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Allow me to ask a sort of stupid (series of?) question:

(1) What does the peer-reviewed science conclude about the safety of vaccines?

(2) What does the peer-reviewed science conclude about the efficacy of vaccines in preventing disease?

OK.

(3) What does the peer-reviewed science conclude about the safety of GMO foods?

(4) What does the peer-reviewed science conclude about the efficacy of GMO foods (e.g. toward conserving water, land, etc.)?

 

It would be trite to point out the obvious inconsistency in that if you are going to invoke scientific consensus and the public well-being as reasons for supporting the use of vaccines, then you surely should be in favor of the use of GMO foods. Of course, we don’t see people line up this way. What I find most interesting is not the internal inconsistency, we have long showed that people hold all kinds of inconsistent beliefs. Why? Because they are not choosing their beliefs with “public health” or “reduced water consumption” or “best outcome” as the goal, rather they are choosing beliefs because that is what “people like us” are supposed to believe while they do not choose beliefs that “people like them” are supposed to believe.

Fine. But in this case, I find the contradictions even more compelling. The folks who are in favor of vaccines (again that’s a stupid question, what does it mean to be “in favor of” vaccines?) accede the point that we ought to give up our liberty to choose not to be vaccinated because of the overwhelming evidence that widespread vaccination is a wonderkind for public health. On the other hand, I see more vitriolic opposition to the use of  GMOs than perhaps even by the anti-vaccine crowd. And this is a bit weird. Why? At least in the case of vaccines, folks can be (somewhat) reasonably opposed to being forced to have something done to them and injected into their bodies. When it comes to GMOs, no one is forcing food down your throat in the name of public or environmental health. And the more free and prosperous our world is, the less likely that consumers would find themselves “forced” to have no choice BUT to eat GMO foods.

As I suggested above, the science on vaccines and GMOs seems quite clear. Vaccines are safe and effective (we can get into the nitty gritty, but not on this blog). GMOs are safe, cheap and effective. In one case folks support forcing people to ingest vaccines. On the other hand the same folks tend to be opposed to allow the voluntary expansion of growing GMO foods.

Now, should the government mandate vaccine use? Should it mandate that GMO crops be grown? Are these similar questions? Can appeals to self-ownership or individual liberty resolve these questions in any way? I won’t answer.

 

Just finished the thoroughly enjoyable A History of Pi by Petr Beckmann. It is over 40 years old but has aged well. It’s more than just a math book:

Then there is Roman engineering: the Roman roads, aqueducts, the Colosseum. Warfare, alas, has always been beneficial to engineering. Yet there are unmistakable trends in the engineering of the gangster states. In a healthy society, engineering design gets smarter and smarter; in gangster states it gets bigger and bigger. In World War II, the democracies produced radar and split the atom; German basic research was far behind in these fields and devoted its efforts to projects like lenses so big they could burn Britain, and bells so big that their sound could be lethal. (The lenses never got off the drawing board, and the bells, by the end of the war, would kill mice in a bath tub.)

The architectural style of the thugs also differs from that of normal societies,. It can often be recognized by the megalomaniac style of their public buildings and facilities. The Moscow subway is a faithful copy of the London Underground, except that its stations and corridors are filled with statues of homo sovieticus, a fictitious species that stands (or sits on a tractor), chin up, chest out, belly in, heroically gazing into the distance with a look of grim determination.

Or try this:

But let us return to the checkers program that can beat its own programmer. A long time ago, even when he constructed the first bow and arrow, man used his intelligence to design machines that surpassed him in speed, force, and many other qualities. Arthur Samuel’s program might be taken as an historic landmark: Somewhere near that point, man first used his intelligence to design a machine that surpassed him in intelligence. We are now only at the birth of such a machine, but eventually the intelligent computer might be to the moronic computer as the spacecraft is to the bow and arrow. There are already programs to write programs, and programs to balance assembly lines. It is therefore entirely within the realm of possibility that such a machine will eventually have the ability to reproduce itself.

“Destroy it!” is what the pious, respectable and community-minded ladies will scream when word gets out about the new computer.

Their screams have been heard before.

“Destroy it!” is what Julius Caesar screamed as his hordes put the torch to the Library of Alexandria.

“Destroy it!” is what the Grand Inquisitor screamed when he read Galileo’s Dialogues. 

“Destroy it!” is what the the Luddites screamed in 18th century England when they smashed the machinery that was supposedly responsible for their misery in the Industrial Revolution.

“Destroy it!” is what the Soviet censor screams when he sees a copy of Orwell’s 1984.

“Destroy it!” is what the Fascists of the Left screamed when they bombed or smashed computing centers in Minnesota and Montreal.

It has again become fashionable to blame science and technology for the ills of society. I have some sympathies for the Luddites who were uneducated, miserable, and desperate. I have none for the college-educated illiterates who drivel about “too much science and technology” because they want to conserve their life style by denying it to everybody else.

