Monday, April 27, 2020

review of Loconte's "A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War"

If you're into C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, or the impact of the World Wars on society, religion and culture, I'd definitely recommend Joe Loconte's book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. In particular, he details the counter-cultural beliefs of Lewis and Tolkien about faith and free will, war and heroism. Along the way, he also explores the role of "iron sharpening iron" relationships-- friendships, teachers, and authors-- in their faith and their writing.  

Friendship with God and Man

Loconte describes Lewis' faith journey in detail. Well before The Chronicles of Narnia, it begins with an early, growing atheism after being raised in the Anglican church with its "ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry" and sermons that seemed "vapid and irrelevant." (87) With the influence of an early teacher, William Kirkpatrick, Lewis embraced logic and reason (of a sort), defending his atheism with the fashionable arguments of the day (88). For Lewis at the time, Christianity was one false myth among many.  

Lewis' conversion to Christianity had many catalysts. Loconte describes Laurence Johnson, a friend to Lewis during WWI. Johnson was a man of conscience who took his principles for granted and lived them out in a compelling manner (98). After the war, Lewis formed a lifelong friendship with Owen Barfield. They disagreed on everything, but had mutual admiration and challenged each others' thinking. Barfield was especially helpful in convincing Lewis about his bias against tradition and his simplistic embrace of scientism and materialism (126-127). 

Then, Loconte turns to the impact of Lewis' friendship with Tolkien, starting in September 1931. "Their exchange-- an encounter between intensely creative minds over the meaning of Christianity-- should be ranked as one of the most transformative conversations of the 20th century." (129) Their chief debate was over the nature and origins of myths: Lewis believed they were man's effort to understand the world; Tolkien saw them emanating from God to convey something true about the world (130-131). Eventually, Lewis was persuaded that the Dying God had entered history, lived a life, gave his life, and conquered death-- the True Myth-- leading to Lewis' step from one faith to another (133). 

Fifteen years before the fateful conversations with Tolkien, George MacDonald's Phantastes had plowed up the fallow ground of Lewis' imagination-- on myth, aesthetics, creativity, and eventually, the Divine (82-83). MacDonald had a heavy influence on both authors. They "were attracted to the genres of myth and romance not because they sought to escape the world, but because for them the real world had a mythic and heroic quality. The world is the setting for great conflicts and great quests: it creates scenes of remorseless violence, grief and suffering, as well as deep compassion, courage and selfless sacrifice...Their depictions of the struggles of Middle-Earth and Narnia do not represent a flight from reality, but rather a return to a more realistic view of the world as we actually find it." (xvi)

Loconte also discusses the importance of friendship in general. In this, I was reminded of Wesley Hill's fine book, Spiritual Friendship, on the underestimated value of robust relationships. Beyond iron sharpening iron, they advanced each others' professional pursuits. Tolkien helped Lewis secure an academic position and find a publisher for his science fiction (179). Lewis was essential to Tolkien persevering to publish The Lord of the Rings (136) and even nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature (179). "It is hard to think of a more consequential friendship in the 20th century." (xiv)

Both also benefited from gathering with sets of friends. "The Inklings" are the most famous example (134), but Loconte discusses other, earlier groups. And the theme of friendship echoes throughout their fiction-- a key theme in both Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. After all, the first volume of the latter includes "fellowship" in its title. 

The friendships also gave them the intellectual and emotional strength to be counter-cultural. They were "swimming against the tide of their times." (xiv) All of this "makes the literary aims of Tolkien and Lewis all the more remarkable: they steadfastly refused the sense of futility and agnosticism that infected so much of the output of their era." (142) But peers helped them blaze that trail. 

On Heroism and War

To Loconte, heroism is where Lewis and Tolkien "depart most radically from the spirit of the age." (188) Modern heroes usually win through their own abilities, with some impressive firepower thrown in for good measure. Relying on a supernatural being seems like "a cheat" (188)-- both to good literary tastes and to the nature of man. But their heroes portrayed a combination of Divine provision and their participation. 

Both wrote at length about free will, providence, and their "mysterious intersection." (152) The tragedy of WWI had undermined belief in free will, so their work was counter-cultural here as well (155). Likewise, diminished free will tempted from individual responsibility toward determinism, fatalism, and resignation (162-164). 

