Monday, January 29, 2007

The Places They Left, The Places They Found

The British newspaper The Daily Mail has a report on efforts by the British government to infuse every single class that schools there teach with the multicultural pieties. Math class, for example, would emphasize the contributions of Islamic societies to our basic knowledge of math – algebra, etc. Perhaps the most disappointing observation in the article is the remark below:

Sir Keith [Ajegbo, who supervised the report], whose report was commissioned following last July's suicide bomb attacks in London, warned that pupils could become 'disaffected' and 'alienated' if they felt unable to discuss cultural issues in subject areas.

'Education for diversity must be viewed as a whole-curriculum focus,' he said.

The migration of people from troubled societies all over the world to the relatively well-functioning ones of the West is, along with the economic transformation of India and China, probably the single most important phenomenon occurring in the world today. The extent to which discussion of this trend, particularly in Europe, has been driven by self-loathing multiculturalism is increasingly disturbing. This basic fact needs to be emphasized regarding how to deal with migrants from Mexico residing in California, migrants from Pakistan residing in London, migrants from Algeria residing in the suburbs of Paris, etc.: You are here because you (or your parents) believe that this society functions better than the one from which it came. For that to continue to be true, you must acculturate to the norms of the sound society from which you have come, and should not be encouraged or subsidized to keep (or even reclaim, having discarded them yourself) the norms of the unsound, for whatever reason you yourself saw, society you have left.

The subsidy of cultural retention or reversion – whether in the name of "self esteem" or other equally dubious rationalizations – is almost self-evidently a foolish idea. The very presence in Western societies of people whose sensitivity is said to be the rationale for multicultural excess rebuts the reason for any resort to multiculturalism to begin with. Racism in Britain, as everywhere, undoubtedly exists, but that the British have with such equanimity accepted these vast migrations to begin with speaks well of their lack of racism. Leaving aside the (also illustrative) lack of people eager to do so, one is hard-pressed to imagine a society like Pakistan or Nigeria or Mexico accepting huge numbers of immigrants from other societies. (Mexico, in fact, historically shown no mercy to illegal immigrants to that country from Guatemala.) In order to keep it that way, it is important that countries like Britain and the US not become Pakistan, Nigeria or Mexico. Such a thing seems obvious, but it is often the most obvious things that people would prefer remain unsaid.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Why Do Professors Dress So Badly?

We take a break today from matters of great geopolitical import to think about something that has puzzled me for a long time. I work at a university that is unionized. I am not a member, but the union grabs my money anyway, and in compensation they give me a subscription to Academe, a publication of the American Association of University Professors. Ordinarily it goes posthaste from my mailbox to the circular file in the department office, but one item in this month’s edition caught my attention. It is by Ronald S. Lemos, and it argues that university faculty should observe the old social graces in the classroom more than they do. In particular, Mr. Lemos urges us to dress better:
This item is potentially the most controversial on my list. However, professional dress codes would have the greatest effect on campus climate and culture. When involved in any university or college function, especially teaching, faculty should wear business attire: coat and tie for men (preferably a suit) and professional attire for women. Business attire commands a much higher level of respect than casual wear. It represents authority, professionalism, confidence, and expertise.

The professoriate is a profession, similar to medicine, law, politics, and business. Most, if not all, high-level professions have formal or informal codes of ethics, conduct, and dress. For these professions, the standard of dress is business attire. Why not have a faculty dress code?

I recognize that many, if not most, faculty negatively associate a coat and tie with the corporate world or, worse yet, university administrators. But a coat and tie represent much more in our society.We dress up out of a sense of respect, civility, or simple etiquette. We should treat going to class with the same high level of importance.

An even more revolutionary approach would be to return to the sartorial elegance of academic regalia as the dress code for faculty. Once again, why not? This dress code is already accepted for graduations and honors convocations. Like judges’ robes, professorial gowns connote the highest levels of respect and professionalism.

The professoriate is under attack on many fronts, including among students, administrators, legislators, parents, employers, and communities. A higher standard of dress would improve our professional image and support a campus climate characterized by civil behavior and mutual respect.

I am a decent dresser in class – ties almost always, but (because of the wildly gesticulating style I sometimes have when I lecture) no coat. But it is fair to say that as a rule the professoriate is not known for sartorial excellence. Why? I like to use economics to explain things, and there are two possibilities – the decision to dress up or not is an act of signaling or an act of consumption. (The reason we don’t wear full faculty regalia in class is easy – because we would look ridiculous.)

