Tag Archives: Matthew Yglesias

Park Slope and The Rats of NIMBY

Elisabeth Rosenthal at NYT:

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Cape Cod, Mass. Berkeley, Calif. Three famously progressive places, right? The yin to the Tea Party yang. But just try putting a bike lane or some wind turbines in their lines of sight. And the karma can get very different.

Last week, two groups of New Yorkers who live “on or near” Prospect Park West, a prestigious address in Park Slope, filed a suit against the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to remove a nine-month-old bike lane that has commandeered a lane previously used by cars.

In Massachusetts, the formidable opponents of Cape Wind, a proposed offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound, include members of the Kennedy family, whose compound looks out over the body of water. In Berkeley last year, the objections of store owners and residents forced the city to shelve plans for a full bus rapid transit system (B.R.T.), a form of green mass transit in which lanes that formerly served cars are blocked off and usurped by high-capacity buses that resemble above-ground subways.

Critics in New York contend the new Prospect Park bike lane is badly designed, endangering pedestrians and snarling traffic. Cape Wind opponents argue the turbines will defile a pristine body of water. And in Berkeley, store owners worried that reduced traffic flow and parking could hurt their business.

But some supporters of high-profile green projects like these say the problem is just plain old Nimbyism — the opposition by residents to a local development of the sort that they otherwise tend to support.

Ryan Avent:

The Times piece delves into the psychology of this kind of neighborhood opposition, but what it doesn’t say is that as annoying as this is, it has a far smaller impact on net emissions than the far more common anti-development strain of NIMBYism. Bike lanes make New York City a teeny bit greener. But New York is already much, much greener than most American cities, thanks to its dense development pattern and extensive transit network. Net emissions fall a lot more when someone from Houston moves to New York than when someone from New York starts biking.

Happily, lots of people would LOVE to move to New York. This is one huge benefit we don’t need to subsidize to realize. Unhappily, the benefit is nonetheless out of reach because of the huge obstacles to new, dense construction in New York. New York can’t accommodate more people unless it builds more homes, and it can’t build more homes, for the most part, without building taller buildings. And New Yorkers fight new, tall buildings tooth and nail. They fight them on aesthetic grounds, and because they’re worried about parking and traffic, and because they’re worried about their view, and because they just think there’s enough building in New York already, thank you. And many do this while heaping massive scorn on oil executives and the Republican Party over their backward and destructive views on global warming.

Of course, the obstruction of development is offensive for lots of reasons: it makes housing and access to employment unaffordable, it reduces urban job and revenue growth, it tramples on private property rights, and so on. But the environmental hypocrisy is galling, and it’s not limited to New York. My old neighborhood, Brookland, voted overwhelmingly for Obama (about 90-10, as I recall). Many of the locals are vocally supportive of broad, lefty environmental goals. And yet, when a local businessman wants to redevelop his transit-adjacent land into a denser, mixed-use structure, the negative response is overwhelming, and residents fall over themselves to abuse local rules in order to prevent the redevelopment from happening.

This project would bring new retail with it, which would enable more local residents to walk to a retail destination. It would bring new residents, and those residents would be vastly more likely to walk or take transit to destinations than those living farther from Metro. Forget the economic benefits to the city, the people occupying the new housing units would have carbon footprints dramatically below the national average. But this basically does not matter to the NIMBYs however much they profess to care about the environment.

To the extent that public opinion matters and can be shaped, I think it would be a huge boon for humanity for attitudes toward NIMBYism to turn decidedly negative. People should be ashamed of this behavior, which is both selfish and extravagantly dismissive of property rights.

Kevin Drum:

Earlier today, I linked to a Ryan Avent post complaining that although dense cities like New York are much greener than towns and suburbs, his lefty, environmentally-aware neighbors fight against new high-density developments in the city anyway. A little later, I had an email exchange with HW, a lefty, environmentally-aware New Yorker who thinks Ryan has it all wrong. Here’s the exchange:

HW: It is true that people living in NY have much much lower carbon footprints than those who live in lower density areas. It’s also true that it is a highly desirable place to live. So wouldn’t the way to accomplish more people living in high density areas like NY be to replicate it elsewhere? Or should we insist on cramming more people into NY against NYers’ will and make it a less desirable place to live?

Wouldn’t it be better for 8 million people to live in NY and have it serve as a beacon for a great, lower carbon footprint lifestyle? If you cram an extra million people in, sure, you lower their carbon footprints, but you may also make high density urban living far less attractive and less likely to be replicated around the country.

Avent mentions problems with parking and traffic as a throw-away, but I can tell you, the 4-5-6 running up from midtown to the Upper East Side is quite literally crammed wall-to-wall with people every morning. Parking is unlikely to be an option for anyone unwilling to spend several hundred dollars a month. And yes, another ten skyscrapers will result in the city becoming a darker and more depressing place. Not to mention the fact that the last ten high rises that went up on the Upper East Side were creatures of the housing bubble, resulting in massive losses and lots of empty units.

So would it be so terrible if we built up the downtown areas of Jersey City, White Plains and Stamford instead?

My reply: Well, that’s the funny thing. Building new high-density areas is the obvious answer here, but no one ever does it. Why? I assume it’s because it’s next to impossible to get people to move to new high-density developments. You get all the bad aspects of density without any of the good aspects of living in a big, well-established city.

It’s a conundrum. We could use more well established cities, but no one wants to live in the intermediate stages that it takes to build one. And of course, in well-established smaller towns and cities, the residents fight like crazed weasels to prevent the kind of development that they associate with crime and gangs.

I don’t really know what the answer is.

HW again: I’m not sure that’s entirely true. What about all the downtown redevelopment projects that have happened around the country? Or the urban centers that sprout up around the core of big cities like NY. Next time you are in NY, look across the East River and take a gander at Long Island City. It’s as close to midtown as the Upper East Side, easy to build there, far less expensive, and just as dense. And every single one of those luxury high rises went up in the past 12 years; it’s literally a skyline that didn’t exist 12 years ago. Jersey City is a similar story, both for residential and financial (every big bank has moved their IT back office out there). Or look at the gentrification of Brooklyn!

So why obsess on cramming a couple hundred thousand more people on the island of Manhattan, which will push it past the bursting point? It’s just not a smart premise. In fact, I’ll go further: it bears no relationship to reality. No one would stop a luxury high rise in any of the other four boroughs or right across the river in NJ and it’s just as dense and low-carbon to live in those spots. It’s just that Ryan Avent doesn’t WANT to live in those spots. He wants to live in a cheaper high rise in Manhattan (which, by the way, has seen tons of them go up already in the past decade — in the Financial District, Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper East Side). Avent should ride the 4/5/6 at 8 am every morning for a week, come back, and tell us if his article makes any sense. As a 4th generation NYer, I don’t think it even begins to.

I don’t really have a dog in this fight since I’ve lived in the leafy suburbs of Orange County all my life. But I thought this was an instructive response that was worth sharing. Back to you, Ryan.

Avent responds to the e-mail exchange:

I’m just pointing out the obvious here — many more people would like to live in Manhattan, it would be good economically and environmentally if they did, and it’s bad that local neighborhood groups are preventing them from doing so because they’re worried about their view. Further, my guess is that even without a relaxation in development rules Manhattan will cram in a couple hundred thousand more people, and demand will continue to rise; somehow, Manhattan will manage not to burst. Though it might eventually be swamped, if city-dwelling NIMBYs continue to make Houston exurbs ever more affordable relative to walkable density.

The transportation problem can be solved, in part, by better transportation policy. It is a crime that the subways are crammed while drivers use the streets of Manhattan for free, but that’s a policy failure, not a density failure. It’s also worth noting that heights fall off sharply as one moves away from the central business districts of Lower and Midtown Manhattan. If developers could build taller in surrounding neighborhoods and add residential capacity there, then more Manhattan workers could live within easy walking distance of their offices, and fewer would need to commute in by train.

Finally, let me point out that this is not about what I want. I’m not planning a move to New York, and I’m not remotely suggesting that the government should somehow mandate or encourage high-density construction. I’m simply saying that it should be easier for builders to meet market demand. It should be easier for builders to meet market demand in Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and Nassau County, and Washington, and downtown Denver, and so on. People clearly want to live in these places, and it would be really good for our economy and our environment if they were able to do so. And I find it very unfortunate that residents deriving great benefits from the amenities of their dense, urban neighborhoods are determined to deny those benefits to others.

Matthew Yglesias:

I don’t want to say too much about the debate over increased density in Manhattan because, again, ebook proposal. But one reality check on this whole subject is to note that the population of Manhattan 100 years ago at 2,331,542 people. It then hit a low of 1,428,285 in 1980 and has since then risen back up to 1,629,054.

Back in 1910 there were only 92,228,496 people in the United States. Since that time, the population of the country has more than tripled to 308,745,538. And if you look at Manhattan real estate prices, it’s hardly as if population decline in Manhattan has been driven by a lack of demand for Manhattan housing. Back around 1981 when I was born, things were different. The population of the island was shrinking and large swathes of Manhattan were cheap places to live thanks to the large existing housing stock and the high crime.

Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior:

Many years ago I gave a talk entitled, Green Manhattan, where I made the case that Metropolis was the greenest place in America.

Naturally, I got a lot of funny looks but the line that seemed to win a few converts was this: the best way to protect the environment is by keeping people out of it.

I admit I took a few liberties in the talk, not discussing how agriculture would be performed and supported, for example. Nonetheless, I think this framing breaks the intuition that green is about living with nature rather than letting nature live on its on.

