Some updates (and commentary on my old posts)

It’s been over a year since anyone last posted on this blog. I’m much more active on Twitter, so you could follow me there. One problem with creating content is that a lot of things one could post are either too “hard” (one doesn’t know enough about the subject and shouldn’t comment) or too “easy” (the point being made is too obvious to be worth making, and one would reduce the signal-to-noise ratio by posting it). There’s a lot of both types out there, and it’s not good to add to either pile.

There’s also the issue of where to post ideas. Posting them on Facebook or Twitter is sometimes just easier and makes them more likely to be read. (Although I suppose I could post things in both places.) Submitting better-developed posts to online publications or forums is another option which I haven’t really tried so far. I do have a handful of ideas for posts here for 2019, and I might come up with more. I’ll also throw in a plug for my friend Matt Gentzel’s blog The Consequentialist, which discusses various issues from an effective altruist perspective.

My views have changed a lot since I first started this blog alongside Michael Tontchev. Back then I was an anarcho-capitalist libertarian (for consequentialist reasons; I’m still a consequentialist). I now think that ideology is deeply flawed. I think its answers to the public goods problem are insufficient. Modern states are clearly suboptimal at providing public goods (as one would expect), but states do better than I think we would without them. There are various other market failures I think anarcho-capitalism deals with suboptimally, and some could arguably be grouped under the public goods problem in the sense that good governance is a public good. I also think that the case for governmental redistribution is stronger than I used to. It wasn’t that I used to think the poor were undeserving of aid (part of the reason I used to support open borders was that I believed it would reduce global poverty), but I thought that there were practical issues with redistribution which limited its effectiveness to the point where it didn’t make the existence of nation-states worthwhile. I now think the diminishing marginal utility case for redistribution (especially to the extremely poor) is stronger than I used to think it was, and that the distortionary effects of taxation (and “crowding out” effects on charitable giving) are more limited than I used to think they were.

I think large institutional changes come with risks, and I think trying to end the state and replace it with some sort of private polycentric order would be extraordinarily risky. I think increasing global catastrophic risk is immensely costly in terms of expected utility, because not only are you risking great harms to the current generation, you’re also jeopardizing the existence of all future generations. And if it’s possible for there to be large amounts of expected utility in the future (such as if sentient beings harness technology to substantially expand their numbers), this is quite a harm indeed. Some “X-risks” seem difficult to do anything useful about for now, but “don’t roll the dice on some massive institutional overhaul which could directly jeopardize efforts towards mitigating global catastrophic risks (and I think radical libertarianism does not handle climate change abatement, biohazard reduction, or natural disaster mitigation particularly well, among others)” seems reasonable.

These days, my views could perhaps be described as “market liberal”, or as “neoliberal” if you use Sam Bowman’s formulation of the term (although I’m less sure about the “we think the world is getting better” part, in part because of increased suffering in factory farming over the past few decades, but that issue is outside the scope of this post). I’m more skeptical of foreign military intervention than I think most people in the United States government are, but less so than I used to be. I’m not quite a full-on “futarchist“, but I think allowing people to bet on the likelihood of various events is a good idea (we already do this for inflation via TIPS bonds, and extending it into other areas would be useful also). In some ways, one could say I’ve moved to the left in that many of my views on individual policy issues are associated with the modern center-left, although I think I have a more conservative disposition than most leftists. Also, I am far more opposed to libertinism than I used to be, but this doesn’t usually interact with my views on actual policy so much, at least in a way that would cause many of them to skew rightwards. I think we shouldn’t have legal polygamous marriage and think there’s a pretty strong case for having civil penalties for adultery (applied regardless of gender).

I no longer support completely open immigration of noncriminals (as I used to). I think open immigration would create considerable institutional harms. Some are described by Garett Jones in the book Hive Mind relating to intelligence and institutional quality, but beyond that, I also just think throwing open the borders is incredibly radical and virtually guaranteed to spark massive backlash, to the point where it’s unworkable. In the context of the United States, I still support a substantial liberalization of immigration, particularly of high-skilled immigrants. Tripling our current levels of immigration would bring us about to the level of immigration (adjusted for population) found in Australia, and I think we could probably raise it by a factor of five if it were well-managed. This is still more pro-immigration than pretty much any proposal in Washington, to my knowledge.

