Sunday, July 26, 2020

our trip to SC (2020)

We took the family to NC and esp. SC in 2013 and had a great time. Tonia and I also saw that it would be even better as a couple, so we've been looking forward to returning to Charleston. (We also want to get to Savannah, since we hear it's similar.) On the occasion of our 25th anniversary, we rolled down there for a few days and had a great time. 

We flew Allegiant and all was fine: inexpensive, good airplane, non-stop flight to Myrtle Beach. We picked up a rental car and spent the night in Murrells Inlet at Hampton Inn (really nice). We were setting up to see Brookgreen Gardens the next AM. (We wanted to see it in 2013, but it was storming that morning, so we skipped it.) BG is a great combo of impressive sculptures and gardens-- and the highlight of this trip. We had enjoyed seeing Frederick Remington's sculptures and studio in Ogdensburg years ago-- and this was even better in terms of quantity (if not quality). Add in the gardens and it was ridiculous. 

From there, we drove to Charleston. We had wanted to see 2-3 museums that afternoon, but only caught the Robert Lange studio collection at The Vendue hotel. We tried the Halsey Contemporary Art museum, but the College of Charleston was closed because of Covid. (Unfortunately, their internet presence was no help with this. Frustrating especially when you've laid out bucks for parking.) Then we passed on the Gibbes Art Museum, deciding to walk around and go through the Charleston Market (reduced because of Covid but still solid).  

The next day, we did the Ft. Sumter tour. We had seen Ft. Moultrie in 2013-- given its ease, cost (with a family of six), and surprising historical significance. (We also saw the USS Yorktown in 2013-- a must-see.) But the boat ride and tour of Sumter was really good. It's amazing to think of them spending 15 years to throw down rock and make an island, from which the formidable fort could be built. Again, the history was cool. After lunch, we did the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon-- good tour, amazing architecture in the basement. After dinner, we went to Waterfront Park (on the Patriots Point / Mt. Pleasant side of Charleston)-- again, excellent (and free).

Walking around, you see marvelous old houses and buildings-- and very expensive. We also noticed that there are few high-rise buildings there. Again, probably the age of existing buildings, zoning, and perhaps limitations in building so near the water. One by-product: the churches were the most visible buildings in the city-- as they've been from the beginning. 

We ate really well. Dinner the first night was at Queen82-- our anniversary celebration dinner. Shrimp and grits as an appetizer was the culinary highlight of the trip-- amazing. The jambalaya and crab cakes were very good entrees. Lunch the next day was at Early Bird Diner-- our fav meal in 2013, and it did not disappoint again: Chicken and Waffles for me; Shrimp and Grits for Tonia. Dinner the next day was at Paige's Okra Grill-- again, very good: Tonia's salmon house salad and my fried chicken, greens, and fried okra. 

We look forward to many more years of marriage-- and many more trips like this: quick, fun, light, inexpensive, convenient, and more time together! 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

3rd commandment and statistical discrimination

In the C-J...

