Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, April 29, 2005


What Bush said last night seems, for some reason, to have finally forced the numbskull press to notice that a Republican-led Social Security reform will make benefits more progressive-- a step in the right direction from the liberal point of view. This refocus of the debate is welcome and should work to Bush's advantage.

The simplest, most basic way to say what's wrong with Social Security is to point out that the most regressive tax on the books funds one of the least progressive transfer programs in the system-- it robs the poor to pay the rich. Every year, billions of dollars are extracted from workers who are struggling to make ends meet, and paid out to elderly people who have substantial incomes and lots of assets.

The only argument in favor of this scheme is one that my commenter Tom West offered a while back:

Let us assume that we want a general safety net for the old who, deserving or undeserving, are facing poverty in old age and no way to escape it.

If the SS program is not universal, there's every possibility that like every other program directed towards the poor, there'll be a strong incentive to cut it because it doesn't affect the "average person".

Those who constructed SS realized that the only way to get the public to buy in to the program was to provide the benefit to all, so that we don't resent the heavy cost of keeping our elderly out of poverty.

Making some numbers up, we might save a 1/3 the cost of SS by making it means tested, but in doing so, the political will might not be there to tax at rates more than 1/2 of the current rates. The net result is a cut of benefits to those in need.

Stated baldly, the cynical and undemocratic nature of this argument becomes clear. It is assumed that helping the needy elderly is the right thing to do, yet the public is too greedy to recognize this, and will cut any program they personally do not benefit from. The governed will not consent to pay taxes to help the elderly poor, so they must be tricked. It is assumed further that we won't "resent" the heavy cost of keeping our elderly out of poverty as long as some benefit is paid to us-- even though paying benefits to the affluent and to the poor (indeed, worse: paying larger benefits to the affluent than to the poor!) is a far greater burden than just keeping the elderly out of poverty, which is not a "heavy burden" at all by comparison.

This argument in favor of the Social Security status quo, and it is really the only one there is, is an argument by political operators to political operators. It can only be made by people who assume they are talking over normal people's heads. It can't be used to convince voters. Imagine:

VOTER: Why do I have to pay this 12.4% payroll tax?

LIBERAL POLICYMAKER: Because we need the money to keep the elderly out of poverty.

VOTER: But most of the money doesn't go to the elderly poor. It goes to middle-class and affluent elderly, who are better off than the average person paying the payroll tax.

LIBERAL POLICYMAKER: That's true. But we can't just give the money to the poor and needy. If we did, only the poor and needy would want to keep the program.

VOTER: I would want to keep the program if it were just for the poor and needy. I agree with you that we should keep the elderly out of poverty. I just don't think my tax dollars should go to pay benefits for affluent retirees.

LIBERAL POLICYMAKER: You may say that, for now. But we know that people are really pretty selfish. If they didn't get a benefit from the program themselves, they would want to scrap it, and they wouldn't care if they threw the elderly out into the street.

VOTER: But you can't make everyone benefit from the program. If you want to redistribute to the elderly poor, people with higher incomes are going to have to pay more in than they get out, in present value terms. So if voters are as greedy as as you say they are, won't they throw out the system anyway?

LIBERAL POLICYMAKER: We're hoping they won't be smart enough to figure out that it's a losing deal for them.

You can't make this argument to someone's face. If that's your position, you have to hide it, and all you can do in public is obfuscate. If Republicans keep banging on about progressivity, about how we shouldn't be taxing the poor to pay benefits to the rich, the public will come round.

Liberals think that their cynical-idealistic argument for Social Security is justified by the fate of other Great Society programs, especially AFDC, which voters soured on and threw out because most people saw them as benefiting other people, not themselves. They see welfare reform as proof that voters are greedy and selfish, and can't be trusted to support sensible, humane, pro-poor policies.

But the real problem is not with the voters, it's with the liberals and their policies. The Great Society programs were bad for the poor, bad for the economy, bad for the country, and broadly disastrous. It was because of the liberals' hubris and incompetence that voters turned on them, not because of voters' selfishness or greed. Their cynical defense of the politics of Social Security is their way of hiding from their own failures. It's also the ugliest side of the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party will cave in over this issue-- but will it be now, next year, or ten years down the road?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


one-eyed jack asks:

Why are you in favor on immigration, including illegal immigration? If you posted on the topic in the past, can you pont me to it?