The signaling argument says that dressing up or not is a way to indicate to students that you are a high-quality, hard-working teacher by your willingness to incur the discomfort (and hence greater effort) of looking good. The suit-and-tied professor (if it is a he) is doing the same thing a peacock does when he grows a big display of tail feathers. It performs no useful function, but serves to attract females as a sign of virility. Here too one could argue that some professors dress up to signal that the teacher is going to put out a lot of effort in the class. This is somewhat similar to Me. Lemos’ argument about it being a sign of respect for students. (This is what motivates me to at least make an effort.) Lawyers do much the same (the better the suit, the more clever he is likely to be), and doctors wear their labcoats to signal their authority.

But then why do some professors dress down so much? What might they be signaling? It is hard to think of a good explanation. Their down-to-earthness? Their detachment, as the above excerpt suggests, from the “corporate” world? None of these things, it seems to me, appeal to most students, who don’t want a buddy in the classroom nearly as much as someone knowledgeable or professional.

So that leaves us with consumption – of professors choosing their dress for sheer personal enjoyment. The most obvious enjoyment comes from looking good, however the professor defines it. The well-dressed prof is enjoying the pride he takes in adhering to traditional grooming standards. The professor who comes into class in jeans and sandals is expressing his rebellion against those standards. This is an act of egotistical self-expression, behavior I have discussed elsewhere.

I think this explanation better explains what I observe around campus. The very stylized facts are that faculty making more money (e.g., in business colleges) tend to dress better, that younger faculty tend to dress worse, at least while they are young - until I had been in the game about five years I was a jeans-and-Nikes kind of guy - and that the faculty in the most politicized parts of the university tend to dress down the most. (That young faculty tend to dress more poorly argues against a signaling explanation, because it is young faculty, who lack a classroom reputation, who need to signal the most.) If it is just self-expression, there is no going back; the competitive restraints on university job markets (the requirements for a Ph.D., tenure, the huge amount of faculty independence) means that competition is largely powerless to change this pattern, as it is to change many other aspects of the university.

Still, I am not entirely persuaded that either explanation is complete. If anyone has any suggestions as to why we get away with things that doctors (the real kind, not the Ph.D. kind) never could, I am glad to hear them.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wasted Energy

Does anyone remember the Synthetic Fuels Corporation? Established in 1980, the last year of the Carter Administration, it was charged with dramatically increasing the amount of energy that Americans got from sources other than traditional imported fossil fuel. Billions of wasted dollars later, President Reagan killed it in 1984. The National Academy of Sciences told us why in 1992 (hat tip: Heritage Foundation):

Energy programs of that time were hindered by excessive political interference. Political influence on funding allocation decisions, selection of R&D projects, or the direction and conduct of scientific research is counterproductive and damaging to the success of federal technology efforts. Fuel-cell projects under the SFC, for example, were allotted to each of the 50 states, regardless of economic viability. Implementation of energy performance standards for buildings was held back by complex regulations. The clean coal technology project was hampered by congressional involvement in technical design and operational management. Although programs such as the tertiary oil recovery initiative and the R&D program in photovoltaic cells attained some success, these technologies were not widely adopted."

Alas, President Bush (and, in all likelihood, the new Congress) have forgotten these lessons, if they ever learned them. In a State of the Union address last night all too laden with the imperative voice, here were some of the urgencies he saw:

It is in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply, and the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol, using everything from wood chips, to grasses, to agricultural wastes.

Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we've done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years. When we do that, we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.
To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017. And that is nearly five times the current target. At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks, and conserve up to eight and a half billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017. Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but it’s not going to eliminate it. And so as we continue to diversify our fuel supply, we must step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways.

Let us stipulate that our heavy use of imported oil is a problem. (Whether we should is another question, but let's play along.) What our government is (predictably) proposing is that we embark on a particular path toward addressing this market failure, one negotiated by politicians. One might suppose that the system will be designed to reward the decision-makers. Ethanol, for example, might loom unusually large in the handing out of government funds because it is an important issue to Iowa, the first caucus state in 2008, at a time when both parties have wide-open contests for Presidential nominees. And lo and behold, ethanol was apparently one of the biggest applause lines of the night.

