The Righteous Mind Review

More and more in our political discourse, it seems that many of us are forgetting the value of disagreement. We definitely still like to argue against people who disagree, but the goal of those arguments seems to be more about winning than about learning. I’m right. They’re wrong. That’s the end of it. Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Righteous Mind, offers a  counterpoint to this mindset. The book is a plea to “disagree more constructively,” to set aside our differences and find points of commonality, and, even when we do come to find irreconcilable moral or political disagreement, to recognize that the other side has value.

A series of metaphors guides the structure of the book. In the first section, Haidt argues that “intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.” To illustrate this point, he compares human thought to a small rider trying to guide a large elephant. Since the rider (the rational part of our brain) can do little to actually steer the elephant (our intuition), instead he just makes post hoc justifications for the elephants actions. In other words, in political and moral arguments, we usually come to the answer before we figure out the reason. Although we often claim to be forming our opinions based on a fair reading of the evidence, I think most of us can admit to sometimes simply looking for evidence that conforms to our preconceived judgements.

The second piece of the book argues that human morals are aligned across six “moral foundations:” care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. Here he uses the metaphor of a tongue with six taste receptors. Liberals tend to focus on the care/harm and fairness/cheating axes while conservatives draw from all six. More importantly, Haidt draws on his own experience observing different cultures in India to argue that different moral systems make sense for different societies and different times. Some actions that seem morally repugnant (like eating your dog after it got hit and killed by a car) are actually somewhat difficult to explain in a consistent moral framework. They just seem wrong to us. The case for a universally correct moral standard, in Haidt’s view is quite weak.

Finally, the last section, and perhaps the one I found most interesting, talks about humanity’s tendencies towards group behavior. He describes humans as “90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.” Each of us generally acts towards our own self interest, but occasionally our “hive switch” is turned on and we act in the way that’s best for the group. He cites Emile Durkheim’s observation that being a member of a group can generate a “‘collective effervescence,’ which describes the passion and ecstasy group rituals can generate.” Haidt points to the feeling you get when you observe incredible views in nature, or participating in raves or sporting events, as examples of this Durkheimian hive switch being flipped.

He then extends this observation to explain people’s attachment to religious communities. “Religion is a team sport,” he quips as he notes the similarities between the “rituals” involved in cheering for a sports team (songs, superstitions, traditions, etc.) and those of religious groups. Although Haidt himself is atheist, he does not take the view of many atheists that religious people have simply been duped into believing. Instead, he sees religion as a natural way to get people to flip their hive switch and think in terms of groups. Religious societies have been more successful because they cause people to create moral, caring communities where individual benefits can sometimes be pushed aside in favor of group success. He writes. “If you think about religion as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you’re bound to misunderstand it.” Instead, its best to see religion as a way to “suppress cheating and increase trustworthiness. Only groups that can elicit commitment and suppress free riding can grow.”

Haidt presents each of these concepts in an incredibly convincing style. His arguments are well written and well researched. Even more, he does an excellent job at giving a fair shot to both sides of every argument. Although its clear he has his own biases (he is just a rider trying to control an elephant as well), I never felt that I wasn’t getting the full story on any of his points. Each conclusion he makes feels like one of careful deliberation, of considering the best work that has been done on an issue and providing a clear justification for agreeing or disagreeing. Haidt’s memories of how his own views were challenged or changed over time give the reader a look into his own inner intellectual struggle with these ideas and help provide a balanced view on many issues.

This balanced approach is especially apparent in the final section of the book where he discusses the “yin and two yangs” of American politics. The “yin” being points liberals tend to get right, and the two “yangs” being the best points of libertarians and conservatives. While I certainly have some room to quibble with his “liberal wisdoms” (focused on the benefits of regulation), he does a better job of defending the conservative and libertarian positions than many self described conservatives and libertarians could do themselves. Haidt could almost certainly pass an Ideological Turing Test, which cannot be said about most people of any political background.

I particularly liked his summary of the conservatives’ strength with the principle that “you can’t help the bees by destroying the hive.” He writes, “liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive.” Although this idea unfortunately seems to be losing its place at the center of the current Republican Party, I do think it is a good description of the foundation of conservative thought. Tradition, family, American values. Preserving the institutions that, for lack of a better term, made America great, is the main priority for conservatives. Policies that help individuals in the short run should be viewed with suspicion if they threaten to wear down these institutions in the long run.

Protecting the hive is also a distinctly Hayekian idea (even though he claims he was not a conservative). Hayek takes an evolutionary view of societal development. The institutions that have developed across history were not designed. We shouldn’t honor tradition and norms because people in the past were smarter or more moral than we are. But we should respect them because “the result of the experimentation of many generations may embody more experience than any one man possesses” (The Constitution of Liberty). To challenge existing social structures requires a careful consideration of the reasons they developed and the consequences of removing them. These reasons are usually not obvious and we should therefore be wary of attempts to upend the status quo.

There is far more in the book than can be discussed in a blog post, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has trouble understanding where their political opponents stand (no matter what side they are on themselves). I strongly believe that it is as important to listen to what the other side has to say and not to pretend that those who disagree are just uninformed or unintelligent. As Haidt concludes in the final line of the book, “we’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”

Don’t Worry, Insider Trading Doesn’t Hurt Your Retirement Savings

Another Trump tweet has sent the media into a frenzy. The culprit this time – a tweet by Trump at 7:21 am on Friday June 1 with the seemingly innocuous text, “Looking forward to seeing the employment numbers at 8:30 this morning.” So what’s the problem? Well, apparently the president usually finds out the job numbers for the month the night before they are released, but it is illegal for them to make any comment until at least an hour after they are made public the next day.