Previous posts on the topic are here, here, and here (see the comments especially). Here's a description of my proposed immigration policy. And here's the first of eight sections of something I originally intended as the first chapter of a book; the chapter's name is "Borders," and it contains some of my ideas on the subject.

So what's my position? It's hard to know where to begin.

I could start by saying that on many policy questions, there's a trade-off between equality and freedom and/or efficiency. Thus, a low-tax economy gives people more economic freedom and yields faster growth, but may lead to a larger gap between rich and poor. A large welfare state slows economic growth and reduces people's economic freedom, but induces (or tries to induce) greater equality of outcomes. If you create gifted-and-talented programs in a school, you give the brightest kids more opportunity to learn at their own pace. But there will be bigger differences in learning outcomes. And so on.

In the case of immigration, however, the government is using coercion, restricting freedom, in order to increase inequality. The US population is priveleged in global terms, enjoying a far higher standard of living than what prevails elsewhere, particularly in the developing world. By restricting entry to the United States, the government cuts off the non-American-born from opportunities for self-advancement. At present, transnational inequality is greater than inequality within any single country, even Brazil. This outcome is a result of immigration restrictions. Opening the borders would be a giant step forward for freedom and for equality at the same time. No trade-offs.

Another way to approach the question is to address the foundations of legitimate government. Having declared independence on Lockean grounds, America is to some extent committed to Lockean principles, so let's start there. Just government is by consent of the governed. Let's assume that the American-born have signed a social contract and consented to be governed by the US federal government (though there are problems with that claim). One of those laws is that Mexicans cannot immigrate without the federal government's permission. But Mexicans never consented to be governed by that law. And even if we claim that, by entering the US, they consent to be governed by the rest of the US's law, it's nonsensical to claim that they consent to be governed by the border law that they violated in order to come. So there is no consent; and so we cannot justly coerce them to obey that particular law.

Or again, consider natural law. There are many things that we know through conscience are wrong: we should not kill, we should not lie, we should not steal, and so on. Human law, when it is just, is rooted in natural law. Not everything that is wrong should be illegal, of course. There may also be a certain extent to which human law must extend beyond natural law; for example, nothing in natural law forbids us to drive on the left-hand side of the road, but for purposes of organizing highway transportation it's essential for us to establish a standard with regard to that. This is acceptable because which side of the road to drive on is morally trivial, and does not materially affect anyone's interest (so long as some standard is established). When human laws extend beyond the natural law, as in the prohibition of alcohol, they become unjust, and because the law no longer has an ally in individuals' consciences, it also becomes possible to enforce, since spontaneous conspiracies against the state form everywhere. Such is the case with immigration.

Martin Luther King said that we must obey just laws and disobey unjust ones. Against unjust laws he advocated civil disobedience. The greatest injustice in the world today is the vast differences in wealth between nations, which are in large part a result of border restrictions. It is time for civil disobedience, in which the ten million or so illegal immigrants now living on US soil are leading the way.

Sunday, April 24, 2005


I've gotten a couple of e-mails concerning my Tech Central article about the new pope, the name Benedict, Alasdair MacIntyre, and monasticism. I might as well add a few remarks.

The idea of the new monasticism is, among other things, a comment on the question of economic geography, which was fascinatingly raised (for me) by Paul Krugman. (See my earlier post "Why are there cities?") It was the weird fact that the size of cities in a jurisdiction tends to follow the Zipf distribution that persuaded me the problem was interesting.

The obvious reason there are cities is various forms of economies of scale. You build a factory in a city because you need a lot of workers. You can start a specialized business only in a large city to generate enough demand to cover your overhead. These examples describe economies of scale in economic production; but there are also economies of scale in entertainment: a small town may have one movie theater, whereas a big city has operas and playhouses, ballet, bars and clubs, many fine restaurants, many movie theater complexes with multiple screens, and so on. There are economies of scale in religion: big cities may have brilliant preachers, fine choirs with organs, congregations of thousands, with multiple services, Bible classes, etc., whereas a small town may have a few old ladies who can't sing, at the early service. There are economies of scale in education: a big city can have schools with thousands of students, with a vast array of course offerings, which small rural schools can't sustain. You can have economies of scale in love life-- lots of girls for young men to choose from, and vice versa-- and in social life-- with lots of conversational partners, lots of "crowds," it's possible to find people who share your own peculiar interests.

