More Timely Than Ever!

Friday, December 31, 2021

TGIF: Pursue Your Happiness and Forget the Rest

How about we do something novel in the new year? Let's stop worrying about the stuff most politicians, pundits, and activists want us to worry about and instead think about ourselves, our families, our friends, and whatever communities we choose to be part of. Let's forget about "the country" and the rest of the world. Let's individually pursue happiness.

All I'm saying is that it's finally time for the politicians, bureaucrats, and know-it-all intelligentsia, left or right, to get out of the way and let us set our own agendas.

Too self-centered? Well, too bad. Much evil results from people failing to mind their own business. But what I have in mind does not involve wishing other people ill or seeing life as a zero-sum game in which you can win only if others lose. On the contrary, we benefit from other people's, including distant strangers', good fortune because at the very least it opens up opportunities for mutual gains from trade. ("The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market," the wise Adam Smith pointed out some time ago.) In reality, it opens up so much more.

There's little chance this sort of world would result in what is often stigmatized as "selfishness." The vast majority of us understand that truly caring about oneself necessarily means caring about other people in a variety of proper ways. In fact, the person who claims to care only about himself actually cares little even about himself. That's why mutually beneficial social arrangements have been bottom-up affairs. As Thomas Paine recognized in The Rights of Man:

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.

Yet the policy elite and much of the ideological left and right don't want us to understand this. They have other plans for us. They always do, don't they? So they can't let us get it into our heads that their agendas are illiberal impositions.

The ruling establishment and its mouthpiece media try to keep us agitated by a variety of threats. As Ted Galen Carpenter notes,

In recent years, U.S. executive branch officials and members of Congress from both political parties have routinely portrayed Russia or China (and frequently both countries) as existential threats to the United States. It also is becoming increasingly common to find news articles or opinion pieces that adopt the same theme. Moreover, a significant number of politicians and analysts put smaller powers, especially Iran and North Korea, and even non-state actors, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, in that category. The concerted campaign on the part of opinion-shaping elites to hype the danger from such sources is leaving an indelible mark on public attitudes. Many Americans now believe that their country faces multiple, horrifying threats.

More sober reflection should cause the public to conclude that the dangers are greatly exaggerated, and that the individuals, agencies, and organizations that foster such hysteria are not doing the country any favors. ("Paranoid Superpower: Threat Inflation is the American Way.")

Do the real or imagined threats to Ukraine or Taiwan really represent existential threats to the world including the American people?

Then there's the so-called climate emergency, which doesn't exist. After more than 40 years of the most ridiculously bad predictions of the imminent catastrophe, it's time for those who still take the doomsday scenarios seriously to realize that "Wolf!" has been cried too many times. The same goes for other "crises," like the ones supposedly presented by immigrants, global free trade, and the allegedly rampant racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and the assortment of imagined phobias.

We can also tell the "woke" left and the national conservative right that we have our own lives to live, thank you very much. And, no, we don't have too much freedom, no matter what they may think. They can include us out of their culture wars.

The point of freedom is to be left unimpeded in our own individual and voluntary cooperative pursuits. It will forever be remarkable that the Declaration of Independence specified "the pursuit of happiness" in its examples of unalienable rights. Let's never forget it.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Feelings and Explanations

We frequently conflate feelings with explanations of feelings. It's important that we not do that. 

From the fact that people are infallible authorities on whether they experience, say, pain, it does not follow that they are infallible authorities on why they experience pain on any particular occasion. They can't be wrong about the former, but they surely can be wrong about the latter. It would make no sense to say, "I thought I was in pain last night, but I was wrong." Yet it would make perfect sense to say, "I thought my mouth hurt because of a cavity, but I was wrong. The source of the pain was my right temporomandibular joint. The connection between effect and cause is even looser with things like anxiety. One might feel apprehensive or dysphoria generally, but how does one pin down the precise cause with confidence?

People of course can lie about being in pain, or not being in pain, but that is beside the point. I assume sincerity here.

So imagine someone suffering distress because, despite his homo sapiens body, he sincerely believes that his real species identity is that of an extraterrestrial. That is, he was "given the wrong body" and mistakenly "assigned" to the category homo sapiens. How does he know? He says he feels like an alien and doesn't feel like a human being. He also insists that his explanation must be correct because only he has direct and perfect knowledge of his own identity. Therefore he demands that everyone not only acknowledge it but also really believe it. 

Leaving aside some serious problems (what does it mean to feel like an alien or for that matter a human being?), a rational person could take his claim of distress at face value while rejecting his explanation as wrong and even absurd. Expressions of doubt about, not to mention the outright rejection of, his explanation might hurt that person's feelings, yet that would be no reason to patronize him by pretending to take the explanation seriously. If he reacted to the doubters and "deniers" as phobic bigots and exclusionists who ought to be drummed out of enlightened society, he would be the irrational one. One can certainly sympathize with people who suffer without being committed to embracing their explanations for their suffering. We all have the moral (not to mention legal) right to judge the plausibility of explanations for ourselves. 

Needless to say, the sort of person I have in mind should have the same rights as everyone else, which boil down to the right not to be aggressed against. People should be legally free to aspire to any identity they want. But identity is always a two-way street; it's a social phenomenon. And that means that other people have rights too. If those others find the positive obligations being expected on them unreasonable (such as the obligation to accommodate a self-identified extraterrestrial and to recognize that person as such), they have a right to say, "Sorry, but no. Live and let live applies to you too."

We cannot show respect for others by adopting their reality-defying fantasies. Sensitivity to suffering does not require us to check our common sense, our logic, and our reason at the door.


Friday, December 17, 2021

TGIF: Double-Rigging of the Auto Market

U.S. government interference with our lives often resembles a Russian matryoshka doll: regulation is nested in more regulation. Take the provision of Biden's pending Build Back Better bill that would create a big tax credit for people who buy U.S.-built electric vehicles (EV).

Not only would the government distort the domestic auto market by rigging it in favor of electric vehicles over conventional ones, but it also would rig the EV market, Trump-style, in favor of U.S.-made products. This implies that "foreign" EVs are so attractive to American buyers that the domestic offerings need help from the state to compete. That's an argument against the provision right there. If the vehicles that American companies and workers turn out aren't what American buyers would want to buy without subsidies, the manufacturers shouldn't be protected from that important information.

Why not? Because markets exist for consumers and not for producers. Makers of trade policy have no political incentive to operate on that principle because manufacturers of a given product can easily organize for government protection of their livelihoods and reward the politicians who do their bidding. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for consumers, who have too many other things to worry about. Any kind of trade restrictions hurt them because prices will be higher and product variety will be constrained, especially if a trade war breaks out through tit-for-tat retaliation.

Trade wars end up hurting producers as well, of course. Even without a trade war, when Americans buy less from foreigners, foreigners, having less money, will buy less from Americans and other foreigners. The bad effects ripple globally.

Understandably, electric-vehicle makers in Canada and Mexico are especially upset. Who could blame them? The San Diego Union-Tribune reports, "Canada and Mexico worry the provision would lead to dramatic reductions in EVs purchased in their respective countries and violates the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, the trade pact the three countries passed last year to replace NAFTA."

So much for the alleged free-trade zone of North America.

But things are not quite so simple as the provision's backers make out, demonstrating that Donald Trump had no monopoly on willful ignorance about the reality of trade. The inhabitants of the United States, Canada, and Mexico do more than trade finished consumer goods with each other. For many years North America has been a single highly integrated market for producers' goods.

According to the Union-Tribune, Canada's consul general for Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona, Zaib Shaikh, points out that, in the newspaper's words, "Determining the country of origin of a given vehicle is complicated because the auto industry of the three North American countries has become so highly integrated."

In other words, It's not clear what an American, Canadian, or Mexican EV is exactly. “'When you think about vehicles assembled in Canada, they’re actually 50 percent U.S.-made,' Shaikh said, 'because the supply chain works so that things are crossed over six or seven times across the border' before a vehicle is finally assembled."

It's hardly the first time that the authors and backers of legislation were ignorant about the thing they sought to regulate.

As already noted, tilting the market toward American manufacturers, even if that were possible today, is not the only objectionable feature of the provision. The provision also aims at tilting the market toward EVs and against vehicles with internal combustion engines. EV purchasers would gain $12,500 in tax credits by 2027. This is in pursuit of the Biden administration's goal of cutting carbon-dioxide emissions 50-54 percent from the 2005 level by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050.

