Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Both sides misunderstand immigration issue

There is a lot of bigotry surrounding Arizona's new immigration law, where police are able to check the immigration status on someone they have already detained for another purpose. That bigotry is very plain and simple: Sexism.

Look how obvious it is. Arizona's female governor Jan Brewer signed a bill into law on April 23. Illegal immigration is currently a federal crime and this law makes it a state crime too so Arizona police can enforce it. Because Brewer a woman, chauvinist protesters want to keep her down by opposing the law - including self-hating women who are jealous of any other female who has risen to a position of power.

That's a good argument, right? Really? It works for the left...

OK, reality check. There's already enough nonsense on both sides of this issue. Arizona SB1070 does not empower the police to pull people over just to check their immigration status, although that's the bulk of the criticism. The purpose of the law isn't to change police behavior - it's to authorize law enforcement - such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio - to continue checking immigration status without interference from federal agencies.
"The new law makes it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally. Immigrants unable to produce documents showing they are allowed to be in the U.S. could be arrested, jailed for up to six months and fined $2,500. Other provisions allow lawsuits against government agencies that hinder enforcement of immigration laws, and make it illegal to hire undocumented workers for day labor or knowingly transport them."
Now I don't see any arguments about why we should pick and choose which laws to enforce. The opponents clearly state that this is about enforcing existing laws. Their definition fairly represents what the new law does, although their comments do not.

I will make the case on why not enforcing this law makes sense, but first what's wrong with the anti-immigration view.

Where the right is wrong

There are two main thrusts to opponents of illegal immigration. One is that they take jobs away from Americans, and the other is that they take public benefits like welfare.

Some people support both of these views, which doesn't make sense. A given immigrant can not work and collect benefits for not working. It's really one or the other.

It could be that immigrants as a whole perform a mix of the two, but that's the way a welfare system is supposed to operate; those who work pay for those won't don't.

Now what if an immigrant comes to America and "steals a job" by agreeing to work for a lower wage than an American? Isn't that bad?

No, not at all. This is a classic protectionist argument and I'm surprised it's not more popular with the left. Yes, a given American worker will lose a labor job. However, the company will save money with lower labor costs, and in a competitive market, pass some of those savings on to the consumer. This will give people more money to spend in other areas, creating more jobs in other industries.

This goes back to Adam Smith. It's good for both parties to use cheap foreign labor, and all immigration does is change the side of the border those factories are located. In this sense, opposing immigrant labor is a version of the ancient pauper labor fallacy that's still popular with anti-globalizationists.

What's interesting is that few people doubt that it's rational for Mexicans - the group that is most responsible for illegal immigration in Arizona - to come to America to find work. Even though their best option is to work for lower wages than Americans, people realize that's it's a better opportunity than what's waiting for them at home. They also agree that this makes the immigrants wealthier.

This view, which is absolutely correct, is not compatible with the anti-sweatshop view - that offering low-paying jobs in poor countries exploits the workers and keeps them in poverty. Instead, in both cases you see the workers getting richer, and America as a whole benefits at the same time.

There will be losers in this scenario - some Americans with low skills will be out of a job. But American workers as a whole will benefit from the new jobs that open up. There will be more winners than losers.

And unlike what the "buy local" advocates preach, it doesn't hurt America to see our dollars leave the country when immigrants mail some of it back home to their families. Those families do not burn the money - they take it to a bank and exchange it for the local currency. Essentially they are buying money with another type of money. That bank will take the greenbacks and invest them back in America. American dollars have no choice but to come back to America.

Why the welfare state changes the rules

I know a lot of lefties who lust for the big welfare states of the Scandinavia. Countries like Denmark have high taxes and a lot of public goodies to dole out to the citizens.

They also have super-strict immigration policies. It's easier to get into Fort Knox then some of these countries. Why is that?

It's because when you promise a lot of free money to people in an area, people will move to that area to collect that free money. These people aren't being lazy or evil - just smart. When you reward people for being in a certain situation, more people will put themselves in that situation. That works for good things, like having a college degree, but it also works for bad things like being unemployed.

So a generous welfare state will attract people who want to take advantage of it. It's just human nature. That's why welfare states must keep people out if they're not willing to work. This isn't xenophobia - it's keeping the system from having too many takers and not enough givers.

Milton Friedman weighed in on this issue and said that immigration has always been good for America. He said today illegal Mexicans immigrants are still good for America, but making Mexican immigration legal would be bad for us because of our heavy welfare state.

