Archive for the 'Bad Reasoning' Category

The Rising Tide

So the Obama administration has released a climate forecast, according to which Miami could be under water by the end of the century. Apparently we’re supposed to be very concerned about that.

To put this in perspective, we’ve currently got about 140,000,000 square miles of ocean on this planet — about 71.066% of the earth’s surface. Add Miami’s 35 square miles and that goes up to 71.066007%. You could add all of South Florida and barely notice the difference.

Here’s what Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone says about that:

Of course, South Florida is not the only place that will be devastated by sea-level rise. London, Boston, New York and Shanghai are all vulnerable, as are low-lying underdeveloped nations like Bangladesh. But South Florida is uniquely screwed, in part because about 75 percent of the 5.5 million people in South Florida live along the coast.

What Mr. Goodell appears to overlook is that of the 5.5 million people now living in South Florida, approximately zero will be alive a hundred years from now, and those that are will presumably have had the sense to move inland well before the water reaches their breastbones.

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Something to Celebrate

Here’s a key lesson of economics: Trade is good, but trade with people very unlike yourself is even better. I’m a teacher who eats beef, drives a car and lives in a house. I don’t need other teachers so much as I need students, ranchers, autoworkers and architects. If your neighbors love gardening as much as you hate it, you’ll find it easy to hire a gardener. If it’s the other way around, you’ll do well in the gardening business.

The lesson spills over beyond the markets for goods and services. We learn new ways of thinking and new ways of living from people who think and live differently than ourselves.

We thrive on diversity — diversity of skills, diversity of interests, diversity of lifestyles, diversity of religious and political outlooks, diversity of culinary and artistic tastes, diversity of lifestyles, and, lest we forget, diversity of income. Capitalists need workers and workers need capitalists. A wealthy factory owner won’t stay wealthy for long if here’s nobody to work the assembly lines. A middle-class assembly line worker won’t be middle-class for long if there’s nobody building factories.

Let us then celebrate diversity, not try to extinguish it. And let’s not forget that diversity of income — or, if you prefer, “income inequality” — is just as much a blessing as diversity of skills, preferences, cultural outlooks, and ways of living.

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Housing Problems

Josh Barro observes that home ownership is a really bad investment strategy insofar as it involves putting an awful lot of eggs in one basket — indeed, for many people it involves putting more eggs than they’ve got in one basket, since the mortgage market allows you to sink more than your entire net worth into a single house.

In fact, it’s even worse than Josh says. If your house is located anywhere near your workplace (in other words, if you’re almost anyone) then a local economic downturn can devastate your home value at exactly the same time that it’s costing you your job. That’s a whole lot of unnecessary risk.

As Josh acknowledges, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t own a house; it just means you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a wise investment.

But Dan McLaughlin at the Federalist isn’t satisfied:

Economists … should never make the mistake of ignoring consumer behavior they regard as irrational…What Barro should have asked himself (as any real economist should) before declaring that vast numbers of homebuyers and homeowners have been acting irrationally for millenia in buying their own homes is: what are they getting out of it that my analysis is missing?

I enthusiastically endorse the sentiment that when we observe “inexplicable” behavior, our first instinct should be to ask “What am I missing?”. But Barro at least tried to do that — he pointed to “a sense of security” and the desire to customize one’s residence. I agree with McLaughlin’s assessment that these are pretty weak answers, but unfortunately McLaughlin’s own “answers” are even weaker. According to McLaughlin, we own houses because we don’t like to move, and he elaborates at length on the reasons why —- moving is expensive, it means adjusting to new neighborhoods, uprooting your family, etc. etc.

The thing is, though, none of this is a reason to own rather than rent. You could accomplish all of the above with a 99-year lease (binding for the landlord but not for the tenant) which would give you all the residential stability of home ownership while transferring the risk to a professional landlord with diversified holdings.

So why do people buy houses? Offhand, I can think of three answers:

Continue reading ‘Housing Problems’

High Frequency Rentseeking

Spread Networks recently spent $300 million to build a fiberoptic cable that will let Wall Street traders shave .003 seconds off their execution times.

What’s the social value of that cable? If you can shave .003 seconds off the time it takes to execute a trade, how much good have you done the world?

Clearly, the full value of the cable resides in its ability to get things done faster. So start with a vast overestimate: Suppose the entire economy is on hold waiting for that trade to be completed. Then, thanks to the cable, we can all get on with our lives .003 seconds sooner and produce an extra .003 seconds worth of output.