Those targets are important for many people on the fallacious grounds that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that is ruinously warming the climate when in fact it is plant food that is greening the earth and bringing other palpable benefits to mankind. (Thanks to technology, the real pollutants in gasoline are already controlled in today's clean cars.)

To the extent that human-generated CO2 emissions through the use of fossil fuels have contributed to mild global warming since the Industrial Revolution began, they have helped to improve the lives of human beings everywhere by making the natural world more hospitable. During this time, population, life expectancy, and per-capita wealth have grown, while extreme poverty, infant mortality, and deaths from weather extremes have plummeted. Cold kills more people than heat, and the longer growing seasons made possible by warming help feed the world's nearly 8 billion people at a lower cost.

For the foreseeable future, nothing will be able to compete with fossil fuels in providing reliable, inexpensive, and abundant energy -- something billions of people in the developing world desperately need if they are to achieve the living standards that we in the West take for granted.

So rigging the market in favor of electric vehicles is a dumb idea.

Finally, we might welcome tax credits because they provide a chance to keep more of our money, but this principle is a snare and a delusion.  The power to tax (that is, steal) is bad enough without it also being a politician's tool to manipulate market outcomes. That only adds injury to injury.

Friday, December 10, 2021

TGIF: Joe Biden, Let's Not Go to War with Russia

Here's a good idea: let's not go to war against Russia. Let's not even rattle a saber at Russia (or China, for that matter) because even wars that no one really wants can be blundered into. Many losers would be left in the aftermath, even if nuclear weapons were kept out of sight, but no one would win. So as that smart Defense Department computer says in the 1983 movie WarGames, "The only winning move is not to play."

The crisis du jour is Ukraine; before that, it was Georgia, both former Soviet republics. For some inexplicable reason, Russia's rulers get nervous when the U.S. foreign policy elite treats Russian historical security concerns as of no consequence. Could it have something to do with the several invasions of Russia through Eastern Europe in the past? Jeez, from the way the irrational Russians behave, you'd think their American counterparts never invoked U.S. security concerns (usually bogus) as a reason for military action. As if...

But maybe it is time for America's rulers to take Russian worries into consideration. Even for those of us who are no fans of Vladimir Putin and the government he runs, this seems like good advice – if for no other reason than narrow American self-interest. At least, that's how it looks from the view of regular Americans, who might appreciate for a change what Adam Smith described as "peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice."

Anyone who has paid attention to U.S. foreign policy since the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact alliance, 1989-91, would realize that America's bipartisan foreign-policy elite has taken precisely the wrong tack by baiting nervous Russian nationalists at every turn. Despite promises to the contrary, that elite has led the charge to add members to the NATO alliance, taking the anti-Soviet military and political organization right up to the Russian border and staging military exercises uncomfortably close. The U.S. has also sold weapons systems to NATO-member Poland, formerly a member of the Warsaw Pact.

Putin insists that NATO not expand any further, but Biden told him to shut up. The U.S. position is that NATO's inclusion of former Soviet possessions is purely an alliance affair. Meanwhile, Biden threatens more harsh economic sanctions and even more U.S. troops to Eastern Europe if Putin doesn't acquiesce by, among other things, moving his troops away from the Russia-Ukraine border

Let's also recall that in 2014 the U.S. stood behind a neo-Nazi-supported coup against an elected, Russian-friendly president in Ukraine, knowing full well how the Russians would react. Fearing U.S./NATO encroachment, Putin's government annexed Crimea with its strategic warm-water Black Sea naval base, which has been part of the Russian security system for over 200 years. Nevertheless, and most relevant to today's heightened tensions, Putin declined an opportunity to annex eastern Ukraine (the Donbass region full of ethnic Russians ) when a majority there voted for independence from Kiev.

You didn't have to know too much about European history to see how provocative the U.S.-sponsored regime change in Ukraine would be. To make matters worse, Ukraine and Georgia have become de facto NATO members, but only because the U.S. elite has not yet convinced its European counterparts to give those two former Soviet republics official membership. That, however, hasn't stopped Washington from extending a security guarantee to Ukraine that is all too much like the one that NATO members extend to one another. Biden has just reinforced that guarantee.

Which Americans are ready to die for Kiev?

For some reason it's easy for Americans, who can be as nationalistically self-centered as anyone, to assume that any ratcheting up of tensions with Russia must be the Russians' fault. The establishment media have no problem presenting this as an indisputable fact. But how do they know it's true? They never furnish evidence. Foreign-policy expert Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute has a much more evidence-bound take:

Moscow’s behavior has been more a reaction to aggressive moves that the United States and its Ukrainian client have already taken than it is evidence of offensive intent. Russian leaders have viewed the steady expansion of NATO’s membership and military presence eastward toward Russia’s border since the late 1990s suspiciously and they have considered Washington’s growing strategic love affair with Kiev as especially provocative.

Moreover, Carpenter adds,

Ukraine’s own policies have become dangerously bellicose. The government’s official security doctrine adopted earlier this year, for example, focuses on retaking Crimea, the peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014 following the West’s campaign that helped demonstrators overthrow Ukraine’s elected, pro-Russian president. Statements by President Volodymyr Zelensky and other leaders have been disturbingly bellicose, and Ukraine’s own military deployments have further destabilized an already fragile situation.

Carpenter points out that while the United States is far more powerful than Russia in conventional terms, "unless the United States and its allies are willing to wage an all-out war against Russia, an armed conflict confined to Ukraine (and perhaps some adjacent territories), would diminish much of that advantage. Russian forces would be operating close to home, with relatively short supply and communications lines. US forces would be operating far from home with extremely stressed lines. In other words, there is no certainty that the US would prevail in such a conflict."

Would the Biden administration then back down or go nuclear? Who is eager to find out?

Those considerations aside, the U.S. government should simply stop fanning the Russophobic flames simply because a war would be incredibly stupid.

Friday, December 03, 2021

TGIF: Safety in Freedom

With the emergence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, renewed restrictions on liberty or calls for their reinstatement have broken out around the world. The new wave is probably only beginning, and with it will surely come sermons on how we must face trade-offs between liberty and safety. This seems to be the new normal.

The usual justifications for this purported necessity always feel inadequate, with gaping holes in the case for expanding government power to extraordinary lengths. Since we all now have a good deal of experience with COVID under our belts, let's hope that the public's doubts about any new power grab will be strong and loudly expressed.

What brought this subject to mind was a recent Oxford Union debate, which I ran across on YouTube. While I've watched only a little, it quickly occurred to me that the case for a necessary trade-off between liberty and safety runs aground with the realization that liberty is a necessary condition for safety. After all, it's not always clear how one can best stay safe in a situation: that requires thought, discourse, action, and therefore liberty.

Moreover, that matter is separate from the question of how safe any particular person may wish to be. Indeed, people have different preferences with respect to risk and safety in part because life is complicated and trade-offs are ubiquitous. Increasing one's safety in some measure by abstaining from some desirable activity will likely require too big a sacrifice for some people, although for others the benefit will be well worth the cost. (A person cannot violate his own freedom.) So who's to decide? Why should a faceless bureaucrat or a charismatic politician make the call?

Few people understand that there's safety in liberty, specifically, the freedom to think, improvise, and innovate. This is true for individuals, but when the potential danger is social or global, the case for liberty is equally clear. That's precisely when we all need many minds searching for solutions without central direction. Knowledge is dispersed, and no one can say who will have a key insight. Competition is the universal solvent. And to be effective, thinking requires freedom of action.

Matt Ridley and Julian Simon before him elaborated how we all benefit from the often unintentional combination of ideas generated in different and unlikely places. By now, the serendipity that freedom produces ought to be expected. The results often are imaginative approaches to vexing problems that few would have dreamed possible.

The case for giving up freedom to acquire a measure of safety is actually an appeal to trust in an anointed central authority. And that means a threat of force is at least implied.

But where is the actual safety in that arrangement? Why should anyone believe that the anointed know what they are doing? They operate in a centralized, bureaucratic environment. The rulers expect the ruled to behave like children who have been told that all will be fine if they obey. Unfortunately, the ruled often think of themselves as children when it comes to the latest risk proclaimed by their rulers.

So are people really safer than they would have been in a free, decentralized, and competitive environment? We find no evidence for this in places that imposed harsh restrictions on liberty in response to COVID-19. Lockdowns, vaccine and mask mandates, and travel bans show no signs of delivering on the politicians' promises. There just is no good substitute for freedom at every level because no central authority is knowledgeable enough.

