Nancy MacLean: ignoring the central ethical issue

Henry Farrell and Steven Teles write,

MacLean is not only wrong in detail but mistaken in the fundamentals of her account.

I have met both Farrell and Teles, at dinners organized by Teles and Brink Lindsey, for “liberaltarians.” The liberaltarian project always seemed to me to be quixotic, but it did demonstrate overlap between (some) progressives and libertarians on a few economic issues, particularly related to Public Choice. Farrell and Teles strike me as coming more from the liberal camp as opposed to the libertarian camp. But because they are receptive to Public Choice ideas, some progressives might consider them to be heretics.

Historian Andrew Seal writes,

Some of my colleagues and I at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog and I are planning a roundtable to discuss Democracy in Chains as a work of intellectual history, in large part because we feel that the critiques of MacLean’s work have not adequately engaged with its core arguments and because these critiques often seem unfamiliar with the “best practices” of intellectual history.

For me, the central issue is scholarly ethics. I expect that when it comes to history, many books will be written that have narratives that are controversial and have flimsy support. That is acceptable.

The ethical issue is whether the historian has an obligation to make the effort to elevate truth above narrative. Did Nancy MacLean make that effort, as Seal’s use of the phrase “best practices” implies?

For example, I could wish to create a narrative that tries to portray Dr. Martin Luther King as a racist, and I could do so while staying within ethical boundaries. It might not be very persuasive, of course. But if I quote Dr. King as saying “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will…be judged by the color of their skin” (i.e., leaving out the word “not”), then that is unethical. That seems pretty clear to me. And it seems to me that MacLean’s conduct comes pretty close to that, yet I do not see it condemned outright as unethical by Farrell and Teles, much less by Seal.

Let me put it this way: if MacLean’s actions do not constitute easily-recognized and serious violations of the ethics of the history profession, then that profession has no ethics. And historians on the left ought to be thinking about whether that is what they want.

Posted in Economic education and methods, public choice | 19 Comments

Math and uncertainty

A commenter writes,

if the math is done right, it should then say precisely that: there isn’t enough data to resolve the parameters you’re trying to impute with any reasonable degreee of confidence. The ‘anti-math’ people seem to forget that uncertainty is itself a quantifiable thing.

This does not address the problem that Richard Bookstaber and others call radical uncertainty. Consider what the CBO director wrote concerning the agency’s evaluation of the ARRA (the 2009 Stimulus bill).

The macroeconomic impacts of any economic stimulus program are very uncertain. Economic theories differ in their predictions about the effectiveness of stimulus. Furthermore, large fiscal stimulus is rarely attempted, so it is difficult to distinguish among alternative estimates of how large the macroeconomic effects would be. For those reasons, some economists remain skeptical that there will be any significant effects, while others expect very large ones.

Note that he did not attempt to quantify this uncertainty, nor could he have done so. Note also that what Congress and the public focused on were the apparently precise numerical estimates of the CBO model, rather than the uncertainty of those estimates.

The CBO uses a standard macro model, in which there is only one type of worker in the economy. I believe that workers in today’s economy are highly specialized, and that this accounts for the difficulty in creating new patterns of trade when old patterns become unprofitable. It is easier to use math to analyze a model with one type of worker than it is to apply math to my model. I think that is an argument against the tyranny of math in economics.

Posted in Economic education and methods, PSST and Macro | 15 Comments

The Behavioral Scientist

it is a web site that may prove interesting. For example, David Rand and Jonathan Cohen write,

Within a population, controlled processing may—rather than ensuring undeterred progress—usher in short-sighted, irrational, and detrimental behavior, ultimately leading to population collapse. This is because the innovations produced by controlled processing benefit everyone, even those who do not act with control. Thus, by making non-controlled agents better off, these innovations erode the initial advantage of controlled behavior. This results in the demise of control and the rise of lack-of-control. In turn, this eventually leads to a return to poor decision making and the breakdown of the welfare-enhancing innovations, possibly accelerated and exacerbated by the presence of the enabling technologies themselves. Our models therefore help to explain societal cycles whereby periods of rationality and forethought are followed by plunges back into irrationality and short-sightedness.

