Author: Thomas

Politics, Personality, and Hope for a New Era

“Liberals” are more neurotic than conservatives. That is, “liberals” have a “tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability.” This is consistent with what I have observed of family members, friends, and co-workers over a span of more than 50 years.

Anxious persons are eager to sacrifice better but less certain outcomes — the fruits of liberty — for “safe” ones. Anxious persons project their anxieties onto others, and put their trust in exploitative politicians who play on their anxieties even if they don’t share them. This combination of anxieties and power-lust yields “social safety net” programs and regulations aimed at reducing risks and deterring risk-taking.. At the same time, American “liberals” — being spoiled children of capitalism — have acquired a paradoxical aversion to the very things that would ensure their security: swift and sure domestic justice, potent and demonstrably ready armed forces.

Conservatives tend toward conscientiousness more than liberals do; that is, they “display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations.” They gather relevant facts, think things through, assess the risks involved in various courses of action, and choose to take risks (or not) accordingly. When they choose to take risks, they do so after providing for the possibility of failure (e.g., through insurance and cash reserves). Confident, self-reliant conservatives are hindered by governmental intrusions imposed at the behest of anxious “liberals.” All that conservatives need from government is protection from domestic and foreign predators. What they get from government is too little protection and too much interference.

Liberty — secured by swift domestic justice and a strong national defense — abets social comity and informed risk-taking, which is the life-blood of prosperity. “Liberalism” has almost extinguished liberty in America, but its feeble pulse has shown signs of strength since January 20, 2017. I can live with the bombast of Trump’s utterances, with higher labor costs, and some restrictions on imports if those things are part of a package deal that includes the reversal of the Supreme Court’s “liberalism,” the emasculation of the EPA, an end to government-sponsored warmist-pandering, significant deregulation, the end of Obamacare, smaller and cheaper government on the domestic front, respect and support for the police who daily put their lives on the line, larger and more potent armed forces, an “America First” foreign policy, and the end of “social justice” as an animating force in government policy.

Prosperity Isn’t Everything

There is no denying that per-capita income rises with specialization and trade; for example:

  • A is a farmer with land that’s good for growing fruit trees; B is a farmer with land that’s good for raising cattle.
  • The total output of both apples and butter will be greater if A specializes in growing apples and B specializes in making butter than if both A and B grew apples and made butter.
  • A and B can then trade apples for butter so that of them is better off than he would have been in the absence of specialization and trade.

Sometimes A and B live in different cities, different States, and different countries. If the raison d’etre of specialization and trade is the maximization of income, it would be foolish to exclude international trade while allowing inter-State and inter-city trade. (Note that the preceding sentence begins with if.)

The combination of specialization, trade, invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship has wrought much good. Here’s Megan McArdle’s testimony:

By the standards of today, my grandparents were living in wrenching poverty. Some of this, of course, involves technologies that didn’t exist—as a young couple in the 1930s my grandparents had less access to health care than the most  neglected homeless person in modern America, simply because most of the treatments we now have had not yet been invented. That is not the whole story, however. Many of the things we now have already existed; my grandparents simply couldn’t afford them.  With some exceptions, such as microwave ovens and computers, most of the modern miracles that transformed 20th century domestic life already existed in some form by 1939. But they were out of the financial reach of most people.

If America today discovered a young couple where the husband had to drop out of high school to help his father clean tons of unsold, rotted produce out of their farm’s silos, and now worked a low-wage, low-skilled job, was living in a single room with no central heating and a single bathroom to share for two families, who had no refrigerator and scrubbed their clothes by hand in a washtub, who had serious conversations in low voices over whether they should replace or mend torn clothes, who had to share a single elderly vehicle or make the eight-mile walk to town  … that family would be the subject of a three-part Pulitzer prizewinning series on Poverty in America.

But in their time and place, my grandparents were a boring bourgeois couple, struggling to make ends meet as everyone did, but never missing a meal or a Sunday at church. They were excited about the indoor plumbing and electricity which had just been installed on his parents’ farm, and they were not too young to marvel at their amazing good fortune in owning an automobile. In some sense they were incredibly deprived, but there are millions of people in America today who are incomparably better off materially, and yet whose lives strike us (and them) as somehow objectively more difficult.

Much of that is true of my parents, who were of the same generation as McArdle’s grandparents. More of it is true of my maternal grandmother, who was born in 1880, wed in 1903, bore and raised ten children, and was widowed at the age of 60. I remember well the years before she reached the age of 70; until then she cooked on a wood-fired range, pumped water from a well in her backyard, and went to the outhouse for calls of nature. And yet, the following things, and much more, came to pass in her lifetime: alternating-current electricity, a telephone in most homes (though my grandmother lacked one until she was in her 70s), automobiles (though she never learned to drive), airplanes (she first flew at the age of 93), movies, radio, movies with sound, television (she never owned one), radar, penicillin, vaccinations against various debilitating diseases, electric typewriters, and early transistorized computers.

Because my dominant memories of my grandmother and her way of life in a small village are boyhood memories, it’s tempting to characterize them as nostalgic and somewhat romanticized. But I know that she was more or less typical of the residents of her village. Though she was far from rich, she wasn’t poor by the standards of the village. She certainly didn’t feel impoverished or resentful about her lack of material goods.

Today, however, relatively poor people in America have far, far more in the way of material goods than my grandmother ever dreamt of owning, yet they are anxious and even miserable, because… Here’s McArdle’s view:

[Not] everything has gotten better in every way, all the time. There are areas in which things have gotten broadly worse….

  • … Substance abuse, and the police response to it, has devastated both urban and rural communities.
  • Divorce broke up millions of families, and while the college educated class seems to have found a new equilibrium of stable and happy later marriages, marriage is collapsing among the majority who do not have a college degree, leaving millions of children in unstable family situations where fathers are often absent from the home, and their attention and financial resources are divided between multiple children with multiple women.
  • Communities are much less cohesive than they used to be, and while the educated elite may have found substitutes online, the rest of the country is “bowling alone” more and more often—which is not merely lonely, but also means they have fewer social supports when they find themselves in trouble.
  • A weekly wage packet may buy more than it did sixty years ago, but the stability of manufacturing jobs is increasingly being replaced by contingent and unreliable shift work that is made doubly and triply difficult by the instability of the families that tend to do these jobs. The inability to plan your life or work in turn makes it hard to form a family, and stressful to keep one together….
  • Widespread credit has democratized large purchases like furniture and cars. It has also enabled many people, particularly financially marginal people, to get into serious trouble.  Debt magnifies your life experience: when things are going relatively well, it gives you more options, but when things are going badly, it can turn a setback into a catastrophe—as many, many families found out in 2008….

This list illustrates why public policy seems to be struggling to come up with a plan of attack against our current insecurities. The welfare state is relatively good at giving people money: you collect the taxes, write a check, and now people have money. The welfare state has proven very bad at giving people stable jobs and stable families, a vibrant community life, promising career tracks, or a cure for their drug addiction. No wonder so many hopes now seem to be pinned on early childhood education, far in excess of the evidence to support them: it is the only thing we have not already tried and failed at.

But I think this list illustrates the poverty of trying to measure living standards by staring at median wages. Many of the changes of the last century show up in that statistic, but others, like the time no longer spent plucking chickens, or the joys of banishing lye from the pantry, appear nowhere.  Nor do the changes in job and family structure that have made the lives of people who are indisputably vastly materially richer than my young grandparents were, nonetheless feel much more precarious.

Where did it all go wrong? And I do believe that it went wrong. I say that as a man who has lived more than his three-score and ten years, remains in good health, lives comfortably, has a loving wife of 52 years, has two fine children and twelve joyous grandchildren, and is by nature an optimistic achiever who isn’t easily thrown off course by a setback.

It didn’t go wrong because of globalization, though globalization may have hastened the rot. It didn’t go wrong because of prosperity per se, though it was helped by the fevered pursuit of prosperity. It went wrong because of the fraying of the social ties that bound much of America for so long — even with the Civil War and its decades-long residue of bitterness.

Why did those ties fray? And why are they now weaker than than have been since the eve of the Civil War?

Let’s begin with social norms, which are the basis of social ties. If you and I observe the same social norms, we’re likely to feel bound in some way, even if we’re not friends or relatives. This, of course, is tribalism, which is verboten among those who view all of mankind as brothers, sisters, and whatevers under the skin — all mankind except smarty-pants Americans of East Asian descent, Israeli Jews and American Jews who support Israel, Southerners (remember the Civil War!), and everyone else who is a straight, non-Hispanic white male of European descent. To such people, the only legitimate tribe is the tribe of anti-tribalism.

You may by now understand that I blame leftists for the breakdown of social norms and social ties. But how can that be if, as McArdle says, “the college educated class seems to have found a new equilibrium of stable and happy later marriages”? The college-educated class resides mostly on the left, and affluent leftists do seem to have avoided the rot.

Yes, but they caused it. You could think of it as a non-suicidal act of terror. But it would be kinder and more accurate to call it an act of involuntary manslaughter.  Leftists meant to make the changes that caused the rot; they just didn’t foresee or intend the rot. Nor is it obvious that they care about it, except as an excuse to “solve” social problems from on high by throwing money and behavioral prescriptions at them — which is why there’s social rot in the first place.

The good intentions embedded in governmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have sundered civil society. Walter Williams puts it this way in “Culture and Social Pathology” (creators.com, June 16, 2015):

A civilized society’s first line of defense is not the law, police and courts but customs, traditions, rules of etiquette and moral values. These behavioral norms — mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth and religious teachings — represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots, such as thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal and thou shalt not cheat. They also include all those courtesies that have traditionally been associated with ladylike and gentlemanly conduct.

The failure to fully transmit these values and traditions to subsequent generations represents one of the failings of what journalist Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” People in this so-called great generation, who lived during the trauma of the Great Depression and fought World War II, not only failed to transmit the moral values of their parents but also are responsible for government programs that will deliver economic chaos….

For nearly three-quarters of a century, the nation’s liberals have waged war on traditional values, customs and morality. Our youths have been counseled that there are no moral absolutes. Instead, what’s moral or immoral is a matter of personal opinion. During the 1960s, the education establishment began to challenge and undermine lessons children learned from their parents and Sunday school with fads such as “values clarification.” So-called sex education classes are simply indoctrination that undermines family and church strictures against premarital sex. Lessons of abstinence were considered passe and replaced with lessons about condoms, birth control pills and abortions. Further undermining of parental authority came with legal and extralegal measures to assist teenage abortions with neither parental knowledge nor parental consent….

If it were only the economic decline threatening our future, there might be hope. It’s the moral decline that spells our doom.

The undoing of traditional mores began in earnest in the 1960s, with a frontal assault on traditional morality and the misguided expansion of the regulatory-welfare state. The unraveling continues to this day. Traditional morality is notable in its neglect; social cohesion is almost non-existent, except where the bonds of religion and ethnicity remain strong. The social fabric that once bound vast swaths of America has rotted — and is almost certainly beyond repair.

The social fabric has frayed precisely because government has pushed social institutions aside and made dependents of hundreds of millions of Americans. As Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Now for an ironic twist. Were the central government less profligate and intrusive, Americans would become much more prosperous.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Social Norms and Liberty
Whiners — Left and Libertarian
The Adolescent Rebellion Syndrome
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Government vs. Community
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Society and the State
Are You in the Bubble?
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
God-Like Minds
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Democracy, Human Nature, and the Future of America
1963: The Year Zero
Society
How Democracy Works
“Cheerful” Thoughts
How Government Subverts Social Norms
Turning Points
The Twilight’s Last Gleaming?
How America Has Changed

Liberal Nostrums

Persons who call themselves libertarians or classical liberals are loathe to relinquish their claim to liberalism, even though the word has a acquired a justifiably foul odor because of its long association with leftist statism. What is liberalism, and why should self-styled libertarians and classical liberals want to align themselves with it?

The following discussion, from “Liberalism” at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, shows a decided lack of consensus about the principles of liberalism, even of the so-called classical or libertarian strain:

Liberal political theory … fractures over the conception of liberty. But a more important division concerns the place of private property and the market order. For classical liberals — sometimes called the ‘old’ liberalism — liberty and private property are intimately related. From the eighteenth century right up to today, classical liberals have insisted that an economic system based on private property is uniquely consistent with individual liberty, allowing each to live his life — including employing his labor and her capital — as he sees fit. Indeed, classical liberals and libertarians have often asserted that in some way liberty and property are really the same thing; it has been argued, for example, that all rights, including liberty rights, are forms of property; others have maintained that property is itself a form of freedom…. A market order based on private property is thus seen as an embodiment of freedom…. Unless people are free to make contracts and to sell their labour, or unless they are free to save their incomes and then invest them as they see fit, or unless they are free to run enterprises when they have obtained the capital, they are not really free.

Classical liberals employ a second argument connecting liberty and private property. Rather than insisting that the freedom to obtain and employ private property is simply one aspect of people’s liberty, this second argument insists that private property is the only effective means for the protection of liberty. Here the idea is that the dispersion of power that results from a free market economy based on private property protects the liberty of subjects against encroachments by the state. As F.A. Hayek argues, “There can be no freedom of press if the instruments of printing are under government control, no freedom of assembly if the needed rooms are so controlled, no freedom of movement if the means of transport are a government monopoly”….

Although classical liberals agree on the fundamental importance of private property to a free society, the classical liberal tradition itself refracts into a spectrum of views, from near-anarchist to those that attribute a significant role to the state in economic and social policy…. Towards the most extreme ‘libertarian’ end of the classical liberal spectrum are views of justified states as legitimate monopolies that may with justice charge for their necessary rights-protection services: taxation is legitimate so long as it is necessary to protect liberty and property rights. As we go further ‘leftward’ we encounter classical liberal views that allow taxation for (other) public goods and social infrastructure and, moving yet further ‘left’, some classical liberal views allow for a modest social minimum…. Although today classical liberalism is often associated with extreme forms of libertarianism [e.g., anarcho-capitalism], the classical liberal tradition was centrally concerned with bettering the lot of the working class. The aim, as Bentham put it, was to make the poor richer, not the rich poorer…. Consequently, classical liberals reject the redistribution of wealth as a legitimate aim of government.