Finally, what about the risks that individuals might present to others and not just to themselves? There are big differences between 1) the potential risks to others that anyone may pose in simply going about the normal business of life and 2) the dangers produced by aggression, gross negligence, and inadvertent toxic pollution, where identifiable individuals entitled to due process can be shown to present demonstrable peril to others. For one thing, in the first case, people are not passive victims-in-waiting but generally informed agents capable of taking precautions against infection. Imagine the nightmare that would come from the principle that everyone in society may be viewed as a threat to everyone else merely by breathing. We don't have to imagine it, do we? That's how most governments throughout the world -- blunt instruments that they are -- responded to the pandemic. As a result, our livelihoods -- our lives-- are now subject to cancellation without notice.

(Photo credit: Dev Asangbam, Unsplash License)

Friday, November 26, 2021

TGIF: Racial Polarization Is Poison

Be they "left" or "right," those who agitate for racial polarization seem to have no sense of the harm they could do to everyone in our society. As the wise Glenn Loury would say, they are playing with fire. By polarization, of any kind, I mean more than merely a vigorous disagreement over issues or even basic principles. That's fine. Rather, I mean something dogmatic, obsessive, and fanatical, in which virtually everything in the world is seen through a single lens and everyone is expected to act and speak in a certain way, with stern consequences for the noncompliant.

It can happen in politics, but it is becoming especially common with race, where some would have us interpret virtually everything through a racial prism. This is more than simply unfortunate; it threatens what the ancient Greek philosophers and later philosophers such as Spinoza -- whose 389th birthday (Nov. 24, 1632) we marked this week -- held to be the good life for human beings; it's the conception of life in which being virtuous is seen as constitutive of happiness, or better: eudaimonia, and not separate from happiness or merely means to it.

Racial polarization threatens this not just in the obvious way, namely, with the potential holds for violence. I'm thinking of the more subtle way: through the narrowing and undermining of all sorts of social cooperation.

Formulators of the original (classical) liberalism, which has been refined into the libertarian political philosophy, took to heart what the Greeks and their intellectual descendants emphasized, namely, that we human beings are inherently social animals. Some went even further to note that, as reason- and language-bearing creatures, we thrive best when surrounded by people who exhibit their rationality in the fullest sense, not only as a tool to judge means but ends as well. Only in such a milieu can we live in ways most proper to rational animals, that is, with reason always in the driver's seat. This entails, among other things, dealing with people through argument, persuasion, and consent rather than command, manipulation, and force.

A key way that social existence promotes individual flourishing is cooperation, which augments our otherwise weak individual capacities. While no collective brain exists, liberal society creates something analogous to it. As a result, we each gain access to an incredible volume of knowledge -- moral and otherwise -- any morsel of which we might never have thought up or encountered while living alone or in small groups during our limited lifespans. The marketplace of ideas is an example of this process that benefits us all beyond measure. In this day when free speech and free inquiry are increasingly under assault from reckless elements left and right, this would be good to remember.

The benefits of the broadest possible social cooperation are also abundant in the material realm. The early liberal political-economic thought demonstrated that living in isolation was to live in abject poverty. No one was better at pointing this out than Frédéric Bastiat, the 19th-century French liberal. In the opening chapter of his unfinished magnum opus, Economic Harmonies, he wrote:

It is impossible not to be struck by the disproportion, truly incommensurable, that exists between the satisfactions [any] man derives from society and the satisfactions that he could provide for himself if he were reduced to his own resources. I make bold to say that in one day he consumes more things than he could produce himself in ten centuries.

What makes the phenomenon stranger still is that the same thing holds true for all other men. Every one of the members of society has consumed a million times more than he could have produced; yet no one has robbed anyone else....

We should be shutting our eyes to the facts if we refused to recognize that society cannot present such complicated combinations in which civil and criminal law play so little part without being subject to a prodigiously ingenious mechanism. This mechanism is the object of study of political economy.

If this was true in 1850, what would Bastiat say about our time? Think of all the things we have access to in the developed world, even those of modest means. (The people of the developing world want the same, which shows the cruelty of so-called climate policy, which would raise the price and reliability of energy.) The point which shouts from Bastiat's passages is that we have much to lose if social cooperation were to break down or even narrowed. Society is exchange, as the liberals hammered home on many occasions. "Society is concerted action, cooperation," Ludwig von Mises wrote in his grand treatise, Human Action, which he was tempted to call Social Cooperation, another name for specialization through the division of labor and knowledge.

Need more be said about the threat from racial and other deep polarization? To invoke another original liberal, Adam Smith famously wrote that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. The fewer the people with whom to cooperate, the more primitive the division of labor. And the more primitive the division of labor, the poorer we are. That should require no elaboration.

When social distrust is sown among groups, particularly on the basis of spurious identity considerations, a great deal of what we value but take for granted is put at risk. This doesn't mean that America's history of slavery, Jim Crow, and less formal forms of racism can't be taught and discussed frankly. They must be. But the cost will be unspeakably severe if frank conversation about the past and even aspects of the present transmogrify into polarization, hatred, and distrust.

Good people everywhere should speak out against polarization. Think about what we all have to lose. And once it's lost, there may be no getting it back.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Friday, November 19, 2021

TGIF: Rigged Political Language

It's an old trick: gain advantage over others by hiding one's meaning behind euphemisms and other forms of linguistic camouflage and misdirection. People do this in all walks of life, but politicians make careers of it. If they engage in straight talk at all, it is by far the exception. The journalist Michael Kinsley defined a gaffe as "when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say."

Obfuscation is the currency of politics. Little has changed since Oscar Wilde's time: "Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.”

Libertarians have emphasized this scam for years. When they say that taxation is theft, they offer an illustration. If you threatened to harm people, say, by imprisonment, unless they surrendered some of their incomes each year, you would be prosecuted for extortion, even if you planned to do good works with the money. Punishment would then follow. Politicians do the same thing, except that taxation is not illegal.

When the government orders people to leave their homes so politicians may put the land to other uses, that is also theft. But it is called by the high-sounding term eminent domain. That euphemism adds to the mystique of the state as it reveals what ought to be a repugnant idea: that the government is the supreme owner of all land in its jurisdiction -- even in the United States, whose Constitution implicitly embraces that principle. True, eminent domain is not an enumerated power (so much for the doctrine of the limited power), but it is acknowledged indirectly in the clause about compensation in the subsequently added Fifth Amendment. This shows that the framers thought the power to take private property was inherent in the sovereign.

The so-called "takings clause" is an odd part of the Bill of Rights. It proclaims that people have a right to "just compensation" whenever the government violates their right to property. That the government pays what it calls "just compensation" does not make eminent domain alright. What makes compensation just in a normal transaction is that the buyer and seller freely agree to the amount. Since sellers are coerced under eminent domain, no compensation qualifies as just.

If we set our minds to it, we could all find many more examples of political euphemisms. The Department of Defense was once called the Department of War. The term free election disguises the fact that voters choose among politicians under duress: they will be coerced by government policy whether or not they participate in the election. Climate policy ought to be called pro-poverty policy. Trade policy would better be known as crony-reward policy. Government intelligence and military justice ... well, you get the idea.

Scanning the recent headlines, I notice that many places are enacting so-called gun-buyback programs. What a euphemism that is. You would think that the only thing that the government could buy back was something that it had originally sold. That's what back means in such a phrase. But state and local governments don't sell guns to citizens, so how can they buy them back?

I concede that the recent programs appear to be voluntary, although the money paid (sometimes in the form of grocery gift cards) is taken by force from the taxpayers. So the politicians aren't even buying back with their own money. In the past, however, buyback campaigns were mandatory, and some favor compulsion today. For example, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke favorably about Australia's compulsory program. Beto O'Rourke, who sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, has called for a compulsory "assault weapons" buyback.

Incidentally, the National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a paper (for which I cannot vouch) purporting to demonstrate that gun violence is not reduced in the United States when governments buy and destroy guns turned in by citizens:

Gun buyback programs (GBPs), which use public funds to purchase civilians' privately-owned firearms, aim to reduce gun violence. However, next to nothing is known about their effects on firearm-related crime or deaths. Using data from the National Incident Based Reporting System, we find no evidence that GBPs reduce gun crime. Given our estimated null findings, with 95 percent confidence, we can rule out decreases in firearm-related crime of greater than 1.3 percent during the year following a buyback. Using data from the National Vital Statistics System, we also find no evidence that GBPs reduce suicides or homicides where a firearm was involved. These results call into question the efficacy of city gun buyback programs in their current form.