In a $15-trillion-a-year economy, that comes to about $1500.

If we assume, more realistically, that just 1/1000 of the economy is hanging fire waiting for this one trade, the social contribution of a .003-second speedup is roughly $1.50. I’m confident it’s even more realistic to replace that 1/1000 with 1/1,000,000 . That gets us down to about an eighth of a cent.

But chances are you’d be willing to pay a hell of a lot more than an eighth of a cent for that extra speed, which is why Spread Networks is willing to pour $300 million into this thing, and why, quite generally, we should expect there to be more invested in such projects than they return in social value.

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Krugman Versus Keynes

Remember Paul Krugman? You know, the guy who thinks we’re so deep in a liquidity trap that pretty much all spending is good spending, even if it’s socially wasteful?

Well, here’s something odd. That very same Paul Krugman is outraged to the core by expenditures on fiberoptic cables to support high frequency trading — expenditures that I happen to agree represent a giant social waste.

“We’re giving huge sums to the financial industry for little or nothing in return”, gripes the very same Krugman who thought it was a swell idea to stimulate the economy through hundreds of billions in government spending, whether or not we got anything in return.

It’s true that Keynesian economists have reasons to believe that wasteful spending is sometimes good. But honest Keynesian economists tend to acknowledge that those reasons apply equally well to both private and public spending.

Krugman’s view, apparently, is that, at least in the current climate, wasteful spending is good as long as you’re spending taxpayer’s money, but bad if you’re spending your own money. That’s not Keynesianism. It’s just crankiness.

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Homer Nods

Well, nobody’s perfect.

When it comes to skewering bad reasoning — and making the right arguments crystal clear — Don Boudreaux is usually about as close to perfect as anyone gets. But this time I believe he’s committed a gaffe of his own.

In a column on the minimum wage, Don writes:

Suppose that I invent and use a machine to steal $15,000 every year from each of 500,000 poor Americans, with the $7.5 billion being transferred into my Swiss bank account. After skimming off a few hundred million bucks to cover processing and handling expenses, I share the bulk of these proceeds with about 16.5 million friends…Am I acting immorally? Most people would answer “yes”…

By way of context, a CBO study forecasts that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour will cause 500,000 workers to lose their $15,000-a-year jobs, while raising the pay of 16.5 million others.

But Don’s analogy fails, because taking someone’s $15,000-a-year job is not the same thing as taking someone’s $15,000. I think it’s a fair guess that most minimum wage workers dislike their jobs. So losing one of those jobs has an upside, which has to be weighed against the downside of not getting paid. On balance, losing that $15,000-a-year job might be no more painful than losing, say, $5000 a year.

The right version of Don’s analogy, then, goes more like this:

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The Talker of the Town

tillyOnce upon a time, the New Yorker took special pride in its famously scrupulous fact-checking department. Nowadays, they’ve apparently stopped caring whether the pieces they publish are even remotely plausible, let alone true.

Thus, writing about the Affordable Care Act in the current issue, Jeffrey Toobin is able to report that “it’s clear that the law is helping a lot of Americans” because, among other things, “more than a hundred million people have received preventive-care services, like mammograms and flu shots, at no cost!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (Emphasis added.)

Now surely nobody at the New Yorker, right down to the greenest intern, can possibly believe that it is possible to provide a mammogram or a flu shot at no cost. The statement is so ridiculous that one has to believe either that it was intended as some sort of parody (a reading which the context does not support) or that Toobin meant to say something entirely different. But what?

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Chips off the Block

Last week, I wrote to condemn the gang of angry yahoos who have piled onto Walter Block for making a perfectly reasonable argument about slavery, involuntary association, and Civil Rights legislation. Today I write to give Walter’s argument the respect it deserves by trying to pick it apart.

It’s important to recognize that Walter wasn’t making a formal argument. Instead, he was offering a rhetorical framework to clarify some of the issues. His (informal) argument, if I understand it, comes down to essentially this:

Look. We all agree that slavery is bad. And when you think about it, pretty much all of the badness stems from its involuntary nature. This should make us wary of involuntary associations in general, and hesitant to impose them. This applies, for example, to laws that require restaurant owners to serve people they don’t want to serve.

Now I happen to be quite sympathetic to that argument (indeed, I’ve been known to make essentially the same argument myself). In fact, I’ll go further and say that I think any reasonable person ought to be at least somewhat moved by that argument. But I can see where it’s not airtight.