I had an interesting moment with a student this summer. He emailed to ask for a religious accommodation to join his family in celebrating Eid al-Fitr — a Muslim holy day that celebrates the end of Ramadan. I’m happy to grant schedule extensions in these cases.
Until the email, I knew virtually nothing about him. I knew his name: a Western first name and an East Asian last name. But the course was online so I had not even met him. And it was early in the semester, so I had seen little from him in terms of performance.
When he invoked religion, culture and family to ask for the accommodation, I learned more about him and noticed that my perceptions of him changed (slightly). For one thing, he had begun to represent his family, his culture and his religion to me. And I understood that his interactions with me and his performance in my class would (slightly) impact the way I saw his name and those three groups.
As a Christian, this reminded me of the Third Commandment: not to “misuse the name of God.” Often, the commandment is reduced to profaning God’s name — for example, by using it to cuss. But the commandment is broader and more important than this one application. If I invoke God’s name and then act like an idiot, I misuse and harm God’s name. (If I invoke His name and represent Him well, then I bolster how others see God’s name and God Himself.)
In the last few years, we’ve seen many unfortunate events in the area of race. In all such cases, the harm is done by and to individuals. But there is also the broader issue of damage to the groups that the person represents.
Consider the case of Derek Chauvin, the policeman who kneeled on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Chauvin did a reprehensible thing and our perceptions of him are changed forever. But this evil also cuffed the police in general — and we’ve been living with the consequences of that for the past few months.
Or consider the case of Jessie Smollett, the actor from "Empire," who perpetrated a hoax based on race and politics last year. Smollett paid two confederates to act as if he had been attacked by two white guys wearing Trump MAGA hats. After the ruse was unveiled, this evil inevitably cast a bad light on African Americans, anti-Trumpers and other accusations about racial discrimination.
As an economist, this reminds me of “statistical discrimination” — the idea that all of us necessarily judge people and moments by their group affiliations. We do this because information about individuals and events is (highly) imperfect and expensive to obtain. In our efforts to make the best decisions we can, with limited knowledge, we grasp at low-cost information that we believe to have predictive power. (Outside economics, the closest concept to this is “stereotyping”.)
Chauvin and Smollett have done amazing harm to themselves but indirect damage to the groups to which they belong. We see police differently because of what Chauvin did. We see claims about racial crimes differently because of what Smollett did. If you’re a good police officer, Chauvin has harmed you. If you deal with a true case of racism, Smollett has harmed you. When there are false charges of sexual harassment, it harms those who have valid accusations. And so on.
This is the way life works, because all of us make decisions with limited information. If the last four students you’ve hired from the Indiana University Southeast School of Business are gold, the next graduate who applies will look relatively good. If the last four have been turkeys, that’s bad news for the next graduate. It might not be fair, but that’s life.A punchline to this is that we should hold such judgments as lightly as possible. At some point, we must make decisions. But when possible, we should try to learn more and question our assumptions as new information becomes available.
What about my student? It didn’t go well for him in the course. I don’t think it’s because he is a man, a Muslim, or comes from a bad family. I think it’s because he belongs to another group of people: students who ask for delays and exceptions. They rarely do well.
Hopefully, we do our best to enhance our knowledge, test our prior beliefs, and make effective decisions. And hopefully, we’re aware that our actions impact the perceptions of others about us and the groups to which we belong.

Monday, July 20, 2020

American Maelstrom on 1968 and politics


Michael Cohen's American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division provides a useful and easy-to-read history of the 1968 election cycle. Cohen opens with LBJ’s perspective after the 1964 election. He had been a prodigious legislator as a Senator. As a re-elected president, he had control of Congress and a perceived mandate after crushing Barry Goldwater. Cohen argues that the "mandate" was more about maintaining the status quo and opposition to Goldwater's perceived radicalism-- than LBJ's penchant for activism. In any case, his energy, resolve, and deal-making ability resulted in an amazing flurry of domestic policies. 

Cohen then jumps into foreign policy and allows us to reminisce about a powerful anti-War movement-- when the Left cared a lot more about this topic (p. 23, 31, 35-50). Hubert Humphrey had been opposed to the Vietnam policy and wrote a prophetic memo (70). But then he swallowed his whistle and became a cheerleader as LBJ's vice president-- the means justified by the end of wanting to become president (77). LBJ got immersed in Vietnam and talked about backtracking, but the actions never matched the words (158). 

The Primary Characters 
Eugene McCarthy courageously decided to challenge LBJ in the primaries, based on opposition to his approach in Vietnam (133). While McCarthy was an uneven campaigner (137), his entry into the fray and his surprising near-win in NH paved the way for RFK's entry, LBJ's exit, and Humphrey's entry soon after. 

Cohen describes the popular history of RFK's run as mythical-- "informed more by hagiography than history." (147) (One can say the same thing about his brother JFK's presidency.) RFK was murdered in early June, just after his narrow victory in the CA primary over McCarthy (139). (Johnson had become more popular after declining to run-- and with the mess among his potential replacements, he strongly considered getting back in the race [159-160]!) But Cohen argues persuasively that RFK was never likely to beat Humphrey (146-149). 

MLK Jr. had been murdered on April 4th. The Voting Rights Act was passed on August 5th, but six days later, a traffic stop went poorly in Watts, leading to riots. Crime and mayhem both increased dramatically (28)-- leading to more backlash from voters and fueling what would be a disastrous convention for the Democrats in Chicago later that month. 

On the GOP side, George Romney was a successful governor in Michigan, but his skills did not translate to the national stage. He was relatively liberal, a gaffe machine, vague on foreign policy, and helpful to Nixon as a distraction. Nelson Rockefeller was the long-time governor of NY, a "technocrat," a "reformer," and a "do-er" (195), but too tentative on the national stage. He was effective with the public, but had repeatedly annoyed party insiders-- e.g., attacking Eisenhower and Nixon in 1960 on foreign policy (198). An awkward divorce and remarriage in 1962-63 was another roadblock for his political future (200). 