All of that is more or less opposed to

[w]hat has come to be known as ‘new’, ‘revisionist’, ‘welfare state’, or perhaps best, ‘social justice’, liberalism challenges this intimate connection between personal liberty and a private property based market order…. Three factors help explain the rise of this revisionist theory. First, the new liberalism arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period in which the ability of a free market to sustain what Lord Beveridge … called a ‘prosperous equilibrium’ was being questioned. Believing that a private property based market tended to be unstable, or could, as Keynes argued … , get stuck in an equilibrium with high unemployment, new liberals came to doubt that it was an adequate foundation for a stable, free society. Here the second factor comes into play: just as the new liberals were losing faith in the market, their faith in government as a means of supervising economic life was increasing. This was partly due to the experiences of the First World War, in which government attempts at economic planning seemed to succeed (Dewey, 1929: 551-60); more importantly, this reevaluation of the state was spurred by the democratization of western states, and the conviction that, for the first time, elected officials could truly be, in J.A. Hobson’s phrase ‘representatives of the community’…. As D.G. Ritchie proclaimed:

be it observed that arguments used against ‘government’ action, where the government is entirely or mainly in the hands of a ruling class or caste, exercising wisely or unwisely a paternal or grandmotherly authority — such arguments lose their force just in proportion as the government becomes more and more genuinely the government of the people by the people themselves….

The third factor underlying the development of the new liberalism was probably the most fundamental: a growing conviction that, so far from being ‘the guardian of every other right’ … , property rights generated an unjust inequality of power that led to a less-than-equal liberty (typically, ‘positive liberty’) for the working class. This theme is central to what is usually called ‘liberalism’ in American politics, combining a strong endorsement of civil and personal liberties with, at best, an indifference, and often enough an antipathy, to private ownership. The seeds of this newer liberalism can be found in Mill’s On Liberty….

I won’t rehearse my arguments against On Liberty and the “new” liberalism, which you can find in many posts (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here). My concern here is with the limitations of classical liberalism, which is a superficial political philosophy.

Take religion, for example, which remains a vital force in the lives of millions of Americans, but which is overtly attacked by modern liberals (a.k.a. progressives) and subtly attacked by many classical liberals. Here, for example, is Kevin Vallier — a philosopher who seems to take a classical liberal stance — in “A Genuinely Liberal Approach to Religion in Politics” (Cato Unbound, October 6, 2014):

Conservatives regularly attempt to legally define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that conservatives have both successful (but not indubitable) natural law arguments that explain why heterosexual marriage is the only morally permissible form of conjugal union and successful (but not indubitable) theological arguments that only a man and a woman can count as married in God’s eyes. On the theory I advance, these arguments cannot justify restricting marriage to a man and a woman given that such laws force many organizations to deny benefits to gay couples that would otherwise offer them. This is because many people, religious and secular, can reasonably reject even good conservative arguments.

On the other hand, legalizing gay marriage without religious exemptions disrespects sincere citizens of faith by forcing them to provide benefits to gay couples whose unions they reasonably believe are morally and theologically invalid. Thus, my approach either requires the abolition of government marriage, or as a second best policy, the legalization of gay marriage with extensive religious exemptions. These two policies are the only way to respect the diverse reasoning of all concerned parties.

Classical liberalism, in Vallier’s rendition of it, effectively removes legal standing from religious norms — even long-standing ones, such as the prohibition of murder. But religious norms are just social norms that have been embedded in religious doctrines. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. The prohibition of murder, for example, is a religious norm that is also a widely accepted and almost universally practiced social norm. Or perhaps it was a social norm that was adopted as a religious one. At any rate, it’s fair to call it a social-religious norm of ancient provenance.

Should government allow homosexual “marriage” despite a long-standing social-religious norm that forbids it? If so, why shouldn’t government allow murder despite a long-standing social-religious norm against it? Both norms serve vital social functions, it’s just that the function served by the prohibition of murder is more obvious than the one served by the prohibition of homosexual “marriage.” As I say here,

Marriage — despite its imperfections and the state’s involvement (e.g., licensing, separation proceedings, divorce decrees) — remains a bulwark of civil society, or of the remnants of civil society that have survived usurpation and negation by the state. Therefore, the proponents of state-imposed same-sex “marriage” bear the burden of proving that the expansion of marriage to include homosexual partnerships will redound to the benefit of civil society. Saying that opposition to same-sex marriage amounts to bigotry is no kind of proof.

This leads me to ask  whether (1) state-imposed homosexual “marriage” would be deleterious to civil society in the long run, and (2) if marriage loses its traditional definition, any institution of civil society is immune from the depradations of the state.

On the question of the long-run effects of state-imposed homosexual “marriage,” I turn to Jennifer Roback Morse’s “Marriage and the Limits of Contract” (Policy Review, April & May 2005):

It is clear that a free society needs traditional, heterosexual marriage, which — as Morse explains — is a primary civilizing force. As if in answer to that truth, the proponents of same-sex “marriage” aver that its recognition by the state will not undermine the societal benefits of traditional marriage. They aver, rather, that it will extend those benefits to encompass those homosexuals who choose “marriage,” and their biological or adopted children.

Is there really a “win-win” argument for same-sex “marriage”? The answer, in a word,  is “no.”  The recognition of homosexual “marriage” by the state — though innocuous to many, and an article of faith among most libertarians and liberals — is another step down the slippery slope of societal disintegration. The disintegration began in earnest in the 1930s, when Americans began to place their trust in chimerical, one-size-fits-all “solutions” offered by power-hungry, economically illiterate politicians and their “intellectual” enablers and apologists. In this instance, the state will recognize homosexual “marriage,” then bestow equal  benefits on homosexual “partners,”  and then require private entities (businesses, churches, etc.) to grant equal benefits to homosexual “partnerships.” Individuals and businesses who demur will be brought to heel through the use of affirmative action and hate-crime legislation to penalize those who dare to speak against homosexual “marriage,” the privileges that flow from it, and the economic damage wrought by those privileges.

Vallier suggests two options. The first one is to privatize marriage. It’s a course that I favor, but it’s an unlikely one. Vallier’s second option — his second-best policy — is the legalization of same-sex “marriage” with extensive religious exemptions. But as Roback Morse and I argue, no number of religious exemptions can forestall the social damage that will result from the legal recognition of same-sex “marriage.”

In any event, Vallier’s case for the legal recognition of same-sex “marriage,” with religious exemptions, rests on the assumption that the failure of government to recognize same-sex “marriage” would “force many organizations to deny benefits to gay couples that would otherwise offer them.” Private organizations are free to offer benefits to whomever they wish to offer them; they just have to pay for the benefits and try to recoup the costs from customers or donors. But that’s always true; for example, employer-provided health-insurance isn’t “free” to employees, it really comes out of employees’ wages and must be covered by employers’ revenues.

It’s probably true that the refusal of government to recognize same-sex “marriage” would mean the denial of spousal benefits to the homosexual partners of government employees. But it’s also true that government budgets are limited — despite massive debt — and government doesn’t provide a lot of benefits that various groups would like to enjoy.

As a taxpayer, I would prefer fewer government benefits, not more. I would argue, for example, that the tax code should be absolutely neutral with respect to marital status and number of dependents; those are personal “lifestyle” choices that shouldn’t be encouraged by government and subsidized by single taxpayers with no dependents.

Further, how would Vallier exempt taxpaying religious objectors from subsidizing the spousal benefits to homosexual partners of government employees? If he cannot find a way to do that — and I don’t see how he can — his “neutral” solution — recognition of same-sex “marriage” with lots of exemptions for objectors — is no solution at all.

Why have I given so much space to the issue of same-sex “marriage” and a classical liberal treatment of it? To illustrate the glibness of the “liberal” worldview. Wordsmiths like Vallier try to weave their way around social norms by resorting to simplistic concepts that seem to promise liberty but cannot deliver it. In that regard, Vallier is in company with J.S. Mill, whose harm principle is an intellectually fraudulent attack on social norms.

For more about Mill, “liberalism,” and liberty, see these posts:

On Liberty
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Burkean Libertarianism
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Prohibition, Abortion, and “Progressivism”
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The War on Conservatism
Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Another Look at Political Labels
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative

The American League’s Greatest Hitters: III

This post supersedes “The American League’s Greatest Hitters: Part II” and “The American League’s Greatest Hitters.” Here, I build on “Bigger, Stronger, and Faster — but Not Quicker?” which assesses the long-term trend (or lack thereof) in batting skill.

Specifically, I derived ballpark factors (BF) for each AL team for each season from 1901 through 2016. For example, the fabled New York Yankees of 1927 hit 1.03 times as well at home as on the road. Given a schedule evenly divided between home and road games, this means that batting averages for the Yankees of 1927 were inflated by 1.015 relative to batting averages for players on other teams.

The BA of a 1927 Yankee — as adjusted by the method described in “Bigger, Stronger…” — should therefore be multiplied by a BF of 0.985 (1/1.015) to obtain that Yankee’s “true” BA for that season. (This is a player-season-specific adjustment, in addition the long-term trend adjustment applied in “Bigger, Stronger…,” which captures a gradual and general decline in home-park advantage.)

I made those adjustments for 147 players who had at least 5,000 plate appearances in the AL and an official batting average (BA) of at least .285 in those plate appearances. Here are the adjustments, plotted against the middle year of each player’s AL career:

batting-average-analysis-top-147-al-hitters-unadjusted-graph

When all is said and done, there are only 43 qualifying players with an adjusted career BA of .300 or higher:

batting-average-analysis-greatest-hitters-top-43-table

Here’s a graph of the relationship between adjusted career BA and middle-of-career year:

batting-average-analysis-top-43-al-hitters-graph

The curved line approximates the trend, which is downward until about the mid-1970s, then slightly upward. But there’s a lot of variation around that trend, and one player — Ty Cobb at .360 — clearly stands alone as the dominant AL hitter of all time.

Michael Schell, in Baseball’s All-Time Best Hitters, ranks Cobb second behind Tony Gwynn, who spent his career (1982-2001) in the National League (NL), and much closer to Rod Carew, who played only in the AL (1967-1985). Schell’s adjusted BA for Cobb is .340, as opposed to .332 for Carew, an advantage of .008 for Cobb. I have Cobb at .360 and Carew at .338, an advantage of .022 for Cobb. The difference in our relative assessments of Cobb and Carew is typical; Schell’s analysis is biased (intentionally or not) toward recent and contemporary players and against players of the pre-World War II era.

Here’s how Schell’s adjusted BAs stack up against mine, for 32 leading hitters rated by both of us:

batting-average-analysis-schell-vs-pandp

Schell’s bias toward recent and contemporary players is most evident in his standard-deviation (SD) adjustment:

In his book Full House, Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist [who imported his ideological biases into his work]…. Gould imagines [emphasis added] that there is a “wall” of human ability. The best players at the turn of the [20th] century may have been close to the “wall,” many of their peers were not. Over time, progressively better hitters replace the weakest hitters. As a result, the best current hitters do not stand out as much from their peers.

Gould and I believe that the reduction in the standard deviation [of BA within a season] demonstrates that there has been an improvement in the overall quality of major league baseball today compared to nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century play. [pp. 94-95]

Thus Schell’s SD adjustment, which slashes the BA of the better hitters of the early part of the 20th century because the SDs of that era were higher than the SDs after World War II. The SD adjustment is seriously flawed for several reasons:

1. There may be a “wall” of human ability, or it may truly be imaginary. Even if there is such a wall, we have no idea how close Ty Cobb, Tony Gwynn, and other great hitters have been to it. That is to say, there’s no a priori reason (contra Schell’s implicit assumption) that Cobb couldn’t have been closer to the wall than Gwynn.

2. It can’t be assumed that reaction time — an important component of human ability, and certainly of hitting ability — has improved with time. In fact, there’s a plausible hypothesis to the contrary, which is stated in “Bigger, Stronger…” and examined there, albeit inconclusively.

3. Schell’s discussion of relative hitting skill implies, wrongly, that one player’s higher BA comes at the expense of other players. Not so. BA is a measure of the ability of a hitter to hit safely given the quality of pitching and other conditions (examined in detail in “Bigger, Stronger…”). It may be the case that weaker hitters were gradually replaced by better ones, but that doesn’t detract from the achievements of the better hitter, like Ty Cobb, who racked up his hits at the expense of opposing pitchers, not other batters.

4. Schell asserts that early AL hitters were inferior to their NL counterparts, thus further justifying an SD adjustment that is especially punitive toward early AL hitters (e.g., Cobb). However, early AL hitters were demonstrably inferior to their NL counterparts only in the first two years of the AL’s existence, and well before the arrival of Cobb, Joe Jackson, Tris Speaker, Harry Heilmann, Babe Ruth, George Sisler, Lou Gehrig, and other AL greats of the pre-World War II era. Thus:

batting-average-analysis-single-season-change-in-ba-following-league-switch

There seems to have been a bit of backsliding between 1905 and 1910, but the sample size for those years is too small to be meaningful. On the other hand, after 1910, hitters enjoyed no clear advantage by moving from NL to AL (or vice versa). The data for 1903 through 1940, taken altogether, suggest parity between the two leagues during that span.

One more bit of admittedly sketchy evidence:

  • Cobb hit as well as Heilmann during Cobb’s final nine seasons as a regular player (1919-1927), which span includes the years in which the younger Heilmann won batting titles with average of .394, .403, 398, and .393.
  • In that same span, Heilmann outhit Ruth, who was the same age as Heilmann.
  • Ruth kept pace with the younger Gehrig during 1925-1932.
  • In 1936-1938, Gehrig kept pace with the younger Joe DiMaggio, even though Gehrig’s BA dropped markedly in 1938 with the onset of the disease that was to kill him.
  • The DiMaggio of 1938-1941 was the equal of the younger Ted Williams, even though the final year of the span saw Williams hit .406.
  • Williams’s final three years as a regular, 1956-1958, overlapped some of the prime seasons of Mickey Mantle, who was 13 years Williams’s junior. Williams easily outhit Mantle during those years, and claimed two batting titles to Mantle’s one.

I see nothing in the preceding recitation to suggest that the great hitters of the years 1901-1940 were inferior to the great hitters of the post-WWII era. In fact, it points in the opposite direction. This might be taken as indirect confirmation of the hypothesis that reaction times have slowed. Or it might have something to do with the emergence of football and basketball as “serious” professional sports after WWII, an emergence that could well have led potentially great hitters to forsake baseball for another sport. Yet another possibility is that post-war prosperity and educational opportunities drew some potentially great hitters into non-athletic trades and professions. In other words, unlike Schell, I remain open to the possibility that there may have been a real, if slight, decline in hitting talent after WWII — a decline that was gradually reversed because of the eventual effectiveness of integration (especially of Latin American players) and the explosion of salaries with the onset of free agency.

