Econlog:My Personal Favorites

Morbid Thinking

We often accuse each other of wishful thinking.  Only rarely, though, do we accuse each other of the opposite cognitive vice: morbid thinking.  You might think that the disparity reflects the greater prevalence of wishful thinking relative to morbid thinking, but that’s hard to buy either.  The media is notoriously negative; as a rule, good news just isn’t news.  Academics, policy analysts, story-tellers, and religious leaders also tend to focus on the negative.  Academics and policy analysts write about social problems; story-telling can’t get off the ground unless bad stuff happens; religious leaders tirelessly inveigh against sin. My preferred explanation is simple: People neglect the danger of morbid thinking because most people are morbid thinkers!  While wishful thinking does exist, vocal wishful thinkers quickly provoke pushback: “Open your eyes, daydreamer!”  Vocal morbid thinkers, in contrast, typically evoke morbid support: “It’s even worse than you say.” You could respond, “Bryan only says this because he’s a wishful thinker himself.”  But what’s so wishful about decrying the ubiquity of morbid thinking?

Curiosity And Humility

In my experience, humble people are sheep.  They aren’t curious about the world; instead, they look to other people for guidance.  It is hard for them to question conventional wisdom, because their inner voice taunts, “What makes you think you’re so special?” True, if you’re so arrogant that you think you’ve got the whole world figured out, you’re not going to be very curious either.  But it takes a lot of confidence – even arrogance – to ask a question your peers aren’t asking, and insist that it deserves an answer.

Does Humility Really Walk On Water?

What is so great about humility? I’m very much in favor of accurate self-perception. But humility and accurate self-perception are hardly the same. If Einstein said, “I’m only average in physics,” he’d be humble, but deluded. On the other hand, you can be humble but still overrate yourself. Think of the saying that “He is a very humble person who has a lot to be humble about.” Now you could say that I’m just rationalizing. People have been complaining about my lack of humility for as long as I can remember. Literally. Nevertheless, at least in the career niche I’ve found, humility looks like a serious negative. It takes more than a bit of arrogance to think “I’ve got an important new idea, and I’m going to share it with the world.” And if even you don’t believe that, why should anyone else?

Discipline:Advice And Evidence

No one is more susceptible to a child’s abuse than his own parents. Your kid knows where you live. You’re stuck with him, and he knows it. He also knows that you love him, so you’re inclined to forgive him his trespasses. Armed with these advantages, your child can make your life awful – unless you stand up for yourself. If your child punches or kicks you, you’ve got to tell your child that this is against the rules, and that the punishment for transgression is, say, one day without television. Every time your child breaks the rule, harden your heart and impose the punishment. Clear, consistent punishment isn’t foolproof, and some kids are tougher to crack than others, but it beats being a punching bag.

The Rotten Spouse Theorem

Even after a bitter divorce, people often pay their ex a compliment: “He was a bad husband, but he’s always been a good father” or “She was a bad wife, but she’s always been a good mother.”  Gracious, yes.  But accurate?  Hard to see how. A family isn’t a set of independent relationships.  They’re all connected.  Damaging one foreseeably damages the other.  This is particularly obvious when parents fight in front of their children.  When your children hear you yell at your wife, you don’t just hurt her feelings.  You hurt their feelings. Thoughtful parents often respond with a “not in front of the children” pact.  It’s a good idea, but changes nothing fundamental.  If you make decisions that hurt your spouse, you have to expect your children to suffer, too – even if they never connect the dots.  Maybe your spouse won’t have the energy to play with them.  Maybe your spouse will snap at them.  And maybe your bad behavior will precipitate a downward spiral that destroys your family.  Try saying “not in front of the children” then.

How Can Guys Be So Lazy Around House?

Look at the typical bachelor’s apartment. Even when a man pays the full cost of cleanliness and receives the full benefit, he doesn’t do much. Why not? Because the typical man doesn’t care very much about cleanliness. When the bachelor gets married, he almost certainly starts doing more housework than he did when he was single. How can you call that shirking? Declaring the typical man to be innocent of the accusations against him may not seem very helpful. But it is. If you think that someone is willfully shirking, you probably won’t bother to bargain for better behavior. The shirker has already broken his word once; why should you believe he’ll change? In contrast, if you can accept that a person is living up to his obligations as he understands them, it’s a lot easier to amicably renegotiate. Furthermore, as some fascinating research shows, the hardest problems to cope with are those you blame on other people. The false belief that your spouse is taking advantage of you isn’t just bad for your marriage; it’s bad for you.