Megan McArdle:

New York hasn’t actually been growing steadily; it’s been rebounding to the population of roughly 8 million that it enjoyed in 1950-70 before the population plunged in the 1970s.  It’s really only in the last ten years that the population has grown much beyond where it was in the 1970.

This matters because I think you can argue pretty plausibly that New York’s infrastructure has put some limits on the city’s growth–that by 1970 the city had about grown up to those limits, and that we can push beyond them only slowly.  The rail and bus lines that sustain the business district are pretty much saturated, and the roads and bridges can’t really carry many more cars at peak times.  Adding busses could conceivably help you handle some of the overflow, but unless those busses actually replace cars, they’ll also make traffic slower.
Unless you plan to fill the city entirely with retirees who don’t need to go to work, there’s actually not that much more room to build up New York–you could put the people there, but they wouldn’t be able to move.  And even the retirees would require goods and services that choke already very congested entry and exit points.  There has been peripatetic talk about switching all deliveries to night, but that would disturb the sleep of low-floor apartment dwellers, and be fantastically expensive, forcing every business to add a night shift.
At the very least, the current city dwellers are right that adding more people would add a lot more costs to them–crammed train cars, more expensive goods.  In New York, much more than in other places, the competition for scarce resources like commuting space is extremely stark.
That doesn’t mean it is impossible to add a lot more people to New York.  But doing so requires not just changing zoning rules–as far as I know, there’s already quite a lot of real estate in the outer boroughs that could accommodate more people, but it’s not close to transportation, so it’s not economically viable.  If you want to add a lot more housing units, you also need to add considerable complimentary infrastructure, starting with upgrading the rest of the subway’s Depression-era switching systems (complicated and VERY expensive because unlike other systems, New York’s trains run 24/7).  And ultimately, it’s going to mean adding more subway lines, because short of building double-decker streets, there’s no other way for enough people to move.
Those lines don’t have to go to the central business district; there’s already been some success developing alternate hubs in Queens and Brooklyn.  But they do have to go from residential neighborhoods to somewhere that people work, and they have to add actual extra carrying capacity to the system–line extensions do no good if the trains are already packed to bursting over the high-traffic areas of the route.

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Filed under Go Meta, Infrastructure

Looking Away From Japan For One Moment..

The Week:

Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 soldiers into neighboring Bahrain on Monday to help quell increasingly violent anti-government protests. While Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifah, a Sunni Muslim, has offered to start a dialogue with the mostly Shiite protesters, opposition leaders have refused, demanding that the government step down, and calling the arrival of foreign troops an invasion. Saudi Arabia has problems with its own Shiite minority, and fears the unrest in Bahrain could spill over into its own oil-rich kingdom. Will the Saudis be able to quash the unrest in Bahrain?

Bruce McQuain:

Yes it’s another fine mess.  Of course while the Japanese tragedy and the struggles with their nuclear power plants has sucked all the air out of news elsewhere, there is, in fact much news elsewhere.  And not the least of it is coming out of the Middle East where Saudi troops, as a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), moved into Bahrain ostensibly to “guard government facilities”.

The GCC is composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait.   It was created in 1991 (think Iraq invasion of Kuwait), the 6 members share common borders and are committed by their charter to help each other in times of need.

The action by the GCC, as you might imagine, is in direct conflict with how the White House has indicated it would prefer the situation in Bahrain be resolved.  Obviously that’s not carried much weight with the GCC.

The move created another quandary for the Obama administration, which obliquely criticized the Saudi action without explicitly condemning the kingdom, its most important Arab ally. The criticism was another sign of strains in the historically close relationship with Riyadh, as the United States pushes the country to make greater reforms to avert unrest.

Other symptoms of stress seem to be cropping up everywhere.

Saudi officials have made no secret of their deep displeasure with how President Obama handled the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, charging Washington with abandoning a longtime ally. They show little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls “universal values,” including peaceful protests.

The GCC move has prompted both Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense and Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, to cancel upcoming visits to Saudi Arabia.

Again, the apparent genesis of these tensions appear to be related to the way the US handled Egypt.  It has caused the Saudis and other GCC nations to trust the US less than before:

The latest tensions between Washington and Riyadh began early in the crisis when King Abdullah told President Obama that it was vital for the United States to support Mr. Mubarak, even if he began shooting protesters. Mr. Obama ignored that counsel. “They’ve taken it personally,” said one senior American familiar with the conversations, “because they question what we’d do if they are next.”

Since then, the American message to the Saudis, the official said, is that “no one can be immune,” and that the glacial pace of reforms that Saudi Arabia has been engaged in since 2003 must speed up.

Obviously the Saudi’s have their own ideas of how to handle this and apparently aren’t taking kindly to the US attempting to dictate how it should handle it’s internal affairs.  And, given the treatment of Mubarak, the Saudi rulers can’t help but feel that they’re just as likely to be thrown under the bus if protests were to escalate as was Mubarak.

Consequently, they’ve decided to go their own way and handle it with force within the GCC  while throwing money at the problem within the Saudi Kingdom.  Speaking of the latter:

One of President Obama’s top advisers described the moves as more in a series of “safety valves” the Saudis open when pressure builds; another called the subsidies “stimulus funds motivated by self-preservation.”

Saudi officials, who declined to comment for this article to avoid fueling talk of divisions between the allies, said that the tensions had been exaggerated and that Americans who criticized the pace of reforms did not fully appreciate the challenges of working in the kingdom’s ultraconservative society.

Of course the difference between their “stimulus funds” and ours is they actually have the money.   But it is ironic to see the adviser describe “stimulus funds” in those terms isn’t it?  The actual point here should be evident though.  The GCC has rejected the “Bahrain model” as the desired method of addressing the unrest.  As you recall that was the “regime alteration” model, v. the regime change model.

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

It’s a move that undercuts the Obama administration’s rosy portrayal of the monarchy. Despite a paroxysm of violence in February when security forces attacked protesters in the capitol city of Manama, “today, the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain is a place of nonviolent activism,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured reporters on March 1. After a visit last week to Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Gates said he was convinced the royals “are serious about real reform.”

If so, that lasted until about when Gates’ plane went wheels-up. Security forces are now trying to clear Manama’s financial district of protesters, firing tear gas canisters into demonstrators’ chests. About 1000 Saudi troops entered Bahrain on Monday, ostensibly to protect government installations, but protesters at the Pearl Roundabout set up barricades in preparation for the Saudis attacking them. The leading Shia opposition party, Wefaq, called it a “declaration of war and an occupation.”

And it’s not just the Saudis. Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine tweeted that forces from the United Arab Emirates are also entering Bahrain, fulfilling a mandate from the Gulf Cooperation Council to protect the royals.

Matthew Yglesias:

I wish folks urging the United States to start a war in Libya would think a bit more about the situation in Bahrain: “The king of Bahrain declared a three-month state of emergency on Tuesday as more than 10,000 protesters marched on the Saudi Arabian embassy here to denounce a military intervention by Persian Gulf countries the day before.”

I don’t think the US military should attack Bahrain’s forces or Saudi Arabia’s any more than I think we should attack Libyas. But it seems overwhelmingly likely to me that if the Secretary of Defense were to call the relevant royal families and say that the United States does not intend to sell weapons in the future to countries that use them to crack down on peaceful democratic protestors, that this would be an important spur to political change. It’d be radically cheaper than a war with Libya and more effective than a war with Libya. If the answer is “well, America likes its client states just fine and doesn’t actually care about human rights in Arab countries” then maybe that’s all there is to say about it, but for people to run around the op-ed pages talking about no-fly zones in North Africa seems to me like it’s dodging the real question here. My view is that despotism can hardly be expected to last in the Gulf forever so getting on the right side of inevitable change will serve any meaningful conception of interests just as well as trying to prolong the inevitable will.

Ed Morrissey:

This will put a new wrinkle in the American reaction to the unrest.  Bahrain has a constitutional monarchy, as noted above, with a more liberal political environment than Saudi Arabia.  Both, however, are American allies; Bahrain has a free-trade agreement with the US.  Women have the right to vote and to seek education, which is much different than the Saudis.  The people have demonstrated peacefully for the most part in the Pearl Roundabout in the capital of Manama, but government forces used live ammunition to attempt to drive them out on at least two occasions last month.  They claim to want a republic based on representative democracy, exactly as protesters in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia demanded — and which the US endorsed in those instances, to vacillating and varying degrees.

Now that one US ally has more or less invaded another, Grenada-style, at the request of a monarchy that has fired on its own people to maintain its power, what will Barack Obama do?  The Saudis clearly see the threat in Bahrain as a potential destabilizing force in their own country as well as fearing a growth of Shi’ite power in the region with the takeover of Bahrain.  Will Obama tell the Saudis to stand down and let the people of Bahrain settle their own accounts despite their probably-legitimate fears, or will he side with the Saudis for the status quo while the rest of the Arab world gets turned upside down?  Frankly, there aren’t a lot of great options here.

Dov Zakheim at Foreign Policy:

It should come as no surprise that Saudi Arabia has come to the aid of Bahrain’s royal family with about one thousand troops crossing the causeway between the two countries. If more troops are needed to ensure that the al-Khalifa regime does not fall, the Saudis will oblige. Put simply, Riyadh cannot tolerate Shiite domination of its offshore island, whether or not the al-Khalifas remain in power.

