Archive for the 'Bad Reasoning' Category

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.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

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?

Continue reading ‘Soda Jerk’

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.

Continue reading ‘Deficit Attention Disorder’

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.

Continue reading ‘DeLong Shot’


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:

Continue reading ‘Unreasonable’

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:

Continue reading ‘Your President Hopes You’re Stupid’

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:

Continue reading ‘Krugman — So Right and So Wrong’

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.

Continue reading ‘Uncle Ezra’s Crazy Housing Plan’

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.

Continue reading ‘The Wrong Tool for the Job’

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’

And Everyone Who Supports Vaccinations is Motivated by a Desire to Stab People….

In an apparent case of libertarianism run amok, two cognitive scientists and one economist have declared (in effect) that proponents of income redistribution are always and everywhere motivated by exactly the same psychopathic impulses that lead people to scratch other people’s cars, break streetlamps, and engage in other forms of senseless destruction.

That’s not a conclusion; it’s their starting assumption. Then they do an experiment in which some subjects choose to engage in a mild form of income redistribution — and conclude that psychopathic behavior is frighteningly widespread.

Now I too am generally skeptical of the impulse to redistribute other people’s income, but even I concede that redistribution is rarely entirely senseless and pretty much never entirely destructive. In particular, the experimenters consider a case where money has just been redistributed and subjects are given the opportunity to (partly or fully) reverse that redistribution. Those who exercise that opportunity are labeled “destructive”. So apparently, in order to avoid the “destructive” label, you must passively accept any arbitrary redistributions imposed by authority figures without ever feeling any impulse to redistribute in the opposite direction.

In the experiment, each subject is initially awarded 1000 tokens. The paper is so poorly written that it’s hard to be sure, but I think these tokens are ultimately exchangeable for money; it’s mentioned that the average subject earns the equivalent of nine British pounds. One subject is then given the opportunity to destroy some of the other subject’s tokens, thereby returning some funds to the experimenters or to the taxpayers who are funding this experiment.

Rather shockingly (to me) only about 15.5% of the subjects exercised this option; given the presumption of public funding, I’d have hoped for a higher number. The experimenters, however, want to conclude that these 15.5% are the sorts who are likely to key your car.

This stuff is infuriatingly stupid. Even more distressingly, Robin Hanson, who is much much much too smart for this, seems to have fallen for it.

Continue reading ‘And Everyone Who Supports Vaccinations is Motivated by a Desire to Stab People….’

Block Grants and Bad Faith

Paul Krugman on last week’s Supreme Court arguments:

I was struck, in particular, by the argument over whether requiring that state governments participate in an expansion of Medicaid … constituted unacceptable “coercion.” One would have thought that this claim was self-evidently absurd. After all, states are free to opt out of Medicaid if they choose; Medicaid’s “coercive” power comes only from the fact that the federal government provides aid to states that are willing to follow the program’s guidelines. If you offer to give me a lot of money, but only if I perform certain tasks, is that servitude?

Wrong question. The right question is:

If you take a lot of money from me and then offer to give it back, but only if I perform certain tasks, is that servitude?

Because, you see, the federal government is not handing out its own money to state governments — it’s handing out money that it takes from the citizens of those very states for the purpose of (conditionally) handing it back. (Of course “handing it back” isn’t exactly right either, because the payments go not to taxpayers but to their state governments — but it’s a lot closer to right than Krugman’s formulation.)

Continue reading ‘Block Grants and Bad Faith’

And the Winner Is….

The Supreme Court has been a veritable festival of economic ignorance the past few days, but if I had to pick a prize specimen, I think it would be Paul Clement’s response to Justice Kennedy’s observation that the uninsured — given our unwillingness to turn them away from emergency rooms — impose a burden on the rest of us. Mr. Clement (the plaintiff’s attorney) tried to argue that the same is true in any market:

When I’m sitting in my house deciding whether to buy a car, I am causing the labor market in Detroit to go south…

thereby blurring the key distinction between a pecuniary and a non-pecuniary externality.

The point is that Mr. Clement’s decision not to buy a car (and therefore to drive down the price) is bad for Detroit auto workers only to the extent that it’s good for other car buyers. It is therefore in no sense a net burden on the rest of society. Contrast that with the clear burden imposed by the uninsured fellow who wants you to pick up his hospital tab.

Continue reading ‘And the Winner Is….’

Some Questions for Uwe Reinhardt

First Greg Mankiw wrote a good piece in the New York Times about how there’s sometimes a hazy line between ordinary income and legitimate capital gains. Then Uwe Reinhardt wrote a puzzling (at least to me) followup in which he concluded that we might as well just give up and tax both at the same rate. I have some questions for Professor Reinhardt.

Question 1:

  1. Sometimes there is a hazy line between quotation and plagiarism. Does it follow that we should treat every quotation as an instance of plagiarism?
  2. Sometimes there is a hazy line between a pat on the back and an assault with intent to harm. Does it follow that we should treat every pat on the back as an intent to harm?
  3. Sometimes there is a hazy line between adolescence and maturity. Does it follow that we should treat everyone as an adolescent?
  4. If the answer to any of the above is no, what’s different about capital gains?

Professor Reinhardt goes on to instance the case of a person who buys a vacation home for $500,000 and sells it two years later for $1.5 million, suggesting that it would be unfair to let this person hang on to all of this gain, so it should therefore be taxed at the same rate as ordinary income. This brings me to the next questions:

Continue reading ‘Some Questions for Uwe Reinhardt’

The Analogists


Viagra analogies have been in the news a lot lately, both in connection with contraceptive coverage and in connection with state laws restricting abortion. I love good analogies and I hate bad ones, so I’d like to take a little time to sort out the bad from the good.