Why Do So Many GMU Economists Blog?

If econ were a hobby rather than a profession, how many leading economists would do conventional research in their spare time for free?  If you can say “10%” with a straight face, let me know. None of us discovered economics in a mainstream econ class, found it fascinating, then decided to try to ascend the academic hierarchy.  Instead, our inspiration came from libertarian books, libertarian friends, and libertarian intellectuals, plus our broader reading in philosophy, history, and the history of economic thought.  Once we fell in love with ideas, we asked, “How can I make a career out of this?”  We would have preferred to be instantly anointed as public intellectuals.  But the best realistic path, we learned, was “Become a professor of economics.” Once you know these biographical patterns, you should be amazed if lots of GMU economists hadn’t started blogging.  Think about it: Here’s a forum where you write for a sizable, high-quality audience about anything that interests you.  Here’s a forum where you can eternally debate other people obsessed with ideas.  Here’s a forum where you can instantly pose as a public intellectual – and try to “fake it till you make it.”  Here’s a forum that actually penalizes atrocious academic writing!  None of this is very appealing to most academic economists.  They’re content to spend their lives doing normal science.  But for professors who’ve always wanted to live the life of the mind, blogging is a dream come true.

Social Desirability Bias Vs. Intelligence Research

When lies sound better than truth, people tend to lie.  That’s Social Desirability Bias for you.  Take the truth, “Half the population is below the 50th percentile of intelligence.”  It’s unequivocally true – and sounds awful.  Nice people don’t call others stupid – even privately. Suppose intelligence research were impeccable.  How would psychologically normal humans react?  Probably just as they do in the ANES: With denial.  How can stupidity be a major cause of personal failure and social ills?  Only if the world is full of stupid people.  What kind of a person believes the world is full of stupid people?  “A realist”?  No!  A jerk.  A big meanie.
My point is not that intelligence research is impeccable.  My point, rather, is that hostility to intelligence research is all out of proportion to its flaws – and Social Desirability Bias is the best explanation.  Intelligence research tells the world what it doesn’t want to hear.

Against The Human Development Index

I can see giving equal weights to GDP per capita and life expectancy.  But education?  As a professor and a snob, I understand the appeal (though a measure of opera consumption would be even better).  But in terms of the actual if not professed values of normal human beings, televisions and cars are a lot more important than books. When you take a closer look at the HDI’s education measure, it’s especially bogus.   2/3rds of the weight comes from the literacy rate.  At least that’s not ridiculous.  But the other 1/3 comes from the Gross Enrollment Index – the fraction of the population enrolled in primary, secondary, or tertiary education.  OK, I feel a reductio ad absurdum coming on.  To max out your education score, you have to turn 100% of your population into students! The ultimate problem with the HDI, though, is lack of ambition.  It effectively proclaims an “end of history” where Scandinavia is the pinnacle of human achievement.  Admittedly, I’ve never visited Scandinavia.  But when I see it for the first time this August, I’m pretty sure I won’t say to myself, “Wow, it can’t get any better than this!”

In a Perfect World, I’d Call Myself a Sociologist

I’ve studied economics for over twenty years.  The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that I don’t know what “economics” means anymore.  Textbooks may say that economics is about “incentives” or “trade-offs.”  But you can publish papers in econ journals about the effect of birth weight on educational attainment.  I don’t see any incentives or trade-offs there.  Or take Emily Oster’s early research arguing that hepatitis, not infanticide or selective abortion, explained a lot of Asia’s gender imbalance.  Some economists asked, “How is this economics?”  But if some economists argue that the gender imbalance is driven by incentives, how can you object if other economists say that the real explanation is medical?  Or consider happiness research.  You could deplore all this as a loss of focus.  But, I see massive progress.  Economics has grown hard to define because we now focus primarily on real-world problems, not “literatures.”  If we want to understand income determination, we don’t waste time with topological proofs.  We still think about supply and demand, but we also think about policy, psychology, behavioral genetics, and much more.  As a result, we come to understand the world, instead of solving unusually difficult homework problems.

