Thursday, May 28, 2015

Haidt's "The Righteous Mind"

I loved Jonathan Haidt's book, The Righteous Mind, when I read it a few months ago. But it requires a lengthy and relatively in-depth review, so I've been postponing it to do some other writing projects.

Haidt's book is a must-read for those interested in politics and religion. He comes at his topic as an academic, popularizing research in various fields. He comes into it as a non-fundamentalist, evidenced by his mid-life switch from a liberal (of some sort) to a lower-case-L libertarian. He comes at this from an evolutionary perspective (complete with research and a lot of just-so stories), but you don't need to be an evolutionist to learn a ton. He comes at things as an atheist, but one who is respectful of religion. In a word, the work is fascinating; the thought experiments are provocative; the implications are interesting and helpful. Again, it's a must-read for those into the combo of politics and religion. 

Haidt opens with the Rodney King line, "Can we all get along?" (p. xvii). His goal is "to drain some of the heat, anger and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity...My hope is that this book will make conversations about morality, politics, and religion more common, more civil, more fun, even in mixed company. My hope is that it will help us to get along." (xviii-xix)

His overview of the book:
Part 1: Intuition precedes moral reasoning. And our reasoning (such as it is) serves those intuitions-- as a rider serves an elephant (his metaphor; xx-xxi).
Part 2: There's more to morality than harm and fairness (xxi). People are prone to think solely in terms of one or the other-- and there are three or four other criteria as well.
Part 3: "Morality binds and blinds" (xxii). His metaphor here is the self-interested and relatively selfish chimp (90% of us) and the social/group bee (10%). In evolutionary terms, individuals compete with individuals, but groups also compete with groups. So, there are advantages to cooperating at times, even when incentives to cheat still abound. 

Haidt argues that the mind is inherently moral, but intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental (xix). He sees its righteousness (and its cousin, self-righteousness) as normal and argues that it's "a feature of our evolutionary design" (xx). (The latter claim ends up somewhere between compelling [in places] and feeling like "just-so stories" [in other places].)

Haidt discusses the literature/debate on where morality comes from (5-9): nature vs. nurture; blank slate (Locke) vs. "pre-loaded" (whether inscribed by God and/or "determined" by evolution) vs. rationalism (where children figure out things for themselves, more or less a la Piaget and then Kohlberg). And he notes 
universal social conventions (in particular, that harm is wrong) vs. cultural conventions (but to what extent are these things a matter of cause or effect?). 

In all of this, "disgust" seems to play a significant role-- frequently (but not always) in response to behaviors that were/are more prone to illness, contagion, and disease. But at times, disgust seems to move beyond harm. As such, Haidt asks "why do most non-Western cultures moralize so many practices that seem to have nothing to do with harm?" (15). Another category that rises to the fore: "disrespect" (22). In fact, when Haidt began experimenting in this arena, he found that disgust (vs. community ethics) and disrespect (vs. divinity) were the two things that set people off within various cultures-- aside from harm (117). 

On a related matter, "liberals" score better on neophilia (open to experience) and "conservatives" on neophobia (172). Haidt sees this as an evolutionary "disgust" adaptation to the "omnivore's dilemma"-- how to eat animals appropriately (172). And without disgust, we can't have the sacred-- by means of a necessary contrast (174).

When people have "harmless taboo violations", they can't defend them and always try to rationalize them back to perceived harms-- even inventing harms as necessary. "These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of their emotional reactions." (28-29)

Haidt describes Plato, Hume and Jefferson on the mind and emotions (36), focusing on a distinction between moral judgment as intuition and reasoning. "Emotions are not dumb"; they "are a kind of information processing." (52-53)

As such, one big piece of advice: "Talk to the elephant first" if possible. "If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch-- a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed." (59) Here, it's obvious that empathy is far more important than righteousness. One must be correct but typically needs the tact to approach arguments carefully-- say, to "Tell It Slant" (a la Jesus, Emily Dickinson, and Eugene Peterson).

