Author Archive for Steve Landsburg

Unhealthy

I have not read the Senate “health care” bill, but from the various summaries around the web, I am confident that Barack Obama is exactly correct in his pronouncement that this is not a health care bill. Republicans seem to be supporting the bill because it stems the tide of income redistribution and Democrats seem to be opposing it for the same reason.

But a health care bill that does nothing but change the distribution of income is (again in Obama’s words) not a health care bill. It’s an income redistribution bill, and a fairly stupid one at that. If you want either more or less redistribution, the way to do that is to adjust taxes on rich people and payments to poor people, not to muck around with the health care system.

On the other hand, if your goal is to make the health care system more efficient, then you’ll want a health care bill. What would it take to make the health care system more efficient? For one thing, it would require making people less reliant on insurance and more reliant on their own savings (probably in the form of Flexible Saving Accounts and Health Saving Accounts) so that their choices are constrained by an awareness of costs. This Senate bill, it seems, does absolutely nothing to address those issues. In fact, from what I’ve read, it leaves in place the tax deduction for employer-provided insurance (thereby continuing to incentivize people to buy too much insurance) and (at least according to some news articles) adds new taxes on Health Savings Accounts (thereby incentivizing people to rely even more on insurance). If we’re supposed to be marching toward more efficient health care, this sounds like a step backward, not forward.

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A Momentous Week

The most exciting news of the past week had nothing to do with James Comey or Donald Trump.

The University of Montpelier has released high-quality scans of about 18,000 pages of notes and scribbles by Alexandre Grothendieck. If you’re competent in both French and the art of deciphering handwriting that was never meant to be readable except to the author, you can while away some hours sifting through them here.

It would be an understatement to say that Grothendieck was never shy about revealing and publicly analyzing his thought processes, but these notes are presumably less filtered than the tens of thousands of pages he chose to share in his lifetime. FOr the many who are already sifting through them, and for the many more who are waiting to hear the reports of the sifters, they will yield new insights into one of the most extraordinary minds in human history.

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Politico Economy

Matthew Nussbaum of Politico tweets that:

There are 50,000 coal miners in the United States. There are 520,000 fast food cooks. Coal miners seem to loom a lot larger in our politics. Wonder why.

If Mr. Nussbaum had read pages 36 and 37 of The Armchair Economist, he’d know the answer. Coal mines are in pretty much fixed supply; new fast food joints are created all the time. Therefore new coal mining jobs are far harder to create than new fast food jobs.

So if conditions get better for coal miners, that’s good for existing coal miners. By contrast, if conditions get better for fast food cooks, more people will become fast food cooks, driving down the wages of existing fast food cooks and negating the improved conditions.

That makes it worthwhile for coal miners to lobby for better conditions, but not for fast food cooks. What’s relevant is not so much the current population of coal miners, but the ease with which that population can expand.

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Information, Please

Why do we need a national health policy, any more than we need a national grocery policy or a national automobile policy or a national matchmaking policy?

Over on another recent thread, one of our commenters keeps pointing to allegedly unique “information issues” in the market for health care. So let’s see how unique those issues really are.

First, there are issues like adverse selection. The very fact that you’re buying insurance makes sellers suspect you’re sick, and they charge accordingly. Therefore if you’re not sick you overpay, and because you overpay you’re likely to underinsure.

That issue is not unique to health insurance. It also plagues the markets for car insurance and homeowner’s insurance, along with plenty of other markets. The very fact that you’re selling a used air conditioner makes buyers suspect there’s something wrong with it, and they lowball their offers accordingly. Therefore, you can’t get a good price even for a perfectly good air conditioner, and because you can’t get a good price you’re less likely to list it for sale in the first place. That’s exactly the same adverse selection problem (with buyers and sellers reversed), but there’s no general clamor for a national used-air-conditioner policy.

That’s not to say that adverse selection is unimportant, or that we shouldn’t try to address it, and it’s not deny that it might loom larger in some markets than others. But it’s far from unique to the market for health insurance.