Is 35 billion gallons the right number to get from alternative fuel by 2017? Is the optimal average fuel efficiency for cars 25 miles a gallon , or 35, or 37.623? (Recall, among other things, that smaller, more fuel-efficient cars are more dangerous and can carry fewer materials per trip.) I have no idea, and neither does anyone reading this or certainly anyone in the government. People could of course sort out these tradeoffs in the market. From the point of view of efficiency (assuming the externality problems were accurately diagnosed, which is debatable), the simplest thing to do would be to tax imported oil and let individuals sort out which uses of oil remain valuable after this adjustment and which do not. If ethanol produces more value than the opportunity cost required to bring it to consumers, it will be. So too with fuel efficiency and everything else on the President's wish list.

But of course doing that would eliminate politicians' ability to dole out favors to pressure groups that power their re-elections. This classic sort of rent-seeking is too tempting to pass up, and this is how we get the Synthetic Fuels Corporation and then get the ethanol empire a quarter-century later. Hayek warned (in the far more serious context of evaluating central planning and totalitarianism) that "We must shed the illusion that we can deliberately 'create the future of mankind.' This is the final conclusion of the forty years which I have now devoted to the study of these problems." But the illusion is too lucrative for the leaders when the led are insufficiently aware.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Rioting in Bangalore

India Daily reports on rioting over the weekend in the Indian city of Bangalore. Why is this a big deal? Such events are common in many countries; as I write this there is civil unrestin Guinea and Bangladesh over various political grievances. But such rioting in Bangalore demands comment, because the events are certainly discouraging to one of my favorite hypotheses, that free commerce limits ethnoreligious conflict. Bangalore is after all the hub of cutting-edge Indian commercial activity, justly famous as a rising center of high-technology production and innovation, and the one place where we should best hope for civil peace and cooperation among India's extraodinary tapestry of tribal groups. (Indeed, much of the coverage at Google News is emphasizing that outsourcing ventures have been unaffected as much as the cost of the rioting itself.)

The violence (one killed, dozens injured, stores burnt) apparently began after a protest demonstration by Muslims over the execution of Saddam Hussein. And, lo and behold, it is apparently sectarian politicians who are stoking the flames. This report from AKI indicates that hardline Hindu sectarians took advantage of the tensions, and this one from CNN/IBN quotes ordinary people blaming politicians for stirring up tribal passions. Indian politics have for years been becoming more tribal – on both religious and caste grounds – even as the economy has continued to liberalize. One could even argue that for those who benefit from sectarian divisions, politics will soon be the only arena left.

And so the lesson is that globalization and economic liberalization are no instant magic bullet, particularly with tribalization and discrimination patterns that have been centuries in the making. But over the long haul I am optimistic; this stury (pdf) describes the power of the crazy entrepreneurial environment in Silicon Valley to dissolve the traditional barriers of language, caste and religion among Indian entrepreneurs, which they replace by a pan-Indian identity. To be sure, that is not the ideal endpoint (which comes when they cease thinking of themselves in any tribal terms at all, merely as businessmen), but it is a start. The anti-discriminatory urgency demanded by globalization means Bangalore has come a long way, but the rioting shows Bangalore has a ways yet to go.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Racism to the Bottom

There is a ludicrous row, as the British would say, going on in the U.K. and India over, of all things, a reality television show. It is called Celebrity Big Brother, and it involves what the British press are charitably calling B-list celebrities sharing a house and being voted out one at a time. Now, thanks to remarks by several of the British indigene, a dispute has arisen that has actually become a diplomatic incident between Britain India.

The trouble all started when an Indian actress named Shilpa Shetty was insulted by several other contestants. Such insults are standard fare for the genre, but these insults were of a low-grade racial variety – charges that she lightened her skin, making fun of her accent, assuming that she never washed her hands, asking whether she lived in a shack, etc. But once word got out, complaints that the show represented an insult to Indian dignity sprung up in both countries and, incredibly, the British PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown actually had to waste scarce diplomatic time while in India responding to press inquiries. (Remember the next someone complains about trash American pop culture that the Euros invented reality TV.)

I recently wrote about why we should always be wary, even as people who believe in freedom, about a “cultural race to the bottom” in which the culture becomes ever more vulgar as people compete to be outrageous. Of course, if the last singer or movie director or reality show pushed the boundaries of good taste, the only thing the next "artist" can do is push them even further. Hence, race to the bottom.