But Nixon and Reagan are the most important and interesting characters here. Cohen describes Nixon as a "progressive conservative" in terms of domestic policy (175); a foreign policy "wise man" after his loss in the 1962 governor's race; and a "great" politician who recast himself (again) and enjoyed a second political resurrection (170). 

Reagan was emerging as a political force-- with a key speech on conservatism in 1964 (more palatable than Goldwater) and then, in the 1968 primary season (as the governor of CA). Apparently, he was thought to have a "meager knowledge of public policy." (210) This seems strange for an Econ major, but perhaps his policy prowess emerged later. (I have read that he spent a lot of time thinking about policy and enunciating positions in the 1970s.) He combined a law-and-order emphasis, pragmatic fiscal conservatism, and an anti-elite but optimistic style that was attractive to voters. But it was too early for him to win the nomination, even with Nixon's checkered political background. 

Cohen then devotes a chapter to AL governor George Wallace-- a 3rd-party candidate who did really well: 14% of the popular vote and 8% of the electoral vote-- the last non-Dem/GOP candidate to win a state. Wallace also had some influence on political rhetoric going forward. In Cohen's estimation, the impact was huge. But it seems more correlation than causation-- as other candidates in both major parties and independents like Ross Perot-- continued to attract the voters drawn to Wallace. (He had earned more than a third of the vote in three 1964 Democratic primaries [WI, IN, MD] and was arguably leading the race as a Democrat in 1972 before being shot and paralyzed.) Cohen describes Wallace as "an extraordinary political manipulator." (221) But again, it's not clear whether he was manipulating as much as reflecting. To that point, Cohen describes Wallace as a product of heightened democracy in the 1960s (232-233)-- one of the downsides of fervent democratic practice. 

Wallace attracted racists, but also voters who were concerned about social change, law and order, elites, and coercive school busing. Ironically, his aggression against blacks as governor helped both him and the Civil Rights movement, by giving national politicians a convenient foil (229). Interestingly, Wallace started his political career as an anti-racist, before flipping after getting beat in an election (223). (In this, he was like Elizabeth Warren, in changing sides when he knew better. At least, Wallace flipped back late in his political career, after becoming a Christian, with an impressive Civil Rights record in his final term as governor.) He had been a prolific New Deal Democrat (234). He was very popular as governor and tried to evade term limits. When that failed, his wife Lurleen ran in 1966, when she was elected as the state's first female governor. (She died of cancer in May 1968, stopping his presidential campaign for five weeks.) 

The Conventions and the General Election 
With the primary characters described (pun intended), Cohen turns to the two conventions: the GOP in Miami and the Dems in Chicago. (We are introduced to Spiro T. Agnew here-- who Cohen depicts as being in the right place at the right time throughout his political career [254-257]. He also adds more detail on Humphrey's vacillation and the prospect of a late entry by another Kennedy: Ted!) Given the structure of the primaries at the time, neither party's nomination was clinched. (The Dems would make dramatic changes after this election cycle, putting much more weight into primaries and caucuses.) But Nixon and Humphrey were clear favorites-- and there was relatively little drama, at least on-stage. (Cohen describes a variety of machinations behind the scenes. But none of it amounted to much.)  

The real drama was outside the convention, as Mayor Daley told his police to be rough with protesters and the media (261). In Cohen's telling, Miami was fitting since it was "plastic.” And Chicago was appropriate given its cronyism, Daley's emphasis on law-and-order, and the tension there between working-class ethnics and African-Americans. Throw in some other opponents: Vietnam vs. Hippies; Segregationalists vs. Blacks; Daley vs. Jews (281)-- and the propensity for mayhem and violence reached epic proportions, an embarrassment to the Democrat party and a millstone for Humphrey's candidacy. 

Given the public's dissatisfaction with the Democrat administration and the debacle of the Democrat convention, Nixon started with a tremendous lead; Humphrey was actually closer to Wallace in the polls. Wallace faded a bit with his VP choice of ultra-hawk General Curtis LeMay. His lack of subtlety about the military in general-- and nukes in particular-- was a liability. (This was reminiscent of Perot's massive stumble in 1992 by choosing Admiral Stockdale.) 

