Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

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Pope Francis and Economics: A Partial Reconciliation

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It is always easiest to evaluate the views of others by fitting them into pre-existing categories. When Pope Francis released his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, many people pegged him as saying “left-wing economics good, free markets bad”. This lead to celebrations on the left and denunciations on the right. Some thought him to be showing ignorance of, or even Pope Paul V vs Galileo style hostility to, economic science.


After actually reading much of the encyclical, I found it much more nuanced. In particular, the Pope seems to be deeply ambivalent about the welfare state, warning of those who exploit the poor for their own political interest. He would much prefer that people earn a living through work:

“Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses”

“it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives”

Of course, he does want these workers to be earning a “just wage”. While many readers will assume this implies a government-mandated minimum wage, Francis doesn’t go there; one could just as well expect that he is encouraging just wages through increased human capital, tax credits, employer generosity, or something else.

He is generally supportive of private property and business:

“The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good”

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”

Like many on the left, the Pope is worried about inequality. But his reason for worry isn’t really about the distribution of material goods, so much as the social distance that economic inequality can create:

“the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of
spiritual care”

“No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own
lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard
in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles”

For those worried about his Argentine background:

“I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism.”

He concedes a role for science in figuring out how best to do all this, though it does sound like he wants to make economics oikonomia again:

“Economy, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole.”

In any hundred page document, it can be too easy to cherry-pick quotes. Indeed this is what I have done here, if only to balance the much larger number of pieces that cherry-picked the quotes that seem to be from another side. But real people are usually more complex than a one-dimensional political spectrum.

Written by James Bailey

April 15, 2016 at 4:56 pm

Berkeley Students Are So Conservative

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They, like most people, are small-c Burkean conservatives about life in general.  They have a strong status quo bias, but rather than admit this like Edmund Burke, they feel compelled to invent reasons why status quo things are good.  Berkeley psychology prof Seth Roberts said “Most of my students, for better or worse, were very conformist. My conclusion…. is that the reasons we give for our beliefs have roughly zero correlation with the actual reasons and shouldn’t be taken seriously (e.g., argued with).”  Robin Hanson said the same about George Mason students:

  • Ask random colleges student random policy questions and they will feel compelled to come up with opinions.
  • Ask them for reasons for those opinions and they’ll feel compelled to come up with such reasons.
  • Such opinions strongly tend to support the status quo – mostly whatever is, is assumed good.
I am thinking along similar lines today after discussing organ markets with my students.  Students say that legal markets in human organs would be bad mainly because it would lead to organ theft.  Even supposing there would be more organ thefts, it is hard to imagine there would be enough to outweigh the deaths of 9000 Americans every year caused by our current ban on organ sales.  If people were used to a functioning market in organs, I have to think they would be horrified by someone saying we should ban organ sales and consign thousands to death in order to reduce theft, just as it would seem crazy to ban day-laboring to protect laborers from employers who stiff them after a day’s work (stealing is already illegal!).  It is easier to think there must be a good reason for the status quo, that we live in the best of all possible worlds and aren’t doing something horrible.  Indeed, there is more right with the world than wrong with it; there is a reason status-quo-biased people continue to survive and thrive.  Further, it is dangerous to think that those who disagree with you must do so out of some ignorant bias; call this the “bias bias”.
In general though, if we are trying to figure out the truth, we have to fight pro-status-quo bias more often than its opposite.  The reason for this is wired into our brains: our dominant trait is to rationalize, not reason.  One part of our brain is dedicated to coming up with a reason for anything, whether it makes sense or not.  In extreme cases, paralyzed people can come up with all sorts of reasons to explain why they aren’t really paralyzed; their brain is acting as an apologist for what is done, not a reasoned truth-seeker (Seriously, check out that link- it is way more interesting than my post, even if you have heard of the phenomenon before).
I am optimistic about getting people who think of themselves as non-conformist or politically liberal to consider new ideas by telling them they are being conservative conformists.  Put name-calling to good use!

Written by James Bailey

October 17, 2011 at 3:00 pm

A Comedic Eulogy of Conservatism, From Inside the Coffin

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You’ve got to read P.J. O’Rourke’s essay in the Weekly Standard, “We Blew It”.  The whole conservative and Republican establishments are trying to figure out what went wrong and what to do next; this is one of the best attempts at the former.


It took a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives 40 years–from 1954 to 1994–to get that corrupt and arrogant. And we managed it in just 12

Conservatives should never say to voters, “We can lower your taxes.” Conservatives should say to voters, “You can raise spending. You, the electorate, can, if you choose, have an infinite number of elaborate and expensive government programs. But we, the government, will have to pay for those programs. We have three ways to pay.

“We can inflate the currency, destroying your ability to plan for the future, wrecking the nation’s culture of thrift and common sense, and giving free rein to scallywags to borrow money for worthless scams and pay it back 10 cents on the dollar.

“We can raise taxes. If the taxes are levied across the board, money will be taken from everyone’s pocket, the economy will stagnate, and the poorest and least advantaged will be harmed the most. If the taxes are levied only on the wealthy, money will be taken from wealthy people’s pockets, hampering their capacity to make loans and investments, the economy will stagnate, and the poorest and the least advantaged will be harmed the most.

“And we can borrow, building up a massive national debt. This will cause all of the above things to happen plus it will fund Red Chinese nuclear submarines that will be popping up in San Francisco Bay to get some decent Szechwan take-out.”

