Carlos Lozada Reviews Yuval Levin

Lozada writes,

So how do we go about strengthening families, religious organizations, schools and all those mediating institutions? Levin’s recommendations are aggressively vague, and where they get specific they seldom surprise. He calls for a “mobility agenda,” with economic growth spurred by tax and regulatory reform, a more competitive and low-cost health-care system, lower budget deficits — all part of a standard conservative recipe. He proposes education reform that includes more professional certificates, apprenticeships “and other ways of gaining the skills for well-paid employment that do not require a college degree.” He prefers to untether employees’ retirement accounts and health insurance from any particular workplace, but acknowledges that this would require “more fundamental policy innovations, and it is not yet evident just what those will be.” Okay, then. It’s nice if the things you want are all bottom-up and empowering and networked and diverse and flexible, but adjectives are not policies.

The review is more sympathetic than what I expected. In my view, Lozada makes too much of the contrast between Levin and Trump. Of course, that contrast is quite strong, but dwelling on it does not help the reader of the review understand what is distinctive about Levin’s thought. For that, you should go back to my review. And read the book when it comes out, which will be in a few days.

Scott Alexander Puts Me in His Corner

On the subject of poverty, he offers a two-by-two matrix to classify viewpoints.

On one axis, you can think that the capitalist system is basically competitive or basically cooperative. The former view is that it creates winners and losers. The latter view is that it is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

On the other axis, you can be optimistic or pessimistic. If you are optimistic, you think that a bit of social change can take care of poverty. If you are pessimistic, then if you think of the system as competitive you want revolution. If you think of the system as cooperative, you end up like this:

we’re all in this together, but that helping the poor is really hard. . .capitalism is more the solution than the problem, and that we should think of this in terms of complicated impersonal social and educational factors preventing poor people from fitting into the economy. . .worry school lunches won’t be enough. Maybe even hiring great teachers, giving everybody free health care, ending racism, and giving generous vocational training to people in need wouldn’t be enough. If we held a communist revolution, it wouldn’t do a thing: you can’t hold a revolution against skill mismatch. This is a very gloomy quadrant, and I don’t blame people for not wanting to be in it. But it’s where I spend most of my time.

Me, too. Except note that over the past two hundred years the tide has lifted more and more boats, quite dramatically. It is still lifting more and more boats, but those boats are more likely to be in China, India, or Africa than in the rural United States. And places like St. Louis.

A Post to Waste My Time

Jonathan H. Adler writes,

When newspapers make mistakes or false accusations, they publish corrections. That’s not always the case with bloggers, however. And sometimes it seems the more prominent the blogger, the less likely a correction will be made.

A recent example comes from noted economist Paul Krugman. . .

I think that Adler is wrong to frame this in terms of newspapers vs. blogs. Krugman does not limit his remorseless slander to blogs.

Everything written by, for, or against Krugman over the past 15 years is a waste of time. That includes this post as well as Adler’s. It includes various attempts by Henderson, Cowen, and Sumner to engage with Krugman. They try to treat him as if he had some sense of decency. Instead, he is Joe McCarthy with a Nobel Prize.

Intergenerational Income Immobility

Guglielmo Barone and Sauro Mocetti write,

We focus on the Italian city of Florence, for which data on taxpayers in 1427 – including surnames, occupations, earnings, and wealth – have been digitalised and made available online. We matched these data with those taken from the tax records relating to the city of Florence in 2011. Family dynasties are identified by surnames. Table 1 offers a first flavour of our results. We report for the top five and bottom five earners among current taxpayers (at the surname level) the modal value of the occupation and the percentiles in the earnings and wealth distribution in the 15th century (the surnames are replaced by capital letters for confidentiality). The top earners among the current taxpayers were already at the top of the socioeconomic ladder six centuries ago – they were lawyers or members of the wool, silk, and shoemaker guilds; their earnings and wealth were always above the median. In contrast, the poorest surnames had less prestigious occupations, and their earnings and wealth were below the median in most cases.