Another information issue — one being flogged endlessly by a persistent commenter in that other thread — is that providers generally know a lot more than their customers do about the merits of various medical procedures. This is presented as if it were a reason for providers (e.g. doctors, insurance companies, or federal program administrators) to make key decisions, as opposed to presenting the customer with a price list from which to choose — the same method that seems to work perfectly well in restaurants, auto repair shops and lawyers’ offices.

But all of this overlooks the biggest information issue of all which is this: Only the customer knows whether he’d prefer, say, three weeks of pain relief to, say, a new car stereo, or whether he’d prefer, say, a slight lifelong reduction in heart attack risk to, say, an extra five restaurant meals every year.

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The Dire Prognosis

Here is what I wrote on this blog the day after the election:

The big loss is that there will be no unified right-of-center voice in American politics. Toomey, Portman and the rest of them will do what they can, but it’s Trump who will be taken to define Republicanism, which is to say that Republicanism will henceforth be pretty much the same thing as Democratism.

It gives me no pleasure to observe that with the new Trump-endorsed Republican health care plan, I stand vindicated.

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Missed Opportunities

I haven’t seen any of the details, but it looks like the Republican health care plan suffers from many of the same defects as Obamacare, and is in some ways worse.

Mainly: As far as I am currently aware, the plan pretty much leaves in place the main ongoing problem with health care, which is that most people are grossly overinsured, so that health care choices are too frequently made by insurance companies instead of by (cost-aware) consumers and providers. The solution, in broad terms, is to replace insurance with individual health savings accounts (which, if you’re worried about this sort of thing, can be just as heavily subsidized as insurance is). Plenty of Republicans know this, and have been saying it for a long time. But — at least according to what’s in the early news reports — they seem to have come up with a bill that ignores it.

In fact, the Republican bill makes things worse in at least one way, by lifting the Cadillac tax on employer-provided health care plans, thereby encouraging even more overinsurance.

Presumably this was the compromise among feuding factions that the Republican caucus was able to hammer out. Presumably, too, a little leadership from the one person with veto power could have yielded a much better outcome. Too bad the one person with veto power is a self-obsessed loonybird. I do believe a President Bush or a President Cruz — or even, perhaps, a President Clinton — would have insisted on something far far better.

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Ken Arrow, RIP

Ken Arrow was, until his passing today, the world’s greatest living economist. There are so many tributes to him all over the web that it would be superfluous for me to write another. Here’s a nice one.

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You Gotta See This

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How Many Deaths Does It Take Till He Knows….?

President Trump wants to impose a 20% tariff on Mexican imports. How many Americans will that kill? Let’s play with some numbers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports (I’m looking at Table 13 in that link) that in 2012, approximately 125 million U.S. households spent an average of $731 on fruits and vegetables. That’s about $91 billion altogether.

I learn from this page that the US imports about $9 billion worth of fresh fruits and vegetables each year from Mexico. That is, then, about 10% of our fruit and vegetable consumption.

I learn from various research reports around the web that the price elasticity of demand for fruits and vegetables is somewhere in the vicinity of .50. (Some say higher, some say lower). This means that a 20% tariff — as the president has just called for — will reduce imports by about 10%.

So the Trump tariff should reduce total U.S. fruit and vegetable consumption by about 10% of 10% — that is, about 1%.

(This is, deliberately, a considerable underestimate, since it entirely ignores the fact that the tariff will also lead to increases in the price of American vegetables, leading to further reduced consumption.)

Now here I learn that low fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with a higher risk of degenerative diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, cataracts and brain dysfunction. “More than 200 studies in the epidemiological literature show, with great consistency, an association between low consumption of fruits and vegetables and high cancer incidence.” Many of the mechanisms for this are well understood. For example, folic acid deficiency leads to chromosome breaks and then to cancer. Your health risks do not drop off continuously with your vegetable consumption; instead there are sudden changes — you’re either above or below the level where chromosome breaks occur. (There are similar issues with at least eight other micronutrients — in addition to folic acid — that we get from fruits and vegetables.) About 10% of the U.S. population is below that critical level. Most of those have very low incomes. (The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide, about 5 million people a year die from inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption, and most of those are very poor.) For a first (very rough) approximation, let’s assume that those with folic acid deficiencies are in fact the poorest 10%. You can see here that these are people with individual incomes below about $10,000.

