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Among the crowd of folks who don’t regularly employ the force of logic, reason and good argument is a good number of folks who view the appeal to logic and consistency as hegemonic, even tyrannically adhering to imagined authority. We can have a discussion one day about the merits of such a view, of which of course there ARE, but let me offer up a reason why even these folks should appreciate logic and reason.

And why is that?

Because sometimes it actually helps your position. I know that is something that would be obvious to most people, but when people enter the churches of their worldviews, they tend to get so blinded by their passions that they overlook ideas that would support them. So take the recent news about ObamaCare. The PPACA was passed a few years ago apparently with the support of a majority of voters and obviously with the support of a lot of members of Congress. It may or may not be law in the classical sense, but it is certainly on the books. But the President has just wielded a massive amount of Executive Authority and decided that he will not have his thugs enforce a portion of that law. That part is the employer mandate, which required employers with 50 or more full-time workers to provide reasonable amounts of coverage or face penalties. As the difficulty such a burden placed on thousands of businesses became apparent, and with the labor market continuing its nearly two decade slog, and with the rise of part-time work displacing the traditional full-time work idea in America (check out the latest jobs report, it’s pretty stunning), the last thing politically this President could afford is to appear to be killing jobs.  

Before I get to my main point, I find this suspension of the employer mandate incredible. This President and his Congregation regularly chastise the GOP and even folks like me for daring to suggest that raising costs on businesses or consumers would ever slow down hiring or economic activity. Indeed, this Administration has been famous for arguing that EPA regulations actually increase economic output. Well, if they believed their own malarkey, then wouldn’t they be telling all of us right now, “hey, don’t worry about those regulations! All of the lawyers needed to navigate them and all of the government workers needed to enforce them will result in more spending! And all of the workers that employers are forced to provide coverage for will be healthier and spend more and it’ll be all good! No worries. The multiplier is 1.58735624982.” 

But that ain’t the tune they’re singin’ on Pennsylvania Avenue these days.  As we like to say here at TUW, you can’t have it both ways. But hey, when you don’t actually speak to a populace or believe yourself that logic, reason and consistency matter, you can simply put all of your policy positions in separate little boxes and ignore what each says about the other. It must be nice to live this way. 

But here’s the point. This President, and it is put very nicely here in the WSJ, is abusing Executive Authority. What makes this abuse interesting is that he seems to be abusing it, this time, in a way that his opponents like. So, we don’t see much uproar from the right about the employer mandate being suspended, we’re more likely to be seeing some wooting about it. But in fact people should be apoplectic about it. This is legislation that was passed by Congress, and it is essentially the President’s law. If we pass ’em, we better enforce ’em. We don’t simply get to pick and choose what to enforce and what not to enforce. That is what happens in Latin American people’s republics, not in serious adult republican democracies in accordance with the Rule of Law. And the point here is that when President Bush was in office, we heard uproar after uproar about abusing the Executive power. There’s a reason stodgy folks like me like the idea of limited government – because we mistrust power in all of its applications – even if WE were to wield it ourselves. And as such, it’s not OK to look the other way when “your guy” is in power. Remember that soon enough, someone you despise is going to have power over you. Do you like the idea of your most hated enemy having power over you? Do you like it even better when the use of such power is discretionary and not really bound by tradition or the force of the courts or legislation? And for the anti-reason crowd out there, you see this would be an opportunity to apply logic and reason to get an outcome you presumably prefer – and that is an enforcement of the PPACA, which you seem to support. As the WSJ article points out, on what grounds who you cry foul when the next Republican president is in office, say Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, and he decides that he will simply stop asking the Treasury to fund higher education in any way? Is your best argument really going to be, “Well, that’s JUST Wrong?” Are you going to be saying that such an act is evil? Or would you find yourself in a better position if you argued that such a move would be unconstitutional? 

Finally, this entire post melds well with what my colleague Steve Landsburg writes today. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have as a colleague someone who is honest, open and uses reason and logic to make a point, and who is willing to admit when he is wrong, and not willing to accept flimsy and vacuous rhetoric in place of a real argument.

Now, among the many differences between me and Paul Krugman, there are probably some that redound to his credit. But his propensity to hide all of his reasoning (if any) is not one of them. Compare, for example, my blog post of a few years ago on working conditions in 1911 New York City, when the Triangle Shirtwaist fire claimed 146 lives, most of them young women, partly because the fire exits were blocked to prevent pilfering. Would workers in 1911 have wanted safer working conditions (including unblocked fire exits)? This was my answer:

I can’t be sure (and I’ve pointed out several reasons I might be wrong), but I’m guessing that no 1911 garment worker would have wanted to work in a factory with unlocked exit doors. If I’m right, they got the mix of risk and income they’d have chosen.

