In Praise of Uncertainty

by on December 30, 2007 at 7:07 am in Economics | Permalink

Writing in the comments, David R. Henderson asks me to list three policy areas where my views are uncertain.  Since this blog (or at least this author) has been streaming uncertainty for over four years, this strikes me as an odd request.  But perhaps it is useful to have such a list in one place, so here goes:

1. We must address the looming crisis in medical care costs but how?  I am uncertain as to how much means-testing Medicare will ease future budgetary pressures.  I do favor means-testing, mostly through lack of better ideas, but it is a) notoriously difficult to enforce, b) often unfair (do we measure income or wealth? current or lifetime?) and c) an implicit hike in marginal tax rates.  And if you could talk me out of means-testing, I am not sure which recommendation would come next.

2. I favor further experimentation with school vouchers, but to what extent?  There are many good school districts that probably would not be improved much if at all, and the resulting political hand-wringing would be costly and also could give vouchers a bad name.  Should vouchers be isolated experiments or implemented on a near-universal basis?  Near-universal vouchers run the risk of becoming the new middle class entitlement.

3. I don’t see a Social Security "crisis" in the numbers, but I do believe we should be fiscally conservative with the program, most of all because of forthcoming Medicare expenditures.  Yet this view would be wrong if the growth rate of the economy exceeds the real rate of interest.  We could then spend as much on Social Security as we wanted to.  (Growth-optimistic conservatives rarely emphasize this conclusion, I might add.)  I do not expect such a result, but I give it a probability of about 30 percent.

4. I am uncertain how much the United States should "move first" with costly anti-global warming measures, assuming that China and other nations are not very cooperative.

5. To what extent is the ongoing loss of biodiversity a very serious problem?  I suspect in the long run this will prove a more important issue than global warming, but I am not sure.  I also don’t know what to do about it; property rights and better quotas for fishing is a good idea but that only dents the larger problem.

6. I favor legalizing or decriminalizing many drugs, but I am not sure how far this process can go when so many actual and potential drug customers are under eighteen years of age.  Can we really sell crack cocaine in the 7-11, provided there is an ID check for every buyer?

7. I am pro-immigration relative to either current policy or the median voter, but I am uncertain how many immigrants the United States could take in.  I’m not just whinging about not knowing where the decimal point goes.  More generally, we don’t know when the social and political fabric will start to crack in counterproductive fashion.

8. I am highly uncertain about most of the major questions in foreign policy, for a start try Pakistan or the Koreas or nuclear proliferation.  Even if you think we shouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place, that doesn’t mean immediate withdrawal is our best option.  And while I know more about economics than foreign policy, I find that the more I learn about a given foreign policy area, the more uncertain I become.

9. Virtually any question in water policy.  This is a good, complex area for shaking up policy preconceptions.

That’s a lot of uncertainty.  I could go on, but that’s already most of the major policy issues today.  Don’t forget this: even if your view is the one "most likely to be right," in absolute terms your view, like mine, is probably wrong relative to the sum of competing views. 

In other words, it is hard for me to see why, in these and many other areas, we should be highly certain of the views we hold.

At some point I’ll give you my take on "What I Think We Should Be (Nearly) Certain About."  But I am not yet sure what should go in that post.

Addendum: Here are Arnold Kling’s certainties and uncertainties.

1 odograph December 30, 2007 at 8:15 am

Wow, I’m on-board with number five, loss of biodiversity, but I thought that outside of environmental circles that was unheard of. (FWIW, I think it inter-relates with global warming in important ways, but agree that ocean management is more pressing.)

2 Harlan December 30, 2007 at 8:49 am

While I will claim to have no more certainty than you, I think that #4 could be cleared up a little by looking at the efforts of Interface, Inc, a leading carpet manufacturer. They are working to become fully sustainable, and even hope to be restorative by 2020, and despite the money spent on sustainability upgrades, the company is growing and prospering.

While I’m not certain that it will work for every company in every industry, there’s no reason to automatically assume that spending large amounts of money on protecting the environment won’t pay dividends in the long run. Especially if it means we can avoid the predictions in the new report titled The Age of Consequences”, just released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security (read about it with a link to the actual 130 page report here: )

Even the conservative “expected” consequences by 2040 are very bad, which means that we shouldn’t be worrying about who should “move first”, we need to just do it, especially since per capita America is one of, if not the, worst polluter globally.

No one living in the year 2208 will care what the quarterly profits of 2008 were if our species is facing extinction.

3 Dan Hill December 30, 2007 at 10:25 am

2: If vouchers are simply an alternative channel for existing education expenditure it’s hard to see how that becomes the “new middle class welfare”. Perhaps you could describe the scenario you have in mind when making that comment?

4: Start with a (small) carbon tax with the possibility that if the (economic) case becomes clearer it could be raised. There are probably sufficient other benefits in terms of various externalities associated with energy use (especially gasoline) to justify at least a small tax regardless of what other nations do or what the long term prognosis on climate change is.

6: Don’t fall into the trap of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just because we don’t know how to solve 100% of a problem, doesn’t mean we don’t know how to solve 80% of it. Sure, there’s a problem with making sure intoxicants don’t get into the hands of minors (a problem we largely manage to deal with in terms of alcohol and tobacco, undermined only by our stupidity in telling adults under 21 that they can vote and die for their country but can’t have a beer). But wouldn’t a great big slice of the problems caused by the “war on drugs” go away even if we moved to a sub-optimal solution like distributing drugs through the equivalent of state liquor stores?

