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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

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.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Why Do Climate Alarmists Dislike Climate Realist-Optimists So Much?


F. A. Hayek, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist of the Austrian tradition, provided a possible answer to the question posed in the title. Although Hayek (1899-1992) to my knowledge had nothing to say about the climate controversy, his views on macroeconomics met with a similarly critical attitude from those who practiced economics at a level far, far removed from individual action. He too was in essence called a science denier, in this case the science was economics. Here's what he said when contrasting the method of the natural sciences of "simple phenomena" with the methods of social and other sciences of "complex phenomena" (transcribed from an interview at 33:00):

All the things I have stressed--the complexity of phenomena in general, the unknown character of the data, and so on--really much more points out limits to our possible knowledge than our contributions which makes specific predictions possible. This incidentally [is] another reason why my views have become unpopular. Conception of scientific method became prevalent during that period [the 1930s, when he worked on his "pure theory of capital"] which valued all scientific theories from the nature of specific predictions at which it would lead. Now somebody who pointed out that specific predictions which it could make were very limited and that at most it could achieve what I sometimes call "pattern predictions," or predictions of the principle, seemed to the people who were used to the simplicity of physics or chemistry very disappointing and almost not science. The aim of science in that view was specific prediction, preferably mathematically testable, and somebody who pointed out that when you applied this principle to complex phenomena, you couldn't achieve this seemed to the people almost to deny [!] that science was possible.

Of course my real aim was that the possible aims must be much more limited once we've passed from the science of simple phenomena to the science of complex phenomena. And there people bitterly resented that I would call physics a science of simple phenomena, which is partly a misunderstanding because the theory of physics [runs?] in terms of very simple equations. But that the active phenomena to which you have to apply it may be extremely complex is a different matter.... [On the other hand, in "intermediate fields" such as biology and the social sciences] their complexity becomes, I believe, an absolute barrier to the specificity of the predictions that we can arrive at. Until people learn themselves that they cannot achieve these ends, they will insist [on] trying and think somebody [who] believes it can't be done is just old-fashioned and doesn't understand modern science. 

The relevance to the climate debate ought to be clear. Climate realist-optimists often point out that climates are too complex--with too many interacting and moving parts--to be spoken of and "projected" in the simplistic way that the alarmists routinely try to do. So alarmists naturally dislike when credentialed scientists come along and point this out. This is why alarmists outrageously call the realist-optimists "deniers" and worse. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Global Warming and Intuition

I recently was asked whether the proposition that a "dramatic increase" in CO2 since industrialization could cause worrisome global warming was "intuitive" or not. My interlocutor wanted simply a yes or no answer. But I replied that I couldn't answer either yes or no because, in my view, the question had contestable if not incorrect premises. For the same reason, the question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" is widely regarded as unfair. It's called a loaded question.

I pointed out that whether the CO2 increase is properly called "dramatic" is at least contestable. The descriptor is subjective. The increase from both natural and human causes since 1850--roughly 300 to 400+ parts per million) amounts to about one-third; at times long ago CO2 was many times higher than it is today, and fauna and flora flourished--we are their descendants. Princeton physicist William Happer says that according to geological standards we are in a "CO2 drought."

I also noted that the question implicitly assumes a highly oversimplified notion of "the climate," as if it were one unified thing and only two or three things mattered: CO2, which is only 0.04 percent of the atmosphere; water vapor; and global average temperature, a statistical construct compiled in part by using a noisy surface-temperature record. (The computer models that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] relies on have badly overpredicted warming at every turn. They can't even predict the past!)

Since the day I was asked that question, I've thought a lot about how else I might have answered it. The word intuition is interesting. Consider the relationship between CO2 and the climate. A person who knew nothing about those two things, when asked what his intuition was about the effect of a dramatic increase in CO2, might well reply, "Since I know nothing about CO2 or climate, I have no intuition at all. How could I?" If you can't see the reasonableness of that answer, imagine you were asked to intuit what would happen to a beaker of water with the addition of hafnium (Hf), which by stipulation you've never heard of. (I hadn't until I wrote this post.) Would the water freeze, boil, overflow with foam, or do nothing? How could you possibly have an intuition about that? And what would it be worth if you did? You could guess, but that's not the same thing. 

(For the record, over geological time the correlation between CO2 and temperature is virtually nonexistent. See this graph. Looking at the last few hundred thousand years, a correlation can be found, but the causation runs the "wrong" way, that is, the rise in temperature preceded the rise in CO2 by several hundred years and even as much as a thousand years. NASA states, "While it might seem simple to determine cause and effect between carbon dioxide and climate from which change occurs first, or from some other means, the determination of cause and effect remains exceedingly difficult. Furthermore, other changes are involved in the glacial climate, including altered vegetation, land surface characteristics, and ice sheet extent." Why don't alarmists tell the public this?)

Thus the value of a person's intuition about anything depends on how much he knows. Or so it seems to me.

