Monday, June 27, 2016

Many ifs

I think it was Arnold Kling (I cannot find the post right now) who noted that one can only have any two of the following three: privacy, security, immigration. In that case, he says, he'll surrender privacy. Perhaps we lost privacy long ago anyway. So it's simpler than we think.

Not really. Brexit and Trump (it can happen here) suggest it's more complicated. Immigration can have a nasty populist backlash. This is why the immigration policy (actually non-policy) default status quo now in effect in the US is such a disaster. We must find orderly ways to expand the talent pool. Not simple. Quotas must be lifted. Applicants most be screened, scored and vetted. Are we (our political class and our civil service) up to it? Knock some heads? Is there another LBJ in the wings?

I still expect the Trump and Hillary negatives to pile up. Johnson-Weld could win a small state or two. The election could go to the House of Reps. They might select an adult. Many ifs.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


We know about confirmation bias. It is all too easy (even fun) to look for evidence that confirms our priors. Psychologists (and others) can explain. I guess.

Knowing all this, what can be done?  We can make an honest effort to consider the positions of those who are not like-minded. I have a lot of respect for Arnold Kling who wants to take "the most charitable view of those who disagree."

I have several times cited the LA Times' (30-plus-years late)  realization that the data on actual ridership undermine that newspapers' attachment to rail transit for Los Angeles. Hallelujah.

Not so fast. This morning's lead editorial regresses.  "Nearly 50 years ago, Los Angeles County voters rejected a half-cent sales tax proposal that would have built an 89-mile rail and bus network between downtown, Long Beach, the San Fernando Valley and Westwood, the San Gabriel Valley, and even a route to LAX. The Times Editorial Board at that time urged a no vote, saying “we are an automotive people, unlikely to change our habits.” Imagine if voters had said yes? How many hours of congestion might have been avoided? How much pollution might have been prevented? Now, five decades later, our habits will have to change, one way or another." Once again, here is what some of my friends said about that proposal at the time.

My previous post on "Not just the toadies" notes that many smart people resist evidence that does not satisfy them even if they found (and reported) that evidence. Confirmation bias is not so easily turned off. So can psychologists explain? Or are they subject to the same demons?


The usual suspects want more from the taxpayers.  The usual suspects spin the usual stories.  Here Moore and Rubin respond.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Passions and interests

I had heard about "tiny homes" but we are seeing more discussions, suggesting that there is a serious (still tiny)audience. The WSJ includes "West Texas Town Finds 'Tiny House' a Bit Too Earthy ... Luring eco-conscious builders to 120-square foot homes seemed like a great idea until plans for yurts, straw dwellings popped up; no anarchists, please."

Americans consume more living space than others. People like space and many policies and programs (no surprise) cater for that preference. But it seems that there are also some who want to go the other way. They want less space. This preference my be influenced by beliefs that we are running out of space. Cities, certainly and by definition, are places where we see various degrees of crowding. Some of these folk may be just plain old ascetic.

But where there is crowding of any sort, there are externalities, some of which may never be transacted. We get conflicts and the demand for rules. This may be zoning. Some find a way to come up with zoning codes. No politics without conflict; no conflict without some semblance of politics.

This is why the brief "tiny homes" story illustrates, that we are all environmentalists. The ambit and the scope of our environmentalism differs from person to person. Neighborhood externalities and the consequent environmental interests are universal. We even get NIMBY.

I care more about the block I live on than I do about a coal burning utility in India. I suspect many others feel the same way. But we are not very good at sorting out our sensibilities. Can we untangle our passions from out interests (Hirschman)?  It is easy (tempting) to wrap our own interests in a "greater good" story. Some of the Tiny House people are learning all about this.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Not just the toadies

There used to be political economy. Then they split into political science and economic science (official title of the Nobel in economics). Scientism is the problem. Economics without the political context sounds pointless, as does politics without the economic context. Ask any historian.

The U.S. presidency looks like a lose-lose deal. Both major party candidates, polls show, have unusually high "negatives". So why have the markets not panicked? The U.S. dollar and the stock market remain strong. The explanation I like best is that U.S. institutions are strong enough to withstand whatever politics throws at them.

But riddle me this. How do intellectuals keep the faith keep the faith in spite of evidence they have assembled and published? This is the topic that James L. Payne tackles brilliantly in "Government Fails, Long Live Government!: The Rise of 'Failurism'" in the current Independent Review. This is gated for a few months but do get it, even buy the app.(!)

The evidence against the efficacy of government policies and programs has been piling up for some years. Payne cites the writings of E.J. Dionne, Philip K. Howard, Jonathan Rauch, Steven M. Gillon, Derek Bok, Thomas E. Mann, Norma J. Ornstein, Richard A. Clark, Paul C. Light, Lawrence Lessig, John J. DiIullio, Peter H. Schuck. All of them report government failures -- and go on embracing the idea that government can and will "solve" problems. Payne notes that, "[t]hese works of censure are remarkable in one odd respect, however: the authors remain steadfastly loyal to big government and suggest no significant reduction in its scope."

That old-time religion. Yes, the evidence has been piling up as never before but we still get Clinton-Sanders-Trump. It is not just the cheering toadies seen on the evening news but also some of our best and brightest.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Hope for change

It appears that Gary Johnson is on the ballot in all 50 states.

And when the major parties have seemingly settled on two unpopular/unsavory candidates, polls (same Wiki link) show that he is doing well for a third-party candidate. But the polls that matter are for the states (some at same Wiki link). If Johnson can keep just a few electoral votes from the Clinton-Trump combine, and neither one of them gets an Electoral College majority, the selection of the next president goes to the U.S. House of Representatives -- where each state has one vote.

The House might actually select an adult. I do not have high standards these days. Almost anyone but Clinton or Trump sounds pretty good.

This is not crazy. Clinton is being investigated by the FBI. Trump will not show his tax returns, torpedoes himself every chance he has, and has the national press corps on his case. What a time to be an investigative reporter. Two candidates with many skeletons in many closets.

A small number of voters in a small number of small states could then make a very big difference.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

View from The New Yorker

My friend Andrew K sends me to the New Yorker for their latest coverage of LA transit. Here is the bottom line:
If Angelenos are willing to give up the sanctity of their own four doors for a stranger’s Prius, it stands to reason that they would be open to trading the mobility of four wheels for the pleasures of public transit. And there are pleasures, despite the length of travel, the stops and starts, and the chewing gum caked into the ridges of the train’s linoleum floor. Foremost among them is the romance of boarding a train in the gritty underground and stepping off on a newly paved, sun-bathed platform, the Pacific glimmering in the distance.
Comparing Uber and transit is unfortunate. Uber raises billions of dollars from willing investors. Metro raises billions of dollars at the point of a gun (the power to tax). Uber offers door-to-door service with amazing reliability, etc. The list goes on.

Perhaps the writer is kidding about the "chewing gum caked to the ridges.. " and all the other lovable "gritty" stuff. It is the New Yorker. Look at all the movies that depict life in the big city, notably New York. All the people are pretty, the sidewalks are swept and the cars are all shiny. Gritty and all that may be very cool to a New Yorker writer but not so much for the rest of us.

The "democratization of luxury" is a very big deal in our lives. Uber's door-to-door service approximates what was once available to the wealthy. The charm of "grit" belongs in another universe.