In contrast, both authors repeatedly depict choices-- often, painful decisions, in the midst of exceedingly difficult circumstances. And when their characters fail, there's still grace-- something that was usually in short supply under contemporary cultural beliefs. Ultimately, the Ring is destroyed by "a sudden and miraculous grace" (189)-- ironically, through Gollum-- rather than Frodo or the Fellowship. 

Given their wartime experience, their depictions of war were realistic. Tolkien began writing in camps and hospitals during the war (60). His description of the "Dead Marshes" matches the description of soldiers in the Somme Offensive (74). The hobbits seem to be modeled after ordinary soldiers, at least in their innocent pre-war days (75). Like the soldiers, the hobbits could not "perceive how the fate of nations depended on their stubborn devotion to duty." (77)

War provided much of the "raw material" for Lewis and Tolkien (xvi). Their overarching themes are "embedded in a narrative of brutal, physical warfare" (165). (On the same page, Loconte quotes a stanza from a Thomas Hardy poem that ends with the poignant phrase, "of ravaged roof and smouldering gable-end".) Yet their work cannot be seen as cavalier acceptance of either pacifism or warmongering (xviii). Their characters often exhibit courage, honor, and nobility. But as ex-soldiers, Lewis and Tolkien did not-- they could not-- glamorize combat (121).  

Tolkein includes "scenes of anguished refugees throughout his works." (166) In the great battle between Gondor and Mordor, "its dead are too numerous to leaves the victors 'weary beyond joy or sorrow'." (166) Lewis is gentler, given that his primary audience is children-- but still stark enough (168). For both, war is not "an opportunity for martial glory, but...a grim necessity...a striking lack of triumphalism; we find instead amazement and gratitude for surviving..." (168)

The lines between Church and State were blurred considerably during WWI in a combination of nationalism, civil religion, and holy war (33-34). "Cross and Crown must be kept together." (36) Looking back, after the carnage, it is strange to imagine. But it was true for both sides in the conflict. (Loconte argues that Germany and Prussia were even worse in this regard [39].) Of course, for believers, all of this is troubling and reminiscent of the Two Beasts-- the State and False Religion-- in Revelation 13. 

As for the soldiers, Loconte quotes Richard Schweitzer: "The religion of 90% of the men at the front is not distinctively Christian, but a religion of patriotism and of valor, tinged with chivalry, and the best merely colored with sentiment and emotion borrowed from Christianity." (49) As is still the case today, "Christianity" is often an amalgam of civil religion, cultural norms, middle class ethics, and the trappings of ritual. 

Loconte echoes numbers similar to what one reads in Adam Hochschild's excellent book, To End All WarsIn the 4.5 months of the Battle of the Somme, there were 1.2 million dead and wounded-- for just short of nothing (62). Overall, millions of soldiers dead and wounded. Tremendous loss of young life in Russia, France, Britain, and Germany. Even the U.S., despite its very late entry, lost more than 100,000 men (106). And then there are the civilian deaths from starvation, disease, and the Armenian massacre by the Ottoman Turks-- the first large-scale example of genocide in the 20th Century. 

The Role of "Progressivism"

Not surprisingly, "Progressivism" is woven throughout Loconte's account-- with its immense confidence in human progress. The worldview was at its high-water mark coming into the war-- as both men were coming of age. Disillusionment-- and recovery from some of its errors-- marks the period after the war, when both men began to write in earnest. 

Darwin's theory was dominant in terms of biology-- along its implications for philosophy, economy, and society, when over-extended in combination with scientism and materialism (12-13). One of the downsides of early Progressivism was a weighting of technology and "progress" over nature. Loconte talks about Lewis and especially Tolkien's displeasure with this (6, 8-10).  

Christianity had also added syncretisms with the "social gospel" of human advancement (14). Amazingly, this included a penchant for eugenics (15-21), which Lewis and Tolkien both critiqued implicitly in their narratives. (In addition to their frequent emphasis on freedom and dignity, note Tolkien's creation of orcs by Dark Lord Morgoth and Lewis' themes in Perelandra.)