Humphrey finally found the courage to step away from LBJ on Vietnam in Salt Lake City on September 30th. Momentum changed dramatically: energy increased; money and endorsements rolled in; and the embarrassing heckling of the anti-War Left turned to cheers. The VP choices also seemed to matter a bit: Agnew as a liability and Edmund Muskie as a star (316-318). Cohen also has a long discussion of a potential "October surprise": LBJ's negotiations with the North Vietnamese-- with the potential for shenanigans on both sides and a focus on Nixon's back-channel efforts (318-326). 

With a big lead, Nixon played it safe, including vague pronouncements, moderate policy stands, and a focus on image. Humphrey described him as a "papier-mache man" just after the election (330). The label was certainly true on domestic policy. (It doesn't seem accurate on foreign policy or Watergate, but Cohen doesn't speak to those at length.) Of course, the irony is that Humphrey was the pot calling the kettle black, especially in subsuming his "principles" on Vietnam to serve under LBJ. Cohen argues that he lost because the SLC speech came too late-- and that his courage only emerged from desperation. 

It is noteworthy that an incumbent party lost an election, especially with a relatively healthy economy after a huge victory four years earlier. Vietnam would seem to be a primary causal candidate, but Cohen argues that it couldn't be-- at least in direct terms. The public was still ambivalent and the candidates were not that far apart on policy. But Vietnam fed the public's general unease and the Anti-War faction was an embarrassing thorn in Humphrey's side. And it certainly became a long-term problem for the Democrats (331-333). I understand and can sympathize with that, but I miss the days when they had a vibrant, principled liberal wing in their party. Today's Democrats are almost as happy as the GOP to see military interventionism. 

1968 as a "pivotal" point for national politics? 
In the last two chapters, Cohen gets more explicit about tying 1968 to politics since then. The title of the book clearly fits; society and politics were a tumultuous "maelstrom" that year. But the book does not live up to its subtitle-- imagining 1968 as a threshold moment for the "politics of division.” Cohen notes that Nixon's victory "ushered in GOP presidential dominance.” True enough. But he also argues that it introduced "four decades of division, incoherence, and parochialism in American politics.” This is unsupported-- and, I think, unsupportable.

Given presidential elections, 1968 seems pivotal from a partisan lens. The GOP would win the presidency in every election until 2008-- except for two relatively-conservative, Southern governors: Jimmy Carter in 1976 (a narrow post-Watergate win) and Bill Clinton in 1992/1996. But there's more to the story than merely a flip of the switch in terms of elections or certainly, the dominant approach to politics. In fact, Cohen makes most of these points himself.  

First, 1968 was not so much pro-GOP as a repudiation of LBJ. (Nixon’s coattails were tiny.) Second, Nixon was a “big-government" president, expanding the War on Poverty (the real money starts flowing in his administration) and dramatically increasing the role of government throughout the economy. Third, Wallace had great success again in 1972-- as a Democrat. Fourth, the Dems were busy with their own internal problems for years, indicating that this was not merely a matter of GOP political success. Fifth, there is always an ebb and flow to presidential politics and Senate majorities (177).  

Three points not mentioned by Cohen: The Democrats held the House for another 26 years, often with huge majorities. One might call Watergate partisan politics and "divisive," but that doesn't seem to be the case. And Reagan governed in an effective, bi-partisan manner through most of his term, including his massive marginal tax rate cut with a heavy-majority Dem House. None of this is helpful to Cohen’s thesis.  

Instead of 1968, I would point to the early-mid 1990s. The end of the Cold War removed an existential threat and changed the dynamics of partisan rivalry. (Does anyone remember that we used to worry, all the time, about nuclear weapons?) And in 1994, the GOP finally took over the House under Newt Gingrich, leading to Clinton's "conservatism" (and a relatively strong presidency)-- and ushering in an era when the battle for Congress became much more contentious. (Another key moment was Bush II's ill-fated decision to go to Iraq and then stay there indefinitely-- giving us Obama, which led to Trump.) 

Part of the problem is that Cohen imagines that the War on Poverty could have been much more successful. If so, the 1968 thesis has more pop. If not, then the "War" was going to inevitably inspire a small-government backlash-- independent of Wallace, Nixon, etc. Cohen also seems confused by the different response of voters on extending civil liberties vs. domestic policies with economic and financial implications—again, as if politicians like Wallace and Nixon were required to stir a pot (25). Giving someone greater ability to vote is one thing (and quite popular); dramatically increasing redistribution is another. The general public was never going to be happy about this turn in policy.  