7: US society seems to be coping with current levels of immigration including illegals so perhaps that would be a good starting point for a new level of legal migration.

4 Raul December 30, 2007 at 11:03 am

About #6:

So, what’s the economic or public-policy benefit of legalizing drugs, anyways? I was wondering how that made it to the list.

5 A student of economics December 30, 2007 at 11:46 am

That’s a good list and all are worthy of comment. In the interest of space, let me focus on #4:

Why shouldn’t the US “move first” on global climate change if China et al. don’t cooperate? I think of three possible arguments:

1. Because the net marginal benefit of our efforts s less at lower levels of Chinese efforts.
2. Because of spite — why should we help if they won’t help?
3. Because of a game-theoretic story. By refusing to help we make it more likely that someone else will help.

Well, #1 seems very unlikely. Almost surely the net marginal benefits of efforts to mitigate climate change are decreasing with effort, and at some point reach zero. The net marginal benefits of our efforts are only greater if the Chinese do little.
#2 is clearly unworthy of you, although sadly I get the sense that is may be the predominant motivation of many voters and the policy makers that respond to them.
#3 Is plausible, but requires a good deal more explanation. In particular, it seems just as easy, if not easier, to make the opposite case. Also, your phrasing of your thinking doesn’t really line up with a game-theory story, if that’s what you were intending.

Incidentally, since the post is on “uncertainty”, it’s worth noting that for any given mean level of climate change, greater uncertainty only strengthens the case for earlier and greater action today. Because of increasing marginal costs of climate change for each degree of temperature change, a 50-50 chance of extreme change or zero change is likely to be much more costly, in expected value, than a certain outcome of moderate climate change. Hence, the common argument that “we don’t know for sure” what the outcome will be is no argument for waiting.

6 Radford Neal December 30, 2007 at 12:16 pm

No one living in the year 2208 will care what the quarterly profits of 2008 were if our species is facing extinction.

What can the person who made this comment above be thinking? There is no even remotely credible scientific basis for thinking that anthropogenic climate change will be extreme enough to threaten human extinction. Such comments increase my belief that much of the popular support for action on climate change is essentially a form of religious devotion, much like concern about hell fire in fundamentalist Christian circles. Of course, this says nothing directly about the actual extent to which we should be worried about climate change, and take action, except that the tendency of supposedly responsible scientists to let such rhetoric slide by without any strong refutation makes one wonder about the objectivity of their views as well.

7 David R. Henderson December 30, 2007 at 12:27 pm

Dear Tyler,

Thanks. You gave more than I asked for.



8 Barkley Rosser December 30, 2007 at 1:39 pm

Regarding global warming and “going first,” the hard fact is that neither China nor India will
do anything unless the US goes first. We have done nothing so far, except this just-passed bill
and are thus viewed universally as the bad guy on this issue. It may be that we will get shafted,
but more likely by India than by China, where environmental issues are being taken seriously by
the political leadership. But, without us going first, they will do nothing, period.

Regarding China as world’s largest emitter, there is uncertainty about the amounts, but it certainly
has not been since 2006, and the most reliable sources have the US still as top dog, although China
certainly will be top dog shortly.

There certainly are uncertainties about the degree of anthropogenic effect. But the claim that “odds
are that global warming is not a problem” looks pretty ludicrous.

Regarding social security, congratulations on actually looking at the numbers, Tyler. So many do not,
including some of the Dem candidates. I find it bizarre to watch Obama denouncing Hillary because she
has not provided her plan to “fix” social security. Gag.

I also find it interesting that while you focus on uncertainties, always a wise way to go, Arnold seems
to be full of certainties. Oh well, glad he knows so much for so sure…

9 Dan Goodman December 30, 2007 at 3:11 pm

“…we don’t know when the social and political fabric will start to crack in counterproductive fashion.”

Look at the history of places where immigrants have had large impacts.

Milwaukee used to be majority German-speaking (the figure I’ve seen is 78%; I don’t know how that was determined.) Boston and some other New England cities went from being very Protestant to political domination by Catholics. Some rural areas have been dominated by immigrants and their descendants.

10 Steve Sailer December 30, 2007 at 4:16 pm

Tyler writes:

“I am pro-immigration relative to either current policy or the median voter, but I am uncertain how many immigrants the United States could take in. I’m not just whinging about not knowing where the decimal point goes. More generally, we don’t know when the social and political fabric will start to crack in counterproductive fashion.”

Since we don’t know when “the social and political fabric will start to crack,” why take the risk of continuing to allow massive unskilled immigration? When you weigh the risks and the opportunity costs against the minor benefits, how can you justify your stance other than on sentimentalism, ideology, and whim?

This is essentially and admission that you’ve lost the running debate with your commenters on immigration on empirical/rational grounds. I’d be fascinated to see a frank discussion of the non-rational motivations you have for sticking by your prejudice on this issue.

11 Barkley Rosser December 30, 2007 at 4:44 pm


Dan Goodman provides Boston and Milwaukee going from majority Protestant to majority Catholic
as being examples of the “political and social fabric cracking in unproductive fashion.” Really?
Did we have riots in the streets? Is life miserable or awful, wracked by street wars or other
upheavals in those places?