As for old posts:

  • I no longer support the abolition of concealed carry license fees. I no longer have a positive view of John Lott’s work on the subject, or frankly on many other subjects for that matter (see this on a flawed study he did on immigrant criminality, for instance, and see also the Mary Rosh incident and various others you can find by searching his name). I’m not sure what the effects of right-to-carry laws are on crime rates; if I had to guess, I’d say about zero. Meanwhile, there is other evidence of higher gun ownership rates raising suicide rates and crime (especially with handguns) after controlling for other factors, so I think a Pigovian tax on guns would be reasonable.
  • On “A Bad Argument Against Secession“: I still think the argument I was critiquing is bad, but I now think that banning secession except in cases where the national government in question agrees to allow it (and there’s a supermajority in the affected region for allowing it) or in cases where it’s necessary to prevent human rights abuses is probably a good idea, because it preserves geopolitical stability. There are reasonable exceptions, like in colonial independence movements in the past (particularly since there seems to be an economic benefit from colonial independence), although fortunately many of the later colonial independence movements ended up succeeding without wars. (Although I think I wouldn’t have supported the American Revolution, actually, for reasons beyond the scope of this post.) I could perhaps be convinced of a more permissive attitude towards secession if I were more convinced of the value of political exit (and there are benefits of jurisdictional competition), but my instincts are against it. This more or less answers the question posed in “A Question on Human Rights Abuses and Secession“, in which I wondered whether a region might be morally obliged to not secede in order to prevent the nation-state it is part of from committing human rights abuses (using the example of Northern states in the antebellum United States).
  • Immigration and the Zero Lower Bound: A Twist on the ‘Alien Invasion’ Metaphor” was mostly a fun little post that describes a theoretical result that I doubt has much practical relevance, especially since (as noted in the post), negative supply shocks at the zero lower bound may not be expansionary anyway.
  • ‘Money is Not Speech’ Misses the Point“: I pretty much stand by this one, although I’m more supportive of campaign finance laws (for disclosure) than I used to be. I still think Citizens United was correctly decided and that banning corporations from spending money on political speech could allow other forms of censorship to occur (for instance, the publication of political books by any publisher which chose to incorporate). I do actually think I might support more public financing options for campaigns, although mostly just to head off anti-Citizens United activism. (The monarchist in me tells me to ignore the rabble and their demands and lay down the law with an iron fist.)
  • The Problem with Divestment: Helping Wealthy Investors Instead of Victims“: Not sure I agree with this one anymore. Divestment means that the institution which divests from a certain industry will no longer face conflicts of interest when taking actions which would harm that industry (although in fairness, for most institutions thinking of divesting, this effect is minuscule). To be honest, part of the reason to divest is simply that saying, “yes, we’re profiting from something that has social costs (or is just bad), but divestment would do virtually nothing and instead we prefer to donate to effective charities” is impractical for some organizations to maintain public approval. Although I think it’s valuable for at least some organizations to pretty much say what I just put in quotation marks, because promoting uncomfortable conclusions from economics (if they’re correct) has some value.
  • On my co-blogger Michael Tontchev’s post “Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig Demolished Libertarians. And It Was Beautiful“: Not my post, but I felt the need to reply to a few things. The use of “2.5 times more than” when it should be “2.5 times as much as” in points #2 and #4 in that post makes me cringe a bit (I don’t mean to be too harsh towards my friend Michael, of course). The style of writing is a little goofy and over-the-top by my standards, but that’s all right as well. Point #3 was good because come on, a 1 percentage point difference in some poll is obviously not significant. That being said, Bruenig could still have made a decent case from the available data that a lot of self-described libertarians don’t understand libertarianism, since one should expect that they, as a group, would be considerably more libertarian than the general public (more so than they actually are) on pretty much all public policy issues.
  • Could Zoning Laws Affect Political Outcomes and Marriage Rates?“: It’s still an interesting paper and I think the liberalization of land use could raise marriage and fertility rates by reducing housing costs, but I think it probably wouldn’t help Republicans on net. Liberalization would probably lead more people to live in cities, which I suspect would have a causal negative effect on their inclination to vote for right-leaning politicians. Also, by raising the populations of states with large cities (so, mostly blue states), it could give Democrats some help in the Electoral College. Finally, to the extent that liberalization had an effect on fertility, it would probably do more to increase the fertility of left-leaning voters (who are more likely to live in high-cost areas), thereby increasing their numbers over the long term. But I suspect it might also make said left-leaning voters more moderate since they’d be tied down to their families and less interested in cosmopolitan libertinism.
  • Some thoughts on market expectations from Trump“: I still pretty much stand by this post, although the Republicans did end up passing a tax reform bill of course. The CBO at the time I had written the post predicted GDP growth for 2017 of 2.1%; it ended up being 2.3%. I doubt growth numbers over the next few years will be anything spectacular. (On a side note, I don’t entirely know what to make of the flattening yield curve since I haven’t read enough on the subject, but I am worried about the prospect of a recession happening in the next few years, particularly if Trump decided to double down on tariffs. It really depends on whether the Federal Reserve decides to reverse course and move towards a more expansionary policy.) I’m not sure we’ll ever get a good explanation of why stocks went up after the release of the Access Hollywood tape but also went up after the election. I have a hunch that Mnuchin or Cohn (or someone) called up the smart money in the early morning on November 9th and assured them that Trump would focus on tax cuts.

Thanks to everyone who read this, and have a happy new year!

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