Cohen argues that the immense number of programs passed in LBJ’s administration implied that the programs would struggle as they played out in practice. He blames "lack of attention to execution," not being "adequately prepared," and "inexperienced practitioners with minimal oversight." (17) Excuses like these are common when complex government activism falls short. It's far more likely that the programs wouldn't have worked anyway, given what they tried to accomplish. Along those lines, Cohen conflates these programs with government activism that had been much more effective in the 1930-1950s. But those earlier efforts were over-rated and low-hanging fruit; the later efforts were in areas inherently more difficult to have success. 

Similarly, Cohen observes that trust in government fell quickly-- from 61% to 45%, from 1966 to 1968 (23). It would fall further in the next few years as well-- not surprising given Vietnam, domestic turmoil, domestic policy failures, Watergate, and the various problems under Carter throughout the late 1970s. 

As such, it's more compelling to see 1968 as correlated rather than causal-- as an inevitable response to flawed policies, domestically and in Vietnam. While the landscape was changing dramatically in parts of the country, it's a mistake to overstate the overall impact of 1968 within the country overall. 1968 was noteworthy and "pivotal" to some extent. (Maybe "inflection point" is a better term.) But singling it out for four decades of special influence is far more weight than it can carry. 

Cohen discusses the "Southern Strategy" but is careful not to put too much emphasis on it. This is an improvement over popular but facile analysis elsewhere. There are other important pieces to the puzzle. The GOP was a distinctly minority party, but the majority Democrats had labor unions, African-Americans, other ethnic minorities, and liberals to balance-- an impossible task, at least with Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the War on Poverty in the mix. Another angle not directly pursued by Cohen: to what extent did the GOP "go conservative" because its liberal leaders were unimpressive and Reagan, its champion in the wings, was so compelling politically?

And how can one consider the "politics of division" in this time period without addressing the topic of legalized abortion? Competing rights-- here, between mother and child-- usually lead to contention. The Dems made the fateful decision to go "pro-choice" instead of pro-life-- and the political landscape would be dramatically different within 12 years. (George McKenna uses Rip Van Winkle as a thought experiment to explain why it's surprising that the Dems did not advocate for the vulnerable.) How would politics be different today if the Dems had chosen to defend babies instead?

Still, Cohen's book is useful as a history of a fascinating year in American society and politics. It was an important year in our nation's history, even if it didn't have the staggering and long-reaching political impact that Cohen posits. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"Meet the Press", media pollution, and the degeneration of news


Last week on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, moderator Chuck Todd played a clip from a recent CBS News interview with Attorney General William Barr. Unfortunately, the clip had been edited in a way that gave the opposite impression of what Barr was trying to say. NBC was publicly taken to task and has now apologized.
The fiasco is one more example of general problems we’ve seen over time with the media: a decline in the quality of reporting and news coverage; an increase in media partisanship; and a tendency to pursue viewers through flash and style rather than substance. Their desire to appeal to customers shouldn’t be surprising. Even though our reflex might be to think of media serving “the public interest”, they are certainly passionate about profit and their employees are interested in career advancement.
The current episode is also a good illustration of two concepts in economics: "negative externalities" and “implied cartels”. First, a “negative externality” is a harmful by-product of a person's actions or a market exchange that is imposed on another party. Covid-19 provides a great contemporary example. An infected person is contagious and can spread the virus to others.
The classic textbook example is pollution. The goal of a company is to produce, not to pollute. But pollution is part of the "bargain"—and unfortunately, its costs are imposed on others. For example, when you buy a car from Ford, you're asking Ford to pollute for you. If a negative externality is significant enough, government intervention may be helpful. Then again, government action itself routinely creates significant negative externalities.
When “Meet the Press” creates buzz for itself and partisan viewers with a fraudulent claim, it causes “pollution”—damage to society. If the fraud is detected, the entire industry is harmed. It also hurts itself, so that's good news in terms of incentives and fairness. But the damage extends well beyond itself.
Second, the media acts as an “implied cartel”. A cartel is a collusion of sellers or buyers—to manipulate prices and gain more money. (Think about OPEC in oil, the NCAA in college athletics, and labor unions in the market for labor.) An implied cartel functions like a cartel but without explicitly organizing.
Without help from the government, it’s difficult to keep cartels together. The incentives to cheat on the agreement (to gain even more profit)—or to enter the market (to compete with the cartel members)—are too great. As such, it’s common for interest groups to ask government to restrict their competition—to establish or strengthen a cartel.
So, cartels—whether explicit or implicit—are likely to degenerate and fail, if they can form at all. "Black Friday" is a good example. Remember when it started years ago? Businesses opened early on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving and offered special prices. And then, the start of Black Friday moved back to midnight. And then it moved back to Thursday. And now, it goes for the entire week. Nobody formed a cartel, but the arrangement acted like a cartel—before it fell apart.
The media is in a similar position. It had an implied cartel to be relatively objective, fact-oriented, and serious. And for a long time, top-tier news providers stayed in line and were punished if they got out of line. But now, this line has eroded tremendously. So, the incentive to cheat the standards of truth and to grab viewer eyes has undermined the credibility of the media over time.
Negative externalities are difficult to stop without government regulation. But government regulation of the press is a troubling solution for many reasons. The best answers are in the market. But if enough people value “news” like this, it’s difficult to imagine how we avoid the continuing degeneration of news. Likewise, media are trying to make a buck. Their “greed” will continue to encourage them to cheat on the cartel—to buck the “standards of journalism” they’re supposed to pursue.