Even with this information it might still not seem like such a big deal, but we are dealing with Trump so any opportunity to attack will surely be taken. The issue (if you can call it that) with Trump hinting at a good jobs report before it’s official release is that it gives some financial traders an unfair advantage. Good jobs reports tend to increase stock prices so somebody who happened to notice Trump’s tweet could have used the information to preemptively buy up some stock in anticipation of a rise once the information was made public. In this sense, Trump’s tweet could be seen as a kind of “insider trading” (except that’s a bit of a stretch since it was a public tweet before the markets opened – but let’s forget that for now).

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, two professors at the University of Michigan, took particular exception to the tweet. Stevenson questioned who else Trump tips off about the numbers, tweeting: “Privately leaking this information makes money for those who get it. Where does the money they “make” come from? People who don’t have the information.” Wolfers piled on with “Betsey’s point is spot on: If someone made money trading on a tip from the President, who do you think they’re making it from? It’s you. Your retirement account. The money’s got to come from somewhere, after all.”

Both Stevenson and Wolfers’ comments stem from the idea that when a speculator makes money, they are stealing that money from your retirement. Though they frame it in terms of insider trading, their logic is applicable to any situation where a financial transaction results in a gain. All financial transactions are zero-sum. Somebody can only buy a stock if somebody else is willing to sell. If the price of the stock subsequently increases, the buyer wins and the seller loses.

So it’s certainly true that somebody lost out from Trump’s tweet. But somebody also loses when the job numbers are revealed normally. Whoever trades first is going to gain the most from the new information being revealed. The poor guy who sold the stock (almost certainly another speculator) misses out (but note that even he doesn’t actually lose money, just fails to realize potential gains). What is less clear is why this process would have any effect on anyone’s retirement accounts.

If your retirement account relies on making money from short term fluctuations in stock prices, you are doing something very wrong. Take a look at this graph of the S&P 500 index over the last 5 days:

Source: CNN Money

The gains here are probably all going to speculators trying to play the market. They want to buy the lows and sell the highs and come out ahead. Some will win and some will lose. In the short run, the gains and losses approximately cancel out. Your retirement account doesn’t work this way. Here’s what the 5 year S&P 500 looks like:

Source: CNN Money

It’s not the up and down fluctuations of the stock market that provide the returns on your retirement. It’s that long term upward trend. Unlike the zero-sum game that makes up speculative short-term trading, these long term gains accrue to everybody who owns stocks (most retirement accounts are based on index funds so they should move around the same as the return shown here). Rather than constant trading to try to make a quick return, retirement earnings rely on buy and hold strategies. Barring major anomalies like a recession right before you plan to retire, day to day movements of the stock market should be of little concern to almost everyone.

And the best part, contrary to Stevenson and Wolfers’ claims, the money people “make” on these long term investments doesn’t actually have to come from anywhere, at least not directly. When the stock market works as it should, long run gains come from economic growth. Companies continuously inventing new ways to provide more and better products to consumers drives up the value of their business, and therefore their stock price. Your retirement account going up does not mean somebody else’s went down. Technological progress, new ideas, and the brilliant people behind them pull everyone up simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the kind of thinking that makes people worry that one person’s gain is another’s loss is prevalent across many economic discussions. Trump’s views on trade seem to follow a similar pattern. When you buy something made in China that’s not a gain for China and a loss for you. It’s good for both sides. Many also seem to have this view of profit. When a firm makes profit, it is not stealing from its workers. I’m planning another post on the profit issue soon. Hopefully less than two months in between posts this time.

Job Guarantee Proposals Have a Long Way to Go

Recently, the idea of a “job guarantee” has become increasingly popular on the left. If you are unfamiliar with these proposals, the most detailed that I have seen comes from a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Bernie Sanders also plans to announce a version soon. The main goal of a job guarantee is simple – completely eradicate unemployment (besides some frictional unemployment that they estimate to be around 1.5%). The method is even simpler – if you can’t find a job in the private sector, the government will give you one.

Obviously these jobs have to be good enough to keep people out of poverty. The starting wage rate in the CBPP proposal is $11.83 an hour ($24,600 per year for full time workers), which would increase over time. Including healthcare and other benefits bumps the cost per worker up another $10,000. They estimate the total cost per job (including spending on supplies and capital) to be $56,000. Using an estimate of the unemployed of  around 10.7 million people, they get a cost of the program around $543 billion.

To put that in perspective, total federal expenditures are around $4 trillion. Of that, social security is about a quarter, while medicare and medicaid are around half a trillion each. So the jobs guarantee would be adding an additional category of spending on the same scale of the largest existing government programs. And that’s assuming the estimates make sense. There is every reason to believe they do not.

Beyond the general rule that government estimates of costs are almost always underestimates, there is a pretty good reason to believe that a job guarantee would cost an order of magnitude more than estimated here. The 10.7 million workers estimated to take a government job is almost surely an underestimate. Adam Ozimek describes the absurdity of this assumption pretty well. As he points out, in addition to the 10 million unemployed, there are 41 million people that work in jobs that pay less than $15 per hour. Maybe not every one of these people would prefer to work in a nice government job, but certainly a lot more than zero would. If we assume half of these worker switch, we’re now talking about spending $1.5 trillion on this program. And this is when we are basically at full employment already. In a recession that number balloons even further.

To be fair, some of the spending could offset spending in other programs. If workers are getting benefits through their job guarantee, they won’t need to collect other forms of welfare. But I would need to see a much more rigorous estimate of those savings before deciding that they would do anything to prevent this program from being the most expensive project the government has ever done.

The cost of the program is certainly concerning, but on this point I can definitely see an argument that it could be worth it. For a progressive who has a lot more faith in government institutions to actually run the program well, eliminating unemployment for a meager $1.5 trillion probably seems like a great deal. Unfortunately a major question still remains unanswered. How does a Job Guarantee actually work?