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Alternative Realities


Romans Pancs, my friend from what is slated to be the other side of The Wall, observes in an email that a substantial fraction of the US population attends church, where they are fed a steady diet of alternative facts and fake (old) news. Yet not many people seem terribly outraged by this, and in fact churchgoers are widely respected for the power of their fact-free, unconditional faith.

Why, then, all the angst and anger and disrespect for those who place their unconditional faith in the fake news and prophesies purveyed by Donald Trump? Whence the double standard?

I have a separate question, motivated by the same observation: To what extent have the churches, by training people to accept obvious nonsense without blinking, created the condiitions in which Trumpism can flourish?

I’ll be glad to hear your answers to either question, or to both.

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McCloskey at Chicago, Take Two

It was a pleasure and an honor to reminisce about Dee McCloskey for the Festschrift volume just released by the University of Chicago Press. It was less of a pleasure to discover that the U of C Press had ignored all the editorial corrections I sent them.

If you run into this volume, please don’t read my chapter. Read the corrected version here instead.

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The Long and Short Of It

The indispensable Don Boudreaux riffs on a comment here at The Big Questions to observe that one cannot consistently argue that both a) Citizen’s United gives outsized political power to corporations and b) corporations need to be nudged out of their excessive focus on quarterly statements. Political contributions, after all, do not ordinarily pay off within one or two quarters.

One can, I think, maneuver around Don’s point by maintaining that corporations focus on both the short and long runs, putting too much emphasis on the short run, but still putting enough emphasis on the long run to make it worth manipulating the political system. But that’s a tricky maneuver, and kudos to Don for pointing out that there’s at least some serious tension here.

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Why She Lost

Hillary Clinton Campigns In Iowa, Meeting With Small Business OwnersFor your consideration:

I submit that Hillary Clinton lost because she did not make even a minimal effort to make herself palatable to people like me — people who care primarily about economic growth, fiscal responsibility, limited government, individual freedom and respect for voluntary arrangements.

Because I care about those things (and for a number of other good and sufficient reasons), there was never a chance I would vote for Donald Trump. I gave money to Jeb Bush. Then I gave money to Ted Cruz. Then I gave money to the “Never Trump” movement that was trying to foment a revolt at the convention. Then I gave money to pro-growth Senate candidates. For me, the only remaining choice was between voting for Clinton and not voting for Clinton. (I also considered sending her money.)

I knew that if I voted for her, I’d never feel good about it. That was too much to ask. But I’d still have voted for her, if only she hadn’t gone out of her way to make me feel awful about it. And that she just would not or could not stop doing.

Every time I listened to her recite the litany of reasons not to vote for Trump, I cheered her on. But she seemed incapable of getting through a speech without veering off into the loony-land of free college and unfree trade. Most disturbingly — partly because it was most disturbing and partly because she harped on it so often — was the glee with which she looked forward to rewriting other people’s labor contracts and vetoing their voluntary arrangements. Do you want to accept a wage of less than $12 an hour in exchange for, say, more on-the-job training or more flexible work hours? Hillary says no. Do you want to forgo parental leave in exchange for, say, a higher salary? Hillary says no. And on and on.

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The Awesomeness of Immersive VR for Molecular Modeling

Johanna Bobrow is by day a biologist at MIT, often by night a musician (both solo and in groups), sometimes in between an aerialist, and always my friend. When I first saw this video, I told her it was awesomer than the most awesome awesomeness ever. I firmly stand by that judgment.

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How to Feel (Much) Better About the Outcome of the Presidential Election

I want to really marry the public and the private sector.

–Hillary Clinton

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Doing Right by Veterans

There are approximately 22 million veterans of the United States Armed Forces. They are served — not always well — by the Veterans Administration, with a budget of about $182 billion a year. That’s almost $8300 per veteran per year.

