A Whole Other Country

Kerry, Winston and I are moving to Texas!

This Summer/Fall, I’ll start work on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Houston, specializing in fiction. I couldn’t be more excited. For my money, Houston’s prose faculty is as good as it gets: Antonya Nelson, Robert Boswell, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Alexander ParsonsMat JohnsonNick Flynn. ZZ Packer will be visiting this Fall. (James Franco is definitely not coming, though.) And Houston’s a huge, diverse city with cool neighborhoods, good food of all sorts, and an amazing array of cultural offerings. Yet the rent is in not too damn high. Iowa City’s been great, but we’re ready to get back to the many amenities of bigness. Also, Kerry has a really bad time with cold, and it’s hard to find a place less cold than Houston. And there is a giant dog park named after a presidential pooch! Houston is exactly what we need right now. It’s perfect.

Some of you will ask: Why? Because I want to write novels. Some of you will ask: Why not just write a novel then? (My colleague Jon Fasman does it!) Well, why don’t people who want to be economists or philosophers just go and write economics papers or philosophy books? Seriously… because I’m not satisfied with a life devoted primarily to politics and punditry, and it’s not so easy to pivot, just like that, to a life of literature and art. I could definitely use some instruction and, more importantly, a good chunk of time to write literary things immersed in a community of literary writers. The MFA did the trick for Kerry, and I think it’ll do the trick for me, too. That said, I’m not giving up on politics and punditry altogether. Grad students don’t exactly live like royalty, so I plan to keep up the pro-blogging and write the occasional op-ed or review. I’ll do less of it, though, and less of it will be about politics. In a year or two, I may disappear altogether, into fiction.

I think the most important thing I took away from all that time with my nose in happiness research and behavioral econ is that we overestimate the value of what we already have and so underestimate the upside of taking a chance, leaving something behind, and making a big change. Most of us end up where we are through a sort of drift. Sometimes that works out splendidly. And drift hasn’t not worked out for me. I really like what I do. But, alas, I don’t really love it. I never wanted to be a pundit or a “public intellectual.” I always wanted to be an artist of some sort and I still want that. I want to make awesome shit people love. It’s my new motto: make awesome shit people love. So here we go!


Guns and Presidents

Megan McArdle makes a number of sensible claims about the non-danger of citizens legally carrying legal firearms at public political gatherings where the president appears. Jason Zengerle accuses her of being both “silly” and “offensive.” He writes:

This is very silly. Look, just on a basic level, the Secret Service’s capacities aren’t infinite: protecting the president is hard enough in normal circumstances; throw in the job of making sure gun-toting protestors don’t have a sight line on the president, and the agents’ jobs become that much more difficult. Even if the gun-toting protestors whose rights McArdle is defending pose no harm to Obama, keeping a constant eye on them takes up resources–resources the Secret Service might need to thwart people who do mean to do harm to the president.

No, this is very silly! (See what I did there?) The silliest thing is Zengerle’s casual assumption that if the free and peaceful exercise of an enumerated constitutional right “takes up resources,” then the state may therefore limit it. I doubt he’d like to generalize this principle. Of course, the real issue is likely that Zengerle is not impressed with the idea of an individual right to bear arms. So he’s untroubled by limiting it on the grounds that it might cost a little money or slightly affect the probability of harm to the president.

Maybe the scenario wouldn’t seem so clear-cut to Zengerle if it is redescribed to involve a right he cares about. So suppose that the act of visibly carrying a firearm is intended as an act of political expression asserting the legitimacy of the right to do so and challenging social norms that stigmatize and stifle the exercise of this legitimate right. I take it that this was in fact the intention of the “Tree of Liberty” dude. Or maybe it’s no problem to limit disagreeable political expression as long as allowing it would impose an extra burden on the Secret Service?