Because there are several scattered points to be made here, I’m putting them in sections and labeling them with Roman numerals, to make it easier for commenters to tell us just which section(s) they’re responding to.


My insurance policy covers Viagra. I would prefer that it didn’t. Given the costs and the probabilities, erectile dysfunction seems to me like a crazy thing to be insured against. There are a whole lot of other things I feel the same way about. I’d prefer not to be insured against losing my eyeglasses. On the other hand, I’m very glad to be insured against needing chemotherapy or kidney dialysis.

Continue reading ‘The Analogists’

Letter to a Reporter

I suspect we’re all getting bored of talking about Sandra Fluke, contraception policy, alternative solutions, and the reaction thereto, but I’ve just had an email from a reporter who’s confused on a point so basic, I thought it might be worth clearing it up for a larger audience.

The reporter writes:

As you might suspect, I disagree with your assertion that “All she said, in effect, was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it.” I was wondering if you happened to catch the part of her speech where she talked about wanting women whose doctors have prescribed birth control pills to treat medical disorders like endometriosis to be able to get such drugs without having to pass tests demanded by religious institutions? Is this an unimportant part of the debate?

Here is a slightly edited version of my reply:

Continue reading ‘Letter to a Reporter’

Contraceptive Sponges

todayOver the last week, we’ve heard a lot from the people who (with a hat tip to one Joker), I now call “contraceptive sponges” — people who want others to pay for their contraception because — well, just because they don’t want to pay for it themselves.

I don’t think we need to take those people seriously. But others have taken the trouble to make actual arguments, both on this blog and elsewhere. Some but not all of those attempts deserve serious attention.

Continue reading ‘Contraceptive Sponges’

Frank Redux

Thirteen years ago, in 1999, when I wanted to illustrate the astonishing march of progress, my Exhibit A was a new $250 stereo system that held 60 CD’s and could play tracks in random order.

My new Exhibit A is the fact that it’s been only thirteen years since this was a great example.

That was in an essay focused mostly on Robert Frank’s hypothesis that people care largely about relative position as opposed to absolute wealth. I was reminded of that essay following yesterday’s post, and I managed to dig out a copy, which I’ve posted here. Despite the dated examples, I still think it’s pretty good.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

In Which Paul Krugman Leaves Me At a Loss for Words

Okay, this one’s almost too bizarre for words. First, Paul Krugman makes an argument that ignores the existence of corporate dividends. Then, pretty much everybody in the world points out his error. Then, he admits his error, but, true to form, takes an irrelevant swipe at his critics. But in this case, the irrelevant swipe is: “Aha! You’ve just admitted that corporations pay dividends! So much for your past claims that corporations pay wages!”

Umm…Paul? They pay both. I’d lift Krugman’s own favorite dismissive phrase and say “That’s Economics 101″, but actually it’s probably standard knowledge among middle schoolers.

To review the details:

First, Krugman reposted (from the website of a left-wing advocacy group) a highly misleading chart purporting to illustrate the federal tax burdens borne by various income groups. The chart accounts for payroll and income taxes, but omits corporate taxes, thereby making the burden on high-income tax payers appear substantially smaller than it is, because corporate taxes reduce dividends which are disporportionately paid to high-income taxpayers.

Next, he got called on it by lots and lots of people, including, for example, Greg Mankiw.

Next, Krugman acknowledged his error. But, as always, he did so with the least possible grace, suggesting that his critics, by virtue of pointing out Krugman’s mistake, have somehow undermined their own principles.

In particular, his position is that by acknowledging that corporate profits benefit shareholders, “conservatives” have undermined their own ability to claim that corporations benefit anyone other than shareholders (e.g. workers). He relies, in other words, on the cockamamie notion that if something is good for group A, it can’t possibly also be good for group B.

Continue reading ‘In Which Paul Krugman Leaves Me At a Loss for Words’

Mitt Romney’s Taxes

Mitt Romney says his tax rate is “probably around 15%”. It’s not clear what he means by that (marginal rate? average rate? federal rate? federal-plus-state-plus-local rate?) but the New York Times is quick to point out that he’s a beneficiary of the “fact” that investment income is taxed at a much lower rate than wages and salaries, leaving him with a lower percentage tax burden than the working-stiffs he employs.

For at least the eighth time on this blog, I want to point out that this widely believed “fact” is not true.

To understand Mitt Romney’s tax burden, you have to compare him to his doppelganger Timm Romney, who lives on a planet with no taxes. In the year (say) 2000, Mitt and Timm both earned (say) a million dollars. Timm invested his million dollars, saw it double over the past decade or so, and cashed out his investment this year, leaving him with two million dollars. Mitt, by contrast, paid 35% tax in 2000, leaving him with $650,000. He invested it, saw it double, and cashed out last year, paying 15% tax on the $650,000 capital gain. That leaves him $1,202,500, which is about 60% of what Timm’s got. In other words, the tax system costs Mitt almost 40% of his income.

By contrast, people on our planet without investment income collect their wages, pay 35% in taxes, and spend what’s left. The tax system costs them 35%, while it costs Mitt almost 40%. In other words, people with investment income bear a higher tax burden, as a percentage of their income, than anyone else — and that’s before you even start accounting for the taxes on dividends, interest, corporate income and inheritance.

Continue reading ‘Mitt Romney’s Taxes’