I would say that you are way overstating it when you say that Tyler has not held his own against
some of the commenters who have been on bloviating hysterically about immigration. You folks make
a lot of noise, but the evidence of all kinds of horrible things happening or impending has not been
remotely shown.

12 Kyle B December 30, 2007 at 5:09 pm

Re: #6

Raul: The opportunity cost of keeping drugs illegal is that the most violent people on the planet reap huge profits from artificial price supports that the drug laws create.

In regards to legalization, I think a better education policy in the school system would go a long way towards curbing use of hard drugs among youth. Rather than sentencing drug users who’ve run afoul of the law to AA or NA, send them to health awareness classes in grades three and up. Let the kids see the alcoholics, meth addicts, or crack addicts terrible appearance and demeanor up close. Let the kids hear their stories of hardship. That ought to be enough for any rational child to see that drugs aren’t healthy.

13 Peter Schaeffer December 30, 2007 at 6:03 pm

“More generally, we don’t know when the social and political fabric will start to crack in counterproductive fashion.†

Try getting out some time and you will discover that counterproductive “cracks† are already dangerously evident.

1. A nation that was once united by a common language is now divided by “press 1 for English, press 2 for a new president†. With essentially once exception, no nation has long endured the linguistic divisions America has imported. The list of nations that have fallen to multilingualism is long indeed.

2. The life prospects of ordinary Americans have fallen dramatically since mass immigration resumed around 1970. Wages peaked in 1973 and have fallen substantially since. Of course, inequality has soared along with ever greater social divisions.

3. The core of the American Dream, an affordable home in community with decent schools and a reasonable commute is now a fantasy in the areas of the United States most ravaged by Open Borders. California was once the embodiment of the American Dream. Now it is the American nightmare with even illegal aliens fleeing the horrors of mass immigration.

4. Public education is now in deep, perhaps irreversible decline as a consequence of mass immigration. Each successive cohort of high schools students going forward will be less educated than their processors as a consequence of mass immigration. We are already producing a vast domestic surplus of unskilled labor. Yet, the Open Borders lusts for even more.

5. We have imported a large population that demands, gets, and evidently needs racial quotas. How this could ever make sense is beyond me. How anyone can justify admitting people who will demand quotas requires a level of logical legerdemain that I am incapable of.

6. There is little prospect of the transportation system of the United States keeping up with mass immigration in the future. Sadly, it hasn’t done so to date. The gridlock of California is becoming a national norm.

7. We are importing high crime populations. If anyone doubts this, take a look “Seeing Today’s Immigrants Straight† by Heather Mac Donald. Of course, she enumerates a long list of tragically imported social woes as well.

Of course, this is just a subset of the woes of Open Borders. The complete list would fill pages. Mass immigration has no upsides for ordinary Americans. Time for a change.

14 Peter Schaeffer December 30, 2007 at 6:10 pm


I don’t get this “seems to be coping” line.

Take a look at California. Gridlock, dead public schools, unafforable housing, rock bottom wages, MS-13, high taxes, air and water problems, power shortages, people living in garages, etc.

Is this coping? The American people don’t think so. They are leaving by the millions. The state can’t even keep (net) its college graduates. Even illegal aliens are fleeing the hell created by mass immigration.

California is ground zero for mass immigration and the American Dream has died in California.

15 josh December 30, 2007 at 6:21 pm


It is okay to care about the welfare of the immigrants as well as the natives, even to the point where a utilitarian might be willing to sacrifice some of the natives utility for substantially large improvements in immigrant utilities. It’s not clear at what point the costs to natives would even kick in given the usual story about efficiency gains, etc. It really isn’t necessary to rely on “non-rational” “prejudice” to support continued or even increased immigration.

16 tjr December 30, 2007 at 6:49 pm

2. A school voucher system is far and away a better option of allowing choice and therefore some market input into the provision of a major service for all consumers. Enough work has been done to design effective voucher systems that can be implemented anywhere in the world. The hardest problem is determining an equitable allocation of funds to the voucher system when different parts of the educational network are funded by taxpayers through either the Federal, State or local government taxes.

4. Getting global agreement on any approach to restricting greenhouse gases will be extremely difficult as it is the classic free rider problem. Game theory at least gives us some outlines of where we might be able to get agreement. It will be a multiple iterations negotiation and therefore it allows countries to start small to minimise damage to their own economies and therefore assess the reciprocity of other countries in the negotiations. Someone has to go first and the US could start with its own carbon pricing mechanism as a sign of goodwill in the game and then test the actions of other participants as to if, when and how much it needs to tighten its emissions profile.

5. In Australia markets are being developed for biodiversity reserves on private land holdings. Transferable fishing quotas and property rights mechanisms in the marine environment have been pretty well long established and are improving with the mixture of science and property rights in the various industries. There is no doubt diminishment of biodiversity is a problem but with its recognition and the application of effective market policies it becomes a solvable policy problem.

17 Roland December 30, 2007 at 7:21 pm

Excellent list, that does you credit.

On healthcare, another approach isn’t to worry about spending large sums of money (as we get richer, we want to buy better health above most things) but rather to focus on quality (getting what we pay for). As it happens, there are reasonably well-developed ideas about the way to accomplish this through evidence based medicine.

I have always thought that worrying about biological diversity is very sensible for someone who believes that economic diversity is inherently valuable.