(1) Corporations like Walmart disproportionately benefit from the existence of antipoverty programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps. Why? Because when these are available to people, Walmart does not have to provide people with a wage that, alone, would be enough for these workers to sustain themselves since the government is already providing it.

(2) Corporations like Walmart disproportionately benefit from the existence of antipoverty programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit. Why? Because when the government provides a tax credit to people that are working, they are more likely to work, and therefore Walmart does not have to pay the workers as much as it “normally” would in order to attract them.

Only one of these can be right.

Via Scott Alexander:

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel goes up to the counter and gives a tremendously long custom order in German, specifying exactly how much of each sort of syrup he wants, various espresso shots, cream in exactly the right pattern, and a bunch of toppings, all added in a specific order at a specific temperature. The barista can’t follow him, so just gives up and hands him a small plain coffee. He walks away. The people behind him in line are very impressed with his apparent expertise, and they all order the same thing Hegel got. The barista gives each of them a small plain coffee, and they all remark on how delicious it tastes and what a remarkable coffee connoisseur that Hegel is. “The Hegel” becomes a new Starbucks special and is wildly popular for the next seventy years.

I especially liked this one:

Pierre Proudhon goes up to the counter and orders a Tazo Green Tea with toffee nut syrup, two espresso shots, and pumpkin spice mixed in. The barista warns him that this will taste terrible. “Pfah!” scoffs Proudhon. “Proper tea is theft!”

And elsewhere, this sort of disrupts popular narrative, so will be summarily ignored of course:

Lastly, we document a strong and positive relation between within-country variation in firm growth and rising wage inequality for a broad set of developed countries.  In fact, our results suggest that part of what may be perceived as a global trend toward more wage inequality may be driven by an increase in employment by the largest firms in the economy.

And this week’s edition of economic dog bites man:

The Impact of Unemployment Benefit Extensions on Employment: The 2014 Employment Miracle?
by Marcus Hagedorn, Iourii Manovskii, Kurt Mitman 

We measure the effect of unemployment benefit duration on employment. …  We find that a 1% drop in benefit duration leads to a statistically significant increase of employment by 0.0161 log points.  In levels, 1.8 million additional jobs were created in 2014 due to the benefit cut.  Almost 1 million of these jobs were filled by workers from out of the labor force who would not have participated in the labor market had benefit extensions been reauthorized.

Here is required reading for all of my Intro econ students, from my great colleague Stan Engerman:

 

The Spread of Pro- and Anti-Capitalist Beliefs

Tim Taylor summarizes the data from the Center for Responsive Politics:

Total spending for the 2014 Congressional races looks like it will come in at about $4 billion, quite similar to the amount spent in 2012 and 2010. In the context of a high-income country with a population of nearly 320 million, this is not a large amount. As I point out in my Principles of Economics textbook (which I naturally recommend for its combination of high quality and moderate price), “For example, consumers in the U.S. economy spend about $2 billion per year on toothpaste. In 2012, Procter and Gamble spent $4.8 billion on advertising, and General Motors spent $3.1 billion. Americans spend about $22 billion per year on pet food—three times as much as was spent on the 2012 election.” As another comparison, Americans spend about $8 billion each year celebrating Halloween.  With the US government making decisions that involve $3.5-$4 trillion in spending and taxes, not to mention the nonmonetary effects of other laws regulatory rulings, people are going to allocate resources to try to affect those outcomes.

I recommend clicking through to some of the charts. On the snarky side, you may want to focus on this one:

As the list shows, these biggest organizational donors tend to lean to the Democrats. Koch Industries, which seems to get considerable public attention, is 17th in these rankings.

I wonder if the kids who crashed the ASSA meeetings condemned the non-Mankiws of the wold? Did they scream at Picketty for taking money from Big Left donors? Of course, I am not asking for equal treatment, I happen to not think Picketty or Krugman or people of the left take money from evil interests and then research and write according to their puppet masters. If anything, the arrow goes in the other direction. In any case, there is lots of interesting data in the post.

For those of you who like supply and demand and basic economics – does the lack of dollars in American politics give you reason to be happy, sad or otherwise?

A new paper on the labor market impacts of cap and trade for NOx (a good program, by the way):

Who Loses Under Power Plant Cap-and-Trade Programs? by Mark Curtis

This paper tests how a major cap-and-trade program, known as the NOx Budget Trading Program (NBP), impacted labor markets in the regions
where it was implemented.  The cap-and-trade program dramatically decreased levels of NOx emissions and added substantial costs to
energy producers.  Using a triple-differences approach that takes advantage of the geographic and time variation of the program as well
as variation in industry energy-intensity levels, I examine how employment dynamics changed in manufacturing industries whose
production process requires high levels of energy.  After accounting for a variety of flexible state, county and industry trends, I find
that employment in the manufacturing sector dropped by 1.3% as a result of the NBP.  Young workers experienced the largest employment
declines and earnings of newly hired workers fell after the regulation began.  Employment declines are shown to have occurred
primarily through decreased hiring rates rather than increased separation rates, thus mitigating the impact on incumbent workers.