Reflections on The Name of the Game

At first glance, The Name of the Game is an expose of patriarchy.  Families pressure their daughters into “good marriages” to wealthy, successful men.  But the daughters end up miserable – or worse.  You could easily use Eisner’s novel to refute my infamous claim that women during the Gilded Age were freer than they are today. If you read the book carefully, though, you’ll notice two key anomalies.  First, families exert similar pressure on their sons to marry the “right kind” of women.  And most of the men end up unhappy with their marriages, too.  Some are bored; others endure constant emotional abuse.  If The Name of the Game is an indictment of anything, it’s not patriarchy but parentarchy. Second, characters in The Name of the Game occasionally stand up to familial and social pressure.  And what happens to them?  Little or nothing.  The character Eva, for instance, defies her mother’s match-making, moves to New York, and becomes a model.  No one disowns or shuns her; in fact, she manages to worm her way into high society.  The Name of the Game isn’t a story about men or women who never had a choice.  It’s a story about men and women who bow to empty threats.

What Summers Misses: Women, personality And Social Sciences

Well, personality tests also confirm occupational stereotypes. Yes, librarians really are introverts. And yes, scientists are extremely Thinking – or, if you prefer, they’re extremely Disagreeable. It’s not a matter of IQ – Feeling people have virtually the same average IQ as Thinking people. It’s a matter of cognitive style. No matter how smart you are, a scientific career won’t appeal to you if you care more about how people feel than how things tick. The big problem with other stories is that they don’t explain variation in academic disciplines’ gender ratios. My story does: In fields that appeal to Feeling people – like English literature and psychology – you’ll see a much higher fraction of women than you do in math, physics, or econ.

Richter Contra Socialist Man

The classic argument against socialism is that it gives people bad incentives.  What’s the point of working, conserving, saving, quality control, and/or taking out the garbage if they don’t pay?  The classic socialist reply is that capitalism creates the selfishness it purports to benevolently channel.  Socialism will give birth to a “New Socialist Man” who loves his neighbor as himself. I’ve often been amazed by how many Austrian economists take the New Socialist Man position seriously.  Several Austrians have seriously told me that the incentive argument is “weak” because it’s vulnerable to the New Socialist Man response.  But I’ve always considered the New Socialist Man position to be not just weak, but absurd.  Ever heard of Darwin?  People are selfish because of billions of years of evolution, not capitalism.  End of story.

When Do You Disbelieve A Change Of Heart?

When a guy pulls down his posters of Lenin, it’s a lot more credible to me than when a guy pulls down his posters of Hitler. Now this isn’t because Lenin is less philosophically noxious than Hitler.  They’re both creators of ludicrous systems of totalitarian hate.  So why am I more likely to disbelieve a Nazi’s mea culpa? My answer: This is a matter of psychology, not philosophy.  In most Western countries, people look upon Communists with bemused disdain; Nazis, in contrast, they view with horrified disgust.  Since the stigma against Communists is far weaker, the Communists manage to attract some vaguely normal adherents… or at least they used to.  In contrast, the stigma against Nazis is so intense that you have to be virtually psychopathic to join.  Once you send that signal, it’s almost impossible to trust anything you say – even if you claim that you’re no longer a Nazi.

Libertarians and the Welfare State: Is It Time to Drop the Hard Line?

Unlike the welfare state, immigration has and continues to help absolutely poor people, not relatively poor Americans who are already at the 90th percentile of the world income distribution. There’s no reason for libertarians to make apologies to social democrats: Libertarian defenders of immigration are the real humanitarians in the world, and the laissez-faire era of open borders without the welfare state was America’s real humanitarian era. It’s hard to keep prating about how much you love “the poor” while insisting that the elderly Haitian who shines your shoes shouldn’t get a dime.

What If India Had Been An Asian Tiger?

For decades after World War II, India was a Soviet-wannabe state.  While their ruling parties lacked the brutality to fully nationalize their economy, post-war India was an early version of “socialism with a human face.”  Well, except for massive ethnic massacres, “population transfers,” (a.k.a. “ethnic cleansing”), and all those forced sterilizations.  It’s easy to look humane when you compare yourself to Stalin. Progress is beautiful to see, but once it’s underway, we sadly take it for granted. 

Why Be Normal?