The Progressives fostered optimism that the days of the great (religious) wars were over (2-3, 27-29). "Progress" also meant a greater ability to conduct war more efficiently when needed. Unfortunately, the progress didn't include ethical advances in when or how to conduct it (22-23). Loconte quotes Paul Bull here: "The Age of Progress ends in a barbarism such as shocks a savage. The Age of Reason ends in a delirium of madness." (47)

Once war was over, the Progressive faith was renewed a bit through Woodrow Wilson's call to peace through government, treaties, and the League of Nations. Loconte observes that all over Europe, public places were named for Wilson (103-104). But the promise was not fulfilled and this aspect of the faith was short-lived. Moreover, war was followed by "the three horsemen": the Spanish Influenza, atheistic communism, and Italian fascism (111-114).

Much of the post-war blame was put instead on liberal democracy, Christianity, and Western Civilization, leading to tremendous cynicism (105, 122-125). This impacted norms in literature. Loconte counts about 400 novels from the 1920s and 1930s that saw war as "inherently ignoble and irrational." (120) Both Tolkien and Lewis wrote in contrast to-- and as opposed to-- this norm. 

What didn't get enough attention: those in power can easily have or develop values that are inconsistent with human dignity and worth. Of crusaders, "however noble the motives may be, they easily become twisted by the thought of glory and the taste of power." (158) Usually, through "a subtle and gradual perversion...the universal temptation to exploit, dominate, and control the lives of others" (159). And the power of groups and peer pressure, quoting Lewis in This Hideous Strength: "to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men." (161)

As Loconte notes, "the major disillusionment of the 20th century has been over political good intentions.” (159) This has led to interventions ranging from ineffective economic “stimulus” to gulags and killing fields. But good intentions cannot—well, should not—satisfy for long. Both Lewis and Tolkien call people to something beyond intent—toward lives of purposeful decisions, robust fellowship, heroic self-sacrifice toward higher ends, and working toward freedom and dignity for all. May we follow in their footsteps—within the magical worlds we inhabit and the mythical dramas we enact. 


For my key blogs on Lewis, click on quotes from Mere Christianity; my review of Abolition of Man; and my essay on Lewis, Huxley and JFK (who all died on the same day). I don't have nearly as much on Tolkien, but I would recommend my review of a fine book on how LOTR connects to politics

Here are bullet-point and prose reviews of Adam Hochschild's excellent book on WWI: To End All Wars.

For a book that covers similar themes from the perspective of WWII, see my review of Alan Jacobs' The Year of Our Lord 1943.

For more of my writing on eugenics, check out my overview, including Indiana as the first state to implement a eugenics law; my review of Leonard's must-read book which adds angles on Progressivism and economics; and my review of Bergman's book while implicates Darwinism.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Jeff Gibbs & Michael Moore's "Planet of the Humans"

Michael Moore vs. renewables-- and released on Earth Day?! Wow! Here's a link to the video on YouTube (free for the first month). And a good article from Forbes that introduced me to it. 


-The film's view is utterly Malthusian. But at least it's much more realistic about theory and practice-- and counting more of the costs. While troubling and ultimately deeply anti-human, the Malthusian angle is secondary to gaining a ton of clarity on the renewable energy movement; without that, you can't get to the population problem through his lens.

-Renewables cannot possibly replace oil/coal, until we can store energy and get much more efficient in producing it. (Also, no mention of nuclear, aside from a passing poke at 1:22.Toward the beginning (:07) and the end (1:26), Gibbs uses devastating segments on the utter hypocrisy of energy used at alternative energy events. Beyond that, the film is crushing on the footprint of producing wind/solar (not exactly very small!) And the industry relies on technology produced by "the Koch Brothers": HI-larious and DEE-licious!

-The last 25 minutes is on the profit motive and especially cronyism (both of which he labels "capitalism")-- with some absolute haymakers directed at McKibben and Gore. The charges of (and evidence for) cronyism about Gore, McKibben, etc. should be deeply troubling to anyone who calls themselves liberal or leftie (or maybe even Dems).

