Month: July 2018

Wednesday assorted links

In Defense of the American Revolution

The economic historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel writes an informed defense of the American Revolution. Here’s the opening:

It has become de rigueur, even among libertarians and classical liberals, to denigrate the benefits of the American Revolution. Thus, libertarian Bryan Caplan writes:  “Can anyone tell me why American independence was worth fighting for?… [W]hen you ask about specific libertarian policy changes that came about because of the Revolution, it’s hard to get a decent answer. In fact, with 20/20 hindsight, independence had two massive anti-libertarian consequences: It removed the last real check on American aggression against the Indians, and allowed American slavery to avoid earlier—and peaceful—abolition.”1 One can also find such challenges reflected in recent mainstream writing, both popular and scholarly.

In fact, the American Revolution, despite all its obvious costs and excesses, brought about enormous net benefits not just for citizens of the newly independent United States but also, over the long run, for people across the globe. Speculations that, without the American Revolution, the treatment of the indigenous population would have been more just or that slavery would have been abolished earlier display extreme historical naivety. Indeed, a far stronger case can be made that without the American Revolution, the condition of Native Americans would have been no better, the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies would have been significantly delayed, and the condition of European colonists throughout the British empire, not just those in what became the United States, would have been worse than otherwise.

45 Things Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag

Here are the first four:

1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

Here is the longer list, via Adam.  You can order the book here.

Why “grib”?

If you have co-authored with me, perhaps you have noticed that occasionally I leave the word “grib” inside a Microsoft Word document.  That is simply a marker for where I left off work and wish to resume.  You will notice that if you enter “grib” into a document search, you are unlikely to pick up any other word that has “grib” in the middle of it, and so you will arrive right to this bookmark.

And if you find yourself adding too many “gribs,” because you have left off work at too many places, only never to return, you can deploy “gribb” to express a higher level of urgency.  Your search for “gribb” will not pick up any of your “grib” markers, of course, though your search for “grib” will refer you to “gribb” too.

I do recognize that the productivity gain here is small.  And much of that gain simply may come from the feeling that “I have a system” rather than from the properties of the system itself.

Happy Fourth of July! (grib)

Pay more attention to Congress

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

Americans’ growing preoccupation with the culture wars has meant a greater focus on the two branches of government where these often symbolic battles are most fought and noticed: the presidency and the Supreme Court. A byproduct is the relative neglect of the third branch, Congress.

This has led to poor governance. Not long ago, the Republicans passed a tax reform bill, in part because they thought voters would like it. Six months later, the bill is losing popularity. The benefits of the bill are not generally transparent, the economy is doing fine anyway, and even diehard Republicans don’t seem so excited.

If you think that exercising the “power of the purse” is one of the most fundamental roles of Congress, this reflects relative voter indifference toward the legislative branch. The incentives are weak for either party to try again to improve the U.S. tax system, and so it will remain distortive and overly complex.

…I would prefer to see the electorate give up some of its current fascination with the Supreme Court and the presidency and take a stronger interest in Congress. For one thing, a change of focus might encourage Congress to check the powers of the president when it comes to trade, foreign policy and immigration.

There is much more at the link.  And Peter Suderman covers related themes (NYT).

Tuesday assorted links

1. “But vice serves as a kind of screen, weeding out the rare few who might have moral qualms about future dealings.”

2. Nathan Heller on the new Annie Lowrey UBI book.

3. Aaron Carroll on what we are learning about the Medicaid expansions (NYT).

4. The monster has been with us all along.  Recommended.

5. “Last year, as insurance prices rose by an average of just over 20 percent around the country, people who qualified for Obamacare subsidies hung onto their insurance. But the increases appear to have been too much to bear for many customers who earned too much to qualify for financial help. According to a new government report, about a million people appear to have been priced out of the market for health insurance last year.” NYT link here.