This isn't surprising. People with violent intent aren't likely to sell their guns "back" to the government.

At any rate, we ought to be clear about what we call these programs. Governments demonize guns (rather than bad users of guns) by bribing people with stolen money.

We might actually roll back government power if the exercise of that power were not systematically obscured by euphemisms.

Friday, November 12, 2021

TGIF: Equal Rights Now!

A pet peeve of mine is the distinction, drawn even by some market enthusiasts, between so-called personal liberty (or civil liberties) and economic liberty. The former, which usually includes freedom of conscience and religion, speech, and press, is thought to be noble and spiritual, while the latter, related to commerce and the pursuit of wealth, is held to be vulgar and materialistic. This has its roots in the thinking of the ancients.

The distinction thrills the hearts of those who disparage markets and "economic freedom," Pro-market thinkers use the distinction for understandable analytical purposes. but I see no reason to leave the anti-market activists unchallenged on the point.

A New Deal-era Supreme Court case -- upholding the federal power to ban interstate commerce in filled milk -- embraced the division of freedoms when the majority in a famous footnote stated that "there may be narrower scope for operation of the presumption of constitutionality when legislation appears on its face to be within a specific prohibition of the Constitution, such as those of the first ten Amendments, which are deemed equally specific when held to be embraced within the Fourteenth." That sentence meant in essence that government interference with economic liberty did not require the same strict scrutiny that interference with personal liberty required. How the justices ignored the protection of property rights in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments or Article I, Section 10's protection of contracts against the states is a mystery to me, but the upshot is that Congress and the state legislatures were given greater latitude to regulate what were regarded as economic activities.

Calling this "arguably the most important footnote in U.S. constitutional law," one commentator wrote, "Footnote four of United States v. Carolene Products Company, 304 U.S. 144 (1938) presages a shift in the Supreme Court from predominately protecting property rights to protecting other individual rights, such as those found in the First Amendment." (Emphasis added.) With the word other, this statement at least includes property rights among our individual rights, which is more than most fans of the footnote and its underlying philosophy do.

Any way you slice it, over 80 years ago the Supreme Court declared that some rights or freedoms are more equal than others. Most of the intellectual elite would agree. So the idea of equal rights became old-fashioned. And so it is today.

This two-tiered system in which some rights are second-class -- which means they are not really rights at all! -- ought to be rejected. Individuals are integrated beings who pursue ends of many kinds every waking hour. Moreover, material possessions are as important to people's life-affirming pursuits as any nonmaterial values.

Thomas Sowell put it well when he wrote in Basic Economics: "Of course there are non-economic values. In fact, there are only non-economic values."

Economics is indispensable because it explores what goes on socially and individually when people engage in exchange for any reason or abstain from doing so. The discipline focuses on the intended and especially unintended consequences of exchange, including the emergence of money to replace barter and the generation of relative prices in markets. That economists ignore some kinds of activities does not make those activities nobler than other sorts.

Besides, engaging in so-called personal liberty has economic implications because such liberty involves material objects. Free speech requires the use of resources, which in a modern society are acquired in the market. At the very least, a speaker has to stand somewhere. All activities have some, even if only slight, consequences in the market. They affect employment; they favor and disfavor certain kinds of businesses; and they change the prices of goods. If someone works long hours for money in order to visit the world's great museums, architectural wonders, and symphony halls, is that perso engaged in an economic or non-economic pursuit?

At any rate, it makes no sense to artificially divide (non-invasive) human activities in the conventional way, especially when the disparagement of commerce is the purpose. All natural rights deserve equal protection under the law. The government should have no power to discriminate.

Two economists who emphasized the general character of all human action were Ludwig von Mises, a pillar of the Austrian school, and the British economist Philip Wicksteed. Mises called the analysis of the logical structure of all human action praxeology, and he pointed out that economics is simply the best-developed branch of that discipline. He wrote in Epistemological Problems of Economics, "Everything that we say about action is independent of the motives that cause it and of the goals toward which it strives in the individual case. It makes no difference .... whether it is directed toward the attainment of materialistic or idealistic ends...."

And in The Common Sense of Political Economy, Wicksteed, who has been called the "British Austrian" because of his work's compatibility with the Austrian school, wrote, "It follows that the general principles which regulate our conduct in business are identical with those which regulate our deliberations, our selections between alternatives, and our decisions, in all other branches of life.... I shall try to shew that it is time frankly and decisively to abandon all attempts to ... establish any distinction whatever between the ultimate motives by which a man is actuated in business and those by which he is actuated in his domestic or public life. Economic relations constitute a complex machine by which we seek to accomplish our purposes, whatever they may be." (Read more here and here.)

So let's have no more about the unequal status of economic and personal liberty. They are one.

Friday, November 05, 2021

TGIF: Another Climate Conference

Sometimes we've got to be grateful for hypocrisy. If those who pretend to be world leaders actually delivered a fraction of what they promise in Glasgow, Scotland, where the UN's COP26 (Conference of Parties) Conference on Climate Change runs through Nov. 12, we'd be far bigger trouble than we already are.

You know how these things go. Power-loving, sanctimonious politicians and their minions pontificate (for 12 days!?) on how the world will end in 20 minutes unless they force their subjects to behave in ways they don't wish to behave and to spend trillions of dollars they would rather keep. Meanwhile, cheap and dependable energy will be taken from or denied to them for their own good. It's an old song,

Fortunately, these charlatans haven't yet gone nearly as far as they purportedly intend or their most zealous supporters want them to go. But this is certainly not to say that they do no harm except to give kids nightmares and scarce some grownups. The politicians et al. have done immense harm for years, with their demonization of carbon dioxide (a foundation of all life), and their pushing of "solutions" such as unreliable and costly wind and solar power to imagined manmade problems. (Even Michael Moore has seen through those scams, for which he's paid a price by alienating himself from former fans. Spoiler alert: a movie he produced, Planet of the Humans, indicts so-called renewable energy  --Alex Epstein calls them the unreliables -- as environmentally hazardous.)

One reason for the welcome gap between promise and performance is that politicians worldwide realize that real people won't stand for the full program. First, they've heard the apocalyptic predictions (driven by GIGO computer models) for too many decades, and second, they care about their living standards. The West's affluent average don't want to become poor, and the rest in Asia, Africa, and Latin America don't want to stay poor.

In the developed world, that means people don't want higher energy prices, and for good reason: power, which comes largely from marvelous fossil fuels, underlies everything that makes life for the masses materially far better than it was only a couple of centuries ago -- however much we take it for granted.

And in the developing world, poor people would like to have the living standard that the average Westerner has. In essence, those who lack cheap electricity and gasoline want don't want to be kept waiting.

Whoever asks them to give up that dream and remain inhabitants of a tourist theme park ought to be ashamed of themselves. Their rulers give mixed messages on the matter because they prosper from the big money transfers from the developed world's taxpayers. But as the heroic economist P. T. Bauer taught us so well, government-to-government transfers are more likely to fuel central planning, corruption, and oppression than good things for real people. Rather, Bauer insisted, good things come from freedom, independent enterprise, and free markets.

Fortunately, along with the hypocritical politicians and despondent zealots, we find many voices of reason on the matters of climate and energy -- voices of people with impeccably strong credentials in all the relevant fields, from the atmospheric sciences to economics and related social sciences. Since they are not driven by the ambition to use climate to push for a Jacobin and authoritarian "great reset," they can see things clearly. That is, they are guided by evidence and logic, rather than computer models chock-full of controversial assumptions about something as complex as "the climate." You can see this in the climate optimists' (some call themselves "luke warmers) print and video presentations. Compared to them, the merchants of hysteria look like junior high school debaters who memorized a few talking points and scary scenarios the night before.

One optimist is the Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. (To say he is an optimist is not the say he thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds.) I am inclined to disagree with some of what Lomborg says because I as a layman find the pro-CO2 scientists (Princeton's William Happer, the late Freeman Dyson of Princeton, MIT's Richard Lindzen, and many others) more persuasive. Lomborg takes the UN IPCC's climate assessment at face value and reserves a role for the government -- though he would spend far, far less than the alarmists -- that I find objectionable. Those reservations aside, as a non-alarmist he has sensible things to say.