Yes, this would make for longer and less pithy stump speeches. But we’d be showing ourselves to be men and women of principle. It might cost us, short-term. We might get knocked down for not whoring after bioenergy votes in the Iowa caucuses. But at least we wouldn’t land on our scruples. And we could get up again with dignity intact, dust ourselves off, and take another punch at the liberal bully-boys who want to snatch the citizenry’s freedom and tuck that freedom, like a trophy feather, into the hatbands of their greasy political bowlers.”

Written by James Bailey

November 11, 2008 at 6:02 pm

Would Edmund Burke have opposed the war in Iraq?

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Edmund Burke, the 19th century British statesman and writer, is something of a patron saint to conservative intellectuals- the same people who spent countless hours arguing about whether the war was a good idea, the same people who largely decided that it was. So I was quite surprised to realize that I’ve never heard this question asked before.

Burke’s most celebrated book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, put forward the most basic conservative idea- that human institutions have evolved as they have for good reasons, and even seemingly unjust and arbitrary institutions should be changed gradually rather than completely overthrown. It is not obvious why overthrowing a government and trying to rebuild a country from the ground up is a better idea in the Iraq of 2003 than it was in the France of 1789. There are arguments to be made, of course, for why this time is different; but, by and large, they were not made. The problem was ignored.

Less famously, Burke was a leading anti-imperialist of his time, advocating a lighter hand in Ireland and India, and supporting the American revolutionaries. He was not a man to easily support the occupation of another nation.

This is the problem with having dead heroes. When they would agree with you, you take comfort in the fact and proclaim it. But when their condemnation should ring loud and clear, we do our best to silence their nagging voice.  When people we claim to respect cannot speak with their own voice, we must remember their words, whether they are convenient for us or not.  This sort of intellectual honesty, practiced widely, could have made for some very different recent history.

Written by James Bailey

July 14, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Immigration Reform

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Most of you who know me probably know that I’ve spent a lot of time in the conservative movement. Growing up watching American television and going to Bangor schools left me with a general wash of liberal assumptions; once I learned to consider these dispassionately, I found that the consistent conservative principles I read about and heard on the radio made a lot more sense. And so by my freshman year of high school I was strong conservative, in the sense of the modern American movement that will always be exemplified in my mind by Rush Limbaugh. Now I read the more diverse and intellectual National Review, founded by conservative icon William F. Buckley; it is the magazine that converted conservativism’s most effective political champion, Ronald Reagan. This last year I served as vice-chairman of the College Republicans at the University of Tulsa.

I’ve become much less vocal and less sure of my political views in college; I no longer accept conservative positions wholesale. But I still agree with many of them, and even when I disagree I can at least understand why rational people could be on the other side.

Until now, that is. Those who care about politics at all should know that there is currently a comprehensive immigration reform bill before the senate, one that will simultaneously deal with border enforcement, immigration laws, and the status of the 12-20 million people here illegally. It is a compromise bill, one that no one really likes; it is being supported in the senate by Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, John Kyl, and John McCain, and in the White House by George Bush himself. It is being opposed on the left, I hear, for being to hard on illegals and for changing immigration policies to favor education over family reunification. And it is opposed on the right by the entire hard-core conservative movement for giving “amnesty” to illegals and for failing to protect the border. George Bush, it seems, was unhappy with his 30% approval ratings and decided to alienate the only constituency that has consistently supported him for the last 7 years.

Now to the real point of the post: why do conservatives oppose amnesty for illegal aliens? We can come up with some dark theories, such as:

1) people scared of getting deported are willing to work for lower wages

2) once illegals become citizens, they will all vote for democrats

3) conservatives are are just racist and don’t want so many mexicans in their country

President Bush himself has implied that he thinks the third. I think its a bad idea to impugn people’s motives like this; never to attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance. Furthermore, I think I can say from personal experience that these are not real concerns to most conservatives.

No, the real reason is about the rule of law. We don’t want to reward people for breaking the law, for insulting those who came here legally and those who are in long lines waiting to do so. We don’t want to show people that if they too come here illegally, they will eventually be pardoned.

There are some other concerns too, like illegals driving down wages and taking public services like schools, hospitals and welfare without paying taxes. I can understand the nativist-wages argument, though I have no sympathy with it; nativism is utterly hypocritical in a country of immigrants like the United States. As for taxes, the easiest way to get them to pay is to declare an amnesty! Make them citizens and they’ll have to pay; we can even make paying back taxes a condition of citizenship. But these arguments don’t really do the work.

It’s really about the rule of law. I really do sympathize with the rule of law argument in theory; but no one wants to say how it can lead to a solution in reality. It is only being used to knock down proposed solutions, never to set them up. We can criticize the newest plan all we want; but if we shoot it down, we will be left with the status quo; 12 million people here illegally, living in the darkness of black markets, but still subject to what John McCain calls a “de facto amnesty”. So what can we do? All most conservatives will say on this point is, “start enforcing the laws.”

Again, a great idea in theory. It would have worked wonderfully after the last amnesty in 1986. But what would it look like in reality? To we send the police through neighborhoods, asking for ID’s, rounding up people and deporting them by the millions? Do we wait for them to come into the open, getting a few thousand a day, making people afraid of going to work, to school, to the hospital? All for the crime of wanting to live and work in our country?

I, for one, couldn’t stomach seeing America turn into that much of a police state for such a trivial reason. If we could restrain ourselves from a mass deportation of Arabs after the crime of 9/11, I think we can avoid a mass deportation of Mexicans for the crime of cleaning our houses and picking our fruit.

I can respect the few people who think through what their enforcement position means and still support it; that’s a legitimate disagreement about how big an issue this is. But I think that most conservatives are simply trying to deny reality on this one.

Written by James Bailey

June 11, 2007 at 2:41 am