A Bahrain that is ruled by its Shiite majority is one-third of the ultimate nightmare for the Sunni rulers of the desert kingdom. The other two-thirds are a revolt by the Shiite majority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, which could spill over from the troubles in neighboring Bahrain and a massive influx of Yemenis, many of whom are adherents of the Zaidi branch of Islam, and have little in common with Saudi Wahhabism.

Stability in Bahrain is therefore crucial for the long-term future of the al-Saud family as rulers of their eponymous kingdom. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s rulers fully recognize that because memories in the Middle East are very long, the fact that the Hejaz was a separate Arabian kingdom as recently as the 1920s until it was conquered by Ibn Saud and merged with his kingdom of the Nejd means that the break-up of their country is hardly impossibility.

Other Gulf States, notably Kuwait, whose rulers are close to the al-Khalifa, may join the Saudi effort to stabilize Bahrain. So might the UAE, which shares Saudi fears of Iranian domination of the island, which was once an Iranian province, and which continues to smart over the Iranian seizure of its islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in 1971.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:

But outside of Tunisia and Egypt, Arab dreams are fast becoming Arab nightmares. In Libya, a spontaneous popular uprising is turning into a civil war — one that the rebels are rapidly losing. In Bahrain, protests that began as a call for civil rights and constitutional reform have devolved into ugly sectarian street battles; and as Saudi forces intervene to protect the ruling Sunni monarchy, the situation risks sparking a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen is kicking out foreign journalists as tribes cowboy up and activists talk of an impending bloodbath. Iraq’s hapless government is clamping down on political freedom. And all of this is taking place against the backdrop of rising oil prices, a hopelessly stalled Middle East peace process, and an epic natural disaster in the world’s No. 3 economy.

There are some bright spots: Morocco’s King Mohammed VI seems to understand at some level that he needs to embrace change lest he be swept up by it; Jordan has remained surprisingly calm even though its monarch, King Abdullah II, has thus far only pretended to get it; Kuwait already had a relatively vibrant political scene; and quiescent Qatar and the go-go United Arab Emirates don’t seem at risk of any unrest whatsoever. But in general, the region’s autocrats are responding as they always have to popular anger: with a combination of brute force, comically half-baked reforms, and economic bribes.

What will happen next is anybody’s guess, but I find it hard to be optimistic in the short term. Much depends on how the democratic transitions in Tunisia and especially Egypt go, but it will be many months before the dust settles there. In the meantime, the rest of the region is ablaze. And as they did with Iraq, Arab leaders will now eagerly point to Libya and Bahrain as cautionary examples of what happens when citizens to the streets.

Meanwhile, the region’s two traditional problem children — Lebanon and Palestine — haven’t even joined the fray yet. Burgeoning youth protest movements in both places are calling on their bickering, ineffective leaders to get their acts together in the name of national unity, but the forces of the status quo are far stronger. It’s hard to imagine Hezbollah and Lebanon’s March 14 movement in Lebanon, or Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, putting aside their differences and coming together for the common good. And Iran and its pal Syria haven’t begun to make trouble yet. Now that Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet in Bahrain, the gloves may come off — especially if the U.N. special tribunal ever gets around to indicting Hezbollah figures for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

None of this is to say that there is some magic formula that the United States could have employed to avoid this dangerous state of affairs. U.S. influence in the region is fast evaporating, as evidenced by the fact that its ostensible allies — Israel and Saudi Arabia — are now flaunting their rejection of Washington’s advice: Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly about to debut an absurdly disingenuous peace initiative, and Saudi troops just rolled into Bahrain a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates urged King Hamad to compromise and embrace political reform. The Pentagon didn’t even get a courtesy call.

But what happens next will have huge repercussions for U.S. national security, and will present President Obama will terrible dilemmas in the region. If Saudi troops kill Shiites in Bahrain using American weapons, what will he say or do? Iran wasn’t behind any of these uprisings, but if it starts creating mischief, how should he respond? What if Yemen turns into another Somalia? What if Palestinians rise up against Israel in a third intifada? If Egypt’s transition goes badly? Right now, coming up with tough questions is a lot easier than providing answers.

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Filed under Middle East

Choo Choo Canned Heat Collectivism

George Will in Newsweek:

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

One way of looking at high-speed rail systems is that they are a means by which distant communities get connected, economic development and jobs are fostered, and workers with a diverse array of marketable skills can improve their mobility and thus their employment prospects. But another way of looking at high-speed rail is that it’s some nonsense that came to a bunch of hippies as they tripped balls at a Canned Heat concert. That’s my takeaway with George Will’s latest grapple-with-the-real-world session, in which he attempts to figure out “Why liberals love trains.” It’s “Matrix” deep, yo

Sarah Goodyear at Grist:

In case you’re wondering about the provenance of that “collectivism” word — well, collectivism was a favorite demon of Ayn Rand, right-wing philosopher and the Ur-mother of libertarianism in the United States. Here’s a typical usage, from The Objectivist Newsletter of May 1962 (via the Ayn Rand Lexicon):

The political philosophy of collectivism is based on a view of man as a congenital incompetent, a helpless, mindless creature who must be fooled and ruled by a special elite with some unspecified claim to superior wisdom and a lust for power.

“Collectivism” also recalls some of the very worst communist ideas, including the “collectivization” of farms in the Stalinist Soviet Union — among the great atrocities of the 20th century (a crowded category).

Which makes it a pretty strong term to be throwing around when it comes to funding different modes of transportation in 21st-century America. But Will persists with his formulation:

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they — unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted — are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

A couple of things here. First off, automobiles are not the only vehicles capable of encouraging “delusions of adequacy.” Bicycles, one might argue, are a lot more capable of encouraging such delusions — fueled as they are entirely by the body of the “unscripted” individual. Which is perhaps why they seem to enrage people in cars, who have to worry about gasoline and the like, so very much.

Second, let’s talk about modern air travel. What mode of transport is more capable of sapping the human sense of possibility, more confining of the untrammeled human spirit? Perhaps before Will goes after high-speed rail, he should call for the defunding of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Paul Krugman:

As Sarah Goodyear at Grist says, trains are a lot more empowering and individualistic than planes — and planes, not cars, are the main alternative to high-speed rail.

And there’s the bit about rail as an antiquated technology; try saying that after riding the Shanghai Maglev.

But anyway, it’s amazing to see Will — who is not a stupid man — embracing the sinister progressives-hate-your-freedom line, more or less right out of Atlas Shrugged; with the extra irony, of course, that John Galt’s significant other ran, well, a railroad.

Matthew Yglesias:

But I do think this is a good look into the psychology of conservatives. Maybe high-speed rail is a waste of money and maybe it isn’t. I think it’s plausible to say we should just spend the cash on better regular mass transit or whatever. But I’ve long struggled to explain the right-wing’s affection for status quo American policies that amount to massive subsidization of the automobile. A small slice of that is spending on roads. A much larger amount is minimum lot size rules, parking mandates, the whole shebang. It’s a bit odd, and my instinct had been to say that this just goes to show that conservatism has nothing to do with free markets and everything to do with the identity politics of middle aged white suburban conformists. But Will offers another explanation here. Automobile use is not a sign of the free market, but an actual cause of it. Driving inculcates habits of freedom, and thus coercive pro-car regulations are, in a way, freedom-promoting.

More Krugman:

A bit more on this subject — not serious, just a personal observation after a long hard day of reading student applications. (My suggestion that we reject all applicants claiming to be “passionate” about their plans was rejected, but with obvious reluctance.)

Anyway, my experience is that of the three modes of mechanized transport I use, trains are by far the most liberating. Planes are awful: waiting to clear security, then having to sit with your electronics turned off during takeoff and landing, no place to go if you want to get up in any case. Cars — well, even aside from traffic jams (tell me how much freedom you experience waiting for an hour in line at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel), the thing about cars is that you have to drive them, which kind of limits other stuff.

But on a train I can read, listen to music, use my aircard to surf the web, get up and walk to the cafe car for some Amfood; oh, and I’m not restricted by the War on Liquids. When I can, I prefer to take the train even if it takes a couple of hours more, say to get to Boston, because it’s much higher-quality time.

Yes, your choices are limited by the available trains; if I wanted to take a train from beautiful downtown Trenton to DC tomorrow, I’d be restricted to one of 21 trains, leaving roughly once an hour if not more often, whereas if I wanted to drive I could leave any time I wanted. Big deal.

And don’t get me started on how much more freedom of movement I feel in New York, with subways taking you almost everywhere, than in, say, LA, where you constantly have to worry about parking and traffic.

So if trains represent soulless collectivism, count me in.


As Krugman says, trains really are the best way to travel, at least for travel times that are roughly competitive with air travel. That fact doesn’t automatically mean that therefore we should spend huge amounts of public money on it, but, you know, it does mean that people like trains for more reasons than their insidious collectivist promotion.

Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

Manypeoplehave, for good reason, taken their knocks at syndicated columnist William F. George’s ludicrous column about trains, with particular emphasis on the substantial amount of government subsidies that facilitate “individualistic” car travel.    In addition, I’d note that the flying experience is a good example of Republican “freedom.”   For some distances flying is of course necessary and useful, although a good high-speed train network would reduce the number of routes that make flying more practical. For the ordinary person, however, flying is a miserable experience — more waiting in line than a Soviet supermarket during a recession, the potentially humiliating security theater, and incredibly cramped and uncomfortable travel.     But — and here’s the rub — people as affluent as Will can buy their way out of the worst aspects of flying, with separate security lines, private lounges, and first-class seating.   With trains, on the other hand, the experience for the ordinary person is infinitely superior but the affluent can obtain an only marginally better experience.   So you can see why Will hates it.   The fact that trains might represent more meaningful freedom for you isn’t his problem.