Here's another thing. If someone intuits that a rise in CO2 would cause the earth to warm, that is not terribly informative because it leaves open the question of magnitude and consequences. How much will the earth warm, and--importantly--would that magnitude of warming help, hurt, or be neutral for human beings? In other words, someone could answer yes to the question without being very informative at all.

Intuition without good information isn't worth a wooden nickel. At best it's a starting point for an honest inquiry.



Saturday, September 18, 2021

CO2 and Global Cooling

If CO2 is implicated in global warming, not in its own right, but because it ​indirectly ​​leads to more water vapor, the dominant greenhouse gas, which amplifies what would otherwise be minor warming, then it could just as reasonably be implicated in global cooling, or at least reduced warming, because the resulting water vapor could condense into clouds, which reflect the sun's incoming radiation--preventing them from reaching the earth's surface​ and then being absorbed by the greenhouse gases​. (Scientists agree that clouding is highly complex and hasn't been captured by the climate computer models relied on by climate alarmists. See this from the American Chemical Society, which is in the climate alarmist camp.) 

This is an important point. According to alarmists, CO2 by itself is not the problem. The problem is the amplification by water vapor. But what if reduction is a possibility? Scientists don't know enough about clouding to regard it as unimportant. (Matt Ridley has a good discussion of this in this video.)

Similarly, the data from observations consistently show that the computer models overestimate the climate's sensitivity to changes in CO2. (See the Ridley video.)

So why the obsession with CO2? Renee Cho gives the answer at the Columbia (University) Climate School website: "while we have no way to control water vapor, we can control CO2." 

Controlling CO2 of course means controlling us.

Friday, September 17, 2021

TGIF: Get Rich Quicker!

"I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” --John Stuart Mill, 1828

We mustn't let the wrongdoing of politicians and bureaucrats blind us to the good things going on in the world. Outside the political realm, many things are doing pretty darn well. The long-term trends for many indicators have been positive for the last couple of centuries. Short-term disturbances, most often the result of political mischief, are temporary, and the progress resumes when the politicians loosen their grip or people find ways to ignore them. Regardless of the source, the data agree. This is not controversial stuff.

But make no mistake: this is not a recommendation for complacency. On the contrary, an outrageous number of people have been left out of the improvement, and that is a crime. We should want them to catch up. But, it has been wisely said, "You can’t fix what is wrong in the world if you don’t know what’s actually happening.

So what is actually happening? To begin with, wealth, real per capita income, per capita consumption, etc. have been expanding along with the world's population. Poverty is vanishing. (While more people are a good thing, population growth has slowed, and as people get richer and have fewer kids, the population may well decrease a bit.) As Matt Ridley, "the rational optimist," says, "Over the last 25 years 137,000 people have been lifted out of extreme poverty every day." (See his video "Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know" and the book it draws on.)

According to the Guardian, "Global poverty has seen a spectacular decline since the 1960s – when about 80% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today that number has been reduced to nearer 10%, with hundreds of millions of people removed from the extremes of hardship."

In other words, Ridley writes, "The rich get richer, but the poor do even better."

Most people have no idea this has happened. In fact many think poverty is increasing. Young people are especially prone to this misconception.

Throughout the world, life expectancy is increasing, and infant/child mortality is falling. "Estimates suggest that in a pre-modern, poor world, life expectancy was around 30 years in all regions of the world..., according to Our World in Data. "Since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled and is now above 70 years. The inequality of life expectancy is still very large across and within countries. In 2019 the country with the lowest life expectancy is the Central African Republic with 53 years, in Japan life expectancy is 30 years longer.... The United Nations estimate a global average life expectancy of 72.6 years for 2019 – the global average today is higher than in any country back in 1950."

As for kids: "Over the last two centuries all countries in the world have made very rapid progress against child mortality. From 1800 to 1950 global mortality has halved from around 43% to 22.5%. Since 1950 the mortality rate has declined five-fold to 4.5% in 2015. All countries in the world have benefitted from this progress."

This is all great news, and many other positive trends could be cited, including consumption as compared with the number of hours worked, crop production, planetary greening, health, lessening violence, leisure time, resource abundance, the pace of innovation, and hospitableness of the planet.

Why is this happening? In a word, liberalization. (Of course I mean liberal in the classical Adam-Smith/Mises/Hayek/Rothbard sense.) Liberalism is far from complete anywhere, but in many places, including the developing world, people are freer, if not in political terms, then in earning-a-living terms, than they previously have been. That gives greater scope to entrepreneurship and ingenuity, which Julian Simon called "the ultimate resource." (So-called natural resources are not natural at all.) The globalization of trade, even when governments tamper with it, is part of this. "The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market," Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations. In other words, the more people around the world who, guided by market prices, are free (or freer) to choose their work and trade with others wherever they are, the better. Specialization and the market's law of comparative advantage, which has been dubbed "the most elusive proposition," make people better off.