To see why not, let’s take a pass at formalizing this:

1) Slavery is bad.
2) For a thing to be bad, some aspect of it must be bad.
3) Slavery has no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.
4) From 1), 2) and 3), we can deduce that involuntary association is a bad aspect of slavery.
5) From 4), we deduce that involuntary association is bad.
6) Involuntary association is an aspect of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
7) Anything with a bad aspect is at least partially bad.
8) From 5), 6) and 7), we can deduce that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is at least partially bad.

Now let’s see where the problems are.

Continue reading ‘Chips off the Block’

Block Heads

walterblockThe righteously irrepressible Walter Block has made it his mission to defend the undefendable, but there are limits. Chattel slavery, for example, will get no defense from Walter, and he recently explained why: The central problem with slavery is that you can’t walk away from it. If it were voluntary, it wouldn’t be so bad. In Walter’s words:

The slaves could not quit. They were forced to ‘associate’ with their masters when they would have vastly preferred not to do so. Otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc. The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory.

A group of Walter’s colleagues at Loyola university (who, for brevity, I will henceforth refer to as “the gang of angry yahoos”) appears to concur:

Traders in human flesh kidnapped men, women and children from the interior of the African continent and marched them in stocks to the coast. Snatched from their families, these individuals awaited an unknown but decidedly terrible future. Often for as long as three months enslaved people sailed west, shackled and mired in the feces, urine, blood and vomit of the other wretched souls on the boat….The violation of human dignity, the radical exploitation of people’s labor, the brutal violence that slaveholders utilized to maintain power, the disenfranchisement of American citizens, the destruction of familial bonds, the pervasive sexual assault and the systematic attempts to dehumanize an entire race all mark slavery as an intellectually, economically, politically and socially condemnable institution no matter how, where, or when it is practiced.

So everybody’s on the same side, here, right? Surely nobody believes the slaves were voluntarily snatched from their families, shackled and mired in waste, sexually assaulted and all the rest. All the bad stuff was involuntary and — this being the whole point — was possible only because it was involuntary. That’s a concept with broad applicability. One could, for example, say the same about Auschwitz. Nobody would have much minded the torture and the gas chambers if there had been an opt-out provision. And this is a useful observation, if one is attempting to argue that involuntary associations are the root of much evil.

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Minimum Insight

Paul Krugman argues that:

  1. Hiking the minimum wage has little or no adverse effect on employment
  2. and therefore

  3. A minimum-wage increase would help low-paid workers, with few adverse side effects

.

In other words, Krugman, not for the first time, is peddling the sort of claptrap that few of us would accept from a college freshman.

The first point — that hiking the minimum wage has little effect on employment — is an empirical one. Not all smart observers agree with Krugman’s reading of the data, but many do — so for the sake of argument, let’s assume he’s right about that.

The question now is: How the hell do you get from point 1 to point 2? Answer: Only by forgetting the most basic principle of economics, which is that things have to add up. If the minimum wage has no effect on employment, then it’s basically a pure transfer of resources. Which means that the costs and the benefits are equal. The only way there can be “few adverse side effects” —- i.e. few costs — is if there are few benefits. Our job as economists is to make sure people understand such things.

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A Little Knowledge is A Dangerous Thing

Sent by a reader:


(Click to enlarge.)

Some questions for the economics students:

  • Which vertical line segment illustrates the carbon tax revenue?
  • Which vertical line segment illustrates the compensation paid by the government?
  • Where does the difference come from?
  • What difference would it make if you changed the axis labels from “Polluting Products” and “Non-Polluting Products” to “Watermelon” and “All Things That Are Not Watermelon”?

Answers below.

Continue reading ‘A Little Knowledge is A Dangerous Thing’

The Compassionate Science

I’ve said this before and will say it again: Part of the reason I love economics is that economics is the compassionate science. It’s the discipline that requires us to think hard and to care about how policies affect everyone, not just the people who happen to be standing in front of us.

The response to the government shutdown has been as good an example of this as any. Nothing but a garguntuan failure of empathy can explain the chorus of voices insisting that the shutdown is a bad thing because government employees might lose their paychecks. It takes a mighty powerful set of moral blinders to care so much about the recipients of those checks and so little about the taxpayers who fund them.