Represent your groups well


I had an interesting moment with a student this summer. He emailed to ask for a religious accommodation to join his family in celebrating Eid al-Fitr—a Muslim holy day that celebrates the end of Ramadan. I’m happy to grant schedule extensions in these cases.

Until the email, I knew virtually nothing about him. I knew his name: a Western first name and an East-Asian last name. But the course was on-line, so I had not even met him. And it was early in the semester, so I had seen little from him in terms of performance.

When he invoked religion, culture, and family to ask for the accommodation, I learned more about him and noticed that my perceptions of him changed (slightly). For one thing, he had begun to represent his family, his culture, and his religion to me. And I understood that his interactions with me and his performance in my class would (slightly) impact the way I saw his name and those three groups.

As a Christian, this reminded me of the 3rd Commandment: not to “misuse the name of God”. Often, the commandment is reduced to profaning God’s name—for example, by using it to cuss. But the commandment is broader and more important than this one application. If I invoke God’s name and then act like an idiot, I misuse and harm God’s name. (If I invoke His name and represent Him well, then I bolster how others see God’s name and God Himself.)

In the last few years, we’ve seen many unfortunate events in the area of race. In all such cases, the harm is done by and to individuals. But there is also the broader issue of damage to the groups that the person represents.

Consider the case of Derek Chauvin, the policeman who kneeled on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Chauvin did a reprehensible thing and our perceptions of him are changed forever. But this evil also cuffed the police in general—and we’ve been living with the consequences of that for the past few months.

Or consider the case of Jessie Smollett, the actor from Empire, who perpetrated a hoax based on race and politics last year. Smollett paid two confederates to act as if he had been attacked by two white guys wearing Trump MAGA hats. After the ruse was unveiled, this evil inevitably cast a bad light on African-Americans, anti-Trumpers, and other accusations about racial discrimination.

As an economist, this reminds me of “statistical discrimination”—the idea that all of us necessarily judge people and moments by their group affiliations. We do this because information about individuals and events is (highly) imperfect and expensive to obtain. In our efforts to make the best decisions we can, with limited knowledge, we grasp at low-cost information that we believe to have predictive power. (Outside of economics, the closest concept to this is “stereotyping”.)

Chauvin and Smollett have done amazing harm to themselves, but indirect damage to the groups to which they belong. We see police differently because of what Chauvin did. We see claims about racial crimes differently because of what Smollett did. If you’re a good policeman, Chauvin has harmed you. If you deal with a true case of racism, Smollett has harmed you. When there are false charges of sexual harassment, it harms those who have valid accusations. And so on.

This is the way life works, because all of us make decisions with limited information. If the last four students you’ve hired from the IU Southeast School of Business are gold, the next graduate who applies will look relatively good. If the last four have been turkeys, that’s bad news for the next graduate. It might not be fair, but that’s life.

A punchline to this is that we should hold such judgments as lightly as possible. At some point, we must make decisions. But when possible, we should try to learn more and question our assumptions as new information becomes available.

What about my student? It didn’t go well for him in the course. I don’t think it’s because he is a man, a Muslim, or comes from a bad family. I think it’s because he belongs to another group of people: students who ask for delays and exceptions. They rarely do well.

