, however, acquiring fluency is child’s play—even for groups like Asians and Hispanics that are often accused of not learning English.

Native-born citizens also frequently worry that immigrants, supposedly lacking Western culture’s deep respect for law and order, will be criminally inclined. At least in the United States, however, this is the reverse of the truth. The incarceration rate of the foreign-born is about a third less than that of the native-born.

What about the greatest crime of all—terrorism? In the United States, non-citizens have indeed committed 88 percent of all terrorist murders. When you think statistically, however, this is 88 percent of a tiny sum. In an average year from 1975 to 2017, terrorists murdered fewer than a hundred people on U.S. soil per year. Less than 1 percent of all deaths are murders, and less than 1 percent of all murders are terrorism-related. Worrying about terrorism really is comparable to worrying about lightning strikes. After you take a few common-sense precautions—do not draw a sword during a thunderstorm—you should just focus on living your life.

The most cogent objection to immigration, though, is that productivity depends on politics—and politics depend on immigration. Native-born citizens of developed countries have a long track record of voting for the policies that made their industries thrive and their countries rich. Who knows how vast numbers of new immigrants would vote? Indeed, shouldn’t we expect people from dysfunctional polities to bring dysfunctional politics with them?

These are fine questions, but the answers are not alarming. At least in the United States, the main political division between the native- and foreign-born is engagement. Even immigrants legally able to vote are markedly less likely than native-born citizens to exercise this right. In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, for example, 72 percent of eligible native-born citizens voted versus just 48 percent of eligible immigrants. Wherever they politically stand, then, immigrants’ opinions are relatively inert.

In any case, immigrants’ political opinions don’t actually stand out. On average, they’re a little more economically liberal and a little more socially conservative, and that’s about it. Yes, low-skilled immigrants’ economic liberalism and social conservatism are more pronounced, but their turnout is low; in 2012, only 27 percent of those eligible to vote opted to do so. So while it would not be alarmist to think that immigration will slightly tilt policy in an economically liberal, socially conservative direction, warning that “immigrants will vote to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs” is paranoid.

Note, moreover, that free immigration hardly implies automatic citizenship. Welcoming would-be migrants is a clear-cut blessing for them and the world. Granting citizenship is more of a mixed bag. While I am personally happy to have new citizens, I often dwell on the strange fact that the Persian Gulf monarchies are more open to immigration than almost anywhere else on Earth. According to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of people in Kuwait—and 88 percent in the United Arab Emirates—are foreign-born. Why do the native-born tolerate this? Probably because the Gulf monarchies generously share their oil wealth with citizens—and jealously protect the value of citizenship by making naturalization almost impossible. You do not have to ignore the Gulf monarchies’ occasional mistreatment of immigrants to realize that it is much better to welcome immigrants with conditions than to refuse to admit them at all. Migrants—mostly from much poorer parts of the Islamic world—accept this deal, however unfair, exactly because they can still do far better in the Gulf than at home.

In Open Borders, I have the space to address many more concerns about immigration in more detail. What I can’t do, I confess, is address the unmeasured and the unmeasurable. In real life, however, everyone routinely copes with ambiguous dangers—“unknown unknowns.” How do we cope?

For starters, we remember Chicken Little. When people’s warnings about measured dangers turn out to be wrong or overstated, we rightly discount their warnings about unmeasured and unmeasurable dangers. This is how I see mainstream critics of immigration. Their grasp of the basic facts, especially their neglect of the tremendous gains of moving labor from low-productivity countries to high-productivity countries, is too weak to take their so-called vision seriously.

Our other response to unmeasured and unmeasurable dangers, however, is to fall back on existing moral presumptions. Until same-sex marriage was legalized in certain countries, for example, how were we supposed to know its long-term social effects? The honest answer is, “We couldn’t.” But in the absence of strong evidence that these overall social effects would be very bad, a lot of us have now decided to respect individuals’ right to marry whom they like.

This is ultimately how I see the case for open borders. Denying human beings the right to rent an apartment from a willing landlord or accept a job offer from a willing employer is a serious harm. How much would someone have to pay the average American to spend the rest of his or her life in Haiti or Syria? To morally justify such harm, we need a clear and present danger, not gloomy speculation. Yet when we patiently and calmly study immigration, the main thing we observe is: people moving from places where their talent goes to waste to places where they can realize their potential. What we see, in short, is immigrants enriching themselves by enriching the world.

Do I seriously think I am going to convert people to open borders with a short article—or even a full book? No. My immediate goal is more modest: I’d like to convince you that open borders aren’t crazy. While we take draconian regulation of migration for granted, the central goal of this regulation is to trap valuable labor in unproductive regions of the world. This sounds cruel and misguided. Shouldn’t we at least double-check our work to make sure we’re not missing a massive opportunity for ourselves and humanity?

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