Economists love to pour cold water on new ideas: “If your plan is so great, why aren’t people already doing it?” And usually we’re right to do so. Most of the economy’s backseat drivers aren’t fit to run an apple cart. But still… There are a lot of ideas that seem to hold up to intense criticism, but the market still doesn’t adopt them. Case in point: Why don’t workers offer employers a money-back guarantee? “I’ll work for free for a month; if you’re not completely satisfied, you’ll never have to pay me a dime.” Do minimum wage laws forbid this? Well, they don’t forbid unpaid internships. So call the money-back guarantee an internship, and away we go. So why don’t we see this? Here’s my answer. Suppose you’re interviewing a smart guy, without a college degree, and he offers you a money-back guarantee. You might think “What a great deal” and accept. But then again, you might start thinking “What a weirdo. What’s wrong with him?” And this, I propose, is the stumbling block to lots of worthwhile innovations. A person with an unconventional idea may have a point, but is also unlikely to be “normal.” He may not fit it with other people. He may have problems with authority. He may be deviant in more ways than one!

Patriotism As Political Correctness

Political correctness isn’t just hypersensitivity; it’s hypersensitivity designed to place a permanent stamp on impressionable young minds. From this perspective, political correctness isn’t essentially leftist.  Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, leftist political correctness hasn’t been all that effective.  The full-blown triumph of political correctness, of hypersensitivity plus one-sided education, is patriotism. Not so long ago, as Eugen Weber observes, most people were only dimly aware of what nation they “belonged” to.  They took little offense at insults to their country, its people, or their flag, because they just didn’t much identify with their country, its people, or their flag.  Then came the patriots, descending upon their nations’ schools like locusts.  They taught children a litany of bizarre nonsense. There’s no need to speculate about what a politically correct world would look like.  We’re already in one.

Rand Versus Evolutionary Psychology Part 1

Objectivists defied the many truisms about human nature that evolutionary psychology later came to explain.  Truisms like: 1. Good looks and youth are very important for sexual attraction – especially from a male point of view. 2. People feel jealous when their mates have sex with other people. 3. Lying is often a convenient way to avoid your mate’s jealousy. On the Randian view, “a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions.”  So why wouldn’t her affair with Nathaniel be a great success?  Their shared “fundamental convictions” should cause enduring love – never mind the 25-year age difference! Barbara has no reason to resent sharing her husband; in fact, she should be flattered that the great Rand so admires him.  And of course, if Nathaniel wanted to end the affair, he would have no motive to lie, because Rand would not be jealous of any woman fit to replace her. Unfortunately for Rand, her theory smashes against billions of years of evolution.  Yes, mutual admiration and shared values have something to do with sexual attraction.  But humans with Rand-approved emotions would have been at a massive reproductive disadvantage.  Men don’t get descendants by pursuing fifty-year-old women, no matter how brilliant they are.  Jealousy also serves a vital evolutionary function: It protects men from cuckoldry, and women from sharing or losing the support of the father of her children.

Rand vs. Evolutionary Psychology: Part 2

Ayn Rand created a cult.  What does this have to do with evolutionary psychology?  Simple: Contrary to Rand, the fact that human beings care about the opinions of the people around them doesn’t stem from philosophical error.  It stems from evolution.  Human beings evolved in small groups where good relations were vital for survival.  People who weren’t interested in other people’s opinions had trouble staying alive and reproducing.  Caring about the opinions of others isn’t as immutable as our sexual preferences, but it’s very deeply rooted.   Consider: How much would I have to pay you to walk in front of an audience of a hundred strangers and make a fool of yourself? Rand was no exception.  She thought that her affair with Branden was morally above reproach, but made every effort to keep it secret.  Why?  Because unlike John Galt, she shared our normal human concern about the opinions of other people – including complete strangers. If people really could stop caring about other people’s opinions, Rand’s counter-culture never would have gotten off the ground.   Within five minutes, prospective members would have adamantly disagreed with Rand about something or other, and she would have purged them.  Her counter-culture took root precisely because even avowed individualists will feign agreement in order to fit in.

