Friday, March 31, 2006

I Will Follow

Walter Williams says that “a caged canary is safe but not free”. To me, the message from that quotation is obvious – but there are many people who are clearly willing to live like a caged canary, placing safety above all other concerns. The desire to be led is just as strong as the urge to lead. In this excellent piece, Crispin Sartwell makes what should be an obvious point (but strangely isn’t): modern society expects the government to insure us against any hardship that might befall us, to protect us from all harm, and make our decisions for us. And most people seem more than willing to accept this position at the expense of personal liberty. The kicker comes right at the end:

Our submission is absolute: We want to be operated like puppets and provided for like pets. The terrorists hate our freedom. But we should be comfortable with that. We hate our freedom, too.

As Radley Balko points out, this line of thinking continues observations made by George Mason economics professor James Buchanan and Reason’s Julian Sanchez. Nobel Prize winner Buchanan puts it this way:

[Economists and political theorists] have assumed that, other things being equal, persons want to be at liberty to make their own choices, to be free from coercion by others, including indirect coercion through means of persuasion. They have failed to emphasize sufficiently, and to examine the implications of, the fact that liberty carries with it responsibility. And it seems evident that many persons do not want to shoulder the final responsibility for their own actions..[They] want to be told what to do and when to do it; they seek order rather than uncertainty, and order comes at an opportunity cost they seem willing to bear.

He refers to this growing mentality as “parentalism”. Julian concludes an excellent essay on this topic - the trend towards everyone wanting to be saved from themselves - in the following manner:

[Classical liberals] have been less adept at explaining why—at least past a certain point—people ought to want that freedom, which when genuine is always at least a little frightening. In the face of the parentalist impulse, we may need to develop the case that our bad choices, the choices that make us unhappy, are as vital and precious as the ones that bring us joy.

Personally, I’m optimistic that we will eventually discover that having the state-as-parent leaves our lives less fulfilling, less satisfying, and less dynamic than when we are free to choose our own paths. But how do those of us with an urge for personal freedom best tolerate the impediments to it being put in front of us at seemingly every turn? One thing is clear: we need to shift the discussion away from the argument that open markets promote freedom, wealth, and happiness (which we have generally done a good job with) and towards explaining how self-determination is part of what it means to be human, and when we outsource that decision-making to a third party (i.e. the government), we lose some of ourselves in the process.

This Doesn't Have a Prayer

A fair amount is made about the “power of prayer”, and how it can aid in recovery from illness. Not being a particularly religious person, I’ve always been pretty skeptical of this claim. I do think there is good reason to believe that positive thinking can be helpful in situations like this, but a recent study indicates that my intuition on this subject was correct: prayer doesn’t do much of anything for recovering patients, healing-wise. Of course, there might still be good reasons for people to pray because of psychological benefits to both the sick individual and those close to that person. But the evidence from this study show no correlation between prayer and recovery, and actually a slightly higher rate of complications among people who knew they were being prayed for. A great quote comes from Jon Mandle at Crooked Timber, in response to a theologian/doctor who says the findings are “not surprising”, since science is "not meant to study the supernatural”:

No, it’s designed to study the natural. Like, for example, whether prayer can help recovery from bypass surgery.

UPDATE: Predictably, the federal government has been spending millions of tax dollars over the past few years studying the potential for distant prayer in healing the sick.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Unions: Holding Back Progress for Over 100 Years

In a move that should at least provoke some head-shaking, if not mild outrage, the plumbers union in Philadelphia is attempting to block construction of a new skyscraper in the city because the developers want to install environmentally-friendly waterless no-flush toilets in what will be Philly’s tallest building. The union doesn’t like this plan one bit because there’s not enough pipes – and therefore, not enough work for their members.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Mini-Trips, Maxi-Experience