Many important details of the implementation of a job guarantee are either brushed over or ignored entirely in every proposal I have ever seen. Most importantly: what in the world is the government going to have these 20 million people do? The CBPP proposal has a short section on “logistics,” which claims “The Secretary would administer employment grants to eligible entities, including state, county, and local governments, as well as Indian Nations, to engage in direct employment projects. These projects should be designed to address community needs and provide socially beneficial goods and services to communities and society at large.” Some examples of potential jobs include production of “infrastructure, energy efficiency retrofitting” and “elder care, child care, job training, education, and health services.”

So let me get this straight. The government is going to take on a bunch of unemployed people, presumably unemployed because they lack some skills necessary to get private sector employment (not to say it is their fault that they lack these skills), and put them in charge of your kids. The same government that wants all childcare workers to have college degrees.

Where would these jobs be? If I live in a small rural town in the middle of the country, is the government going to provide a job for me there or force me to move? Who evaluates my skills and decides what job I get? What if I prefer something else? Who organizes these projects? Can I get fired? If progressives want people to take job guarantee proposals more seriously they’re going to have to do a lot better than handwaving about identifying “areas of needed investment in the U.S. economy.” Give me some specific job descriptions and then we can talk. Any proposal that does not get into these details is not worth even thinking about actually passing.

But maybe the fine print isn’t actually that important. Keynes famously remarked that digging holes and filling them back up would be better than doing nothing when unemployment is high. Does it matter what people are doing for work as long as they are working? I think it does, but even if you accept the Keynesian story it still seems hard to justify such a program when we are not in a recession. I would still disagree with a program that provides government jobs only in a recession (for different reasons), but at least that has some theoretical backing. In normal times, I just can’t see how providing government jobs doesn’t crowd out private sector jobs that are actually aimed at providing valuable goods and services rather than just work for the sake of work.

The ideal scenario for  a jobs guarantee proponent seems to be that having government as a major player in the labor market will increase the bargaining power of workers. If a Walmart worker can make more money by working for the government, Walmart would either need to increase wages and benefits or risk losing the worker. In this sense it acts like a minimum wage, reducing monopsony power in the labor market.

A more likely outcome is that the job guarantee simply destroys a lot of those jobs entirely. Even if Walmart were to increase its wages to compete with the government, would anyone really ever choose a career as a Walmart cashier over one of these government jobs? Progressives can’t simultaneously emphasize how horrible it is to have to work for giant corporations and then come back with estimates that say nobody would rather work for the government. And once they are there, would they ever leave? Changing jobs is costly and hard work. Better to just settle in at the government digging holes and filling them back in (Maybe progressives actually like this outcome and the job guarantee is really a stealth plan to socialize half the economy. Mises and Hayek already took care of explaining why that’s not such a good idea).

I definitely understand why the left likes the idea of a job guarantee. It’s a Keynesian stimulus, a massive expansion of welfare, and an increase in the minimum wage all in one. But with it comes all the problems that those policies have. Putting it in a nicely branded but vaguely specified package doesn’t solve those problems. Before fundamentally changing the nature of the United States economy, it might be worth thinking this through a little bit more.

Seeing Like a State

I recently finished reading Seeing Like a State, an interesting book by James Scott, a political scientist at Yale. Scott argues that many attempts to coordinate and control from the top down necessarily leave out many important details that are essential to the workings of an organically developed process. In his words “Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order.” His thesis is essentially a Hayekian one. Because they can never fully collect the local knowledge of individuals, state programs often forget important features of society, in some cases leading to tragic results.

Scott begins the book with an example that I think perfectly encapsulates his broader point. He describes the story of the forestry industry in late 18th century Prussia and Saxony. In order to optimize lumber yields, states decided that there was no need to keep the seemingly unordered naturally grown forest. Instead, they could optimize forest growth, planting only the most valuable trees in a grid-like setup to enable easy access. You can probably guess what comes next.

While the managed forests worked well for one generation, soon the trees stopped growing quite as large or even dying before they could be used for lumber. Without the natural habitat they had evolved to survive in, the trees no longer received the nutrients they needed from the soil. Scientists attempted to replicate the essential features of the forest, to provide the trees with the nutrients they needed while maintaining their controlled environment. As Scott describes, “given the fragility of the simplified production forest, the massive outside intervention that was required to establish it – we might call it the administrators’ forest – is increasingly necessary in order to sustain it as well.” Just as we see in countless cases of government intervention, a single intervention ends up requiring even more intervention and government becomes necessary to maintain the system despite being itself the original source of the problem.

Scott summarizes the situation:

“The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value…Everything that interfered with the efficient production of the key commodity was implacably eliminated. Everything that seemed unrelated to efficient production was ignored. Having come to see the forest as a commodity, scientific forestry set about refashioning it as a commodity machine. Utilitarian simplification in the forest was an effective way of maximizing wood production in the short and intermediate term. Ultimately, however, its emphasis on yield and paper profits, its relatively short time horizon, and, above all, the vast array of consequences it had resolutely bracketed came back to haunt it.” (21)

It is hard to read the excerpt above without immediately thinking of other examples where governments have attempted to replace complex natural systems with more intelligible, but far simpler systems. The remainder of the book goes through many such examples, from the design of cities and languages, to the failed communist experiments of the Soviets and the Chinese and many more. Scott picks out four features that his research suggests lead to poor results of state control. They are, in his words

  1. “Administrative ordering of nature and society”
  2. “High modernist ideology”
  3. “Authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being”
  4. “Prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans”

1, 3, and 4 are pretty straightforward, but 2 deserves some further discussion. By “high modernist ideology,” Scott refers to the belief that scientists and other experts know how to design a society in a more efficient way than ones that develop without any top down intervention. It is the belief that a centralized plan can trump decentralized spontaneous order. Hayek frequently called this attitude “scientism” in his work. Both Scott and Hayek argue that high modernist thinking is too arrogant. Ancient traditions may look backwards to a modern scientist. Customs may seem strange, cultures don’t always make sense.