As for immigration, it certainly brngs all kinds of people out of the woodwork. It seems to me that all immigration to date, illegal and legal combined, has had overwhelming and measurable individual and collective benefits. Some may assert that the fabric of society is “cracking” but these are just assertions. So your idea to take today’s flows as the baseline for policy is, I think, conservative. The main danger is not from the immigrants, but from native reaction, which I take seriously.

18 Slocum December 30, 2007 at 7:41 pm

Regarding China as world’s largest emitter, there is uncertainty about the amounts, but it certainly
has not been since 2006…

That colored underlined text in my post was a thing called a ‘hyperlink’ which pointed to a report indicating that China overtook the U.S. in 2006. Do you have a link that points out the error in that source?

Regarding global warming and “going first,” the hard fact is that neither China nor India will do anything unless the US goes first.

I would argue that the only way China and India are going to be induced to do anything is if their participation is a condition of U.S. participation.

Look, these are going to be hard-nosed negotiations where every nation will seek to get the best possible deal for itself while imposing costs on others, and if there are no strict measurement and enforcement mechanisms, nations will certainly cheat. This has been the pattern in Kyoto and there’s every reason to expect it to be the pattern in the next round.

This is a giant, global, game of ‘chicken’ such has never been played before. ‘Going first’ as a good-will gesture would be an irresponsibly foolish thing to do. If we do not hold Chinese feet to the fire (and vice versa), no progress will be made.

19 Ape Man December 30, 2007 at 7:48 pm

It seems to me that you have to argue for an end to free trade if you want US unilateral emissions cuts to have any real effect. Otherwise, you are just advocating sending more of the US manufacturing base overseas with no real environmental benefit.

I express my argument in somewhat greater detail here.

20 Bernard Yomtov December 30, 2007 at 8:14 pm

In the “country” called “The United States” the well being of its citizens and lawful immigrants counts. Foreigners and illegals don’t.

This is a stunningly immoral statement. The well-being of foreigners and illegals “doesn’t count?”

Fortunately, despite his proclamation, Peter Schaeffer doesn’t get to decide what does and does not “count” in the US.

21 student December 30, 2007 at 9:19 pm

people in my high school have lots of the same arguments for or against immigration, or whether or not illegals count as real people. I read this blog to escape that. Would you mind keeping this an educated conversation? (to both sides)

22 pjgoober December 30, 2007 at 10:28 pm

“More generally, we don’t know when the social and political fabric will start to crack in counterproductive fashion.”

By the time Mr. Cowen and many other instinctively pro-immigration types finally decide that the social and political fabric is starting to crack, I doubt that us pre-1965 stock americans will have nearly as much say in politics. We will have to trust that a large percentage of post-1965 stock americans will be dispassionate enough about the issue to support an immigration reduction that will largely bar their own relatives and co-ethnics abroad from immigrating here. I am skeptical of that.

23 jim December 31, 2007 at 12:25 am

On biodiversity. I’m still confused to what *exactly* the threat is and what are the negative human consequences.

Some quick #s.
5.4k mammal species
10k bird species
28k fish species
8.2k reptile species
6.2k amphib species

On the insect side the estimates range from 1-30 *million* species.

With bacteria the estimates are similarly massive: 1-100 *million* species.

All of our efforts at protecting endangered species has zero practical effect on the total # of extant species. Our efforts are a rounding error.

I’m actually fine with saving pretty animals. But that’s not the reason given. The reason is to protect *biodiversity*.

We’d protect more biodiversity by buying a few square miles of Brazilian rainforest than all our current efforts combined

24 Isaac Crawford December 31, 2007 at 12:39 am

Water policy? i would think that accurate pricing would go a long ways towards solving many of the problems. Here in Yemen, the best way to avert, or at least lessen the impending water crisis is to stop trying to support national agriculture with high tarrifs on imports. It turns out that you can indeed grow a lot of produce (and good stuff at that) on the Saudi peninsula if you are willing to expend 90% of your water doing it…

Isaac Crawford
Blogging in Yemen

25 anon December 31, 2007 at 1:51 am

To Peter Schaeffer:

1. “The list of nations that have fallen to multilingualism is long indeed.”

Really? And those that have NOT? India, China, Switzerland, Belgium(yet)……..

2. “Wages peaked in 1973 and have fallen substantially since.”

I’m not an expert but this statistic that Peter quotes seems awfully vague(whose wages? corrected for inflation or not?) and suspect. But maybe you are right Peter. I’m just putting it out here to get some more authoritative opinions.

In general, you seem to invoke immigration to explain everything that went sour with your version of the “mythical American Dream”. I already saw transportation, crime, wages and education. On those lines I’d also blame the immigrants for global-warming, fossil-fuel depletion and the energy-crises.

Immigration may not be right, but the points you list definitely are not convincing!

26 Barkley Rosser December 31, 2007 at 2:33 am


Regarding your California hysteria. I just checked data on states.
In 1990 CA was 10th in per capita income among states. In 2000 it
was 9th, and in 2007 it was 12th, not exactly evidence of collapse.
Oh, and unsurprisingly, many of the states ahead of it in per capita
income also happen to be major recipients of immmigration, such as
New York and Virginia. Duh.

27 Peter Schaeffer December 31, 2007 at 3:38 am

Barkley Rosser,

You failed to adjust the state per-capita income data for each state’s cost of living. I did. In 2005, California ranked 43rd in the nation. New York ranked 30th. For a map of the states ranked by 2006 median family income see Predictably California and New York are near the bottom.

