That’s what highly improbable events are

Ezra Klein thinks Darren Wilson’s account of the events leading up to Michael Brown’s death is unbelievable.

Klein could benefit from a basic lesson in statistics.

Highly improbable events usually appear unbelievable because they don’t happen often and don’t follow the norms. That’s what makes them highly improbable events.

Trying to make sense of highly improbable event by applying the norms of probable events is a common mistake.

It’s also an unfortunate consequence of a highly connected world that allows us to focus a great deal on highly improbable events. We see the highly improbable events so easily that we are deceived into believing that they are ordinary. We don’t often stop to consider what percentage of similar situations did not end as poorly as this one.

Nassim Taleb writes about this in his book, The Black Swan. He points out that people often delude themselves into believing that they could have predicted what turned out to be a highly improbable event, like a financial crisis, when we look back on it using 20/20 hindsight.

Life would be better if more people understood this

Here’s a great post from Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek on the nature of wealth and politics.

In it, he criticizes the all too typical, and wrong, view that wealth is a fixed pie and why the concern that the wealthy use their wealth for political influence is a good marker for someone who seems oblivious to root cause thinking.

Here’s a snippet on the second point:

…Mr. Reich fails to connect the dots by complaining that the rich spend more and more of their wealth in the political arena.  What else to expect when that arena becomes ever more central to Americans’ daily lives and, simultaneously, becomes ever more crowded with redistribution-mongers (such as Mr. Reich) whose squeals to soak the rich grow louder and harsher?

Folks like Mr. Reich think that the solution to their perceived problem of politically powerful wealthy is a more powerful government. But, a more powerful government just raises the stakes for the wealthy to use that power to their advantage.

In other words, without a powerful government, the wealthy could not be politically powerful. The problem is not the wealthy gaining political influence. The problem is that with a powerful government there will always be unsavory characters seeking to gain that power for their own good.

Think about the plot line of every movie that has an object with immense powers. There’s always a fight between multiple groups, good and bad, to get the object so they can use its power to their advantage.

The problem in Reich’s thinking is that he cannot fathom a limited power government. He wants a powerful government, but he just wants to somehow (through even more power for the government) restrict the holders of its powers to people who think like him.

He doesn’t realize that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more power we bestow on the government, the more likely there will be unsavory people seeking to control that power.

“Government employees produce nothing”

Kansas Congressman, Ray Merrick, is catching some flak for saying those words. He also said “They are a net consumer.” typifies the criticism of Merrick’s comments in the subtitle of its piece:

Kansas Republican Ray Merrick shows off his breathtaking ignorance.

Brandon O’Dell, commenting on this Merrick piece in Kansas City’s alternative newspaper, The KC Pitch, gets it. He wrote:

You don’t have [to have] the most basic understanding of economics to even comprehend that what Merrick said is factually accurate. The government does not “produce” anything, unless we all woke up this morning to a communist takeover whereas the government now owns the means of production? What he said is 100% true. The government does not take raw materials and labor and combine them to create goods or services that have a net value greater than the cost of making them. That is “production”. Unless you are in the business of making goods or services that can be sold for a profit, you are not a “producer”. Not a tough concept.

What he DIDN’T say is anything derogatory about government employees. It wasn’t a criticism, it was a statement of a basic economic fact, that government consumes. It doesn’t produce. Some government services are absolutely necessary. That doesn’t change the fact that they are expenses though, and should be managed Ina responsible manner, and yes, even cut when possible. Not something government is good at.

I agree. Merrick’s comments reminded me of posts I wrote in 2011, Government is Overhead and Government is overhead’ follow-up.

Criticism I’ve heard of Merrick’s comments falls mostly into two categories “Merrick is a jerk or idiot” which is then coupled with “but government workers are valuable” or “Merrick is a hypocrite since he’s a government employee.”

I take this as another example of the sad state of discourse in our country. These critics don’t have the capability or desire to try to understand what Merrick said. They will just shame him for saying what they thought he said. He is a politician, so he will roll over and apologize instead of taking the opportunity to educate his critics.

Yes. Some government employees do valuable work. Government workers are paid for by taxes. Where do taxes come from?

Just as in my burritos company example in the Government is Overhead post, the burritos company’s accounting department does valuable work for the burritos company, but they aren’t producers. Take away the burritos operations and what happens to the accountants? They lose their jobs. Their jobs are paid for by the production and selling of burritos.

The source of emergent order

Robert Solow from this EconTalk podcast on Growth and the State of Economics:

We all know that a lot of the innovation occurs as a business process. I keep telling myself we also all know that a lot of innovation comes as a matter of dumb luck. You set out to solve problem A, and you fail totally to solve problem A, but you solve problem B that wasn’t in your head at all.

I’m not sure we ALL know that.

But, I do think that growth, innovation, improvement in the standard of living — whatever you call it — depends on how good we are at recognizing that we solved problem B.

I’ve been a part of many organizations that end up solving problem B, but ignore it because they are fixated on solving problem A.

I think this happens with R&D efforts in government and other bureaucratic organizations. They get so hung up on their preferred solution (e.g. solar power or wind power) that they ignore discoveries that don’t fall into their pre-selected, politically-correct categories.

How well a system allows the solution to problem B to propagate, I believe, is related to that system’s long-term viability.