My Conversation with Juan Pablo Villarino

Juan is sometimes considered the world’s greatest hitchhiker, and this was one of my favorite installments in the series.  We talked about “the joys of connecting with people, why it’s so hard to avoid stereotypes (including of hitchhikers), how stamp collecting guides his trips, the darkest secrets of people he’s gotten rides from, traveling and writing books with his wife, the cause of violence in the Americas, finding the emotional heart of a journey, where he’s going next…” and which country has the most beautiful women (and men).  And why Colombia and Transnistria are two of his favorite places to visit.

Here is the transcript and audio.

Here is one excerpt:

VILLARINO: As a rule of thumb, I always like to say that you stop cars with your smile and not with your thumb. There are actually a lot of things you could do to improve your chances of getting a lift.

It’s not like go there, stick out your thumb, and get a ride. Definitely, smiling as a car is passing — it’s a really important thing. Then there are very subtle things that people wouldn’t guess that have an impact, and they do…

For example, a driver has on average three seconds to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. He sees you, he’s driving maybe 80 miles an hour, and you suddenly pop out. There are a lot of things going on unconsciously through his mind to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. You have only these seconds to convey any message of trust, and so you have to do things.

For example, one is smiling. The other one is, when you manage to get eye contact, then I reinforce. Let’s say, I’m showing my thumb, but I also switch my hand signal and point it to the direction in which I’m going as I’m smiling. This makes a more personalized link over the general link you are already doing, which is thumbing.

Then the way you are dressed, the way your backpack is positioned . . .

And:

COWEN: In your six slowest, you have in that worst six Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark with slow times [for being picked up hitchhiking].

VILLARINO: Oh, yeah. Scandinavia.

COWEN: Those countries have plenty of cars. Why are they so slow?

VILLARINO: That’s amazing. To be hitchhiking in Scandinavia, you see all this row of Volvo cars passing you by [laughs] and they will never ever stop.

I had talked to a Swedish friend of mine, and she just said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t stop either,” she said, “because it’s so cheap and affordable to have a car. Then if someone is hitchhiking and doesn’t have a car, you would think he has second intentions or something wrong is going on here.”

And:

COWEN: Would you describe yourself as a workaholic hitchhiker?

VILLARINO: Yes. [laughs] I am. People would be so surprised to see how much time there is involved on the backstage behind the screen because you hitchhike, you have books, and you have a blog. The blog is so time consuming.

Juan had the very best answer I thought as to why the New World is more violent than the Old World, overall.  It starts with this:

VILLARINO: Probably because in our evolution as territories, we have had violence as a part of it much more recently in the timeline. We were conquered by means of powder. I think that’s probably in the genetic of our culture. I hope not.

Strongly recommended, and I hope to read and see more of Juan in the future.

Trump understands this, perhaps you do not

Given the very negative baseline views that respondents have of immigrants, simply making them think about immigration in a randomized manner makes them support less redistribution, including actual donations to charities.

That is from research by Alesina, Miano, and Stantcheva.  And don’t forget this:

We also experimentally show respondents information about the true i) number, ii) origin, and iii) “hard work” of immigrants in their country. On its own, information on the “hard work” of immigrants generates more support for redistribution. However, if people are also prompted to think in detail about immigrants’ characteristics, then none of these favorable information treatments manages to counteract their negative priors that generate lower support for redistribution.

The still-coherent culture that is the United States

From Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica at NBER:

The results overall refute the hypothesis of growing cultural divides.  With few exceptions, the extent of cultural distance has been broadly constant over time.

The data also show that:

1. From to 1995, the time use behavior of women and men converged a good deal, but not since then.

2. Differences in social attitudes by political ideology and income have increased since the 1970s.  The rich and the poor have diverged the most in terms of their attitudes toward law enforcement.

3. Whites and non-whites “have converged somewhat on social attitudes but have diverged in consumer behavior.”

4. “Nevertheless, our headline result is that for all other demographic divisions and cultural dimensions, cultural distance has been broadly constant over time.”  For instance, the media consumption gap between rich and poor has not been growing.