-The discussion about religion around 50:00 was interesting! Much of this reduces to the equivalent of (largely blind) religious faith/beliefs for most folks. Jeff Gibbs apparently had an evidential/anecdotal epiphany that made him open to evidence. He became a "seeker" looking for "the truth". Upon that evidence, he's moved away from alternative energy as the great hope to depopulation as the only legit answer (given other parts of his worldview). Moreover, he's quite-comfortably incorporated AE into another dominant (and eminently reasonable) theory: the use of govt, PR, etc. by AE'ers for (crony) capitalistic ends. More broadly, how does one fill the void once the god is dethroned?

-The emphasis on biomass is not nearly as extensive as the critics say. There are 17 (uncomfortable) minutes on biomass as an energy source (:52-1:09). But much of it is used to poke at "industry insiders" and activists​-- rather than critiquing biomass per se. As for an even-handed benefit/cost an even-handed benefit/cost analysis, the movie is not great on that. But it's (ironically) far better on that account than the reviewer about the movie. 

-McKibben's reaction to the documentary--he says he's been libeled, because although he previously supported biomass, he is on record as opposing it. (And 1:35:20's wrap-up said that he has clarified that he is opposed to biomass.) It'll be interesting to see how the libel suit goes. (In contrast, I haven't seen any charges about libel in response to Schweizer's takedown on the corruption of prominent Dem pols.) McKibben also says he receives no corporate money. His claims in the interview/film about 350's funding were howl-inducing. $19.1 million in the most recent year and he didn't remember the key funders. LOL! If you only want to watch snippets on him, there are key moments for him at 1:14:30 (on his investment reqs) and 1:24:40 on claiming not to know how he's funded.

This response on DailyKos was mostly ad hominem, guilt by association, fallacy of authority, etc. (It's also telling that the critics don't have a problem with the anti-human perspective.​) And of course, as a free speech fan, I'm sorry to see efforts to try to shut this down, rather than debate it. In any case, I encourage you to watch/judge it yourself, esp. since it's stirred up so much in terms of science and religious views about the environment. 

This article on Vox is more impressive as critique. The most compelling point she makes (assuming it's true) is that the info is not the most recent. She repeats the odd criticism about the film's "focus" on biomass, missing the larger point of that focus. She's critical of the film's anti-human focus, so I appreciate that!

Here's a solid review by Michael Shellenberger in Forbes. And a really strong piece from Pierre Desrochers at AIER, including the "Bootleggers and Baptists" angle. 

Heartland Institute has a nice podcast on this. Among other things, I was surprised to learn at the end that they're not "climate change denialists" (unless one uses a weird/deceptive and rhetorically-useful version of the word): they acknowledge anthropogenic global warming and are even open to carbon-reducing policies. They think the models over-estimate and they think the policies are more costly than admitted, but that ain't "denial". 

libertarian responses to COVID

 I’m curious what the ideal Libertarian reaction would be to this situation? And had there been a big or little L in White House at time of this, could they have withstood the enormous public and political pressure for lockdowns and financial restitution. I don’t think Trump was an advocate for either and he can take incoming pretty well. Thoughts?
  • Eric Schansberg There is no single answer to this for libertarians or Libertarians-- anymore than there is on immigration, abortion, or a handful of other issues. It depends on assumptions-- and unfortunately, with COVID, our (wildly different) assumptions can only be lightly held at this point.

    The opening principle, from econ, would be "negative externalities"-- when your actions have a significant (negative) impact on others. One can find a role for govt to intervene in such cases, because voluntary behavior alone may lead to inequities and inefficiencies. (See: pollution by firms as the most notable example.) In such cases-- at least in theory / on paper-- various types of govt intervention may be helpful. So, that takes us to the possibilities among lockdown policies. But the benefits of such should be weighed against their costs-- most notably, the econ consequences.

    As for the (more) macro, what should the govt do? A lower-case L approach might include local/state efforts to help, including an extension or tweak of existing programs like UI. Even here, one would worry about whether the activism was being done well vs. causing more damage. The federal govt might relax taxes and regs (ideally, eliminating the latter permanently in most cases). But I can't imagine going much beyond that.