That, I think, is what we have here. The uproar has caused lots of British people to wonder how racist they are, as if the worst excesses of a reality show had any kind of relation at all to broader British culture. But all of the contestants, because of their background, have some notion of how pop culture works. And their goal is to both win the show and to set themselves up for further success in celebritude. And so if they are serious they must do things that shock.

The tragedy is that, just like ever-more explicit depictions of sex and violence, ever-more explicit expressions of prejudice – deeply felt or not – become margins on which to compete for audiences, who expect more and more shocking material each time. As on these other margins, the social taboo against expressing racist views is steadily eroded, making it more likely that others will express – and hold to begin with – these views. The problem is not that the British as a whole are racist. The problem is that a show like this rewards racist behavior, and lowbrow racist behavior at that. (Richard Pryor was valuable because of the way he uses race. Celebrity Big Brother is costly for the same reason.) If the British are fortunate, and disciplined, they will ignore each new provocation until producers realize that it doesn't pay. If not, Britain becomes progressively more coarse on matters of race, and perhaps even more racist.

I tell my students that the material race to the bottom allegedly promoted by globalization – corporations with the power to move around the planet forcing countries to lower their wages and working conditions if they wish to retain those corporations – is a myth, because in every country where it is said to happen laborers quickly become scarce, and their wages and working conditions are bid up. There is no country in history that has ever raced down in this way, and a casual glance at global economic statistics reveals how much more prosperous we are compared to thirty or forty years ago. So, if the "race to the bottom" argument is false in this context, how can it be true with respect to culture?

The reason is the absence of scarcity in the latter case. While workers see their standards of living rise because labor is scarce (and becomes more so as an economy grows rapidly), vulgarity is not. It is always possible (required, even) to make this year's movie more "daring" and explicit than the one before it, and so the cultural sinks unstoppably, absent the manning of the ramparts of civilization by an outraged an active public. We are watching as surely as the crowds in the Colosseum were. Only it is we, not the emperor, who point "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to the gore and vulgarity and, now, prejudice in front of us. Alas, in this contest, the nobler contestant seldom wins.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hate Crimes

CNS News reports on federal hate-crimes legislation introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX). The legislation would extend the range of what constitutes a federal hate crime from activities interfering with federally protected activities and motivated by bias (e.g., preventing a racial minority from voting) to all manner of workaday violent crimes, provided that they too are motivated by bias.

Forget the problem of federalizing crimes that under the American tradition are the province of state law; that horse is galloping away from the barn at breakneck speed. Forget too the controversial question over whether “hate speech” would ultimately come under such laws, and be used to squelch productive public debate over, say, homosexuality. I suspect courts would not tolerate that. A far more interesting question is why there is a distinct criminal violation called a “hate crime”to begin with.

We take it for granted that “hate crimes” merit special attention because they are unusually bad for a society, but is that really true? Consider the following two hypothetical crimes:

1. Five men beat the tar out of a man to prevent him from mustering any resistance or seeking any assistance, enabling them to steal his wallet more effectively.

2. Five man beat the tar out of a man because of, in the words of Rep. Jackson-Lee's legislation, his "actual or perceived race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disability of the victim."

Which crime is worse? Bias is a bad reason to assault someone, but so is greed. The victim of the robbery beating is every bit as damaged as the victim of the hate beating. (If we suppose that property rights merit respect, beating a man because you want his wallet means you have no respect for his rights. This is a form of hate.) And if a man is assaulted and robbed precisely because of the "actual or perceived race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disability of the victim," is it likely to be seen as a hate crime, or as a mere robbery? In other words, will all hate crimes be treated as such if they don't fit preconceived notions of what a hate crime is?

These questions are what make "hate crimes" so dangerous to a society built on the rule of law. They make violence from some motivations worse than violence from others, even though the damage to the victims, and to the social fabric, is not intrinsically different. This is why the law generally refrains from making judgments on motives, concentrating instead on consequences. Even when motivation is an issue – murder vs. manslaughter, say – the reason for the difference is that the law will have different deterrent powers depending on the motive. Purposeful murder, because it creates gains of one sort or another for the perpetrator, requires greater legal deterrence than careless manslaughter. But there is no reason to think that a "hater" needs greater deterrence than a robber; if anything, crimes motivated by greed might call for greater deterrence, because of their material benefits.