Call it the theory of mediocracy.

Elsewhere, Jason Collins writes,

Absent limiting human intervention to the right level, the pattern we will see is not humans and machines working together for enhanced decision making, but machines slowly replacing humans decision by decision. Algorithms will often be substitutes, not complements, with humans left to the (at the moment, many) places where the algorithms can’t go yet.

Posted in Jason Collins is Indispensable | 4 Comments

The case against charities

A commenter writes,

charitable organizations will be [in] competition for donors and offer only care to make donors feel good about themselves. So charities will raise money for extreme cases like the British Charlie Gard and not say reasonable care rural clinics in Kentucky.

I agree that accountability to donors creates distortions. Only in the for-profit sector is accountability to customers a consistent, important factor.

Accountability in government is even less well developed than it is in charitable organizations.

I think that the role of competition and choice in fostering accountability is something that cannot be stressed enough. Instead, people over-rely on the intention heuristic, meaning that they treat charitable organizations and government programs as if their good intentions were sufficient to achieve good results. But good intentions do not substitute for accountability.

Posted in Libertarian Thought | 14 Comments

John Goodman on health legislation prospects

He writes (email newsletter, I can’t find a web link),

This is a $3 trillion industry and basically all the special interests want to keep the basic structure of Obamacare. Each wants to get rid of its own Obamacare tax. But they want to keep the taxes on everyone else. That’s the main reason why the Obamacare revenues will stay in the system and there will be almost no federal health reform.

My takeaway is that the optimistic case for the bill is that it will allow the states to go in separate directions on health care, and perhaps in some states more market-oriented approaches will have an opportunity to succeed. The pessimistic case is that the health care system will remain a kludge, and the next time the Democrats are in power they will institute single payer.

But the single payer that we get will be much uglier than what other countries have, because of the power wielded by the provider interest groups. In fact, don’t be surprised if it turns out that the health insurance companies stay smack dab in the middle of our version of “single payer.”

Posted in Economics of Health Care, public choice | 8 Comments

The state of the housing market(s)

About a month ago, the Harvard joint center for housing studies released a report. Lots of interesting stuff.

housing completions in the past 10 years totaled just 9.0 million units—more than 4.0 million units less than in the next-worst 10-year period going back to the late 1970s. Together with steady increases in demand, the low rate of new construction has kept the overall market tight, leaving the gross vacancy rate at its lowest point since 2000

Yes, Kevin Erdmann, you are right. We have really not built enough housing since 2007. Also, I don’t understand why I can’t make money investing in REITs. Rents are rising, interest rates are low, . . .

On average, 45 percent of renters across the nation’s metropolitan areas can afford the payments on a median-priced home in their market area, but the shares range from less than one in ten in the high-cost markets concentrated on the Pacific Coast as well as in Florida and the Northeast, to two-thirds or more in low-cost metros in the Midwest and rural South. In areas where homebuying is well out of reach for a large majority of renters, there is much less potential for increases in homeownership.

This is a fascinating divergence. The ratio of rent to price is comparable to an interest rate. Having vastly different rent-price ratios across regions is sort of like having vastly different interest rates across regions, except that there is no way to arbitrage against it.

Posted in Housing and housing finance | 11 Comments

Polarized attitudes about college

Inside Higher Ed reports,

Two years ago, 54 percent of Republicans said colleges had a positive impact on the country’s direction, with 37 percent rating higher education negatively…The latest version of the survey, conducted last month among 2,504 adults, for the first time found a majority (58 percent) of Republicans saying colleges have a negative effect, compared to 36 percent saying they have a positive effect.

The story is interesting throughout. It is based on an annual Pew survey.

I tell friends that if I had an 18-year-old child today, I would be tempted to try home schooling for college. Just go with YouTube and avoid the indoctrination centers.

As a check on myself, I regularly ask college students and very recent graduates if things are as bad as they are portrayed in conservative media. The modal answer is that indeed the faculty and a minority of students are very far left and very obnoxious about it, but if you are conservative or moderate you can work around the radical leftists.