It gets even uglier when that same chorus of voices responds “But the government employees are poor and the taxpayers are rich!”. Put aside the question of whether that’s true. If your goal is to transfer money to the poor, and if the poorest people you can think of are government employees, then the well of your compassion is truly dry.

Argue if you must for transferring income from the rich to the poor. But to turn that into an argument for transferring income from the taxpayers to the employees of the government, there are a couple of billion poor people you’ve got to willfully ignore.

When I blogged about this issue earlier this week, we had one commenter — a personal friend, actually, and someone I’ve been surprised and delighted to see showing up in our comments section from time to time — who broke my heart by pointing to the pain of Capitol Hill coffee shop owners who are losing business, apparently oblivious to the fact that taxpayers also visit coffee shops, and that for every dime not being spent by a DC bureaucrat, there’s an extra dime available to be spent by a Nebraska farmer or a New York cab driver. Our commenter apparently remembered to care about the guys selling coffee in DC but forgot to care about the guys selling coffee in Nebraska.

Continue reading ‘The Compassionate Science’

Acta Sanctorum

So if I have this right, it is now the official position of the Catholic church that:

  1. The late Pope John Paul II has the ongoing power to cure brain aneurysms.
  2. As far as we know, he has chosen to employ this power exactly once. (He also once cured a case of Parkinson’s.)
  3. While hundreds of thousands of others have suffered and/or died from brain aneurysms, John Paul has not been moved to intervene.
  4. The one victim he troubled himself to save was selected not because she was particularly deserving or particularly valuable to society, but because she chose the right guy to pray to — sort of like having to suck up to the teacher to get a good grade.
  5. All of this makes John Paul II particularly fit for veneration.

For God’s sake (you should pardon the expression), if you’re looking to make the case that John Paul II was capable of performing (or at least catalyzing) genuine miracles, isn’t the defeat of Soviet Communism good enough? That right there makes him a saint in my book — though if I ever come to believe that he can cure aneurysms and has been holding out on us, I might have to retract my endorsement.

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The Road Not Taken

Paul Krugman, having apparently received another of his divine revelations, proclaims that if we demand (somewhat) better working conditions in Third World countries (backed up, presumably, with boycott threats), “we can achieve an improvement in workers’ lives … And we should go ahead and do it.”

Don’t ask how he knows; the ways of the Oracle are mysterious and beyond human ken.

Look. A well designed policy of boycotts and boycott threats can certainly improve working conditions in the Third World. It can also lower either wages, employment or both. Whether or not that package amounts to “an improvement in worker’s lives”, as Krugman puts it, is an interesting and important question, and well worth thinking about. But apparently the last thing Krugman wants you to do is think about it, since he’s already told you the answer, and seems to presume you won’t have the slightest interest in where it came from.

Now, among the many differences between me and Paul Krugman, there are probably some that redound to his credit. But his propensity to hide all of his reasoning (if any) is not one of them. Compare, for example, my blog post of a few years ago on working conditions in 1911 New York City, when the Triangle Shirtwaist fire claimed 146 lives, most of them young women, partly because the fire exits were blocked to prevent pilfering. Would workers in 1911 have wanted safer working conditions (including unblocked fire exits)? This was my answer:

Continue reading ‘The Road Not Taken’

A Queer Bit of Reasoning

Here is Justice Anthony Scalia, dissenting from the Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act:

It is enough to say that the Constitution neither requires nor forbids our society to approve of same-sex marriage, much as it neither requires nor forbids us to approve of no-fault divorce, polygamy, or the consumption of alcohol.

I don’t get it. The Consitution neither requires nor forbids our society to approve of the Atlantic Monthly, but it still requires us to tolerate the Atlantic Monthly. Or does Justice Scalia disagree?

(Note to potential commenters: This is not a post about whether we as a society either should or should not approve of same-sex marriage, or for that matter whether there’s any meaningful sense in which a “society” is capable of approving anything at all. It’s also not a post about what our policy should be toward same-sex marriage. It’s a post about Justice Scalia’s odd notion of what this case was about. Please stay on topic.)

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Multiple Comments

Following up on yesterday’s Keynesian Cross post:

  1. The point, for those who missed it, is that using exactly the same reasoning that we find in Eco 101 textbooks to derive the Keynesian multiplier, we can conclude that sending all your money to me will make everyone rich. The conclusion is absurd; therefore the reasoning is invalid. And reasoning that’s invalid in one context is also invalid in another.
  2. Some commenters thought that my version of the Keynesian cross argument was an unfair caricature. I invite those commenters to peruse some actual Eco 101 textbooks. For example, they might browse through the section labeled “The Income-Expenditure Model” in a widely used textbook called Macroeconomics. The authors are Robin Wells and Paul Krugman.
  3. Let’s review the logic of that model. (See yesterday’s post for explanations of the notation.)