Hopefully, we do our best to enhance our knowledge, test our prior beliefs, and make effective decisions. And hopefully, we’re aware that our actions impact the perceptions of others about us and the groups to which we belong.

expand your view of systemic racism



Expanding our view of “systemic racism”
“It’s a black thing; you wouldn’t understand.” There’s a lot of truth to that statement. It’s difficult for any of us to understand each other—especially when we’re in different social classes, have different ethnicities, or varying personal circumstances. At its best, the slogan is a call to learn and deepen relationships, to listen patiently and talk humbly. It’s worth the energy to read more liberally and diversify your friendships.

How about this one? “It’s an econ thing; you wouldn’t understand.” As a labor economist, I’ve learned many things that cause me to see the world differently—in really important ways. The good news: you can understand what I see—if you’re willing to put in some work to expand your horizons and learn more econ.

Let’s talk about some popular terms. The broadest definition of “racism” is treating a moment differently—positively or negatively—because of race. (For example, it would be racism of this sort, if I voted for or against President Obama because he is black.) But the most popular definitions of racism are narrower, focusing solely on disliking and mistreating others because of race.

Modern uses of racism often assume that you can’t be racist without “power”. You can’t act on racist beliefs without the freedom to act. But all of us have that power. So the newer definition must imply having power over others. (With a monopoly, you can only buy from me. And if I don’t like your race, I can easily exert my racist beliefs over you.)

These days, there’s also a lot of talk about “systemic racism”—a vague term that goes beyond the individual and points to the need for systemic reform. The idea is that racism is baked into law, markets, culture, and society. The resulting racism can be direct, but often is indirect and even subconscious.

As an economist, it’s interesting to me that government fits both modern definitions so well. Government certainly has considerable “power” over all of us, especially the poor and the marginalized. And government is the most obvious part of “the system”. So, efforts to deal with racism and systemic racism should start by looking at public policy and addressing government.

We’ve seen some of this in recent weeks, as people protest police misconduct. In Louisville, there’s been additional focus on how the death of Breonna Taylor connects to the “War on Drugs”—an immensely damaging policy that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

But there are other policies that cause immense damage—consequences that are concentrated among the poor in general and African-Americans in particular. Consider the provision of K-12 education. The government has tremendous monopoly power over those in the lower income classes. As with the police, unions protect this monopoly power and make it difficult to fire ineffective or misbehaving employees.

The outcomes are poor, especially for African-Americans. Despite spending an average of $350,000 per classroom of 25, our nation’s schools struggle tremendously. And what’s more damaging and unjust than giving kids a 9th-grade education and sending them into the world?

We also restrict or prevent younger kids from working legally; make it more expensive to hire them through higher minimum wages; and hit them with a 15.3% FICA tax on every dollar they earn. We have a War on Drugs that establishes “organized crime” called gangs in the inner city. (Remember learning about Prohibition in the 1920s?) With their reduced opportunities for legal work, we tempt them to sell drugs (tax-free) and then throw them in prison when they’re caught.

One more government policy: With the “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, we began to give a lot more resources to lower-income women when they had children—especially if they weren’t married. Since the change in incentives was connected to poverty, it’s not surprising that this is more about class than race. For example, in 2016, mothers with no more than a high school education gave birth within a single-parent household 60% of the time.

But this policy has hit African-Americans harder. Their two-parent households were 80% in every Census from 1890 to 1960. In 1965, 24% of black children (and 3% of white children) were born into single-parent households. But by 1990, the percentages had risen to 64% of blacks and 18% of whites. In 2016, it was 70% and 28%. While there are many fine exceptions, problems with family structure and stability routinely cause trouble for kids, schools, and society.

We should all be passionate about addressing poor policy, injustice, and “systemic racism”. But let’s make sure we talk about all of the relevant issues, especially the ones that cause the most systemic damage.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

some family history

I was prompted by a recent conversation to consider why my Dad's ancestors came here from Norway. We have a relatively extensive genealogy on that side, but the narrative doesn't provide a reason. And I didn't see anything definitive from Norwegian history, aside from the fact that our family came over with a wave of Norwegians during the mid-late 19th century. 

Some details here, for kicks: 

-My dad David was born in 1939, one of two kids (including my Aunt Mary). 

-My grandpa Alden was born in 1907, moving the family from WI to IN and getting into newspapers. (He was 1 of 6 kids and we got to see most of them at the occasional family reunion.) 

