Friday, May 13, 2011

If it's all relative...

Usually the conclusion would be, "Then whom am I to judge?" A non-judgmental society is the goal of those who try to break down our traditional sense of black and white justice.

Then again, if there is no one to judge, then there's no one to judge me if I judge you. That is, if there is no such thing as justice, then there is no such thing as judging, and therefore I can say whatever I want about you, no matter how hateful.

Hence the online culture of hate speech.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Free Market Cynicism

Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones writes about "The Free Market and the Culture of Victimization," saying,
I'd peg the number of genuine believers in free market capitalism at about 1% of the population. Maybe. The rest of us just want whatever policies benefit us the most. And the richer you are, the more money you make from policies that benefit you. Among the rich and the corporate elite, true believers in the free market probably number about 0%.
For all I know, this could be absolutely right. With all the political rhetoric that gets batted around, you'd think that our country is constantly battling between socialism and capitalism. But when I look at the reality of the situation, it seems that what we really have is a parasitic/apathetic system, in which people mooch as much as they can off the government, and if they can't get anything, they stop caring. Guess which ones vote.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Grading on a curve

Overheard from a professor in the math building: "What does this mean, 'grade on a curve?' What are they saying?"

I like math professors. Especially foreign ones.

Hypocrisy? No... Us?

Tyler Cowen comments on the hypocrisy of academics engaging in discussions about unemployment:
I am struck by the difference between how some economists talk about “the job market,” and how they talk about the job market in academia, which of course is the job market they know the most about.

When it comes to the job market in academia, most economists have few hesitations about blaming many of the jobless for their fate and applying extreme meritocratic views. “He spent seven years finishing.” “Her specification was not robust.” “He self-destructed in the interview.” Or, believe it or not, “We don’t even look at people from that school.”

(And as Robin Hanson noted, there is little talk of redistributing grades, Ph.d.s, enforcing mandatory co-authorship for job market papers, or redistributing other measures of academic accomplishment.)
(Read the rest here.)

I also found this video interesting (which Cowen alluded to in the above):

I think something helpful to point out is that, contrary to popular belief, socialist sentiment in the academy really is far from egalitarian. Of course not all people are equal; of course not everyone is cut out to be an academic. The kind of society envisioned by many an academic is not one in which the playing field is made equal, but rather one in which the playing field is umpired by us, the smart people, who understand all the social factors that determine inequality and contribute to injustice.

The right cure for this kind of attitude is summed up in a quote (perhaps my favorite quote) from F. A. Hayek: "All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wistest." (Constitution of Liberty, Chapter 2)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sheldon Richman on the Guilded Age

Arguing that the Guilded Age brings a false sense of nostalgia to many lovers of capitalism (and subtly remarking that "capitalism" may not be the best name for a belief in the free market, see this link) Sheldon Richman writes:
The Gilded Age of course has been criticized by enemies of the free market — corporatism and the free market have been sloppily and even intentionally conflated — but what’s often unappreciated is that writers sympathetic to the free market have disparaged the Gilded Age as broadly illiberal and contrary to the spirit of free enterprise. Where many libertarians see laissez faire, these writers saw corruption and privilege distorting commerce.
As one of the authors cited put it:
The interpretation of American history which views the latest nineteenth-century businessman as a free enterpriser, while describing government activity as an attempt to restrain laissez-faire, is simply not borne out by the facts.
The whole article is worth a read, especially if you're into history and/or economics.

What I appreciate most about it is the progressive streak it entails: true freedom, including truly free markets, still have not been attained, and we should be trying to move forward, not backward. Unfortunately both the Left and the Right almost completely miss the central point of free markets, namely that all privilege should be abolished. The Left seems to think abolishing privilege also requires controlling markets (which is a gross non-sequitur with painful consequences), while the Right apparently doesn't mind a system with privilege (which is morally repugnant).

I guess that's why I'm (basically) a libertarian.

Facts and Government Reporting

There's a somewhat lengthy article over at Fox News about how the government managed to screw up the facts about Osama Bin Laden's recent assassination. I was just listening to NPR yesterday on this very topic. It got me thinking about how some people will probably derive some crazy conspiracy theory, while others will blindly accept whatever they heard from whatever news reporter, comedian, or friend they heard first. This statement from Dana Perino, the last White House press secretary under Bush, pretty much summed it up for me:
"In a crisis or an unfolding news situation, first reports are almost always wrong,” she explained in an interview with Fox News, where she is a contributor. “And you can understand when you get the tide of the media calls coming in and you want to provide information as quickly as possible. You want to be responsive and you want to frame the argument first. Sometimes though, if then you end up having to redefine that narrative, or correct things that you originally said, you end up sullying your original message. And I think that's what's happened to them."
In the end, I can never believe in conspiracy theories because that would require that people really know what they're doing.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

World War II and economics

One of the reasons I've become more interested in libertarian economists than conservative ones is that, to be perfectly honest, I grew up getting the general impression that World War II helped drive us out of the Great Depression. Surely this was the only explanation left if you rejected the idea that the New Deal fixed everything. Not so, according to just about every libertarian I've read. Apparently it's a good deal more subtle than that, as Alexander Field points out (via Tyler Cowen):
Had trends persisted in the absence of war, employment, TFP, and labor productivity would all likely have been higher in 1942…housing construction was robust and growing in 1939, 1940, and 1941, and when the postwar housing boom emerged with full force in 1946, it took off from where it had been arrested in 1941. Since the failure of residential construction to revive fully was one of the major contributors to the persistence of low private investment spending during the Depression, its signs of revival in the years immediately preceding the war suggest that had peace continued, investment, output, and employment growth would have continued as the economy reapproached capacity.

…There continues to be a popular perception that war is beneficial to an economy, particularly if it does not lead to much physical damaged to the country prosecuting it. The U.S. experience during the Second World War is the typical poster child for this point of view. Detailed research into the effects of armed conflict, however, has usually produced more nuanced interpretations…In that spirit, the research reported in this chapter represents a revisionist approach to the analysis of the Second World War, although one that is not entirely unanticipated.
There's something refreshing about libertarianism which is both anti-Keynesian and anti-war. It all goes back to the broken window fallacy.