Male Variance And The Remnants Of Gender Gap

It’s easy to see why elite women find this inequality nettlesome.  But isn’t the obvious explanation just that men have higher variance in general?  This is easiest to prove for cognitive ability. But it also seems very plausible for interests and obsessiveness.  Anyone can start a blog, but men are much more likely to do so.  The reason, I’ll warrant, is that the male distribution of ego has a right tail that stretches far into the horizon. If you resist this story, I’ve got a question: Why are men so over-represented at the bottom of the status distribution as well as the top?  See the homeless, janitors, and conscripted infantry in war zones. Admittedly, variance can only take you so far. If women’s mean success keeps rising relative to men’s, they’ll lose their positions at the top and redouble their positions at the bottom.  But does this really have to happen before we give patriarchy a funeral?

Voters As Mad Scientists

If selfish voters misinterpret markets as a method for the rich to exploit the poor, at least the rich will still favor markets. They’ll want what they falsely see as their “pound of flesh.” But if unselfish voters misinterpret markets as a method for the rich to exploit the poor, the rich and poor alike will unite against the imaginary evils of the market. Instead of petty squabbling, we get a consensus for folly. If you find it hard to believe that unselfish motivation ever makes the world worse, think about a mad scientist. He imagines he’s got the cure for what ails you, but all he’s got is a syringe full of cyanide. If the mad scientist were selfish, he’d demand payment for his “treatment,” and you’d be safe. “Thanks, but no thanks!” The real danger is the unselfish mad scientist. He’d insist on helping you whether or not you paid. Indeed, he’d probably help you even if you screamed “No!” “You’ll thank me once you’re cured,” he’d insist.

Aren’t Voters Disgusting?

Once you realize that 1. Politicians predictably lie to get elected. 2. Politicians habitually accuse each other of something they virtually all do. 3. Voters largely ignore #1, but respond positively to #2. How can your reaction be anything other than “Yuck!”? Or if you want to be more eloquent, you can vehemently quote Mencken: “Democracy, too, is a religion. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses.”

A Quick Case For Charter Cities

Anyone serious about reducing world poverty must come to grips with a single key fact: Redistribution from rich to poor has not and cannot solve more than a tiny fraction of the problem.  Even if you could perfectly equalize income in Third World nations with zero effect on production, the citizens of Third World countries would remain mired in poverty.  Take Bangladesh.  With a GDP of $256B and a population of 164M, equalization would at best give each citizen an income of $1561 per year – about $4 a day.  Countries do not overcome poverty by sharing production more equally.  They overcome poverty by increasing production – what economists call “economic growth.”

Against growth Agnosticism

“How about this: growth isn’t a mystery. By and large, we know what works and what doesn’t. Corruption doesn’t work well, property rights do. Globalization is working everywhere it is allowed. Protectionism is a disaster, in the long term and usually before. Democracy, unfortunately, seems insignificant in promoting growth, but free markets are essential. And, as every young American RTS playing teen knows, technology wins. And as almost every great innovator attests, entrepreneurship equals technology.  There remain unanswered questions, sure. But because scientists have yet to control fusion hardly means they can’t design an engine that harnesses energy for locomotion. Because philosophers have yet to agree on the meaning of life surely does not imply they have no sense of morality. Bottom line: we know everything we need to know about growth to end poverty on Earth in this century.”-Tim Kane

You’re Not Fooling Anyone

It fell upon me to suggest what I think is the obvious name for the tradition Dan admires: libertarian economics. The virtues of this name are plain. It’s descriptively accurate, and means something to educated outsiders. What’s wrong with it? Too political? One of Dan’s main goals is to get economists to pay more attention to policy; there’s no use hiding the fact. Too dogmatic? There’s nothing dogmatic about saying “I’ve studied economics, and decided that libertarian policies are usually better.” Non-libertarians won’t like you? They won’t like you no matter what you call yourself. You won’t get tenure? Then don’t use a label at all. Calling yourself a “sponeconomist” rather than “libertarian economist” won’t save you.

Blame Everyone

Blame everyone for their misdeeds, great and small.  Blame Nazis and drunks, adulterers and shoplifters, immigrant-haters and plagiarists.  Tailor the blame for the severity of the wrong-doing.  Think long and hard about what’s right and what’s wrong.  Consider extenuating circumstances.  But when someone does what’s wrong instead of what’s right, they are blameworthy and you should blame them.  And when you do what is wrong instead of what’s right, you are blameworthy and you should blame yourself.