Finally, in “Bigger, Stronger…” I account for the cross-temporal variation in BA by applying a general algorithm and then accounting for 14 discrete factors, including the ones applied by Schell. As a result, I practically eliminate the effects of the peculiar conditions that cause BA to be inflated in some eras relative to other eras. (See figure 7 of “Bigger, Stronger…” and the accompanying discussion.) Even after taking all of those factors into account, Cobb still stands out as the best AL hitter of all time — by a wide margin.

And given Cobb’s statistical dominance over his contemporaries in the NL, he still stands as the greatest hitter in the history of the major leagues.

Economics, the Dismal Quasi-Science: 3. What Is Scientific about Economics?

This is the third entry in what I hope will become a book-length series of posts. That result, if it comes to pass, will amount to an unorthodox economics textbook. Here are the chapters that have been posted to date:

1. What Is Economics?
2. Pitfalls
3. What Is Scientific about Economics?

Perhaps the biggest pitfall that awaits an economist, student of economics, or reader of economic literature is the belief that economics is a science because of its mathematical and statistical content. David S. D’Amato takes a clear-headed view in “Is Economics a Hard Science?” (The American Spectator, January 4, 2017):

[E]conomists and social scientists are gathering and analyzing statistical data constantly. [But] those data are limited by the density of the causal atmosphere of the environment from which they emerge, a rich and variable sea of causes and effects. Isolating one or even a few factors becomes impossible.

As Jim Manzi explains in his book Uncontrolled, “[W]e can never be sure that any experiment actually has controlled for every possible alternative cause of an outcome.” And while this is, of course, true in every field of inquiry, the problem is especially acute within the social sciences, so-called. That’s because, as Manzi observes, “human social organizations have a causal density that dwarfs anything astrophysics considers.”…

For any given observable phenomenon, the scientist must attempt to parse a convoluted web of actual and potential causes. Unable to control the experiment, its environmental inputs, groups, etc., the social scientist is unable to know whether the hypothesis being tested has been confirmed. This causal density means economic data must always be the subject of several competing explanations, informed by ideology and extra-economic social theory…

…The great classical liberal political economist Jean-Baptiste Say foresaw the complacency of today’s economists, their tendency to oversell the power of data and mathematics. Anticipating the praxeology of Ludwig von Mises, Say held the proper foundations for economics are “the rigorous deductions of undeniable general facts,” not “new particular fact[s]” (i.e., statistics), but basic laws of human action….

If empirical data are often too messy, too causally intricate, without the help of a philosophical or interpretative framework, then mathematical models are in a sense too neat to tell us very much about reality; they reduce enormously complex concepts and arguments about economic behavior to sterile formulae. Sometimes this is useful, as in the case of an economic model that explains the relationship between supply and demand. But as economists address their model-building processes to more difficult questions, the serviceability of the models diminishes. And if we are to believe the critics of “mathiness,” whom we can find all over the spectrum of ideas, the preoccupation with practically useless mathematical models has all but completely overtaken the economics profession.

Mathematical models, agglomerations of equations using multivariable calculus, are, it turns out, not a language suited to the task of describing something as dynamic as human behavior. Among the axioms of modern economics is the idea that economic value is something assigned to good and services subjectively by individual buyers and sellers. As Austrian School economists frequently point out, there is an irreducible subjectivity at the heart of all economic action. This explanation of value in terms of subjective preference and marginal utility replaced classical theories that made value a function of the quantities of labor expended during a good’s production. If value subjectivism holds, then, for example, one’s partiality for Chicago-style pizza as opposed to New York-style pizza is simply not the kind of preference that can be quantified. There is, as the saying goes, no accounting for taste.

It’s a simple example, but it points to a much more general and far-reaching truth: Formal logic and mathematics are not a stable foundation for the economist. This has been borne out by the inability of computer models to anticipate the movements of actual markets. For all their complex mathematics and pretensions to rigorousness, these models rely on crude oversimplifications. As New York University economist Mario J. Rizzo notes, “Ceteris paribus prediction is prediction of ‘stylized facts,’” whose connection to the real world is tenuous at best.

Yet, as Arnold Kling explains in “An Important Emerging Economic Paradigm” (TCS Daily, March 2, 2005), many (perhaps most) economists have lost sight of the axioms of economics in their misplaced zeal to emulate the methods of the physical sciences:

The most distinctive trend in economic research over the past hundred years has been the increased use of mathematics. In the wake of Paul Samuelson’s (Nobel 1970) Ph.D dissertation, published in 1948, calculus became a requirement for anyone wishing to obtain an economics degree. By 1980, every serious graduate student was expected to be able to understand the work of Kenneth Arrow (Nobel 1972) and Gerard Debreu (Nobel 1983), which required mathematics several semesters beyond first-year calculus.

Today, the “theory sequence” at most top-tier graduate schools in economics is controlled by math bigots. As a result, it is impossible to survive as an economics graduate student with a math background that is less than that of an undergraduate math major. In fact, I have heard that at this year’s American Economic Association meetings, at a seminar on graduate education one professor quite proudly said that he ignored prospective students’ grades in economics courses, because their math proficiency was the key predictor of their ability to pass the coursework required to obtain an advanced degree.

The raising of the mathematical bar in graduate schools over the past several decades has driven many intelligent men and women (perhaps women especially) to pursue other fields. The graduate training process filters out students who might contribute from a perspective of anthropology, biology, psychology, history, or even intense curiosity about economic issues. Instead, the top graduate schools behave as if their goal were to produce a sort of idiot-savant, capable of appreciating and adding to the mathematical contributions of other idiot-savants, but not necessarily possessed of any interest in or ability to comprehend the world to which an economist ought to pay attention.

. . . The basic question of What Causes Prosperity? is not a question of how trading opportunities play out among a given array of goods. Instead, it is a question of how innovation takes place or does not take place in the context of institutional factors that are still poorly understood.

Economic models usually are clothed in the language of mathematics and statistics. But those aren’t scientific disciplines in themselves; they are tools of science. Expressing a theory in mathematical terms may lend the theory a scientific aura, but a theory couched in mathematical terms is not a scientific one unless (a) it can be tested against facts yet to be ascertained and events yet to occur, and (b) it is found to accord with those facts and events consistently, by rigorous statistical tests. In sum, modeling is not science.

Economics is a science only to the extent that it yields empirically valid insights about  specific economic phenomena (e.g., the effects of laws and regulations on the prices and outputs of specific goods and services). The Keynesian multiplier, about which I’ll say more in a later chapter, is not a scientific theory. It is a hypothesis that rests on a simplistic, hydraulic view of the economic system. (Other examples of pseudo-scientific economic theories are the labor theory of value and historical determinism.)

A scientific theory is a hypothesis that has thus far been confirmed by observation, and which has not yet been refuted (falsified) by observation.* (The Keynesian multiplier has been falsified.) Every scientific theory rests eventually on axioms: self-evident principles that are accepted as true without proof. Economics, as D’Amato notes, is no exception. It rests on these self-evident axioms:

1. Each person strives to maximize his or her sense of satisfaction, which may also be called well-being, happiness, or utility (an ugly word favored by economists). Striving isn’t the same as achieving, of course, because of lack of information, emotional decision-making, buyer’s remorse, etc

2. Happiness can and often does include an empathic or expedient concern for the well-being of others; that is, one’s happiness may be served by what is usually labelled altruism or self-sacrifice.

3. Happiness can be and often is served by the attainment of non-material ends. Not all persons (perhaps not even most of them) are interested in the maximization of wealth, that is, claims on the output of goods and services. In sum, not everyone is a wealth maximizer. (But see axiom number 12.)

4. The feeling of satisfaction that an individual derives from a particular product or service is situational — unique to the individual and to the time and place in which the individual undertakes to acquire or enjoy the product or service. Generally, however, there is a (situationally unique) point at which the acquisition or enjoyment of additional units of a particular product or service during a given period of time tends to offer less satisfaction than would the acquisition or enjoyment of units of other products or services that could be obtained at the same cost.

5. The value that a person places on a product or service is subjective. Products and services don’t have intrinsic values that apply to all persons at a given time or period of time.

6. The ability of a person to acquire products and services, and to accumulate wealth, depends (in the absence of third-party interventions) on the valuation of the products and services that are produced in part or whole by the person’s labor (mental or physical), or by the assets that he owns (e.g., a factory building, a software patent). That valuation is partly subjective (e.g., consumers’ valuation of the products and services, an employer’s qualitative evaluation of the person’s contributions to output) and partly objective (e.g., an employer’s knowledge of the price commanded by a product or service, an employer’s measurement of an employees’ contribution to the quantity of output).

7. The persons and firms from which products and services flow are motivated by the acquisition of income, with which they can acquire other products and services, and accumulate wealth for personal purposes (e.g., to pass to heirs) or business purposes (e.g., to expand the business and earn more income). So-called profit maximization (seeking to maximize the difference between the cost of production and revenue from sales) is a key determinant of business decisions but far from the only one. Others include, but aren’t limited to, being a “good neighbor,” providing employment opportunities for local residents, and underwriting philanthropic efforts.

8. The cost of production necessarily influences the price at which a good or and service will be offered for sale, but doesn’t solely determine the price at which it will be sold. Selling price depends on the subjective valuation of the products or service, prospective buyers’ incomes, and the prices of other products and services, including those that are direct or close substitutes and those to which users may switch, depending on relative prices.

9. The feeling of satisfaction that a person derives from the acquisition and enjoyment of the “basket” of products and services that he is able to buy, given his income, etc., doesn’t necessarily diminish, as long as the person has access to a great variety of products and services. (This axiom and axiom 12 put paid to the myth of diminishing marginal utility of income.)

10. Work may be a source of satisfaction in itself or it may simply be a means of acquiring and enjoying products and services, or acquiring claims to them by accumulating wealth. Even when work is satisfying in itself, it is subject to the “law” of diminishing marginal satisfaction.

11. Work, for many (but not all) persons, is no longer be worth the effort if they become able to subsist comfortably enough by virtue of the wealth that they have accumulated, the availability of redistributive schemes (e.g., Social Security and Medicare), or both. In such cases the accumulation of wealth often ceases and reverses course, as it is “cashed in” to defray the cost of subsistence (which may be far more than minimal).

12. However, there are not a few persons whose “work” is such a great source of satisfaction that they continue doing it until they are no longer capable of doing so. And there are some persons whose “work” is the accumulation of wealth, without limit. Such persons may want to accumulate wealth in order to “do good” or to leave their heirs well off or simply for the satisfaction of running up the score. The justification matters not. There is no theoretical limit to the satisfaction that a particular person may derive from the accumulation of wealth. Moreover, many of the persons (discussed in axiom 11) who aren’t able to accumulate wealth endlessly would do so if they had the ability and the means to take the required risks.

13. Individual degrees of satisfaction (happiness, etc.) are ephemeral, nonquantifiable, and incommensurable. There is no such thing as a social welfare function that a third party (e.g., government) can maximize by taking from A to give to B. If there were such a thing, its value would increase if, for example, A were to punch B in the nose and derive a degree of pleasure that somehow more than offsets the degree of pain incurred by B. (The absurdity of a social-welfare function that allows As to punch Bs in their noses ought to be enough shame inveterate social engineers into quietude — but it won’t. They derive great satisfaction from meddling.) Moreover, one of the primary excuses for meddling is that income (and thus wealth) has a  diminishing marginal utility, so it makes sense to redistribute from those with higher incomes (or more wealth) to those who have less of either. Marginal utility is, however, unknowable (see axioms 4 and 5), and may not always be negative (see axioms 9 and 12).

14. Whenever a third party (government, do-gooders, etc.) intervene in the affairs of others, that third party is merely imposing its preferences on those others. The third party sometimes claims to know what’s best for “society as a whole,” etc., but no third party can know such a thing. (See axiom 13.)

15. It follows from axiom 13 that the welfare of “society as a whole” can’t be aggregated or measured. An estimate of the monetary value of the economic output of a nation’s economy (Gross Domestic Product) is by no means an estimate of the welfare of “society as a whole.”

That may seem like a lot of axioms, which might give you pause about my claim that some aspects of economics are scientific. But economics is inescapably grounded in axioms such as the ones that I propound, just as much of modern physics is inescapably grounded in the principle of uniformity.**

It is important to distinguish between axioms, which are self-evidently true, and biases that stem from normative views of what ought to be. Behavioral economists, for example, see the world through the lens of wealth-and-utility-maximization. Their great crusade is to force everyone to make rational decisions (by their lights), through “nudging.” It almost goes without saying that government should be the nudger-in-chief. (See “The Perpetual Nudger” and the many posts linked to therein.)

Other economists — though not as many as in the past — are obsessed by monopoly and oligopoly (the domination of a market by one or a few sellers). They’re heirs to the trust-busting of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a movement led by non-economists who sought to blame the woes of working-class Americans on the “plutocrats” (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, etc.) who had merely made life better and more affordable for Americans, while also creating jobs for millions of them and reaping rewards for the great financial risks that they took. (See “Monopoly and the General Welfare” and “Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public.”) As it turns out, the biggest and most destructive monopoly of all is the federal government, so beloved and trusted by trust-busters — and too many others. (See “The Rahn Curve Revisited.”)

Nowadays, a lot of economists are preoccupied by income inequality, as if it were something evil and not mainly an artifact of differences in intelligence, ambition, and education, etc. And inequality — the prospect of earning rather grand sums of money — is what drives a lot of economic endeavor, to the benefit of workers and consumers. (See “Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes” and the many posts linked to therein.) Remove inequality and what do you get? The Soviet Union and Communist China, in which everyone is equal except party operatives and their families, friends, and favorites. As George Orwell put it in Animal Farm, “all [people] are equal, but some [people] are more equal than others.”

When the inequality-preoccupied economists are confronted by the facts of life, they usually turn their attention from inequality as a general problem to the (inescapable) fact that an income distribution has a top one-percent and top one-tenth of one-percent — as if there were something especially loathsome about people in those categories. (Paul Krugman shifted his focus to the top one-tenth of one percent when he realized that he’s in the top one percent, so perhaps he knows that’s he’s loathsome and wishes to deny it — to himself, at least.)