But it is important to remember that just because you don’t understand the reason behind something doesn’t mean there isn’t one. To the central planner who only cared about lumber production, natural forests seemed incredibly inefficient. So the solution is simple. Cut out everything we don’t need and just keep the good stuff. In doing so, however, those seemingly useless features often reveal themselves to be essential.

Overall, I found the book to be full of interesting historical examples that each serve to illustrate this theme again and again. One point that I did wish had gotten more attention was the role of corporations and their similar top down nature. Scott briefly mentions that “large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is.” He is quick to note that there is a major difference that “for capitalists, simplification must pay.” Still, in cases like the German forests, if the results were profitable in the short run and the problems only observable after dozens of years, it is easy to imagine capitalist firms falling into the same trap. I would have liked to see some examples of historical corporations that have also failed to simplify complex systems, but I guess that would require a much longer book. As it stands, the book serves as a useful warning for any attempt to improve a natural process that is not fully understood. Well worth the read.

 

The Neoliberal Conspiracy

My name is Chris, and I’m a neoliberal. Well, at least I think I am. One can never be quite sure. The question of what defines a neoliberal and the significance of the term itself consistently drums up a somewhat bizarre debate with various points of view ranging from the idea that neoliberalism has dominated the world for the last 40 years (and literally the root of all our problems) to claims that neoliberalism is a completely meaningless term.

I don’t have any real stake in this debate – deciding what label should be used to describe people is almost always a fruitless exercise. It seems to me that neoliberal has been used primarily as an insult used by the Left to disparage people who think free markets are generally good, a point made in a recent article by Jonathan Chait. It is important to point out that neoliberal does not only refer to the hardcore libertarian end of the political spectrum. Clinton and Obama are lumped into the same label as Reagan and Bush. However, I think most people agree that the source of the so-called neoliberal movement comes from the strongest supporters of laissez-faire, market-oriented economics. Hayek, Friedman, and other big names in the libertarian community were the ones who set the neoliberal train in motion.

But as soon as they acknowledge the founding fathers of neoliberalism, many analyses of neoliberal thought tend to go off the rails. Perhaps the best example of the kind of thinking I am talking about is a 2014 article by Philip Mirowski entitled “The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name: The Neoliberal Thought Collective Under Erasure.” Mirowski has dedicated much of his career to explaining the expansion of neoliberal thought. It is immediately clear that he opposes essentially all of its primary tenets, but of course anybody can be fascinated by a philosophy without agreeing with it. Unfortunately, Mirowski’s work paints (in my admittedly biased point of view) an incredibly misleading picture of not only what neoliberals believe, but also what their ultimate goals are.

Mirowski states his favored definition of neoliberal as “the dependence upon the strong state to pursue the disenchantment of politics by economics.” Hmm. Is that unintelligible to everybody or just me? Luckily, he also provides a longer list of principles he believes neoliberals adhere to (which he takes from Ben Fink):

(1) “Free” markets do not occur naturally. They must be actively constructed through political organizing. (2) “The market” is an information processor, and the most efficient one possible—more efficient than any government or any single human ever could be. (3) Market society is, and therefore should be, the natural and inexorable state of humankind. (4) The political goal of neoliberals is not to destroy the state, but to take control of it, and to redefine its structure and function, in order to create and maintain the market-friendly culture. (5) There is no contradiction between public/politics/citizenship and private/ market/entrepreneur-and- consumerism—because the latter does and should eclipse the former. (6) The most important virtue—more important than justice, or anything else—is freedom, defined “negatively” as “freedom to choose”, and most importantly, defined as the freedom of corporations to act as they please. (7) Capital has a natural right to flow freely across national boundaries—labor, not so much. (8) Inequality—of resources, income, wealth, and even political rights—is a good thing; it prompts productivity, because people envy the rich and emulate them; people who complain about inequality are either sore losers or old fogies, who need to get hip to the way things work nowadays. (9) Corporations can do no wrong—by definition. (10) The market, engineered and promoted by neoliberal experts, can always provide solutions to problems seemingly caused by the market in the first place: there’s always “an app for that.” (11) There is no difference between is and should be: “free” markets both should be (normatively) and are (positively) most the efficient economic system, and the most just way of doing politics, and the most empirically true description of human behavior, and the most ethical and moral way to live—which in turn explains, and justifies, why their versions of “free” markets should be, and as neoliberals build more and more power, increasingly are, universal.

So how many people would agree to all of the points above? I haven’t taken a survey, but if I did I can almost guarantee the result would be zero. The above description is not even a strawman of the philosophy of people like Friedman and Hayek (or me). On some points, it’s probably not too far off, but on others it’s either misleading or just blatantly false (I take particular issue with 1, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11). Both the tone (of course all neoliberals regard people who complain about inequality as “sore losers or old fogies”) and the content are apparently designed to position neoliberalism as a front for the elites in society to retain their power. It is the unholy alliance of state and corporate power that drives the neoliberal doctrine.

