Two fine points

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a fine point made by Thomas Sowell regarding Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment and, in general, the idea the we always owe something to “society” or “government” because government provides a plethora of infrastructure.

Sowell wrote:

Did the taxpayers, including business taxpayers, not pay for that road when it was built? Why should they have to pay for it twice?

Don Boudreaux adds to Sowell’s fine point in his column this week in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (bold mine).

Sure, Wal-Mart uses government-built highways to speed its inventories to its stores. But the fact that Wal-Mart would be unable to operate without the highway system doesn’t make those highways a uniquely special input to which Wal-Mart owes all, or even much, of its success.

Wal-Mart would be equally unable to operate without farmers to grow food to feed its truck drivers — or without textile producers to supply clothes for those drivers — or without oil companies to fuel its fleet of trucks.

Would Obama therefore conclude that Wal-Mart owes some special, open-ended obligation to oil companies? Would he insist that, if oil companies now squander their revenues, Wal-Mart and other retailers are morally compelled to chip in to help oil companies get back into the black?

Does Wal-Mart owe a special, open-ended obligation to oil companies?

If an oil company exec gave a speech suggesting that the oil his company provides is so valuable that they should be able to come along after someone has bought and used oil to make a profit and charge them again, that exec would be laughed off stage. Most people have a sense that oil has a price and once price has been paid, there’s no further obligation to the oil company.

So, why wasn’t Obama laughed off stage? Why have I only heard two economists point out that the folks using the services provided by government have already paid for the use of those services?

Boudreaux goes on to make another fine point, often overlooked or treated with much skepticism by folks who don’t give this a lot of thought:

Among the kinds of infrastructure that have, in fact, been supplied successfully by private businesses are city streets, highways, sewage systems, formal education, policing, money and commercial law. Government provision of such infrastructure, therefore, cannot be read as evidence that government’s role on this front is necessary.

If government failed to build highways to connect, say, Atlanta to Pittsburgh, private firms almost certainly would. (It’s easy to collect tolls from drivers who use highways.) And likewise for nearly any other pair of cities in America. So in what way is any actual, government-built highway necessary for any private entrepreneur’s economic success? None — if (as is likely) private enterprise would have done what government instead did by crowding out private efforts.

“Yes, but…”

Bryan Caplan wrote that in his first 17 years of life, he never encountered an opponent to policies like the minimum wage, FDA and social security. And he grew up in “bland Northridge, California”, not some “leftist enclave.”

He has me beat by 5 years. I, too, did not grow up in a leftist enclave. Just a “bland” midwestern town where the populist defenses for these policies that Bryan wrote more about in his post were taken as gospel.

Caplan’s post is worth reading. In it, he criticizes intellectuals who “yes, but…” the writings of French Economist Frederic Bastiat’s, who dismantles these populist defenses.

Caplan asserts that said intellectuals don’t display higher regard for Bastiat’s work for fear of damaging the political base they need to sport their solutions on the rest of us.

What ‘tax cut’ means

What ‘tax cut’ means to a…

libertarian  More freedom, more careful and value-added investment and spending in the economy that results in more jobs and an improved standard of living for everyone, less powerful bureaucrats and politicians. (More of the Baptist position in the Bootlegger and Baptist model)

conservative  Great. More money for me, or more money for me when I get rich, and less for the government. But, I might give up the tax cut if you agree not to cut defense spending. (More of the Bootlegger’s position)

moderate  I like the sound of it, but can “we” afford it with such a big deficit?

liberal If “we” give you a tax cut, who’s going to help the less fortunate?

progressive  How will I solve [my perceived] social injustices of income inequality and help the less fortunate?

What a libertarian might point out to each:

conservative  You might have more to spend on defense if the economy grows and the economy has a better chance of growing with lower tax rates.

moderate  Deficits are caused by spending.

liberal  Why not you?

progressive  See the response to a liberal and consider that only income inequality caused by your efforts is a social injustice (that is, your attempts to lessen income inequality actually causes more of it) and “earned” income inequality encourages productive behavior.

The King of Beers



This post about higher prices on tortillas packaged as ‘wraps’, reminded me of some thinking I’ve been doing lately about beer.


First, I noticed that the stalwart beers are Bud Light and Miller Lite. They have been for some time, so this isn’t anything new. But, I think it’s interesting that they use the word ‘light’ to distinguish it, rather than ‘diet’.


“Diet Bud”, “Diet Budweiser” and “Diet Miller” just doesn’t have a very appealing ring to it. Yet, “Diet Coke” seems better. What about “Coke Light”?


Second, I’ve recently switched away from diet beers. I drink more regular beer now. It seems that a lot of the folks who drink diet beer are overweight, so something isn’t working.