Crony capitalism is trotted out as a major cause of very high incomes. But that’s hardly a universal cause, given that a lot of very high incomes are earned by athletes and film stars beside whom most investment bankers and CEOs earn slave wages. Moreover, as I’ve said on several occasions, crony capitalists are bright and driven enough to be in the stratosphere of any income distribution. Further, the breeding ground of crony capitalism is the regulatory power of government that makes it possible.

Many economists became such, it would seem, in order to promote big government and its supposed good works — income redistribution being one of them. Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman are two leading exemplars of what I call the New Deal school of economic thought, which amounts to throwing government and taxpayers’ money at every perceived problem, that is, every economic outcome that is deemed unacceptable by accountants of the soul. (See “Accountants of the Soul.”)

Stiglitz and Krugman — both Nobel laureates in economics — are typical “public intellectuals” whose intelligence breeds in them a kind of arrogance. (See “Intellectuals and Society: A Review.”) It’s the kind of arrogance that reveals itself in a penchant for deciding what’s best for others, even beyond the arrogance of behavioral “nudgers.”

New Deal economists like Stiglitz and Krugman carry it a few steps further. They ascribe to government an impeccable character, an intelligence to match their own, and a monolithic will. They then assume that this infallible and wise automaton can and will do precisely what they would do: Create the best of all possible worlds. (See the preceding chapter, in which I discuss the nirvana fallacy.)

I hold economists of the New Deal stripe partly responsible for the swamp of stagnation into which the nation’s economy has descended. (See “Economic Growth Since World War II.”) Largely responsible, of course, are opportunistic if not economically illiterate politicians who pander to rent-seeking, economically illiterate constituencies. (Yes, I’m thinking of pensioners and the many “disadvantaged” groups with which “compassionate” politicians have struck up an alliance of convenience.)

Enough said, for now. Some economics is science. Too much of it is nothing more than special pleading cloaked in the jargon of economics, and pseudo-scientific theorizing overlaid with a veneer of mathematics or statistics.

Caveat lector.
__________
* This is from Karl Popper‘s classic statement of the scientific method. Richard Feynman, a physicist (and real scientist), had a different view. I see Feynman’s view as complementary to Popper’s, not at odds with it. What is “constructive skepticism” (Feynman’s term) but a gentler way of saying that a hypothesis or theory might be falsified and that the act of falsification may point to a better hypothesis or theory?

** The principle of uniformity is a fundamental axiom of modern physics, most notably of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity. According to the principle of uniformity, for example, if observer B is moving away from observer A at a certain speed, observer A will perceive that he is moving away from observer B at that speed. This statement holds only if A and B can’t see another object. But suppose, for example, there’s an object C that’s visible to A, and which A perceives as stationary. If A sees that B is moving away from C as well as from A, then A will perceive that B is in motion while A is at rest (relative to C, at least). That aside, A still doesn’t have an absolute velocity or direction of travel. Velocity and direction are always relative to an arbitrary reference point.

Trump’s Inauguration Speech, Annotated

I’m glad that the president is Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton. But I still would have preferred someone else (e.g., Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio). Trump says a lot of things that cause this libertarian conservative to scratch his head.

Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, fellow Americans, and people of the world: thank you. For what? Most of them opposed you.

We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people. Together we will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come. We will face challenges. We will confront hardships, but we will get the job done. Rebuild how? Restore what promise in particular?

Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you. B.S.

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people. I’m all for it, if it’s the power to live cooperatively and peacefully, with less government interference.

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Yes, the central government and its dependents are the true cronies (as in crony anti-capitalism).

Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. Regulation caused a lot of the jobs to leave and factories to close, but there were other, legitimate causes (e.g., fewer trade barriers).

That all changes starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment. It belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day, this is your celebration, and this, the United States of America, is your country. We’ll see.

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. Jan. 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again Let’s hope this is a figurative statement referring to the ability of people to live cooperatively and peacefully, with less government interference.

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of an historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Yes, by leaving them alone and defending them.

Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists:

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. A lot of truth in this, but benign neglect is the best policy.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. I hope so.

We are one nation, and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams, and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny. The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans. We aren’t one nation in morals and mores. Never were. Never will be. What should bind Americans is the freedom to live their lives peacefully. The rest is up to them.

For many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. The second clause is spot-on.

We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon. This is most yahoo hogwash.

One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. But that is the past, and now we are looking only to the future. See earlier comments about jobs. What has really harmed most Americans (except for politicians and their dependents) is government itself.

We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first. In defense, yes; in uncontrolled immigration, yes; in trade, no.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. Only when it comes uncontrolled immigration that increases the tax burden on working Americans.

I will fight for you with every breath in my body, and I will never, ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. Wow!

We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. “Infrastructure” meets the Keynesian fallacy.

We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American. We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. Bass-ackwards economics.

We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow. No more nation-building? Good.

We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones — and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth. At least he’s willing to say it aloud. That’s a big step forward.

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. All right, already. I heard you.

We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we will be protected by God. I don’t care whether America is united. I want to be protected from enemies (foreign and domestic), and otherwise left alone.

Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger. In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving. What does that mean?

We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining but never doing anything about it. The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action. Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America. We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again. How about less talk and less action?

We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow. A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions. Whoopee!

It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag. Whatever.

And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the wind-swept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky. They fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator. Striving to be Lincolnesque, but not getting there.

So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words. You will never be ignored again. Your voice, your hopes and your dreams will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way. Okay, okay!

Together we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. Basta!

We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And, yes, together, we will make America great again. Thank you. God bless you and God bless America. Thank you. God bless America. Uncle!

Ending As He Began

Rasmussen Reports has issued the last of its almost-daily polls of Obama’s popularity (mostly the lack thereof). His final surge (see graph below) can only be seen as a backhanded compliment: (a) a belief shared by a lot of voters that Trump or Clinton would have been worse; (b) relief that the power-grabbing, quasi-socialist, race-baiting, feckless (or traitorous) “statesman” is leaving office; and (c) forgetfulness about the atrocities that marked Obama’s first seven years in office (e.g., Obamacare, the IRS scandal, fiascos in the Middle East, weakness vs. Russia, the defense draw-down, soaring health-insurance premiums, the gleeful uprooting of long-standing social norms).

obamas-final-approval-ratings

It’s a great relief to me that Obama is leaving office, and that he won’t be succeeded by Hillary Clinton. It’s also a great relief that I can now abandon the almost-daily chore of recording Obama’s standing in Rasumssen’s poll. It’s been a l-o-o-o-n-g eight years.

It should be said of Obama that nothing became his presidency so well as the leaving of it.

Color Me Unmoved

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an annual observance of the birth of its eponymous honoree. I was a young man, two months into my first post-college job, at the time of King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I wasn’t moved by the march, or by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Not for me are the mass march or the stirring speech. It is easy to stir the emotions of millions of persons. Such events are therefore insignificant. Significant events — the events that bind people and conduce to liberty — are mundane ones:

  • Couples who wed, stay together despite rough patches in their marriage, and teach their children right from wrong.
  • Owners of small businesses who persevere through hard times, retain loyal employees, and participate willingly and generously in community activities.
  • Craftsmen who take satisfaction in jobs well done, and who are pleased when their efforts please others.
  • Bankers whose diligence safeguards the money with which they’re entrusted, and who lend it judiciously to help couples buy homes, to finance businesses, and to provide the craftsmen’s tools of the trade.
  • Clergymen who tend the souls of these “average” Americans, and police who protect them.

These — and many others like them — are the unheralded, often mocked, and too-often scorned heroes whose daily lives of perseverance and dedication are the backbone of liberty: peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

“I have a dream,” “ask what you can do for your country,” and “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” are nothing more than high-flown, empty phrases. Liberty is built on the ordinariness of “ordinary people” doing ordinary things in everyday life.

Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise

It’s tempting, sometimes, to compromise with the left’s agenda, which is top-down regulation of social and economic relations. The agenda has a huge constituency, after all. Think of the tens of millions of persons who would be harmed in the short run, if not for a long time, if a leftist scheme were undone.

Consider Obamacare, for example. A key provision of Obamacare — the camel’s nose, head, and shoulders in the tent of universal health care (a.k.a., socialized medicine) — is the vast expansion of eligibility for Medicaid. In the 30-some States that have opted to participate in the expanded program, persons with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty line are eligible, including adults without dependent children.

It would seem that only a Simon Legree or Ebenezer Scrooge would deny Medicaid coverage to those millions who have obtained it by way of Obamacare. Or it would until the following considerations come to mind:

  • The poverty line is a misleading metric. It’s a relative measure of income, not an absolute one. Most “poor” persons in today’s America are anything but poor in relation the truly poor of the world, and they live far above a subsistence level. The poverty line is nothing but an arbitrary standard that justifies income redistribution.
  • Other persons, with their own problems, are paying for the government’s generous “gift” to the semi-poor. But who is really in a position to say that the problems of Medicaid recipients are more deserving of subsidization than the problems facing those who defray the subsidy?
  • If expanded Medicaid coverage were withdrawn, those now covered would be no worse off than they had been before taxpayers were forced to subsidize them.
  • Being relatively poor used to be a good reason for a person to work his way up the ladder of success. Perhaps not far up the ladder, but in an upward direction. It meant learning skills — on the job, if necessary — and using those skills to move on to more-demanding and higher-paying jobs. Redistributive measures — Medicaid subsidies, food stamps, extended unemployment benefits, etc. — blunt the incentive to better oneself and, instead, reinforce dependency on government.

I will underscore the last point. The lack of something, if it’s truly important to a person, is an incentive for that person to find a way to afford the something. That’s what my parents’ generation did, even in the depths of the Great Depression, without going on the dole. There’s no reason why later generations can’t do it; it’s merely assumed that they can’t. But lots of people do it. I did it; my children did it; my grandchildren are doing it.

Republicans used to say such things openly and with conviction, before they became afraid of seeming “mean.” Principled conservatives should still be thinking and saying such things. When conservatives compromise their principles because they don’t want to seem “mean,” they are complicit in the country’s march down the road to serfdom — dependency on and obeisance to the central government.

Every advance in the direction of serfdom becomes harder and harder to reverse. The abolition of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is now unthinkable, even though those programs have caused hundreds of millions of Americans to become addicted to government handouts.

And how does government pay for those handouts? In part, it taxes many of the people who receive them. It also pays generous salaries and benefits of the army of drones who administer them. It’s a Ponzi scheme enforced at gunpoint.

The best time — usually the only time — to kill a government program is before it starts. That’s why conservatives shouldn’t compromise.

The Left and “the People”

The American left, like its counterparts in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, likes to don the mantle of democracy. The left is the “voice of the people,” ruling on behalf of “the people.” These are claims that the citizens of the USSR and PRC were never in a position to challenge. They were forced to vote, and when they voted they found that the Communist candidates ran unopposed.

America still has free elections, at least to the extent that voting remains optional and there usually is a choice between a Republican candidate and a Democrat candidate. Whether that’s a real choice or just variations on a theme is a subject for another post. But, symbolically and rhetorically, the choice between Republican and Democrat is perceived and portrayed as a stark one.

Given that, it never ceases to amaze the left that so many of “the people” turn their backs on a leftist (Democrat) candidate in favor of the (perceived) Republican rightist. Why is that? One reason, which became apparent in the recent presidential election, is that a lot of “the people” don’t believe that the left is their “voice” or that it rules on their behalf.

A lot of “the people” believe, correctly, that the left despises “the people” and is bent on dictating to them. Further, a lot of “the people” also believe, correctly, that the left’s dictatorial methods are not really designed with “the people” in mind. Rather, they are intended to favor certain groups of people — those deemed “victims” by the left — and to advance pet schemes (e.g., urban rail, “green” energy, carbon-emissions reductions, Obamacare) despite the fact that they are unnecessary, inefficient, and economically destructive.

It comes as a great shock to left that so many of “the people” see the left for what it is: doctrinaire, unfair, and dictatorial. Why, they ask, would “the people” vote against their own interest by rejecting Democrats and electing Republicans? The answer is that a lot of “the people” are smart enough to see that the left does not represent them and does not act in their interest.

Economics, the Dismal Quasi-Science: 2. Pitfalls

This is the second entry in what I hope will become a book-length series of posts. That result, if it comes to pass, will amount to an unorthodox economics textbook. Here are the chapters that have been posted to date:

1. What Is Economics?
2. Pitfalls

A person who wants to learn about economics should be forewarned about pernicious tendencies and beliefs — often used unthinkingly and expressed subtly — that lurk in writings and speeches about economics and economic issues. This chapter treats seven such tendencies and beliefs:

  • misuse of probability
  • reductionism
  • nirvana fallacy
  • social welfare
  • romanticizing the state
  • paternalism
  • judging motives instead of results

MISUSE OF PROBABILITY

Probability is seldom invoked in non-technical economics. But when it is, beware of it. A statement about the probability of an event is either (a) a subjective evaluation (“educated” guess) about what is likely to happen or (b) a strict, mathematical statement about the observed frequency of the occurrence of a well-defined random event. I will bet you even money that the first meaning applies in at least six of the next ten times that you read or hear a statement about probability or its cognate “chance,” as in 50-percent chance of rain. And my subjective evaluation is that I have a 90-percent probability of winning the bet.

Let’s take the chance of rain (or snow or sleet, etc.). You may rely heavily on a weather forecaster’s statement about the probability that it will rain today. If the stated probability is high, you may postpone an outing of some kind, or take an umbrella when you leave the house, or wear a water-repellent coat instead of a cloth one, and so on. That’s prudent behavior on your part, even though the weather forecaster’s statement isn’t really probabilistic.

What the weather forecaster is telling you (or relaying to you from the National Weather Service) is a subjective evaluation of the “chance” that it will rain in a given geographic area, based on known conditions (e.g., wind direction, presence of a nearby front, water-vapor imagery). The “chance” may be computed mathematically, but its computation rests on judgments about the occurrence of rain-producing events, such as the speed of a front’s movement and the direction of water-vapor flow. In the end, however, you’re left with only a weather forecaster’s judgment, and it’s up to you to evaluate it and act accordingly.

What about something that involves “harder” numbers, such as the likelihood of winning a lottery (where there’s good information about the number of tickets sold) or casting the deciding vote in an election (where there’s good information about the number of votes that will be cast)? I will continue with the case of voting, which is discussed in chapter 1 as an example of the extent to which economics has spread beyond its former preoccupations with buyers, sellers, and the aggregation of their activities.