Which raises the question: Why, exactly, do we have a Veterans Administration? My guess (and admittedly it’s only a guess) is that an overwhelming majority of those veterans would much prefer to lose the VA and get a check for $8300 every year instead.

Of course some veterans get end up claiming a lot more than $8300 a year in VA services due, for example, to combat-related trauma that manifests itself only years after leaving the service. But with $8300 a year, you can buy a lot of insurance against such contingencies (and with 22 million veterans each having $8300 a year to spend, there are sure to be a lot of new insurance products available).

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Death of a Ladies’ Man

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen, a major contributor to the soundtrack of my youth. I trust it is not inappropriate at this moment to pay tribute with this brilliant, weird and spot-on parody by the Austin Lounge Lizards. Herewith Leonard Cohen’s Day Job, from the (thoroughly brilliant) album Employee of the Month:

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Did Gary Johnson Matter?

garyjohnsonThe following analysis assumes (as seems likely) that Trump has won Minnesota, Michigan, Arizona and Alaska, while Clinton has won New Hampshire. This gives Trump a total of 316 electoral votes, or 46 more than he needed.

Gary Johnson’s vote share exceeded the Trump/Clinton margin in 10 states, 6 of which (with a total of 38 electoral votes) were won by Cliniton and 4 of which (with a total of 75 electoral votes) were won by Trump.

Therefore, without Johnson in the race (and assuming that his absence wouldn’t have switched any Clinton voters to Trump voters or vice versa), Trump might have won as few as 316-75=241 electoral votes (making Clinton the president-elect) or as many as 316+38=342.

From there, you can draw your own conclusions.

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Late Night Thoughts

Hey, stay calm. Germany elected Hitler, and they survived okay.

Less flippantly, there are some silver linings in this very dark cloud:

  • Lots of good people re-elected to the Senate: Portman, Toomey — still waiting to hear on Ayotte. This means there will be at least some smart and forceful advocates for what we used to call Republicanism.
  • ObamaCare will probably be repealed and might be replaced by something better. (Or not.) It even stands a chance of being replaced by something much better, along these lines.
  • Dodd-Frank is probably about to go away. Again, that stands a chance of being excellent news, depending on what it’s replaced with.
  • The estate tax is likely to be finally dead and buried. Beyond that, there is at least some hope for broader tax reform (closing loopholes, lowering rates, fewer incentives to overconsume, etc). I’m not aware that Trump has ever shown much enthusiasm for this, but if Congress takes the initiative there’s a least a chance of avoiding the veto that would have been certain under Clinton.
  • Donald Trump will name the successor to Antonin Scalia, along with, probably another one or two or three Supreme Court justices. I am hopeful that he’s sufficiently uninterested in constitutional law that he’ll hand over the choosing to someone like Mike Pence. Compared to what we’d have gotten from Hillary Clinton, this would be a majorly good thing. Of course it’s equally likely he’ll nominate, oh, John Gotti, Jr. or someone. But we have reason for hope.
  • More generally, we can at least hope that Trump is sufficiently uninterested in governing that he’ll hand over everything to someone like Mike Pence.

None of this remotely compensates for the prospect of living in an America where Trumpian stormtroppers go door to door ferretting out people to deport. None of it compensates for the Trump Depression that we’re in for if he’s serious about his trade policies. But it’s something.

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The Dilbert View

scottadamsThroughout this election season, Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) has been right when I (and a whole lot of others) have been wrong. On his blog, Adams kept patiently explaining why Donald Trump would be a strong contender, while I and a great many others believed (or maybe just hoped and therefore believed we believed?) that Trump was a flash in the pan. Each of the many times that Trump seemed to take himself out of contention, Adams predicted he’d survive and even thrive — and each time, Adams was right.

Now, however, Adams has turned his attention from Trump’s merits as a candidate (where Adams seems to have had a great deal of insight) to Trump’s merits as a potential president. And here, despite all his past successes, I am quite sure that Adams has outrun his expertise. Policy analysis and political analysis are, after all, two very different things.

