Philosophy

Symposium co-sponsored by the Mercatus Center:

Economists on the Welfare State and the Regulatory State: Why Don’t Any Argue in Favor of One and Against the Other?

The symposium Prologue suggests that among economists in the United States, on matters of the welfare state and the regulatory state, virtually none favors one while opposing the other. Such pattern is a common and intuitive impression, and is supported by scatterplots of survey data. But what explains the pattern? Why don’t some economists favor one and oppose the other?

Contributors address those questions:

Dean Baker:
Do Welfare State Liberals Also Love Regulation?

Andreas Bergh:
Yes, There Are Hayekian Welfare States (At Least in Theory)

Marjorie Griffin Cohen:
The Strange Career of Regulation in the Welfare State

Robert Higgs:
Two Ideological Ships Passing in the Night

Arnold Kling:
Differences in Opinion Among Economists About Government and Market Efficiency

Anthony Randazzo and Jonathan Haidt:
The Moral Narratives of Economists

Scott Sumner:
Moral Differences in Economics: Why Is the Left-Right Divide Widening?

Cass Sunstein:
Unhelpful Abstractions and the Standard View

The home page for the issue is here.

I wrote a short piece on this for Vox, here is one excerpt:

Who is the most influential public intellectual of the last 20 years?

This designation should go to someone who actually has helped change the world, rather than just changing lots of minds. It also should go to someone who has embodied key trends of the time, noting that for both standards I am focusing on the United States.

Based on those standards, I am inclined to pick Andrew Sullivan, who is most recently in the news for his announcement that he is quitting after fifteen years of blogging.

Any discussion of Sullivan’s influence must begin with gay marriage. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia already have legalized gay marriage, representing a majority of the American population, with possibly Alabama and others to follow. A broader Supreme Court decision for nationwide legalization may be on the way. More generally, gay rights have taken a major leap forward.

…I thought long and hard before selecting Andrew for the designation of most influential public intellectual. Perhaps Paul Krugman has changed more minds, but his agenda hasn’t much changed the world; we haven’t, for instance, gone back to do a bigger fiscal stimulus. Peter Singer led large numbers of people into vegetarianism and veganism and gave those practices philosophic respectability; he is second on my list. A generation ago, I would have picked Milton Friedman, for intellectual leadership in the direction of capitalist and pro-market reforms. But that is now long ago, and the Right has produced no natural successor.

Self-recommending!  And again, please note, you should not confuse the designation “most influential” with “the person who, I, the reader, would most like to see elevated in status.”  That would be a fallacy of mood affiliation.

American Sniper is one of the best anti-war movies I have seen, ever.  But it shows the sniper-assassin, and his killing, to be sexy, and to be regarded as sexy by women, while the rest of war is dull and stupid.  (Even the two enemy snipers are quite attractive and fantastic figures, and there is a deliberate parallel between the family life of the Syrian sniper and the American protagonist.  The klutziness of the non-assassin soldiers limited how many African-Americans and Hispanics they were willing to cast in those roles, as it is easiest to make white guys look crass in this way without causing offense.)  By making the attractions of war palpable, this film disturbs and confuses people and also occasions some of the worst critical reviews I have read.  It also, by understanding and then dissecting the attractions of blood lust, becomes a quite convincing anti-war movie, if you doubt this spend a few months studying The Iliad.  (By the way, Clint Eastwood, the director and producer, describes the movie as anti-war.)  The murder scenes create an almost unbearable tension, the sandstorm is a metaphor for our collective fog, and they had the stones to opt for the emotional overkill of four rather than just three tours of duty.  Iraq is presented as a hopeless wasteland with nothing of value or relevance to the United States, and at the end of the story America proves its own worst enemy.  It is not clear who ever gets over having killed and fought in a war (can anything else be so gripping?…neither family life nor sex…), even when appearances suggest a kind of normality has returned.  The generational cycle is in any case replenished.  I say A or A+, both as a movie and as a Rorschach test.

