Localism

Something Nassim Taleb said in his EconTalk podcast reminded of a point Daniel Hannan made in his book, The New Road to Serfdom that I wrote about it here.

Taleb makes the point that local government is more effective than national government and one reason is that at the local level there is some skin in the game in the form of shame. That is, if you take advantage of your neighbors, they’ll frown upon it. But, at the national level, government is more about taking skin out of the game through bail-outs and insurance. Here is Taleb:

And government can be a local, neighborhood union. And then let’s figure it out from the history of countries that have been very successful, like Switzerland or Sweden, places like that. That people making the decisions are usually embedded in a community. And their skin in the game is typically shame. Because they are socialized by the community. Their skin in the game is shame. Whatever government official in Washington can make a mistake, and it’s a spreadsheet looking at him. It’s not someone in church on Sunday looking at him and making him feel shame. And that’s where the main difference is.

So let me go back to the point about government. It’s true, at the local, local level, there are some natural incentives. But at the national level, say in the United States, a lot of what government does is to remove skin in the game–bailouts, insurance policies, do-overs, ad hoc interventions.

Here’s Hannan’s version:

…localism under-girds the notion of responsibility: our responsibility to support ourselves if we can, and our responsibility to those around us–not an abstract category of the “the underprivileged,” but the visible neighbors–who, for whatever reason, cannot support themselves.  No longer is this obligation discharged when we have paid our taxes.  Localism, in short, makes us better citizens.

Update: The title of the post made me think of an inconsistency. The folks who advocate ‘buying local’ rarely seem to advocate ‘governing local’. Perhaps they should.

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Shameless Society

Ours’ was once a society that expected able-bodied folks to carry their own weight and not be a burden on others. And, it didn’t take much to be considered able-bodied.

Depending on others was looked down upon, shamed. Putting up a genuine effort to take care of your responsibilities earned you respect and dignity, and those marks of character use to carry some clout.

This seems to have changed over the past few decades. The standard seems to have gone from ‘able-bodied’ to ‘no fault of your own.’ If an intellectual from an elite university, or politicians seeking re-election can make a plausible sounding argument that passes the 5 second sniff test that some poor sap wound up in a bad position ‘through no fault of their own,’ then it’s ‘our’ job to help him out.

I say 5 second sniff test, because if most of us thought about the poor sap who lost his job ‘through no fault of his own’ two years ago, hasn’t found another job and has a family to feed and a house payment to make for more than 5 seconds we might start asking questions. Has he had any job offers? How many resumes has he sent out? Did he save an emergency fund? Has he tried to take a lower paying job to make ends meet? Does he have any other skills? Did he really need to buy a house with a mortgage payment so large that he couldn’t afford to pay it if he lost his job? Did he need to take out the home equity loan to remodel the bathroom? We might start to think of this poor sap who is in a tough spot ‘through no fault of his own’ as an ‘able-bodied’ person who maybe does deserve some of the fault.

Reading this exchange between university professors Bryan Caplan and Bill Dickens (the latter was the former’s Econ 1 teacher) troubles me.

Caplan steadfastly holds that a major cause of poverty is irresponsible behavior, that correcting this behavior is a good way out of poverty and rewarding this behavior is not a good way to stop it. Rather, that’s a good way to get more of it.

That part of the exchange I had no problem with.

It’s Dickens response that troubles me. First, I find its high fallacy and emotion content unbecoming of a university professor. Second, he goes out of his way to make excuses for irresponsible behavior. One example:

I must have spoken with, in the neighborhood of, 100 welfare recipients when I was working on the reform… Overwhelmingly those on public assistance were full of regret and/or a sense of hopelessness that they are fated to their condition. They know they should have worked harder in school, they know they should be working to support their family, they know it would be better if their children’s father was there to help support their kids. There is no shortage of hectoring from society, welfare caseworkers, family members, and the media.

