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.

100_4514
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.