A big part of Haidt's "conversion" story is the set of revelations he's had in his field research-- in particular, while in India (119-124). As he grew to like the natives, he gained empathy and perspective-- in ascribing weight to community over equality and personal autonomy as "sacred values". As a result, he gained the ability to disagree agreeably with them and was able to practice (true) tolerance. He could still see the ugly side of the implications of their beliefs. But he was able to see the positive sides more clearly and imagine why they would make those choices. From there, he was able to extend the same skills to American disagreements over sacrilege, materialism, and trivialized sexuality.

On ignorance and fundamentalism in social/political matters...
Haidt finds that social and political judgments are particularly intuitive (66-69). This lines us nicely with what economists say about limited info and "statistical discrimination". The latter is the *universal* and nearly-continuous practice of drawing inferences about individuals from information about the relevant groups-- and about specific contexts from knowledge of related contexts. 

Along these lines, Haidt lays out some fascinating research on the use of "trigger words" and the "Implicit Association Test" at ProjectImplicit.org-- illustrating how quickly/easily (and perhaps disturbingly) many of us can flip our supposed views.

In the political realm, "Public Choice" economists call this "rational ignorance and apathy"-- recognizing that it's worth little effort to gain knowledge or take action in political markets. The result is a ton of ignorance, "special interest" to an issue or two, and an often-unseemly adherence to the major political parties. 

Haidt wonders why we would evolve toward rationalization over truth-- and persuasion over discovery (83). His just-so story is based on the importance of groups and the role of reputation within groups. He notes, as have other authors, that individual self-interest is (or seems to be) lightly related (or unrelated) to political stances. Early-on, he posits instead that voters are focusing on their group. That's a just-so story-- and seems lame, pushing the question to why the individuals would join that group in the first place. (Later, he argues that it's moral self-interest instead of economic self-interests [216].) But why bother with these stories when this sort of thing is the natural result (with or without evolutionary processes) of making important decisions with limited and costly-to-obtain information?

Haidt shares some amusing research on the limits of ethical reasoning (104), noting that moral philosophers are equally likely to engage in all sorts of unethical behavior. Given our limited information and our penchant for rationalization, the best opportunity to make progress is to read widely and surround oneself with a diverse set of people who can help one reason (relatively) openly (105). Unfortunately, few people seem to care about that, more comfortable in their ignorance, rationalizations, or even fundamentalism. Some people would need to work really hard intellectually to get "there", given their current constraints. Others could get there more easily-- e.g., given their greater ability to read and find a diversity of friends. But in my experience, I don't see as much of it among my "smart" colleagues as I do among my average friends.

Another interesting angle is the addictive nature of partisanship (103). This probably connects to "rational ignorance" and fundamentalism, especially among "smart" people. In any case, it speaks to the wisdom of avoiding immersion in the toxicity of the contemporary political culture. As such, one is probably in a much better position, avoiding TV-news and talk radio-- instead, reading, practicing silence and solitude, etc.

On politics, ideology and political parties
Haidt draws an important distinction (161) between "fairness" as "equality" on the Left vs. "proportionality" on the Right. (In economics and public policy, the distinction I've heard and used is a focus on outcomes on the Left vs. processes on the Right.)

In chapter 8, Haidt has some fascinating observations about differences in political marketing. He sees Democrats appealing on Care and Fairness, but Republicans appealing on those two (albeit differently), as well as Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.

Part of his passion for this field stemmed from his desire for Democrats to do a (much) better job in selling themselves to those outside their camp. "Republicans understand moral psychology; Democrats don't." (181). "I didn't blame the Republicans for trickery. I blamed the Democrats for psychological naivete." (182) Ironically (given their reputation and often-self-righteous self-assessments), Haidt found that the Democrats were much worse on understanding and empathy in this realm (even though they score a little bit higher [333]), hamstringing their ability to achieve (more) political success. (One fascinating piece of evidence: moderates and conservatives were best able to pretend to be liberals, while "very liberal" people were the worst [334].)