Here’s another (sure-to-be-unpopular) thought. Zengerle also seems to assume that efforts to protect the safety of the president do not already consume too many resources. The significance of the presidential role no doubt merits an uptick in the usual amount taxpayers ought to be willing to fork over to preserve each of a 48 year old’s expected remaining quality-adjusted life years. But there are limits. In a recent provocatively rational paper, Swiss economist Bruno Frey, acting as a sort of one-man politician death panel, argues that:

[P]oliticians are overprotected. The costs of political assassination differ systematically depending on whether a private or a public point of view is taken. A politician attributes a very high (if not infinite) cost to his or her survival. The social cost of political assassination is much smaller as politicians are replaceable. Conversely, the private cost of the security measures is low for politicians, its bulk – including time loss and inconvenience – is imposed on taxpayers and the general public. The extent of overprotection is larger in dictatorial than in democratic countries.

The challenge that Frey poses to Zengerle is this: Even if it could be shown that citizens legally open-carrying firearms significantly increase the probability of an assassination attempt (I am skeptical), it might not be worth the cost to add resources to increase presidential protection. Indeed, Frey finds that politicians are already overprotected. So the presence of citizens with guns may do nothing more than slightly reduce the extent of overprotection.

Since Zengerle found “offensive” McArdle’s claim that few anti-gun types are willing to reveal their true estimate of the probability (i.e., to bet) that “one of these firearms is soon going to be discharged at someone,” I assume he’ll find Frey’s calculus appalling. But if we can apply cost-benefit analysis to taxpayer-funded end-of-life medical treatment, we can apply it just as well to taxpayer-funded bodyguards and bullet-proof limos.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure this attempt to be rational on the subject of privately-owned guns near the president is in vain. If we make a Venn diagram of the set of people for whom guns are bewitched totems of death and the set of people for whom the president is a majestic, semi-divine symbol of national identity, I think we’ll see a fat overlap.

The strength of all governments lies not in weapons but in the spirit which puts the weapons at their disposal.

At Double X, Kerry Howley uses Myanmar’s latest sham trial of Suu Kyi to explain why a certain perception of legitimacy is a necessary for the persistence of even the least legitimate regime:

[E]ven when the world isn’t watching, which is to say, even when the accused is not Suu Kyi, Burma tries political dissidents. It does so because even totalitarian regimes need to justify themselves to the people they rule and the bureaucrats who do their bidding. At some level Suu Kyi’s elaborate trial was held for the benefit of the minor officials, judges, and attorneys who orchestrated it—educated people who need to believe that their jobs are necessary and just, that they are ministers of due process rather than yes-men for a bunch of thugs.

A certain degree of “buy in” is a necessary condition of stability in any kind of regime. The great advantage of democracy is that it keeps policy and public opinion at least loosely aligned and provides a mechanism for peaceful transitions in government when public opinion disagrees too much with the prevailing policies of the state. As the great democrat Ludwig von Mises once put it:

Its function [i.e., the function of “the democratic form of constitution”] is to make peace, to avoid violent revolutions. In non-democratic states, too, only a government which can count on the backing of public opinion is able to maintain itself in the long run. The strength of all governments lies not in weapons but in the spirit which puts the weapons at their disposal. Those in power, always necessarily a small minority against an enormous majority, can attain and maintain power only by making the spirit of the majority pliant to their rule. If there is a change, if those on whose support the government depends lose the conviction that they must support this particular government, then the ground is undermined beneath it and it must sooner or later give way. Persons and systems in the government of non-democratic states can be changed by violence alone. The system and the individuals that have lost the support of the people are swept away in the upheaval and a new system and other individuals take their place.

But any violent revolution costs blood and money. Lives are sacrificed, and destruction impedes economic activity. Democracy tries to prevent such material loss and the accompanying psychical shock by guaranteeing accord between the will of the state—as expressed through the organs of the state—and the will of the majority. This it achieves by making the organs of the state legally dependent on the will of the majority of the moment. In internal policy it realizes what pacifism seeks to realize in external policy.

Myanmar’s current regime will collapse some day and chances are it won’t be peaceful.