Lomborg's book is False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet. As you can tell, he thinks the planet needs fixing with respect to the climate, but where he differs from the catastrophe lobby is that he sees no world-threatening emergency. Instead, he sees warming as one of many world problems -- and not even the most dire -- that could be addressed calmly, effectively, and much less expensively than the lobby demands. Panic, he says, is misplaced and assures bad responses. That in itself is refreshing. Have a look:

In the Financial Post in August, Lomborg wrote:

Because of economic development, the UN estimates that the average person in the world will become 450 per cent as well-off by 2100 as they are today [if nothing were done about warming]. But climate change will have a cost, in that adaptation and challenges become somewhat harder. Because of climate change, the average person in 2100 will “only” be 436 per cent as well off as today. [Emphasis added.]

This is not the apocalypse but a problem to which we should find smart fixes.

He went on:

[G]lobally, many more people die from cold than from heat. A new study in the highly respected journal Lancet shows that about half a million people die annually from heat, but 4.5 million people die from cold. As temperatures have increased over the past two decades, that has caused an extra 116,000 heat deaths each year. This fits the narrative, of course, and is what we have heard over and over again.

But it turns out that because global warming has also reduced cold waves, we now see 283,000 fewer cold deaths. You don’t hear this, but so far climate change saves 166,000 lives each year.

His bottom line is: "In reality, humans adapt.... Ultimately, this is why the scare stories on climate impacts are vastly overblown and not supported by this new [IPCC] climate report."

Lomborg sees that the obsession with climate overshadows far more urgent developing-world problems regarding malnutrition, disease, education, and more. And as he points out, these maladies are related to a deeper problem: poverty. He understands that these problems would be best addressed by increased production of wealth, a truism demonstrated repeatedly in modern history. And how is widespread wealth produced? Lomborg goes part of the way with libertarians: freedom.

In Fortune he wrote:

To help make the world better, we need to focus more on the very best policies. Top among these is freer trade. Free trade has recently been criticized by left- and right-wing politicians because it hurts vulnerable communities like manufacturing workers in the Rust Belt.

This misses the bigger picture.... Much of ... [the] benefits would go to the world’s poorest, who would have far more opportunities if they could become part of the global market....

By making people richer -- especially in the world’s poorest countries -- freer trade would also lead to societies that are far more resilient to climate shocks, more capable of investing in adaptation, and far less vulnerable to rising temperatures. In that way, free trade can be considered a smart climate policy as well as an excellent way to promote human thriving generally.

In other words, wealthier is healthier, as the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky used to say. And that means that freer is healthier, more resilient. Changes in climates are nothing new. They've always changed. What's made the natural world so much more hospitable since the late 18th century are: reason, greater freedom in all realms of peaceful action, the division of labor, innovation, free trade, and man's consequent adaptation to nature's sometimes perilous changes.

As Lomborg wisely counsels, the world isn't coming to an end -- to which I would add: unless those who want to deprive the world of cheap and dependable energy succeed.

Friday, October 29, 2021

TGIF: The Challenging Art of Persuasion

Anyone who hopes for a peaceful pro-liberty intellectual revolution is interested in the art of persuasion. But is it a practical art? Can enough people be persuaded to abandon long-held anti-liberty views for something quite different?

I'm assuming here that one wishes to persuade people of positions that one really thinks to be right and true. Demagogues may try to sell propositions they don't actually hold, but let's leave them out of the story. Of course, even wrong and bad people can believe what they say and seek to persuade others of those views. But I'm thinking only of the good-faith efforts of people of intellectual integrity to persuade others to their side.

That persuading people of the truth can be difficult is captured by popular cliches. For example, someone said, "It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled." That's often attributed to Mark Twain, but Snopes says the evidence is lacking. (This sort of thing is so often the case.) Snopes says that Twain did write in his autobiography, "How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!" That's pretty close.

Then there's this one (and its variations): "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on." That's also commonly attributed to Twain, but we are told we have reason to doubt it. Jonathan Swift, Thomas Francklin, and others, however, referred to the respective speeds of truth and falsehood. (I guess Abraham Lincoln was right when he said you can't believe everything you read on the internet.) Another saying goes something like this: "It isn't what we don't know that hurts us. It's what we know that isn't so." Nope, again not Twain, as far as we know, but he and others came close. It's been attributed to probably a dozen authors.

My point isn't about who did or didn't say these things, of course; it's that observers have long understood that dissuading people from erroneous beliefs is no easy task. (I've tried long enough.) It can be like swimming upstream, which is understandable as well as frustrating.

Many thinkers have written about the various biases we all have and other impediments to clear thinking, such as the common logical fallacies. (Steven Pinker's Rationality would be the latest book in this genre. Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter also gets into this regarding people's solid biases regarding international trade and immigration.) It seems to me that a big reason for the difficulty in getting others to understand one's contrary position, much less embrace it, is the simple preference for the familiar that so many hold. Whether this has something to do with our descent from people who lived in and trusted only small and somewhat isolated groups, I do not know. But I'm not sure that an evolutionary explanation is necessary. The appeal of the familiar -- the safe -- seems obvious enough.

As we grow we develop a worldview, and it becomes the default position. It's what we know (or "know"). It's home. Asking that we abandon it for something else is a big deal. It's such a big deal that it's not merely a matter of examining the evidence. One would have to be convinced that examining the evidence is worthwhile. That in itself is a big barrier to surmount. I think many people commonly assume that if a newly encountered idea were true, they would have heard about it before. They haven't heard it; therefore something must be wrong with it. The inclination to doubt the new can readily find subjectively satisfying supporting grounds: the advocate of the news must have cherry-picked the data or left out conflicting theoretical considerations, and so on. Confirmation and other biases can be powerful if one is not vigilant. Nothing is easier than restoring one's inner equilibrium.

Another barrier to persuading people to embrace freedom fully is that many propositions are counterintuitive; they require thought based on at least some knowledge of a special discipline. Libertarians spend a lot of time trying to teach people that a society unguided by a central authority can be peaceful, orderly, and efficient. Unfortunately, that's not obvious. We grow up learning to plan our day, our lives. We see other people doing it. So how could society as a whole work smoothly and well without a central plan and planner?

It's not easy to explain this to people who's never encountered the idea of spontaneous order. Asking them to trust individual freedom and the market can seem like asking them to have blind faith in something alien. This is true about many economic propositions and other esoteric subjects that require training in a particular way of thinking. Fear of the strange is a powerful inducement to stick to what you "know."

On the other hand, some people are eager for the unfamiliar and go out of their way to seek it out. Who can say why in a given case? Maybe they are simply rebelling. Or maybe they've spotted intellectual and empirical problems with their original worldview that other people overlook. If you were raised in a communist society and believed what you were indoctrinated to believe, you might eventually notice that the society is no worker's paradise, with all the regimentation and deprivation. That could lead you to reject your inherited worldview. But not everyone does this. What's clear to A may be far from clear to B, even siblings who grew up in the same environment. Human beings are interesting.

Those of us who are trying to persuade people to embrace the nonaggression obligation--that is, classical liberalism, or libertarianism, may have an advantage though. Most people already believe that they shouldn't rob, hit, or kill, or otherwise aggress against others. So those of us who are merely asking that this already widely accepted principle be applied across the board -- even to people calling themselves the government -- may have an easier job than we thought.

On the other hand, freedom can be scary for some people. It obviously requires self-responsibility, which requires effort and brings the possibility of failure. Not everyone relishes that. In Monthy Python's Life of Brian, the condemned hero tells a Roman centurion that he doesn't have to follow orders to kill him -- to which the centurion responds, "I like orders."

Who can say which inclination will be stronger in enough people? The best we can do is start with the familiar; be clear; and be honest. That's our only hope.

TGIF -- The Goal Is Freedom -- appears on Fridays.

Friday, October 22, 2021

TGIF: That Bloody Government Debt

The government's attraction to borrowing is hardly a mystery. If the politicians had to extract every dollar they wanted to spend directly from the taxpayers, they might have a revolt on their hands--a bad career move for sure. Borrowing tends to make people more tolerant of bigger government than they would have been otherwise. After all, much of it looks free. They might scrutinize spending programs more closely if they paid the full price out of pocket. Thus forbidding borrowing and related central-bank inflation would put a lid on spending. That's why that program won't fly.

As Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the finance minister under Louis XIV, notoriously put it, “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.” You can see the advantage to politicians if they can cut way down on the hissing by borrowing what they'd otherwise have to obtain by plucking. This is what the admired art of governing comes down to.

Of course the government's ability to borrow depends crucially on its power to tax. Avoiding present taxes implies offsetting future taxes when interest or principal is due. (More borrowing can finance those payments, but eventually...) Who would lend to a "government" that could not tax its subjects? (No true government lacks the power to tax.) Let's face it: the state without taxation does not have a promising business plan to present to investors. But the "legitimate" power to steal changes everything; it makes for comparatively safe investments for bond buyers, one that unfairly competes with private alternatives. (Legitimate in this case means "in the eyes of most people"; it's a subjective, not an objective, feature.)

To get the data out of the way: a quick survey reveals a national debt approaching $29 trillion against a GDP of over $22.5 trillion. The government borrows to cover its annual budget shortfall, which in FY2021 came to $2.8 trillion (pretty much like the year before). The government had been expected to spend $6.8 trillion in that fiscal year. The debt of course carries interest payments, which in FY2021 came to $562 billion. That's a fairly large budget item, though it lags behind Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, and the global empire.

Some people believe that what the government finances by debt is actually free. But how could that be? "We owe it to ourselves," is one answer to that question. That leaves out foreign debt holders, but that's just the beginning of the problem with that glib slogan. How can anything really be free?

In fact government borrowing creates both present and future burdens. In the present, as the George Mason University economist Donald Boudreaux points out, by borrowing money for its pet projects, the politicians channel scarce resources away from where consumers would have signaled producers to direct them. Some people clearly like those pet projects, but many or most would not willingly pay for them either because they deem them too expensive or objectionable at any cost. (The empire is a good example.)

In the unmolested marketplace, producers earn profits by satisfying consumers better than their competitors do. That is accomplished by looking for (scarce) resources that are being used less effectively in that regard than they might be. Through their buying and abstaining, consumers let the producers know if they've made good decisions. Profits signal success, and losses signal failure.

The government, as everyone surely knows, works on an entirely different principle; taxpayers aren't allowed to say no, and so as consumers they are worse off. Political accountability, such as it is, pales in comparison to market accountability.

The politicians may tell themselves that they serve everyone, but what they really do is serve themselves and their careers by distributing booty to select constituencies so they will keep those benefactors in power. The beneficiaries will be thrilled with the deal, but what about everyone else? That's the present burden.

In the future another burden falls--this time on the taxpayers who have their money taken to pay principal and interest on the debt. Funny how the advocates of government debt conveniently forget a favorite slogan they trot out in many other contexts: "Think of the children." Spending money today by creating fiscal obligations for kids too young to vote and even the unborn hardly sounds like compassion for the children. And because the government consumes rather than truly invests, future generations will be poorer than they would have been had the government left the resources to market-based decision-making. That's cruel. (We can only hope that those future generations will repudiate the debt and resist the taxes bequeathed to them.)

So government debt activates two intra-generational transfers: one now and another later. In addition, the government's debt-financed activities today make future generations poorer than they would have been. 

We don't owe the borrowed money to ourselves. That's corporate, collectivist claptrap. People are individuals with property and subjective values. If A is forced to give a dollar to B, we can't seriously believe that the A/B's collective situation is uncharged.

Friday, October 15, 2021

TGIF: Inflation Is Evil

When will Americans demand that the government denationalize money and free the market to do what it does better than anything else: serve the general welfare rather than the special interests?

It's hard to know what it would take to bring this about, but inflation talk is once again in the air, and that's bad. Worse, it's in the shops. It had to happen after years of Fed Reserve's money creation, through the banking system, in the name of stimulating this or stimulating that. Forget the printing press. All the Fed has to do is buy up oodles of bank assets (government debt and bad private assets), leaving those institutions with billions of conjured-up dollars in their computer accounts. Eventually the funny money would get out among us and do its damage. It had to happen sooner or later. Only the schedule was in doubt.

So why was the monetary system ever trusted to politicians and their bureaucratic appointees in the first place? The idea that a free society cannot provide sound money was an article of faith based on no evidence, like the idea that a free society cannot provide roads or law and order. The alleged failures of market-based money were really the result of government intervention. The "authorities" could never resist tampering whenever they saw the chance. Power is a strong drug.

Inflation is insidious. When central-bank policy robs people of their purchasing power by reducing the value of money, life gets harder. It's obviously worse for the most vulnerable: the low- and fixed-income members of society, who can least afford the rise in the cost of living. But inflation does so much more. Savings melt away for most people, wreaking havoc with their ability to plan and to take care of themselves.

Even that does not exhaust the ways that the government's central bank harms us. Prices rise, but not uniformly as though the "price level" were a real thing rather than a construct. What counts are relative prices (interest rates are prices too), which in the unmolested market reflect the relative changing of supply and demand. Market prices are indispensable for signaling that some things are being overproduced and while others are being underproduced. Since Fed-created money enters the economy at particular points in society, it changes relative prices in ways that differ from what would have taken place with market-based money. More havoc in the planning of production that would otherwise have served the general welfare.

Expectations change because of Fed policies, and those new expectations lead to employer and employee decisions that will turn out to be wrong when the inflation ends. When the Fed becomes nervous that things are getting out of hand, it will, as the saying goes, step on the brakes. Then many people will suffer anew from the recession, the great revelation of all the mistakes made under the government-distorted signals. And that's not the end: the recession will be the excuse for new government interventions, which will only introduce further distortions. Never let a crisis pass without increasing power--that's the politicians' motto.

Does this sound like fun? Of course it doesn't, but that's what the state has done to us over and over. It keeps happening because government officials gain (though not necessarily in the traditional way), and they are good at blaming others for the bad effects. Economics is not intuitive, especially monetary economics.

Can we hope that the politicians and those who profit from their interventions will let go of the power? Why would they unless they had no choice? Inflation is magic: it, along with the power to borrow, enables our rulers to keep the support of constituencies without the explicit taxes they'd have to levy if the central bank did not exist. (Borrowing might still be an option but also might be more limited without central banking.) To put it another way, inflation is taxation by stealth, embezzlement rather than armed robbery. We pay for the largess the government bestows on special others, but much of it appears from thin air. When people pay the bill at the retail counter, most of them won't know the government is to blame. That's just evil.

Imagine if the government had to fight its decades-long wars with open taxation. Would Americans stand for global intervention if every penny of the trillion-dollar military had to be paid to the Internal Revenue Service? The poor military contractors might have to find other things to produce, maybe even things that consumers really want.

We owe it to ourselves and future generations to change this madness once and for all.

Friday, October 08, 2021

TGIF: Looking for the Green New Deal

I was all set this week to plunge into the details of the Green New Deal so I could see what new impositions the climate-alarmist politicians have in store for us. Then I made a startling discovery. (Startling for me, that is. I'm behind the news curve.)

The Green New Deal isn't real. By that, I mean no bill in Congress sets out a list of specific government actions thought to be necessary to save the planet from carbon dioxide, heat waves, cold snaps, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, desertification, extinction, more rain and floods, more droughts, more trees, fewer tress, or whatever the latest existential threat de jour is. I wondered why we hear all the talk about a Green New Deal if that's the case.

According to Reuters, last April two of the usual suspects, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez again introduced "their set of aggressive climate goals intended to transform the U.S. economy. Initially introduced in 2019, the non-binding resolution seeks to eliminate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions within a decade and transition the economy away from fossil fuels."

It's not a bill at all, but two nonbinding resolutions (H.Res. 332, in the House and S.Res. 166 in the Senate. Bills get a B) that list goals. That's it.

I found confirmation from a disappointed Robinson Meyer, who wrote in the Atlantic, "With so much ballyhoo, it’s become easy to miss the central, implacable fact about the Green New Deal: It does not exist.... Three years after the idea of a Green New Deal broke into the mainstream, you can’t find an authoritative and detailed list of Green New Deal policies anywhere. There is no handbook, no draft legislation, no official report that articulates what belongs in a Green New Deal and what doesn’t."

NPR elaborated in 2019:

In very broad strokes, the Green New Deal legislation [sic] laid out by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey sets goals for some drastic measures to cut carbon emissions across the economy, from electricity generation to transportation to agriculture. In the process, it aims to create jobs and boost the economy. [Emphasis added.]