He critiques John Kerry's two most prominent slogans as "ineffectual". The first, "America can do better" was "connected to no moral foundation at all". And the second, "Help is on the way" was "connected weakly to the Care/Harm foundation, but only if you think of America as a nation of helpless citizens" (180).

More need for empathy: Democrats constantly ascribe evil motives or use (bad) "psychology to explain away conservatism", making it "unnecessary for liberals to take conservative ideas seriously..." (191)

Haidt on the need of leaders to practice civil religion (193): "The president must invoke the name of God (though not Jesus), glorify America's heroes and history, quote its sacred texts, and perform the transubstantiation of pluribus into unum."

Haidt on the importance of social moral capital, usually overlooked on the Left: "Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build up and easy to destroy...the threat of moral entropy is intense...not a big margin for error...[if] you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you're asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot on the Left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism." (342-343) 

Haidt sees trade-offs here: liberals are more likely to push for individual rights, but more likely to "reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently". Conservatives are better of that but often fail to recognize certain victims. Aside from the violation of Webster's Dictionary and the other reasons why "civil unions" would have been preferable to "same-sex marriage", is there any better example than the recent and on-going debate on "SSM"?

Haidt follows this with a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of the views of liberals, libertarians, and social conservatives (345-361). He admires liberals for believing that "governments can and should restrain corporate superorganisms". But of course, there is are gaps (massive chasms?) between "should", "can", and "can do well". And in practice, there are so few liberals. Instead, we see a lot of posers-- a dog's breakfast of statists, partisans, crony capitalists who favor certain special interests, and true liberals. 

For Libertarians, he focuses on their admiration for the "miracle of the market". He then takes another poke at "liberals": "Liberals generally embrace Darwin and reject 'intelligent design' as the explanation for design and adaptation in the natural world, but they don't embrace Adam Smith as the explanation for design and adaptation in the economic world. They [often] prefer the 'intelligent design' of socialist economies" and government control (356). 

On altruism...
Haidt devotes considerable attention to the difficult topic of "altruism". Simplistic models in economics ignore "unselfish" actions within its "self-interested" models of economic decision-making. (Haidt makes a common error in relying on a standard caricature of reductionism in Economics [150].) Broadening things a bit, it's easy to include the well-being of others into one's "utility function" and to define unselfish actions as self-interested (chosen because they reveal that the decision-maker believes the altruism to be their best choice). 

In contrast, scientists (and Evolutionists) have heavy lifting to do here: "evolutionary theorists have realized that reciprocal altruism is not so easy to find among nonhuman species...[some] evidence for reciprocity in chimpanzees and capuchins...but still ambiguous...Reciprocal altruism also fails to explain why people cooperate in group activities." (207) Haidt cites the free rider problem and the "strong desires" to protect community from individual slackers (210). "Human beings are the giraffes of altruism. We're one-of-a-kind freaks of nature who occasionally--even if rarely-- can be as selfless and team-spirited as bees...But if you focus on behavior in groups of people who know each other and share goals and values, then our ability to work together, divide labor, help each other, and function as a team is so all-pervasive that we don't even notice it." (229-230)

Gould's argument about "punctuated equilibrium" has always interested me. On the one side, we have those who have relatively few explanations-- and tremendous faith, that an amazing number of small changes led to what we see today. On the other side, we have those like Gould who (quite reasonably) have less faith in the mechanism and engage in a different sort of hand-waving-- that the evolutionary mechanisms are insufficient and require some unexplained quantum-leaps forward to reach what we see today. Haidt visits a version of that here: "I used to believe that there were too many small steps in the evolution of morality to identify one as the Rubicon", but he changed his mind when he heard this from Michael Tomasello: "It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together." (237)

Haidt ultimately concludes that "human nature is 90% chimp and 10% bee". We're like chimps in the competition we face between individuals. "But human nature also has a...groupish overlay..shaped by the relentless competition of groups." In a word, "human beings are conditional hive creatures...[with] the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest..." (258) Haidt points to "hive switches" that encourage the move from individual to group focus. For example, he sees rave music/dancing and religious worship as examples (267-269). 