5. “The brand most predictive of top income in 1992 is Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. By 2004, the brand most indicative of the rich is Land O’Lakes butter, followed by Kikkoman soy sauce. By the end of the sample, ownership of Apple products (iPhone and iPad) tops the list. Knowing whether someone owns an iPad in 2016 allows us to guess correctly whether the person is in the top or bottom income quartile 69 percent of the time. Across all years in our data, no individual brand is as predictive of being high-income as owning an Apple iPhone in 2016.”

6. Voting and “trusting people” are among the “social attitudes” that best predict being rich.

7. Education is matched about as tightly to social attitudes now as it was in 1976.

8. “By 2016, watching Love It or List It and Property Brothers, both HGTV shows, were the most indicative of being educated.” [TC: yikes!]

9. Since the 1990s, there has been no divergence in the TV shows watched by liberals and conservatives.  Note that in 2001, the three TV shows that best predicted ideology were The Academy Awards, Will and Grace, and Friends, all liberal.  Nowadays it’s Fox shows, all conservative.

10. Liberals are more likely to drink alcohol, conservatives are more likely to go fishing.

11. Maybe this is the most important result: since 1976 there has not been much divergence between liberal and conservative attitudes toward civil liberties or law enforcement.  The divergence on government spending is noticeable but not enormous (see p.39).  the divergence on “Marriage, Sex, Abortion” is quite large.  In another words, the true polarization is happening across gender issues, as I’ve argued numerous times in the past.

12. Here are related important results on the cultural divide.  When will MSM articles catch up to the data?

The culture that will be Danish Plato’s Republic show them Babette’s Feast?

When Rokhaia Naassan gives birth in the coming days, she and her baby boy will enter a new category in the eyes of Danish law. Because she lives in a low-income immigrant neighborhood described by the government as a “ghetto,” Rokhaia will be what the Danish newspapers call a “ghetto parent” and he will be a “ghetto child.”

Starting at the age of 1, “ghetto children” must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and Danish language. Noncompliance could result in a stoppage of welfare payments. Other Danish citizens are free to choose whether to enroll children in preschool up to the age of six.

Denmark’s government is introducing a new set of laws to regulate life in 25 low-income and heavily Muslim enclaves, saying that if families there do not willingly merge into the country’s mainstream, they should be compelled.

That is from Ellen Barry and Martin Selsoe Sorensen at the NYT, interesting throughout.  It seems pretty clear that “culture wars” — in various forms — are the big political issue for some time to come.

Is it now common knowledge that the value of international political friends is dwindling?

What makes Mr Salvini’s threat to the EU’s established order so potent is his fearlessness. He is the first modern Italian politician without an emotional need to be among friends in Davos or Brussels. And while the more experienced EU leaders managed to ensnare the relatively inexperienced Mr Conte, the political reality is that Mr Salvini can pull the plug on the coalition at any time. He will probably wait until after next year’s European elections.

That is from Wolfgang Münchauat the FT.

Civility in politics queries

Gregory I. emails me:

  • Can being “uncivil” be useful for advancing aims we should agree with as moral in contemporary America? Elsewhere or “else-when” perhaps?
  • If yes, then where and how to be “uncivil” effectively?
  • Is engaging in aggressive or what can be read as aggressive social media posting sometimes good, contrary to what we’re usually counseled? (“Aggressive” here not including threats, but stating views in forthright ways with facts, arguments and yes even possibly profanity).
  • Could more exposure to “uncivil” behavior be or be made beneficial overall, primarily by making us all realize we should be more suspicious of our feelings of offense? 
  • Have “political correctness” and what Cass Sunstein called “patriotic correctness” (thank you for this article recommendation on MR) really moved what should be in civil discourse into conversations that can now almost always be counted on being characterized as “uncivil” and thus require us to be rude to address them?