More Krugman:

Some of the comments on my various pro-train posts have been along the lines of “Oh yeah, try taking the train to Los Angeles.” But that, of course, misses the point.

I think about the trains/planes comparison something like this: planes go much faster, and will continue to go faster even if we get high-speed rail; but there are some costs associated with a plane trip that can be avoided or minimized on a rail trip, and those costs are the same whether it’s a transcontinental flight or a hop halfway up or down the Northeast Corridor. You have to get to the airport at one end, and get from it at the other, which is a bigger issue, usually, than getting to and from train stations that are already in the city center. You have to wait on security lines. You have to spend more time boarding. So if we look just at travel time, it looks like this:


Suppose that I put those fixed costs at 2 hours; suppose that planes fly at 500 miles an hour; and suppose that we got TGV-type trains that went 200 miles an hour. Then the crossover point would be at 667 miles. It would still be much faster to take planes across the continent — but not between Boston and DC, or between SF and LA. Add in my personal preference for train travel, and I might be willing to train it to Chicago, maybe, but not to Texas.

Now, if we got vacuum maglevs

More Yglesias:

I endorse Krugman’s analysis, but in some ways I think the fact that you can’t get to LA on a train actually is the point. You can’t take the train from New York to Los Angeles. You can’t drive from New York to Los Angeles. You need an airplane. But LaGuardia Airport has limited runway capacity and many daily flights to Boston. Clearly, though, you can take a train from New York to Boston. So money spent on improving the speed and passenger capacity of NYC-Boston train links is, among other things, a way to improve New York’s air links to the West Coast.

Now a separate question is whether there’s any feasible way to actually do this in a country that doesn’t have a French (or Chinese) level of central political authority empowered to build straight tracks through people’s suburban backyards. The answer seems to be “no,” but the potential gains from greater rail capacity in the northeast are large and would (via airplanes) spill over into the rest of the country.

More Goodyear:

In the dark days immediately after 9/11, Will seems to have had a revelation about how a certain mode of transportation could help our nation be stronger and more secure. In an Oct. 1, 2001 column syndicated in the Jewish World Review, Will recommended three steps in response to the attack that the nation had just sustained. First, buy more B-2 bombers. Second, cut corporate taxes. And third? Let Will speak for himself (emphasis mine):

Third, build high-speed rail service.

Two months ago this columnist wrote: “A government study concludes that for trips of 500 miles or less — a majority of flights; 40 percent are of 300 miles or less — automotive travel is as fast or faster than air travel, door to door. Columnist Robert Kuttner sensibly says that fact strengthens the case for high-speed trains. If such trains replaced air shuttles in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, Kuttner says that would free about 60 takeoff and landing slots per hour.”

Thinning air traffic in the Boston-New York-Washington air corridor has acquired new urgency. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay on the deadly dialectic between the technological advances in making air travel safer and the adaptations to these advances by terrorists.

“Airport-security measures,” writes Gladwell, “have simply chased out the amateurs and left the clever and the audacious.” This is why, although the number of terrorist attacks has been falling for many years, fatalities from hijackings and bombings have increased. As an Israeli terrorism expert says, “the history of attacks on commercial aviation reveals that new terrorist methods of attack have virtually never been foreseen by security authorities.”

The lesson to be learned is not defeatism. Security improvements can steadily complicate terrorists’ tasks and increase the likelihood of defeating them on the ground. However, shifting more travelers away from the busiest airports to trains would reduce the number of flights that have to be protected and the number of sensitive judgments that have to be made, on the spot, quickly, about individual travelers. Congress should not adjourn without funding the nine-state Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.

Now that it’s a Democratic administration advocating for rail, Will sees it not as a sensible solution for moving people from one place to another, but instead as a tool to control an unsuspecting populace:

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they — unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted — are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

In his recent screed against rail, Will explicitly dismissed arguments that it would be good for national security. He also didn’t mention air travel. Maybe that would have reminded him of what he himself wrote nearly 10 years ago.

David Weigel:

Good get, but if we’re going to be talking about stupid ideas people had right after 9/11, we’ll be here all day. Will’s rail fetish was a passing fancy, and since then he’s come around to the conservative consensus that rail can never, ever work as a replacement for air travel, so rail projects are essentially boondoggles.

This is an odd discussion to have as the Atlas Shrugged movie comes out. The book and the film absolutely fetishize rail; the film makes it clear that rail will become necessary once gas starts to really run out. And this is something liberal rail adherents point out, too. But I don’t see conservatives coming around to HSR, which needs a massive manpower and financial and land commitment to get going, outside of that sort of crisis thinking.

Jamelle Bouie at Tapped:

This isn’t to play “gotcha,” as much as it is to note a simple fact about our world: We’re all partisans, whether we admit it or not. Reason’s opposition to the individual mandate has almost nothing to do with the substance of what is truly a center-right policy and everything to do with current political circumstances. The mandate was implemented by a Democrat. Reason, as a right-libertarian institution, is part of the conservative opposition to the liberal president. Likewise, Will’s opposition to high-speed rail is purely a function of partisan politics.

This isn’t a bad thing. Yes, partisanship can be taken too far and veer into ideological blindness, but, in general, it is a useful way of organizing our thoughts on policies and politics. Indeed, it’s how most voters process political information. Political commentary would be much more bearable if pundits were willing to accept the partisan origins of their biases and skepticism, instead of playing a game where we pretend to be open-minded observers.  Most are anything but.

Gulliver at The Economist:

Mr Bouie might be overstating the influence of partisanship a bit, and it’s hard for people to know exactly what is driving others’ opinions—or even one’s own. Still, partisanship is certainly a useful frame through which to view both the most ardent opponents and the most passionate defenders of HSR. There is political science research that shows that a president weighing in on one side of a given debate (as Barack Obama has with high-speed rail) dramatically increases political polarization on that issue. Of course, if Mr Bouie’s theory is correct, we should be able to point to some lefty supporters of HSR whose support seems to be driven primarily by partisanship—or even a few who, like Mr Will, have switched positions on the issue. Anyone have a nomination? Let us know in the comments.

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Filed under Infrastructure, Mainstream, New Media

The Asteroid Can Hit If It Means We No Longer Have To Listen To Bad Aerosmith Songs

Mark Kleiman:

When I saw that Rand Paul (R-Comedy Central) had voted against a bill outlawing the use of lasers to blind airline pilots on the grounds that “the states ought to take care of it,” I was reminded of this week’s best Onion story imagining an effort by Republicans to repeal a law providing for the destruction of an asteroid coming at the Earth.

The Onion story didn’t mention lawsuits seeking to have asteroid-destruction declared unconstitutional as a violation of the limited, delegated powers of the Federal government. But I’d be grateful if one of our libertarian-leaning readers could point me to the specific provision of the Constitution under which the Federal government could spend money on asteroid destruction. It’s not, properly speaking, defense, unless the asteroid was deliberately launched at us by the Klingons. The asteroid isn’t “in commerce” at all, so it can’t be covered by the Commerce Clause.

No doubt some socialists would assert that the reference to “the General Welfare” in the first sentence of Art. 1, Sec. 8, plus the Necessary and Proper clause at the end of that section, would cover asteroid destruction. And I might agree with them. But of course from the libertarian perspective that proves way, way too much.

So I offer this as a challenge: If you think that the doctrine of limited powers forbids much of what the federal government currently does, please explain why that same argument wouldn’t forbid spending money to shoot down an asteroid.

Footnote If your objections to “big government” are based on economics rather than constitutional law, please explain why the public-goods argument that justifies shooting down the asteroid doesn’t apply to the programs you don’t like.

Pejman Yousefzadeh:

As a libertarian-conservative, I am glad to help resolve this question. Of course, it should be noted from the outset that the framing of these kinds of questions is a common Kleimanian tactic; he tosses out an appealing public policy approach, and then dares readers to conclude that the approach may not be constitutional. I certainly agree with Kleiman that asteroid defense cannot be covered by the Commerce Clause (thank goodness that there are some limits recognized by the Left on the reach and scope of the Clause), but I don’t see why he is so quick to dismiss asteroid destruction as a defense measure merely because the asteroid was not “deliberately launched at us by the Klingons.”Original public meaning jurisprudence assists us in showing how asteroid destruction can be justified by Art. I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution as being “for the common Defence.” I am indebted to Professor Larry Solum for his excellent and comprehensive definition of original public meaning jurisprudence, which is excerpted below:

The original-meaning version of originalism emphasizes the meaning that the Constitution (or its amendments) would have had to the relevant audience at the time of its adoptions. How would the Constitution of 1789 have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted? Of course, the same sources that are relevant to original intent are relevant to original meaning. So, for example, the debates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia may shed light on the question how the Constitution produced by the Convention would have been understood by those who did not participate in the secret deliberations of the drafters. But for original-meaning originalists, other sources become of paramount importance. The ratification debates and Federalist Papers can be supplemented by evidence of ordinary usage and by the constructions placed on the Constitution by the political branches and the states in the early years after its adoption. The turn to original meaning made originalism a stronger theory and vitiated many of the powerful objections that had been made against original-intentions originalism.