The "bee" part of us explains (or at least, allows us to weave reasonably-compelling stories about) group behavior-- whether altruism and heroism or war and genocide. Of course, an alternative explanation is that its in an individual's interest to be a part of a well-functioning group-- whether a company, a church, an extended family, or a civic organization. (We cover this sort of thing in economics-- particularly, "managerial economics"-- in great detail.) As such, Haidt sees religion as "an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality." (xxii)

In chapter 11, he provides a "positive" and "rational" approach to religion as a "team sport" that encourages good behavior among individuals and groups. He takes (some, many?) sociologists to (ironic) task for the way they approach religion: "Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studied in lone bees." (287) And of course, aggregating individuals through polling data doesn't, at least by itself, move the analysis toward the hive. 

He also takes "the new atheists" to task. He dismisses Hitchens out-of-hand, since he advertises his own work as polemical. The others (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris) claim "to speak for science" (289). But in seeing religion as "sets of parasitic memes" (292), they're stuck in a strange and faith-filled paradigm: "you have to grant that religiosity is (or at least, used to be) beneficial or you have to construct a complicated, multi-step explanation of how humans in all known cultures came to swim against the tide of adaptation and do so much self-destructive religious stuff. The New Atheists choose the latter course." (290) Instead, he cites Nicholas Wade (!) [306] and others approvingly-- on the idea that religion helps groups which helps individuals (297-298). He also brings Pape into the mix (312)! 


A host of other resources: 
1.) My favorite: Haidt (138) notes that "Bentham offended many of his contemporaries by his inability to perceive variety and subtlety in human motives." He uses Bentham to mess with a group of Libertarians to great effect on ReasonTV.com. 
2.) Haidt's TED talk on this topic. 
4.) On the channels in our brain from muscle memory-- here, riding a bike
5.) Cass Sunstein on what conservatives care about
6.) Shermer in Reason on a supposed increase in moral smartness
7.) Related research from Joshua Knobe on the "Knobe Effect"

Saturday, May 16, 2015

a really nice twist on (homosexual vs. other) orientation and choice...

a really nice twist on (homosexual vs. other) orientation and choice...

Thursday, May 14, 2015

should X unionize? (in this article, X = adjuncts and grad students)

I want to discuss this set of NYT articles and these two groups (adjuncts and grad students), but I also want to answer the question in broader terms to help people apply the principles more generally.

A union is a cartel of labor suppliers. They're striving for more (monopoly) power in their market, as they negotiate compensation (pay, benefits, deferred comp, job conditions/characteristics, etc.) with those who "demand" (rent) labor services.


1.) Is it good for X to form a cartel/union? Likely/maybe. IF they can form the cartel AND keep it together at relatively low cost-- AND IF it enhances their bargaining power sufficiently-- then the benefits may outweigh the costs for them. (The various articles do a nice job in wrestling with the practical concerns here.) 

In a word, it's (far) easier said than done-- to form/maintain an effective cartel-- at least, without the government's help. One practical concern is that the increased bargaining power may not result in sufficient gains, particularly if employers are hamstrung from compensating at an artificially high rate-- e.g., because of budget constraints in the public sector or product market competition in the private sector. That's why government is often encouraged by cartels (as special interest groups) to restrict their competition in product or labor markets, to engage in crony capitalism on their behalf at the expense of the general public.

2.) Is it good for society for X's to form a cartel/union-- in terms of equity (fairness) and efficiency (good for economic growth, society as a whole, etc.)? Unlikely, in a modern, reasonably-developed economy. Why? Because the norm in those settings is competitive labor markets. If workers are relatively free to shop around their skills, then a competitive labor market will take care of them. Even though employers would love to under-compensate, they won't be able to do so, given the presence of many employers. (Why don't engineers get paid $10/hour?) This is akin to competition in product markets-- where firms would love to charge higher prices, allow lower quality, etc., but cannot do so in a competitive environment.