Before I went to China, I was somewhat hesitant about visiting such a huge country when I only had 2 weeks to travel. After returning, I have absolutely no hesitations about visiting any country, no matter how far away, for a two-week period. Granted, I missed out on tons of parts of the country - but still had an amazing experience, covered a lot of ground and felt like I learned a great deal about China. Furthermore, I hardly ever felt "rushed" in that I didn't have enough time in any one place...the trip seemed quite reasonably paced, overall. A lot of young people with aspirations for world travel seem to think that you can't really go anywhere for such a short amount of time - there is almost an implied level of legitimacy that a two-week trip doesn't reach and you need to quit your job and travel for 6 months to really make it "worth it". Well, since I don't see myself ever taking that much time off work in the forseeable future (or really, even wanting to), shorter trips are the only option I've got. And after spending two weeks in China, I can say that there's nothing wrong with them at all - although I didn't get to see absolutely everything I would have liked to have seen, even after a week I was saying that the trip was definitely "worth it". Besides, after a couple of weeks I'll admit that I was ready for western plumbing and some personal space. If I had the opportunity, I'd love to travel the world for 6 months. But I'm not prepared to give up my career and all that comes with it (like a salary and all of its accompanying pleasures) in order to do it. So I'm left with planning a trip for next year's spring break: Patagonia!

No Flag Waving, Please, We're Chinese

One small quirk I noticed in China that surprised me was the almost complete absence of Chinese flags. For some reason, I expected a country with a totalitarian government and a relatively high degree of cultural cohesion to exhibit more outward nationalism. I definitely think the Chinese have an immense amount of nationalistic pride, but we do see a much greater display of flags in the US and Canada (and I know you Canucks won't believe it, but Canadians are just as big of flag wavers as Americans are).

Les Enfants Are Alright...

…it’s just that the ones with jobs don’t want to be able to lose them, which would make it easier for the ones without jobs to actually land one and help reduce the double-digit unemployment in France. And I thought young people in North America complained too much – at least most of us recognize that part of having a job is doing your job, unlike this girl:

If the CPE [the new law] is enacted, said one young woman, "You'll get a job knowing that you've got to do every single thing they ask you to do because otherwise you may get sacked."

Well, we simply can’t have that.

Like most measures meant to protect someone, this one is full of unintended consequences. Like the fact that companies are very selective about who they hire because once they employ them they’re stuck with them no matter what, making it very hard to find work or for companies to grow. The root of the problem lies with the larger issue of an unwillingness to admit that the French economic model is ass-backwards. As Claire Berlinski writes in this must-read piece in the Washington Post:

No one in France -- not one single politician, nor anyone in the media -- is willing to say it: France's labor laws are an absurdity, and if they are not reformed at once, France will go under.

We should keep in mind that this is coming from a country where only 36% of respondents felt that the best economic model is the free enterprise/free market system. What year are they living in, 1956? To be fair, The French essentially have made the choice (whether they actually thought about it in this way or not) to have a very high level of job security - resulting in high unemployment, which is then supported by high taxes on those who work. I personally think this is not a wise decision, given the costs it will impose on economic growth in a competitive, globalized world (which might explain why the French are so fearful of globalization). But what it comes down to is that I just can't shake the image of French youth burning cars to fight for a ridiculous law aimed at protecting special interests at the expense of larger society.

So It's Come To This...

the government analyzing sewer water to determine the level of urinary byproducts of cocaine. For now, it’s being pegged as a means to gather more accurate information on the prevalence of drug use, but if this works, no doubt we’ll soon have the Toilet Task Force checking your pipes to make sure you haven’t been doing anything you shouldn’t.

And in case you needed to be reminded, you're paying for this.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Buy (Me) This Book

Charles Murray, author of "What It Means to Be a Libertarian" has a new book out that makes what seems to me to be a very sensible proposal: get rid of the incredible complex and bureaucratic welfare state and instead just use the money we currently spend on it to give everyone over the age of 21 a $10,000 annual grant in lieu of Medicare, Social Security, welfare, etc., with a stipulation that at least $3,000 be used for health insurance and a strong recommendation that $2,000 be used as savings for retirement. There are a number of measures incorporated to keep progressivity a part of the system. It won't make the government smaller in terms of money spent (but we're losing ground on that goal, anyway), but it will hopefully take the government's hands off everything we do and let us decide how to live our lives on our own without their carrots and sticks to guide our behavior. It's certainly a provacative idea. The book, entitled "In Our Hands", is at the top of my reading list.

Diversity is Strength?

Chinese society is much less diverse than what we are used to in North America. You really feel like you stand out as a white person. And really, North America is home to the most diverse culture the world has ever known – yet we still have countless people wringing their hands over a lack of ‘diversity’ on college campuses and in our schools.