Now, if you’ve ever read Friedman or Hayek (or my blog) and gotten a very different picture of what it means to be a neoliberal I don’t blame you at all (Note: I prefer to label myself libertarian, but again I’m not concerned about labels here – if Friedman and Hayek are neoliberal then so am I). While the state is certainly necessary to provide some of the features that neoliberals deem conducive to a prosperous society (property rights certainly seem to be a necessary condition), to claim that they “explicitly proposed policies to strengthen the state” is disingenuous. Mirowski gives two examples of such policies from Friedman: his plan to have the central bank grow the money supply at a constant rate and to replace public schools with vouchers. It’s certainly true that both of these policies require a state, but Mirowski chooses to avoid the fact that each requires significantly less state intervention than the current setup. Does he mean to argue that the state providing vouchers to attend private schools requires more state power than the government actually running the schools themselves? I can’t imagine.

Even Mirowski admits that the rhetoric of the neoliberal movement is aimed at promoting the freedom of the individual and limiting the power of the state. But here’s where it gets interesting. Instead of taking neoliberals at their word, Mirowski claims that all of this talk of liberty and freedom is really just a way to “postpone the truth as long as possible when it comes to the nature of the society they are dedicated to bring about.” All of those videos on Youtube of Milton Friedman exquisitely extolling the virtues of a free society? Yeah he doesn’t really believe any of that. The only reason you think he does is because you haven’t “devoted years of their lives to reading the neoliberals, as I [Mirowski] have.”

I think a more accurate statement might be that you haven’t spent years reading the neoliberals and doing everything in your power to find ways to make them look bad. As another person who has spent years reading the neoliberals, I’m almost sure that Milton Friedman believed every word of what he said in those Youtube videos. Mirowski continues in a footnote:

I am always shocked to find the infrastructure of the Neoliberal Thought Collective is always far more developed than any of my private paranoid fantasies. Not only is Free to Choose available on the ubiquitous YouTube, but there is also a slick dedicated website called FreetoChoose.tv, with extended unedited tape from the series…It also includes video lectures from many other neoliberal figures

This comment confuses me. The “infrastructure” of the neoliberal conspiracy is so highly developed that it even has videos on Youtube and *GASP* even a website?! There are two explanations. Either Mirowski has been so engulfed in his study of neoliberalism that he doesn’t realize we are in the 21st century, or he hasn’t had time to look at literally any other topic in the world. I don’t know what his “private paranoid fantasies” consist of, but if you can’t find a website dedicated to them, they must be pretty darn weird.

Jokes aside, Mirowski’s surprise at the lengths the neoliberal movement has gone to promote its message make more sense if we consider it in the context of his broad message. If the freedom rhetoric of the neoliberal movement is really just a front for its desire to strengthen the state and please the elites, his concern makes a lot more sense. For him, the tools of the “Neoliberal Thought Collective” are about as powerful and almost as terrifying as Nazi propaganda. Of course, there’s a far less pernicious reason why the reach of the free market movement extends so far: Its supporters truly care about its message and believe that it will lead to a better world.

And this point seems to be the one that those on the left have such a hard time grasping. They simply can’t believe that anybody honestly believes free markets would lead to a better society. The only explanation is that there is some grand neoliberal conspiracy driving it all. The elites (usually the Kochs take a starring role here) and their economist cronies put on a nice show. They bamboozle the public with nice words like freedom and liberty to draw support to their cause, but their real goal is to be the architects of the society they desire (and probably line their pockets while they’re at it).

Nancy Maclean’s recent book on James Buchanan is an excellent example of such a story. In her account, Buchanan carried out a “stealth plan” to destroy democracy and enact his own vision for the United States (which happened to include many racist policies). I haven’t read Maclean’s book, but I have read several interviews and I find her thesis very odd. Weren’t many of the civil rights victories only possible precisely because of limits on democracy? This post is already long and since I am not an expert on Buchanan and I haven’t read the book I don’t want to comment too much on Maclean’s point specifically (see here, here, and here for some reviews by people who do know what they’re talking about). But I think it does tie into exactly the same kind of thinking illustrated by Mirowski. Never is any probability given to the possibility that Buchanan actually just wanted to improve the system of government in the US. Since his methods were different than progressives, he must be racist and selfish. And since he can’t say those things outright, he had to hide them.

I can’t speak for Buchanan. I don’t know what was really going on in the brains of Friedman or Hayek. Maybe they are all just frauds. But I do know with certainty that there exists at least one person that supports free market policies because he actually thinks they are good (full disclosure: I have received Koch money to attend conferences at the Koch funded Institute for Humane Studies – but I got that money because I am libertarian, not the other way around). I’ve met many other people who are either great actors or are genuinely convinced that markets work well and are beneficial for the vast majority of society. They aren’t hiding those beliefs. They aren’t huddled behind closed doors trying to devise ways to lead everyone else into a trap. There is no hidden meaning behind their words. There is no neoliberal conspiracy.

Don’t Be Afraid of Trade

One of the economic concepts that is most frequently misunderstood by non-economists (and probably by economists too) is the trade deficit. First, a definition. The trade deficit refers to the difference between the amount of goods a country imports and the amount it exports. As the graph below shows, the US has had a large trade deficit for the past several decades. It has been importing goods at a much higher rate than it has been exporting them. Nobody disagrees with that definition or that fact. The debate comes in when people start to decide whether this situation is actually a problem.

Part of the problem is simply an incorrect interpretation of what the trade deficit measures. It is common for non-economists to confuse this trade deficit with the equally frequently maligned budget deficit, which measures the difference between how much the government spends and how much it takes in as revenue. Unfortunately, our own president is among those who have made this mistake. According to Trump:

“The United States has trade deficits with many, many countries, and we cannot allow that to continue … with South Korea right now, but we cannot allow that to continue. This is really a statement that I make about all trade: For many, many years the United States has suffered through massive trade deficits; that’s why we have $20 trillion in debt.”

