I blame all of you

Here we are, 20 years into the distant future, and the newspaper of record now includes musical opinion pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I love Weird Al, but I’m sure he’d agree that a world where he’s writing songs for the Times is a world that’s broken.

It would be comforting to imagine this is the fault of the Illuminati. But the truth is our society is the collective outcome of all of our actions. There are constraints keeping us away from Utopia (limited time and resources, path dependence, etc.), but within the bounds of those constraints we get the outcome that we want. And apparently the outcome we want (i.e. want enough that we’re willing to work for it) is a dumpster fire.

Get your shit together humanity. It doesn’t have to be this bad. But it’s not going to get better if we keep rage tweeting about how awful it is how the other side keeps rage tweeting.

Throwing the Bums out is Insufficient

It’s election season (those quite weeks between October and November three years later) which means a resurgence in political economy superstitions! A particular tempting one is the Throw the Bums Out Theory of Governance.

The theory goes like this: things are awful, awful people are in positions of power, therefore we need to get rid of those awful people.

As instincts go, it’s not the worst. But it’s Twitter level thinking. Yeah, it’s worth celebrating the regression to the mean that will be the end of Trump’s presidency. I’m looking forward to the “regular” amounts of corruption and embarrassment. But those “regular” amounts are still problematic. The lesser of two evils still sucks. The mean we’re regressing to is the real problem.

In other words: the political outcomes we get reflect the underlying political reality (give or take). As Mencken said: we get what we want good and hard. Political outcomes involve (mostly bad) luck, but Trump wasn’t some utterly random accident. He happened because enough American voters wanted that (more than the next best alternative, anyways).

Throwing the bums out is cathartic, but there’s no shortage of bums to replace them.

The problem is not the bums, it’s the system as a whole. Trump was able to screw things up so badly because we’ve set up ground rules that a) gave him the ability, and b) required more competence than he was ready or able to apply. But elections don’t choose the qualified candidates, they choose the popular candidates. And if one thing is obvious in 2020, it’s that we can’t count on magically educating our political opponents into having the enlightened views necessary for us to make sure the best candidates are always the most popular.

In the long-run, the task is to make incompetent morons less important–something I hope everyone can agree is a worthwhile goal (#neverHillary, #neverTrump). The current system means ideological tribes have to be constantly warring with each other to make sure presidential power doesn’t get into the wrong hands. Can we please agree that this is a terrible system?

We can lower the stakes. We can push power back to the state and local level (and give people an incentive to actually pay attention to local issues!). Let’s take a break from partisan entertainment–as fun as Project Lincoln is, let’s face it, they’re not convincing anyone–and get to the hard task of being a self-governing society. Let’s ask how we could set things up so we don’t have to worry about the next Clinton or Trump.

Until we change the system, we’re going to keep seeing more of the same. Let’s shift the conversation away from “that candidate’s terrible, how can we defeat them?” and towards “this setup attracts terrible candidates, how can we fix that?”!

Liability Rules!

“The union representing Buffalo police officers told its rank and file
members Friday that the union would no longer pay for legal fees to
defend police officers related to the protests…”

From Buffalo News.

This could be excellent news (at least in Buffalo). The threat of lawsuits means police will either be on their best behavior or won’t show up to work.

Skin in the Game or Senility?

This morning I learned that Trump has been taking Hydroxycloroquine for the last week.

Good for him for actually (apparently) taking on the risk he’s so enthusiastic to encourage others to take. I’m surprised Fox News hasn’t picked this up as a chance to build up some good press. Still, as a devoted never-Trumper, I hope this turns into evidence that Trump is not legally competent to hold office.

No word yet if he’s been huffing bleach fumes.

Goodbye Rudy

In 2008 I found myself at SJSU study economics as an undergrad. That was the big turning point that landed me on this blog.

A lot of people insist that was a fantastically interesting time to study economics, what with the global financial sector crumbling and society at large humbly learning a lesson in allowing markets to discipline irresponsible risk taking. (Right? Isn’t that what happened?). But for me, what was fascinating was the intellectual framework that allowed you to dig into the root causes. The SJSU econ department was a fantastic place for me to start building up that framework.

Fall 2008 was professor Rudy Gonzalez’s last semester before retirement and my second semester in that program. I took advantage. Rather than four discrete classes (Law & Econ, History of Economic Thought, Labor Econ, and Public Choice) I essentially had a 12 credit class in Economics broadly understood. It was the most intellectually fruitful semester in my economics career.

Rudy was the sort of freewheeling professor I try to be. He set a tone. In Rudy’s classes I learned the most in the gaps between the stuff for the exam. My classmates and I came out of his classes debating concepts and engaging with ideas. This was the semester I wrote my best joke: The Physiocrats. I learned a lot from studying for those exams, but the best stuff was in the digressions.