    Step I: Start with an accounting identity (in this case C+I+G).
    Step II: Throw in an empirical regularity (in this case C=.8Y).
    Step III: Combine the two equations to get a third equation (Y=5(I+G).)
    Step IV: Do a thought experiment involving a policy change (e.g. an increase in G) and predict the outcome by assuming that your equations will continue to hold after the policy change.

    By contrast, my alternative model starts with an accounting identity (Y=L+E), throws in an empirical regularity (Y=.999999E), combines these equations to get a third (Y=1000000L) and then predicts the outcome of a thought experiment (send me your money!) by assuming that the equations will continue to hold. In other words, yes, exactly the same logic.

  4. The problem with the Landsburg multiplier story is that after you send me your money, the equation Y=.999999E is not likely to remain true. The problem with the Keynesian multiplier story is that after you increase government spending, the equality C=.8Y is not likely to remain true. Why not? Well, for one thing, if the government buys you a bowl of Wheaties, you’re correspondingly less likely to go out and buy a bowl of Wheaties for yourself. For another, if the government spends wastefully, you, as a taxpayer, are going to end up poorer, which means you’ll probably consume less. The exact nature of the change depends on the exact nature of the government spending. But there’s surely no reason to buy into the model’s assumption that there will be no change at all.
  5. Continue reading ‘Multiple Comments’

Hate Crimes in Black and White

Which should the law treat more severely: Killing a guy because he cut you off in traffic or killing a guy because you don’t like his race?

Elsewhere on the web (link omitted because the source is the invitation-only blog of a personal friend), I read the following:

In the former case, you’re a danger to the person who wronged you. In the latter, you’re a danger to tens of millions of people, and that’s just in the US.

Hate crimes are different because the perp’s target list is vastly larger, with the built-in implication of recidivism.

There’s so much wrong with this I’m not sure where to begin. First of all, when a guy kills another guy for cutting him off in traffic, I’m inclined to think the likelihood of recidivism is pretty high. It’s not like nobody’s ever going to piss him off again. Second of all, I’d think that severity of punishment should be tied primarily to its effectiveness as a deterrent to others, not as a deterrent to recidivism. We can deal with recidivism partly by keeping an eye on past offenders, but when it comes to deterring unknown others, punishment is all we’ve got.

But I mention those issues only in passing on my way to what I think is the really interesting question, namely: Which is more harmful? Targeting a specific individual for death or targeting a randomly chosen representative of some race?

And while we’re at it: Which is more harmful? Targeting someone for being black, or for being white?

Some thoughts:

Continue reading ‘Hate Crimes in Black and White’

To Hold You Over….

Sorry to have been so silent this week; various deadlines have kept me away from this corner of the Internet. I’ll be back in force next week for sure. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some good reading, this is the best thing I’ve seen all morning.

Edited to add: “Best all morning” was not intended as damning-by-faint-praise. It’s actually the best of many mornings.

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Soda Jerk

The one lesson I most want my students to learn is this: You can’t just say anything. It’s important to care about making sense. So I find it particularly galling when people violate this rule while presenting themselves to the public as economists. It undercuts the single most important lesson we have to teach.

THe latest culprit is the unchastened serial offender Robert Frank, writing in the Business section of the Sunday New York Times. His argument has two parts, one philosophical and one economic. In both cases he substitutes blather for analysis. I’m less concerned about the philosophical part, because it’s such obvious nonsense that I can’t imagine anyone will take it seriously. But the fact that he got the economics wrong, and more importantly, his implied message that it doesn’t matter whether you get the economics wrong, seems calculated to undermine the public’s faith in economists. That’s the part I take personally.

Frank’s subject this time is New York Mayor Bloomberg’s failed attempt to curb the sale of large sugary drinks. While acknowledging that such a ban would curb individual freedom in some dimensions, Frank argues that it would simultaneously enhance individual freedom in others — namely, it would enhance your “freedom” to prevent your child from drinking lots of soda.

