New at Cato Unbound: Jorge Castañeda on the War on Drugs in Mexico

Check out the hot-off-the-Wordpress lead essay for the new edition of Cato Unbound by former Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Jorge Castañeda. Here’s his gist:

In his lead essay, Jorge Castañeda observes that the consequences of the U.S. drug war fall unevenly on Mexico. The U.S. taste for drugs — and for prohibition — are the chief causes of drug-related crime in Mexico, he asserts. This creates a problem that Mexico cannot solve on its own. U.S. assistance has been insufficient, and Mexican resources are too few to take on the drug cartels effectively. Even if the resources were available, the militarization of life in Mexico would be politically unacceptable to most Mexicans, who have enjoyed a relatively tranquil military in contrast to many other Latin American countries. Another approach to the war on drugs would simply be decriminalization, but again, Mexico cannot unilaterally decriminalize, because it would face severe diplomatic consequences from the United States and possibly become a refuge for addicts. The United States must lead the way toward solving this problem, which is of its own making.

Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality

In honor of Bastille Day, and my sister’s birthday, I give you my long-in-the-works Cato paper on inequality. Here’s the very compressed abstract:

Recent discussions of economic inequality, marked by a lack of clarity and care, have confused the public about the meaning and moral significance of rising income inequality. Income statistics paint a misleading picture of real standards of living and real economic inequality. Several strands of evidence about real standards of living suggest a very different picture of the trends in economic inequality. In any case, the dispersion of incomes at any given time has, at best, a tenuous connection to human welfare or social justice. The pattern of incomes is affected by both morally desirable and undesirable mechanisms. When injustice or wrongdoing increases income inequality, the problem is the original malign cause, not the resulting inequality. Many thinkers mistake national populations for “society” and thereby obscure the real story about the effects of trade and immigration on welfare, equality, and justice. There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich. The unequal political voice of the poor can be addressed only through policies that actually work to fight poverty and improve education. Income inequality is a dangerous distraction from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice.

Read it, talk about it, complain about it, blog it!

This is best read with my collaborator Brink Lindsey’s “Paul Krugman’s Nostalgianomics: Economic Policies, Social Norms, and Income Inequality” as a more empirically-focused companion piece.

New at Cato Unbound: Robert Wright on the "Clash of Civilizations" as a Malfunction of Moral Imagination

You may know him as the Felix Unger of Bloggingheads TV. Or you may know him as the author of big-think bestsellers like The Moral Animal and Non-Zero. Today Robert Wright’s years-in-the-making The Evolution of God hits the bookstores and the new issue of Cato Unbound offers you a taste with an essay adapted from one of the later chapters of The Evolution of God on the moral imagination. Here’s the summary:


June 8th, 2009

This month’s Cato Unbound features an essay drawn from The Evolution of God, the ambitious new book by Robert Wright, author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal. In this essay, Wright explores the relationship between “moral imagination” and the possibility of religious tolerance and social cooperation. Wright argues that moral imagination is part of our evolved mental machinery. When we see others as potentially cooperative, moral imagination is awakened to better grasp the needs and interests of partners and allies. But when we see ourselves caught in a zero-sum game with others, moral imagination, and thus sympathy and the spirit of toleration, shrinks as we prepare for a fight. Wright argues that the widespread perception that “the West” and “the Muslim world” are playing a zero-sum game is an illusion created by a misfire of moral imagination. The media’s relentless focus on the truculent acts of a small minority of Muslim extremists encourages the sense that the larger, more moderate Muslim world is much more hostile than it really is. But this sense narrows moral imagination, making it harder still to grap the possibility of cooperation and the point of toleration.

Cato Unbound in Unlikely Places

This month’s Cato Unbound on the prospects of radical vs. Fabian libertarianism (more or less) has churned up some unusually churlish commentary. Peter Thiel’s contribution in particular, in which he (rather wrongly, in my opinion) attributes the infeasibility of “democratic capitalism” in part to women’s suffrage, has sparked a good bit of mocking outrage. Here’s Michal Lind mostly being dense at Salon. Here’s Owen Thomas at Valleywag (not a place I thought I’d find Cato Unbound mentioned.) Even Feministing! My colleague Jason Kuznicki, who organized and edited this issue of Unbound, has a good response to all this at Cato@Liberty. And when I have a bit more time, I’m going to write a post defending the desirability of liberal democracy, and the possibility of democratic capitalism (even with women voters!), against Thiel and Friedman’s radicalist pessimism.