That said, as labor market are less competitive, then a union can be helpful-- in both equity and efficiency terms. Here, think about the Polish labor unions bargaining with a Communist government as a terrific/clear example-- or American baseball players before "free agency". As "monopsony" power for firms increases, the door opens wider for unions to be effective and equitable.

So, how do we know? Two relatively easy tests come to mind. First, you can think through the labor market options for most of the affected workers. If they have few options, then they are more vulnerable, more prone to under-compensation, etc. Second, if you see the cartel using government to lock out competitors, then it's not monopoly power being used against them; it's their (ironic and cynical) pursuit of monopoly power instead.

Finally, so what about adjuncts and grad students? Unless they're in a large city, adjuncts have relatively few options-- in academia. But given their intellect and broad skills (right?), they (should) have many options outside of academia. Whatever the level of monopoly power in this market, it's certainly wisdom for them to have/pursue non-academic jobs and only adjunct on the side.

Grad students generally have a number of options as they enter grad school. (There are certainly exceptions for those who want to enter more specialized fields.) Once they're in a program, it becomes more difficult to leave, increasing the monopoly power of the school/employer. Then again, i
f a school (or even a department) is routinely taking advantage of students, their reputation should take a hit, harming them in the future. That said, wisdom here would be for prospective grad students to research their options thoroughly-- in particular, asking current students how they're being treated as teaching assistants and as they write their dissertations.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

fewer Americans "calling themselves Christians"-- probably (very) good news!

Love/appreciate the NYT editor's choice of title here-- to include "Calling Themselves Christians"
Hopefully, this is an increase in honest atheists, agnostics, and deists. If so, that's good news all around for the Good News.
And hopefully, more "Christians" are moving into discipleship, disciple-making, and making disciple-makers. If so, even though times look a bit darker now, we may look back and recognize that the Kingdom was actually moving forward, even in America.

More detail from Joe Carter at Acton's website...


Looking more globally, here's an interesting point / counterpoint in the WSJ...

what it takes to advocate public policy on "Global Warming"

As an economist or even as a libertarian, there is no necessary problem with public policy to deal with AGW. The conditions? 

If we have 1.) GW; 2.) AGW; and 3.) benefits of AGW greater than its costs, then we have a case of significant negative externalities, violation of property rights, etc. One can then easily make the case for intervention-- on paper. From there, we need public policies that would really work-- benefits > costs; not just in theory but in practice. 

So, for me, none of the first three are slam dunks. And the public policy solutions are far from clear to me. (E.g., what if China does nothing.) That said, IF you're going to do something with the best op to work, it would be a tax on the underlying pollution. Again, the intuition is easy here: the tax should be roughly equal to the social costs created by the pollution (and used to finance solutions to the problems created).

"I want you as you are, not as you ought to be." and then "I want you NOT as you are, BUT as you ought to be."

Reflecting on the first line in Hawk Nelson's catchy new song, "Drops in the Ocean", speaking for Jesus Christ: "I want you as you are, not as you ought to be."

That's the concept of "justification"-- through the grace of God and our acceptance of the gift, it will be "just as if" I'd never sinned. As in the "not saved by good works" of Ephesians 2:8-9. The "rest" in Matthew 11:28. The grace of Romans 5:8's "while we were still sinners". 

But in "sanctification"-- the process by which we are "being transformed into Christ's likeness with ever-increasing glory" in our time on earth; becoming more like Jesus-- it's the exact opposite: "I want you NOT as you are, BUT as you ought to be." The "saved to do good works" of Eph 2:10. The "pick up your cross" of Mt 16:24. The "how much more shall we be saved through his life" of Rom 5:10. 

If you have not yet accepted the grace of God and dealt with "justification", accept the gift today-- come as you are. 