This sets the stage for what is sometimes called “the New Originalism”  and also is called “Original Meaning Originalism.”   Whatever the actual origins of this theory, the conventional story identifies Antonin Scalia as having a key role.  As early as 1986, Scalia gave a speech exhorting originalists to “change the label from the Doctrine of Original Intent to the Doctrine of Original Meaning.”   The phrase “original public meaning” seems to have entered into the contemporary theoretical debates in the work of Gary Lawson  with Steven Calabresi as another “early adopter.”   The core idea of the revised theory is that the original meaning of the constitution is the original public meaning of the constitutional text.

Randy Barnett  and Keith Whittington  have played prominent roles in the development of the “New Originalism.”  Both Barnett and Whittington build their theories on a foundation of “original public meaning,” but they extend the moves made by Scalia and Lawson in a variety of interesting ways.  For the purposes of this very brief survey, perhaps their most important move is to embrace the distinction between “constitutional interpretation” understood as the enterprise of discerning the semantic content of the constitution and “constitutional construction,” which we might tentatively define as the activity of further specifying constitutional rules when the original public meaning of the text is vague (or underdeterminate for some other reason).  This distinction explicitly acknowledges what we might call “the fact of constitutional underdeterminacy.”   With this turn, original-meaning originalist explicitly embrace the idea that the original public meaning of the text “runs out” and hence that constitutional interpretation must be supplemented by constitutional construction, the results of which must be guided by something other than the semantic content of the constitutional text.

Once originalists had acknowledged that vague constitutional provisions required construction, the door was opened for a reconciliation between originalism and living constitutionalism.  The key figure in that reconciliation has been Jack Balkin, whose influential 2006 and 2007 essays Abortion and Original Meaning and Original Meaning and Constitutional Redemption have argued for a reconciliation of original meaning originalism with living constitutionalism in the form of a theory that might be called “the method of text and principle.”  Balkin has called his position on the relationship between originalism and living constitutionalism “comptibilism,” but it is important to understand that this means that an originalist approach to interpretation is consistent with a living constitutionalist approach to construction.

Per Professor Solum’s definition, we have to ask how “the common Defence” would “have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted.” Specifically, we have to demonstrate that the notion of “Defence” against a threat does not depend upon that threat being initiated by a sentient being, or group of beings. This entails showing Kleiman that the non-presence of Klingons or any other sentient beings in a scenario which features an asteroid threatening life on Earth does not prevent the necessary countermeasures from being considered constitutional as acts of “Defence.”

In order to proceed along this line of inquiry, a definition of “defence” or “defense” (however one wishes to spell it) is needed. I can think of no better lexicographical authority than Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Consider especially the following bit of information: In his book Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, the writer Henry Hitchings quoted Joseph Emerson Worcester as saying that “[Johnson’s] Dictionary has also played its part in the law, especially in the United States. Legislators are much occuped with ascertaining ‘first meanings,’ with trying to secure the literal sense of their predecessors’ legislation . . . Often it is a matter of historicizing language: to understand a law, you need to understand what its terminology meant to its original architects . . . as long as the American Constitution remains intact, Johnson’s Dictionary will have a role to play in American law.”

So, Johnson’s Dictionary was/is quite useful when it comes to analyzing bodies of American law. Now, we have to ask what Johnson wrote about the definition of the word “defence.” Well, it just so happens that we can look. Feel free to examine the definitions of “defence,” “defenceless,” “to defend,” and “defendable.” One will find that none of the definitions in question make it necessary for a threat to have been launched by some form of sentient being, or group of beings, before one can be said to organize and implement some kind of “defense/defence” against that threat via preventive measures. Absent any competing definitions of similar or greater influence, one may reasonably conclude that “an ordinary adult citizen” would not have understood “defence” to mean a countermeasure against a threat set into motion by a sentient being, or group of beings–like Klingons, for example. A “defence” can therefore be mounted against a threat that appeared or emerged sua sponte, without any sentient beings or higher intelligence having brought that threat into being, and/or having directed that threat against us.

Indeed, if Kleiman wanted to get a libertarian legal analysis regarding this issue, he might have done well to ask Glenn Reynolds, whose blog is full of posts regarding the need for asteroid defense. I recognize that Kleiman loathes Reynolds, and has nothing but contempt for him, but it perhaps would not have been a bad idea for Kleiman to put his loathing aside and consider that Reynolds’s example might indicate that there are plenty of libertarians who (a) are concerned about defending the Earth against extinction-causing asteroids, and (b) might be able to justify it (as I have) constitutionally. As a general matter, it might be best for Kleiman to consult actual lawyers regarding constitutional or statutory interpretation, before trying to navigate legal thickets on his own. I mean, it’s his blog, and he can do what he wants, but it is worth noting that past Kleimanian efforts to play lawyer have ended quite poorly.

Jonathan Adler:

This post by Mark Kleiman is a good example, in that it puts forward a laughable caricature of libertarian and originalist constitutional thought that would have been discredited with but a moment’s investigation into the question (as I noted here, and Pejman Yousefzadeh discussed here).  To Prof. Kleiman’s credit, he backed off (a little) when other took the time to respond, but that a prominent, thoughtful academic would post something like this as an ostensibly thoughtful critique of right-leaning ideas says quite a bit about the state of much academic discourse.

Sasha Volokh:

I agree with Jonathan below that the Constitution (through the spending power) allows Congress to spend tax money to protect the Earth from an asteroid.

On the other hand — and at the risk of confirming Mark Kleiman in his belief that libertarians are loopy — I don’t speak for all libertarians, but I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd, and I may be willing to bite the bullet on this one.

On the other hand, if you could show that, once the impending asteroid impact became known, all hell would break loose and lots of rights be violated by looters et al. during the ensuing anarchy, I could justify the taxation as a way of preventing those rights violations; but this wouldn’t apply if, say, the asteroid impact were unknown to the public.

This does make me uncomfortable, much like my view that patents are highly useful but morally unjustifiable, so I’m open to persuasion

Matthew Yglesias:

I think this is a mistake about how a reductio works. The mere fact that Volokh is willing to bite this bullet has no real bearing on the fact that the conclusion is clearly false, and so the argument is either logically invalid or else proceeds from false premises. I’d say “false premises.” The best liberal thinking—classical, modern, whatever—proceeds from broadly consequentialist ideas about making human beings better off.

Brad DeLong:

So not only does Sasha Volokh claim that it is immoral to tax people to blow up an asteroid (or install lightning rods, or mandate lightning rods, or pay for a tree-trimming crew on the public roads), but it is immoral to tell people of an approaching asteroid so they can scramble to safety because it will cause violations of rights through looting.


Ilya Somin:

That said, I don’t think that Sasha’s view is necessarily ridiculous or “insane.” Any theory based on absolute respect for certain rights necessarily carries the risk that it will lead to catastrophe in some instances. Let’s say you believe that torture is always wrong. Then you would not resort to it even in a case where relatively mild torture of a terrorist is the only way to prevent a nuclear attack that kills millions. What if you think that it’s always wrong to knowingly kill innocent civilians? Then you would oppose strategic bombing even if it were the only way to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. How about absolute rights to freedom of political speech? If you are committed to them, that means you oppose censorship even if it’s the only way to prevent Nazi or communist totalitarians from coming to power and slaughtering millions.

Many such scenarios are improbable. But over the long sweep of human history, improbable events can and do happen. Had Kerensky suppressed the Bolsheviks in 1917 (as he easily could have that summer) or had the Weimar Republic done the same with the Nazis, the world would be a vastly better place, even though most political censorship (even of evil ideologies) causes far more harm than good. A civilization-destroying asteroid attack during the next few hundred years is also a low-probability event.

Thus, the potential flaw in Sasha’s view is one that it shares with all absolutist rights theories. Scenarios like the above are one of the main reasons why I’m not a rights-absolutist myself. But I don’t believe that all the great moral theorists who endorse such views from Kant to the present are either ridiculous or “insane.”

It’s also worth noting that Sasha’s approach would in fact justify asteroid defense in virtually any plausible real world scenario. As he puts it, “if you could show that, once the impending asteroid impact became known, all hell would break loose and lots of rights be violated by looters et al. during the ensuing anarchy, I could justify the taxation as a way of preventing those rights violations; but this wouldn’t apply if, say, the asteroid impact were unknown to the public.” It’s highly unlikely that news of an impending asteroid impact whose onset was known to the government could be prevented from leaking to the general public. Even if it could, “all hell” would surely break loose after the asteroid impact, resulting in numerous violations of libertarian rights by looters, bandits, people stealing food out of desperation, and so on. Either way, Sasha’s analysis ends up justifying asteroid defense.

If I understand Sasha correctly, he’s only partially a rights absolutist. He doesn’t believe that you can ever sacrifice rights for utilitarian benefits, even truly enormous ones. But he does think that you can justify small rights violations as a way of forestalling bigger ones. Sasha is an absolutist when it comes to trading off libertarian rights for other considerations, but a maximizer when it comes to trading off rights for greater protection of those same rights in the future. Effective defense against a massive asteroid impact easily passes Sasha’s rights-maximizing test.

Obviously, I welcome correction from Sasha if I have misinterpreted his views.

Mark Kleiman:

I’m glad that Adler agrees with me – and disagrees with many Tea Party lunatics, including some recently elected to the Senate and the House – that there’s no actual Constitutional question about funding the Department of Education or National Public Radio. That, of course, was my point.

I’m also glad that Sasha is standing by his guns, thus demonstrating that my argument was not directed at a mere straw man, though his objection to spending is philosophical rather than Constitutional.

Sasha worries that his honest and forthright response might confirm me in my belief that “libertarians are loopy.” That’s certainly a reasonable concern. But I would have thought that a bigger concern would be that the conclusion is, in fact, obviously loopy, and – like any good reductio ad absurdum argument, ought to lead to a re-examination of the premises that would lead to such a loopy conclusion.