Two Days, One Night has some of the worst economics I have seen in a movie, ever.  It would be brilliant as a kind of Randian (or for that matter Keynesian) meta-critique of the screwed up nature of Belgian labor markets and social norms, and most of all a critique of the inability of the Belgian intelligentsia to understand this, except it is not.  It is meant as a straight-up plea for sympathy for the victim and as such it fails miserably, even though as a movie it embodies reasonably good production values.  Everything in the workplace of this solar power company is zero-sum across the workers and we never see why.  The protagonist campaigns to get her job back, but never asks or even considers how she might improve her productivity or attitude, asking only on the basis of need.  (And she is turned down only on the basis of need.)  At one point her employer states the zero marginal product hypothesis quite precisely, something like “when you took time off, we saw that sixteen people could do the work of seventeen.”  She never asks if there might be some other way she could contribute — but she does need the money — nor does the notion of a better job match somewhere else rear its head.  The depictions of financial hardship confuse wealth and income, basic survival and discretionary spending.  The rave reviews this movie has received represent yet another Rorschach test and one which virtually every commentator seems to have failed.

Mostly, yes, although with some caveats (the headline of the piece doesn’t exactly capture this).  That is the topic of my latest column for The Upshot.  Here is one excerpt:

Niclas Berggren…and Therese Nilsson…have produced a fascinating series of papers on these questions, sometimes writing singly, sometimes together or with the collaboration of a variety of co-authors. Their most notable study is perhaps a paper they wrote together, “Does Economic Freedom Foster Tolerance?

…One of their most striking findings is that societies characterized by greater economic freedom and greater wealth do indeed exhibit greater tolerance toward gay people, a tendency suggesting that gay rights, including gay marriage, will spread globally as national economies liberalize and develop.

Some metrics of economic freedom count more than others:

This greater tolerance is strongly associated only with certain features of what has often been defined as economic freedom. For example, a smaller government, measured as a share of gross domestic product, is often included in so-called economic freedom indexes as an objective measure of freedom. But the data show that smaller government has a slight negative correlation with tolerance of gay people by heterosexuals. One implication is that many conservatives may be overly preoccupied with the size of government as a measure of how free societies actually are.

On the other hand, the data shows that when a society has impressive scores on property rights security and low inflation — two other components of economic freedom indexes — these characteristics are strongly and positively correlated with tolerance of gays. It’s possible that low inflation, and the behavior of a central bank, are stand-ins for the general trustworthiness of a nation’s government and broader institutions, and such trustworthiness helps foster tolerance.

The results for race are not nearly as strong, namely both freedom and prosperity are less clearly associated with higher levels of racial tolerance, although the correlation is still a positive one.

And there is this:

We are often told that education is an important remedy, yet it does not register as a meaningful factor in the cross-country data in this paper. Higher levels of education simply have not correlated significantly with higher levels of tolerance across countries.

Do read the whole thing.

Arrived in my pile

by on January 22, 2015 at 1:17 pm in Books, History, Philosophy | Permalink

Ian Morris, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve.

A Tanner Lecture, with comments by Richard Seaford, Jonathan D. Spence, Christine Korsgaard, and Margaret Atwood, and edited by Stephen Macedo.  Due out March 22.

From a 2007 piece by Matheny and Leahy:

Campaigns directed toward pigs and cattle, however, could have a negative welfare effect by shifting consumption to poultry and fish products, which provide significantly less food per animal life-year. In fact, removing only poultry, eggs, and farmed fish from the diets of one hundred people would affect more animals than turning ninety-nine people vegan. If it is easier for consumers to shift consumption among animal products than to eschew all animal products, then this arithmetic has implications for both welfarist and abolitionist strategies.

That is from Natalie Cargill.  And the article is informative throughout.  You will note however that when it comes to environmental impact, red meat from the larger animals is typically the much larger problem.  So which do you care about more, animal welfare or the environment?  Or are you only willing to talk about margins where both improve?  By the way:

In the United States, there are only 220 veterinarians responsible for the care of more than nine billion farm animals.