Thumbs Up For The Portfolios Of The Poor

The income of the ultra-poor is not only low, but highly variable.  They rarely have regular jobs in a “sweatshop.”  Instead, they desperately cobble together income from many different sources.  Many days they earn nothing at all. No one, no matter how poor, lives “hand to mouth.”  Even the poorest people save money, make investments, and plan ahead. The poor also borrow a lot of money.  Who would lend to them?  For the most part, other poor people – family, savings clubs, small-time loan-sharks.  The rates are astronomical – 20% per month is pretty common. Even the poorest people spend a lot of money on things other than food.  One of their main reasons for saving and borrowing is to pay for relatively lavish weddings and funerals.

Financial Dysfunction: Who Shares The Blame?

Many, perhaps most, of Wall Street’s products are junk.  I couldn’t sell them with a clean conscience.  So why do “complex financial schemes” – and not-so-complex schemes like the typical actively managed fund – survive and prosper?  Because of consumers!  There’s no reason to excuse businesses for their role in these evils.  But once again, there’s plenty of blame to go around.  Politicians, yes.  Regulators, yes.  But above all, voters.  They, too, fail to exercise common-sense skepticism.  They, too, credulously fall for pompous personality cults.  They, too, buy into get-rich-quick schemes.  And above all else, voters refuse to admit their own ignorance – that they have near-zero ability to pick good policies or good policymakers. To repeat, there is plenty of blame to go around.  But if I could reform only one set of malefactors, I’d choose voters without hesitation. 

Austerity For Liberty

I understand why libertarians promote “constructive” free-market reforms.  They sound better and feel nicer.  Rhetorically speaking, a person can promote SS privatization and still be “pro-retiree,” or promote school choice and still be “pro-education.”  The person who pushes for cuts in retirement and school budgets effectively forfeits these rhetorical options.  But if you actually want to promote liberty, austerity seems like the option most likely to deliver it. I have a better way.  Instead of pushing for “constructive” free market reforms, libertarians should doggedly focus on austerity: opposing spending increases, and pushing spending cuts.

The Iron Laws Of Pedagogy

First Iron Law: Students learn only a small fraction of what they’re taught. Second Iron Law: Students remember only a small fraction of what they learn. Third Iron Law: Most of the lessons students remember lack practical applications. Research on Transfer of Learning strongly confirms a fourth, less obvious conclusion: Fourth Iron Law: Even when students remember something with practical applications, they still usually fail to apply what they know… unless you explicitly tell them to do so. If you’re tempted to yawn at these truisms, reread the Fourth Iron Law. 

The Grateful Tiger Daughter

Unlike most critics of Tiger Mother Amy Chua, I expect her kids to turn out fine.  Why?  Because their genes come from two Yale professors, and contrary to Tiger Mother and her critics alike, upbringing has little long-run effect.  I was amused to learn, then, that Tiger Daughter #1 is not just a very impressive 18-year-old, but appears eager to defend her mom from criticism. Tiger Mom is lucky that filial piety, like almost every other trait, has a genetic component.  Yes, upbringing has an atypically large effect on how your kids feel about you.  But as long as you revere your parents, your kids will tend to see you through rose-colored glasses.  Hey, who said life was fair?

Why Do Politicians Break Their Promises? Part 1

Obama’s already breaking his campaign promises.  But you don’t really need to read the news to know that, do you?  Virtually all successful politicians break their promises. When you think about it, though, politicians’ penchant for promise-breaking is puzzling.  If making a promise causes voters to like you, wouldn’t breaking the same promise cause voters to dislike you?  Even from a naive perspective, it seems like breaking a promise would cost you all the votes the promise won, and lose you some more votes from people who don’t care about the issue but do care about honesty. The public is already familiar with a strategy it could use to keep politicians on the straight and narrow.  However, the public is too irrational to use this strategy for issues of substance.  In a deep sense, then, politicians break their promises because the public tolerates dishonesty.  Yes, you can blame politicians for lying; but as a wise, old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Why Do Politicians Break Their Promises? Part 2

The most interesting and important reason why politicians break their promises is that voters have misconceptions about the effects of their favorite policies.  The upshot: If politicians did exactly what voters say they want, the results would be bad, and the politician would get blamed.  Under the circumstances, politicians who want to get elected promise to do as the people command, then “betray” them for their own good.  Making the promises helps politicians attract popular support before they get in office.  Breaking the promises helps politicians avoid losing popular support after they get in office. A old saying tells us, “Thank goodness we don’t get as much government as we pay for.”  I’m tempted to add, “Yes, and thank goodness politicians don’t actually do exactly what they promised.”  Dishonest politics is sordid, but honest politics is absolutely scary.