    One thing that's new to me: econs often talk about inefficient trade restrictions that are for the national interest-- e.g., defense items like tanks, guns, steel. Even if we're not good at those, one can make a political argument that we sacrifice some econ to be careful. One can now add medical supplies to that list.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Schweizer's "Profiles in Corruption"

In his book, "Profiles in Corruption," Peter Schweizer documents abuses of power among key national Democratic politicians. He calls them “progressives,” but the targets also include those who are generally considered “moderate” among those on the Left. Even so, his focus is motivated by their common desire to greatly expand the size and scope of government. Of course, all of this is meant to improve the world, at least as long as it’s run by elites like them. 

The book’s title is a spoof of John F. Kennedy’s famous book, "Profiles in Courage." In contrast to the selfless and courageous service that could make government more effective, Schweizer is asking what our most avid big-government politicians have done with the power they wield. Quite reasonably, he notes that their checkered pasts make it problematic to honor their passion to wield even more power.

Schweizer’s decision to ignore Republicans serves to narrow the field, but otherwise it’s an unfortunate choice. It leads to the perception that he’s a partisan hack. And certainly one could do a similar book on Republicans, motivated by their exaggerated or hypocritical claims to be “conservative” — fiscally or otherwise. Surely, he missed bigger fish in the GOP to describe smaller fish among the Democrats. Still, the book is worth a read, as far as it goes. 

Whatever biases he might have, Schweizer certainly seems thorough — with 90 pages of endnotes. And apparently he’s accurate. Although his reports are blistering, I only see a few partisan rebuttals on-line rather than a parade of lawsuits accusing him of libel. (My only critique was his characterization of Elizabeth Warren on bankruptcy law. After reading and writing about her three books on public policy, I’m deeply troubled by her staggering hypocrisy on policy. Schweizer's criticism there, however, seems unwarranted.)

Early in the book, Schweizer takes a brief poke at the media. But his entire book is an indirect indictment of their failure to report on such things. He talks about Hillary Clinton (and the Clinton Foundation) in his introduction. And he provides smaller chapters on Eric Garcetti (mayor of Los Angeles) and Sherrod Brown (senator from Ohio and a potential choice for vice president) to fill out the book. But his top targets are six of the most prominent candidates for President in the current primary season. 

Schweizer critiques Kamala Harris and Cory Booker for campaign-finance shenanigans. He criticizes Harris and Amy Klobuchar for selective enforcement of laws when they served as district attorneys — especially Harris, for the apparent connections to donor interests. (He also tags Klobuchar for her trouble with high levels of staff turnover.) He underlines how massive corruption continued unabated in Newark under Booker — as well as his unseemly connections to Mercury Public Affairs and the Mueller investigation. And he details a staggering array of corrupt dealings in the Biden family — with son Hunter (in tandem with Devon Archer), sister Valerie, son-in-law Howard Krein and brothers James and Frank.

(Along the way, Schweizer also provides a variety of interesting biographical nuggets: Harris is a mix of Jamaican and Indian ancestry, with the latter influencing her religious beliefs. And she had an affair with Willie Brown — a prominent California  politician, 31 years her senior — who helped to advance her career. Cory Booker has been active in and influenced by Judaism. And he is descended from slaves and slave-owners, making his argument for reparations seem especially strange.)

Schweizer describes Warren’s use of “Native American” to advance her career, as well as her lucrative corporate consulting and the political connections she used to profit her daughter and son-in-law. He points to Bernie Sanders for evasion of campaign finance information and enriching his family (girlfriend and then wife, Jane — as well as her daughter Carina and son David). Schweizer also discusses at length the unfortunate tenure of Sanders’ wife as president of now-defunct Burlington College. And ironically, given their rhetoric, Schweizer notes that Sanders had few investments in “socially responsible” funds, while Warren had none. 

Even though all of these politicians frequently talk about income and wealth inequality, they are part of the top tier in terms of income and wealth. More important, they’re part of “the 1 percent” in terms of power. It seems naïve and damaging to give them even more weight. Schweizer makes clear that their use of power has been abusive, corrupt and regressive — rather than admirable, conscientious or “progressive”. 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Easter reflections

Courage is action in the face of fear. 
Unity is fitting despite differences.
Free speech even includes talk you don't like. 
Peace is not merely the absence of war. 
Righteousness is not just staying out of trouble. 