But cities have a problem: scarcity of land. And this underlying problem leads to a lot of other problems. Most obviously, it leads to high housing prices. In a city, most of the price of an apartment does not pay for the construction materials, or the labor of the workmen who built it, or the upkeep: it is paying for the land, i.e. for location. In cities, there is a built-in poll tax: everyone who wants to live in the city has to pay a lot for a place to sleep. Then again, scarcity of land makes the streets disputed territory in a special way. To put it colorfully, we might say that streets are a socialist institution: they are provided by the government, free, to everyone. And the attendant problems of socialism appear, such as the free-rider problem (the homeless "consume" street space while reducing its value for everyone else; non-litterers have to walk streets degraded by others' trash), and the problem of estimating value in a market-less system (should we build a metro, or plant trees? how much would it be worth, and to whom? and how can we make the beneficiaries of public investment pay, and allow those who improve the city to internalize the externalities of their activities?) Scarcity of land constrains the production of transportation (parking is expensive, traffic is bad). It tends to drive down the birth rate, because cities are not great places to raise kids; and the reason that they're not-- kids like to run, and are hard to discipline-- says something about the constraints on freedom in the city of which we are barely even conscious until we try to make children observe them. It's no accident that a man in the Lockean tradition like Thomas Jefferson disliked cities. In the city, Locke's ideas don't make sense. Property cannot reasonably be considered an extension of self-ownership through the products of one's labor, because what is maybe the most important form of property-- the underlying value of the pure unimproved land because of its mere "location"-- is abstracted from labor input altogether.

Economists like to talk about the problem of "scarcity." But what may be the most serious scarcity constraint which contemporary Americans are up against is the scarcity of urban land, which fits oddly with this paradigm, since this form of scarcity is not a fact of nature, a premise, but rather a side-effect of the organization of the human community. Physical goods, we can make pretty cheaply. Americans spend a fairly small percentage of their income on food and clothes, and could spend a lot less if they needed to. Even goods like computers are pretty cheap nowadays. Most of us devote much less of our income to food nowadays than we do the rental value of urban land. This also drives the emergence of a class system of sorts, where Georgetowners look down on people from the slums in Southeast or the far suburbs, while East Coast metropolitans look down on Midwestern bumpkins.

If one of the chief scarcity constraints the contemporary US faces is the scarcity of urban land, then if we want to keep increasing living standards, we need to come up with a way of increasing the supply of urban land. Yet increasing the supply of urban land seems paradoxical since cities are, by definition, places where there are a lot of people per square mile, i.e. where land is scarce. The way out of this is if you can figure out in what the goods associated with urban life consist-- and then reproduce those elsewhere. What is it exactly that people like about cities?

As I've argued elsewhere, the sociality of enjoyment is a truth about life to which economists tend to be blind by inaptly generalizing the notion of "consumption" from food (where enjoyment can be individual) to other activities where it is not. The sociality of enjoyment is also the key to the attraction of cities. Thus, to increase the supply of city-ness in the US we need to increase the supply of community.

Religion is the deepest, most fundamental, most powerful way to undergird and to sustain community. That is why some form of monasticism may be critical to a new phase of economic progress. People who turn aside from civilization to begin the moral community afresh, as MacIntyre urged, will create new communities, new places sacred to community. Once community is created, there will be opportunities to realize economies of scale in education, in economic production, in the arts, in religion, and so on. Where neo-monastic communities lead, others will follow. The net effect will be to increase the supply of that curious "good," urban land, and thus to enrich the whole society.

Friday, April 22, 2005


I just got an article published in Tech Central Station!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Hugh Hewitt has a good post on the left's failure to understand religion, and its compulsion to debate with straw-man versions of religion instead.