An economist named Bryan Caplan has written a lot about voting. For example, he says the following in “Why I Don’t Vote: The Honest Truth” (EconLog, September 13, 2016):

Aren’t we [economists] always advising people to choose their best option, even when their best option is bleak?  Sure, but abstention [from voting] is totally an option.  And while politicians have a clear incentive to ignore we abstainers, only remaining aloof from our polity gives me inner peace.

You could respond, “Inner peace at what price?”  It is only at this point that I invoke the miniscule probability of voter decisiveness.  If I had a 5% chance of tipping an electoral outcome, I might hold my nose, scrupulously compare the leading candidates, and vote for the Lesser Evil.  Indeed, if, like von Stauffenberg, I had a 50/50 shot of saving millions of innocent lives by putting my own in grave danger, I’d consider it.  But I refuse to traumatize myself for a one-in-a-million chance of moderately improving the quality of American governance.  And one-in-a-million is grossly optimistic.

Caplan links to a portion of his lecture notes for a course in the logic of collective action. The notes include this mathematical argument:

III. Calculating the Probability of Decisiveness, I: Mathematics

A. When does a vote matter? At least in most systems, it only matters if it “flips” the outcome of the election.

B. This can only happen if the winner wins by a single vote. In that case, each voter is “decisive”; if one person decided differently, the outcome would change.

C. In all other cases, the voter is not decisive; the outcome would not change if one person decided differently.

D. It is obvious that the probability of casting the decisive vote in a large electorate is extremely small….

H. Now suppose that everyone but yourself votes “for” with probability p – and “against” with probability (1-p).

I. Then from probability theory: caplan-on-voting-probability-of-tie

J. From this formula, we can see that the probability of a tie falls when the number of voters goes up….

K. Intuitively, the more people there are, the less likely one person makes a difference….

IV. Calculating the Probability of Decisiveness, II: Examples

A. What is neat about the above formula is that it allows us to say not just how the probability of decisiveness changes, but how much….

I. Upshot: For virtually any real-world election, the probability of casting the decisive vote is not just small; it is normally infinitesimal. The extreme observation that “You will not affect the outcome of an election by voting” is true for all practical purposes.

J. Even if you were to play around with the formula to increase your estimate a thousand-fold, your estimated answer would remain vanishingly small.

What Caplan and other economists who write in the same vein ignore is the influence of their point of view. It’s self-defeating because it appeals to extremely rationalistic people like Caplan. One aspect of their rationalism is a cold-eyed view of government, namely, that it almost always does more harm than good. That’s a position with which I agree, but it’s a reason to vote rather than abstain. If rationalists like Caplan abstain from voting in large numbers, their abstention may well cause some elections to be won by candidates who favor more government rather than less.

Moreover, Caplan’s argument against voting is really a way of rationalizing his disdain for voting. This is from “Why I Don’t Vote: The Honest Truth”:

My honest answer begins with extreme disgust.  When I look at voters, I see human beings at their hysterical, innumerate worst.  When I look at politicians, I see mendacious, callous bullies.  Yes, some hysterical, innumerate people are more hysterical and innumerate than others.  Yes, some mendacious, callous bullies are more mendacious, callous, and bully-like than others.  But even a bare hint of any of these traits appalls me.  When someone gloats, “Politifact says Trump is pants-on-fire lying 18% of the time, versus just 2% for Hillary,” I don’t want to cheer Hillary.  I want to retreat into my Bubble, where people dutifully speak the truth or stay silent.

Thus demonstrating the confirmation bias in Caplan’s mathematical “proof” of the futility of voting.

Nor is his “proof” really probabilistic. A single event — be it an election, a lottery drawing, of the toss of a fair coin — doesn’t have a probability.  What does it mean to say, for example, that there’s a probability of 0.5 (50 percent) that a tossed coin will come up heads (H), and a probability of 0.5 that it will come up tails (T)? Does such a statement have any bearing on the outcome of a single toss of a coin? No, it doesn’t. The statement is only a shorthand way of saying that in a sufficiently large number of tosses, approximately half will come up H and half will come up T. The result of each toss, however, is a random event — it has no probability. You may have an opinion (or a hunch or a guess) about the outcome of a single coin toss, but it’s only your opinion (hunch, guess). In the end, you have to bet on a discrete outcome.

An election that hasn’t taken place can’t have a probability. There will be opinion polls — a lot of them in the case of a presidential election — but choosing to vote (or not) because of opinion polls can be self-defeating. Take the recent presidential election. Almost all of the polls, including those that forecast the electoral vote as well as the popular vote, had Mrs. Clinton winning over Mr. Trump.

But despite the high “probability” of a victory by Mrs. Clinton, she lost. Why? Because the “ignorant” voters in several swing States turned out in large numbers, while too many pro-Clinton voters evidently didn’t bother to vote. It’s possible that she lost some crucial States because of the abstention of voters who believed the high “probability” that she would win.

The election of 2016 — like every other election — isn’t even close to being something as simple as the toss of a fair coin. And, despite its mathematical precision, a statement about the probability of the next toss of a fair coin is meaningless. It will come up H or it will come up T, but it will not come up 0.5 H or T.

REDUCTIONISM

This subject is more important than probability, so I will say far less about it.

Reductionism is the adoption of a theory or method which holds that a complex idea or system can be completely understood in terms of its simpler components. Most reductionists will defend their theory or method by agreeing that it is simple, if not simplistic. But they will nevertheless adhere to that theory or method because it’s “the best we have.” That claim should remind you of the hoary joke about the drunk who searched for his keys under a street light because he could see the ground there, even though he had dropped the keys half a block away.

Caplan’s adherence to the simplistic, mathematical analysis of voting is a good example of reductionism. Why? Because it omits the crucial influence of group behavior. It also omits other reasons for voting (or not). It certainly omits Caplan’s real reason, which is his “extreme disgust” for voters and the candidates from whom they must choose. Finally, it omits the psychic value of voting — its “feel good” effect.

Economists also are guilty of reductionism when they suggest that persons act rationally only when they pursue the maximization of income or wealth. I’ll say more about that when I get to paternalism.

NIRVANA FALLACY

The nirvana fallacy is the logical error of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. The actual things usually are the “somethings” about which government is supposed to “do something.” The unrealistic, idealized alternatives are the outcomes sought by the proponents of a particular course of government action.

There is also a pervasive nirvana fallacy about government itself. Government — which is a mere collection of fallible, squabbling, power-lusting humans — is too often thought and spoken of as if it were a kind of omniscient, single-minded, benevolent being that can overcome the forces of nature and human nature which give rise, in the first place, to the “something” about which “something must be done.”

Specific examples of the nirvana fallacy will arise in later chapters of this book.

SOCIAL WELFARE

Wouldn’t you like to arrange the world so that everyone is better off? If you would — and I suspect that most people would — you’d have to define “better off.” Happier, healthier, and wealthier make a good starting point. Of course, you’d have to arrange it so that everyone would be happier and healthier and wealthier in the future as well as in the present. That is, for example, you couldn’t arrange greater happiness at the cost of greater wealth, or at the cost of the greater happiness or wealth of those living today or their descendants.

It’s a tall order isn’t it? In fact, it’s an impossibility. (You might even call it a state of nirvana.) In the real world of limited resources, the best that can happen is that a change of some kind (e.g., the invention of an anti-polio vaccine, hybridization to produce healthier and more abundant crops) makes it possible for many people to be better off — but at a price. There is no free lunch. Someone must bear the costs of devising and implementing beneficial changes. In market economies, those costs are borne by the people who reap the benefits because they (the beneficiaries) voluntarily pay for whatever it is that makes their lives better.

Enter government, whose agents decide such things what lines of medical research to fund, and how much to spend on each line of research. A breakthrough in a line of research might be a boon to millions of Americans. But other millions of Americans — many more millions, in fact — won’t benefit from the breakthrough, though a large fraction of them will have funded the underlying research through taxes extracted from them by force. I say by force because tax collections would decline sharply if it weren’t for the credible threat of heavy fines and imprisonment tax collections.

A voluntary exchange results when each of the parties to the exchange believes that he will be better off as a result of the exchange. An honest voluntary exchange — one in which there is no deception or material lack of information — therefore improves the well-being (welfare) of all parties. An involuntary exchange, as in the case of tax-funded medical research, cannot result make all parties better off. No government agent — or economist, pundit, or politician — can look into the minds of millions of people and say that each of them would willingly donate a certain amount of money to fund this or that government program. And yet, that is the presumption which lies behind government spending.

That presumption is the fallacious foundation of cost-benefit analysis undertaken to evaluate government programs. If the “social benefit” of a program is said to equal or exceed its cost, the program is presumably justified because the undertaking of it would cause “social welfare” to increase. But a “social benefit” — like a breakthrough in medical research — is a always a benefit to some persons, while the taxes paid to elicit the benefit are nothing but a burden to other persons, who have their own problems and priorities.

Why doesn’t the good outweigh the bad? Think of it this way: If a bully punches you in the nose, thus deriving much pleasure at your expense, who is to say that the bully’s pleasure outweighs your pain? Do you believe that there’s a third party who is entitled to say that the result of your transaction with the bully is a heightened state of social welfare? Evidently, there are a lot of voters, economists, pundits, and politician who act as if they believe it.

ROMANTICIZING THE STATE

This section is a corollary to the preceding one.

It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.

PATERNALISM

Paternalism arises from the same source as “social welfare”; that is, it reflects a presumption that there are some persons who are competent to decide what’s best for other persons. That may be true of parents, but it is most assuredly not true of so-called libertarian paternalists.

Consider an example that’s used to explain libertarian paternalism. Some workers choose “irrationally” — according to libertarian paternalists — when they decline to sign up for an employer’s 401(k) plan. The paternalists characterize the “do not join” option as the default option. In my experience, there is no default option: An employee must make a deliberate choice between joining a 401(k) or not joining it. And if the employee chooses not to join it, he or she must sign a form certifying that choice. That’s not a default, it’s a clear-cut and deliberate choice which reflects the employee’s best judgment, at that time, as to the best way to allocate his or her income. Nor is it an irrevocable choice; it can be revisited annually (or more often under certain circumstances).

But to help employees make the “right” choice, libertarian paternalists would find a way to herd employees into 401(k) plans (perhaps by law). In one variant of this bit of paternalism, an employee is automatically enrolled in a 401(k) and isn’t allowed to opt out for some months, by which time he or she has become used to the idea of being enrolled and declines to opt out.

The underlying notion is that people don’t always choose what’s “best” for themselves. Best according to whom? According to libertarian paternalists, of course, who tend to equate “best” with wealth maximization. They simply disregard or dismiss the truly rational preferences of those who must live with the consequences of their decisions.

Libertarian paternalism incorporates two fallacies. One is what I call the rationality fallacy (a kind of reductionism), the other is the fallacy of central planning.

As for the rationality fallacy, there is simply a lot more to maximizing satisfaction than maximizing wealth. That’s why some couples choose to have a lot of children, when doing so obviously reduces the amount of wealth that they can accumulate. That’s why some persons choose to retire early rather than stay in stressful jobs. Rationality and wealth maximization are two very different things, but a lot of laypersons and too many economists are guilty of equating them.

Nevertheless, many economists do equate rationality and wealth maximization, which leads them to propose schemes for forcing us to act more “rationally.” Such schemes, of course, are nothing more than central planning, dreamt up by self-anointed wise men who seek to impose their preferences on the rest of us. They are, in other words, schemes to maximize that which can’t be maximized: social welfare.

JUDGING MOTIVES INSTEAD OF RESULTS

If a person commits what seems to be an altruistic act, that person may seem to sacrifice something (e.g., a life, a fortune) but the “sacrifice” was that person’s choice. An altruistic act serves an end: the satisfaction of one’s personal values — nothing more, nothing less. There is nothing inherent in a supposedly altruistic act that makes it morally superior to profit-seeking, which is usually thought of as the opposite of altruism.

To illustrate my point I resort to the following bits of caricature:

1. Suppose Mother Teresa’s acts of “sacrifice” were born of rebellion against parents who wanted her to take over their business empire. That is, suppose Mother Teresa derived great satisfaction in defying her parents, and it is that which drove her to impoverish herself and suffer many hardships. The more she “suffered” the more her parents suffered and the happier she became.

2. Suppose Bill Gates really wanted to become a male version of Mother Teresa but his grandmother, on her deathbed, said “Billy, I want you to make the world safe from the Apple computer.” So, Billy went out and did that, for his grandmother’s sake, even though he really wanted to be the male Mother Teresa. Then he wound up being immensely wealthy, much to his regret. But Billy obviously put his affection for or fear of his grandmother above his desire to become a male version of Mother Teresa. He satisfied his personal values. And in doing so, he make life better for millions of people, many millions more than were served by Mother Teresa’s efforts. It’s just that Billy’s efforts weren’t heart-rending, and were seemingly motivated by profit-seeking.

Now, tell me, who is the altruist, my fictional Mother Teresa or my fictional Bill Gates? You might now say Bill Gates. I would say neither; each acted in accordance with her and his personal values. One might call the real Mother Teresa altruistic because her actions seem altruistic, in the common meaning of the word. But one can’t say (for sure) why she took those actions. Suppose that the real Mother Teresa acted as she did not only because she wanted to help the poor but also because she sought spiritual satisfaction or salvation. Would that negate her acts? No, her acts would still be her acts, regardless of their motivation. The same goes for the real Bill Gates.

Results matter more than motivations. (“The road to hell,” and all that.) It is arguable that profit-seekers like the real Bill Gates — and the real John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and their ilk — brought more happiness to humankind than did Mother Teresa and others of her ilk.

That insight is at least 240 years old. Adam Smith put it this way in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

By pursuing his own interest [a person] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

A person who makes a profit makes it by doing something of value for others.

A Downside of Empathy

When you can keep your head when others about you are losing theirs, maybe you don’t understand the gravity of the situation.

It’s a funny line, but it also points to a downside of empathy. Empathy is defined as “the power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his feelings.” Extreme empathy puts the empathizer in the same panicked condition as those around him. Which means that the empathizer is probably unable to view the situation unemotionally and react to it rationally.

Economics, the Dismal Quasi-Science: 1. What Is Economics?