Arnold Kling finishes a preamble to a review of a popular book in Political Science:

Instead, I think this reflects the ease with which someone on the left can obtain high status in academia, and the corresponding difficulty for those on the right. If you’re on the right, you have to demonstrate awareness of important left-wing academic ideas, or you will be will be widely denounced as an ignoramus. But the converse is not true. I would bet that I am the first person to dare to suggest that Katznelson suffers from ignorance.

I am not sure the left-right dichotomy is precisely right, I think the dichotomy is correlating with something else. Here is the full piece.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year everyone. I think the world would be a nicer place if we all took a moment to have a drink with one another, we all took a moment to share a meal with one another, and of course we all decided to trade with one another.

This cartoon hit my desk the other day:

duck

Ask almost anyone to define “capitalism” to you and you will inevitably get a blank stare. If you try and push the question I suspect you’ll get people answering something like the way people are asked to identify “porn” … they can’t, but they know it when they see it. Except, of course, with capitalism, no one sees it and it certainly is not thrust upon anyone. You may call me guilty for not defining capitalism for you here or for my students, and maybe I will in due time explain why. It might be better to define capitalism by defining what it is not, or by defining its opposite, for your reference. And you should consider that it is not at all correct to define capitalism by searching for synonyms that you either like or dislike – such as democracy, anarchy, crony-ism, slavery. It is none of those things. And it is not sufficient to define capitalism by illustrating several features of capitalism – for they are likely neither necessary nor sufficient identifications. For example, under capitalism, we are very likely to see free labor markets, product markets and capital markets, but it is not at all the case that capitalism does not or cannot “exist” under much more regulated versions of (at least two) of those markets. Similarly, while you may be inclined to suggest that capitalism equals small government, again that is not at all a definition or a requirement. Capitalism can and has existed alongside with governments of many shapes, configurations and sizes.

One reason for the confusion is that people are prone to straw-manning ideas they do not like. Straw-manning is not the quite right term here, for it happens in both directions and in different forms. But here’s the point – if someone does not like corruption, and they see that in a world where there is corruption there also happens to be capitalism, then they are prone to arguing a weak-form argument against capitalism, “when we have capitalism, the forces of corruption are really unleased.” In some cases, you see a stronger form argument, and one I believe people are prone to because of mental substitutions, “capitalism IS corruption!” That latter of course is as silly as arguing that Wintercow IS a hockey stick.

For now, I do not wish to get into the psychology of anticapitalist beliefts, rather I’d like to take a more inquisitive tone. There seems to me to be a common perception that “capitalism is awful” or that it at a minimum has led to a state of the world that is undesirable. How  do I know this? I read hundreds and hundreds of student essays each year – the sentiment is spelled right out for me, and this is true even though students regularly try to blow smoke up my butt thinking that if they write something like, “capitalism is, like, um, so, awesome …” that this secures them an automatic A. What this really secures for them is a heavily marked-up paper with a poor grade that they never bother to pick up, yet complain about nonetheless – but I digress.

If there is a common thread among the serious intellectual arguments for why capitalism is awful, it really would (and does) focus on what changes have been wrought by capitalism (again even this line of questioning is awkward given that no one “installed” capitalism and chose it from among a panoply of options). To do this one would want to compare the world before anything like capitalism seemed to be happening to the world most of us live in today. And to make that comparison meaningful you’d have to first zero in on what changes, exactly, were caused BY capitalism itself. Remember a zillion things have happened under capitalism. For example, the rotation of the Earth has slowed each and every year since capitalism “started” … no serious person is going to argue that capitalism caused the Earth to slow down. My sense is that there are at least three basic observations made by people worried about capitalism, and each seems to be derived from a different (and perhaps unknowable) counterfactual and which I think change depending on the time period people focus on.

First, did capitalism CREATE NEW negative forces and features in the world that DID NOT EXIST PRIOR to capitalism?

Second, while there were clearly bad things going on in the world before capitalism, did the emergence of capitalism perpetuate or exacerbate the bad things that were going on?

Third, is capitalism awful because it is not awesome enough? In other words even though the world is unquestionably richer, people are living longer, material comforts are higher, and this is true for even the poorest people in the world, capitalism itself did not undo the world’s existing evil and perhaps it highlights, starkly, the evils from our past?

There are many other arguments of course that are not nearly as straightforward or logical, and we can ask similar questions about the various forms of government that are out there. Without answering the above three questions, I suggest that most people who are talking or arguing about capitalism are not asking those questions, and virtually no one is honestly answering them.

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