-Great-grandpa Haakon was 1 of 10 kids. He was born in 1876 and was part-owner in the family meat business. (Haakon is a common name in Norwegian royalty, including Haakon VII [1872-1957] and the current "Crown Prince".)

-Great-great-grandpa Johannes Skjonsberg (shortened to John in America) was born 10/9/1842 in Oyer, Norway (10 miles N of Lillehammer). He moved with his parents Halvor and Sigrid to WI (arriving in the US on 4/5/1861) and married Bergitte Steenberg on 10/25/1868.

-Great-great-grandma Bergitte was born on 10/4/1848 in Biri, Norway (10 miles S of Lillehammer); her family moved to the WI (arriving in the US on 8/23/1849). So, John and Bergitte were born 20 miles apart in Norway, but met/married in WI.

-Their 50th anniversary was in 1918, but they only had a small gathering because of the Spanish Influenza! But they lived a few years past their 60th anniversary, so they did have a big celebration a decade later. 

-John's sons all changed their names to Schansberg. Apparently, his son Christ worked with a lawyer to "Americanize" the name. (English doesn't know what to do with the umlaut over the O!) Hmm, Christ worked with an Advocate to change our name-- a cool analogy to what Christ and the Holy Spirit do with us as believers!  

Monday, June 8, 2020

Voddie Baucham on ethnic gnosticism and other things

Here's the video

-Knowledge and experience matter, but it can descend into "gnosticism"-- special knowledge (incl. the perverse ability/right of a receiver to confidently define how it was meant by the sender).

-Why can a family member say something and it's not racist; but if a white person says it, it's definitely racist?


-"Color blind" is not biblical. Aside from Rev 5:9, 7:9, Baucham discusses Romans 9 at some length-- for Paul on "ethnicity matters", but not next to Christ.


-Good stuff on "tokenism" in general and Baucham's education choice in particular-- a necessary impact of various forms of "Affirmative Action" (see: Shelby Steele, "The Content of our Character").


-He cites John McWhorter on "atonement as activism" and false religion-- with an original sin that cannot be atoned. (I concur with Baucham that McWhorter is essential reading/listening in this area.)


-All of this can be a distraction from other sins and missed ops for sanctification.


Sunday, June 7, 2020

writing projects I've done directly on race (all in one place)

I'm probably forgetting some. (If I think of more, I'll try to add them later.) And this does not include my two books on public policy or many (dozens?) of op-eds. I've written about the implications of economic policy on race for 30 years. But the focus here is explicit works on race, social commentary, and economic policy.  

Let's start with movies: check out two old works by Spike Lee. Do the Right Thing and School Daze are really interesting looks at some inside baseball in the black community. (A modern version would be the debate in the black community over the police: essential and largely helpful with some really rotten apples vs. largely and irredeemably evil.)

Here's a review of the movie Get Out

Book Reviews:

Thomas Sowell's Race and Culture

Tracy K'Meyer's book on Louisville, 1945-1980

three books in one review (on peonage, segregation, and racism broadly)

Thomas Leonard on racism within Progressivism and economic policy

See also: 
my essay on eugenics, including its racial angles

my essay on Buchanan v. Warley (SCOTUS; 1917)

what to do with the current moment

When you combine passion and idolatry, things get funny in a way-- but mostly, all-too-serious and really ugly. We're seeing this from many sides these days.
Love is too rare. True tolerance is mostly in hiding. Faux unity is pushed by coercion toward uniformity and conformity.
Prejudices of many sorts are revealed. Ignorance and confirmation bias run rampant. Yet, self-righteousness reigns.
Rationalizations for sin-- mine and/or others. Finger-pointing instead of reflection and repentance. Us vs. them. I understand you well, but you can't possibly understand me at all. Pride trumps humility.
What to do: Join the madding crowd? Lay low and hunker down? Look in the mirror. Read liberally. (Or watch liberally if you won't read.) Take a breath or two. Do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with the God of grace (Mic 6:8; Amos 5:24). Repent-- not just them, but you and me.
Build relationships with people different than you. Immerse yourself in robust community. Do your best to engage with love and courage, knowledge and wisdom, empathy and compassion, grace and tact, with neither corruption nor negligence (Daniel 6:4).
And for those who have become children of God (Jn 1:12; Eph 2:8-9; Rom 6:23): "Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain." (Phil 2:14-16)