A family member who rarely drinks non-diet beers had a Budweiser at my house recently. He said, “Wow. This is good beer.” I pointed to the label, and noted, “Of course, it’s the King of Beers.”


Ronald Reagan’s Hair for VP


If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may recall that I am a huge fan of Paul Ryan’s hair. It’s very Reagan-esque.

And, while this isn’t a Reagan fan blog and I realize Reagan was a politician, the type of person I’ve programmed myself to distrust even when I think I like them, as politicians go, you could do much worse than Reagan.

Check this out:

As hair goes, Romney made an excellent choice.

I also think Ryan is one of the best politicians out there in being able to articulate a more liberty-minded version of conservative politics, which is another trait he shares with Ronald Reagan. I agree with much of what Charles Rowley writes here.


Why we do the things we do

This Marginal Revolution post reminded me of something I encounter frequently, even with myself. The post excerpts a study:

In fact our conscious brain has surprisingly little grasp of what makes us decide to do one thing rather than another.  A telling example of this ignorance has been provided by Joe LeDoux and Michael Gazzaniga, two neuroscientists who conducted a study of patients with a severed corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, leaving the two sides of the brain unable to communicate with each other.  LeDoux and Gazzaniga gave instructions to these patients, via their right hemisphere (hemispheres can be targeted with instructions shown to either the left or right visual field), to giggle or wave a hand, then asked them, via the left hemisphere, why they were laughing or waving.  The patients’ left hemisphere had no knowledge of the instructions given to their right hemisphere, but the patients would nonetheless venture an explanation, saying that they were laughing because the doctors looked so funny or waving because they thought they saw a friend.  However implausible the answer, the patients were convinced they knew why they were acting in the way they were; but they were deluded in thinking so.  Their self-understanding was pure confabulation.

I often find myself in discussions with folks who can’t override their urge to start jabbing their mouth and simply say, I don’t know, why do you think what you think?

I, too, often find myself doing things that I find odd and when I search for an explanation, I find that my first explanation is usually one that would satisfy an external observer. But, then I dive deeper and find other reasons that weren’t intuitive, but were probably more important than the externally acceptable reason.

I’m cheap. I was a loyal shopper of Walmart, until Target opened across the street from it. Then I found myself in Target more often. Why? I’m cheap. I’m supposed to like the lower prices. And, at the time, there was a visible difference in most prices.

So, on several trips to Walmart and Target I “observed” myself. I asked myself questions. What’s keeping me from going to Walmart? Why am I going to Target?

Many things popped up. The Target parking lot isn’t as packed. I don’t have to walk as far. Target’s parking was clean. The store was cleaner and updated. The product displays were always in good order and the products were well presented. I would have to wait a long time to checkout at Walmart. At Walmart, it seemed like they shoved the products on the shelves.Target had some different products that I would like to browse. I wasn’t scared of the folks who shopped at Target. The folks who worked at Target seemed a bit less tired and a bit more engaged.

I came to find that it just wasn’t one reason. There were many. Some would say it was the overall experience. Maybe some mattered more than others, but they all mattered.

Walmart recognized this, too. They responded by improving on many of these things and have won me back, sometimes.

The depth and breadth of these reasons surprised me. I didn’t put conscious thought into any of these things until I first noticed my behavior was odd (not always going for the lowest price) and then decided to “observe” my behavior.

That exercise alone humbled me into being more willing to say, I don’t know, recognizing that he world is complex and the simple answer is often not the whole story. That reminds me of a favorite Oliver Wendell Holmes quote:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Supreme Court Justice, 1902 – 1932

Not sure I’d give my life for it, but it’s definitely worth more.

“Romney Hood” Straw Man

In logic lingo, a straw man fallacy is a false and easily defeated representation of your debate opponent’s position.

A real straw man is easy to beat in a fight. It has no muscles or awareness to counteract your advances. I could tell you that I beat up “Mike Tyson” if I named a scarecrow Mike Tyson and beat it up. You would be right to be skeptical of my claim. If you cared enough, you might ask me some follow-ups, like are you talking about THE Mike Tyson?

Similarly, a straw man argument is easy to refute. Creating a straw man version of your opponent’s position is a common and natural argument technique that we’ve all used or encountered since we started talking.

Common examples conservative-types encounter include you have no compassion. Or, you just don’t care about poor people. Sometimes it’s a little more subtle. I can see your point, buy my conscience won’t let me support your position. 

Obama’s recent characterization of his opponent’s tax plan as Romney Hood, or the opposite of Robin Hood, is also a good example of a straw man argument.

To make this characterization, Obama leveraged the analysis of a third-party that took liberties at guessing Romney’s full tax plan, identified actions they believe Romney would take when he discovered that his plan wouldn’t work and, assumed it wouldn’t work. In other words, Obama beat up Mike Tyson.

Beware of straw men during this election season.