This statement is complete nonsense. The trade deficit with South Korea or any other country has absolutely nothing to do with the US government’s $20 trillion debt. The debt is the consequence of perennial budget deficits that derive from the US spending a ton of money on military, social welfare, and other government programs.

The trade deficit isn’t really a debt at all. It simply represents the fact that the US buys more goods from foreign countries than they buy from us. In the short run, a trade deficit is almost certainly beneficial for the US. As Milton Friedman eloquently explains in a video I posted a while ago, what a trade deficit really means is that foreigners are giving us real goods and services in exchange for pieces of paper. We get TVs from Japan. All they get are US dollars.

However, a more careful criticism of trade deficits recognizes that trade deficits can be good for the country in the short run, but represent a cost in the long run. Noah Smith articulates such a point in this post, where he argues that the trade deficit is a “loan of real goods and services.” He gives the example of somebody in the US buying a car from Germany. If the US citizen pays in dollars, he calls this an IOU to Germany. At some point, a German will use the dollars to buy goods and services from the US. Even if the dollars were used to buy an asset like a stock, eventually that stock will be sold and the dollars from the sale will be used to buy goods and services. His logic makes sense. Every dollar must eventually come back to the US in some form or another at some point.

But thinking of the trade deficit as a debt seems to me to be either misleading or completely wrong. One confusing point here is that the trade deficit is a flow, while debts are stocks. What is the value of the debt the US has to repay? The stock of all goods and services ever imported minus all goods ever exported? The current stock of foreign dollar holdings? I’m not sure there is any consistent definition of what this debt is that we are supposed to repay. Even if there were, I don’t think the idea of the trade deficit as a debt is meaningful.

Let’s flip Noah’s story. Assume a Chinese citizen really wants to buy Apple stock since they think it will increase in value. They need dollars to buy Apple stock so they exchange some Yuan for dollars and buy stock. At the same time, Apple needs to buy parts from China to make iPhones, so it imports them, trading dollars for Yuan in the process. For simplicity, assume these two transactions exactly cancel out. Where are the IOUs here? Does either country owe a debt to the other? It certainly doesn’t seem like it to me. The stock of dollars and Yuan in either country is exactly the same as it was before the transaction.

It is even clearer that the trade deficit is not a debt if we consider what happens if Apple suddenly goes out of business. The value of their stock goes to zero and their imports also go to zero. The trade deficit that was created by Apple is gone and no US goods were ever given to China. I imagine Noah considers that analogous to defaulting on a debt, but I don’t buy that analogy at all. Does he think Apple owes a debt to all of its shareholders or just its foreign ones? Isn’t the risk of Apple’s stock price falling inherent in its purchase? If you still aren’t convinced, Daniel Ikenson also has an excellent rebuttal to Noah’s article.

The other important point to keep in mind that is implicit in the example above is that foreign countries don’t just buy goods and services from the US. They also buy assets (stocks, bonds, etc.) or invest directly by building their own factories and capital equipment here. The current account (goods and services) and the capital account (assets) are always in balance by definition. A current account deficit is always offset by a capital account surplus.

This fact means that there are two ways we can frame the US’s large trade deficit. It could be that Trump is correct and we are really just falling behind in competitiveness. Nobody wants US goods anymore so they don’t buy our exports while we eat up their imports (which again is not necessarily bad – we get goods and they get paper). Or it could be that the US is home to many of the safest and best performing assets in the world. Other countries are dying to invest in US companies (and treasury bonds) and the result is a huge capital account surplus. One statistic won’t tell us which story is more accurate, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that we don’t have to be too worried (either now or in the future) about the trade deficit.

Let the Facts Decide on Minimum Wage

Basic economic theory has very clear predictions on what should happen to a labor market with a minimum wage. If we assume an upward sloping labor supply curve and a downward sloping labor demand curve, a minimum wage will cause demand for workers to fall while supply increases. The result: an excess supply of workers, also known as unemployment.

The real world is obviously much more complicated than the standard Econ 101 textbook story. Perhaps the most important difference is that there is not just one equilibrium wage. No two jobs are exactly the same. Workers with different skill levels will face different labor markets. Location matters. The list of reasons why the real world doesn’t conform to the simplifying assumptions of economic theory is potentially endless.

However, those caveats do not necessarily invalidate the intuition of basic economics. I don’t think it’s a controversial statement that firms will attempt to substitute away from an input when its cost increases. In this case, that input is low skilled workers. As minimum wage increases, so does the necessary productivity of a worker who wants to be hired. A worker who only produces $10/hr of value for an employer will never be paid $15/hr regardless of the level of the minimum wage. Their choice is not between 10 and 15, but between 10 and 0 (unemployment).

But can we be sure that workers are actually paid based on their productivity? Couldn’t it be that they are simply being exploited, with firms pocketing the additional profits they generate? Under this scenario, an increase in the minimum wage could increase wages without hurting employment.

Here we see the limits of theory. Under some assumptions a minimum wage is good and under others it is bad. The clear next step is to look at the facts. Do minimum wage laws hurt or help low wage workers in the real world? Luckily, due to recent experiments with a $15/hr minimum wage in some cities, we have plenty of data to work with.

Supporters of minimum wage laws will be happy to find out that cutting edge research shows we have nothing to worry about (here’s the link to the full study). The increase in Seattle minimum wage to $13 (15 is being phased in over time) hasn’t had severe disemployment effects. There was a minimal decrease in employment, but overall, “results show that wages in food services did increase — indicating the policy achieved its goal.” So take that Econ 101. Minimum wage is great. Case closed.

Well, not quite. Because this morning, just 6 days after the study above came out, we have a new study looking at the exact same natural experiment (although with a different data set). The results are not so nice. They find that “the minimum wage ordinance lowered low-wage employees’ earnings by an average of $125 per month in 2016.”