I've been thinking about this lately since reading a paper by Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong meant to attack Bush's Social Security plan. The paper was just spectactularly bad, which is strange because Paul Krugman at least was a truly brilliant economist in the past. How could he put his name to something like this? What is it about the Bush administration that he inspires economists to resort to intellectual hara-kiri to express their rage?

Is it, perhaps, I wondered, because the Bush administration is associated with religion? Are Krugman and DeLong two more of those people you sometimes meet who just get deranged with fury when religious challenges to the authority of the secular humanist worldview are permitted and respected? Do Krugman and DeLong get the whiff of religion from Bush, and are filled with such hatred that they gladly throw their rigorous training out the window to oppose him?

Just a thought.

I made couple of comments over at Belgravia Dispatch: on the pope, and on Europe. I also put in a word about the pope over at Citizen-Journal here. I'm impressed by his firm stance against moral relativism.

I just posted an argument on my website that Social Security undermines social capital formation by interrupting the informal reciprocity relationship between parents and children. This is a raw first draft. Does it make sense to you? Please comment.

Monday, April 18, 2005


An interesting debate has been going on over at EconLog between co-bloggers Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan, on the subject of behaviorism. Being quite interested into the subject of how the theory of human motivation interacts with economics, I contributed a very long comment to one of Kling's posts, which was the synopsis of a book I'd like to write called Prisoners of the Food Metaphor: Why Economists Misunderstand the World. Barring unforeseen barriers, I'll paste my essay into the comments of this post.

It occurs to me that one of the motivations for my emphasis on what I've called "the sociality of enjoyment" is the phenomenon of cities. Why are there cities? It seems like a dumb question, perhaps, yet the answer is not actually obvious, and sometimes trying to answer dumb questions with rigorous answers leads to a lot of progress in thought. In any case, the question "why are there cities?" is a prelude to many other questions, including "why do cities sometimes grow, sometimes shrink, and why do some cities grow faster than others?" or "what influences the layout of cities, and why does decentralized, sprawling LA look so different from New York and Chicago, with the skyscraper intensity of their downtown districts?" or (this one is of huge financial importance to tens of millions of homeowners) "what causes land values in cities to rise and fall?"

One answer to "why are there cities?" is that cities increase the opportunities for specialization, trade and exchange. In that case, though, we would expect the advance of transportation and communication technologies, and especially the internet, to lead to a reduction of the pressure towards urbanization, or perhaps even to a dramatic de-urbanization, as people opt for cheap land and telecommuting. I think an understanding of cities might work better if we appreciate that most goods are socially enjoyed, and that the impediment to their enjoyment is not resource constraints but massive coordination problems. (Think of nightlife, for example.) Traditions are critically important in solving these coordination problems; and traditions exist in minds. One could build a physical replica of Boston on the Gulf Coast and sell land there cheap, but you couldn't create a replica of Boston's intellectual tradition, or the mystique surrounding it, and that's why Boston landlords can charge huge rents, which cannot be undersold by upstart cities elsewhere.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


Patrick Hynes, at AnkleBitingPundits, thinks so. Polls point to a French "no" to the constitution. Patrick also links to an article suggesting that the euro could fail. The article opines that:

The euro is only six years old, and its launch contradicted economic theory. Skeptics argued that currency union cannot work without political union because unified fiscal and macroeconomic policies are needed to complement a single monetary policy.

Now, I'm not sure I agree with that. The economic theorists had differences of opinion; myself, I was not convinced by the Euroskeptic arguments in this case, and I think a currency union combined with decentralized fiscal and macroeconomic policies is feasible.

But politically, the European project is philosophically misguided, out of touch with its people, and beset by economic sclerosis and long-term demographic decline. In this unpromising climate, the Europeans have abandoned traditional forms of legitimacy rooted in national sovereignty in favor of an experiment. While most of the hope and labor that has been invested in the European project could probably have been better spent, the experiment has done some good.

