And from Dr. Sowell…

From this week’s Random Thoughts column:

Once, when I was teaching at an institution that bent over backward for foreign students, I was asked in class one day: “What is your policy toward foreign students?” My reply was: “To me, all students are the same. I treat them all the same and hold them all to the same standards.” The next semester there was an organized boycott of my classes by foreign students. When people get used to preferential treatment, equal treatment seems like discrimination.

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Pope II

Here I wrote about the Freakonomics podcast with Jeffrey Sachs which covered the Pope’s anti-capitalism remarks.

Shortly thereafter, in Taleb’s book, Antifragility, I was surprised to read what I think is a more thoughtful response to the Pope’s remarks and one that supports the Pope’s view.

What surprises me even more is that what Taleb writes about isn’t new to me. It’s a frequent topic of conversation, something that I know well. But, I hadn’t taken it to the logical conclusion.

First, Taleb points out that even the patriarch of capitalism, Adam Smith, was

…extremely chary of the idea of giving someone upside without downside and had doubts about the limited liability of joint-stock companies (the ancestor of the modern limited liability corporation). He did not get the idea of transfer of antifragility, but he came close enough.

And he detected–sort of–the problem that comes with managing other people’s business, the lack of pilot on the plane:

The directors of such companies, however, being the managers rather of other people’s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected, that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private copartnery frequently watch over their own.

Let me make the point clearer: the version of “capitalism” or whatever economic system you need to have is with the minimum number of people in the left of the Triad.

“The Triad” is Taleb’s classification of systems as (from left to right) fragile, robust and antifragile; and what he means by ‘left of the triad’ is people who get the downside, as well as the upside, or they have skin in the game.

Taleb contiues:

There is a difference between a manager running a company that is not his own and an owner-operated business in which the manager does not need to report numbers to anyone but himself, and for which he has a downside. Corporate managers have incentives without disincentives — something the general public doesn’t quite get, as they have the illusion that managers are properly “incentivized.” Somehow these managers have been given free options by innocent savers and investors.

He provides an example:

…banks have lost more than they ever made in their history, with their managers being paid billions in compensation — taxpayers take the downside, bankers get the upside [Russ Roberts has been saying this for years]. And the policies aiming at correcting the problem are hurting innocent people while bankers are sipping the Rose de Provence brand of summer wine on their yachts in St. Tropez.

To bring this all together:

We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of I.A.N.D. (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.

At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control.

Now, let’s re-read what the Pope wrote (quoted from the Freakonomics post):

“[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. … One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! … While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

To me, this reads like leftist dribble, where their intuition leads them, perhaps, in the right direction for outcome, but the wrong direction for cause.

Maybe the Pope is right that there are some fundamental problems in the mixed markets that have emerged.

But, they’re wrong about the cause of those problems. They blame things like “trickle down theories” (Thomas Sowell challenges us to name one economist who used “trickle down“).

But, the part of the Pope’s passage that reminds me of Taleb’s point is:

…expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power…

Perhaps that is true. And Taleb tells us why:

At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control.

They don’t have downside.

This includes politicians, apparatchiks in government agencies, economists and — the one that I am really disappointed that I missed because of my biases — managers of businesses who only have upside and no downside. I’ve even noticed that senior managers often have the same characteristics as politicians, but darn if I haven’t carried that through.

So, as I like to say, all problems can be traced to problems with feedback — I think Taleb exposes a couple of real feedback problems in — not free markets — but our mixed market economy. That feedback problem is that too many people “wielding economic power” don’t have downside. Rather they have incentives to game the system for their upside.

How can this be changed? Taleb gives one example that surprised me:

…in some countries such as Brazil, even today, top bankers are made unconditionally liable to the extent of their own assets.

Think about that. Would bankers act differently if they may have to repay the bonuses they received in what are now apparent as the fraudulently fueled good-times?

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You’ve made your bed…

I agree with Thomas Sowell’s latest column, High Risk, Low Yield, regarding recent Republican tactics. Especially this part:

The world is full of things that ought to be done but cannot in fact be done.

The time, effort and credibility that Republicans are investing in trying to defund ObamaCare is a high risk, low yield investment.

If I were Republican politician, I might say:

America, I hope Obamacare works out for you. But, if it doesn’t, remember, this is your own doing.

Soon, you may discover that Obamacare increases your health care costs and reduces quality and availability.

You may realize that you have less choice about health care than you did before.

You may find government bureaucrats have taken a keen interest in your personal health habits, to the extent you may feel violated and they may deem you not fit to receive priority care.

If you are bothered by any of that, you should consider who you voted for and why. If you want different results, perhaps you should think about voting differently and holding some frank discussions at the dinner table to help convince others you know to do the same.

“…by the content of their character”

I think it is important to remember this part of MLK’s speech:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to confuse judging the content of character with the judging of other things like skin color.