Now what? Theory gives us conflicting results and so does data. How can an unbiased observer make a decision about the truth? Well, to be sure of the results of the studies above, they would need to sift through around 100 pages of dense statistical analysis. But of course, anybody untrained in statistics would first have to take a few classes to have any idea what they were talking about. And even with that training, they’d need to take a close look at the datasets used, weigh the pros and cons of each methodology, decide whether the results can generalize to other places, etc. Maybe after about two years of hard work they’d be able to have a qualified opinion on the two studies (never mind the dozens of other studies that have been done on the topic).

What is actually more likely to happen? Everyone who supported the minimum wage will cite the first study and look for flaws in the second (I would bet anything that Arin Dube – one of the biggest minimum wage scholars to support an increase – is scouring it right now looking for something to criticize). Everyone against minimum wage will do the opposite. Both will pretend they are letting the facts decide.

Who Says No? A Climate Change Compromise

Many on the left are up in arms over Trump backing out of the Paris agreement. Ignoring the fact that the agreement says that countries are free to set their own targets and their own policies and is largely symbolic anyway, let’s work under the assumption that liberals actually believe that this policy is disastrous for the earth’s future. In fact, let’s start from the (perhaps ridiculous) assumption that everybody in this debate is being intellectually honest.

Then Republicans have a great opportunity. Offer Democrats a compromise. The United States will re-enter the Paris agreement. And they’ll go even further. Democrats will be given full control over all matters of the environment. Carbon taxes, cap and trade, clean energy subsidies, whatever they want. Completely blank check.

In return, Republicans get everything else. They can pass whatever tax code they want, any deregulation they want. Democrats will have no say in healthcare, no control over education, no input at all over any issue except climate.

So my question is: who says no? Republicans (and Trump) have to go back on one of their key issues and allow the Democrats free reign. But for sucking up their pride on one thing they get everything they’ve ever wanted for a whole range of others. And what about the Democrats? Sure they’d be sacrificing a lot. In their view, we’d be significantly worse off in the short run. But isn’t that worth saving the world? If the results of climate change are truly catastrophic, isn’t it worth some people in the richest country in the world not having health insurance? Isn’t it worth middle class Americans being required to take out student loans to attend college?

Now maybe there are some issues that are as important as climate. If you think Republican control of the military would lead to nuclear war, then of course that can’t be part of the deal. Fine, keep that one. I’ll even throw in gun control, another issue that seems to be of vital importance for the left.  You can come up with your own list of some other issues you would never want to compromise on to save the world. But that list should be very small.

So who says no? I can’t imagine any Republican ever denying the above compromise. But I also doubt a single Democrat would take it. If that prediction is right, we are left with three possible conclusions. The first, which I think we can rule out, is that Democrats believe giving Republicans complete control over anything would be worse than the end of the world. The second, which could be true, is that they believe they can convince Republicans of the correctness of their view without conceding too much. Considering their lack of success to this point, and the apparent urgency with which they believe something needs to be done, this also seems unlikely. So we are left with the third, and in my opinion most likely, option: Despite their rhetoric, Democrats are simply not that concerned about climate change.

Outrage on Net Neutrality

In a previous post I agreed with Bret Stephens that complete certainty about an issue doesn’t help convince anybody that your view is correct and may in fact work against the argument. I extended his point by arguing that not only do people express complete certainty that their ideas are right, but they also tend to find the idea that anybody could think differently completely outrageous. However, I don’t think climate change was the best example to prove that point. If you truly believe that climate change will cause catastrophic changes, you might have a right to be outraged. There is a much better example: net neutrality.

Senator Al Franken recently claimed that the FCC’s plan to roll back some of the regulations on net neutrality would be a “major step to destroying the internet as we know it.” Other reports in the media have had a similar tone: there go those idiot Republicans again trying to convince people that we don’t need the government involved in every aspect of our lives. Perhaps the worst offender is Gizmodo, who I follow for tech news, not to see articles like this one. Now, I suppose it’s possible that a writer for Gizmodo knows enough to have a strong, well qualified opinion on a topic like internet regulation, but I expect their knowledge on the topic is pretty close to mine. And I will freely admit my own ignorance on the topic. I have no idea whether net neutrality is a good idea.

To be clear, just as Bret Stephen’s article was not about the correctness of climate change, this post is not about whether net neutrality is a good idea. Instead, it is about the complete certainty with which its proponents appear to believe it’s a good idea. If you are well read on net neutrality, I’d be happy to hear a more qualified opinion on why this issue is so clear cut. From my perspective, however, the issue is not an obvious one at all and the goal of this post is to sow the seeds of uncertainty for those who haven’t tried to think through the issue in at least a small amount of detail.

I do think I understand the basic argument for net neutrality. Without net neutrality, its supporters argue, internet providers will be free to offer different prices to access different websites on the internet. Right now you pay a fixed price to your internet service provider for access to any website on the internet. ISPs are not allowed to treat bandwidth from one website different from any other. Without this guarantee, it is possible that internet providers could charge more for people who want to access popular websites. You pay $30 per month for internet, but if you want Facebook access too that’s gonna be another $5. Want Netflix too? Well maybe you can get the entertainment package for an extra $15. Even worse, if Comcast wanted to push its own video service, it could completely shutdown Netflix for its customers, leading to higher prices and lower quality service. Special treatment could also go the other way. Large companies could pay to receive faster access to their websites while small startups struggle to survive.