I think my students hate it when I digress. They’ve been trained by a lifetime of standardized tests and the empty promise that ambition is as simple as uncritically ticking off the right boxes: take these classes in this order, get a degree, then get a job (whatever that means). There’s a lot of lip service to the importance of education, but now education is a commodity. Bricks to be stacked mechanically.

In Rudy’s class, education was a process of enlightenment. Knowledge wasn’t an assembly of bricks, but a garden–different bits of knowledge growing and complementing one another, fertilized with jokes and stories.

It was in his class I decided I wanted to be an economics professor. He also gave me a copy of the paper that convinced me of anarchism. I’m still trying to share a taste of the excitement I got in his class with my students. It’s an uphill battle, but I’m glad I’ve had the chance to fight ignorance with economics and humor.

Goodbye Rudy. You will be missed.

Is this patriotism?

I’ve always had a weird relationship with patriotism. As a Canadian kid I wondered if the thing I was supposed to be proud of was that Canadians weren’t so brashly patriotic. Later I moved to America and jumped on the “we’re #1” bandwagon. I got off after first realizing that politics is messy and there aren’t any leaders worth admiring, then realizing that that’s always been true (and may even have been worse in the past). My default position over the past few years (before and after getting citizenship) has been “America The world is a nice place, with nice people. And America has one of the better (deeply flawed) political systems.” But I’m not the sort of person who goes out of his way to say the pledge of allegiance.

But I might have stumbled on a secret patriotic feeling that swells in my heart nearly every time I read the news: a profound embarrassment.

Maybe bureaucratic reports have worn me thin, but I’m increasingly shouting “Get it together America! You’re embarrassing me!” any time I encounter news.

When crazy people do crazy stuff I’m not inclined to feel embarrassed, because I don’t know that angry lady who doesn’t understand traffic lights! But family can embarrass you. Embarrassment is an expression of your fear that you’re more like Uncle Joe than you feel comfortable with.

If this is what patriotism feels like, I don’t get it.

A quick thought on UBI

I’m still not sure where I land on the issue of Universal Basic Income (UBI), but I just thought of a bit of clarifying language that lead to a thought. I’m sure this thought isn’t original, but I’m also sure it doesn’t come up as often as it ought to.

A UBI system’s appeal stems from the fact that it’s a minimal welfare state (kinda sorta). We all know the old debate between proponents of a minimal state–and the debates about what exactly that constitutes–and those of a welfare state–and again, there’s plenty of disagreement on what that actually means.

On a 0-10 spectrum of “how important should the government be? / how important is the government currently” a UBI is a lateral move with obvious efficiency gains. It strips out all the bureaucracy in our current welfare state, provides a wide safety net, and allows the poor to exercise their own agency using their local knowledge about their particular circumstances and opportunities. No cookie cutter solutions, no lines, just a modest check in the mail and an entire population looking for good ways to use it.

On the other hand, it lays bare some of the worst case scenarios of a maximal welfare state. Subsidizing sloth and dependency, enormous costs, reduction in savings, net negative cultural effects, and who knows what else!

But still, perhaps UBI with some minimal modifications is an improvement over what we’ve got now?

2×2 matrix (robust vs thin welfare state and broad vs targeted welfare state).

The maximal welfare state is robust, and broad. There’s a housing bureau, a food bureau, a work bureau, and nearly everyone is waiting in line at one of them at some point each week.

The minimal state would have no welfare, but the minimal welfare state would have a thin and targeted system. No social workers, no bureaucrats, just a check. And unlike a UBI, this would only apply to the poor. Which might cost it political support.

A UBI is thin but broad. That might require it to be less generous, but could (literally) buy it some votes. On the other hand, what do I know about what makes people vote?

The thinness and breadth of a UBI makes it startling next to the old dichotomy. It simultaneously opens up whole new realms of possibilities–it dramatically increases the opportunity cost of drudgery and bureaucracy and provides an easy enough safety net to allow widespread entrepreneurial activity. If we had the right culture we could do anything! But (!) we don’t get to choose the culture.

That breadth is pretty scary when we consider some of the negative behaviors it will surely breed. The lunatic fringe will be funded by the rest of us. A cult is easy to finance when all your members sign over a government check to you every month.

Here’s a possibility: Imagine a vastly simpler tax code. “What’s your income? Scan your tax/employment card that isn’t as stupid as a Social Security Number.” $X “Thank you, give us f(X). Insert cash or card into the machine.” You could file taxes every month (or more or less frequently if you prefer). In that world, we could just give a refundable tax credit to anyone who had a low enough income.

Mind you, I’m assuming away the issue of designing the right marginal tax rates and setting the level of the tax credit. But such a system could be simultaneously broad (it kicks in for anyone as soon as you need it) and narrow (you only get it if you’re poor… and you end up paying it back if you get rich). I think a simpler tax system would be necessary to make a minimal UBI workable

Cycling in Amsterdam

I just got back from a week in London and a week in Amsterdam. Probably the most striking thing I encountered was the wonderful dutch cycling culture. Any transit system involves some implicit negotiation between motorists, pedestrians, and others. On Long Island the motorists won. In Amsterdam, cyclists won.