If you have accepted the gift/grace-- but are stuck and stagnant, a fan not a follower of Jesus Christ-- it's time for "sanctification". Don't settle for who you are, but instead, strive through the Spirit to be who the benevolent God wants you to be. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

countries with out a MW

 In U.S. dollars, it's interesting that the following countries all have exactly the same minimum wage: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Lichtenstein, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, and Switzerland.

on Baltimore and the policies that got us there

Thanks to the Democrats for your lovely combo of crony capitalism and well-intentioned poor policies!

I've written at great length about welfare programs as a (the?) primary contributor to family structure/stability problems among the lower and lower-middle income classes. (Here's my review of Murray's Coming Apart-- a must-read on this. See also: Robert Putnam's recent book.) 


My memory is that Baltimore, two decades ago, was the poster-child for out-of-wedlock births and not having fathers in the home. Among African-Americans, the rate has been 70% for quite awhile; among the poor, it's a bit higher; in Baltimore, I think it was 90%. In fact, Baltimore was used in a paper I heard to be an example of the sociological peer pressures of a NORM of single-parent households-- where one would be seen as a freak to have a father involved. 

It doesn't help a culture or a local economy when you're busy jacking things up-- i.e,. the business problem. A bunch of other resources here: William McGurn and Walter Williams on it's not about race; Jonah Goldberg (on the culture of poverty); Larry Elder on entitlement and grievance-- and now, the hard part; Nick Gillespie on liberalism and police violence; and of course, this hilarious piece (with colorful language) from Chris Rock where it is, at least in part, very much about race.




Friday, May 1, 2015

Barbara Brown Taylor on Judas, law and religion (not atheism and anarchy) bringing Jesus to the cross

One of the many nuggets from my readings in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter-- this one from Barbara Brown Taylor. I have her Learning to Walk in the Dark-- and am looking forward to reading her thesis there-- that we're too averse to "the dark", given how God often moves in that medium. This blurb moves her book up my reading list. (It's on my dresser now!) 


One of the many things this story tells us is that Jesus was not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own...

No one knows what Judas said. In John’s Gospel he does not say a word, but where he stands says it all. After he has led some 200 Roman soldiers and the temple police to the secret garden where Jesus is praying, Judas stands with the militia. Even when Jesus comes forward to identify himself, Judas does not budge. He is on the side with the weapons and the handcuffs, and he intends to stay there...

I remember being at a retreat once where the leader asked us to think of someone who represented Christ in our lives. When it came time to share our answers, one woman stood up and said, "I had to think hard about that one. I kept thinking, ‘Who is it who told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?"’

letter to the editor on RTW

It doesn't look like the C-J will publish this...
__________________________

I was surprised to read Rep. Greg Stumbo's assessment of my profession in saying that economists see "right-to-work" legislation as something to "declare dead". Economists don't typically describe policies in such terms. Instead, we focus on trying to identify the more subtle benefits and costs of personal decisions, business decisions, and public policies. 

An economist would note that unions are cartels in labor markets and that members of a cartel work together to elevate the price of that which they sell. These artificially high prices will benefit those in the cartel at the expense of society at large. And we should not be surprised by a cartel's opposition to policies that would weaken it (such as "right-to-work").  

One can find research on "both sides" of this issue-- not surprising if you think about it, since such things are quite difficult to measure well. When politicians or self-styled economists only cite one side of the relevant research and only note the benefits or the costs, then you should wonder what they're trying to do to you. And you should know that they're not thinking like an economist.

Government Policy From Before the Cradle to Beyond the Grave

I forgot to post this earlier! This is the longer piece that will appear in the IPR journal (vs. shorter op-ed versions that appeared in newspapers throughout Indiana back in February). 
____________________

Government is supposed to help individuals with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Using this metric, let's see how our government often struggles and how people are damaged as a result, especially the most vulnerable in society. We’ll look at a host of economic and social policies, chronologically—from before the cradle to beyond the grave.