As Timothy Garton Ash points out here, the EU is now an "empire." As such it plays, to some extent, the beneficent "liberal empire" role that Niall Ferguson has advocated that America play. What the EU needs to do is stop wasting its strength pushing the integration project further, but at the same time try to hold onto most of what has been achieved to date. Is that what the defeat of the constitution would lead to? Or, as many have warned, is the EU like a bicycle, which needs to keep going forward to avoid falling down?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

MaxedOutMama blames the influence of corporate lobbyists on the universities:

Is it really a surprise that our society is dominated by big corporations and their lobbyists? If the bulk of what we get out of universities is faked data, skewed studies and artistic frothing at the mouth, there will be no counterpoint to a seemingly solid company-funded study. So the corporate lobbyists are winning the day, and all too often it is because we lack a solid objective body of scholarship on the issues of the day.

I'm all in favor of a Reformation in academia. And I think the blogosphere might have a role to play in it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A comment I placed on a liberal blog post that asks "Do Liberals Need an Economic Vision":

I would give liberal economists a more respectful hearing if they weren't defending Social Security. Social Security's implicit debt is a financial disaster in the long run. Its huge costs will turn ours into a much more tax-and-spend type government, but what will we get for it? We won't be fighting child poverty, or funding education, or building infrastructure, or boosting foreign aid. We'll be channeling tax dollars, raised through the most regressive tax on the books, to old people, including some very affluent old people, and who are increasingly healthy and able to work, particularly as advancing technology makes jobs less physically labor-intensive. Historically, federal spending has stayed at a fairly constant 20-21%. If this continues to hold, more money for the elderly will squeeze out spending on other, better causes.

I can't understand why Democrats aren't jumping at the chance to change this program. They could easily accept the principle of partial privatization and then try to craft the reform in a way that benefits the poor. They could argue for a higher social-safety-net provision, for federal matching funds for lower-income forced-savers, or for jump-starting the account by making an initial $1000 deposit when a child is born.

That they're not doing this basically destroys my faith that Democrats have any true commitment to the generous principles with which their party is historically associated.

The post is worth reading. But a prerequisite for a genuine liberal economic vision is that the defense of middle-class entitlement be abandoned.

Monday, April 11, 2005


This is good news:

[A recent] poll, conducted for the pro-reform National Immigration Forum and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, shows that Americans would support reforms even more liberal than Bush's – the kind expected to be jointly proposed soon by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Bush has proposed that foreigners and illegal immigrants be allowed to obtain permits to work legally in the United States, but has left it unclear whether they would have to return to their home countries when the permits expired.

Kennedy and McCain are proposing that, after six years of legal work, law-abiding immigrants who pay a "fine" and undergo a background check would be eligible for permanent resident status (a "green card") and eventual citizenship. Their proposal also speeds up processing of the huge backlog of applications for normal immigration so that work-permit holders (including former "illegals") would not gain an advantage over those waiting in line.

The Goeas-Lake poll showed that, even after hearing strong arguments against the Kennedy-McCain reforms, 77 percent of likely voters would favor their proposal.

The Bush proposal is good, but it sounds like the Kennedy-McCain proposal is even better. My only worry is that nothing originating on the Democrat side of the aisle seems to stand much of a chance of passing in a GOP-dominated Congress, so the bill may just be political posturing. It's wonderful to hear there's so much support for it. Maybe a counter-protest against the Minutemen would tap into some real national feeling.

Why should Republicans eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominations? Obstruction on judges will give Americans a reason to elect a few more Republican senators in 2006.


An article in The American Spectator reports that China is making a "foray" into Latin America.

Chinese President Hu Jintao reaffirmed his country’s commitment to Latin America by announcing an astounding $100 billion investment in the region in the next decade...

It is no coincidence that China is positioning itself in the Gulf of Mexico, Panamanian Peninsula, Canada’s British Columbia, and Venezuela. It is also no coincidence that the Chinese are spending billions of dollars to upgrade antiquated Soviet military facilities in Cuba. Not surprisingly, escalating Chinese economic involvement in Latin America since the 1990’s has brought with it a resurgence of socialist behavior and empathy.

The truth is, Latin America may have something to learn from China. As everyone knows, China is the world's most successful developing country, while Latin America is a chronic under-performer. And the biggest economic problem in Latin America is economic inequality. Inequality in the US mostly reflects differential ability and inclination to achieve (and luck) in an environment of equal opportunity. Inequality in Latin America is much greater, and mostly reflects class distinctions; birth, not merit. It's horrible to say this, but I'm afraid I think the Maoist revolution in China paved the way for the present boom in growth, by wiping out feudalism and preparing the ground for an order based on social mobility, a prerequisite for dynamic capitalism.