Tucked between their 4K televisio​ns and their induction cooktop stove, Panasonic’s booth at the Consumer Electronic Show is also home to a futuristic magic mirror way more terrifying than that disembodied mask f​rom Snow White.

The Japanese heavy-hitter’s smart mirror has digital displays, including a secondary projection of your own reflection. The projection can be virtually altered to display different makeup looks, hairdos, and even facial hair styles.

But here’s where it gets really fun: it can also pinpoint all your flaws, from tiny wrinkles to barely-perceptible pores, and then “recommend” a series of beauty products and treatments in order to improve your look. Because apparently we weren’t picking apart our reflections enough as it is.

It also keeps track of your horrible, hideous flaws, so you can see if all the money you spent is working, or if you ought to spend more money.

“Once you start using products, you can track whether or not they’ve been working,” sales rep Joey Liao explained cheerfully, gesturing to another volunteer who sat pouting at a vanity. “So if she buys a very expensive new night cream and a month later has made no progress, goodbye night cream! You don’t need to invest in that anymore. You can use a different product.”

That story was sent to me by the excellent Mark Thorson, who also points us to the Norwegian Caribbean cruise that has a special snow room.

The tables have turned on zoo-goers in China — where people are paying to be locked in cages while hungry lions and tigers stalk their every move.

The Lehe Ledu Wildlife Zoo in Chongqing city is giving people the hair-raising chance to learn what it’s like to come face to face with an apex predator, Central European News reports.

Visitors are forking over their cash to be caged inside the back of a truck as it makes its way through the animal park. Just to make sure they get the attention of the beasts, huge chunks of raw meat are tied to the bars to lure them as close as possible.

“We wanted to give our visitors the thrill of being stalked and attacked by the big cats but with, of course, none of the risks,” said zoo spokeswoman Chan Liang. “The guests are warned to keep their fingers and hands inside the cage at all times because a hungry tiger wouldn’t know the difference between them and breakfast.”

The chilling, once-in-a-lifetime experience has been a hit with visitors — the trips have been sold out for the next three months, according to CEN.

The link is here, via NinjaEconomics.  Elsewhere, in New York they are banning the tiger selfie, with or without huge chunks of raw meat.  Yet also in New York, Tough Mudder has added tear gas to some of its obstacle routines, via Hugo Lindgren.

If you read a book, how many other related or similar books does it make you order?  (Of wish to order, if you are budget constrained.)  If the number is at least three or four, the book you read is almost certainly very interesting and worthwhile, if not always accurate.

Andrew Roberts’s biography of Napoleon made me want to read an additional biography of Napoleon, because it made his life to me more interesting.  It made Napoleon’s period more interesting too.  I might read a book on cavalry tactics as well, a topic I have never read on before.

Some books pretend to be the final word on a topic, but it is unlikely they succeed.  If you don’t end your read with some additional book orders, maybe you need to ask yourself what exactly went wrong.

At times it is not a book order which is the appropriate follow-up.  Say you read a book on Sri Lanka and you respond by going to Sri Lanka, well that counts too.  Or a biography of Beethoven may lead you to more of his music, rather than to another book on his life.

If I apply the Amazon order test, the best book for me this last year was Michael Hoffman’s Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.

Hofmann’s book wins additional points for chain effects, namely the books I ordered, as a result of reading Hofmann, in turn made me want to order further books.  But chain effects are tricky.  Following my read of Andrew Roberts, and then a follow-up Napoleon biography, will I read yet another life of Napoleon?  That may depend on how good the follow-up is, and Roberts should not be held liable for that.  Or should he?  What should you think of a book which leads you to so-so follow-ups rather than to excellent follow-ups?  A blog post which does the same?

What percentage of the value of a book is derived from the quality of the follow-ups it induces?  Under plausible rates of discounting, for serial readers this could easily by eighty or ninety percent or more.  (Could it be that actual book reviews are not consequentialist? Horrors.)  How about a book review outlet which refuses to consider the books under consideration, but rather considers and evaluates what they will induce you to read next?