Ilya Somin is right to point out that any theory that puts an absolute constraint on action runs into problems when inaction has catastrophic consequences. But if he really can’t see the difference between torture and income taxation – can’t understand why absolute opposition to torture is not analogous to absolute opposition to public spending on public goods – then “loopy” is entirely too weak a word.

Eugene Volokh:

I leave it to others to debate the constitutional and moral merits of government spending on asteroid defense (my view is that such spending is both constitutionally permissible and morally proper, but I have nothing original to add on the subject). I just wanted to add that one side of the debate is an unusually near-literal application of the saying, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”

Noah Millman at The American Scene:

An impending catastrophe – asteroid strike – threatens to kill everyone in the society. That doesn’t violate anyone’s “rights” because you don’t have a “right to life” but rather a right not to have your life taken away by somebody else against your will. Therefore, the government has no right to tax you to protect you – and everybody else – from the asteroid.

So how is the asteroid to be stopped?

Presumably, everyone in society would agree voluntarily to cooperate to stop the asteroid. That is to say: we could still have collective action, but it would have to be voluntary, not coerced.

But would everyone participate?

The government goes around, passing the hat for contributions to stop the asteroid. A certain percentage of people, though, don’t believe in asteroids. Another percentage believe that the asteroid will bring the Rapture and so must not be stopped. These people are crazy, though, and crazy people are not interesting to talk about. Let’s hope there aren’t too many and ignore them.

Some people, though, notice that there are wealthier people than them in the society, and figure those other people should shoulder the burden of saving society. These are the “free-riders.”

Now, so long as this group is relatively small, no problem. Enough people will still put up enough money to stop the collective catastrophe. But so long as that is the case, free-riding is the economically rational thing to do. Indeed, in any large enough society, free-riding is always the rational thing to do: in a society with enough people putting up enough money voluntarily to stop the asteroid, free-riding is costless; in a society without enough such people, contributing is pointless.

The salvation of this ultra-libertarian society, then, depends upon the existence of a sufficient number of irrationally self-sacrificing people, people who ignore their rational self-interest in order to procure a social good for the group, without regard for the amount of “free riding” going on around them.

On the assumption – which I don’t think is pushing it at all – that there are a whole lot of communal problems that require collective action to address, libertarianism is only practical in highly communitarian societies.

I don’t know that that’s a knock-down argument against libertarianism. Wikipedia is a highly communitarian activity that grew up in a highly libertarian environment (the Internet), and most of the world is free-riding.

But it’s worth stressing nonetheless, because libertarians tend to talk as if rationality will lead to the necessary level of cooperation. But it won’t. In any case of communal threat where attempted free-riders cannot independently exposed to the threat, while contributors are protected, the rational thing to do is free-ride.

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Filed under Conservative Movement, Go Meta, The Constitution

The Keystone Kops Are After Greenwald!

Steve Ragan in Tech Herald:

After a tip from Crowdleaks.org, The Tech Herald has learned that HBGary Federal, as well as two other data intelligence firms, worked to develop a strategic plan of attack against WikiLeaks. The plan included pressing a journalist in order to disrupt his support of the organization, cyber attacks, disinformation, and other potential proactive tactics.


The Tech Herald was able to get in touch with Glenn Greenwald for his reaction to being singled out in the WikiLeaks proposal. He called the report creepy and disturbing. Moreover, he commented that the suggestions for dealing with WikiLeaks, along with the assumption that the organization could be undermined, were “hard to take seriously.”

The listed mitigations, such as disinformation or submitting false documents, have been discussed before. In 2008, the Pentagon had similar ideas, so that aspect of the document was nothing new.

Greenwald, as a journalist, is a prolific writer on media topics. He is a harsh critic of political figures and the mainstream media. The suggestion made by the proposal that he would pick career over cause is “completely against” what he is about, he told us.

“The only reason I do what I do is because im free to put cause before career,” he said.

Pointedly, he reminded us that his work includes taking aim at political figures, which could be a source of professional leverage with scoops or favors, as well as news organizations who could offer him gainful employment. None of these actions paints a picture of a man who would pick career over his passion.

Update 2:

WikiLeaks is hosting an official mirror of the sixth and final draft of the report. You can see a copy here.

Update 3:

Palantir Technologies has severed all ties with HBGary Federal and issued an apology to reporter Glenn Greenwald. More details here.

Update 4:

Berico Technologies has cut ties as well. More information is here.

Jesse Walker at Reason:

According to a report in the Tech Herald, three security firms recently pitched the Bank of America with a plan to take down WikiLeaks. If the documents at the core of the story are legit — and as Andy Greenberg of Forbes notes, “their level of detail would require immense effort on the part of counterfeiters” — the companies come off as Keystone Kops.

The most interesting detail is that the firms involved — HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies, and Berico Technologies — placed a lot of emphasis on the pro-WikiLeaks blogger Glenn Greenwald, arguing that “Without the support of people like Glenn wikileaks would fold,” so “It is this level of support that needs to be disrupted.” The firms are confident that this can be done, since “most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause, such is the mentality of most business professionals.”

The source of the documents is a massive trove of HBGary emails that was seized and released by Anonymous. The backstory behind that is pretty fascinating in itself.

Matthew Yglesias:

A consortium of national security contractors, led by Palantir Technology, seems to have been shopping a counter-WikiLeaks strategy. This slide is about neutralizing Glenn Greenwald:

— Glenn was critical in the Amazon to OVH transition
— It is this level of support that needs to be disrupted
— These are established professionals that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause, such is the mentality of most business professionals.
— Without the support of people like Glenn, Wikileaks would fold

I like that they’re on a first-name basis with Greenwald. Lee’s 2008 book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, is highly recommended. And remember, without the support of people like you, the Yglesias Blog would fold!

Kerry Lauerman at Salon:

We take threats against our own very seriously.

A bizarre plan for an attack on the whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks and journalists construed as sympathetic to it — first reported by the Tech Herald — clearly targets Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, saying that his “level of support” for WikiLeaks “needs to be disrupted.” The report (you can download the purported final draft here) is listed as an “overview by Palantir Technologies, HBGary Federal and Berico Technologies,” and according to a string of e-mails also leaked, was developed following a request from Hunton and Williams, a law firm that represents, among others, Bank of America.

Bank of America is the presumed next target of WikiLeaks, and has reportedly been bracing for what’s to come.

The leaked report singles out other journalists, as well, and suggests that “these are established professionals that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause …” And goes on: “Without the support of people like Glenn wikileaks would fold.”

Emptywheel at Firedoglake:

Now aside from the predictable, but nevertheless rather shocking detail, that these security firms believed the best way to take WikiLeaks out was to push Glenn to stop supporting them, what the fuck are they thinking by claiming that Glenn weighs “professional preservation” against “cause”? Could they be more wrong, painting Glenn as a squeamish careerist whose loud support for WikiLeaks (which dates back far longer than these security firms seem to understand) is secondary to “professional preservation”? Do they know Glenn is a journalist? Do they know he left the stuffy world of law? Have they thought about why he might have done that? Are they familiar at all with who Glenn is? Do they really believe Glenn became a household name–to the extent that he did–just in December?

I hope Bank of America did buy the work of these firms. Aside from the knowledge that the money would be–to the extent that we keep bailing out Bank of America–taxpayer money, I’d be thrilled to think of BoA pissing away its money like that. The plan these firms are pushing is absolutely ignorant rubbish. They apparently know almost nothing about what they’re pitching, and have no ability to do very basic research.

Which is precisely the approach I’d love to see BoA use to combat whatever WikiLeaks has coming its way.

Glenn Greenwald:

My initial reaction to all of this was to scoff at its absurdity.  Not being familiar with the private-sector world of internet security, I hadn’t heard of these firms before and, based on the quality of the proposal, assumed they were just some self-promoting, fly-by-night entities of little significance.  Moreover, for the reasons I detailed in my interview with The Tech Herald — and for reasons Digby elaborated on here — the very notion that I could be forced to choose “professional preservation over cause” is ludicrous on multiple levels.  Obviously, I wouldn’t have spent the last year vehemently supporting WikiLeaks — to say nothing of aggressively criticizing virtually every large media outlet and many of their leading stars, as well as the most beloved political leaders of both parties — if I were willing to choose “career preservation over cause.”

But after learning a lot more over the last couple of days, I now take this more seriously — not in terms of my involvement but the broader implications this story highlights.  For one thing, it turns out that the firms involved here are large, legitimate and serious, and do substantial amounts of work for both the U.S. Government and the nation’s largest private corporations (as but one example, see this email from a Stanford computer science student about Palantir).  Moreover, these kinds of smear campaigns are far from unusual; in other leaked HB Gary emails, ThinkProgress discovered that similar proposals were prepared for the Chamber of Commerce to attack progressive groups and other activists (including ThinkProgress).  And perhaps most disturbing of all, Hunton & Williams was recommended to Bank of America’s General Counsel by the Justice Department — meaning the U.S. Government is aiding Bank of America in its defense against/attacks on WikiLeaks.