Now, I do not doubt that for some parents, a ban on large sugary drinks would make it easier to prevent children from drinking lots of soda, but to call this an enhancement of freedom, you (or Robert Frank) would have to use the word “freedom” in a very unorthodox way. By Frank’s definition, a ban on Democratic campaign ads would enhance your “freedom” to prevent your children from voting for Democrats. Would Frank endorse such terminology? Or suggest that this effect, in and of itself, might suffice to consider the advertising ban a generally pro-freedom initiative?

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History Repeats Itself


Benjamin Franklin was against smallpox vaccination — until his own unvaccinated son died of smallpox, whereupon Franklin changed sides and began urging other parents to vaccinate their children.

This has always struck me as a bit of a black mark against Franklin’s rationality. He’d always known that smallpox kills; he’d always known that vaccinations (at least in the early 18th century) could also kill. As a parent, he’d weighed one risk against the other and used his best judgment about where to place his bets. In a world where smallpox deaths were commonplace, his own son’s death was just one more virtually insignificant data point. Could inoculation have been an unacceptable risk against a disease that killed 100,000 people a year, but a prudent precaution against a disease that killed 100,001?

That’s how I feel, too, about Senator Rob Portman’s turnabout on the issue of gay marriage after learning that his son is gay. Continue reading ‘History Repeats Itself’

Deficit Attention Disorder

Imagine you’ve got a drinking problem. And imagine this conversation with your spouse:

Spouse: Dear, you’ve really got to do something about your drinking. You’ve been in three auto accidents this week, you’ve lost your job, and you’ve been trying to beat the children, though you keep passing out before you can get to them. I want to help you figure out how to get this under control.

You: You’ve got a fair point there. But let me point out that it would also be a good idea to redecorate the living room.

Spouse: Well, maybe so, and it’s something we can talk about at some point. But right now, I’d really like to focus on the drinking issue.

You: Doesn’t that strike you as imbalanced? Here we’ve got two issues on the table, and you want to focus 100% on one of them and 0% on the other. Why are you being so one-sided?

Spouse: Well, but I feel like there’s some urgency about the drinking thing, and I’d like to prioritize it.

You: Apparently, you’re fanatical on this issue. I don’t see how I can continue to take you seriously.

Spouse: Well, actually I’m trying to get you to focus on a very serious issue.

You: Yes, but by focusing exclusively on that issue, you’re betraying your fanaticism. Clearly, I’m the one who’s willing to address our problems, and you’re the one who’s just out to score debating points.

Spouse: Huh?

You: Not only that, but I’ve got a Nobel-prize winning economist who agrees with me!

How does that make you feel? I feel that way a lot when I read the news lately. Arguably, our country faces a spending crisis. The Republicans claim they want to deal with that crisis. (There’s some legitimate question about how sincere they are, but they at least say they want to deal with it.) The Democrats say: Okay, but let’s also talk about raising taxes. Maybe they’d also like to talk about redecorating the Rotunda; this seems roughly as pertinent. In other words, the Democrats attempt to deflect attention from the crisis (or the alleged crisis) by insisting that we talk about some other thing at the same time — and then they insist that the Republicans, by insisting that we focus on the issue at hand, are “betraying their fanaticism”. And they’ve managed to find a Nobel-prize winning economist willing to parrot this nonsense almost daily on the pages and webpages of the New York Times.

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But Foolish *In*consistency Can Also Be Problematic…

Paul Krugman is at it again, bemoaning the mendacity of politicians who, for “careerist reasons”, will never admit their mistakes and therefore lock themselves into bad policies. He even quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,
adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

And Krugman’s solution to this problem? More power for the politicians, of course.

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A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

Writing in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert illustrates the power of analogy:

A man walks into a bar. He orders several rounds, downs them, and staggers out. The man has got plastered, the bar owner has got the man’s money, and the public will get stuck with the tab for the cops who have to fish the man out of the gutter.

…..

The man pulls into a gas pump. He sticks his BP or Sunoco card into the slot, fills up and drives off. He’s got a full tank; the gas station and the oil company share in the profits. Meanwhile, the carbon that spills out of his tailpipe lingers in the atmosphere, trapping heat and contributing to higher sea levels. As the oceans rise, coastal roads erode, beachfront homes wash away, and, finally, major cities flood. Once again, it’s the public at large that gets left with the bill.

In both cases, Kolbert endorses the “fair and logical” solution: The man should be taxed to incorporate the costs that his choices impose on the rest of society.

I like this game. Can I play too?