However, they rank at the very top in terms of family inequality. See I guess rock bottom incomes combined with maximal inequality is the Open Borders version of nirvana.

But not to worry, California is definitely bringing up the rear when it comes to education. See for the percentage of 8th graders with “below basic† math skills and for the percentage of 8th graders with “below basic† reading skills. I could post the 8th grade science data. But alas, it is even worse.

28 Barkley Rosser December 31, 2007 at 4:59 am


OK. Cost of living is high in California. Main reason for that is that they have
placed restrictions on building new housing, and there has been massive speculation
in the housing market there. Not due to Mexicans. Life is still pretty good in
most of California. I have family there and visit regularly.

Your hysterical story from the LA Times is not all of California, much less all of
the US. Are there slums in some of the neighborhoods that the immigrants live in?
Yes. This has always been the case. The issue is what happens down the road, and
historically the US has done well at integrating immigrants. The data suggests that
holds up well for Mexicans as well, with most second and third generation ones speaking
English just fine.

Sure, school scores are lower when you have a higher percentage not speaking English.
They assimilate, and they adjust, although I am sure you will now blast us with all kinds
of phoney drivel claiming they do not. Fairfax County did not pass its SOL exam as
everyone had to take it in English. Still one of the best school systems in the country.

Oh yes, schools in CA have been hampered ever since the Jarvis prop got passed limiting
property tax increases. And Manhatten has had the most unequal income distribution of any
county in the US for decades. Does not look like it is exactly falling apart.

And, are you going to fess up that you provided us with an outright lie on the prison
population data? You did this before. You know this data. So you are engaging in
conscious distortions and lying. This is contemptible and despicable. Go lie elsewhere
to stupid fools who will fall for such tripe.

It is now New Year’s Eve, and I am not going to
repeat the long slugfest we had earlier this year. But, frankly, after that one, Peter,
your credibility is in the toilet, so I am not going to waste my time. But neither you
nor Steve Sailer should think that because you both shout and scream more loudly than
anybody else on this issue that either of you has convinced all the readers, or even any
who did not already agree with your Know Nothingism.

29 odograph December 31, 2007 at 9:00 am

On why we should be concerned with biodiversity loss, and why that should affect systems, I think it’s clear “simplified” biological systems are more fragile than natural ones. And when we “simplify” the natural systems upon which we depend (forest, fisheries) we increase our risk to crashes.

30 Barkley Rosser December 31, 2007 at 10:04 am


I did not and I am not disputing that China’s emissions are rising much more rapidly than
are those from the US, meaning indeed that if current trends hold, China will be well ahead
of the US in ten years time. But then ten years forward forecasts of things are exactly what
uncertainty is all about.

In any case, it is fine for an American, a citizen of a country whose Senate passed the
Byrd-Hagel Resolution 95-0 when the US was by far the world’s largest emitter, to say that
we will only condition our going first on them promising to do something. In the end, effectively
something like that is what will have to go down, but loud public squawking along such lines
simply leads to the rest of the world booing and hissing at our diplomats as happened to Paula
Dobriansky in Bali. Again, I warn, especially given the past bad behavior of the US in this
matter, we will simply have to go first for anything to happen.

I am not going to say anymore on this thread about anything beyond, Happy New Year everybody!

31 John Dewey December 31, 2007 at 11:06 am

Barkley Rosser: “While language differences have been associated with conflicts within some
countries, many others have endured them just fine for longer than the US has been
around, Switzerland for one.”

Not sure if you’re aware, but Spanish Texas was coping very well with multi-lingualism in the years before 1829. In fact, the former border communities of Spanish-speaking Nacogdoches and French-speaking Natchitoches engaged in healthy though regulated commerce after Spain acquired Louisiana in 1762. The migrating Americans added another language to the mix, and peace was maintained between and within communities.

After Mexico gained independence, it was the crackdown and control of Santa Anna and the Mexican centralists and not cultural differences that caused the War for Texas Independence. In fact, many of the Spanish speaking Tejanos joined their more numerous American immigrants in fighting for independence. Also, Texas was one of three Mexican states that attempted to gain independence from Santa Anna’s brutal rule.

Racial and religious prejudice on both sides was a factor leading to Texas independence. Spanish-speaking government leaders and their supporters treated the non-Catholic “gringos” with disdain, just as many of today’s opponents of immigration treat both legal and illegal Mexican workers.

The third major cause of the Texas Revolution was slavery. Though the Mexican government had initially allowed Americano settlers to immigrate with their slaves, they continually threatened to eliminate slavery. The Texas Revolution was in some ways a pre-cursor to the American Civil War.

Multi-ligualism does not necessarily lead to permanent cultural conflict. That was demonstrated in Spanish Texas, in New Orleans, and in many of our larger U.S. cities.

32 Deepish Thinker December 31, 2007 at 11:54 am

“4. I am uncertain how much the United States should “move first” with costly anti-global warming measures, assuming that China and other nations are not very cooperative.”

That would be “move second”. Europe moved first some time ago.

From a political perspective, the US has to move second because China, India and the rest of the developing world isn’t going to move at all until the US does.

Regardless of whether or not China is currently the largest CO2 emitter, the USA has been by far the largest emitter over the past 150 years. It is also by far the largest emitter on a per capita basis.