My sense is that the people in charge of those institutions are past the point of caring what Republicans or conservatives think of them. Students are still clamoring to get in, so why change?

Posted in Economics of Education | 31 Comments

Looting the state governments

The Mercatus center ranks the fiscal condition of the fifty states.

The worst, at number 50, is New Jersey, followed (preceded?) by Illinois, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Maryland. California is 43, and New York is 39. So by my count 4 of the bottom 5 states and 6 of the bottom 12 are known for powerful public-sector unions. I see that as a likely cause of fiscal weakness in those states, and I doubt that those six will climb out of trouble.

Posted in public choice, Tyler Cowen is my Favorite Blogger | 15 Comments

Deirdre McCloskey’s manifesto

Pointer from Donald Boudreaux. The first thing in her manifesto that caught my eye was this:

As [David] Boaz says at the outset of The Libertarian Mind, “In a sense, there have always been but two political philosophies: liberty and power.”

Ah, yes, the liberty-coercion axis.

In specific terms, McCloskey writes,

Cut the multiple levels of corrupt government in Illinois. Kill off, as the much-maligned Liberal 1.0 and billionaire Charles Koch wishes, the vast programs of corporate welfare, federal and state and local. Close the agricultural programs, which allow rich farmers to farm the government instead of the land. Sell off “public” assets such as roads and bridges and street parking, which in an age of electronic transponders can be better priced by private enterprise. Close the American empire. Welcome immigrants. Abandon the War on Drugs. Give up eminent domain and civil forfeiture and military tanks for police departments. Implement the notion of Catholic social teaching of “subsidiarity,” placing modest responsibilities such as trash collection or fire protection down at the lowest level of government that can handle them properly. Then outsource the trash collection and the fire protection. To finance K-12 education—socially desirable but sometimes out of reach of the poor—give families vouchers to cash in at private schools, such as Sweden has done since the 1990s and as Orleans parish has done for poor families since 2008. To achieve universal K-12 education, and a select few of other noble and otherwise privately unfundable purposes, such as a war of survival, by all means tax you and me, not only the man behind the tree. But eliminate the inquisitorial income tax, replacing it with a tax on personal consumption declared on a one-page form, as economists such as Robert Hall and Arthur Laffer propose. Still better, use only an equally simple purchase tax on businesses, to reduce the present depth of personal inquisition. Eliminate the so-called “corporate” income tax, because it is double taxation and because economists have in fact little idea which people actually end up paying it. (The old bumper sticker saying “Tax corporations, not people,” when you think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense.) Give a poor person cash in emergencies, from those modest taxes on you and me. Quit inquiring into whether she spends it on booze or her children’s clothing. Leave her and her family alone. No pushing around.

Posted in Three-Axes Model | 11 Comments

Bobos and their children

David Brooks writes,

The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.

Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else. We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.

And part of the cultural code is Progressivism.

Timothy Taylor writes,

In a society with a high degree of social and economic mobility, grandparents should not have much or any effect on the social and economic position that children attain as adults. Thus, on average you should expect your five grandchildren to be evenly distributed across the socioeconomic spectrum. More specifically, if the levels of income are ranked and then divided into five groups with equal numbers of people, or quintiles, or educational attainment is divided up into five quintiles, you should expect that one of your five grand children will end up in each of the five quintiles–from top to bottom.

Some grandparents in America would be delighted beyond words if they had a reasonable expectation of this outcome: that is, they would be thrilled if three of their five grandchildren were in the middle quintile or above. Other grandparents in America would be appalled by this outcome: that is, they would be dismayed and even horrified if three of their five grandchildren were in the middle quintile or below.

The upper-class Americans that Brooks labeled the Bobos behave as if they would be appalled to see their children or grandchildren experienced relative downward mobility.

An interesting question will be how well the Bobo signals correlate with skills going forward. As long as the correlation is high, the status equilibrium may be robust. If the correlation is low, then the status equilibrium may be more fragile.

Posted in David Brooks, income distribution-wealth-poverty, Timothy Taylor is my Favorite Blogger | 27 Comments