This is a feedback problem. The reactions we get from how we behave are feedback that signal when our behavior is acceptable and unacceptable to others.

If it is made easy to believe that changing our behavior will not change the reactions we produce in others when we behave unacceptably, because we attribute their reaction to something else (like skin color), then we are less likely to change our behavior.

In his book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Thomas Sowell traces the origin of the collection of behaviors that we recognize today as the ‘thug’ and ‘redneck’ cultures. He hypothesizes that these are evolved versions of the same culture with the same origin.

He also shows that both of these cultures were waning in American society through the first half of the 20th century, due to normal societal feedbacks that encouraged politeness, productivity, self-reliance and cooperation. However, the introduction of the welfare state reversed this course among both blacks and whites, because it enabled folks to get by without adopting these virtues.

Sowell also shows, remarkably, that the behaviors commonly associated with these cultures tend to produce the same reactions in others no matter the skin color of the person practicing them.

I recommend reading it.

How about some critical thinking and a better understanding of economics?

It’s been 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. According to some influential folks in my local paper there is still much to achieve.

Here are some of the things they graded poorly:

  • Education — Schools aren’t desegregated enough and bad in areas where blacks live.
  • Voting — Even though black voter turnout exceed white turnout in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections (as reported by the article), the expert gives voting a “D” because the Supreme Court overturned a 1965 law requiring some states to seek Federal approval in changing voter laws.
  • Wages & jobs — The inflation-adjusted minimum wage is lower and black unemployment is higher than 1963, so that’s bad.
  • Poverty — The poverty rate among blacks dropped from 55 percent four years before 1963, but bounces around in the 20s. The expert gave this an “F”.

The solutions these folks proposed? More government action. I recommend these influential folks, and anybody who agrees with their solution, read the following:

1. Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? by Walter Williams.

2. Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, now in its 4th edition.

Ben Carson had some good things to say on the subject. I thought this one about education is especially poignant:

King was a huge advocate of education and would be horrified by the high dropout rates in many inner-city high schools. He, like many others, was vilified, beaten and jailed for trying to open the doors of education to everyone, regardless of their race.

If he were alive today, he would have to witness people turning their backs on those open doors and choosing to pursue lives of crime or dependency.

The difference between poverty and destitution

Dan Mitchell comments and expands on Thomas Sowell’s latest column. Both are well worth reading.

I just had to include this passage from Sowell:

“Poverty” once had some concrete meaning — not enough food to eat or not enough clothing or shelter to protect you from the elements, for example. Today it means whatever the government bureaucrats, who set up the statistical criteria, choose to make it mean. And they have every incentive to define poverty in a way that includes enough people to justify welfare state spending. Most Americans with incomes below the official poverty level have air-conditioning, television, own a motor vehicle and, far from being hungry, are more likely than other Americans to be overweight. But an arbitrary definition of words and numbers gives them access to the taxpayers’ money.

Some things air traffic controller related

As Thomas Sowell said about the spending elected officials might choose to cut when forced to (even though they themselves were the ones that forced it as a result of an earlier political ploy that backfired):

Back in my teaching days, many years ago, one of the things I liked to ask the class to consider was this: Imagine a government agency with only two tasks: (1) building statues of Benedict Arnold and (2) providing life-saving medications to children. If this agency’s budget were cut, what would it do? The answer, of course, is that it would cut back on the medications for children. Why? Because that would be what was most likely to get the budget cuts restored. If they cut back on building statues of Benedict Arnold, people might ask why they were building statues of Benedict Arnold in the first place.

 

Today, The Wall Street Journal Opinion comments on the Administration’s all to transparent and silly usage of the tactic Sowell described (emphasis mine):

Remember when the sequester’s spending cuts were going to incite mass uprisings for higher taxes? Instead, Senate Democrats and the White House blinked, not least because the FAA’s transparent political strategy was to use incompetent government as a bludgeon on behalf of bigger government. The American public waiting in departure lounges figured this out, which is presumably why the political capitulation is so total.

They also agree that we should get government out of air traffic controlling and point to several other countries that have already taken the grubby politician’s fingers off these pawns:

To wit, Congress ought to abolish the FAA and privatize the air navigation system the way that Canada and other developed countries have. A nonprofit corporation funded by user fees would make better cost-benefit decisions, tap capital markets, replace old-fashioned technology in a timely way and discipline high labor costs.

In addition to NavCanada, Germany, France, Australia and more than 50 others have made the transition to commercial airspaces. No less than Al Gore tried do this when he was Vice President, only to be routed by the unions. Republicans should try again as a plank of a platform to reform and modernize a government that serves itself before it serves America.

Finally, let’s play the ‘imagine if it were a Republican administration’ game. How do you think the media would have covered the air traffic controller furloughs if it were Republicans deciding to delay flights as a political ploy? It’d probably look a lot like this (thanks to Reason Magazine for the pointer):