But that is a utilitarian argument. Such arguments are important, but the more powerful concern here is the moral one – the idea that hate-crimes laws are built on the premise that some victims are more important than others. Such laws typically advance after revulsion over some horrible hate crime – a black man dragged behind a bus in Texas, a gay man killed and his body left on a fence in Wyoming. But those things are already very serious crimes, and the judges always tell us that hard cases make bad law; that is never more true than in this instance.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Hail to the Vanquished

The University of Michigan is not going down without a fight. Seemingly stymied by an initiative passed in November banning it from using race or sex in admissions decisions, it has taken two steps to basically tell the voters of Michigan to go to hell. First, as James Taranto at Best of the Web reports, the university will still require that admissions officers know the race and sex of the candidate they are evaluating, trusting in the good faith of the same people who enacted and carried out the old policy to begin with to completely ignore this information:

Instead of blacking out the information, admissions officers have been instructed to disregard the race and gender of potential students when evaluating their applications, University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said.

"There's nothing in Proposal 2 that says race has to be a secret," Peterson said. "It's simply not going to be factor in our decision." . . .

Peterson said the University would rely on trust to ensure that race and gender aren't taken into consideration.

"Our counselors are ethical people with integrity, but we can't crawl inside the mind of an admissions counselor," Peterson said.

She said officers would just ignore the race and gender sections of the applications while considering other information about the applicant.

"If you think this is subjective, you need to understand the whole process is subjective," she said. "We're looking at things like leadership and motivation. All those things are personal and subjective. So we will do what we always have done: train our counselors." (Original source: Michigan Daily).

Second, the university will use race by other names. In the words of The Washington Post, "The university said that it would use other criteria that are not explicitly race- or gender-based to achieve diversity. Those include geographic diversity, the level of education completed by students' parents, and whether students attended a disadvantaged school."

In other words, it will try to discriminate through the back door. Expect another ten years or so of litigation.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Revisiting the Minneapolis Airport

A little while back I analyzed a controversy at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in which some Somali cab drivers were refusing to serve passengers who were carrying (unopened) containers of alcohol. The story has advanced a little bit. Youssef Ibrahim, a distinguished journalist and believer in the separation of church (and mosque) and state who has covered the oil markets and Arab affairs for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, has an op-ed piece in The New York Sun that asserts that Muslim pressure groups are agitating for the airport authorities to accept the drivers' refusal.

I argued previously that while these drivers have a right to solicit taxi fares as much as people holding any other sorts of beliefs, they also had to bear the costs these preferences impose on others. I thus suggested they be forced, if they get to the front of the line and refuse to take the passenger awaiting them, that they go back to the back of the line. A poster named knucklehead took me to task in the comments section for analyzing this situation in abstract terms rather than concrete ones. And I confess I have certainly given some thought to the wisdom of my position. If Mr. Ibrahim is to be believed, 75 percent of the cab drivers are now Somalis, many apparently adhering to this Islamic pseudo-taboo (based on a fatwa by one Minnesota imam), while some passengers have been forced to wait an hour.

One can morally reason from principles or from consequences. In the last post I did the former, while knucklehead (at least initially) did the latter. I am generally convinced that the first approach is the best, in part because adherence to sound principles leads to the best consequences. I also believe that part of the reason that the current approach has led to such long waits is precisely because it is free – you get to the front of the line and are able to wave passengers away with no consequence. But I admit the new developments gave me pause.

But what is most disturbing about them is the ready acceptance by Muslim pressure groups that cab drivers have a right to costlessly impose the consequences of their beliefs on others. This is the standard technique of tribal pressure – you accommodate me, I need not accommodate you. Mr. Ibrahim scornfully quotes someone named Damon Drake, a representative of the tribalist pressure group the Council on American-Islamic Relations (why would Muslims in America need to separately “relate” to their own land?) as saying that the drivers should be free to refuse passengers as they like: “Now that the Muslims are here,” he opines, “they need to be accommodated.”

Along the same lines, the St. Paul Pioneer-Press (what is it about the Twin Cities?) quotes one Fuad Ali, whom it uncritically identifies as "a Somali leader," as rejecting (in reaction to an incident in which several imams ostentatiously prayed in the gate area prior to boarding a flight, whereupon they were subsequently questioned by law enforcement) the airport's proposed solution – that the airport establish a common prayer/meditation room for all. Mr. Ali argues that "Where you have Christians and Muslims praying at the same time, it will create a problem."