In that vein, the proposal stresses that it aims to meet its ambitious goals while paying special attention to groups like the poor, disabled and minority communities that might be disproportionately affected by massive economic transitions like those the Green New Deal calls for.

Importantly, it's a nonbinding resolution, meaning that even if it were to pass..., it wouldn't itself create any new programs. Instead, it would potentially affirm the sense of the House that these things should be done in the coming years.

In a way, that's quite a relief. If all our misrepresentatives and public self-servants promise to do issue sense-of-the-Congress resolutions about this, that, and the other, then I say, leave them to it. They can declare that the tide goes out at a particular time, for all I care as long at they don't do anything.

But the politicians see it another way. They want to do something, and while nothing they could do would actually achieve their bizarre goals, they would do irreparable harm to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the process. Even less ambitious programs, such as (arguably) President Biden's, will be all cost and no benefit. Nevertheless, Green New Deal champions like Ocasio-Cortez think Biden's "green"-infused so-called infrastructure plan is "not enough." In April, she said Biden should spend more than twice the $3 trillion-$-4 trillion he initially called for. (Because of resistance in his own party, his spending plans seem to have been revised slightly downward, but things also seem rather fluid.)

Green New Dealers particularly like Biden's January executive order calling for, among many other things, a strategy to create a Civilian Climate Corps, which echoes Franklin Roosevelt's 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps. The new CCC would "mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs. The initiative shall aim to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate."

I don't know about you, but I am nervous when I hear the government talk about mobilizing workers. I just don't like the ring of that. I am also wary about Biden's goal to "place the climate crisis at the forefront of this Nation’s foreign policy and national security planning." That sounds like the U.S. government telling the poor of the developing world to be satisfied with their lot in life. If people there aspire to an American living standard, Biden could tell them not to worry because he'll be doing his best to lower that living standard through severe restrictions on the use of hydrocarbons. That's one way to achieve global equality. Meanwhile, the American taxpayers will be forced to bribe developing-world rulers to go along with policies that will kill the people who already suffer under them.

So what are the goals of the Green New Deal? How much time do you have? It contains everything including the kitchen sink. Yes, there's the expected stuff: it sets the goals of "global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human sources of 40 to 60 percent from 2010 levels by 2030; and net-zero global emissions by 2050." This would badly harm everyone, particularly the poorest Americans, because of the devastation it would wreak on our ability to produce goods that make our lives better. Wind and solar can't cut it. For the developing world, it would approach genocidal.

The authors are blind to the fact that fossil fuels are indispensable to human flourishing and that CO2 is plant food; indeed, it is essential for all life. And even if such a reduction were desirable and could be achieved (it couldn't be), it would reduce the average temperature by a negligible amount. Let's remember, the only way to protect against actual dangers from nature, as the human race has repeatedly demonstrated, is to get richer quickly. Innovation and adaptation require wealth and free exchange, so the government should get out of the way of wealth creation and the free-exchange system.

But the Green New Deal promises so much more than green-ness, including combatting systemic racism, reversing income inequality, providing "free" health care and college, and strengthening labor unions. There's something for everyone...well, except for most people. So-called renewable energy would doom us to costly and undependable substitutes, like wind and solar.

What's this all going to cost? The official estimate is: Who cares? (Okay, I made that part up.)

Bear in mind that the premise of the Green New Deal and Biden's version of it, as expressed in his executive order, is that "we face a climate crisis that threatens our people and communities, public health and economy, and, starkly, our ability to live on planet Earth."

It takes a herculean effort and a good set of blinders to ignore the mountains of evidence against that assertion and the voluminous demolition of the alarmists' cooked-up GIGO computer-modeled case, which has time after time proven itself to be wrong. Modern alarmists have been predicting the world's end for 60 years. Why does anyone still take them seriously?

But, then, the Green New Deal isn't really about climate at all, is it? It's just a long-standing interventionist wish list with a deceptive green tint. As Ocasio-Cortez's former chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti told the Washington Post, "The interesting thing about the Green New Deal is it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all. Do you guys think of it as a climate thing? Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing."

Not that this should surprise anyone.





Friday, October 01, 2021

TGIF: Why "Science Denial"?

In a new book two professors of psychology, Gale Sinatra and Barbara Hofer, seek to explain why what they call "science denial" is rampant today and how dangerous it is. They also give their account in a strange conversation with Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, from whom we might have expected a tad more "skepticism" or at least some devil's advocacy.

The views of all three are in some ways vague and even confused, but the condescension toward the unenlightened rubes who disagree with them on certain scientific controversies--primarily climate- and COVID-19-related--couldn't have been more clear.

While Sinatra and Hofer smear a large and diverse group of people as "science deniers," they undercut their own claim when they admit that no one actually rejects science per se. So their sensational but misleading title and broad statements are designed not to inform but rather to sell books to their progressive-minded audience. The rubes they are talking about, the authors admit, go to doctors, take prescribed medicines, fly on airplanes, etc. That hardly sounds like general science denial.

So what's the problem? What the authors have in mind is doubt about or rejection of particular scientific claims. They are willing to apply the label "cafeteria deniers." But why not call them "cafeteria skeptics"? Or would that hit Shermer too close to home?

My purpose is not to defend or criticize any particular scientific claim in dispute. Some are backed by strong evidence, while others have little or no evidence behind them. Laymen ought to exercise care in (tentatively) deciding who among the contending scientists are likely to be right. Here I only want to raise a big reason for doubt that the authors and Shermer ignore.

But first, to demonstrate authors' and Shermer's sloppiness (which may be too charitable an interpretation of what they're doing), please note that early on they embrace the allegedly near-unanimous (97 percent) consensus among climate scientists on ominous manmade global warming. Their point is that anyone who would take a position contrary to such an overwhelming consensus would have to be a jerk.

In fact, that so-called consensus was cobbled together by examining just the abstracts of a selection of climate scientists' journal articles over a certain period. Only a third of those papers expressed an explicit or implicit view on whether manmade global warming was happening. Of those, 97 percent agreed on--well, something. But what? What they all apparently agreed on was that an unspecified amount of warming has occurred and that human activity has had an unspecified degree of responsibility.

Notice that no magnitudes and no net assessment of harms and benefits are implied in that sentence whatsoever. By that low bar, most if not all climate scientists and laymen in the realist-optimist camp are part of the consensus! That takes a good deal of the force out of the consensus proclamation, wouldn't you say?

Yet this "consensus" is decisive for climate alarmists Sinatra, Hofer, and Shermer. (If you think humility is a virtue in scientists, don't look for it in these writers.) Shermer says what impressed him is that all those in the 97 percent "converged" on that view (again, what view?) "independently," while the others, he says, converged on no particular theory about the climate. Has he looked into the facts? Or does he go along with whatever is called a consensus by the news media? Is this is how he decides on matters outside his specialty? They're growing a strange crop of skeptics these days.

Here is the problem: when the authors and Shermer call someone a "climate change (or just a climate) denier," they are making a slickly illegitimate move; for what's being denied is not climate change or warming between 1850 and 1998, but a looming climate catastrophe, natural or manmade. Catastrophe denial does not equal climate-change denial. No one--no one!--thinks that climate does not change. Well, actually one group does seem to think this: the alarmists who imply or say outright that except for human activity, climate would not change (or not change very much). But that of course is absurd. The concept change is baked into the concept climate. The only sense in which the climate is not changing today is that it never stops changing.

Sinatra, Hofer, and Shermer spent an hour and a half talking about "science denial," with no disagreement among them. In all the time none of them mentioned the word politicization, that is, the perverse incentives from government meddling in scientific research. They discussed lots of possible reasons for "denial"--like confirmation bias and other well-known cognitive biases--but it seems never to have occurred to any of them that some people are more inclined to distrust particular scientific claims these days than previously because they have observed that purportedly objective claims (and not just about scientific matters) are used to advance political causes. Sinatra, Hofer, and Shermer have no trouble believing that so-called deniers have hidden political and cultural agendas, but they show no sign of suspecting that those who make the claims, along with the politicians who translate them into coercive government policy, may also have political and cultural agendas--and often not so hidden.

This seems like a serious shortcoming. While Sinatra and Hofer acknowledge that scientists are human beings and subject to the same imperfections as everyone else--envy, greed, ambition, a desire for peer approval, etc.--they assure us that these faults are rooted out by an internal checks-and-balance system. Because of these, no threat to science can arise from within, but only from outside, that is, from "deniers."