One of the most common ways to summarize the changes is to say that it would make the internet look more like cable TV (see this article for example). Expensive bundles, premium content, bad service. Who wants that? And that does sound bad. But hold on a second. Why do we hate cable TV service? Isn’t the main complaint that you have to buy a bunch of channels you don’t want? If I only want to watch ESPN I can’t buy just that, I have to buy the whole sports bundle. Now, it’s true that net neutrality makes these kind of bundles illegal, but it also makes selling access to individual websites illegal. With internet you only have one choice: buy everything or nothing. Perhaps this method makes more sense for internet than it would for TV, but it’s not immediately obvious that it’s better. It could be that net neutrality leads to inconvenience, higher prices, and worse service. It could also be that it leads to heavy internet users paying more than light users. That doesn’t seem so bad to me.

The good news is we don’t have to guess what the internet would look like without net neutrality. If you don’t know already, take a guess when you think the rules that currently uphold net neutrality were put into place. If you’ve heard any of the horror stories I imagine you would think that the internet has always had these kinds of regulations. You probably don’t remember the internet being a price gouging wasteland in all the time you’ve been using it so the rules must have gone into place in the 80s or 90s at the latest. There’s no way that net neutrality regulations were passed within the last 3 years right? Well…

So we pretty much know exactly what would happen if we get rid of net neutrality. We would destroy the internet as we know it and replace it with the internet of 2015. Why is that a big deal again?

Of course, as I’ve already admitted, I have no idea what I’m talking about on this issue. I think I am barely qualified to talk about macroeconomics, which I study many hours per day. So let’s defer to the experts. Maybe this article about how the effects of net neutrality are minimal. Or this one that shows that there is insufficient evidence to make a strong case that net neutrality rules are needed. The supporters of net neutrality aren’t the only ones making unsubstantiated claims. The claim that net neutrality reduces investment is probably overblown.

I’m sure you can find other articles to support either side. That’s not the point. The point is that net neutrality is not climate change. There is no 97% consensus here. And even if there was, even in the worst possible case, we end up not with the world ending, but with a slightly more expensive internet. The outrage remains regardless. In today’s political climate, every issue has to become a battleground and the urgency of the arguments appears to bear little correlation to either the size of the issue (because everything is a catastrophe) or the probability a person has the correct view (because obviously you are right about everything).

Some Thoughts on Universal Basic Income

People who oppose redistribution from the rich to the poor generally give two types of arguments against it. Perhaps the more obvious argument comes from a natural rights perspective – the person who created the wealth has a right to do whatever they want with it. However, if you don’t believe in free will (as I don’t), then this reasoning doesn’t make much sense. If you weren’t truly responsible for the circumstances that led you to create the wealth in the first place, why should you get to keep all of it? Shouldn’t some of it go to all of the people that had any influence on getting you to that position?

The stronger argument derives from incentives. Taking from the productive to give to the unproductive makes being unproductive far more attractive and we end up with a society where perfectly capable people choose not to work because they expect others to support them. Any attempt to solve poverty needs to deal with this issue, which makes designing anti-poverty measures difficult.

Our current welfare system has some checks in place that attempt to circumvent incentive problems, but it doesn’t solve them completely. Many of our current welfare programs involve cutoff levels where benefits begin to be reduced and eventually disappear altogether. This type of program introduces an implicit marginal tax on low income earners. Not only do they have to pay a higher official tax rate as their income rises, but they also lose some of the benefits they received at a lower income.

A simple way around this problem is to never phase out those benefits – to give them to everyone. This idea forms the backbone of the Universal Basic Income (UBI). One of the most complete proposals for a UBI comes from Charles Murray (yes, the same Charles Murray who gets kicked off college campuses because of his dangerous right wing ideas). In his version (laid out in his book In Our Hands), each American over the age of 21 would receive $13,000 per year in benefits unconditionally. Of this money, $3,000 has to be spent on health insurance, but the rest comes with no strings attached.

Of course, such a plan would be incredibly expensive. However, as Murray points out, our current system is already expensive. According to his calculations, if we eliminated our entire welfare system (including Social Security and Medicare), we could more than pay for the UBI. Getting rid of these programs would be difficult politically, but Murray offers several reasons why doing so would be desirable for almost everyone. Most notably, he estimates that poverty would be all but eliminated under his program vs the approximately 15% that remains under our own system.

Murray’s justification for some level of redistribution is similar to my own:

Inequality of wealth grounded in unequal abilities is different. For most of us, the luck of the draw cuts several ways: one person is not handsome, but is smart; another is not as smart, but is industrious; and still another is not as industrious, but is charming. This kind of inequality of human capital is enriching, making life more interesting for everyone. But some portion of the population gets the short end of the stick on several dimensions. As the number of dimensions grows, so does the punishment for being unlucky. When a society tries to redistribute the goods of life to compensate the most unlucky, its heart is in the right place, however badly the thing has worked out in practice
Charles Murray (2016) – In Our Hands

If we accept that some redistribution is desirable, a UBI seems like a more efficient way to carry it out than our current welfare setup. One common argument against the UBI is that it doesn’t make sense to waste resources on the rich. Bryan Caplan has given some arguments along these lines and argues that phasing benefits out gradually would avoid the implicit marginal tax rate problems without needing to give benefits to everyone. And it makes sense. If our goal is to eliminate poverty why not focus our efforts there?

But I don’t think that argument really works when you consider that a UBI is inextricably linked to the tax system. A UBI doesn’t look so universal after you consider that the rich are going to be paying for almost all of it. Everyone might get a check for $13,000, but top income earners pay far more than that in taxes. Their net benefit from government programs would still be strongly negative even after receiving the UBI. Depending on your perspective towards redistribution, this feature could actually be a negative, but given that redistribution is going to happen anyway, the UBI seems like a more efficient way of actually doing it.

It’s obviously not without fault, but I do think a UBI would be an improvement over our current system and I definitely recommend reading Murray’s book (it’s not that long) to anyone who wants to help the poor but believes we can do better than we do now.