"That’s an interesting paradox to think about. Make it legal and it’s no good. Why? Because as long as it’s illegal the people who come in do not qualify for welfare, they don’t qualify for social security, they don’t qualify for the other myriad of benefits that we pour out from our left pocket to our right pocket. So long as they don’t qualify they migrate to jobs. They take jobs that most residents of this country are unwilling to take. They provide employers with the kind of workers that they cannot get. They’re hard workers, they’re good workers, and they are clearly better off."
That was 30 years ago, and our welfare state is even more generous now. By keeping immigrant workers illegal, they mostly don't pay into or take from our public assistance programs.

That's not entirely true, of course. They still pay sales taxes, and property taxes indirectly through apartment rent. While illegal immigrants don't have access to things like social security, they are able to send their children to public schools. In California it's illegal to check a students immigration status, so we have cash-starved public education system that's paid by legal residents, but also serves illegal ones. Hospitals and law enforcement also absorb costs from serving illegal immigrants.

So Americans benefit from illegal immigrants because they must come here to work, not to collect free public money. It's a good thing that we're not rounding them up off the streets.

Still, there are some moral problems with not enforcing our own laws. It's good that law enforcement in Arizona can punish illegal immigrants with deportation when they are caught for unrelated crimes, and this gives immigrants double the reason to obey our other laws.

Because it won't effect just any person off the street - only the suspects of unrelated crimes - this law should help filter out the criminals from our illegal immigration population. It won't be perfect and it will also deport some illegal immigrants who are just here to work. However, these people are still breaking our immigration laws and it's the duty of police to enforce the laws - whether they agree with them or not.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

How many recycling bins is too many?

Remember that episode where Penn and Teller wanted to see how many sorted recycling bins people could tolerate?

Apparently British bureaucrats didn't understand that it was supposed to be a quest for the breaking point of environmental sacrifices, not a source of inspiration.

From the Daily Mail:

"In a regime set to spread across the country, residents are being forced to juggle an astonishing nine separate bins.

"There has already been a storm of protest with warnings that the scheme is too complex and homes simply don't have the space to deal with the myriad bins, bags and boxes."
Nine different containers for each house? That's an absurd edict to enforce on the public. Keep in mind that this is England, where the authorities will comb through your trash and fine you if you put something in the wrong bin.

What's more, the plan has some pretty serious environmental problems.

"Samantha Dudley, 34, an office administrator from Newcastle, said recycling bags and their contents blowing in the street were a 'constant problem'.

"She said: 'This scheme is supposed to increase recycling but the irony is it is creating more rubbish."
And of course, this situation is the actual example used in textbooks for a "perverse incentive," where a plan causes the very thing it was supposed to prevent.

"A report for the Environment Department last week revealed that the burning of household rubbish by those trying to evade recycling rules has now become the greatest source of highly poisonous and cancer-causing dioxins in the environment."
Thanks to Kids Prefer Cheese for the link.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How similar are Carl Sagan and Milton Friedman?

I often find the great thinkers I admire attract some radically different followers, as I come from both science-based opinions and a free market perspective. No where has this been more obvious than the gulf between the fans of Carl Sagan and those who follow Milton Friedman.

Carl Sagan was a NASA astronomer and science popularizer. Milton Friedman was a Nobel Prize winning economist who spoke to high school students and presidents the exact same way. Neither one was afraid to speak about politics, and they commanded opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Outside of the occasional libertarian, most people I meet respect one of these two intellectual leaders at the most. Carl attracts the left wing student types - most of whom only know Milton as the scapegoat of social activists. Milton, on the other hand, tends to bring in the older conservatives - a lot of whom don't see science as the ultimate source of knowledge.

But today it occurred to me that although their political stances were usually far apart, the two have a lot in common.

First the superficial things:

Both Carl and Milton graduated from Rahway High School in New Jersey. They grew up in Jewish families but became agnostic. Both passionately advocated marijuana legalization.

In January, 1980 PBS started airing Milton's 10 part "Free to Choose" series, which popularized economic science. In September of the same year PBS began broadcasting Carl's 13 part "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage." Both series are still remembered as excellent, accessible presentations on their given topics. Both Carl and Milton worked on their television series with their regular collaborators - their wives.

Most importantly, both Carl and Milton showed the world a contagious enthusiasm for science. Both were science popularizes - a difficult task to accomplish. A poor job can be seen as dry and boring or "dumbing things down." Carl and Milton nailed those topics in a way that's still fun and informative 30 years later.

They share one more important aspect. The world was made much poorer with each of their deaths. Thankfully these public intellectuals were not camera shy and future generations can benefit from their spirited presentations of science. Carl and Milton left the world a much better place than they found it, and one can't help but hear their voices when they read from the texts each one left behind.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Happy Birthday David Ricardo

April 19 marks the 228th birthday of David Ricardo. It's been two centuries since he graced the world with his theory of Comparative Advantage. Unfortunately, it's still relatively obscure, even among the educated.