Mercy is not getting punishment you deserve. 
Grace is receiving blessing you do not warrant. 
Relief at mercies extended. 
Gratitude for graces granted. 
The life. The cross. The grave. He is Alive!
God knows, God knows and wants what's best for us. 
Conversion is a part of discipleship with Jesus.  
The goodness of God's Kingdom is available to all. 

Joy is independent of happenstance. 
Faith is trusting a rope while you hang from a cliff. 
Hope is more than wishful, wistful thinking. 
Love means discipline, rebukes, and crosses.
Victory includes Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost.

Monday, April 6, 2020

rant about debt, liabilities and sacking the economy

If the govt tanks the economy with its "stimuli" and additional debt, it won't be this $2T, it'll be the first $25T in debt and $50T in liabilities that gets us. As such, the bulk of the blame goes to:

1.) President Bush and his GOP Congress-- for profligate spending, debt and the first of the "stimulus" efforts-- when as "conservatives" (posers), they should have known better.

2.) Presidents Obama and Trump, along with Congress-- although it's not clear they they know any better.

3.) Dems for their demagoguery on Social Security and Medicare reform efforts-- the massive liabilities of which are added to our debt.

4.) The partisan enablers who've made all of this possible-- clapping like seals at their loser pols and yelling at the other side with poorly-placed self-righteousness.

The infection caused by your idolatry has caused a lot of damage and may sack the economy. That is all.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

COVID and implications for education (human capital vs. signaling)

Economists talk about the "human capital" and "signaling-screening" aspects of education. The impact of the COVID-19 virus on schools and students allows us to consider these two ways in which schooling is useful for individuals and society.

Human capital is the role of education in building general and specific skills. In elementary and secondary schools, it is foundational — basic knowledge and basic skills in literacy, fluency, numeracy and socialization. In college, human capital accumulation ranges from improved oral communication, critical thinking and time management — to the ability to execute laboratory work, create artwork and interpret balance sheets. 

More human capital is good for those acquiring the education — and for society at large. A more educated population is more likely to be productive, to invent and innovate. Those with more education tend to stay out of trouble and have less turmoil with family stability and structure. The educated are better able to withstand the dynamics of labor markets. And so on. 

Signaling-screening is the extent to which education allows employees to more effectively “signal” and firms to “screen” applicants. For example, people who graduate are generally sharper than those who do not. High schoolers who take more Honors and AP courses typically work harder than those who do not. Students with a 3.5 GPA are usually more disciplined than those who have a 2.5 GPA. 

As such, schooling can be valuable, even if it is not relevant to a job. It’s still useful to distinguish between those who jump through a hoop and those who do not. Getting over a hurdle of educational attainment often indicates greater future productivity. If so, it’s important to individuals — and to society — to promote effective matches between firms and employees. At the extreme, even if school taught nothing useful in terms of human capital, it would still serve vital purposes as signaling-screening.

In college, the extent of human capital and signaling-screening varies by type of school, by major, by course, by teacher effectiveness, etc. Some majors are quite focused on specific human capital aspects. If you’re an accounting major, you’d better learn how to do accountancy. An economics major acquires more general skills — and the degree has more signaling-screening, since its material is relatively challenging. Whatever degree you get, it has value — in signaling that you’re probably sharper than those who didn’t graduate. 

COVID gives us an opportunity to think about these distinctions. What happens when colleges cancel half of a semester? What happens when schools switch to e-learning or on-line (especially when it’s cobbled together in a hurry)? “Education” is reduced, but how much are human capital and signaling-screening reduced? 

Full-time college students need eight semesters to graduate. So, half of a semester is about one-sixteenth of their education. Would we expect their skills to be 6 percent lower as a result? Of course, e-learning and other adjustments will reduce the loss, but how much human capital will they forfeit? (And does it matter whether one is a chemistry or history major?) Or think about elementary and secondary schools. If students lose one quarter, do they lose one-fourth of a year in terms of human capital? (It’ll be fascinating to see if economists can measure this effectively in the future.) 

From a signaling-screening perspective, there’s some reason for concern, but probably not much. Missing part of a semester is not likely to dramatically change the probability that people graduate. And so, the value of education as a signal and screen should be largely unchanged. 