From Adams’s most recent blog post:

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Quote of the Day

Today’s quote is dedicated to all the undergraduates who are contemplating law school:

I cannot understand how any gentleman can be willing to use his intellect for the propagation of untruth, and to be paid for so using it.

–Anthony Trollope, Orley Farm

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Quote of the Day

Today’s quote is from my friend Romans Pancs, who is currently entertaining some other friends at his home in Mexico City and writes to report on their activities:

I escaped for a break home when they went to the Museum of Anthropology… No one has been able to explain to me what’s the point of studying failed civilisations when I can study successful ones by visiting Macy’s.

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Breaking the Language Barrier

It’s said that Pythagoras had a man put to death for blabbing in a public bar that the square root of two is irrational. Today I hope I can post this without fear of reprisals. I don’t know who first drew this beautiful proof, which works equally well in modern English and in ancient Greek:

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Quibbling with Kotlikoff

kotlikoffLarry Kotlikoff is probably the smartest, the most honest and the most thoughtful person ever to run for President of the United States. His platform is well worth a read. The latter part is crammed with carefully considered policy proposals. I’d be very happy to see his tax and health care reforms adopted wholesale. I might vote for him.

That said, I’m annoyed by some of the rhetoric in the early part of the platform document, and I’ve attached some of my quibbles below. (These quibbles stop, arbitrarily, at the end of Kotlikoff’s chapter 4, which is not meant to imply that I have no further quibbles.) In a few cases, I’ve expressed these quibbles harshly. Let me, then, make this perfectly clear up front: I am sure that Kotlikoff has thought about some of this stuff harder than I have. Nevertheless, here’s some of what bugs me:

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A Choice, Not an Echo

There is at least one national candidate for President this year who you can be sure really understands economics. That’s Larry Kotlikoff, a professor of economics at Boston University with a long string of high professional honors and a history of great accomplishment in both academics and public service (more here). His running mate, Ed Leamer, is no slouch either.

Kotlikoff and Leamer are not on the ballot, but they are registered write-in candidates (the result of a long and arduous process) which means that their write-ins will be counted (unlike write-ins for, say, Daffy Duck). This is a great way to send the message that you prefer a president who is in the habit of making sense. Here is Kotlikoff practicing that habit:

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The Last Debate


    

Trump did very well, in the sense that if you hadn’t already known it, you might not have guessed he was a madman. But nothing could be more infuriating than to hear him pitch himself as the candidate of change.

For many decades, the federal government has become bigger and more intrusive. Hilary Clinton wants it to be even bigger and even more intrusive. So does Donald Trump. In this they do not differ. She more or less admits it; he flat out lies.

So let’s remind ourselves that Trump wants a government that is more dictatorial regarding who you can trade with, where you can locate your business, the wage contracts you can negotiate, and who you can invite into your living room. He has no problem with entitlement growth, and when asked what he would cut, has consistently answered “waste, fraud and abuse”, suggesting that he has no problem with any of the big ticket items — no problem with a federal government that maintains Departments of Commerce, Labor, Agriculture, Education, Energy, Transporation, and all the rest of it. Given ample opportunities, he’s never even been able to muster a word of opposition to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Donald Trump

trumpIs Donald Trump a racist? I am aware of nothing that would make me think so, but I am also aware that I am not the person most likely to be aware of such things. But I’m not sure it much matters anyway. Under our system of government, and in the current century, it would be rather difficult, I think, for even the most racist of presidents to erect signficant barriers to trade between people of different races. As long as the darkness in a man or woman’s heart does no material harm, I think we can live with it.

On the other hand, Donald Trump is certainly a xenophobe, which makes him as unlikable as a racist, and matters a hell of a lot more, given the ease with which our government routinely erects trade barriers between people of different nationalities.

So the answer to “Is Trump a racist?” is: I’d guess not, I don’t really care (except insofar as I wish nobody were a racist), and it’s the wrong question anyway. The right question is: “Is Trump a xenophobe?”, to which the answer is yes — and it matters.