Before the cradle, we start with abortion, where life is snuffed out before it reaches the cradle. Archaic knowledge of science and certain metaphysical views can lead one to believe that life does not begin in the womb. But if one has any doubts, we should obviously err on the side of life, rather than risking fatal errors. (We must go "beyond a reasonable doubt" to put the most serious criminals to death. Why not the same "reasonable" standard here?)

A civilized society should protect the vulnerable. But abortion has a disproportionate impact on the poor and "disadvantaged" minorities. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 42% of abortions are for women below the poverty line; 30% are Black; 25% are Hispanic. At present, there is a great focus on African-Americans and the police. But hundreds more are killed by citizens and thousands more are killed by abortion.

Once out of the womb, we offer “welfare” policies to poorer parents and children—redistribution of wealth based on income and family structure. As a society, we want to help those with fewer resources in more vulnerable family structures—most notably, single-parent households. The problem is that when you provide big resources for those in state X, you inevitably encourage people to enter and remain in state X. As such, our policies have encouraged the poor and lower middle class to bear and raise children in single-parent households. The resulting family instability has caused a range of serious, long-term problems for these children. 

Charles Murray ably describes this in Coming Apart. In the middle and upper income classes, marriage and two-parent households have faded a bit over the last 40 years, but have generally remained strong. But in the lower income classes, the vast majority of children are born and raised in single-parent households—the new norm.

With childhood, we have our government's education system. In pre-K, government offers Head Start for poor children. Unfortunately, research has shown that it’s quite expensive ($8,000 per student) and generally ineffective.

For K-12, parents are usually offered a free education at the government-run school in their neighborhood. The education is free, but the school is assigned. Poorer people, as a captive audience, are prone to abuse by the monopoly power of the local school. Where can they go? Of course, there are profound challenges in teaching within poorer areas. They have a far higher concentration of the social pathologies that generally follow from the single-parent households subsidized by the government. Still, one would not expect a government-run entity with tremendous monopoly power to be the height of efficiency or effectiveness. 

Our War on Drugs naturally leads to Prohibition-style violence and gangs, especially in inner cities. The artificially high profits are a temptation for teens to work in that sector. Sentencing guidelines allow children to engage in crimes with the promise that their records will be expunged when they become adults. Combined with poverty, the prevalence of single-parent households, and less-than-optimal education, the current drug policy provides a wide road from school to prison. 

If one tries to get a legal job, we have many laws that make it more expensive to hire workers. In particular, when productivity is low, artificial increases in compensation can make it prohibitively expensive to hire less-skilled workers. From workers' compensation to the Affordable Care Act, the flip side of trying to help workers is making them more expensive and less employable.

The most famous of these interventions is the minimum wage—where we try to help heads of households who need a "living wage" by making millions of workers more expensive to hire. Even with the policy’s benefits, the costs are troubling and the policy is clearly not well-targeted. 

Other laws serve to lock out workers directly. For example, taxicab medallions erect artificial barriers to entry into a profession that would be ideal for many low-skilled workers. (Uber and Lyft are now rapidly eroding this monopoly power.) Occupational licensing makes it more difficult to get into dozens of professions—for example, hair braiding and working on nails. 
If you're fortunate enough to get a job, many of the working poor get to pay local and state income taxes. In 2013, the National Center for Children in Poverty reports that 16 states impose income taxes on workers at and below the poverty line. In 2011, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported that 24 states imposed income taxes on workers within 125% of the poverty line. 

The federal government won't make you pay income taxes if you're poor (unless you're a one-person household). But they'll nail you with payroll (FICA) taxes on income to finance entitlement programs for retirees: 15.3% of every dollar earned—no deductions, no exemptions, no credits. If you're at the poverty line, you lose about $3,000 per year to FICA. 

Government redistribution is often used to "reverse Robin Hood"—taking money from those with less income to redistribute to those with more income. Two huge examples: First, the federal government subsidizes the purchase of health insurance through employers. This policy causes the bulk of our problems in health insurance and health care, but that's a topic for another day. Here, the problem is that the subsidy is pricey (more than $250 billion per year—$3,250 from the average family of four) and regressive (it disproportionately helps those with more income). Second, the home mortgage interest deduction is also regressive and pricey (another $130 billion—$1,700 per family). 