From Caplan’s response:

I don’t think they’re sorry for their behavior.  I think they’re sorry they’re experiencing the predictable consequences of their behavior.  I see them the same way I’d see a serial adulterer enduring a hellish divorce: “Sure you’re sorry.  Sorry you got caught!  Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.”

I’d add that there’s also no shortage of folks like Dickens who psychologists from circa 1980 would call enablers. While Dickens sees plenty of ‘hectoring from society’, I see plenty of people telling them it’s okay. It’s not their fault. Society has just left them behind. We have a safety net to help. Please, feel no shame.

I don’t have much problem with social safety nets, with the exception that they tend to devolve into dependency reinforcement programs, rather than true anti-poverty programs.

We don’t have real safety nets. Real safety nets would look more like this. Do you want to receive unemployment benefits? Report to your local Parks & Rec guy on Monday and spend 8 hours cleaning parks. We’ll help, but we expect you to do something productive in return.

Do you want welfare? How about a drug test? Did you get a free visit to the emergency room? There’s plenty of work to be done at the hospital. Maybe you can scrub a floor. Want a student loan? Sign up for a degree program that leads to a paying job. But how will we know if it will or not? By looking at whether past students who took loans out for the same program paid their loans back.

In the old days, if you were down on your luck and needed a free meal, you at least offered to wash dishes. Now, it’s okay to get a free meal and simply ask for more.

One of the most destructive things that has happened in our society has been removing shame, which has devalued dignity. Why work to earn respect when you can get by without it? Sure, there are some parts of society where the shame and dignity feedbacks are still vibrant, but they’re dead or dying in many parts controlled by government, which is around 40% of the economy.

Later in Dickens response, he suggests that Caplan spend time with some poor people. I’d recommend the same thing for Dickens. Except, this time, don’t do it while working on the President’s welfare reform task force. Interact with them on a regular, day-to-day basis. Go to the billing departments of hospitals. Become a checkout clerk at a grocery store. See what is bought by folks with government assistance. Go visit some folks receiving Social Security disability. Or, when they are getting a payday or title loan. The stories I hear from folks in these areas would have been considered shameful by most not long ago.

I hate to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are people who still value dignity who are helped by these programs and eventually work to become self-sufficient. It’s much more palatable to me to at least attempt to direct and limit these programs for such folks. That should be what it’s about, right?

That was the whole idea of the ‘able-bodied’ standard. Get off the dole if you can so we have enough to help the ones who really need it.

Daniel Hannan addressed this in his book, The New Road to Serfdom, as well. I wrote about here. I quote myself and Hannan from that post (his is the double indent):

Then Hannan goes on to analyze why the 1996 welfare reform in the U.S. was successful.  He gives several reasons, but one of the most important was localism in the administration of welfare.  Ultimately, the reform pushed welfare administration from a centralized federal level, to a local, in some cases, sub-state level, which has many benefits.  This is probably one of the best:

…localism under-girds the notion of responsibility: our responsibility to support ourselves if we can, and our responsibility to those around us–not an abstract category of the “the underprivileged,” but the visible neighbors–who, for whatever reason, cannot support themselves.  No longer is this obligation discharged when we have paid our taxes.  Localism, in short, makes us better citizens.

Good example of unintended consequences

On his blog, International Liberty, Dan Mitchell wrote that he hopes Paul Krugman…

…is right in that [Paul] Ryan wants “to make life harder for the poor” if the alternative is to have their lives stripped of meaning by government dependency.  And I agree that it will be “for their own good” if they’re motivated to join the workforce.

…even though Mitchell is aware that Krugman “wants readers to draw the opposite conclusion,” that it’s wrong for Ryan to want this.

I can hear my liberal friends now. Compassionate folks should want to help the poor, right? Ryan and right-wingers aren’t compassionate. They don’t want to help the poor. 

Mitchell also linked to a previous post of his from 2010, which contains this chart:

I remember reading this compelling point about unintended consequences in Thomas Sowell’s books and columns. The poverty rate had been declining prior to government involvement to try to help it. The country was becoming wealthier and more people were being lifted out of poverty.