If Adam Smith is the Charles Darwin of economics, then Ricardo is the equivalent of Gregor Mendel. That leaves Karl Marx to play the part of Trofim Lysenko.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

The mercantalist trap

I finally got the bright idea to see what "buy local" YouTube videos are out there and I came across a CNN interview of Chrystia Freeland of the Financial Times criticizing the movement.

She started off OK and spoke about how if every region adopts a "buy local" sentiment, international trade would cease like it did during the Great Depression. She also fairly labeled the view as one that sounds like a good idea on the surface but falls apart with a closer look.

Unfortunately, Freeland's argument sounded more like a mercantalist view by the end. Her big reason that protectionism and "buy local" are flawed was the following:

"The problem is if you have that same sort of process happening everywhere in the world then American companies, which are strong exporters themselves, will find themselves shut out of world markets."
While this is true, it's incomplete and hardly the largest flaw in the movement.

The big problem of the "buy local" scheme does not wait to manifest if every other region adopts it. It manifests instantly when consumers are robbed of competitive prices.

By buying only from local merchants, customers will pay higher prices. This is a result of both higher production costs and having to shop from a smaller, less competitive pool of merchants.

As Paul Krugman wrote

"... Imports, not exports, are the purpose of trade. That is, what a country gains from trade is the ability to import things it wants. Exports are not an objective in and of themselves: the need to export is a burden that a country must bear because its import suppliers are crass enough to demand payment."
In day to day life, exporting is going to work and importing is buying things. Which one do you want to do more of?

Freeland is focusing on American exports and forgetting about imports. I don't know enough about her other views to make a firm conclusion, but it sounds like she has some deeply-entrenched mercantalist tendencies that need to be teased out. She's on the right side of this issue and her criticism is technically accurate, but painfully incomplete.

The best part is that the person who posted the video called her argument "globalist propaganda" and accused Freeland of being bought off. If there is a big corporate-interest machine that wants to pay people to criticize the "buy local" movement, please contact me. I'm already doing it for free and I could use a new foreign-made car.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The feminist shell game

Last week an opinion piece in The Guardian pondered why modern women who believe in gender equality are often unwilling to call themselves feminists.

"...It is feminism which got us where we are today and without action and leadership from unabashed young feminists, we won't get much further. So step out from behind your shield and say it: "I am a feminist." No ifs, ands or buts."
Well I have a few qualms with that.

The rub is that past feminists victories don't have much to do with the current agenda of modern feminists.

There's a popular bumper sticker that reads "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." And that was certainly true - a century ago. It's been several generations since the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in America. Laws designed to give women less rights - such as restrictions on property - are gone.

First-wave feminism can now be called a conservative position because everyone agrees with it. There is no debate on it's merits. Even the Klu Klux Klan - hardly a progressive group - accepts female members today.

Second-wave feminism, which targeted our culture instead of our laws, had a lot of merit as well. Modern, third-wave feminism is the idea that a powerful government is needed to correct differences in the lives of men and women.

Granted, the difference between the waves are a little more complex than that, but the distinction is important. The ideas of the early feminists are mainstream and unanimous, while the ideas of modern feminists are not.

A few hundred years ago civilized people used to take delight in cat burnings - where sacks full of helpless felines would be publicly torched for entertainment. Today the act would be met with horror, not humor. There wouldn't be a debate over the appropriateness of animal torture as a form of amusement. Everyone would just agree.

Imagine if PETA tried to gerrymander it's membership by the same logic as feminists. "You're either with us, or you're for cat burnings!"

Opposing cruelty to animals doesn't make me an animal rights activists. It's just normal. Likewise, believing women deserve equal rights is normal.

In that way, modern feminists are playing a shell game. They espouse big-government intervention, but when those views are called into question, they hide behind the mantle of first-wavers. There's nothing irrational about opposing third-wave feminism, and it's dishonest to paint that opposition as an attack on early feminists.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Are political opponents evil people?

Listening to conservative talk radio lately, there's an ongoing theme with certain callers about how Obama is handling economic issues. The concept is the following:

"Obama is making decisions that will hurt the economy and give the government more power. Obama is also a smart guy, so he can't be doing this out of ignorance. Therefore, he is purposely ruining the country to make himself a dictator."

Good grief, and usually the host agrees with them.