The Public Option vs. Public Reason

Here’s my latest column for The Week, in which I try to understand why the health care reform debate has had the same general dynamic since forever. In particular, I want to explain the transparent bullshit surrounding the “public option.” I wanted to be able to explain, for example, why Atrios says things like this:

Hopefully Chuck Schumer isn’t just blowing smoke and there will be a [good] public plan in the final bill. Without it there really isn’t much point to any of this. The public plan is the point. [empasis added.]

And the point of the public plan is what? To put competitive pressure on private plan providers, thereby controlling costs? Sure, because when you listen to left-leaning speakers talk about health-care reform in front of left-leaning audiences, they just won’t shut up about how important it is to make sure consumers have more choices in the health plan market and about all the great ideas for making private-sector health plans more competitive! What’s the point of new health reform if we don’t end up with a better Aetna–one of those “skimmers who provide no useful service”?

For more public plan boredom, here I am puzzling over the point of it all with Ezra Klein.

Below we have a less circumspect Ezra Klein explaining the point of it to a friendly audience. (FYI, Some people might wish to point out that the following was recorded last summer before the elections, and so is really totally irrelevant, since it does not pertain to the strategy of any actual health legislation. So here’s the larger context for Ezra’s remarks, in case you’re interested in evaluating that claim.)

And here’s where the long Jacob Hacker quote in my column comes from:

Finally, here’s my summary of the ruse behind our Social Security system, which I think is helpful in understanding what’s going on now in the health-care reform debate. Here’s my full Cato paper on Social Security, which goes on to make the case for a politics that takes the ideals of public reason and democratic transparency seriously.

Keep an eye out for the following dynamic in the debate. (1) Republicans push hard on the idea that a public option is a “trojan horse” or “back door” to single-payer. (2) Democrats loudly deny with exasperated, eye-rolling annoyance that the public option has anything whatsoever to do with backing into single-payer. (3) Republicans say, Well, okay. Then I guess you won’t mind structuring the public plan in a way that will help ensure that it competes with, but can’t use implicit and explicit government subsidies to crowd out, private plans. (4) Democrats freak out about a “neutered” or “watered-down” public plan. It just so happens, they say, that in order to work–to improve the quality of care and keep costs from rising–a government-run plan has to be set up in exactly the way you’d want to set it up if you were trying to crowd out the rest of the market. But we aren’t trying to do that!!! (5) Republicans: Are too! (6) Democrats: Are not! (7) Republicans: Are too! (8) Democrats: Are not! ….

For the philosophically inclined, here’s the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on publicity.

Why Economists Aren't Experts on What Is a Cost or Benefit

In the comments below, Robin Hanson writes:

I can’t imagine what you are thinking in saying economists have no competence to say what is a cost or benefit. That seems to me to be one of the things we know best. And the market interest rate clearly gives the opportunity cost of resources spend in the future. You complain about cost-benefit analysis, but seem to have nothing to offer in its place.

I will help you imagine! I am thinking that the meanings of “cost” and “benefit” are either contested, due to diversity in reasonable evaluative standards, or their meanings are stipulated for technical purposes.

If the meaning is plural and contested, economists have no special comptence to decide between the different evaluative standards underlying different meanings of “cost” and “benefit”. Economists are people, and people can make arguments and exchange reasons for an against various evaluative standards, but economists do this as people with a conception of value, not as economists.

If the meanings are stipulated to make a kind of a toy analysis tractable or determinate, that’s fine. But then the toy analysis has force only for those who already accept the stipulated meaning of the terms.

I have to get on the plane, but when I get home, I’ll say something about policy evaluation that takes evaluative pluralism seriously.

The Party of Untrammeled Freedom and Maximum Individual Choice?!

David Brooks:

[I]f Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.

What in tarnation is this man talking about? Where is this Republican Party of “untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice”? Did Ron Paul just become House minority leader or take Michael Steele’s job or something? Have the Republicans put up the white flag in the War on Drugs? Are GOP Senators stumping to end the legislation of morality? How did I miss this? It’s like Brooks was kidnapped by a Romulan and is sending us op-eds from an alternative timeline.