This is the first entry in what I hope will become a book-length series of posts. That result, if it comes to pass, will amount to an unorthodox economics textbook. This first chapter gives a hint of things to come. Here are the chapters that have been posted to date:

1. What is Economics?
2. Pitfalls

A book about economics should begin by explaining what the author means by the word. Many economists have given many definitions of economics. You can look them up.

Regardless of where it started, economics seems to have become the study of how human beings make choices and how those choices affect them directly (e.g., the demand for and supply of new automobiles, enrollment in an employer’s retirement plan) and indirectly (e.g., the effects of government actions on the income available for the purchase of new automobiles or on the benefits paid out by retirement plans). The parenthetical examples are about choices that usually come with dollar signs attached. And most non-economists probably think of economics as having something (or everything) to do with money – earning it, spending it, making a profit (or not) by making and selling things, adding up the dollar value of items bought and sold to arrive at an estimate of aggregate economic activity, and understanding why the aggregate grows and shrinks, for example.

But there are many economists nowadays who have taken the study of choice into areas that would seem strange to economists of yore. Here’s just one example: voting, as in whether or not to vote and how much time (if any) to spend in the pursuit of information about the candidates or issues on the ballot. Some economists tackle voting as they would any other aspect of economics: by arguing (pro or con) that voting is rational (or irrational) given the amount of time involved (time that could spent on other pursuits, such as making money), the vanishingly small chance that an individual vote will tip the balance in an election (at least in an election where there are more than a few hundred voters), and the effect of the election results on the individual voter’s well-being (usually in terms of money).

On the other hand (as economists are supposedly fond of saying), there are economists who recognize that casting a ballot is a “feel good” act, and that voting is therefore rational if it makes one happier. But that’s only a local, short-run effect. Some economists understand that voting leads to the enactment of policies that harm voters (or many of them), regardless of why they choose to vote. This points to two conclusions: (1) Voting should be discouraged, and (2) the power of government should be curbed so that voters can feel good without causing harm (or as much of it as they do now).

So, which is it? Is voting a waste of time or is it a good use of time if it makes the voter feel good? And is it worse than a waste of time if it leads to harm? This conundrum illustrates a key point about economics (and analysis in general): It leads to conclusions that are built into the assumptions (usually implicit) that guide the economist who studies an issue. If the economist cares about liberty, he is likely to tackle the issue of voting as it affects persons other than the voter. If the economist isn’t interested in liberty – or if he sees it only as a peripheral issue — he is likely to tackle the issue of voting as it affects the voter.

Unfortunately, too many economists take the view that if government can do something to promote economic well-being, it ought to be empowered to do so. But economic well-being is in the eye of the beholder. And in this era of massive redistribution, one person’s benefit is another person’s cost. Who, other than an arrogant economist, presumes to weigh one person’s benefit against another person’s cost? My list begins with the greedy voter who believes that he can get something for nothing; the smug pundit; and the power-hungry, vote-buying politician.

There is much more to be said about the wayward paths taken by economists, and the essays in this book say a lot of it. But more than that, this book is a defense of liberty against economists who – wittingly or not – undermine it. And, ironically, the diminution of liberty results in the diminution of prosperity, which economists claim to love.

In sum economics is fraught with dangerous error. This book is meant as a warning and antidote.

Economics from the Bottom Up

This is the sixth entry in a series of loosely connected posts on economics. Previous entries are here, here, here, here, and here.

NEEDS AND WANTS

What human beings want and what they need are popularly thought to be distinguishable things. Needs are said to be those things that sustain life: food (the minimum daily requirement, with no frills), clothing (just enough to protect us from the elements), and shelter (ditto). Wants are generally thought to be everything else.

But individuals vary in their perceptions of what they need; one person’s need is another person’s luxury. If a rich playboy “needs” a $300,000 Lamborghini, that’s for him to say. Accountants of the soul — moralists who believe that they know how the world should be ordered — will assert that the rich playboy can make do with a $10,000 Kia. But if that’s true, everyone can make do with a $10,000 Kia. And if that’s true, why not a bus token? (Only the older folks will remember those.)

Once the accountants of the soul are loosed, the people are allowed to need (or want) whatever the accountants of the soul approve. Except for those people who are in the good graces of the accountants of the soul. If you suspect that I’m alluding to places like the the former Soviet Union, the former German Democratic (sic) Republic, and the present Cuba and Venezuela, you’re right.

Given that “need” is a loaded word, I use the less-loaded “want.” Thus the rich playboy wants a $300,000 Lamborghini. Whether he needs it is not for economists or accountants of the soul to determine. It’s for the rich playboy to determine as he allocates his available income and wealth to competing products, services, and investment vehicles.

Wants are limitless. I may want a $300,000 Lamborghini (though I am not a rich playboy), a villa on the Mediterranean, and a collection of Rembrandts. Those wants lie far beyond my reach, and the reach of most human beings.

The main attribute of wants, other than their inherent limitlessness, is their vast variety and changeableness. Wants and their ordering can change from minute to minute, depending on what a person was doing a minute ago, what he happens to be doing now, where he happens to be doing it, the conditions in which he is doing it, who or what happens to impinge on his consciousness, how he is feeling (emotionally and physically), and so on. It takes free markets — not command economies run by soul-accountants — to respond to the vast variety and changeableness of wants.

TASTES AND PREFERENCES

A particular want is sometimes referred to as a taste. My taste for ice cream has persisted for more than seven decades. But I may, at various times, want different kinds of ice cream. And I may, at various times, prefer a certain ice cream to, say, chocolate cake, or vice versa.

To take another example, a middle-aged man may have only a residual taste for action movies; that is, he rarely wants to view one, given the alternative ways in which in can use his time and given his recently acquired taste for technical non-fiction books. Yet, twenty years earlier, when he had a strong taste for action movies, the now middle-aged man had no interest in technical non-fiction; it didn’t enter into his thoughts when he pondered whether to watch an action film or do something else.

If tastes represent the kinds of things wanted by a person, preferences are the order in which a person wishes to satisfy those tastes. Preferences, like tastes, change with time (often rapidly), and are also situation-dependent. For example, when I’ve finished eating a large bowl of chocolate ice cream, I’m likely to prefer a glass of cold root beer to another bowl of chocolate ice cream.

The preference for a glass of cold root beer rather than another bowl of ice cream doesn’t necessarily mean that the second bowl of ice cream would give me less satisfaction than the first bowl. It might or might not. But, in the circumstances, I would enjoy a glass of cold root beer more than another bowl of ice cream. (The concept of diminishing marginal utility may apply to particular things at particular times, but it is neither generally true nor a valid reason for redistributing income by force.)

UTILITY AND DEMAND

There are two classic microeconomic constructs that reduce wants, tastes, and preferences to discrete quantities: indifference curves and demand curves.

An indifference curve is said to depict the rate at which a consumer is willing to exchange units of product X for units of other products, while holding constant his level of satisfaction (utility) and his preferences (ordering of wants). Given the rapidity with which preferences can change, I see little utility in indifference curves — except as a pedagogic device.

A demand curve for X can be derived from indifference curves by showing how the amount of X preferred by the consumer varies with the price of X, where (at each price) the consumer chooses the mix of X and other economic goods that maximize his utility. (I use economic goods to stand for products — material items — and services, which require the use of material items but which aren’t material (e.g., a haircut, the use of a credit card to make a purchase).

But an individual’s wants, tastes, and preferences are fuzzy at any given time. So, an individual’s demand for X at any given time is fuzzy — and then it changes, in fuzzy ways.

The summation of all consumers’ demand curves for X yields, in theory, an aggregate or market demand for X at an instant in time — holding constant wants, preferences, income, and the prices of other goods. In other words, the demand for a given economic good is very fuzzy. It may be possible to estimate approximately the demand for a particular economic good for a brief period of time, though the approximation will necessarily come with a range of uncertainty.

SUPPLY: THE SATISFACTION OF WANTS

If demand is one blade of a scissor, supply is the other blade. By supply I mean the ways in which human beings contrive to satisfy at least some of their wants some of the time. Supply comes in three basic forms: individual action, cooperative behavior, and voluntary exchange.

Individual action is just that: what each of us does to satisfy his wants without the help of others, and without recourse to the exchange of one’s resources for the resources of others.  Needless to say, individual action is limited mainly to Robinson Crusoe cases: situations in which a person must fend for himself, to the best of his ability and given the resources at hand.

Cooperative behavior is more relevant to the satisfaction of wants. It is the kind of behavior that wasn’t uncommon in the rural America of decades past, when each farm family operated as an economic unit. The combined efforts of a family — joined at times by neighbors — yielded shelter, food, and (sometimes) clothing, all of which were shared within the family.

To the extent that the family’s efforts failed to yield all of the kinds of food and clothing wanted by the family, it would then turn to voluntary exchange. It would trade some of its products (or labor) in order to acquire things that it could not produce or — this is a key point — could not produce as efficiently as another family or business. Voluntary exchange is of course today’s main mechanism for satisfying wants.

Voluntary exchange in a complex economy is a roundabout process, through which persons with marketable skills (e.g., real accountants) trade their services for monetary income, which enables them to choose from myriad products, services, and investment vehicles.

SUPPLY CREATES DEMAND (BUT NOT VICE VERSA)

Say’s law — popularly rendered as “supply creates its own demand” — is explained by Steven Horwitz in “Understanding Say’s Law of Markets“:

In the passage where he gets at the insight behind the notion that supply creates its own demand, Say writes: “it is production which opens a demand for products. . . . Thus the mere circumstance of the creation of one product immediately opens a vent for other products.” Put another way, Say was making the claim that production is the source of demand. One’s ability to demand goods and services from others derives from the income produced by one’s own acts of production.

Can demand exist without supply? Only if the person who wants something but lacks the wherewithal to pay for it is able to finance his purchase in one of three lawful ways:

  • He may receive a gift of money. But that gift reduces the purchasing power of the giver, either directly as a subtraction from his income or indirectly as a subtraction from his wealth. So the net effect on the demand for all goods may be zero.
  • He may receive a subsidy from government. But the subsidy reduces the purchasing power of the persons who are compelled to finance it through taxes, or the purchasing power persons or companies who are able to borrow less because government borrowing (to finance the subsidy) displaces their borrowing.
  • He may receive credit, either from the seller or a third party. Credit usually will be extended on the basis of the borrower’s prospective future earnings.

The third case is the only one that clearly results in an additional demand for goods. And it is the one in which demand is financed by supply. Demand creates supply only when demand is financed by a claim on the demander’s future supply of economic goods. The ability of a creditor to finance demand rests ultimately on the creditor’s previous production (and sale) of economic goods.

The Keynesian proposition that demand can create supply of thin air, simply by throwing money at unemployed resources, is a fantasy perpetuated by mathematical trickery.

MEANINGLESS AGGREGATION

Are you better off, as a consumer, than you were 5, 10, or 15 years ago? That’s a question which only you can answer. And the answer won’t necessarily depend on your rate of spending today as compared with your rate of spending 5, 10, or 15 years ago. It will depend on how you — and only you — feel about the enjoyment that you derive from your expenditures.

Like you, A and B will derive different kinds and amounts of enjoyment the goods that they buy. And those different kinds and amounts of enjoyment cannot be summed because they are unique to A and to B, just as they are unique to you. If meaningful aggregation is impossible for A and B, how can it be possible for an economy that consists of millions of economic actors and an untold variety of goods and services? And how is it possible when technological change yields results such as this?

GDP, in other words, is nothing more than what it seems to be on the surface: an estimate of the dollar value of economic output. It is not a measure of “social welfare” because there is no such thing.

Not Just for Baseball Fans

I have substantially revised “Bigger, Stronger, and Faster — But Not Quicker?” I set out to test Dr. Michael Woodley’s hypothesis that reaction times have slowed since the Victorian era:

It seems to me that if Woodley’s hypothesis has merit, it ought to be confirmed by the course of major-league batting averages over the decades. Other things being equal, quicker reaction times ought to produce higher batting averages. Of course, there’s a lot to hold equal, given the many changes in equipment, playing conditions, player conditioning, “style” of the game (e.g., greater emphasis on home runs), and other key variables over the course of more than a century.

I conclude that my analysis

says nothing definitive about reaction times, even though it sheds a lot of light on the relative hitting prowess of American League batters over the past 116 years. (I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.)

It’s been great fun but it was just one of those things.

Sandwiched between those statements you’ll find much statistical meat (about baseball) to chew on.

Not-So Random Thoughts (XIX)

ITEM ADDED 12/18/16

Manhattan Contrarian takes on the partisan analysis of economic growth offered by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson, and endorsed (predictably) by Paul Krugman. Eight years ago, I took on an earlier analysis along the same lines by Dani Rodrik, which Krugman (predictably) endorsed. In fact, bigger government, which is the growth mantra of economists like Blinder, Watson, Rodrik, and (predictably) Krugman, is anti-growth. The combination of spending, which robs the private sector of resources, and regulations, which rob the private sector of options and initiative, is killing economic growth. You can read about it here.

*     *     *

Rania Gihleb and Kevin Lang say that assortative mating hasn’t increased. But even if it had, so what?

Is there a potential social problem that will  have to be dealt with by government because it poses a severe threat to the nation’s political stability or economic well-being? Or is it just a step in the voluntary social evolution of the United States — perhaps even a beneficial one?

In fact,

The best way to help the people … of Charles Murray’s Fishtown [of Coming Apart] — is to ignore the smart-educated-professional-affluent class. It’s a non-problem…. The best way to help the forgotten people of America is to unleash the latent economic power of the United States by removing the dead hand of government from the economy.

*     *     *

Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a zombie-like creature of pseudo-science. I’ve rung its death knell, as have many actual scientists. But it keeps coming back. Perhaps President Trump will drive a stake through its heart — or whatever is done to extinguish zombies. In the meantime, here’s more evidence that AGW is a pseudo-scientific hoax:

In conclusion, this synthesis of empirical data reveals that increases in the CO2 concentration has not caused temperature change over the past 38 years across the Tropics-Land area of the Globe. However, the rate of change in CO2 concentration may have been influenced to a statistically significant degree by the temperature level.

And still more:

[B]ased on [Patrick[ Frank’s work, when considering the errors in clouds and CO2 levels only, the error bars around that prediction are ±15˚C. this does not mean—thankfully— that it could be 19˚ warmer in 2100. rather, it means the models are looking for a signal of a few degrees when they can’t differentiate within 15˚ in either direction; their internal errors and uncertainties are too large. this means that the models are unable to validate even the existence of a CO2 fingerprint because of their poor resolution, just as you wouldn’t claim to see DnA with a household magnifying glass.