This has become the norm in the hostile political climate today. People don't seem to understand that the other side could have a reasonable position. As Penn Jillette said in 2008 on the same subject, there are Democrats who believe:

"If you boil it all down, that Bush and McCain and Palin agree with the Democrats 100 percent on everything, and are then doing the opposite. They do not believe there is a disagreement. They do not believe that Bush is a person trying to do the best he can do, who is wrong."
I recently wrote about people assuming that the other side disagrees with them because they are all stupid. This is the opposite of that view. Instead, this group thinks that no one could possibly disagree with their political views, and any intellectual disagreement is a mask to justify malicious intent.

For example, I spent the first 25 years of my life only hearing anti-sweatshop arguments, with no idea there was another side to the issue. It was presented as a simple good versus evil story: There are poor people in other countries who work awful jobs for little pay just to save greedy corporations labor costs. No one talked about how these factories do more good for individual poor people than foreign aid.

Since I've learned more about the issue, I've found everyone I've talked to about it has had one of two responses: They are either completely - although uncomfortably - converted to the pro-sweatshop side, or they plug their ears and say it's all a big lie to justify corporate profits. I've never heard someone say they just don't find the evidence compelling for the trade-offs.

By making complex issues into simplistic good-versus-evil struggles, we degrade political discussion. As Greg Mankiw wrote on the health care debate:

"One thing I have been struck by in watching this debate is how strident it has been, among both proponents and opponents of the legislation. As a weak-willed eclectic, I can see arguments on both sides. Life is full of tradeoffs, and so most issues strike me as involving shades of gray rather than being black and white. As a result, I find it hard to envision the people I disagree with as demons."
Right now, a google search for the word "capitalism" brings up 19,900,000 hits. To get a sense of the flavor of the discussion, 7,500,000 of them - more than a third - also contain the word "Hitler."

Obama is making his presidential decisions with good intentions, not evil ones. I imagine if I was thrust into his office there would be some compromises I would have to make that are invisible to me right now. I have no reason to believe that he is motivated by anything other than running the country the best way he knows how. I can say he's wrong, but that's as far as I'm willing to go.


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Zeroing the Cash for Clunkers graph

Yesterday Brad Delong posted the government's assessment of the Cash for Clunkers program. No surprise - Obama's Council of Economic Advisers is calling the program a success. They were nice enough to supply this helpful graph:

But as someone in Delong's comment section pointed out, the graph is not zeroed. It presents 8 million cars where one expect to find zero. This makes the post-program dip look more severe, but more importantly, it raises the ratio of the successful boom to a misleadingly high level.

Here's the rest of the graph:

There's a word for this manner of representing data: misleading.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Will Larry Summers leave Obama's cabinet?

Sad to say, it's looking that way.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Larry Summers is the John Lennon of economics. He's damn good at what he does, but sometimes he says things that irk the public.

As I've written before, Paul Krugman said Summer's criticism of common-sense economists cost him a top-level spot in Bill Clinton's administration. His 2005 presentation on different explanations for why women are underrepresented in the upper echelons of math and science drew criticism from various organized ignorance groups and may have cost him the treasury
position in 2009. Obama did welcome Summers to his administration, but buried him in the National Economic Council.

Imagine getting John Lennon to join your band, and then assign him to play the triangle.

As Joshua Green wrote in The Atlantic:

"Summers always seemed a bad fit for NEC director because the job entails dispassionately presenting the president with the counsel of his competing economic advisers. Summers doesn't do "dispassionate" and he didn't want to limit himself to fielding others' advice--he had plenty of his own to offer. In other words, he was supposed to be the referee, but he also wanted to play power forward."
Summers is absolutely a left winger, but his knowledge as an economic scientist tempers some of his views, much to the chagrin of some liberal extremists.

The rumor mills are swirling right now, and I'm not convinced if he's going to quit, get pushed out or promoted. Time will tell, but a pity to this nation if the president stops listening to him.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Does being wrong make someone stupid?

There's a strain of arguments surfacing today that attempt to prove a point not with logic or reason, but simply by saying that people who agree with the position are smarter than their opponents.

The argument takes a lot of forms. There's the phony claim that Democratic-majority states have higher average IQs than Republican states. There's the recent study that concluded that liberals and atheists are smarter. This study met a lot of harsh criticism. There are also reports that going to college makes people more liberal, and college professors themselves are overwhelmingly liberal.

Surely, this must all add up to an endorsement of liberal positions. If the smart, educated people are more liberal, than liberalism must be the superior position, right?

Not so fast. Let's keep in mind the relevance of expertise. A doctorate in chemical engineering does little to prepare someone to evaluate the consequences of an inheritance tax. An education major will learn how to teach public education students, but not the ins and outs of school funding. Some fields, like womens studies, don't seem to do anything but train left-wing activists. Paul Krugman wrote that most intellectuals fail to understand comparative advantage, so how informed can their economic views be?