The Subtle Value-Added of Frederic Bastiat

Imagine a society where almost everyone believes in God because “Someone had to create the universe.”  In his youth, the typical intellectual in this society found this argument convincing.  Now that he’s older and wiser, he sees the popular argument’s absurdity: “If someone had to create the universe, didn’t someone have to create God?”  Yet these same intellectuals are almost as religious as the rest of the population, and spend their days fine-tuning subtle arguments for God’s existence. My hypothetical hardly suggests a conspiracy.  But the intellectual culture I describe is extremely suspicious nonetheless.  Yes, the subtle arguments for the existence of God might be incredibly compelling.  But isn’t it more likely that these intellectuals are just rationalizing and mutually reinforcing the religious viewpoint they’ve loved for as long as they can remember?

Why You Should Celebrate Ayn Rand’s 100th

Disappointment with Rand as a human being has led critics (many of them former admirers) to apply unreasonably high standards to her work. Yes, many of her philosophical arguments are question-begging. Shocking… unless you’ve read the work of Descartes, Locke, Kant, or Mill. They all make plenty of embarrassingly bad arguments. If you don’t want to dismiss their whole subject matter, you’ve got to judge philosophers based on their best work and/or the novel questions they raise. And by that standard, Rand more than holds her own. Not convinced yet? Well, the last thing Rand would have wanted would be for you to celebrate her birthday on faith. So tune in to my next three posts and see if I can’t give you a good reason to raise your glass to a precocious, wide-eyed girl born in Czarist Russia a hundred years ago today.

Howard Hughes and the Economics of Mental Illness

What’s so odd about Hughes? His biggest foible, which drastically increases during the story, is germophobia. No doubt today he’d be diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. I say, however, that this is just name-calling. Hughes worried a lot more about germs than I do. A lot more. But I don’t see why this makes him less of a rational economic agent than me. My dad can spend 10 hours a day watching sports, which seems like a complete waste of time to me. Why should I judge a man who fights germs 10 hours a day any differently? Even when he seems awfully “crazy,” Hughes pulls himself together for the sake of his airline. He hates to risk getting someone’s germs from shaking hands, but he shakes the hand of the senator he wants to win over. He hates to go out in public, but he testifies before Congress to defend himself from accusations of “war profiteering.” Sometimes he obsessively repeats catch phrases to himself. “Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Just show me all the blueprints.” But when he has to win over the American people with his Congressional testimony, he is suddenly articulate and charming. Call him OCD if you must. The Howard Hughes of The Aviator recognized and responded to incentives just like homo economicus is supposed to.

Ayn Rand, Wise Philosopher Despite Some Bad Arguments

Ayn Rand has some lame philosophical arguments, including a tortured “proof that “life is the standard of value” and an odd effort to base individual rights on ethical egoism. So how can I maintain that Rand the philosopher is worth reading? To answer this, I have to let you in on philosophy’s dirty little secret: Almost all of its big names commit logical fallacies by the truckload. Try reading Descartes’ Meditations. The clarity of his writing makes it easy to see the flabbiness of his arguments, but he’s far from the worst offender.

Dead Ends And Double Standards

Dead Ends almost never pay off financially.  Sure, there are a few vivid superstars to fill naive heads with dreams of glory.  But the total number of jobs in Dead Ends is small, and most of these positions have low pay and low job security. While people often start a Dead End because they enjoy it, the required dedication and extreme competitiveness gradually drain away most of the fun.  People in the 50th to 99.9th percentiles of success often come to hate the Dead End they once loved. You might think that parents would universally discourage Dead Ends.  Sometimes, they do: Few parents want their kid to tell them, “I’ve decided to be an actor,” “I’ve decided to be a rock star,” “I’ve decided to be a poet,” or “I’ve decided to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy.”  However, there is a long list of other Dead Ends that parents enthusiastically encourage: Classical music, sports, ballet, chess, and Ph.Ds in mathematics are leading examples.

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