I’ll take them by number.

#1: In the past, not being civil has at times led to the eventual de-platforming of disliked adversaries.  For instance, the tactics of 1960s radicals did indeed draw the attention of the American public to various norms, which eventually the American public decided to find mostly unacceptable.  It is much harder today to be a mainstream representative of racism, outright chauvinism, the Vietnam War, napalm, and so on, with some obvious exceptions.  Not all of the opponents of slavery were civil either, at least not always.

But today?  We’ve already seen big swings toward Trumpism and other forms of backlash, and many of those forces are courting incivility as a noxious brew, fit for their recipes of divisiveness.  And the Left is picking more issues that, whatever you think of them, don’t have as much upside with the American public, such as say bathrooms in North Carolina or the abolition of all profit.  The Left is a lot “less cool” than it likes to think, which militates in favor of civility, if for no other than tactical reasons.  Plus civility is a virtue in its own right, at least at the relevant margin.

#2: If you are looking to be uncivil, look for an issue where history is clearly on your side (predictively as well as normatively), and to that issue devote uncivil people who aren’t much good for anything else, as these days reputations are more permanent than before.  Pick issues that just aren’t getting good attention at all, or in other words shy away from the hot button items in your Twitter feed.  Your choice should seem counterintuitive to a fair number of the people you know, including those on your side.

#3: Social media are almost the worst possible venue for being uncivil.  It’s like pissing into the ocean, and furthermore you often encourage a stronger reaction from the other side.  “Mobilizing a posse” on social media may or may not be effective, but I view that as distinct from being uncivil per se.  Being pointed and specific is often the best way to drum up the posse, and in turn some of the posse members, for better or worse, will end up being uncivil.  If you are reading MR in the first place, very likely there is a better role for you in all of this than being a marginal, uncivil posse member.  Calling for uncivility is in a fundamental way expressing your own low expectations for those you are advising.

But the worst?  Driving a public figure out of a restaurant may seem like fun, but in fact they don’t know at which point you are planning on stopping.  You’re coming pretty close to threatening them with violent aggression, and there are very very few situations where such actions will end up improving the world as a whole.  There is no better venue for politeness than commerce.

#4: When people are uncivil, and organized into groups too, they are stupider.  You too.  That is perhaps the biggest reason to avoid uncivility, no matter how much you think your chosen exception will lead to beneficial outcomes.  Can you not find beneficial paths of influence which do not involve making people stupider?  If not, what does that say about you?

#5: Both the left and the right are major offenders when it comes to both incivility and political correctness in the bad sense.  I don’t quite follow every part of this question, but in closing I’ll suggest some simple rules of thumb for proper civility:

a. Don’t say anything on-line that you wouldn’t say to a person face-to-face.  (And I really do hope this constrains you.)

b. Don’t ever think that an analogy with Nazis justifies your behavior, even if it is your behavior toward…Nazis.

c. Don’t lose your cool.  Always trying to sound more intelligent than those you are arguing against is not a terrible starting point.

d. Don’t deploy what I call “loose adjectives,” the most common one being “stupid,” another being “dangerous.”  You probably write with too many adjectives anyway.

e. Criticize the idea, not the person.  Don’t presume you have such a wonderful sense of the motives of those you disagree with.

f. Learn how to learn from those who offend you.

g. Reexamine your writings and try to roughly measure the ratio of positive sentiments to negative sentiments.  If that number is not ten to one or higher, reassess what you are doing.

What should I ask Michael Pollan?

I will be doing a Conversation with Tyler with him, no associated public event.  Here is his home page, and the About section.  Here is Wikipedia on Pollan.  Here is a Sean Iling Vox interview with Pollan, on his recent work on LSD and other psychedelics, and his most recent book is How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.  Pollan is perhaps best known for his books on food, cooking, and food supply chains. 

So what should I ask him?