To which the proper response is, "So what?" There is no future for a multitribal society if its governing institutions must constantly make special arrangements for the peculiar needs, real or opportunistic, of every tribal group. (Some people are also agitating for airport signs in Somali, even though Somalians are far from the largest minority group in Minneapolis.) The airport, if it is to erect such a room at all, simply must make it open to everyone. That some Somalis and their coreligious sympathizers are agitating for separation is perfectly predictable. These leaders' interests require the continued separation of Somalis from the broader society around them, so that they remain dependent on these leaders to represent them in dealing with that society, instead of negotiating the clash of their interests with those of others consensually as individuals in the free market. The integration of Somalis – through their mastery of English, their accommodation of their religious interests to the interests of everyone else, their learning of the possibility of peacefully praying or meditating together with the Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and even – Gasp! – Jews around them is a mortal threat to the livelihood of the separatist leader, and so naturally he counsels against it. (See here for some previous thoughts on a related question.)

Multicultural nihilists regularly talk about the need to build “bridges” between the native culture and a particular immigrant culture, the idea being that a bridge provides a place where the cultures may meet harmoniously. But a bridge is not a place you stay; it is a place you cross on the way somewhere else – to the civilization you have come to because of its superiority, for example. That it is so easy (in the sense of not sounding absurd on their face) for people like Messrs. Ali and Drake to make the demands they make is perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the whole airport episode.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

There is No Such Thing as Universal Health Care

But do not tell California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has proposed just that for California as he begins his second term. To be fair, he hasn't used that phrase (although some media organizations lazily have), promising instead to give all Californians access to "coverage."

And a good thing, too, because "universal health care" is a meaningless phrase. Health care, like anything of value produced from scarce resources, must be rationed by one criterion or another. Some systems of calling forth those resources distribute the resultant health care output one way, some distribute it another. What is meant, I suppose, by "universal coverage" is that everyone would be in a position so that the expenses of their particular health-care consumption would be substantially paid for by others. But this scheme will not result in "universal health care" any more than the current system, or than a purely market-based system, where each individual is responsible (either out of pocket or through whatever third-party arrangements others are willing to sell him) for his own health-care expenses. Indeed, the very phrase "universal health care" makes no sense if it means "anyone may have any health-care services a doctor asserts the patient needs." Rather, because it is costly to produce, health care must be rationed, and the only question is how.

Under a pure market system, a patient may obtain any services he is willing to pay for, at the moment he is willing to pay for them, provided only he can persuade someone to provide them. If I want hip-replacement surgery and am willing to pay the money price the providers (doctors, nurses, etc.) ask, I can get it immediately. Who gets what kind of health care is the result of the usual dance between consumers and entrepreneurs, which generally produces satisfactory results in a world of scarcity. But some procedures are, in principle, unavailable to some patients because the doctor's asking price exceeds the patient's resources. A very poor person may be unable to muster the funds, or may have been unable to afford the insurance, necessary to pay for the open-heart surgery he needs. This assumes away the remedy of providers providing charity care or of strangers helping him out, both of which are common, and implicitly assumes that competition cannot provide the necessary insurance. But clearly, monetary resources must be a constraint for some health care in some circumstances for everyone.

But a single-payer system such as Canada's also must ration. Being unwilling to impose monetary costs on patients sufficient to cover the social cost of their services, it must choose other criteria – time, for example. And so only those who can wait long enough get needed services. This wait may merely impose dramatic physical discomfort – say, because of a two-year wait for hip-replacement surgery, during which the patient is in immense pain. If the care is sufficiently urgent to maintain life, the wait may be fatal – e.g., a wait for cancer surgery so long that the patient dies. Hybrid systems, like those in Germany or France or the U.S., ration by both time and income.

Which is "best"? This is in isolation a nonsensical question, depending on which outcome – people refused care so that they die waiting at the back of the line versus people refused care so that they die because of insufficient funds – the citizen finds more outrageous. But the market system does have several advantages. First, it is consistent with freedom in a way a pure single-payer system is not – anyone who can voluntarily persuade a health-care provider to give him care gets it, something not true in single-payer. As the saying has it, in Canada it is perfectly legal to pay a veterinarian to give your dog an MRI today, but not to pay a doctor to give your mother one. (She has to wait.) Second, the greater the reliance on market forces the greater the amount of medical innovation, because medical innovation is more profitable for entrepreneurs. Third, politicians tend to have short-term time horizons relative to entrepreneurs, and so in a single-payer system they may de-emphasize factors like keeping health facilities clean because these factors require expenses now and payoffs mostly in the future.