Inward Looking Economies

Many politicians and the media here in the US spend a lot of time worrying about and analyzing China, the Chinese economy, and Chinese prospects for the future. My impression from China is that they aren’t giving the US economy a second’s thought and your average Chinese person doesn’t give a damn about US policy towards China. I felt that the country seemed very inward-looking, which is I suppose partially the result of having 1.3 billion people in your country.

Studies in Contrasts

One of the striking things about China are the contrasts. The obvious ones are between the big cities (developing like crazy and essentially completely modern) and the rural areas where a lack of running water and/or electricity is relatively common. But I also found the contrasts at a personal level to be very interesting, and somewhat amusing. For example, a Tibetan woman wearing traditional Tibetan clothes (yet over a pair of jeans), carrying a traditional wicker basket on her back to buy vegetables from the outdoor market (while talking on a cell phone).

Your Money or Their Happiness?

One of the findings from the happiness research I’ve referred to before is that the overall reported happiness level in society tends to be fairly stable over time, even as our wealth increases (we are much richer now than we were 50 years ago, but not appreciably happier). However, there does seem to be a correlation between happiness and wealth within a society – the rich are generally happier than the poor at any given time. This is usually chalked up to a comparison effect – people are less happy when they see that they are not as well-off as their neighbors, even if you tell them that they are wealthier than a king was 500 years ago in absolute terms. So it’s the relative level of wealth rather than the absolute level that’s important, according to this research. To some people (I’m not one of them) this has all sorts of policy implications for both redistributing wealth and not focusing on economic growth. But it did get me thinking while I was in the poorer rural areas of Yunnan province in southern China.

By Chinese standards, I’m incredibly wealthy. I can afford to fly halfway around the world and travel for two weeks, and get great deals like beds in a guesthouse for $5 US per night. I can listen to my iPod on 12 hour bus rides and eat out every meal. And there is no doubt that the influx of money from western tourists can help the economies of developing nations. There are some positive economic spillovers to world travel to these countries, due to increase revenue and enhanced opportunities, and you certainly saw how the Chinese are taking advantage of it be figuring out ways to make money off western tourists. The English they know is all about how to sell you something – it’s what I started calling “peasant capitalism”. Now, the questions is are there negative externalities imposed on those people as well because of the fact that they can more easily compare their level of wealth to mine? If western tourists stay home, the clear advantages we have in terms of finances are likely much less apparent to the average citizen of a poor country, thereby avoiding a comparison with their global neighbors. Or do people not compare across societies as much as within one? (I doubt this, as I kept on feeling really rich while I was there). I don’t think there is anything that we should “do” about this problem (if it even is one), but it’s something to keep in mind when traveling in developing counties: our displays of wealth my be making those people less happy. But they still want our money, so it can’t be that bad.

UPDATE: If you want to read more on the happiness research I mention above, you can start here, here and here.

Doing the Market's Job

In case you hadn't already realized that the 1998 antitrust suit against Microsoft by the federal government was bunk and motivated almost purely by politics, here's an article from today's NY Times that nicely demonstrates how big so-called monopolies in competetive industries fall victim to their own size with stifiled innovation and inefficiencies. But hey, those politicos got to say they were doing something, at least - what they were doing just happened to be hurting a successful company rather than letting the market sort it out.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Final Forewarning

OK, sorry it's taking me forever to post about my trip. Soon, I promise. I've had a lot of work to catch up on as a new term began, and let's be perfectly clear about the jet lag associated with making a 13-hour time difference up in the equivalent of half an hour: it's awful. I thought I was fine after the second night back, when I slept half decently. But it stuck around for at least 4 days of utter exhaustion, thus blogging was put on the back burner. Or off the stove completely.

To ease back into it, I do have to offer my congratulations to George Mason University for making it to the Final Four in men's college basketball. I've been rooting for these underdogs all the way, as GMU would be one of my top couple of choices if I ever go back to school due to the awesome economics department at the school and a strong libertarian bent among many members of the faculty. As Tim Cavanaugh at Reason humorously put it: "For the first time, libertarians win something."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I Ain't Gonna Make It With Anyone Anyhow

I'm back from an absolutely incredible trip to China. I'll post more reflections and pictures in the next couple of days, but I've been back for less than 12 hours and I've got classes to teach this morning! In the meantime, here's a picture of me and the late Chairman, one of my anti-heroes:

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Blogus Interruptus

Posting will likely be non-existent over the next two weeks, as I will be traveling in China. I fly to Hong Kong later today and then will be going overland from Yunnan province in the south up to Beijing - although the precise itenerary will be decided en route. See you in a couple of weeks!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Reducing the Threat of You Paying off Your Credit Card Bills

I'm sure we're all breathing a little easier knowing that the Department of Homeland Security is keeping tabs if you try to make too large a payment on your credit card balance.