A man chooses to build his house on the oceanfront instead of 100 miles inland. This makes him especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and therefore leads him to lobby for a carbon tax. The man gets his house; the builders and contractors share in the profits, and the public at large bears the consequence of higher gas prices.

Or even:

Some people want to burn a lot of carbon, which raises global temperatures, imposing costs on owners of oceanfront property. Other people want to protect their oceanfront property, imposing costs on the people who want to burn a lot of carbon. A journalist at the New Yorker convinces her readers that the only “fair and logical” solution to this conflict of interests is to come down entirely on the side of the property owners, leading to the implementation of suboptimal policies. The journalist gets paid, the magazine editors congratulate themselves on the influence of their writers, and the general public suffers the consequences.

Should the property owner and the journalist be taxed for exerting their malign influences?

Continue reading ‘A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing’

DeLong Shot

First Brad Delong claimed that we can’t know things by pure reason. In response, I offered a counterexample:

The ratio of the circumference of a (euclidean) circle to its radius is greater than 6.28 but less than 6.29

Now Delong attempts to “refute” this counterexample by observing that it doesnt tell us anything about neutron stars (!!!). Leave aside the fact that it actually does tell us quite a bit about neutron stars (the circumference-to-radius ratio for a neutron star is not equal to 2π, but you’d still be hard pressed to compute its value if you didn’t know what π was). The larger point is that knowledge doesn’t have to be about neutron stars to be knowledge. It can be knowledge about, oh, say, euclidean circles.

Of course, as DeLong rightly observes, “we reason like jumped-up monkeys using error-prone Humean heuristics on brains evolved to improve our reproductive fitness”. And of course it is equally true that we perceive like jumped-up monkeys using error-prone sensory apparatus evolved to improve our reproductive fitness. Yet DeLong appears to acknowledge that our perceptions are sometimes informative. (I use the word “appears” because, true to form, DeLong prefers hissing and stamping his feet to actually spelling out an argument.) Why, then, should reason be more suspect than perception? DeLong isn’t in the mood to tell us.

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Unreasonable

Brad DeLong appears to argue here that because pure reason once led him, Brad Delong, to an incorrect conclusion about which direction he was facing, it follows that pure reason can never be a source of knowledge.

(If that’s not his point, then the only alternative reading I can find is that Thomas Nagel is guilty of choosing a poor example to illustrate a point that DeLong would rather ridicule than refute.)

It would be too too easy to make a snarky comment about how we’ve known all along about Brad DeLong’s tenuous relationship with reason. Instead, here, for the record is a list of ten facts, of which I am willing to bet that DeLong is aware of at least 7 — none of them, as far as I can see, accessible to humans via anything but pure reason:

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Your President Hopes You’re Stupid

Joe Biden says that Mitt Romney has lied about Jeep and outsourcing; Romney intimates that President Obama has lied about Libya. I presume there’s been substantial truth-stretching on both sides and about many issues. Truth-stretching (or lying) relies on the ignorance of voters. There’s plenty of ignorance to go around, which is why truth-stretching works.

Treating voters as ignorant is one thing; treating them as stupid is quite another. You rely on ignorance when you cite “facts” that are hard for people to check — as, for example, when the President presents himself as sympathetic to immigrants and hopes you don’t know about the record number of deportations on his watch. You rely on stupidity when you blithely contradict yourself, hoping nobody will notice. The latter seems far more cynical.

I’m sure both candidates have been guilty of treating voters as both ignorant and stupid, and I called attention to several instances (on both sides) in my commentary on Debates One, Two and Three. But it does seem to me that it’s the President who is banking most heavily on voter stupidity.

A few examples:

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Krugman — So Right and So Wrong

Paul Krugman offers a nice thought experiment to illustrate why government debt, in and of itself, does not make the country as a whole any poorer:

Suppose that … President Santorum passes a constitutional amendment requiring that from now on, each American whose name begins with the letters A through K will receive $5,000 a year from the federal government, with the money to be raised through extra taxes. Does this make America as a whole poorer?

The obvious answer is not, at least not in any direct sense. We’re just making a transfer from one group (the L through Zs) to another; total income isn’t changed. Now, you could argue that there are indirect costs because raising taxes distorts incentives. But that’s a very different story.

OK, you can see what’s coming: a debt inherited from the past is, in effect, simply a rule requiring that one group of people — the people who didn’t inherit bonds from their parents — make a transfer to another group, the people who did. It has distributional effects, but it does not in any direct sense make the country poorer.