This suggests why too many others have lagged behind. They lack essential liberty. And when people lack liberty, including private property, they will also lack significant and just economic growth, that is, growth without government privilege.

A couple of billion people in the developing world lack modern fuels and electricity. This kills such people prematurely, among other reasons, because they cook and heat their homes with wood and animal excrement, which create deadly indoor air pollution. They lack access to modern cheap, reliable, and potentially clean energy (that is, fossil fuels) because their governments create obstacles and arrogant Western politicians egged on by rich social activists block their access--without justification but much irony--in the name of protecting the planet.

That is a crime. So as I said at the start, the good things going on should not make us complacent. Today a large number of Westerners in effect tell the developing world: "Too bad for you, but we can't allow you to reach our standard of living. We like just the way you are." So they want to pull up the ladder.

Let us hope that the growing libertarian (that is, true liberal) movement will make a special effort to encourage the people of the developing world to tell the Western elites and their own rulers to get the hell out of the way. The people don't need to get rich quick; they need to get rich quicker!

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Constitution Day, September 17



Celebrate Constitution Day tomorrow by buying and reading America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited. Dedicated to the constitutionalists of all parties, the book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, I argue it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, I suggest that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Why I Write

I write to improve my understanding and to entertain myself. If what I write does the same for others, that's icing on the cake.

Friday, September 10, 2021

TGIF: Bad Sign?

When I see four of those yard signs on my morning walk, I chuckle. If I'm in a mischievous mood I might someday suggest a couple of memes that the owners might add.

I could embrace all of those memes, but not without some qualification and in several cases, a good deal of qualification. But that's for another day.

Today I want to focus on numbers 5 and 6: "Science Is Real" and "Water Is Life." I wouldn't comment on these were it not for their ominous implications for government policy. Some people are ready to spend trillions of other people's money because of what they suppose those sayings mean.

They are true of course, but they are misleading because they are incomplete. (Would many people actually deny that science per se is unreal or that water is essential to life?)

My suggestion to the sign owners would be, first, to take a Sharpie and squeeze in these words after "Science Is Real": "But Scientists Are Human Beings Too." Not every passerby will get it, but some may interpret it correctly to mean that scientists, despite the white lab coats, are subject to the same imperfections as other people: among them, bias, vanity, greed, insecurity, what Herbert Spencer called "the pressing desire for careers," and a wish to protect the psychological investment that can result when one spends a good deal of time mastering a subject.

The climate row provides a good example here. If one comes to think of oneself as having mastered climatology, one hardly wants to hear other scientists with impeccable credentials say that "the climate" is too complex a subject to be mastered by anyone. In fact, complex doesn't even begin to describe it. As the scientists who are climate optimists point out to the alarmists, "the climate" is not a thing but a mind-blowing collection of many moving and interrelated parts, the behavior of which is inherently unpredictable and maybe beyond complete comprehension.

That such a complex phenomenon might boil down--sorry about that--to just the CO2 and (noisy) average-global-temperature records dating back, say, a century is something that even we lay people can balk at. As the climate scientist Patrick Frank of Stanford University--who has demonstrated the error-riddled nature of the IPCC's computer models, which cannot even predict the past--wrote in Skeptic magazine, "Earth's climate is warming and no one knows exactly why. But there is no falsifiable scientific basis whatever to assert this warming is caused by human-produced greenhouse gases because current physical theory is too grossly inadequate to establish any cause at all."

Want to hear it from a physicist who was in Barack Obama's energy department?  Here's Steven Koonin, author of the new book Unsettled? What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters: "[T]he science is insufficient to make useful projections about how the climate will change over the coming decades, much less what effect our actions will have on it."

Okay, then how about a leftist physicist? Canadian Denis Rancourt: "There are more unknown and unforeseeable CO2 evolution feedback mechanisms [than] there are climate research institutes on the planet."

This leads to my second proposed addition to the sign. After "Water Is Life" I would suggest adding, "And So Is Carbon Dioxide!" Just as all living things depend on water, so all living things depend on CO2. Plants devour it with gusto, so even we carnivores love CO2 because it feeds the plants that nourish our animal food sources.

To drive the point home: "At the current level of ~400 ppm [parts per million] we still live in a CO2-starved world. Atmospheric levels 15 times greater existed during the Cambrian Period (about 550 million years ago) without known adverse effects." (Emphasis added. Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change “Executive Summary,” Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science, 2013. For details see this chart going back 600 million years for details.)

Moreover, "CO2 is a vital nutrient used by plants in photosynthesis. Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere 'greens' the planet and helps feed the growing human population." (See this world map illustrating the global greening that the increasing CO2 seems to be producing, much of it in the Amazon rainforest.) Everyone knows that operators of greenhouses pump in CO2 (not "carbon") to get bigger plants because it isn't a pollutant--it is plant food.

So which office does CO2 go to to get its reputation back?