That’s why this should be taken seriously, despite how ignorant, trite and laughably shallow is the specific leaked anti-WikiLeaks proposal.  As creepy and odious as this is, there’s nothing unusual about these kinds of smear campaigns.   The only unusual aspect here is that we happened to learn about it this time because of Anonymous’ hacking.  That a similar scheme was quickly discovered by ThinkProgress demonstrates how common this behavior is.  The very idea of trying to threaten the careers of journalists and activists to punish and deter their advocacy is self-evidently pernicious; that it’s being so freely and casually proposed to groups as powerful as the Bank of America, the Chamber of Commerce, and the DOJ-recommended Hunton & Williams demonstrates how common this is.  These highly experienced firms included such proposals because they assumed those deep-pocket organizations would approve and it would make their hiring more likely.

But the real issue highlighted by this episode is just how lawless and unrestrained is the unified axis of government and corporate power.  I’ve written many times about this issue — the full-scale merger between public and private spheres —  because it’s easily one of the most critical yet under-discussed political topics.  Especially (though by no means only) in the worlds of the Surveillance and National Security State, the powers of the state have become largely privatized.  There is very little separation between government power and corporate power.   Those who wield the latter intrinsically wield the former.  The revolving door between the highest levels of government and corporate offices rotates so fast and continuously that it has basically flown off its track and no longer provides even the minimal barrier it once did.  It’s not merely that corporate power is unrestrained; it’s worse than that:  corporations actively exploit the power of the state to further entrench and enhance their power.

That’s what this anti-WikiLeaks campaign is generally:  it’s a concerted, unified effort between government and the most powerful entities in the private sector (Bank of America is the largest bank in the nation).  The firms the Bank has hired (such as Booz Allen) are suffused with the highest level former defense and intelligence officials, while these other outside firms (including Hunton & Williams and Palantir) are extremely well-connected to the U.S. Government.  The U.S. Government’s obsession with destroying WikiLeaks has been well-documented.  And because the U.S. Government is free to break the law without any constraints, oversight or accountability, so, too, are its “private partners” able to act lawlessly.  That was the lesson of the Congressional vesting of full retroactive immunity in lawbreaking telecoms, of the refusal to prosecute any of the important Wall Street criminals who caused the 2008 financial crisis, and of the instinctive efforts of the political class to protect defrauding mortgage banks.

Nate Anderson at Wired

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Our Bubbles Keep Bursting

David Streitfeld in NYT:

Few believed the housing market here would ever collapse. Now they wonder if it will ever stop slumping.

The rolling real estate crash that ravaged Florida and the Southwest is delivering a new wave of distress to communities once thought to be immune — economically diversified cities where the boom was relatively restrained.

In the last year, home prices in Seattle had a bigger decline than in Las Vegas. Minneapolis dropped more than Miami, and Atlanta fared worse than Phoenix.

The bubble markets, where builders, buyers and banks ran wild, began falling first, economists say, so they are close to the end of the cycle and in some cases on their way back up. Nearly everyone else still has another season of pain.

“When I go out and talk to people around town, they say, ‘Wow, I thought we were going to have a 12 percent correction and call it a day,’ ” said Stan Humphries, chief economist for the housing site Zillow, which is based in Seattle. “But this thing just keeps on going.”

John Ellis at Business Insider:

Everyone thought that when the housing crisis hit, it wouldn’t hit hard in “stable” US cities like Seattle and Minneapolis.  No one thinks that anymore

David Leonhardt at NYT:

When we last listed the price-to-rent ratios in major metropolitan areas, Seattle’s was near the top of the list. Only in the Bay Area of Northern California and in Honolulu were house prices higher, relative to rents.

A sky-high price-to-rent ratio is perhaps the single best sign that an area is in a housing bubble. Real-estate agents, homeowners and even home buyers can tell a lot of stories to justify the bubble — stories about central cities or good school districts being immune to bubbles — but eventually people will realize that renting is a much better deal and more will do so.

There is no such thing as a market price that cannot fall.

Matthew Yglesias:

David Streitfeld writes that “The rolling real estate crash that ravaged Florida and the Southwest is delivering a new wave of distress to communities once thought to be immune — economically diversified cities where the boom was relatively restrained.”

First see David Leonhardt on whether the boom really was all that restrained in Seattle. But the other examples are better and I think this is a reminder that the relationship between the housing market and the economy is push and pull. There was, in fact, an unsustainable bubble in house valuations across much of the country that led to localized unsustainable booms in home building and related activities. That process came to an end in 2006-2007 and we were in recession all throughout 2008 as the unemployment rose and the construction boom unwound. But then came the really giant collapse of aggregate demand in fall of 2008 continuing through the subsequent winter. Now we’re way below the long-term trend level of overall nominal spending:

Overall nominal spending equals overall nominal incomes. And we live in an economy where lots of us have contractual obligations that are nominally denominated. That’s my cable bill, it’s my cell phone bill, and it’s my mortgage, and it’s probably your mortgage too. Fortunately for me, my nominal income isn’t below its pre-crisis trend growth path. But America’s collective income is. So if our nominal income is below where we expected it would be when we signed the contracts, people are going to be unable to pay bills. That means, among other things, serious housing problems even in jurisdictions that never suffered from noteworthy construction booms.

Calculated Risk:

Leonhardt writes:

When we last listed the price-to-rent ratios in major metropolitan areas, Seattle’s was near the top of the list. Only in the Bay Area of Northern California and in Honolulu were house prices higher, relative to rents.

A sky-high price-to-rent ratio is perhaps the single best sign that an area is in a housing bubble. Real-estate agents, homeowners and even home buyers can tell a lot of stories to justify the bubble — stories about central cities or good school districts being immune to bubbles — but eventually people will realize that renting is a much better deal and more will do so.

There is no such thing as a market price that cannot fall.

I agree completely with that last sentence – no place is immune.

Price-to-rent is a great indicator, but some areas have high price-to-rent ratios because of the mix of housing units (rentals units are not perfect substitutes for buying). I prefer tracking price-to-rent over time for a particular city (as opposed to comparing cities), but a high price-to-rent ratio is definitely a warning flag.

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Hey Kids, Tyler Cowen Wrote A Book!

Tyler Cowen’s new book, “The Great Stagnation”

Tyler Cowen:

That’s the title and it’s by me, the Amazon link is here, Barnes&Noble here.  That’s an eBook only, about 15,000 words, and it costs $4.00.  If you wish, think of it as a “Kindle single.”

Your copy will arrive on January 25 and loyal MR readers are receiving the very first chance to buy it.  Very little of the content has already appeared on MR.

Many of you have read my article “The Inequality that Matters,” but there I hardly touched on median income growth.  That is because I was writing this eBook.

Has median household income really stagnated in the United States?  If so, why?  Are the causes political or something deeper?  What are the important biases in how we are measuring national income and productivity and why do they matter for economic policy?  Are we getting enough value for all the extra money we are spending on the health care and education sectors?  What do some major right-wing and left-wing thinkers miss about this phenomenon?

How does all this relate to our recent financial crisis?

I dedicated this book to Michael Mandel and Peter Thiel, two major influences on some of the arguments.

Why did big government arise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, what is its future, and why is science so important for macroeconomics?  How can we fix the current mess we are in?

Read (and buy) the whole thing.

Scott Sumner:

How great was Tyler Cowen’s marketing coup?  Well he forced a technophobe like me to actually learn how to use Kindle.  I wasn’t too happy about that, which makes me inclined to write a very negative review.  But that’s kind of hard to do credibly when I agree with the central proposition of the book; that technological progress (at least as traditionally measured) has slowed dramatically, and will continue to be disappointing for the foreseeable future.

In an earlier post I argued that my grandma’s generation (1890-1969) saw the biggest increase in living standards; most notably a longer lifespan (due to diet/sanitation/health care), indoor plumbing and electric lights.  Less important inventions included home appliances, cars and airplanes, and TVs.  From the horse and buggy era to the moon landing in one life.  And all I’ve seen is the home computer revolution.  Not much consolation for a technophobe like me.  I’m probably even more pessimistic than Tyler.

The parts of the book I liked best were those that discussed governance.  I had noticed that there was a correlation between cultures that are good at governance, and cultures that are good at running big corporations.    But Tyler added an interesting perspective, arguing that the technologies that facilitated the growth of big corporations also facilitated the growth of big government.  I don’t recall if he made this point, but I couldn’t help thinking that the neoliberal revolution, which led to some shrinkage in government size, was also associated with a move away from the big corporate conglomerates of the 1960s, towards smaller and more nimble businesses.

Tyler has a long list of complaints about the wasteful nature of our government/education/health care sectors, which he hinted is really just one big sector.  While reading this section I kept wondering when he was going to mention Singapore, which has constructed a fiscal regime ideally suited for the Great Stagnation.  When he finally did, on “Page” 830-37, he did so in an unexpected context, as an example of a society that reveres scientists and engineers.  He had just suggested that the most important thing we could do to overcome the stagnation was:

Raise the social status of scientists.

My initial reaction was skepticism.  First, how realistic is it to expect something like this to happen?  I suppose the counterargument is that every new idea seems unrealistic, until it actually occurs.  But even if it did, would it really speed up the rate of scientific progress?  My hunch is that if we doubled the number of people going into science, there would be very little acceleration in scientific progress.  First, because the best scientists (think Einstein) are already in science, driven by a love of the subject.  Second, with a reasonably comprehensive research regime, progress in finding a cure for cancer may require a certain set of interconnected discoveries in biochemistry that simply can’t be rushed by throwing more money and people at the problem.  Similarly, progress in info tech may play out at a pace dictated by Moore’s law.  Given Moore’s law, no amount of research could have produced a Kindle in 1983.  Could more scientists speed up Moore’s law?  Perhaps, I’m not qualified to say.  But that’s certainly not the impression I get from reading others talk about information technology.