Two comments:

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Uncle Ezra’s Crazy Housing Plan

Ezra Klein at the Washington Post offers a way out of the current mess:

Tomorrow morning, Bernanke could walk in front of a camera and announce that the Federal Reserve intends to begin buying huge numbers of mortgage-backed securities with the simple intention of bringing the interest rate on a 30-year mortgage down to about 2.5 percent and holding it there for one year, and one year only.

The message would be clear: If you have any intention of ever buying a house, the next 12 months is the time to do it. This is Uncle Ben’s Crazy Housing Sale, and you’d be crazy to miss it.

Now, financial markets are not my specialty, and maybe Klein has thought about this more deeply than I have, but there seems to be a little flaw in this plan.

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The Wrong Tool for the Job

Paul Krugman, defending the IS-LM (a/k/a “old Keynesian”) model of the macroeconomy as a non-rigorous but useful “scratchpad”, misses the point by a mile:

It’s a simplified model that more or less gets at what you think are the essentials of an issue, and is easy to work with, so you can use it to reach quick first-pass judgments about policy or whatever.

………

But IS-LM isn’t the prime example of a scratchpad. What is?

The answer is, supply and demand.

It is not easy to derive supply and demand curves for an individual good from general equilibrium with rational consumers blah blah. And it’s definitely not easy to justify consumer and producer surplus as measures of welfare. And there have always been some purists who condemn any use of the S and D curves we all grew up with, the use of triangles to measure welfare loss, and all that.

But for the most part nobody pays attention. The supply-and-demand framework is so convenient, while pretty much getting at what you want to get at, that it’s what almost everyone uses to get a first-pass analysis of economic issues.

Okay, look. Supply and demand (and, especially, triangles of welfare loss, etc) are not entirely rigorous, but they’re good useful simplifications that actually give useful (though approximate) answers to important policy questions. Sort of like Ohm’s Law for electrical circuits.

But IS-LM is not like that at all, because IS-LM does not even address the key policy questions in macroecomics. IS-LM can tell you, perhaps, how to fight a recession, but it can’t tell you whether the recession is worth fighting — not even loosely, because the model contains no individual utility functions and no social welfare function. It therefore does not allow you even to formulate the question of whether a given policy is worth its costs, because it provides no framework for weighing costs against benefits.

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Charting the Tax Plans

Ezra Klein, quoted with approval by Paul Krugman, offers this chart of how the Obama and Romney tax proposals will change rates for taxpayers in various quintiles:

What we’re supposed to infer, according to Krugman, is that

we have an election in which one candidate is proposing a redistribution from the top … downward, mainly to lower-income workers, while the other is proposing a large redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the top.

But no such thing is remotely true. What we actually have is an election in which both candidates are proposing massive redistributions from the top downward, one slightly less so than the other. You’d never know this from looking at Klein’s chart because it illustrates changes in rates, whereas what actually matters is the rates themselves. It makes no sense to ask whether any particular group ought to be paying more or less without reference to how much they’re already paying.

Indeed, this is a classic example of what I once called the “Grandfather Fallacy” — by focusing on changes instead of absolutes, Klein’s chart conceals any existing inequities and hence treats them as “grandfathered in”.

Fortunately, Greg Mankiw has provided the numbers that allow us to make the requisite correction. Here, according to Mankiw, are the current tax burdens on various income groups (counting transfers as negative taxes, as of course one should):

Bottom quintile: -301 percent
Second quintile: -42 percent
Middle quintile: -5 percent
Fourth quintile: 10 percent
Highest quintile: 22 percent

Top one percent: 28 percent

That “-301 percent” means, for example, that a typical family in the bottom quintile receives $3.01 in net transfers for every $1 that it earns.

By adding these numbers to the numbers in Klein’s graph, we can construct a picture that actually depicts something interesting, namely the projected tax burdens for each group. It looks like this (the vertical axis represents percentage of income):

Note, for example, that, contrary to the impression you might have gotten from Klein’s and Krugman’s posts, both plans place the highest percentage burden on the top 1%, and both plans place a negative burden on the middle quintile — though Obama’s does both of these things to an ever-so-slightly greater extent than Romney’s does. There’s room for disagreement about which plan is fairer, but no room, I think, for disagreement about which chart is relevant.

Continue reading ‘Charting the Tax Plans’