What’s important here is not my acknowledgement that I might be wrong. It’s that I took the reader through my logic and my guesstimates, step by step, and invited that reader to substitute his or her own guesstimates to see how they affect the conclusion. Along the way, I hope I taught some lessons about how to evaluate costs, benefits and policy choices.


Do read the whole thing.



6 Responses to “Reason, Consistency and Getting Along”

  1. Harry says:

    See Bret Stephens’ “Can Environmentalists Think” in yesterday’s WSJ. (The WSJ phone app did not let me emiail it from archives.)

    It must be great to have Landsburg down the hall.

  2. Drew says:

    I’m having trouble understanding something about the circumstances surrounding the 1911 NYC fire (I ask sincerely, not rhetorically). Assuming the 1911 NYC garment industry was competitive (and Landsburg suggests it was) couldn’t a given firm have offered to eat the cost of pilfering in the name of worker safety and in doing so attracted a larger pool of applicants from which the employer could hire a more productive workforce that would offset the pilfering cost and give his firm an advantage over the competition? My understanding is that free workers in a competitive labor market ultimately exert upward pressure on the wage rate as employers compete for more productive labor. What am I missing?

    • Harry says:

      Good question, Drew.

      I think part of the answer to your question is that people running a business or people seeking employment at that business often do not consider everything that might happen. As a young man, unsophisticated (I learned what ASAP meant later) in business, running a farm, I shudder in retrospect to how hazardous it was, with kicking hooves, corn harvesters that could make you into Chicklets, mercury on the wheat seed, and standing on the tongue of the hay wagon throwing bales six feet overhead, not to mention stacking straw bales in the milking barn in 120 degree heat. I asked others to do this with me.

      Yet Steve Landsburg gives us a more difficult case, maybe similarly hazardous to the rug factory or the cigar factory about a mile away from my barn, both filled with mostly women, where the few exits were not locked.

      Whether they, or I, ever calculated the marginal utility of each step and quantified it (although a dollar then was like more than a hundred today), I doubt it. But that was done informally, in one’s head, enough to satisfy one that the circumstances made the next day worth it.

    • Scott says:

      why are you assuming that a given firm didn’t eat the cost of pilfering in the name of worker safety?

      A factory down the street may have very well been eating the cost and accessing a larger pool of applicants.

      Free workers do exert upward pressure on the wage rate, and employers do compete for the more productive labor. All else equal, the more productive workers were down the street at the safer factory while their less productive colleagues that were not selected for the better job were stuck at the crappy factory. Apparently working in a crappy factory was better than any other options these workers had.

      If regulations demanded safe factories, the crappy factory may never have been built in the first place – but the pool of employment positions available to the public would have been less.

      The lack of safety regulations/minimum wage in places such as China decreases the cost of manufacturing. This is part of the reason why employers decide to build factories in CHina and ship goods across the Pacific ocean to the states.

      The 1911 fire was a horrific tragedy. It is possible that events such as these increased worker demand for safety standards, and factories may have been forced to provide a safer working environment in order to attract the best employees.

      So, in short would argue that what your that you are not “missing” anything. As the economy grows and standards of living increase, ‘dark spots’ are revealed, and what was previously part of life becomes intolerable. The 1911 fire revealed some terrible ‘dark spots,’ harsh working conditions and minimal attention to safety in the work place apparently were accepted as part of life in 1911 by the workers who were tolerating the conditions. Now, in 2013, after almost 100 years, after the standard of living has continued to rise exponentially, it is difficult to imagine why anyone would accept the low wage and unsafe working environment that led to the 1911 fire. But apparently it seemed rational at the time to enough people to keep the factory up and running.

  3. Harry says:

    By the way, I have never read a more demolishing critique, so polite, of anybody than SL’s comment about Paul Krugman’s reasoning.

  4. Scott says:

    “But the President has just wielded a massive amount of Executive Authority and decided that he will not have his thugs enforce a portion of that law.”

    This sort of thing scares me because if government can choose what laws or parts of laws to enforce or not enforce, then what, really, is law? I fear it is something that the government can decide on a case by case basis.

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