Here’s another exhortation that caught my eye:

Be tolerant, and realize there are some pretty deep-seated reasons for all the political strife and all the hard feelings and all the polarization.

I couldn’t help thinking of Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen, the two brightest stars of the economic blogosphere.  If only one of those two are able to have this sort of dispassionate take on policy strife, how likely are the rest of us mere mortals to be able keep a clear head and remain above the fray?  Still, it’s great advice.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

Mr Cowen’s book can be very briefly (too briefly) summarised as follows. The rich world faces two problems. The first is that a decline in innovation has reduced the growth rate of output and median incomes, making it hard for rich countries to meat obligations accepted when expectations were higher. The second is that a lot of recent innovation is occuring in places like the internet, where new products are cheap or free and create very few jobs.

Mr Sumner’s response is a good one. What Mr Cowen is essentially saying, he suggests, is that the actual price level is tumbling. Technology has created a lot of great things that are available for free, and so the price of a typical basket of household consumption is dropping like a rock. People used to spend a lot of money going to movies, buying books and records, making expensive long-distance phone calls, paying for word processing software, and so on. Now, a lot of that can be done at almost no cost. Prices are falling.

That has a couple of implications. It suggests that real incomes are actually rising, at least for those consuming the bulk of the free online content. And perhaps real incomes are too high, in some cases, for labour markets to clear. Given broader disinflation (understated because non-purchased goods aren’t included in price indexes) both prices and wages may need to adjust, but if they’re sticky, then they won’t. What’s needed is reinflation.

To a certain extent, Mr Cowen is concerned about society’s ability to pay off old obligations, and one reason society might struggle to do this is that new innovations deliver value through non-monetary transactions. But the value is still there, and that’s what should really matter for the paying-off of obligations. When you borrow, you’re offering to compensate the lender with more utility tomorrow for less utility today. Thanks to the internet, utility today is cheap, and that’s only a problem because the obligations we acquired yesterday were denominated in dollars. But we can print enough money to meet yesterday’s obligations. Indeed, we should, in order to offset the deflationary pressures from the cheap innovations.

Imagine a world in which technology has advanced to the point that robots can build robots that operate at basically no cost at basically no cost, such that people can have anything that want anytime for free; the only constraint on consumption is the time available. That would be a cashless economy, and as a result, debtors would be totally unable to pay creditors. But does that matter?

Paul Krugman:

Tyler Cowen argues that technological change since the early 1960s hasn’t been as transformative for ordinary peoples’ lives as the change that went before.

I agree. I wrote about that a long time ago, using the example of kitchens:

Better yet, think about how a typical middle-class family lives today compared with 40 years ago — and compare those changes with the progress that took place over the previous 40 years.

I happen to be an expert on some of those changes, because I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodelled. The nonself-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights, are pretty depressing (anyone know a good contractor?) — but when all is said and done it is still a pretty functional kitchen. The 1957 owners didn’t have a microwave, and we have gone from black and white broadcasts of Sid Caesar to off-color humor on The Comedy Channel, but basically they lived pretty much the way we do. Now turn the clock back another 39 years, to 1918 — and you are in a world in which a horse-drawn wagon delivered blocks of ice to your icebox, a world not only without TV but without mass media of any kind (regularly scheduled radio entertainment began only in 1920). And of course back in 1918 nearly half of Americans still lived on farms, most without electricity and many without running water. By any reasonable standard, the change in how America lived between 1918 and 1957 was immensely greater than the change between 1957 and the present.

Now, you can overstate this case; medical innovations, in particular, have made a huge difference to some peoples’ lives, mine included (I have a form of arthritis that would have crippled me in the 1950s, and in fact almost did 20 years ago until it was properly diagnosed, but barely affects my life now thanks to modern anti-inflammatories.) But the general sense that the future isn’t what it used to be seems right.

David Leonhardt interviews Cowen at NYT

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

Tyler Cowen’s celebrated Kindle publication “The Great Stagnation” has received a lot of attention from the Web community. The New York Times David Leonhardt gets the author to sit for an e-interview on his e-book and asks a good first question: If our innovation motor is broken, what should we do know?

Cowen responds that we should double down on science…

The N.I.H. has done a very good job in promoting medical innovation and this is in large part because it allocates funds on a relatively meritocratic basis; Congress doesn’t control particular grants and on many important fronts the N.I.H. has autonomy. It is one reason why the United States is the world leader in medical research and development and I would expand its funding, provided it retains this autonomy. Basic research is often what economists call a “public good” and it offers economic and health returns for many years to come.

… and get realistic about clean energy.

“Clean energy” is a very important issue, for reasons of climate change, but it won’t be a job creator in a useful sense. In terms of energy production, fossil fuels are quite powerful. With green energy, at this point, we are simply looking to break even, namely to receive some of our current power but without the negative environmental consequences which accrue from carbon. That’s a worthy goal, but we shouldn’t start thinking about green energy as speeding up economic growth or creating jobs. It’s more like a necessary burden we will have to bear and the fact that these costs lie in front of us – from both the climate change and from the technological adjustments — is a sobering thought.

These are smart thoughts from a very smart guy. But let’s think about NIH funding from a jobs perspective. If the government increases science funding and this results in more pharmaceutical drugs coming online, that’s a great thing for the pharmaceutical industry. But new drugs, like any new technology, can be disruptive. For example, a drug to ease the side-effects of end-of-life diseases might replace the need for home health aides, which are projected to be one of the fastest growing jobs in the country for low-skilled workers. That’s not a reason not to develop a totally useful rug! But it throws a wrench into a claim (one that I’ve often made, too) that innovations in biosciences are pure job-creators.

Ezra Klein:

Cowen’s characterization of plumbing, fossil fuels, public education systems, penicillin and so forth as “low-hanging fruit” bugs me a bit. It took human beings quite a while to figure all that out. But Cowen is right to say that once discovered, those innovations produced extremely high returns. From the economy’s perspective, the difference between having cars and not having cars is a lot larger than the difference between having cars and having slightly better cars. A 1992 Honda Accord and a 2010 Honda Accord aren’t the same, but they’re pretty close.

The obvious rejoinder to this is, “What about the internet?” The problem, as Cowen points out, is that the Internet is not yet employing many people or creating much growth. We needed a lot of people to build cars. We don’t need many people to program Facebook. It’s possible, Cowen thinks, that the Internet is just a different type of innovation, at least so far as its ripples in the labor market are concerned. “We have a collective historical memory that technological progress brings a big and predictable stream of revenue growth across most of the economy,” he writes. “When it comes to the web, those assumptions are turning out to be wrong or misleading. The revenue-intensive sector of our economy have been slowing down and the beg technological gains are coming in revenue-deficient sectors.”

Maybe the Internet just needs some time to come into its growth-accelerating own. Or maybe the Internet is going to be an odd innovation in that its gains to human knowledge and enjoyment and well-being will serve to demonstrate that GDP and even median wage growth are insufficient proxies for living standards. Either way, we’re still left with a problem: Stagnant wages are a bad thing even if Wikipedia is a big deal.

And it’s not just the Internet. Even when we’re growing, things look bad. The sectors that are expanding fastest are dysfunctional. We spend a lot of money on education and health care, but seem to be getting less and less back. The public sector is getting bigger, but it’s not at all clear it’s getting better. For much of the last few decades, the financial sector was was generating amazing returns — but that turned out to be a particularly damaging scam. And economic malaise is polarizing our politics, leaving us less able to respond to these problems in an effective or intelligent way.

Kevin Drum:

Tyler makes a bunch of other arguments in “The Great Stagnation” too, some more persuasive than others. Like some other critics, I’m not sure why he uses median wage growth as a proxy for economic growth. It’s important, but it’s just not the same thing. Besides, median wage growth in the United States slowed very suddenly in 1973, and it’s really not plausible that our supply of low hanging fruit just suddenly dropped by half over the space of a few years. I also had a lot of problems with his arguments about whether GDP generated by government, education, and healthcare is as “real” as other GDP. For example, he suggests that as government grows, its consumption is less efficient, but that’s as true of the private sector as it is of the public sector. A dollar of GDP spent on an apple is surely more “real” than a dollar spent on a pet rock, but there’s simply no way to judge that. So we just call a dollar a dollar, and figure that people are able to decide for themselves whether they’re getting the same utility from one dollar as they do from the next.

The healthcare front is harder to judge. I agree with Tyler that we waste a lot of money on healthcare, but at the same time, I think a lot of people seriously underrate the value of modern improvements in healthcare. It’s not just vaccines, antibiotics, sterilization and anesthesia. Hip replacements really, truly improve your life quality, far more than a better car does. Ditto for antidepressants, blood pressure meds, cancer treatments, arthritis medication, and much more. The fact that we waste lots of money on useless end-of-life treatments doesn’t make this other stuff any less real.

To summarize, then: I agree that the pace of fundamental technological improvements has slowed, and I agree with Tyler’s basic point that this is likely to usher in an era of slower economic growth in advanced countries. At the same time, improvements in managerial and organizational efficiency thanks to computerization shouldn’t be underestimated. Neither should the fact that other countries still have quantum leaps in education to make, and that’s going to help us, not just the countries trying to catch up to us. After all, an invention is an invention, no matter where it comes from. And finally, try to keep an even keel about healthcare. It’s easy to point out its inefficiencies, but it’s also easy to miss its advances if they happen to be in areas that don’t affect you personally.

David Brooks at NYT

Cowen and Matthew Yglesias on Bloggingheads

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