And more yet:

[P]oliticians using global warming as a policy tool to solve a perceived problem is indeed a hoax. The energy needs of humanity are so large that Bjorn Lomborg has estimated that in the coming decades it is unlikely that more than about 20% of those needs can be met with renewable energy sources.

Whether you like it or not, we are stuck with fossil fuels as our primary energy source for decades to come. Deal with it. And to the extent that we eventually need more renewables, let the private sector figure it out. Energy companies are in the business of providing energy, and they really do not care where that energy comes from….

Scientists need to stop mischaracterizing global warming as settled science.

I like to say that global warming research isn’t rocket science — it is actually much more difficult. At best it is dodgy science, because there are so many uncertainties that you can get just about any answer you want out of climate models just by using those uncertianties as a tuning knob.

*     *     *

Well, that didn’t take long. lawprof Geoffrey Stone said something reasonable a few months ago. Now he’s back to his old, whiny, “liberal” self. Because the Senate failed to take up the nomination of Merrick Garland to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court — which is the Senate’s constitutional prerogative, Stone is characterizing the action (or lack of it) as a “constitutional coup d’etat” and claiming that the eventual Trump nominee will be an “illegitimate interloper.” Ed Whelan explains why Stone is wrong here, and adds a few cents worth here.

*     *     *

BHO stereotypes Muslims by asserting that

Trump’s proposal to bar immigration by Muslims would make Americans less safe. How? Because more Muslims would become radicalized and acts of terrorism would therefore become more prevalent. Why would there be more radicalized Muslims? Because the Islamic State (IS) would claim that America has declared war on Islam, and this would not only anger otherwise peaceful Muslims but draw them to IS. Therefore, there shouldn’t be any talk of barring immigration by Muslims, nor any action in that direction….

Because Obama is a semi-black leftist — and “therefore” not a racist — he can stereotype Muslims with impunity. To put it another way, Obama can speak the truth about Muslims without being accused of racism (though he’d never admit to the truth about blacks and violence).

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there’s a lot of truth in stereotypes:

A stereotype is a preliminary insight. A stereotype can be true, the first step in noticing differences. For conceptual economy, stereotypes encapsulate the characteristics most people have noticed. Not all heuristics are false.

Here is a relevant paper from Denmark.

Emil O. W. Kirkegaard and Julius Daugbjerg Bjerrekær. Country of origin and use of social benefits: A large, preregistered study of stereotype accuracy in Denmark. Open Differential Psychology….

The high accuracy of aggregate stereotypes is confirmed. If anything, the stereotypes held by Danish people about immigrants underestimates those immigrants’ reliance on Danish benefits.

Regarding stereotypes about the criminality of immigrants:

Here is a relevant paper from the United Kingdom.

Noah Carl. NET OPPOSITION TO IMMIGRANTS OF DIFFERENT NATIONALITIES CORRELATES STRONGLY WITH THEIR ARREST RATES IN THE UK. Open Quantitative Sociology and Political Science. 10th November, 2016….

Public beliefs about immigrants and immigration are widely regarded as erroneous. Yet popular stereotypes about the respective characteristics of different groups are generally found to be quite accurate. The present study has shown that, in the UK, net opposition to immigrants of different nationalities correlates strongly with the log of immigrant arrests rates and the log of their arrest rates for violent crime.

The immigrants in question, in both papers, are Muslims — for what it’s worth.

* * *

ADDED 12/18/16:

I explained the phoniness of the Keynesian multiplier here, derived a true (strongly negative) multiplier here, and added some thoughts about the multiplier here. Economist Scott Sumner draws on the Japanese experience to throw more cold water on Keynesianism.

My Original Blog

My original blog was Liberty Corner (March 2004 – July 2009). It began in 1997 as a pre-Blogspot home page, which linked to topical pages. Here’s how it looked on December 12, 1998 (courtesy of Wayback Machine), though the links don’t work:



On the light side

Short Stuff offers quips and comments about national affairs (and affaires).

“A Sideways Glance” exposes the silly side of business, politics, and society in the late Twentieth Century. In A Sideways Glance, vol. 1 you’ll find:

  • Busy-ness As Usual (the socially-conscious CEO)
  • Who’s in Charge Here? (secrets of the Pentagon)
  • Biz-Buzz (late-Twentieth Century business-speak)
  • Whoppers (lies our wannabe Presidents tell us)
  • Cutting the Price of Pork (there’s never a free lunch)

A Sideways Glance, vol. 2 brings you:

  • The Cocoon Age (litigating womb-to-grave security)
  • Justice in TV-land (crime and punishment in prime time)
  • Righting Wrongs by Wronging Rights (zealots vs. the Bill of Rights)
  • Ten Commandments of Bad Management (how to emulate the pointy-haired boss)
  • To Pay or Not to Pay (Shakespeare on taxes)

Now appearing in A Sideways Glance, vol. 3:

  • Through a Crystal Ball, Murkily (political life, after Clinton)
  • Flunking Out of Electoral College (the “disastrous” consequences of the College)
  • Bill and Al’s Egregious Adventure (a moral lesson about running for dog-catcher)
  • Don’t Blame Me (the criminal as victim, from Brutus to Bill Clinton)

Serious business

Let Reason Reign: Conversations With Myself tackles science and truth, the nature of humankind, and other big questions:

  • Truth, Science, and Religion
  • The Nature of Human-ness: Consciousness, Purpose, and Morality
  • The Constitution and the Role of the Federal Government
  • Law and Society
  • Gender, Race, and Envy
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Ethics and Everyday Leadership

In Brief consists of epigrams and observations on life, liberty, and the Constitution.

Restoring the Constitutional Contract explains the central purpose of the Constitution; its meaning for the respective powers and rights of the federal government, States, and citizens; and the ways in which we have drifted from that purpose and from the intended distribution of powers and rights.

A Restored Constitutional Contract offers a proposed Constitution that is faithful to the purpose of the original Constitution, and which restores the powers and rights of the federal government, States, and citizens to their proper balance.



A later incarnation went by the name Uncommon Sense, though I switched back to Liberty Corner when I began using Blogspot in March 2004. This is the latest archived version of Uncommon Sense, from July 21, 2001; the links work:



Uncommon Sense


The rational person's guide to
politics, the economy, and society


Politics and Government

With a Light Touch

Political Parlance a jaunty glossary that exposes the sham of political jargon and the shame of political icons

Short Stuff quips and comments about national affairs — and affaires

Who’s in Charge Here? secrets of the Pentagon

Whoppers lies our wannabe Presidents tell us

Cutting the Price of Pork there’s never a free lunch

Through a Crystal Ball Murkily political life after Clinton

Flunking Out of Electoral College the “disastrous” consequences of the College

Bill and Al’s Egregious Adventure a moral lesson about running for dog-catcher

The Trials of William Jefferson Whatsit a farce in three acts

A Serious Look at Government and the Constitution

Why Do We Have Government? where government fails, and where it is necessary

In Brief epigrams and observations on life, liberty, and the Constitution

Restoring the Constitutional Contract the purpose of the Constitution; its meaning for the respective powers and rights of the federal government, States, and citizens; and the ways in which we have drifted from that purpose and from the intended distribution of powers and rights

The Constitution and the Role of the Federal Government misperceptions about the federal government’s proper role in our affairs

Combatting Constitutional Cancer the cancer within the Constitution itself — namely, those Amendments that have caused great harm to the Republic — and the need for a constitutional convention to remove the cancer

A Restored Constitutional Contract a revised Constitution that is faithful to the purpose of the original, and which restores the powers and rights of the federal government, States, and citizens to their proper balance


Economics and Business

Speaking Seriously

Ethics and Everyday Leadership

Tongue in Cheek

Busy-ness As Usual a satire on the socially conscious CEO

Biz-Buzz new-millennium business-speak

Ten Commandments of Bad Management how to emulate the point-haired boss

To Pay or Not to Pay Shakespeare on the Ides of April

The Economy Works, in Spite of Zany Economists the title says it all


Society and Its Trappings

More Serious Matters

Law and Society

Gender, Race, and Envy

Crime and Punishment

Truth, Science, and Religion

The Nature of Human-ness: Consciousness, Purpose, and Morality

And a Few Laughs, to Boot

The Cocoon Age litigating womb-to-grave security

Justice in TV-land crime and punishment in prime time

Righting Wrongs by Wronging Rights zealots vs. the Bill of Rights

Don’t Blame Me the criminal as victim, from Brutus to Bill Clinton

Out with the Old, In with the Older a report card for America’s Twentieth Century

 

The “H” Word, the Left, and Donald Trump

I don’t believe it but — according to many leftists, Democrats, pundits, and media outlets — Donald Trump is a fascist, a Nazi, a Hitler-in-the making. That’s the scare story that’s been peddled since it began to look as if Trump had a serious chance of becoming the GOP nominee. (Please excuse the superfluity of synonyms for “leftists” in the first sentence.)

There’s something about Republicans that causes leftists to invoke the “H” word — Hitler, that is — and its close substitutes: Nazi and fascist. I have a little story that illustrates the tendency and suggests its cause. I was visiting Austin years ago and fell into a discussion with my brother-in-law and his wife, who were and are both ardent leftists and active in local Democrat politics. They had recently moved to the affluent Northwest Hills section of the city, ostensibly to enable their daughter to attend the schools in that part of the city, which are by reputation better than the ones in South Austin, where they had been living. Northwest Hills is mostly white; many of the whites are Jewish; and the non-white population is mainly of East Asian origin and descent. Blacks and Hispanics are seldom seen in Northwest Hills, except as employees of the city and businesses in the area, and as nannies and yard men. South Austin is much less affluent than Northwest Hills, and far more heavily populated by Hispanics.

The brother-in-law and his wife were apologetic about their move. Though they didn’t put it this way, they had revealed themselves as hypocrites about ethnic diversity and their supposed sympathy with the “less fortunate.” But their hypocrisy was excused by their concern for their daughter’s education. (A classic example of leftist hypocrisy, in the same mold as Democrat presidents — Clinton and Obama most recently — who sent their children to private schools in mostly black D.C.) They were especially chagrined because they (and their leftist ilk) referred to the denizens of their new neighborhood the Northwest Nazis. The appellation arose from the fact that Northwest Hills was then (and still is) markedly more Republican than the surrounding parts of heavily Democrat Austin.

I thought to myself at the time, how utterly wrong-headed it is for leftists — who are ardent fans of dictatorial statism — to refer to Republicans as Nazis. Republicans generally oppose the left’s dictatorial schemes. (I chose to keep my observation to myself rather than incite a fruitless and possibly acrimonious discussion). But leftists like my brother-in-law and his wife — who are given to equating Republicans with fascists, Nazis, and Hitlers — are themselves ardent proponents of the expansion of the fascistic state that has been erected, almost without pause, since the New Deal. (See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.) It’s Through the Looking Glass logic:

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’

The “logic” of applying such labels as Hitler, fascist, and Nazi to Republicans strikes me as psychological projection. That’s not a new explanation, but it’s a sound one, as you’ll see.

The following quotations are excerpted from two blog posts (here and here) by Australian psychologist John J. Ray, who has done a lot of research and writing about the left and its delusions:

I have been looking at the differences between the Left and the Right of politics since 1968, when I submitted my Master’s dissertation  on that subject.  And my aim has been to understand WHY Leftists behave like SoBs so much of the time. How is it that implementing Leftist policies always results in harm and destruction of some sort, if not mass murder?

So my interest has been not only in Leftist claims and policies but also in their underlying psychology.  I think, in fact, that it is only at the psychological level that Leftism can be understood.  And, in that, I find myself in a degree of agreement with Leftist psychologists.  Leftists never stop offering accounts of the psychology of conservatives, adverse accounts, of course. It is one of the more popular fields of research in psychology.  So Leftists are most emphatic that you need to delve into the psychological realm to understand politics.  In any argument on the facts they will be defeated by conservatives so impugning the motives of their opponent is essentially all that they have left.

I am VERY familiar with the Leftist claims in that regard. Most of my 200+ academic journal articles were devoted to showing that the research they relied on in support of their claims was flawed, often hilariously so.

But there was one redeeming feature in their research.  In purporting to describe conservatives they usually were quite clearly describing themselves!  An accusation that they never seem able to let go of, despite much contrary evidence, is that conservatives are “authoritarian”….

*     *     *

The concept of “authoritarianism” as an explanation for conservatism has been like catnip to Leftist psychologists.  They cannot leave it alone.  It first arose among a group of Jewish Marxists in the late 1940s and was published in a 1950 book called “The authoritaian personality” under the lead authorship of a prominent Marxist theoretician, Theodor Wiesengrund, who usually used as his surname the stage name of his Spanish dancer mother — Adorno.

The theory underlying it failed in all sorts of ways so it fell out of favour after the ’60s, though it still got an occasional mention. For more on the Adorno work see here.

In the first half of his first book in 1981, “Bob” Altemeyer gave a comprehensive summary of the problems with the Adorno theory and submitted that it had to be discarded.  He then went on to put forward a slightly different theory and measuring instrument of his own that rebooted the concept of authoritarianism as an explanation of conservative thinking.

That theory and its accompanying measuring instrument (the RWA scale) also soon ran aground, however.  Altemeyer himself admitted that scores on the RWA scale were just about as high among Leftist voters as Rightist voters — which rather ruined it as an explanation of conservatism.  The death knell came when it was revealed that the highest scorers on the RWA scale were in fact former Russian Communists!  Right wing Communists??  For more on Altemeyer’s confusions see here. Or more concisely here.

So the RWA scale lost most of its interest after that, though it is still cautiously used on some occasions — e.g here.

But … Leftist psychologists did not give up.  A group of them including Karen Stenner, Stanley Feldman, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler revived the old ideas and invented a new questionnaire to measure the concept.  And reading their “new” theory is like a trip back into the 1940’s.  Conservatives are still said to be sad souls who live in a state of constant and unreasonable  fear.