Yes, this is reminiscent of and reinforces the findings of Gregory Clark in The Son Also Rises. Recall my review of Clark’s book.

Alex Tabarrok on Conformity Bias

He writes,

Today, however, conformity is often counter-productive. Trying to enforce the arbitrary conventions of one’s in-group impedes social cooperation on the scale that makes modernity possible. Conformity also slows the development of new ideas and new ways of doing things–the essence of growth and progress. Even though conformity is now counter-productive the desire to conform and to enforce conformity is buried deep

I think it is much more complicated than that. Conformity is not some dysfunctional behavior pattern left over from our hunter-gatherer environment. Conformity is what makes any form of human progress and social cooperation possible. Re-read my piece on cultural intelligence.

The transition to modernity did not mean that people stopped imitating other people or stopped rewarding conformity or stopped punishing non-conformity. What happened was a shift in who was considered worthy of being imitated, rewarded, or punished. I read Deirdre McCloskey as saying that the prestige of some classes (warriors, hereditary aristocrats, dictatorial religious authorities) gradually declined, while the prestige of merchants and entrepreneurs rose dramatically. Along the way, a vast array of behavioral norms developed in the fields of commerce and politics, giving rise to what we call (classical) liberalism.

An issue that is currently very salient to me, and I believe to Alex as well, is how to sustain Enlightenment-era liberalism in the face of what appear to be powerful challenges. On the right, rising xenophobia represents a challenge (some would argue that the challenge comes from the xenos, who are causing the phobia). On the left, hostility toward capitalism and toward freedom of expression appears to be on the rise.

I share what I see as Alex’s worry that people’s ideas and values are regressing to a pre-Enlightment state. But I think that it is more complicated than just saying that the conformity dial has been turned up.

My Essay on Cultural Intelligence

Published in National Affairs. An excerpt:

Economists and scholars of public policy are not the only ones conducting this research; students of human behavior are also finding support for Burke and Hayek’s theses — that the knowledge embedded in social norms and practices is vast compared to the knowledge of even the brightest, most educated individuals. As individuals, we cannot figure out very much by ourselves, but we learn a remarkable amount from others. In short, some social scientists in recent years have been building (or rebuilding) a powerful case for cultural intelligence.

You can read it as an argument for a libertarian/conservative alliance rather than for a liberaltarian alliance. Please comment specifically on the essay itself, and only after reading the whole piece.

Reviewing Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands

My review is here.

A major theme of Fools is that the New Left evolved a set of intellectual tactical moves against their opponents. These included creating a false left-right spectrum, delegitimizing other points of view, indicting capitalism and tradition for all wrongs while being vague about alternatives, and using Newspeak to present authoritarianism as a defense of freedom and human rights.

Read the whole review, and I recommend the entire book.

Socialism’s Poster Child?

David Deming writes,

You don’t have to be a student of ancient history to know socialism doesn’t work. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 was an unequivocal demonstration of the moral and economic superiority of capitalism. The misery caused by socialism is unfolding today in Venezuela. Since Venezuela embraced socialism in 1999, poverty, crime and corruption have all increased. Grocery shelves are empty and the annual inflation rate is estimated to be as high as 200 percent.

For the left, the poster children for socialism would not be the Soviet Union or Venezuela. Instead, think of Sweden or Denmark. But one can argue that those are welfare states, not socialist states in the sense of government ownership of the means of production. But consider Singapore:

A majority of the top dividend-paying stocks on the Straits Times Index are government-linked

That is according to Andy Mukherjee. Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

I would suggest focusing on the relationship between knowledge and power. In small states, like Singapore, Sweden, and Denmark, there is relatively little discrepancy between knowledge and power. It is possible for government officials to know more of what they need to know to carry out policy effectively.

Large states are harder for a central government to manage. Decentralized institutions, including markets, do a better job of aligning knowledge with decision-making power.

See my essay on the recipe for good government.