Then government ‘declares war’ on poverty, since the intention of helping the poor is noble and a good way to attract votes. Who wants to vote against the poor, after all?

But what about the outcome? The declining trend of the poverty rate stopped right after the war declaration and then stabilized thereafter and began exactly what I don’t like about government programs — the positive reinforcing failure feedback loop.

We’ve spent increasing sums of money, through government, to combat poverty. It’s still here. As Daniel Hannan wrote in his book, The New Road to Serfdom:

It is a stock phrase of virtually every European politician, regardless of party, that “a society is judged by how it treats the worst off.”  Plainly, then, there must be something selfish — and possibly racist — about a people who keep voting for a system that treats the most needy so pitilessly.

It rarely occurs to critics that there might be better ways to measure the efficacy of welfare state than by size of its budget.  Indeed, in a truly successful social security system, budgets ought to fall over time as former recipients are lifted into better and more productive lives.

 

Daniel Hannan on Welfare

I highly recommend reading Daniel Hannan’s book The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America.  The fluency and adeptness at which he analyzes government and makes international comparisons is well worth it.  I’ve learned a great deal so far.  There will be more to come in that regard in future blog posts.

Hannan can also turn some nice paragraphs on domestic issues like welfare (emphasis mine):

It is a stock phrase of virtually every European politician, regardless of party, that “a society is judged by how it treats the worst off.”  Plainly, then, there must be something selfish — and possibly racist — about a people who keep voting for a system that treats the most needy so pitilessly.

It rarely occurs to critics that there might be better ways to measure the efficacy of welfare state than by size of its budget.  Indeed, in a truly successful social security system, budgets ought to fall over time as former recipients are lifted into better and more productive lives.

This, of course, was the original rationale for welfare.  But it has been almost entirely forgotten in Europe, where dependency has become structural.  Benefits that were intended to have a one-time, transformative effect have instead become permanent, as recipients arrange their affairs around qualifying for subventions.  Millions have become trapped in the squalor of disincentives and low expectations.  In Britain, which is by no means as badly off as many EU members, the annual welfare budget, including the lump sum payments that, as in the United States, are called “tax credits,” comes to more than $200 billion a year.  Yet this huge contribution has little impact on either poverty or inequality.

These are good points.  As we keep chugging ahead with ballooning government deficits “that can’t be cut because they’re someone’s entitlement,” nobody seems concerned with why many of these entitlements have grown so large.  Why these programs that were intended to ‘get people back on their feet’ don’t quite seem to do that.  Why they become permanent fixtures and grow.

Then Hannan goes onto to analyze why the 1996 welfare reform in the U.S. was successful.  He gives several reasons, but one of the most important was localism in the administration of welfare.  Ultimately, the reform pushed welfare administration from a centralized federal level, to a local, in some cases, sub-state level, which has many benefits.  This is probably one of the best:

…localism under-girds the notion of responsibility: our responsibility to support ourselves if we can, and our responsibility to those around us–not an abstract category of the “the underprivileged,” but the visible neighbors–who, for whatever reason, cannot support themselves.  No longer is this obligation discharged when we have paid our taxes.  Localism, in short, makes us better citizens.

I thought this passage was powerful for a couple reasons.

First, there’s the suggestion that we ought to be responsible for our own affairs, if we can.  We seem to have a low standard of this these days.

Second, Hannan points out that we tend to act a bit more compassionate for those around us when we haven’t simply done our part by paying taxes.

In the past, families, friends and neighbors would watch out for each other.  If you needed a place to stay while you got back on your feet, you could count on a family member to provide that for you.  And, you’d probably make yourself useful around the house so that family member would know you appreciated their help.

Or maybe your neighbors would invite you to share some meals.  And you’d do the same when they needed it.