I would subscribe.

France’s influential economist Thomas Piketty, author of “Capital in the 21st Century”, on Thursday refused to accept the country’s highest award, the Legion d’honneur, to criticise the Socialist government in power.

“I refuse this nomination because I do not think it is the government’s role to decide who is honourable,” Piketty told AFP.

“They would do better to concentrate on reviving (economic) growth in France and Europe,” added Piketty, who was once close to the Socialist Party but has distanced himself from the policies of President Francois Hollande.

The link is here, via many people in my Twitter feed, including Justin Wolfers and Claudia Sahm.  There is a bit more here.

Kevin Drum offers some commentary on my take on the uncertainties of 2015.  But keep in mind, by focusing on uncertainties the inquiry has an intrinsic pessimistic bias.  Lots of good things will happen in 2015 too, it’s just that they aren’t very uncertain.  Catch-up growth will continue in most nations, even if at slower rates in many cases.  Medical progress will lumber along.  Poverty will diminish.  Poems will be read and utils will sparkle in people’s brains.  A number of good books will be produced and you will be able to read about some of them right here on MR.  Washington, D.C. will continue to become an interesting city.  More and more people will experience the joys of parenthood.  Indeed there is quite a good chance 2015 will be one of the best years the world ever has seen!

But again, the uncertainties of 2015…those are mostly going to be negative.

Here is the final paragraph from a recent MRI paper by Farrow, Burgess, Wilkinson, and Hunter, “Neural correlates of self-deception and impression-management“:

Taken together, one appealing ‘pop-psychology’  interpretation of these results would be that being excessively honest with ourselves (‘faking bad’ at self-deception) is our least indulged in pursuit while giving out the best possible image of ourselves to other (‘faking good’ at impression-management) is a behaviour with which we are much more familiar and practised.

From the abstract you can read that “Our neuroimaging data suggest that manipulating self-deception and impression-management…engages a common network…”

Robin Hanson has suggested related hypotheses in the past.  Caveat emptor, for the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Here for instance is the CR symposium on John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness.  I believe there will be more to come.

“Something out there is killing everything, and you’re probably next.”

You can view the talk here.  It is called “The Great Filter.”

You can file this one under “Questions that are rarely asked.”  The authors are Bauman, Gale, and Milton and the subtitle is Cross sectional study of political affiliation and physical activity.  It seems, in fact, that the armchair socialists are up out of their chairs:

Objective To examine the validity of the concept of left wing “armchair socialists” and whether they sit more and move less than their right wing and centrist counterparts.

Design Secondary analysis of Eurobarometer data from 32 European countries.

Setting The study emanated from the authors’ sit-stand desks (rather than from their armchairs).

Participants Total of 29 193 European adults, of whom 1985 were left wing, 1902 right wing, 17 657 political centrists, and 7649 politically uncommitted.

Main outcome measures Self-reported political affiliation, physical activity, and total daily sitting time.

Methods Linear models were used to examine the relation between physical activity, sitting time, and reported political affiliation.

Results The findings refute the existence of an “armchair socialist”; people at the extremes of both ends of the political spectrum were more physically active, with the right wing reporting 62.2 more weekly minutes of physical activity (95% confidence interval 23.9 to 100.5), and the left wing 57.8 more minutes (20.6 to 95.1) than those in the political centre. People with right wing political affiliations reported 12.8 minutes less time sitting a day (3.8 to 21.9) than the centrists. It is those sitting in the middle (politically) that are moving less, and possibly sitting more, both on the fence and elsewhere, making them a defined at-risk group.

Conclusions There is little evidence to support the notion of armchair socialists, as they are more active than the mainstream in the political centre. Encouraging centrists to adopt stronger political views may be an innovative approach to increasing their physical activity, potentially benefiting population health.

The full paper is here, and for the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.