I’ll close with a related anecdote. I wonder about the extent to which college education helps with the human capital aspect of "good citizenship." A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion at my university on religion and "tolerance." In the Q&A part of the event, a student talked about an aspect of her college education. From what she said, it seemed likely that her “education” on that topic had been one-sided — even though she imagined that she had been “educated” in the true sense of the term. 

This seems to be a common outcome these days. People imagine they're far more knowledgeable than they are — that they have more human capital than they really do. Worse yet, they often combine their “knowledge” with intolerance and self-righteousness — a perverse form of ignorance. In these contexts, less time in the classroom may actually be helpful. Then again, I’d bet the problem extends well beyond the classroom. 

UBI essay tweaked for COVID

You may remember Andrew Yang. He was a Democratic candidate for President who had a surprisingly successful run. He didn’t have any political experience. And unlike most of his competitors, he brims with joy and thoughtfulness about policy. His most intriguing (and popular) proposal is to give every American $1,000 per month. 

With COVID-19, some politicians have been pitching similar proposals — at least temporarily, during the crisis. As usual, it would be better — at least on paper — to target the assistance, more effectively, to those in need. As such, quicker and more liberal unemployment insurance and health care for the newly-unemployed makes more sense, assuming the government can do this well. 

The fancy term for this is “Universal Basic Income (UBI),” that is, everyone should have (or be given) enough income to survive. The idea has been around for decades and championed by thinkers and politicians on the Left and the Right. (As a budding young economist, I remember reading about it through Milton Friedman.) 

Yang motivates UBI from his concern about the impact of technological advance on the labor market. This is always a factor in the “churn” of the market. But he believes this time is different — along the lines of a crisis, particularly for less-skilled workers. (His favorite example is truck drivers being replaced by self-driving vehicles.) I’m confident that his worries are exaggerated — that our current technological advances will not be much more disruptive than what we’ve seen in the past. 

But there are other reasons to consider UBI. A year ago, I read Charles Murray’s nice little book on the topic, "In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State." His argument is that UBI would be better than our current welfare system — cheaper, less intrusive and fewer disincentives. If America insists on a significant “welfare state,” a well-constructed UBI would almost certainly be better. 

Murray’s UBI proposal is that all Americans ages 21 and over would be offered catastrophic health insurance coverage and $10,000 per year by the federal government. (High cost-of living states might choose to supplement this. If not, many people would choose to move to lower cost-of-living areas.) 

Yang’s proposal kicks in at age 18, but Murray is wiser in proposing UBI at age 21. This is crucial, since the habits created between ages 18 and 21 will change the way that the UBI is perceived. Someone in college will not be tempted (much) to leave college to rely on the UBI at 21. Someone who works after high school for three years is less likely to be tempted to leave a job, income, and career path to rely solely on the UBI at 21. 

The UBI would replace all other federal welfare programs. People could opt into the UBI or stay with their current arrangements. As Murray explains, aside from people at or near retirement, most people will choose the UBI. (Again, states might supplement these efforts — particularly, to help those with children.) 

One advantage is immediately obvious: the dog’s breakfast of current federal welfare programs for the poor would be replaced by a cash grant that is simpler, more efficient, and less prone to promote disincentives to work, to save, and to form and maintain a two-parent household. 

Unlike welfare programs, all people would receive the UBI, so it would remove the stigma for receiving “assistance”. It would reduce the disincentives to work because you would still receive UBI, even if you earned quite a bit. It would reduce the disincentive to save. Currently, recipients can have their government benefits reduced or even cut off — if they save “too much.” And it would reduce the disincentives against two-parent households among the poor, since current programs are often conditional on not being married.

Conservatives will applaud the UBI’s efficiency and reduced disincentives on work, saving and family formation. Liberals will appreciate resources for the needy, the removal of stigma for welfare and disempowering the bureaucracy that tends to dehumanize recipients.

How would we pay for the UBI? It turns out that the current set of entitlement and welfare programs are more expensive. Murray recommends a modest UBI reduction rate between $30,000 and $60,000, so that those above the poverty line receive less from the UBI, reducing its costs. (And we might expect wealthy and liberal people to refuse the payments, lowering costs further.)