So a generic degree will teach people some important things, but not necessarily anything relevant to political positions.

The popular explanation for college liberalism from the right is that colleges brainwash students into being lefties. I imagine there is some truth to this claim, as a constant exposure to mostly one side of an argument should skew things to some degree. However, it's incomplete. Are we to believe that the students who eventually become left wing professors are never motivated to question these lessons once they graduate? Doesn't that suggest that the end game knowledge simply confirms their liberal upbringing? There must be more going on than simple brainwashing.

Hayek had several answers to this problem. His first is that smart people prefer top-down solutions because they believe they could fix societal problems if they were put in a position of power.

As Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom:
"...We all think that our personal order of values is not merely personal but that in a free discussion among rational people we would convince the others that ours is the right one."
The rub is that there's a lot of other smart people who think their narrow field is important, and when you add up all the intellectuals and all their solutions, your pool of resources is too small to satisfy them all. Each expert thinks his cause would be bumped to the front of the list, so they all support a centrally-planned system that would be doomed to failure if attempted.

Flash back to high school when my history teacher told us that Plato believed the world should be ruled by philosophizer kings. I rolled my eyes because this was clearly a self-serving solution - a philosopher saying philosophers should be in charge.

Smart people don't want to have to compete for wealth; they think they deserve it more than simple-minded people. So our world is infuriating because someone of average intelligence can own a construction company and make more money than a scholar.

Academia itself is a top-down approach. Although I constantly read about professors frustrated with academia, they may prefer the system simply because they are familiar with it and being a professors means the system already worked to their benefit.

Does being right make someone smart?

But outside of higher education; is there a cause-and effect relationship to intelligence and being correct on a given issue?

Keep in mind the right wing isn't afraid to make these kind of arguments either. Ann Coulter's 2007 book was titled, If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans.

I sometimes stop myself from accidentally calling people stupid when they express stupid ideas. This isn't just out of respect - it's entirely self-serving. In 2006 I wrote an editorial in my college newspaper defending Intelligent Design as an alternative explanation to evolution, and calling on biologists to give it a fair shot instead of dismissing it out of hand.

I got a few replies from the biology department which said that yes, these claims have indeed been addressed - back in the 19th century. By 2007 I was no longer an Intelligent Design proponent and rejoined the evolution camp.

Did my complete reversal on that subject mean I went from being stupid to smart within a year? I certainly hope not. Most of my other positions went unchanged, and I retained a lot of knowledge in other subjects.

It's ideas that can be easily diagnosed as stupid, not the complex people who hold them. I firmly believe that Sept. 11 conspiracy theories that say the government orchestrated the attacks are moronic, but some of the people who hold them can still be smart. I think the anti-vaccination crowd is very ignorant about vaccines, but capable of being smart in other subjects.

Don't get me wrong, people can still be stupid. It's just hard to tell if someone is stupid because of their views on one subject, no matter how strongly they hold them.

In addition, there is no reason someone of low intelligence would be unable to stumble upon a correct viewpoint.

Keep in mind that saying being smart and being right are the same thing suggests people generally select their positions on a given issue using reason and logic. That view ignores the widespread problem of rationalization - where people based their decisions on emotions and then cook up an intelligent explanation for why they hold that view.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

An open letter to Georgia's 4th congressional district

Dear Congressional District 4 in Georgia,

We don't know each other, but I have some serious concerns for your well-being

I supported you in 2006 when you voted out Cynthia McKinney. After all, this was the politician who assaulted a Capital Hill security guard, which caused a chain of events that lead to her chewing out a staffer while wearing a microphone, then unconvincingly demanded the news crew forget they heard anything.

She is also a 9-11 conspiracy theorist and in 2008 claimed the Department of Defense used Hurricane Katrina as a smokescreen to dump the bodies of 5,000 executed prisoners into a swamp.

I want to assure you, getting rid of her was the right thing to do.

But her replacement, Hank Johnson, isn't doing much better.

Johnson's rambling remark last year about how Joe Wilson's outburst will bring about a new era of the KKK didn't get too much attention. His new concern, that a military buildup on Guam could cause the island to "tip over and capsize" is getting a lot of attention.

His media team attempted to recoup the best it could, claiming that Johnson was speaking metaphorically. I suppose this was more palpable than releasing a statement admitting someone that slow really got elected to your fair district.

That brings us back to you, Congressional District 4. If it makes you feel any better, you could just not elect anyone this November. It's OK, we understand. An empty seat in Washington is one less vote for crazy.