Bloggingheads TV with Joseph Heath on Filthy Lucre

This was recorded a while back, before I cut my hair and became a Canadian. I chat with University of Toronto philosopher Joeseph Heath about his new book (only in Canada!) Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism. Think of it as Economics in One Lesson for Naomi Klein fans. This is a good, really readable book. I think it helps a lot that he’s not an economist. The section on right-wing fallacies is largely on the money and a great challenge for rote libertarians and conservatives. The section of left-wing fallacies is terrific, and it would be terrific if more folks on the left were anywhere near as economically literate as Heath.

New at Free Will: Lew Daly and Unjust Deserts

In this week’s Free Will, I chat with Lew Daly of Demos about his book with Gar Alperovitz, Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back. I found the book, especially the first part, stimulating if unconvincing. Daly and Alperovitz adopt a Douglass North-style neo-institutionalism and emphasize the broadly social nature of scientific discovery, invention, and economic growth. I’m completely on board with all this. They begin by noting that good institutions and technological advance are the foundation of growth, which is also true enough. They go out of their way to emphasize that successful economic activity depends on an enabling climate of norms, property rights, and decent government. Yup.

But it doesn’t take them long to fallaciously infer that your dog owns your house. The main thrust of Daly and Alperovitz’s argument is that the cumulative nature of the scientific advance and entreprenuerial discovery that leads to productivity gains implies that, as time goes on, individuals add a diminishing fraction of the overall value of the goods and services they help produce. D&A then push hard on a very simple and I think largely discredited notion of desert as the basis for just distribution. Since I didn’t come up with the theory of computation, did not build this computer or the Internet, since I cannot singlehandedly prop up the entire context of wealth-enabling institutions in which I am embedded, and since taxpayers paid for the education that enabled me to read and write, I deserve next to nothing of the economic value of this blog (if it has any). Daly and Alperovitz’s view comes down to the idea that, since we’re constantly enjoying and building on the positive spillovers of prior economic activity and earlier generations of wise governnance, society deserves almost everything produced. As you’ll see in the diavlog with Lew, I had some problems with this argument.

In particular, their story seems to imply that networks of scientists and innovators now long dead deserve a large portion of the wealth that we now create, since they are causally responsible for its foundation. But if that’s true, then it’s likely true that today’s innovators are also undercompensated, since they will be able to internalize only a tiny fraction of the value they pass on to future generations. So which is it? Larry and Sergei are too rich or not rich enough? Moreover, if successful American entrepreneurs don’t deserve much of their profits, then neither do contemporary American citizens who have done even less than the entrepeneurs to create economic value. Sure, I couldn’t make a fortune selling widget polish if no one ever invented the widget, or if the institutions in which widgets could be invented never developed. But there is nothing in the argument that implies that current tax consumers deserve my profits more. Even if we buy that I don’t deserve my income, D&A don’t seem to bother showing that society does. At least, I couldn’t find the argument that shows why, if I don’t deserve X, then a big set of people who also do not deserve X have a legitimate claim to it. This confusion is compounded by their lazy identification of society with the membership of the nation state. 

Their real worry is inequality. They want higher taxes on the wealthy and more government spending. And they seem to think popular but confused intuitions about desert and distribution stand in the way of their egalitarian policy objectives. That may be true. But it’s hard to see how offering an even less intuitve but nevertheless false account of desert and distribution is supposed to help them.

New at Free Will: Those Crazy Canadians with Jacob Levy

If you’re like me, you feel like you should know more about Canadian politics, but never bother to find out, maybe because you suspect that Canadian politics is not very interesting. Well, it’s sure interesting now! Our friends in the land of “toques” and “chesterfields” are having a constitutional crisis! Say what? How did that happen? Ace political theorist Jacob Levy — who is not Canadian, but teaches at McGill in Montreal and grew up in New Hampshire, which is physically near Canada — explains all with exemplary lucidity.

[Update: In other crazy Canada news, the front page of the Ottawa Citizen online reports: “Barenaked Ladies concert postponed.” I think it’s pretty clear by now that all hell’s breaking loose up there. ]

Paul Bloom on Glum Atheists, Multiple Selves, and Why Your Wife's Identical Twin Is Sexier than Your Wife

In this week’s Free Will, I have a freewheeling discussion with Yale psychologist Paul Bloom about lots of fun stuff. I felt pretty comfortable chatting with Paul, and therefore ended up saying many things that basically ensure that I will never hold higher office. Because one of my future selves might otherwise be tempted to become a politician, which would be terrible, I like to think of saying impolitic things as a kind of “self-binding.”

Andrew Gelman on Voting and So Much More

In this week’s episode of Free Will, I chat with Columbia political scientist and statistician Andrew Gelman about his book Red State, Blue State, Rich State Poor State, the election, why rich people are increasingly voting Democratic, and even a bit about happiness. Andrew is a man of exceeding epistemic virtue and was worried that he riffed too much on topics outside of his expertise. Of course, I have no such scruples, and found the chat fascinating, because Andrew is.  

Free Will, Now Freer of Will

It can be tough to prepare for a substantive diavlog (you know, something more than just “let’s talk about the headlines”) every week, so Kerry and I, together with the BHTV authorities, have decided to more or less split weekly Free Will duties. Kerry’s first unresponsibly unheralded Free Will was two weeks ago with MIT philosopher Sally Haslanger. This week she’s up with Kenan Malik, author of Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong in the Race Debate talking about racial categorization, multiculturalism, and the desirability of cultural preservation. For my part, next week I will appear talk with Columbia’s Andrew Gelman about trends in American voting.

This Week on Free Will: Michael Berube

This week on Free Will, I chat with Michael Berube, author of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts about the cultural significance of Obama’s victory, the student vote, and the liberalizing effects of going to college and otherwise being around people different from you, among other things.

Since I was in Iowa City speaking to Michael in State College, I feel it is appropriate to advertise the fact that on Saturday, a couple days after our chat, the unranked Iowa Hawkeyes defeated the 3rd-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions by a score of 24-23. This strikes me as important.

New at Free Will: Hack the Vote with Ed Felten

This week on Bloggingheads TV, I chat with celebrated Princeton computer scientist and tech policy wonk Ed Felten. We talk about Ed’s role in the Microsoft anti-trust case, his run-in with the DMCA, the possibility of stealing elections by hacking Diebold electronic voting machines, and how exactly the government ought to make it easier for third parties to dip into and rearrange its voluminous info resources.