That, however, isn't how it works out. Checks and balances on paper often bear little relationship to checks and balances in practice. (This is true of constitutions too.) For example, the peer-review process for academic publication and promotion has become incestuous "pal review." Paradigms are protected against challenges and patched up through ad hoc salvage operations when a paradigm's shortcomings are exposed.

Moreover, politicians are naturally inclined toward research that identifies "crises" that allegedly only government can address. As H. L. Mencken pointed out, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

In need of government grants to secure promotion and tenure at their universities, many scientists are inclined to give the politicians what they want. Those are the ones who will get the money, at any rate. An orthodoxy arises, and independent thinkers, no matter how qualified, are marginalized and smeared as, say, "science deniers." (The obvious association with the properly stigmatized term Holocaust deniers is no coincidence.) It's happened repeatedly before. It's happening now. (Again, I don't mean that every scientific claim that is criticized is necessarily wrong.)

Politicians demand research that goes in one direction, and some scientists are happy to supply it. The politicians then use the research to justify expanded power (the Green New Deal and economic shutdown in a pandemic), which stimulates further research in that direction. I'm not saying that every participant is a cynic, but it is fun to be near the action. To borrow a trope from the analysis of the military-industrial complex, it's a self-licking ice-cream cone. And all of this is further amplified by the 24/7 news media, which will always prefer reports of looming disasters to good news, and of course the social networks, which are the lookout for "misinformation."

If you want to see how politicization can create doubters, here's one case apart from scientific controversies: Russiagate. For years the American people were assured by most of the "objective" mainstream media, fed by "public-spirited" leaks and retired government spies working as dispassionate commentators, that the allegedly nonpolitical intelligence apparatus had solid evidence that Vladimir Putin had rigged the 2016 election to put his puppet Donald Trump in the White House. None of that was true, as shown by the massive FBI investigation led by a sainted special counsel. Don't you think that a good portion of the American people realize that this establishment campaign was intended to drive Trump from office or at least cripple his presidency, effectively reversing the election? (One need not be a Trump fan--I'm certainly not--to see this.) Germane to my point, if that kind of gross abuse can occur in one matter, why can't it be occurring in other matters?

A key part of the politicization of science is government finance of research, which Sinatra and Hofer predictably want more of. As I noted recently, in his 1961 farewell speech President Dwight Eisenhower warned about the emerging government-science complex, which he said was just as dangerous as the military-industrial complex.

If climate alarmists regard private support for research as tainted by self-interest, the rest of us are entitled to regard government support as similarly tainted. Sinatra, Hofer, and Shermer really should grow up and embrace what Public Choice political economist James Buchanan called "politics without romance."

Maybe if politics had not tainted institutional science, fewer people would distrust so many of its claims. Politics is the craft of winning and maintaining power by assembling self-serving coalitions in order to impose costs on everyone else. Some people have justifiably come to assume that many government-financed scientific claims are formulated for that purpose.

If I'm right, then the use of science to advance an interventionist political agenda has sown the very distrust the authors and Shermer abhor. Laymen should certainly be discriminating when they judge scientific claims, and real consensuses should be taken into account. But that does not exonerate the scientists who have actively fed policymakers' efforts to control our lives.

Friday, September 24, 2021

TGIF: Beware the Government-"Science" Complex

The government-"science" complex ostensibly promotes the search for facts about our world, but it actually promotes and enforces orthodoxy, protects resulting paradigms, and manufactures apparent consensuses that are questioned only at one's reputational peril. That's why I put the word science in quotation marks. I could have called it pseudoscience or junk science.

In contrast to real science, "science" is little more than the broadcast of evidence-free alarms that politicians and bureaucrats, advised by anointed government-financed "scientists," use to justify political action and expansion of government intrusion into our lives. The price is liberty.

The procedure starts with a politically amenable conclusion and then moves to a search for confirmation, regardless of whatever violations of good science and statistical analysis are required. Those who voice doubts about any of this, despite their credentials and previous standing, will be subjected to attacks, even on their character. The official slogan of establishment "science" might as well be, "Orthodoxy first! Protect the paradigm!"

Someone of note saw this coming. In 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower gave his televised farewell address, which has become famous for its warning "against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." Eisenhower went on to say, "We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

It makes one want to cheer! Far less known, but equally important in his eyes, was Eisenhower's warning against the government's centralization of scientific research, which became a real concern after World War II and with the onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. As he put it:

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government....

Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity....

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

This is truly remarkable, not to mention prescient. But I don't know if Eisenhower was quite right. Has public policy become a captive of a scientific-technological elite? Or is it the other way around? It's probably a combination of both. But we can readily understand how politicians and government grant-managers would naturally be attracted to research that supports their wish for more, not less, power. Some scientists, who after all are human beings too, would then be tempted to cater to this demand, which can create its own supply. If the government shows no interest in financing research that proclaims X, Y, or Z is not a problem justifying a political solution, wouldn't you expect the number of researchers inclined that way to dwindle?

For decades scientists (and their universities) have prospered through government cash by spreading fear, either real but exaggerated or invented. This has gone far beyond research on weapons and other narrow wartime missions. Three prominent examples since World War II are the fear of dietary animal fat and cholesterol, the fear of carbon dioxide (which all life depends on), and the fear of other people, specifically, of catching COVID-19 from them. (This isn't to says that pre-vaccine COVID-19 was not a serious danger to identifiably vulnerable people, only that it has been exaggerated beyond all reason.)

The point here is that this would have been far less likely, maybe even impossible, if scientific research funding were not concentrated in the government's hands, largely through universities, which are hooked on taxpayer money.

Many people believe that the taxpayers must bear the biggest burden of scientific research because no one else has an interest in doing so. This is in essence a public-goods (or externality) argument for government finance. According to this argument, if the cost of doing something would fall mostly on the doer, but the benefits would fall mostly on others and charging free-riders would be unfeasible, then no doer would have a business interest in the project. That is said to be a market failure because everyone would miss out on a benefit. Thus most economists have thought that the government with its exclusive power to tax had to come to the rescue for the good of society.

But that theory, like the theories used to justify the fears mentioned above, doesn't mirror the historical record. The insistence that basic research won't be done by private firms sounds like the fictional scientist who insisted that the bumblebee was aerodynamically incapable of flying: he needed only to look out the window. It turns out that private investment in research has been profitable (when the government stayed out).  

Writers such as Terence Kealey, Patrick Michaels, and Matt Ridley have shown in recent books that the countries that led the way in the Industrial Revolution were precisely those--Great Britain and the United States--that had almost no government support for basic scientific research until rather late in the game. In other words, private business people found the required research profitable and changed the world. Kealey and Michaels show, moreover, that postwar U.S. government spending on basic science and R&D has not increased economic growth over the previous period. Those writers also point out that revolutionary inventions by nonscientists have sometimes preceded--and even stimulated interest in--basic scientific research, the steam engine being a case in point. Moreover, the assertion that competitors will merely copy other firms' products--that is, free-ride on others' research--is more myth than fact because, among other reasons, much knowledge is tacit and not freely attainable through reverse engineering. (That certainly blunts the utilitarian case for patents.)

On the other hand, government finance crowds out private finance and shifts research efforts from the profit-motivated private sector to largely government-supported nonprofit universities. There are only so many really good scientists to go around. The resulting propagation of orthodoxy almost resembles the medieval guilds.

Government centralization may seem like a good idea, but it is not. The profit motive in a free market is good for society, as Adam Smith demonstrated in The Wealth of Nations. It wasn't competition and decentralization that gave us pernicious peer review in academic publication, hiring, and promotion--a practice properly maligned as "pal review." (Real peer review should begin after publication.) If you need evidence of such antiscience misbehavior, refresh your memory of the "Climategate" scandals.

(On all of this, see Kealey and Michaels's Scientocracy: The Tangled Web of Public Science and Public Policy. Ridley demonstrates the benefits of decentralized competition and cooperation in The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity EvolvesThe Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge; and most recently, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom.)

We shouldn't be surprised that decentralization, intellectual competition, and--above all--freedom from government restriction foster human well-being. The harm from coerced, that is, from government-fostered, monopoly, is well-known. The harm is just as bad in the production of knowledge as it is in the production of goods. And it's a triple whammy for the taxpayers: they get robbed; they get regimented; and they get fear-mongering junk science for their trouble.