I’m on a bit of a Dutch cycling high, despite only spending about 2 hours on 2 wheels while in Amsterdam. The dutch take their bicycles seriously and they shape their environment to that end. The Airbnb I stayed at had frontage on a bicycle road but no direct access to a motorway. I’m not 100% on this, but I think the Netherlands’ liability laws make the faster vehicle strictly liable for accidents which serves as an implicit subsidy for bikes.

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A typical Dutch cycle path

Here are some things I like about this culture:

  • The engineering. I really like the way they do bike locks… nearly every bike has a built in lock that disables the rear wheel. Most of these locks also have a chain to lock the bike to a fence, but that chain locks with the same key for the rear wheel.
  • It encourages enough density to get people interacting with each other, but still expands your plausible travel distance. They’ve got a nice balance between closeness and congestion.
  • It’s easier on the environment (excluding the costs of building bikes and bike roads).
  • Light physical exercise feels great.
  • The infrastructure involved in managing bike traffic is pretty minimal. Speeds are slow enough that human judgement works well outside of the busiest areas.

Why should libertarians care? Well, most of them probably have better things to focus on. But those of us living in or near dense cities, this is an example of a way of life that fits nicely with our broader goal of a peaceful, prosperous, liberal order. If Manhattan tried to be more like Amsterdam it could be a huge boon (I think… based on my preferences and zero scientific analysis) to human flourishing.

Some Thoughts on Best of Enemies

I’ve been making an unnatural effort to stay abrest of American politics the last few months and I’m reaching the end of my rope. A while back I added Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal to my queue, and now seemed like a good time to watch it. I don’t know much about either but based on some vague recollection of offhanded comments by older professors, I expected I would be watching political discussion with class and/or depth.

I would not. 

While both are eloquent and poetical, neither seemed to offer much more than insults for each other. Their bickering was entertaining. But it was not enlightening. They were a fancier version of a modern poli-tainmemt show. 

The world’s definitely going to hell in a hand basket, but it always has been.

Update: I just finished the movie. The producers have a clear message: Buckley/Vidal was the beginning of the end. They are ending the documentary with clips of both men expressing skepticism at the wisdom of their now famous 1968 debates.

Vidal (in the 10th debate):

I think these great debates are absolutely nonsense. The way they’re set up, there’s almost no interchange of ideas, very little, even, of personality. There’s also the terrible thing about this medium that hardly anyone listens. They sort of get an impression of somebody, and they think that they’ve figured out just what he’s like by seeing him on television. 

Buckley (in some other context):

Does television ruin America? There is an implicit conflict if interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating.

There’s also a clip from this gem:

Update 2: I fixed some grammar and missing words after initially posting… Still figuring out the Android app for WordPress…

Come back Jon Stewart!

By the way, I’m enjoying the crap out of John Oliver’s righteous indignation, but the truth is he’s probably doing more harm than good. Oliver panders to his dedicated fan base. Jon Stewart held his audience to a higher standard. He was biased, but he didn’t let his side get away with sloppy thinking.

Also by the way, Malcolm Gladwell had a nice episode that (if I’m remembering this right) nicely reflected the sort of ideological pluralism that Jonathan Haidt promotes. A recent video of Haidt has prompted a lot of my recent thinking on this issue.

Attention and Motivation

Since reading Pragmatic Thinking and Learning a few years ago, I’ve changed a small but important aspect of my life. I no longer worry about having enough time; I worry about having enough attention. Time devoted to working on a task early in the morning is far more productive than time that would otherwise be spent sleeping devoted to the same task.

In a similar vein, I’ve been coming across tidbits of information related to drugs and attention that have shed some light on this issue for me. For example, what Adderall (basically) does is that it excites your nervous system so that your focus is laser sharp. Suddenly boring tasks like cleaning the house are very easy. Besides ADD drugs, marijuana and LSD are both supposed to do something similar (in the case of LSD, for it to be a useful pharmaceutical would require doses in the sub-Grateful-Dead-concert range… just as you wouldn’t want to eat a handful of Ritalin). [Sorry I don’t have decent citations here… Commenters?]

The point of that last paragraph is to shed some light on the question plaguing those working on improving their own productivity: “How do I increase my motivation?” Anyone who has tried Adderall can tell you that motivation has nothing to do with why they’re cleaning the inside of the oven. They’re just doing it because they can.

What’s my point? Motivation and raw focus are both important, they’re different from one another, but they’re closely tied. Neither is easy to observe from the outside. Recognizing this is obviously important for our own lives. But it is also for how we look at the world as economists.