More importantly, the reluctance to move is based on the idea that doing something about global warming will crush the economy. This is not necessarily the case.

There is no need to tax and regulate ourselves into penury. By being smart about how we approach the problem we can set ourselves up for a bright economic future.

For example, by shifting the burden of taxes from work (an economic positive) to CO2 emission (a negative externality) we could guide the the future development of the economy in a way that is both environmentally friendly and wealth enhancing. As a fringe benefit, we would also become progressively less beholden to OPEC.

More here.

33 John Dewey December 31, 2007 at 12:02 pm

Tyler: “I do favor means-testing, mostly through lack of better ideas, but it is a) notoriously difficult to enforce, b) often unfair (do we measure income or wealth? current or lifetime?) and c) an implicit hike in marginal tax rates.”

Do you means-testing that would prohibit the wealthy from participating in Medicare? Such means-testing is just so unfair to impose after the fact. Those who accumulated wealth over decades, and who paid the taxes their politicians promised would provide them medical care, would be just screwed under such a plan. Had medicare not existed at all, they would have been able to negotiate some sort of lifetime medical insurance for a reasonable price. But once they are elderly, that option is closed.

Some seniors are basically uninsurable. In many states, diabetics cannot obtain medical insurance at any price. Means-testing of medicare would force many to move, leading to large increases in medical insurance costs in states which force insurance companies to cover diabetics.

By means-testing do you mean that higher-income or wealthy should pay more for medicare? Of course, they already do. Further, They likely paid much higher Medicare and Medicaid taxes throughout their lives.

Are you proposing that means-testing be phased in over decades, so that free markets in lifetime insurance are allowed to develop?

34 Adam Stein December 31, 2007 at 1:24 pm

Re #4:

The good news is that you can shed at least a little bit of your uncertainty and still remain a libertarian in good standing. The U.S. electrical grid operates nowhere near peak efficiency. About two thirds of the energy from our burning of fossil fuels is sent up the smokestack as waste heat. What accounts for this massive inefficiency? The continued treatment of utilities as regulated monopolies.

So: deregulate electricity production, boost efficiency, lower carbon emissions, and improve the economy. Everyone wins.

This alone won’t solve global warming, but the potential savings are fairly eye-popping, and we certainly don’t need to wait for China to start realizing them.

35 Bernard Yomtov December 31, 2007 at 1:41 pm

Don’t forget this: even if your view is the one “most likely to be right,” in absolute terms your view, like mine, is probably wrong relative to the sum of competing views

Overconfidence in the accuracy of one’s views is a widespread problem, but it is exceptionally serious among ideologues, like Marxists, religious fundamentalists, and libertarians.

Of course I could be wrong.

36 John Dewey December 31, 2007 at 4:01 pm

Peter Schaeffer: “Your capsule history of Texas and Mexico should be taken as a warning to anyone willing to listen. Mexico tolerated immigration from a country with a different language, culture, and religion. Mexico was broken as a nation as a consequence. ”

Did you even read my post, Peter? I made it very clear that Spanish Texas had a vibrant economy that embraced multilingualism and diverse cultures. The Spanish and Mexican governments didn’t just “tolerate iimmigration”, they invited immigrants. American, German, and Irish immigrants were all given land grants by the Mexican government.

Mexico was broken as a single entity only after Santa Anna initiated a crackdown. He insisted on enforcing Spanish-only laws that had been wisely ignored. He imposed federal controls over the desires of local communities. He enlisted the military in collecting tithes to the Catholic Church. He treated the invited immigrants with disdain.

The ill-fated practices of Santa Anna are being repeated in the U.S. today. Anti-immigrationists insist on an English-only culture. They insisted on a federal border fence, overruling Texas border towns that thrive from trans-border economic activity. Anti-immigrationists continue to demean the Mexican workers who build our homes and harvest our crops. The attitudes of anti-immigrationists today will lead to severe backlash at the voting booth over the long term, just as Santa Anna’s disdain for Americanos forced a revolt in Texas. I will cheer their defeat.

37 Steve Sailer December 31, 2007 at 6:18 pm

Texas — the key issue was slavery, which Mexico outlawed in 1828, but the American immigrants wanted.

38 michael gordon December 31, 2007 at 10:26 pm

1) Whether you are for or against “illegal immigration” — or even for an amnesty for those residing here over a specific period of time — the comparisons made by some posters with the alleged stability of multi-lingual countries with the development of large Spanish-speaking populations here in the US is strikingly misleading.

2) How so?

2) Switzerland is an example of regionally based language groups, German speaking (75% or so), French-speaking (about 22%), and Italian (about 2.0%, plus a small Romanish group). Divided into separate cantons, these diverse ethnic groups — totalling 6 million — have a highly decentralized federal system that approaches a confederation: to an extent, even though less so than in the past, individual cantons can veto major changes in legislation. Switzerland’s uniqueness is further brought out by a long history of neutrality and a refusal not simply to join the EU (the case of Norway), but even to develop a free-trade association with it. Similarly, its politics in Berne are organized to foster a grand coalition, itself unique in democratic societies, even though it has now changed as the leading party, the Swiss People’s Party (headed by the billionaire Christoph Blocher, has officially moved into opposition . . . something Swiss politics hasn’t witnessed for decades (if ever). Click here:

3) China: 92% of the population are Han Chinese, and though they speak different regional variations of Chinese, they identify with China’s historic past, present, and future. The 8% non-Chinese Han are located in faraway if important border regions, and they include the oppressed Tibetans (a million or so killed since Chinese occupation in the mid-1950s) and rebellions among some of the Muslim populations along the western borders.) What holds the minorities to China is the presence of a Communist monopoly rule, with a large military and police presence. Similar comments apply, to a lesser extent, to the daily protests, strikes, riots, and occasional killings in the countryside of tax-collectors and CP officials.