And so I think that the market system (including employer-based insurance if it is chosen freely through bargaining rather than imposed), is obviously the moral system. Whatever one's personal preferences about such matters, the phrase "universal health care,”being economically nondescriptive of anything, should be purged from the language.


Monday, January 08, 2007

Race to the Top

Rick Ballard, the proprietor of Yargb, has a terrific post up attacking the discouragingly vibrant meme that the U.S., by being uncompetitive in manufacturing, is headed toward a vanishing middle class and nothing but McJobs. He took the trouble of looking up Bureau of Labor Statistics data on U.S. occupational trends. The picture below shows what he found:

(A less blurry version can be found at the original post.) Manufacturing is stagnant, resource-extraction is down, but professions and management are up substantially. Exactly what product-lifecycle thinking would predict: the U.S. prospers in a world of free commerce by moving up to the jobs where the money is the greatest, and handing off many lower-wage jobs to lower-wage countries. (With good policy they too one day will move on up.)


The immorality of the new protectionism

This morning National Public Radio interviewed one of the newly minted freshmen U.S. senators, Sherrod Brown (D.-Ohio). Senator Brown gave what I thought was a surprisingly blunt attack on free-trade agreements. He also asserted that this is the sentiment of most of the Democrats in Congress, especially the new ones, and of many Republicans. It is an unfortunate development, if true.

All protectionists eschew the label “protectionist.” To be protectionist is to be retrograde, and a fan of the sorts of actions that made the Great Depression much worse. Instead, the modern protectionist calls for “fair trade.” What he says is that he wants labor and environmental standards for developing countries incorporated into any agreement. What he means is that he wants developing countries to cede much of their comparative advantage, and thus to be left with little prospect for future growth. Developing countries often have weak infrastructure because they are poor, their workers have few skills because they are poor, and the quality of governance is not good in part because they are poor. All of the things that Senator Brown hopes will occur in these countries can only occur while and after they become rich, not before. The history of every country that has successfully modernized testifies to this fact.

The consequences of the new protectionism, which is hardly confined to the Democratic Party in the US are to the left in the West generally, are potentially catastrophic. Not so much because what is being negotiated in the current round of trade talks is all that substantial – world trade has already been substantially freed since the late 1940s – but because it threatens a reversion toward more protectionism, rather than a continuation of the sixty-year trend toward less. The new protectionism is also backward, no matter what its advocates say. A nation that walls itself off dies.

But perhaps most important is the moral weakness of the case for protectionism. Simply stated, it is not a proper function of the US government to prevent poor people in places like Bangladesh or Guatemala from trying to earn a living. Indeed, to actively obstruct these efforts is a moral crime of the highest order. Everyone who criticizes the US for its allegedly inadequate foreign aid (much of which does more harm than good) should be forced to take a look at the relation between open trading systems and economic growth, and to think about the damage to the world’s most miserable that would be done if the world's largest market. the U.S., were to revert toward an obsolete economic policy. The primary objection to protectionism is not that it is inefficient, although it is. The primary objection is that it is harshly discriminatory toward the poor.

The reader may object that it is the function of the US government to look after Americans. But very little in our constitutional or ideological history suggest that it is the function of the government to guarantee that a particular person has a particular job. Free trade and free commerce more generally guarantee that every American can try to earn a living unobstructed by the government, not succeed. What is critical is that the government provide the opportunity for the individual to go as far as his efforts will take him, while providing the same opportunities to everyone else (the consumers of imported products and those who work in industries that rely an imported goods, for example). The function of the government, in other words is to symmetrically protect everyone’s unalienable rights.

Thus, the second objection to protectionism is that it is discrimination – in favor of those with more political influence (organized workers) and against those with less (consumers and desperately poor people in other countries). In this, it is like all laws that depart from the principal of equality before the law – of giving everyone identical rights that do not come at the expense of the rights of others. Indeed, I am struck by at least my inability to find in any of the world's admired ethical codes – whether religious (Christianity, Buddhism, etc.) or secular – any rationale for discriminating in favor of (some of) one's own nationals. Of discriminating, in other words, in favor of those workers whom Senator Brown opportunistically refers to as the vanishing middle class, and against everyone else, both here and abroad.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

The Little Outrages

"I'm going to interview you because you didn't want to interview."