Not that this doesn’t happen now.  But, there seems to be no shortage for the attitude that it’s okay to let these responsibilities slip “because we paid or taxes.”

I’ll cut you some slack if you disagree.  But, I’d just ask that you watch for it.  It’s not always readily apparent.  Furthermore, think about what you’ve done to help a family member, friend or neighbor and why.

Kindle Everywhere

There was a homeless dude that camped near my home as a child.  We always saw him walking along the business strip and he often came into the shops and diners while we were there.  He’d chat with the business owners, something would change hands and he’d walkout.

Everybody liked him.  He was always nice and polite and even as a kid I recognized that he would do odd jobs for the business owners in exchange for a few bucks, a cup of coffee or bite to eat. That’s just the way things were.  They were that way for a long time before I was born.

His name was Kendall.  My brother and I would see him and say, “Man, that Kendall is everywhere.”

Back then, I never would have guessed our childhood observation would inspire the title of a blog post.  Nor could I imagine what blogs or computers were.

Back in this post, I wrote that one of the things keeping me from buying a Kindle was that I couldn’t check out library books on it or it didn’t have a Netflix-like subscription plan for checking out books.

I only buy a few of the books that I read.  I didn’t want to have to start buying more just to have something to read on a Kindle.

Not long ago, Amazon.com started offering Kindle library checkouts through a service called Overdrive.  My library hooked up with Overdrive.  I have a Kindle app for my iPhone.  I’ve read portions of a few free Kindle books on my iPod and iPhone, but nothing that has had held my interest of yet.

Until now.

I borrowed (or downloaded) Daniel Hannan‘s The New Road to Serfdom.  It’s holding my interest.  And, since the phone goes just about everywhere I go, so does the Kindle App that is loaded on it and my library checkouts.

Now, I’m finding new snippets of time to read my library books that I could not use to read before because it was too difficult to carry library books everywhere.

For example, this evening while I waited in line at a retailer, I pulled out my iPhone, tapped the Kindle app and read a few screens of my borrowed library book.

And for good measure, here’s a great quote from Hannan’s book that I read while standing in line.  Here, he’s contrasting the Constitutions of the United States and the European Union (p. 44):

Where the one was based on empowering the people and controlling the state, the other was based on empowering the state and controlling the people.

I’m sure you can guess which was which.  Or maybe not.  Who knows?

Anyway, thanks to the folks at Amazon, Apple, Overdrive and my local library and the ever present communications networks (that allowed me to check out a library book and receive it instantaneously and not have to worry about getting it back on time) for helping me improve my life a little bit and read books in places I would not before.

‘…a devalued government’

Peter Schiff explains it well (HT: Carpe Diem) in his testimony before the Congress on Jobs Committee:

In fact, some of what he said is very reminiscent of this most excellent video of Daniel Hannan from 2 years ago, dressing down then British Prime Minister for trying to spend his way out of the recession:

It may be hard to believe after watching the video, but Hannan supported Obama and still supported him through the first stimulus package.  I wonder if he has changed his mind? What he says at about the 2 minute mark would aptly apply to Obama’s latest jobs bill proposal.

Prime Minister, you cannot carry on forever squeezing the productive bit of the economy, in order to fund an unprecedented engorgement of the unproductive bit.  You cannot spend your way out of recession or borrow your way out of debt.  You know and we know and you know that we know that its nonsense.

Addendum:  At the 12:35 mark of the first video, Schiff asks a question that I like to ask my liberal friends who want to raise taxes on the rich:

What percentage of my income do you think would be fair to take?

The hemming and hawing that goes on after that is priceless.  No answer was given.  Just airs of indignity, which often masquerades as argument, to shame Schiff for asking such a question.

Like Schiff, I’d like to know.  I want anyone who would like to raise taxes to tell me what they want to raise it to.  That way when we get there and we won’t have to keep hearing that we should pay more.  When they run out of our money, we can remind that they told us that X% would be enough so they now need to figure out how to get spending under control.