Murray’s concerns are clearly valid. Society cannot afford to destroy incentives to work, save and raise children in two-parent households. And taxpayers cannot afford the current system of entitlements and welfare programs. The UBI would be a big improvement over the status quo. Thanks to Murray and Yang for promoting the idea. 

COVID "stimulus" as co-morbidity

COVID-19 is causing all kinds of trouble — for physical, mental and economic health. Policy-makers are trying to limit the pandemic’s spread while dealing with its implications for individuals, companies, and the economy. 

For individuals, Congress and President Trump have chosen a dual approach. They’re mailing checks to everybody, and there’s assistance for those who have lost their jobs — an expanded form of unemployment insurance. 

With assistance, there is a general trade-off between two desirable goals: well-targeted and delivered fast. Targeted is better — for key efficiency and equity reasons (it’s less costly and why should people receive help if they don’t need it?).

But the bureaucracy may not be able to execute a targeted policy quickly enough to help people in need. It takes time to process so many unemployment claims. And even with mailing out checks, if you don’t have direct-deposit information already on file with the IRS, you probably won’t get the money anytime soon.

For small business, the government is providing subsidies, deferring loans and taxes. Again, one worries about whether the bureaucracy will be nimble enough to implement these well. And for larger businesses, the government is subsidizing loans. The chief concern here is cronyism. In all of this, the broad problem is whether government activism in practice will work (nearly) as well as one would hope. 

One implication: Our leaders are calling this “stimulus,” but that doesn’t make it so. Even if some of the pieces are stimulating, it does not mean that it will help overall. We only need to remember the Great Recession under Presidents Bush and Obama to see that “stimulus” does not always stimulate. 

Another concern is that this new spending of $2 trillion is additional deficit spending — when the government has already amassed an impressive national debt and has made promises that amount to liabilities (Social Security and Medicare). With any government debt, there are ethical and practical issues. When and why should we make future taxpayers pay for stuff today? (The best examples are long-lived infrastructure; the weakest contexts are redistribution.) 

With COVID, serious illness and death are more likely if there are underlying health conditions such as heart or respiratory ailments. These are called “co-morbidities.” It’s the same with our debt. This deficit spending, by itself, might be tolerable. But another $2 trillion — on top of the current $24 trillion and an estimated liability of $50 trillion to retirees — could be fatal. 

As in personal finance, there comes a point where one cannot recover from debt. Either the debt gets too large or the underlying resources to finance debt are diminished. Our economy is dealing with both right now: more debt and less GDP. How much debt and liabilities can we incur before the promises are incoherent and people will no longer loan us money at the same low-risk interest rates — or eventually, at all?

When that happens, the only option for an individual is bankruptcy. Government can do the same — reneging on the debt altogether or devaluing the debt (e.g., paying it back 50 cents on the dollar). Government can also print money to pay the debt — leading to rampant inflation. 

Default and inflation are devastating to those who have those resources, especially the retired. Both are painful for an economy and common in less-developed countries — a big part of why they remain “less-developed." At what point would our first-world problems become third-world sorts of problems?

If we survive this round of borrowing, the growth of government in a crisis usually leads to bigger government in the long-run — even after the crisis has ended. The nature of government spending and bureaucracy is that it’s easier to add than to subtract. (Robert Higgs describes this beautifully in his classic book, "Crisis and Leviathan.") 

Why don’t people take government debt seriously? For one thing, we’re spending someone else’s money. Another problem: Trillions are so large that it’s incomprehensible. It's helpful to use what I call the "rule of 12." Since we have one-third of a billion people in the U.S., every billion dollars will cost the average person $3 — and $12 from the average family of four. Trillions are more challenging, since it's one thousand billions. But it's still the same math: one trillion works out to $12,000 in future taxes from a household of four; $2 trillion is $24,000. 

Debt is useful in one way. If you follow the issue long enough, you can tell who’s a partisan. When their party is in control of government, debt is never as big of an issue as when the other party is in control. (This is especially galling for Republicans, who often claim to be fiscally conservative. Similarly, Democrats should be thumped for avidly advocating military interventionism and pounding the working poor and middle class.)

But it’s never a good look to be a partisan for lousy groups. We can hope they’ll self-quarantine soon.