4)India: a remarkable country, no two ways about it . . . the more so since it is badly fragmented among different religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups, often violently at odds with one another. Its advances in economic growth, technological advance, and increasing openness to the global economy are impressive, especially when compared with Pakistan — which gained independence along with India after the British left in 1947, amid huge population transfers and mass killings . . . several million. Pakistan is equally riven, less by religious conflicts (though fundamentalist vs. moderate Muslims is a serious one) than region-based tribalism, with the Pakistani government unable to maintain control of its northern provinces. Pakistan is also very poor, technologically backward, and unstable.

That said, the split into Muslim-dominated Pakistan (in two parts, east and west) and Hindu-majority India not only led to massive murder and massive population cleansing and transfers, but unstable boundaries in the north . . . especially in Kashmir. India, to be brief, remains something of a miracle, but hardly an exemplar of copycat multilingualism.

5) Belgium? Patched together by the great powers in 1832 from the Netherlands, it has never had a solid national identity of the sort found in Holland to the north or France to the south, and it has taken several months even to form a new governmental coalition. As with Corsica in France and Catalonia in Spain — multilinguistic country — Flemish nationalism has been revived and stoked by the diminished national identities fostered by EU regionalism, with increasing transfer of a fair number of important decisions to EU institutions.

6) Then there was the Soviet Union, the successor to the Russian Czarist empire — with 15 major linguistic/ethnic groups and dozens or hundreds of smaller ones. Despite hundreds of years of such Russian rule, the Soviet Union disappeared as soon as the major non-Russian Republics could succeed in 1991, and no sooner did that happen than two wars with Chechnya broke out in federal Russia, plus continued violence in Georgia and to an extent in Azerbejian (where a large Armenian minority lives regionally) Yugoslavia, another multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic country, quickly divided among large-scale violence into several countries after the fall of the Soviet Union and the break-up of the Yugoslavia CP. The Ottoman empire earlier on? No need to elaborate, right?

7) The upshot of all this?

Well, those who extol the harmony and success of multilinguistic societies are hard-pressed to find any that are democratic, industrialized and rich, stable, and able to manage their linguistic/religious conflicts other than Switzerland and Canada. And the secessionist movement in Quebec, when put to a vote in 1995, almost gained a slight majority (50.6 percent “no” vs. 49.4 percent “yes”). Among the large French-speaking population in Quebec, 60% voted for independence.

As for the short-lived period of alleged multi-lingual harmony in Mexican-controlled Texas, it’s even hard to know what relevance that has for the US compared to these modern examples.

8) One other point.

There’s some confusion in these posts about multilingual societies between “ethnic” nationalism and “civic nationalism”. Historically, in West Europe, only Britain and France fostered civic nationalism: anyone born in the country with residence there could claim citizenship, and immigrants after a periodf residence could too. In the new world, the US and Canada have similar civic citizenship (Australia didn’t in any full sense until the 1970s). Ethnic citizenship — pervasive in Scandinavia, Holland, Germany, Austria, Spain, and Italy (never mind Eastern Europe) — required proof until the 1970s and 1980s that you were born to a family of the ethnic heritage of these countries. Even today, full citizenship rights for long-time non-European residents — even those born there — are only reluctantly be granted in some of these ethnic nationalist countries.

The Buggy Professor, AKA Michael Gordon

39 mik January 1, 2008 at 5:22 am

sneaky sez:

“If there’s nothing good on tv on a particular night, it’s because of them immigrants. If it rained on your way to work this morning, it’s because of them immigrants. If the side of your foot itches, well, what else, it’s them immigrants. If your puppy made sad eyes at you today, it’s them immigrants. If your mommy didn’t love you enough, you know who to blame.

And then these folks turn around and accuse others of not wanting to have a rational discussion.”

Bravo, sneak. Great post.
So much logic, so much deep thought.
You are perfect OpenBorder believer.

40 mik January 1, 2008 at 6:56 am

Barkley Rosser sez:

“Ah, and now a specific claim that is simply false. You say 1/3 of the prison
population is foreign born? I just checked. According to the Department of Justice
in 2005, the percent is 6.7%. Did you get your hysterical number from the unreliable
Heather MacDonald? We went around on this the last time you were here ranting and
raving about this stuff. It was fully established that in fact immigrants have lower
crime rates than the native born population, not higher ones, although I grant that
children of Mexican immigrants may have higher ones. Can’t you get it together and
stop spreading outright lies about this issue?”

Thank you for a calm, logical and well sourced post.

I don’t have data for the USA.
For CA I have this (

“As Investors Business Daily reported in March 2005:

The U.S. Justice Department estimated that 270,000 illegal immigrants served jail
time nationally in 2003. Of those, 108,000 were in California.”

This document (
shows 173K prisoners in CA in 2006.
If my math is correct 108K / 173K > 50%.
In fact it is 62%, but then we have to consider that 108k and 173k are for different years.