Is Donald Trump a serial groper? The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, he seems to have lived several decades in the public eye without any visible complaints. On the other hand, we have the notorious Carpe Vulva tape, along with the flood of accusations that followed. The fact that those accusations gibe so closely with the words on the tape could be seen as evidence either for or against their veracity.

But again, who cares, really? The extent of Trump’s boorishness, whatever it may be, seems unlikely to be much different in or out of the Oval Office, and is therefore largely irrelevant to whether it would be a good idea to install him in that office.

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Homer Nods

mankiwBetween his blog, his New York Times columns and his textbooks, Greg Mankiw has probably contributed more than anyone else alive to the cause of economic literacy. But his most recent column is, I think, a rare miss.

The thrust of the column is that the estate tax is a bad idea because it violates the principle of horizontal equity by imposing substantially different tax burdens on substantially similar people:

Consider the story of two couples. Both start family businesses when they are young. They work hard, and their businesses prosper beyond anything they expected. When they reach retirement age, both couples sell their businesses. After paying taxes on the sale, they are each left with a sizable nest egg of, say, $20 million, which they plan to enjoy during their golden years.

Then the stories diverge. One couple, whom I’ll call the Frugals, live modestly. Mr. and Mrs. Frugal don’t scrimp, but they watch their spending. They recognize how lucky they have been, and they want to share their success with their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces.

The other couple, whom I’ll call the Profligates, have a different view of their wealth. They earned it, and they want to enjoy every penny of it themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Profligate eat at top restaurants, drink rare wines, drive flashy cars and maintain several homes. They spend their time sailing the Caribbean in their opulent yacht and flying their private jet from one luxury resort to the next.

So here’s the question: How should the tax burdens of the two couples compare? Under an income tax, the couples would pay the same, because they earned the same income. Under a consumption tax, Mr. and Mrs. Profligate would pay more because of their lavish living (though the Frugals’ descendants would also pay when they spend their inheritance). But under our current system, which combines an income tax and an estate tax, the Frugal family has the higher tax burden. To me, this does not seem right.

The problem with this argument is that it’s not an argument against the estate tax. It’s an argument against any tax (other than a pure $X-per-person-per-year head tax). Try it:

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That Debate


    

They were both so dreadful in so many ways that I don’t have the heart to review it all.

But just because it came near the very end, this is what sticks in my mind.

I am paraphrasing from memory here, but I believe that Mrs. Clinton “accused” Mr. Trump of having said that:

  1. Pregnancy is inconvenient to employers.
  2. When a female employee is less productive than a male employee, it is reasonable for that female employee to be paid less.

Quite independent of the question of whether Mr. Trump did or did not say these things, in what sense are these accusations? Specifically:

  1. Does Mrs. Clinton actually not understand that pregnancy is frequently inconvenient for employers? If not, she is so thoroughly out of touch with the realities of running a business that this alone would be a good reason not to vote for her.
  2. Does Mrs. Clinton actually not understand that it’s a good thing for more effective employees to be paid more than less effective employees — not least because this sends a signal to those less effective employees that they might be more socially useful doing something different? If so, she is so thoroughly out of touch with how markets work (and should work), and so thoroughly oblivious to the importance of efficient resource allocation, that it should be almost unthinkable to vote for her.

Evolution in Action?

From researchers at Harvard, here is stunning time-lapse photography of something that (as far as I can see) might or might not be evolution. A bacteria colony spreads out across a giant Petri dish, hits an area with a high concentration of antibiotics, appears to be stopped in its tracks, but then slowly breaches the boundary in a limited area and is soon spreading as before until it reaches an area with an even higher concentration of antibiotics, and the story repeats:

According to the narrator, the barrier is being breached by a small number of antibiotic-resistant mutants, which then reproduce like crazy, at least until they come into competition with other mutants, etc. In other words, evolution.

Now I’m sure this is an extremely naive question, but I hope someone can offer an answer that will leave me less naive: How do we know this is evolution as opposed to learned behavior?

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