The amusing thing is that there is some reality behind their theory.  The key word is “unreasonable”.  How much fear is “unreasonable”?  Is all fear “unreasonable”?  Obviously not.  Fear is an important survival mechanism.  We would all be eaten by lions etc. without it.  And conservatives do fear the probable results of the hare-brained schemes put forward by Leftists.  Conservatives are nothing if not cautious but to the superficial thinkers of the Left, that caution seems like fear.  So from a conservative viewpoint Leftists are not fearful enough.  They do not fear the “unforeseen” and adverse side effects that invariably accompany any implementation of their schemes.

So, despite the laughable psychometric characteristics of their new measuring instrument, which I set out yesterday, they have in fact achieved some grasp of reality.  They have just not grasped that caution can be a good thing and have not thought deeply enough about the distinction, if any, between caution and fear.  So all their writings amount to little more than an adverse value judgment of things that are in fact probably desirable.

So why all the mental muddle from them?  Why does the old “authoritarianism” catnip keep them coming back to that dubious concept?  Why have they not learnt from its past failures?  Easy:  It’s all Freudian projection.  They see their own faults in conservatives.  The people who REALLY ARE authoritarian are Leftists themselves.  Communist regimes are ALWAYS authoritarian and in democracies the constant advocates of more and more government control over everything are the Left.  The Left are the big government advocates, not conservatives.  What could be more authoritarian than Obama’s aim to “fundamentally transform” America? It is the Left who trust in big brother while conservatives just want to be left alone.

It’s true that conservatives have respect for authority, which isn’t the same thing as authoritarianism. Respect for authority, where it’s earned by authority, means respect for the civilizing norms that are represented in a lawful institution when it acts within its traditional bounds. For example, conservatives respect presidents when they strive to restore and sustain the constitutional order; conservatives therefore disrespect presidents who blatantly violate that order.

What about Mussolini and Hitler, who are usually thought of as right-wing dictators and therefore labeled as conservative? I return to John Ray, who has this to say about Mussolini:

Let us listen initially to some reflections on the early days of Fascism by Mussolini himself — first published in 1935 (See the third chapter in Greene, 1968).

“If the bourgeoisie think they will find lightning conductors in us they are the more deceived; we must start work at once …. We want to accustom the working class to real and effectual leadership“.

And that was Mussolini quoting his own words from the early Fascist days. So while Mussolini had by that time (in his 30s) come to reject the Marxist idea of a class-war, he still saw himself as anti-bourgeois and as a saviour and leader of the workers. What modern-day Leftist could not identify with that?…

“If the 19th century has been the century of the individual (for liberalism means individualism), it may be conjectured that this is the century of the State.

This is Mussolini’s famous prophecy about the 20th century in the Enciclopedia Italiana….

“Laissez faire is out of date.”

To this day the basic free market doctrine of “laissez faire” is virtually a swear-word to most Leftists. Quoted from Smith (1967, p. 87)….

And Mussolini’s “Fascist Manifesto” of 1919 (full translation by Vox Day here) includes in Fascist policy such socialist gems as (I quote):
* The nationalization of all the arms and explosives factories.
* A strong progressive tax on capital that will truly expropriate a portion of all wealth.
* The seizure of all the possessions of the religious congregations and the abolition of all the bishoprics, which constitute an enormous liability on the Nation and on the privileges of the poor.
* The formation of a National Council of experts for labor, for industy, for transportation, for the public health, for communications, etc. Selections to be made from the collective professionals or of tradesmen with legislative powers, and elected directly to a General Commission with ministerial powers.
* A minimum wage.
* The participation of workers’ representatives in the functions of industry commissions.

Elsewhere, Ray says this about Mussolini and his aims:

“Fascism” is a term that was originally coined by the Italian dictator Mussolini to describe his adaptation of Marxism to the conditions of Italy after World War I. Lenin in Russia made somewhat different adaptations of Marxism to the conditions in Russia during the same period and his adaptations came to be called Marxism/Leninism. Mussolini stayed closer to Marx in that he felt that Italy had to go through a capitalist stage before it could reach socialism whereas Lenin attempted to push Russia straight from semi-feudalism into socialism. Mussolini’s principal modification of Marxism was his rejection of the notion of class war, something that put him decisively at odds with Lenin’s “Reds”….

Mussolini’s ideas and system were very influential and he had many imitators — not the least of which was Adolf Hitler….

…Mussolini was quite intellectual and his thinking was in fact much more up-to-date than that would suggest. He was certainly influenced by Marx and the ancient world but he had a whole range of ideas that extended beyond that. And where did he turn for up-to-date ideas? To America, of course! And the American ideas that influenced him were in fact hard to miss. They were the ideas of the American “Progressives”. And who was the best known Progressive in the world at that time? None other than the President of the United States — Woodrow Wilson….

Ray takes up FDR’s resemblance to Mussolini, and defers to Srdja Trifkovic’s “FDR and Mussolini: A Tale of Two Fascists,” which includes these observations:

Genuine conservatives … may argue that FDR and Mussolini were in fact rather similar. They will point out both men’s obsessive focus on strong, centralized government structures, their demagoguery, and especially their attempt to overcome the dynamics of social and economic conflict through the institutions of the corporate state.

For all their apparent similarities, however, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a more deleterious figure than Benito Mussolini, and his legacy proved to be more damaging to America than Il Duce’s was to Italy. This is not a case of good versus bad, or of two equal evils, but of bad versus even worse: Roosevelt was a more efficient, and certainly more successful, fascist than Mussolini.

(See my “FDR and Fascism” and also follow the links therein.)

As for Hitler, I return to John Ray and his monograph, “Hitler Was a Socialist“:

It is very easy to miss complexities in the the politics of the past and thus draw wrong conclusions about them. To understand the politics of the past we need to set aside for a time our own way of looking at things and try to see how the people involved at the time saw it all. Doing so is an almost essential step if we wish to understand the similarities and differences between Nazism and Marxism/Leninism. The following excerpt from James P. O’Donnell’s THE BUNKER (1978, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, pp. 261-262) is instructive. O’Donnell is quoting Artur Axmann, the Nazi youth leader, recalling a conversation with Goebbels in the Hitler bunker on Tuesday, May 1, 1945, the same day Goebbels and his wife would kill themselves after she killed their children.

“Goebbels stood up to greet me. He soon launched into lively memories of our old street-fighting days in Berlin-Wedding, from nineteen twenty-eight to thirty-three. He recalled how we had clobbered the Berlin Communists and the Socialists into submission, to the tune of the “Horst Wessel” marching song, on their old home ground.He said one of the great accomplishments of the Hitler regime had been to win the German workers over almost totally to the national cause. We had made patriots of the workers, he said, as the Kaiser had dismally failed to do. This, he kept repeating, had been one of the real triumphs of the movement. We Nazis were a non-Marxist yet revolutionary party, anticapitalist, antibourgeois, antireactionary….

Starch-collared men like Chancellor Heinrich Bruening had called us the “Brown Bolsheviks,” and their bourgeois instincts were not wrong.

It seems inconceivable to modern minds that just a few differences between two similar ideologies — Marxism and Nazism — could have been sufficient cause for great enmity between those two ideologies. But the differences concerned were important to the people involved at the time. Marxism was class-based and Nazism was nationally based but otherwise they were very similar. That’s what people said and thought at the time and that explains what they did and how they did it.

And a quote from Hitler himself:

“Stalin and I are the only ones who envisage the future and nothing but the future. Accordingly, I shall in a few weeks stretch out my hand to Stalin at the common German-Russian frontier and undertake the redistribution of the world with him.”

…Consider this description by Edward Feser of someone who would have been a pretty good Presidential candidate for the modern-day U.S. Democratic party:

He had been something of a bohemian in his youth, and always regarded young people and their idealism as the key to progress and the overcoming of outmoded prejudices. And he was widely admired by the young people of his country, many of whom belonged to organizations devoted to practicing and propagating his teachings. He had a lifelong passion for music, art, and architecture, and was even something of a painter. He rejected what he regarded as petty bourgeois moral hang-ups, and he and his girlfriend “lived together” for years. He counted a number of homosexuals as friends and collaborators, and took the view that a man’s personal morals were none of his business; some scholars of his life believe that he himself may have been homosexual or bisexual. He was ahead of his time where a number of contemporary progressive causes are concerned: he disliked smoking, regarding it as a serious danger to public health, and took steps to combat it; he was a vegetarian and animal lover; he enacted tough gun control laws; and he advocated euthanasia for the incurably ill.

He championed the rights of workers, regarded capitalist society as brutal and unjust, and sought a third way between communism and the free market. In this regard, he and his associates greatly admired the strong steps taken by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to take large-scale economic decision-making out of private hands and put it into those of government planning agencies. His aim was to institute a brand of socialism that avoided the inefficiencies that plagued the Soviet variety, and many former communists found his program highly congenial. He deplored the selfish individualism he took to be endemic to modern Western society, and wanted to replace it with an ethic of self-sacrifice: “As Christ proclaimed ‘love one another’,” he said, “so our call — ‘people’s community,’ ‘public need before private greed,’ ‘communally-minded social consciousness’ — rings out.! This call will echo throughout the world!”

The reference to Christ notwithstanding, he was not personally a Christian, regarding the Catholicism he was baptized into as an irrational superstition. In fact he admired Islam more than Christianity, and he and his policies were highly respected by many of the Muslims of his day. He and his associates had a special distaste for the Catholic Church and, given a choice, preferred modern liberalized Protestantism, taking the view that the best form of Christianity would be one that forsook the traditional other-worldly focus on personal salvation and accommodated itself to the requirements of a program for social justice to be implemented by the state. They also considered the possibility that Christianity might eventually have to be abandoned altogether in favor of a return to paganism, a worldview many of them saw as more humane and truer to the heritage of their people. For he and his associates believed strongly that a people’s ethnic and racial heritage was what mattered most. Some endorsed a kind of cultural relativism according to which what is true or false and right or wrong in some sense depends on one’s ethnic worldview, and especially on what best promotes the well-being of one’s ethnic group

There is surely no doubt that the man Feser describes sounds very much like a mainstream Leftist by current standards. But who is the man concerned? It is a historically accurate description of Adolf Hitler. Hitler was not only a socialist in his own day but he would even be a mainstream socialist in MOST ways today. Feser does not mention Hitler’s antisemitism above, of course, but that too seems once again to have become mainstream among the Western-world Left in the early years of the 21st century.

I have barely scratched the surface of Ray’s writings about fascism, Nazism, and the left. Based on the writings of Ray (and others), and on my own observations, I have no doubt that the American left — from Woodrow Wilson (if not Teddy Roosevelt) to the present day — is aligned with the political aims of Mussolini and Hitler.

Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been a few dictators who may rightly be called conservatives because of their defense of traditional institutions and their willingness to suppress real threats to those institutions, namely, socialism and communism. Franco and Pinochet spring to mind as leading examples of such dictators. But compared with Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, they were rank amateurs in the arts of repression and murder. Had they not come to power, the people of Spain and Chile would have suffered under regimes similar to those of Castro and Chavez, which have impoverished and repressed the people of Cuba and Venezuela.

What about Donald Trump? Based on his appointments to date — with the possible exception of Steve Bannon — he seems to be taking a solidly conservative line. He isn’t building a government of bomb-throwers, but rather a government of staunch conservatives who, taken together, have a good chance at rebuilding America’s status in the world while dismantling much of Obama’s egregious “legacy”: onerous energy regulations (due to Obama’s embrace of the AGW hoax), Obamacare, the push for a higher minimum wage, opposition to school choice, racial politics in the Justice Department, the reinflation of the low-income housing bubble, and other meddlesome manifestations of Obama’s hopey-changey war on America.

I said some nasty things about Trump during his campaigns for the GOP nomination and the presidency. On the basis of his performance since the election, it seems likely that I was wrong about him as a prospective president (though perhaps not as a person). Like so many of his critics, I was put off by his vulgarity, his seeming dismissal of constitutional values, his “liberal” reputation, and his apparent ignorance of the details of many issues. All of that may have been well-designed electoral camouflage — a way of distracting the left-dominated media while he smuggled in a conservative agenda that could restore America’s standing in the world, revitalize its economy, and reweave its shredded liberty.

Will Donald Trump be a perfect president, if perfection is measured by adherence to the Constitution? Probably not, but who has been? It now seems likely, however, that Trump will be a far less fascistic president than Barack Obama has been and Hillary Clinton would have been. He will certainly be far less fascistic than the academic thought-police, whose demise cannot come too soon for the sake of liberty.

In sum, Trump’s emerging agenda seems to resemble my own decidedly conservative one.

The Crown

I recently watched The Crown. It’s a Netflix series of ten episodes that span the years 1947-1955 in the life of Elizabeth II, with flashbacks to the time of Edward VIII‘s abdication and the succession of Elizabeth’s father, George VI, in 1936. (It seems that more episodes are in the works, and that they will focus on the latter years of the Queen’s reign.) Whatever the merits or demerits of The Crown — and there are both — it got me to thinking about the history of the monarchs of England, their lineage in particular.

The lineage can be found in many sources, which are usually complex depictions, replete with spouses and siblings. (See this and this, for example.) The best simplified version that I have found is this one at Wikipedia, which omits the spouses and siblings and focuses on the line of descent from Alfred the Great (reigned 871-899) to Elizabeth II.

I have concocted a variant of the simplified version that more vividly represents intra- and inter-generational shifts in the descent of monarchs. Further, it begins with the monarchs of Wessex, from whom Alfred the Great is descended. That is, it stretches back to Cardic, King of Wessex 519-534. From Cardic to Elizabeth II (House of Windsor, formerly Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) there have 82 monarchs, counting split reigns as separate monarchies and dual reigns as single monarchies. The 82 monarchies span 49 generations, including 3 generations unrepresented by a monarch.

Elizabeth II is 15 generations removed from Elizabeth I (House of Tudor, reigned 1558-1603); that is, Elizabeth II is Elizabeth I’s niece 14 generations removed.  Elizabeth II is 30 generations removed from William the Conqueror (House of Normandy, reigned 1066-1087), and 33 generations removed from her most remote ancestor in the lineage, Sewyn (House of Knitynga, reigned 1013-1014), who was the 34th monarch and William’s great-grandfather.

Although there’s no blood line between Cardic and Elizabeth II, there are family ties. Sewyn’s son Cnut the Great (House of Knitynga, reigned 1016-1035) was married to the widow of Aethelred the Unready (House of Wessex, reigned 978-1013, 1014-1016). Aethelred was Cardic’s nephew 15 generations removed.

It’s one big (happy?) family. You can view its lineage by going to “Monarchs of England.”