So, at least for “Good Life” California we can confidently say that hard working immigrants
contribute way more than 6.7% to the prison population.

Must be all that illegal immigrant jaywalking.

41 LN January 1, 2008 at 1:37 pm

mik — that 50% number is certainly wrong.

Latinos account for 38% of the California prison population.
17% of the prisoners were born abroad.

26% of California’s general population was born abroad

Glad to be of assistance in getting the facts right!

42 michael gordon January 1, 2008 at 5:47 pm


I looked over your three posts in these threads, all of which involve screaming at others and extravagant sarcasm of a comic-opera sort, nothing else. It’s a waste of time to reply to your capitalized screech, but I will clarify a point about multi-lingual countries for those in this thread who show a mastery of reasoning powers, plus some civility.

The US is not a multi-lingual country like the others in the stable, affluent democratic world — Canada, Switzerland, and Belgium. It is not officially one at all. In all three of the others, you can become a citizen as an immigrant resident after a period of time if you speak one of the officially recognized languages. In Canada, our neighbor to the North — Notsneaky thinks, apparently, it’s in Europe — you can take your written and oral exams in either English or French. (In Switzerland, note, you also have to pay tens of thousands of dollars worth of Swiss Francs).

In the US, there is only one way to become a citizen: to pass written and oral tests in English. Without passing these tests, you cannot vote or enjoy all the other rights of full citizenship. Notsneaky and others might wish it were differently, but Notsneaky, for one, isn’t going to get far in convincing his fellow citizens to change our Constitutional requirements with his boorish manners and crackling snap-like sarcasm.

I should add that as a professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara — with a Ph.D. in both political science and economics (from Harvard) — I have been very impressed with the quality of Tyler Cowen’s posts and with the equally impressive quality of the one thread I participated in so far: a post of Professor Cowen’s on Denmark and movement of EU citizens in and out of it and the rest of the EU, plus (in the comments section) lots of wider-ranging matters about the relative merits of the advance welfare-statist economies of Scandinavia and the relatively free-market economy of the US.

In that thread, the various forum members who commented were all civil, open-minded, and showed how to reason logically and at times with evidence. When they (or I) were criticized, they and I didn’t erupt in loud-mouthed rants or insult one another with abusive hyperbole, nor did they exhibit any of Notsneaky’s swaggering self-opionated ignorance. It was one of the most rewarding exchanges I’ve had on the Internet outside of exchanges with scholars themselves.

I can only hope that some of what I’ve seen on display in this thread by Notsneaky and maybe one or two others of his ilk won’t be repeated in other threats at this otherwise admirable web site.

Michael Gordon AKA the buggy professor

43 Dolohov January 1, 2008 at 7:03 pm


Number 4 is (to me) a no-brainer: we need to move as quickly as possible, while we are still positioned as a technology leader. Whoever moves first is going to be the one tackling the big problems — and developing the patents and techniques that everyone else will want to use. We’ve already got a number of fledgling companies and university labs that would be invaluable. Given a little more incentive and investment, we could be the ones selling low-carbon technology to China, India, and Europe. If we wait too long, though, we’ll wind up buying the technology from them.

44 Andrew January 2, 2008 at 1:06 am

I’m CERTAIN that I want entitlement insolvency denialists to not be allowed to control how I choose to allocate my money to prepare for my retirement and medical expenses.

45 Daniel Reeves January 2, 2008 at 3:50 pm

^ I meant to say legalized in Holland. Whoops.

46 crasshopper January 5, 2008 at 4:47 pm

How do we know that 18 is the age at which children become rational adults? This is a neuroeconomics question but in my experience grown-ups would buy fewer big-screen TV’s and iTouches if they followed their own advice to their kids about how many toys is too many.

47 Longleaf April 6, 2008 at 10:58 am

I agree that where biodiversity devolves into simply looking at number of species that much is lost (similar to problem of GNP as a measure of welfare).

I also agree that nature is resilient. However, species extinctions as a result of human actions do occur (dodo bird, passenger pigeon, etc.) and so far as I know nature isn’t likely to recreate similar species in a short time frame or ever.

Back in the day when I took plant physiology I remember that the wheat crops have been saved as a result of infusion of genes from wild, disease-resistant relatives.

Crop systems that are simplified are more subject to disease and other problems. We have mitigated some of these issues by accessing biodiversity outside of these systems. That is an argument for retaining biological reserves in tropical, temperate, artic regions of the world regardless of number of species.
“In addition to these services, biodiversity provides goods that are essential to human survival and development. These goods include the vast majority of our foodstuffs. Biodiversity also maintains food security, for when traditional food sources fail, a healthy, ‘biodiverse’ ecosystem can usually provide viable alternative supplies. Wild biodiversity guards against the failure of even the most advanced agricultural systems. For example, the productivity of many of the developed world’s agricultural crops is maintained through the regular assimilation of new genes from wild relatives of these crops. These wild genes offer resistance to the pests and diseases that pose an ever-evolving threat to harvests. Genes drawn from wild populations of wheat and corn alone are worth over $2.7 billion per year to the food economy of the developed world. ”

Life returns after fire and other natural disasters, and life will undoubtedly survive the human species. Loss of species is relevant to to well-being of myself and future generations, not to whether some species can survive our depredations.

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