What about spending your legal take-home pay? Unfortunately, there are a range of policies that drive up the price of food (farm policy), clothing (trade protectionism), shelter (regulations in housing), and health care (dozens of policies). 

When you retire, you’ll hopefully receive Social Security and Medicare from people who are then paying their FICA taxes. Well, Medicare is ok, but they're reducing it now—and will cut it much more in the future. And the rate of return on Social Security now averages 0%—and is less for the poor and disadvantaged minorities (since they die earlier than average). 

Beyond the grave, estate taxes are famous for taxing the same money for a second or third time at death. But for more marginal people, Social Security is their nest egg. In addition to its anemic low rate-of-return, Social Security is only a stream of income, not an asset that can be passed along to descendants—quite a death tax on those with lower incomes!

From before the cradle to beyond the grave, government imposes huge costs on people, even the most marginal in our society. 

why do Democratic politicians prefer MW to EITC?

Why do Dem politicians continue to pant over a higher MW instead of an expanding EITC? They certainly don't mind subsidizing those in the lower-class (e.g., welfare, extended UI, etc.), so something else must be at hand. 

a.) Their amazing penchant for crony capitalism: The former helps unions; the latter harms them.
b.) Politics and the pursuit of power are more important than policy-- and the MW allows them to score cheap political points.
c.) As is common in economics and public policy, they believe in magic and hate logic and science. 
d.) OK, they'll be some job loss, but we give them food stamps, etc.
e.) A surprising lack of policy imagination / knowledge, esp. for such smart people.

E is least likely since we already have this policy on the books, big-time. I'll vote for A and B, with some combo of C and D.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

brief review of "The Hobbit Party"

If you're into politics, economics and culture-- and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings-- then Witt and Richards' The Hobbit Party is a must-read book for you. If not, on either category, then just keep on moving!

In part, their book is a defense against various claims about Tolkien. In part, it's a series of assertions about how to properly interpret Tolkien's work with respect to politics, economics, and culture. 

They rely heavily on TLOTR itself, but at times, seek extra-book sources (such as his letters and other writings). In particular, his experience with war (WWI), family (torn up with the death of his mother), and rural vs. urban (having to the move to the city after his mom's death)-- are all portrayed as crucial to his worldview and writings. 

Unfortunately, I'm not familiar enough with Tolkien or TLOTR to read their book all that critically. But most of it sounds quite reasonable. 

In the authors' hands, Tolkien...

-valued freedom over power, with its illusions, deceits, and general nastiness

-was critical of crony capitalism and especially "gatherers/sharers"

-was not a distributist (with its attractive general properties, but its internal contradictions-- e.g., looking to the power of government to ethically and practically regulate "power" outside of government)

-was local-oriented, but not provincial

-was certainly ok with technology-- neither to the point of worship of being a Luddite

-small was fine and probably preferable, but big was certainly ok-- as long as it was not for its own sake

-was earthy, valued culture (broadly construed) and fertility; in this sense, he is Wendell Berry-esque

-was critical of those who would try to cheat death and limits-- and the curse and blessings of same

-valued individuals over aggregates, but valued subsidiarity within community

-not fond of war or an advocate of pacifism; his beliefs would be consistent with "Just War" theories

My favorite story: Jonathan Witt's story about trying to have chickens at his three-acre home outside of Grand Rapids, in semi-rural Michigan (27-30). By zoning laws, he is allowed to own a horse, "a pack of large, snarling dogs and half a dozen roaming cats"-- but not a single cow, chicken, or goat. He noted that the subsequent fertilizer and a goat would be friendlier to the environment than the alternatives. They sought a statute, but it eventually failed with a tie vote. He wonders whether the commissioners asked themselves, "What moral right do I have to deny my fellow citizens" this right?