The article also dismisses Cuban officials' claims that the US is considering regime change are "diversionary comments designed to conceal illicit or subversive actions on the part of Cuba and China," and recommends that:

comprehensive US legislative action such as the Cuban Democracy Act, which prohibits foreign-based subsidiaries of US companies from trading with Cuba, and the Helms-Burton Act, which denies certain visas and gives American citizens the right to sue foreign investors, should be continued and strengthened.

I disagree. I'm with the late pope on economic sanctions. I'm generically against them because they punish people rather than rulers. But there's a case for regime change in Cuba, particularly if they increase cooperation with China. I say: lift the sanctions, but put regime change on the table. Put the Cuban people first.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


From Harrup thinks the Minutemen should come to Washington to make their case:

The only place to control most illegal immigration is in the federal bureaucracies and their computers. Citizens who get into confrontations with illegal immigrants are playing sucker in a fixed game.

The Minutemen now rail at Bush for calling them "vigilantes." But by drawing the spotlight to the border, they are playing into his hands. If the volunteers want to be effective, they should turn their SUVs in a northeasterly direction and head to Washington. Now that might make an impression.

I say, Bring it on! And if they come, I want us (supporters of immigration) to be waiting. I want a big counter-demonstration. I want to say to all the young liberals out there, all the generous-minded young people, the people who look back to the 1960s and are envious because then people had something to believe in and struggle for: THIS IS YOUR CHANCE!

Once in a generation there comes an issue on which all the moral aces are in the same hand.

You don't have to choose between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome: immigration is an advance for both.

You don't have to choose between civil liberties and public safety: by giving civil rights to undocumented workers, we'll free law-enforcement agencies to deal with the real enemy.

You don't have to choose between multi-culturalism and American patriotism: you can keep with the faith with one of America's greatest traditions while at the same time embracing people of many faiths and cultures, and giving them the chance at a better life.

What we need is a network of people who will be ready to meet the Minutemen when they come to Washington. We can make signs, a papier-mache Statue of Liberty, foods from people's countries, and play songs like Neil Diamond's "They Come to America." Get our faces on the news maybe. Our goal: to become the symbol of progressive America, like the student movements in the 1960s.

Who's with me?

Saturday, April 02, 2005


Pope John Paul II, who died today, led an admirable life. I am not a Catholic, and I do not accept the doctrine of papal infallibility which gives the Catholic Church its distinctive monarcho-hierarchical structure; in this respect I am drawn more to the Orthodox tradition. Yet one can only admire the truth, the power and wisdom that emanate from the Vatican. Though it seems paradoxical, I believe that Christians of all denominations may reflect with gratitude for a moment on the worth of the Christian voice of John Paul II. And perhaps this can lead to the question: Why are there so many Christian denominations, anyway? Is there any way that we who share faith, hope and love in Christ can restore the communion of the faithful that was lost in 1054 (when the popes and the Byzantine patriarchs excommunicated one another) and in 1517 (when Martin Luther initiated a rebellion against the Roman Church)?

John Paul II's life is a rebuke to rigid notions of separation of Church and State. We do not seek to ordain a theocracy, and the Catholic Church has rightly abandoned its former, misguided aspirations to establish a Christian res publica by force. But our religious faith is the source of our ethics, our values and our worldview, and our ethics and values must inform and motivate our involvement in civil and political life. In Poland, the collapse of communism began with the Christian duty to tell the truth.

Who will be the next pope, and what great challenges will the Catholic Church be called upon to face in the next years and decades? Will the next pope aim his teaching against the system of world apartheid by which rich countries shut out immigrants? Will he mobilize the West to assist Africa in its struggle against AIDS? Will he bring the gospel to China, a nation which has achieved wonders of economic growth but, with its own traditions drowned by communism and with communism discredited, has been left with nothing to believe? Will he see the philosophy of mind escape from the physicalist dead end in which it has become trapped, and undergo a transformation, so that it affirms the supernatural soul?

The field is ripe, all ready to harvest. Let the work of God continue.