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):

 

Good quotes

The Pretense of Knowledge shares some good quotes on liberty and on the sequester. A couple of which I’d like to capture here for my future reference.

On liberty, from Laurence Auster:

Once the government becomes the supplier of people’s needs, there is no limit to the needs that will be claimed as a basic right.

On the sequester, from Thomas Sowell:

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.

Profits and Ballot Boxes

In the comments of this post, commenter Wally and I discuss the business feedback of profit and government feedback of votes.

W. E. Heasley, of The Last Embassy blog, recently posted an excellent short video from Learn Liberty that helps explain why voting isn’t a very effective feedback mechanism:

 

Most of us make purchasing and voting decisions. Sometimes they are a little of both, like when you vote with your family on what’s for dinner.

The following are links to and excerpts from previous posts I’ve made quoting economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, who do an excellent job of explaining why purchase decisions are a more effective feedback mechanism than voting.

1. From this post in 2010, I quoted from Thomas Sowell’s book, Intellectuals and Society.  He explains the difference in these feedbacks well:

The fundamental difference between decision-makers in the market and decision-makers in government is that the former are subject to continuous and consequential feedback which can force them to adjust to what others prefer and are willing to pay for, while those who make decisions in the political arena face no such inescapable feedback to force them to adjust to the reality of other people’s desires and preferences.

A business with red ink on the bottom line knows that this cannot continue indefinitely, and that they have no choice but to change whatever they are doing that produces that red ink, for which there is little tolerance even in the short run, and which will be fatal to the whole enterprise in the long run.  In short, financial losses are not merely informational feedback but consequential feedback which cannot be ignored, dismissed or spun rhetorically through verbal virtuosity.

In the political arena, however, only the most immediate and most attention-getting disasters — so obvious and unmistakable to the voting public that there is no problem of “connecting the dots” — are comparably consequential for the political decision-makers.  But laws and policies whose consequences take time to unfold are by no means as consequential for those who created those laws and policies, especially if the consequences emerge after the next election.  Moreover, there are few things in politics as unmistakable in its implications as red ink on the bottom line is in business.  In politics, no matter how disastrous a policy may turn out to be, if the causes of the disaster are not understood by the voting public, those officials responsible for the disaster may escape accountability, and of course, they have every incentive to deny having made mistakes, since admitting mistakes can jeopardize a whole career.

2. In three paragraphs that I quoted from Thomas Sowell’s book, Applied Economics, he explains the differences in our buying and voting decisions. Here are those three paragraphs:

Politics and the markets are both ways of getting people to respond to other people’s desires.  Consumers deciding which goods to spend their money on have often been analogized to voters deciding which candidates to elect to public office.  However the two processes are profoundly different.  Not only do individuals invest very different amounts of time and thought in making economic vs. political decisions, those are inherently different in themselves.  Voters decide whether to vote for one candidate or another but they decide how much of what kinds of food, clothing, shelter, etc. to purchase.  In short, political decisions tend to be categorical, while economic decisions tend to be incremental.

Incremental decisions can be more fine-tuned than deciding which candidate’s whole package of principles and practices comes closest to meeting your own desires.  Incremental decision-making also means that not every increment of even very desirable things is likewise necessarily desirable, given that there are other things that the money could be spent on after having acquired a given amount of a particular good or service. For example, although it might be worthwhile spending considerable money to live in a nice home, buying a second home in the country may or may not be worth spending money that could be used for sending a child to college or for recreational travel overseas.  One consequence of incremental decision-making is that increments of many desirable things remain unpurchased because they are almost–but not quite–worth the sacrifices required to get them.

From a political standpoint, this means that there are always numerous desirable things that government officials can offer to provide to voters who want them–either free of charge or at reduced, government-subsidized prices–even when the voters do not want these increments enough to sacrifice their own money to pay for them.  The real winners in this process are politicians whose apparent generosity and compassion gain them political support.

3. In his classic column, Conflict or Cooperation, which I linked to in this post, Walter Williams explains how to pit beer drinkers against wine drinkers. Here’s a taste:

Different Americans have different and often intense preferences for all kinds of goods and services. Some of us have strong preferences for beer and distaste for wine while others have the opposite preference — strong preferences for wine and distaste for beer. Some of us hate three-piece suits and love blue jeans while others love three-piece suits and hate blue jeans. When’s the last time you heard of beer drinkers in conflict with wine drinkers, or three-piece suit lovers in conflict with lovers of blue jeans? It seldom if ever happens because beer and blue jean lovers get what they want. Wine and three-piece suit lovers get what they want and they all can live in peace with one another.

It would be easy to create conflict among these people. Instead of free choice and private decision-making, clothing and beverage decisions could be made in the political arena. In other words, have a democratic majority-rule process to decide what drinks and clothing that would be allowed. Then we would see wine lovers organized against beer lovers, and blue jean lovers organized against three-piece suit lovers. Conflict would emerge solely because the decision was made in the political arena. Why? The prime feature of political decision-making is that it’s a zero-sum game. One person’s gain is of necessity another person’s loss. That is if wine lovers won, beer lovers lose.

The differences in political and private decisions has spawned a branch of economics study called public choice economics. Here’s more.

 

A couple thoughts from Thomas Sowell

From Thomas Sowell’s latest Random Thoughts:

Everybody is talking about how we are going to pay for the huge national debt, but nobody seems to be talking about the runaway spending which created that record-breaking debt. In other words, the big spenders get political benefits from handing out goodies, while those who resist giving them more money to spend will be blamed for sending the country off the “fiscal cliff.”

I, too, am amazed at how spending gets a pass, even from folks like Warren Buffett who should know better.

Would Mr. Buffett give such a pass to a manager of one of his businesses who habitually spent 20% to 30% more than he took in and planned to do so as long as possible? In this case, would Mr. Buffett be so eager in volunteering his own income to continue to support such a manager so that manager could carry out his indefinite plan of spending beyond his means?

Here’s another good Thomas Sowell thought:

The more I study the history of intellectuals, the more they seem like a wrecking crew, dismantling civilization bit by bit — replacing what works with what sounds good.

I’ve seen the same with managers of successful businesses. New managers often ignore the actual success of the business they’ve been entrusted to run — what works — and change that business with their own ideas — what sounds good.

The typical outcome of that can be seen with JC Penney of the past year, where the new manager of JC Penney has made major changes to the business that sounded good, but have reduced the stock price by more than 50% against the S&P 500.

Intellectuals often have the same effect on society. For example, they may wish to ‘wage war on poverty’, but they ignore the best anti-poverty mechanism ever — innovationism (what works) — and instead seek to replace it with systems that sound good, but actually encourage poverty.