Trigger Locks and the 3,000 Bears

Those who know me well are aware that I have special appreciation for grizzly bears, and therefore find the thought of anyone hunting them for sport pretty distasteful. In fact, I'd much prefer a hunt that went after people who hunt grizzlies. That's truly wild game! So while I believe that the present model of wildlife conversation is thoroughly misguided (i.e. the government "owns" the wildlife) and not particularly effective at maintaining wildlife populations, I was pleased with the Alberta government's decision to place a three-year moratorium on the grizzly bear hunt in that province while they try to obtain a better estimate of the bear population. If you're going to have the government managing resources, at least they should know what their dealing with. And it sounds like a potential research opportunity! Hey, I can engage in rent-seeking with the best of them.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Cool Maps, Positive Externalities, and the World Economy

I’ve long argued that the relative (but debatable, and increasingly unsustainable) success of the Canadian health-care system is at least partially the result of free-riding off medical innovations made in the United States. Perhaps this is a harsh way to put it; another way to think about this is that the for-profit system in the U.S. produces significant positive externalities on the Canadian health care system (as well as on the rest of the world). And while not specifically focused on health research, this piece from the Atlantic Monthly nicely shows how dominant the U.S. (and to a lesser extent, Europe) is in terms of innovation, based on scientific citations. It’s fascinating to look at this map and to actually be able to see the institutions producing the research as spikes on the graph (MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Cal Tech, etc.). What’s also interesting is looking at the number of patents: here, East Asia is dominant due to the incredible work in high tech coming out of Japan and South Korea.

One of the lessons we can draw from this is the world isn’t near as flat as Thomas Friedman would like us to believe, at least not yet. Some of the other implications of this are summed up very well by Will Wilkinson:

American institutions confer a fantastically huge positive externality, in terms of knowledge, to the rest of the world. Science is a root cause of economic growth. New knowledge enables new technologies, which enable increases in the productivity of capital, which enable growth. And good institutions are the root cause of science. If the U.S. produces most of the world’s knowledge and Asia produces most of the world’s technology, then the institutions that underpin epistemic and technical advance are chiefly responsible for growth in states that have different institutions, but which are able to import knowledge. Which is why it is nonsense to compare, say, American and French GDP growth, as if those growth rates were a function of American and French institutions in isolation from one another. Because institutions are not isolated.

This reveals how country-level economic analysis is becoming increasingly meaningless in our hyper-connected world, and just how dependent the world is on American and Asian innovation. The work coming from these countries produce huge positive externalities for the rest of the world. The other lesson is that institutions matter, and we can only stifle scientific advancement and expect to continue growing our economies only if someone else is taking care of the work for us. Will concludes:

And there’s the point. French institutions are good enough to take advantage of American science and Asian technology, and so can remain stable because they are plugged into others’ comparative advantages, and can power their system (literally: the French did not think up the nuclear reactor) on the uninternalizable positive externalities of other systems of institutions. The flip side, though, is that it would be a tragedy for the French, and the world, if American institutions produced less science. It is not just that the U.S. would be worse off if its institutions were more like France. France would be worse off if U.S. institutions were more like France.

We may criticize the U.S. for the lack of egalitarianism in their education and health-care systems, but the entire world is benefiting from what they do in these areas.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Feel-Good Sports Story of the Year

Forget about the Olympics, because this is a million times better. If you've got two and a half minutes, watch this news report about an autistic teenager in Rochester, NY, who's the manager of his high-school basketball team. It's amazing.

(And keeping with the basketball theme, this one is cool in a totally different way. If you ever watched Michael Jordan play back in the day, you'll recognize some of these memorable moments from his career. They did an incredible job re-creating the positions, motions, and emotions of all the players.)