- Unnamed St. Louis Co. police officer

Here you can find the transcript of an encounter between a 19-year-old Missourian named Brett Darrow and police officers from St. Louis County. Mr. Darrow is stopped at a DWI checkpoint and the officer asks him where he is going. He refuses to answer that particular nosy question, as is his right, and is meanwhile videotaping the encounter. After he gives that answer, the officers subject him to all manner of harassment and threaten that he should "stop runnin' [his] mouth or the other officer will find a reason to lock you up tonight." The whole transcript, which includes the Kafkaesque quote above, is well worth a click.

Let us stipulate that Mr. Darrow has a little bit of the know-it-all teenager about him, and that he behaves in a manner that suggests he might have prepped for such an incident in advance. But it is on such malcontents that the defense of basic liberties all too often hinges. And the hinges sometimes seem to be ever-more fragile. In this article a writer for Reason named Radley Bradko outlines a series of little outrages of the custodial state, some only a little toxic in isolation (like the city that conscripted children into enforcing building codes, such shanghaiing of the young into politics being a hallmark of the totalitarian mindset) and some being manifest disgraces (including the shooting by police of an unarmed man who had been entrapped into violating state gambling law).

The person who believes in limited government and has some historical sense of how it disappears always has a hard task in persuading the public to hold the line because each little outrage is easily justifiable to the average citizen in isolation – it is “for the children,” for “consumer safety,” and so on. This task is particularly difficult when criticizing the police, who frequently risk their lives for public safety. But it has to be done, lest one day we wake up and find that our freedom to run our own lives has substantially disappeared in a haze of taxes, programs, regulations and law-enforcement perogatives. Wendell Phillips (not, apparently, Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry, as is often asserted), once said:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty—power is ever stealing from the many to the few...The hand entrusted with power becomes...the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by unintermitted Agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.

Barry Goldwater talked that way in 1964 and Lyndon Johnson successfully swept him away by depicting him as a borderline madman. ("Deep in your heart, you know he's crazy" is often said to have been the Johnson campaign's line of choice.) But one little outrage at a time, much of what he feared has come to pass. (Even a task as ordinary as buying or selling ordinary medicine has become fraught with inconvenience and even danger.) We in America are not as bad off as most, but that is no excuse for standing idly by while the little outrages continue to mount.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Every Picture Tells a Story

It is easy sometimes to miss the forest for the trees. In December there was a meeting between Meg Whitman, the head of eBay, and Wang Lei Lei, the head of a Chinese cellphone company, TOM Online. In this meeting, they discussed ways to work together for mutual benefit. eBay has struggled in China, and needs the help of TOM Online to, in the words of The New York Times, take advantage of the fact that Mr. Wang “is the grandson of a People's Liberation Army General and known for his political connections.” A Reuters photographer, Aly Song, took the following photo:

There were two stories lurking behind this picture. First, the head of a major U.S.-based technology company is a woman, and so ordinary is this that none of the coverage of this event saw fit to mention it. Second, the primary reason the Chinese company is needed is because you have to know (and proper care of) people in the Chinese government to do any serious business there. Here you have a stark contrast between two economic systems. One, that of the U.S., is more (but far from perfectly) based on property rights, and hence tends to reward merit regardless of the physical characteristics of the holder of the merit. I noted early last year that in the U.S. it is significantly easier for women to move up into the high ranks of business leadership because marginal productivity counts more and connections and government influence count less. China is far from perfectly corrupt, but every sensible person would agree that the government has much more arbitrary influence in determining which entrepreneurial ventures succeed than in the U.S. And it is more difficult in a system that relies more on free competition for members of historically favored groups - men, e.g. - to freeze out those of historically disadvantaged groups. I do not know the percentage of top corporate managers in China who are women, but would bet that it is quite small. (Assuming the photographer Aly Song is a woman, it is probably worth noting that she works for a global private company, Reuters.)

Eeach person in the photo is a sort of representative of his or her social system. In Ms Whitman, we see a woman who has risen to the top by virtue of her skill in providing consumers the most value at the least cost. In Mr. Wang we see a (from appearances) rather young man trading on his bloodlines and his “political connections.” In the long run the system that rewards the former package of skills will function better.

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