Naomi Klein "Prebuttal" Lecture at U of Iowa Tuesday Night

Here’s the info:

“Naomi Klein: A Prebuttal” 

Speaker: Will Wilkinson

Tuesday, February 17th

7 pm, 1505 Seamans Center

Co-sponsored by Advocates of Liberty and U of I Department of Economics

Naomi Klein will be on campus giving a UI Lecture Committee speech in February where she will be talking about her book “Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”.  This book attempts to tie Bush’s corporatist big-business economic policies, the Iraq War, and most other bad things to the free market ideas of Milton Friedman. Will Wilkinson will defend “neo-liberal” free markets, defend Friedman against Klein’s scurrilous attacks, and reveal the many errors, factual and logical, in Klein’s bestseller.

In a lecture one night before Naomi Klein’s appearance on campus, Wilkinson will give a talk co-sponsored by the Advocates of Liberty and the UI Department of Economics.  Let the fun begin.

The Iowa Advocates of Liberty page is here.


Cato has released a great new paper by my friend and colleague Brink Lindsey on “Paul Krugman’s Nostalgianomics:  Economic Policies, Social Norms, and Income Inequality.” Here’s the executive summary:

What accounts for the rise in income inequality since the 1970s? According to most economists, the answer lies in structural changes in the economy–in particular, technological changes that have raised the demand for highly skilled workers and thereby boosted their pay. Opposing this prevailing view, however, is Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics. According to Krugman and a group of like-minded scholars, structural explanations of inequality are inadequate. They argue instead that changes in economic policies and social norms have played a major role in the widening of the income distribution.

Krugman and company have a point. For the quarter century or so after World War II, incomes were much more compressed than they are today. Since then, American society has experienced major changes in both political economy and cultural values. And both economic logic and empirical evidence provide reasons for concluding that those changes have helped to restrain low-end income growth while accelerating growth at the top of the income scale.

However, Krugman and his colleagues offer a highly selective and misleading account of the relevant changes. Looking back at the early postwar decades, they cherry-pick the historical record in a way that allows them to portray that time as an enlightened period of well-designed economic policies and healthy social norms. Such a rosy-colored view of the past fails as objective historical analysis. Instead, it amounts to ideologically motivated nostalgia. Once those bygone policies and norms are seen in their totality, it should be clear that nostalgia for them is misplaced. The political economy of the early postwar decades, while it generated impressive results under the peculiar conditions of the time, is totally unsuited to serve as a model for 21st-century policymakers. And as to the social attitudes and values that undergirded that political economy, it is frankly astonishing that self-described progressives could find them attractive.

As reader’s of Brink’s The Age of Abundance know, he’s a terrific writer, and “Nostalgianomics” is a great read.

Naomi Klein Quote of the Day

From Lloyd Grove’s Portfolio interview:

So I think reality is really causing the crisis for the true Friedman fanatics. There’s kind of a retreat going on into sacred text. They don’t want to deal with reality because for a long time it was just about trying to get policymakers to accept their ideology. But now they had those policymakers and they’ve created such a disaster, and indicted the ideology with their legacy, now there’s just a desire to go back to the sacred text and say that everything was a distortion. And what I see is a really striking similarity that I’ve seen on the left, on the far left, where you’ve had these kind of Trotskyite people who sell newspapers outside of my events, and they have no interest in looking at the reality of authoritarian communism in Russia, in China, in Cambodia, anywhere. These are all distortions and what they want to do is, they just want to go back to the sacred texts, and say that we have nothing to learn from these lived experiments. The Cato Institute now, essentially, they are Friedmanite Trotskyites.


Please debate me, Naomi Klein!