Krugman’s Problem: Naked Partisanship

Knowledge Isn’t Power”
Paul Krugman

NYTimes.com
February 23, 2015

Paul Krugman has written a thoughtful piece about the link between education and inequality in The New York Times. I do not agree with all of it, but his core point – that educational reform is no panacea for the issue of growing inequality – is well taken.

A friend of mine from the Left wondered why his op/ed wasn’t being given more attention. I told her it was simple: Krugman held his audience right up until the end, when he said:

It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal. But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

There is no reason to turn this discussion into a GOP-bash, but Krugman apparently cannot resist. Problem one is that he is wrong: support for corporate tax holidays, corporate welfare, and and a tax-free Wall Street demonstrably extends deep into the ranks of both parties on Capitol Hill – rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.

But the larger problem is Krugman’s desire to define the policy discussion in partisan terms. Turning honest debates about policy into opportunities to score partisan points does neither the debate nor the country any service. It forecloses opportunities to build bi-partisan coalitions around policy. And that is important: history has proven that we do not solve problems in America by giving one party or another dominance over government. We solve problems by forging debates and policies that rise above partisanship and engage the nation as a whole.

I have met Paul Krugman, and find him both intelligent and personable. It is a pity he finds it more important to employ his thinking as a means to divide the nation rather than to appeal for a debate about policy that transcends ideological squabbling. By doing so, he has made himself part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Failure on the Waterfront

Meanwhile, frustrated exporters and importers will find other routes. In a recent survey by the Journal of Commerce, 60% of shippers said they had begun redirecting cargoes away from America’s West Coast ports. Once that business leaves, it may never return. Western ports have already lost market share to the East Coast since 2002, when failed labour talks led to an 11-day lockout and a total shutdown.

via Labour relations: Watching fruit rot | The Economist.

When the docks of Tacoma, Oakland, Port Hueneme, and Long Beach go quiet; when two million jobs and billions of tax dollars disappear from the West Coast; and when these massive ports become run-down waterside slums, remember that the decline began when a union put its own existence ahead of the well-being of its members, its communities, its cities, and the region.

I have nothing agains the dockworkers having a union. I have nothing against collective bargaining. And I recognize that in any labor dispute, both sides share culpability. But in this case, the union needs to recognize that its tactics are self-defeating and that it needs to take an approach that doesn’t threaten millions of other workers in the process.

Democracy, Policy, and the Experts

The Death Of Expertise
Tom Nichols
The Federalist
January 17, 2014

The Internet has been accused of many things. It has been condemned as a destroyer of value. It has been reviled as the hiding place of gangsters and perverts. And now, in the pages of The Federalist, self-styled social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols accuses it of destroying expertise.

Nichols’ point, brutally summarized, is that by appearing to make everyone’s opinion of equal value, the Internet is slashing the value of an expert’s opinion to essentially zero. That’s dangerous, he says. To kill expertise is to reject knowledge and how we gain it. It is to raise the value of the opinions of people like Jenny McCarthy over those of doctors.

All agreed: we don’t want experts to go away. They offer tremendous value in society, and we would be lost without them.

And he is so very, very right when he notes:

People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.

All Hail the Expert

If this were as far as he took his argument, he would have won the day. Unfortunately, after a good start, Nichols goes off the rails in some important ways that hint at a larger, darker agenda.

He deems as “sanctimonious” and “silly” the idea that every person has a right to his or her own opinion. He launches into a screed against the incompetent taking part in discussions in the public arena. How dare, he suggests, that people who “can barely find their own nation on a map” have strong views on going to war? How dare those who cannot name their legislator have an opinion about how Congress handles a piece of legislation?

How dare, he asserts, anyone have an opinion on a field in which he is not an expert? Only experts, he implies, should be allowed to be heard on anything, unless, of course, the electorate become experts themselves. He doesn’t want a technocracy, mind you:

But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.

The threat: either people get a lot smarter about policy, or the experts are going to take over. We’ll let you have your opinions, but we control will remain in the hands of the people trained to run things.

It is sad that Nichols did not quit while he was ahead, making a case that we need to use care where we tread. In suggesting that we have a binary choice between everyone getting a lot smarter really quickly on the one hand, and letting the experts run things on the other, he is being disingenuous: the only likely outcome of those two is technocracy. And so what this article becomes is a case for the experts to take over.

Who is an Expert?

The reasons to distrust this reasoning are manifold. Let us dispose of the easy ones right away.

First, anyone who declares himself an expert is, in my opinion, immediately suspect. If someone who is in a position to know declares you an expert, you may well be one. If you declare yourself an expert, your status is suspect. Declare yourself a specialist or a professional if you must, but allow others do declare you an expert, a master, an authority.

Second, if we grant that he is an expert, his argument on behalf of the primacy of experts is self-serving, and thus suspect. In this, he is little different from the journalists decrying the Internet because it means we are reading less journalism. I feel bad for them, but the horse has left the barn, and experts, like journalists and the rest of us, are all facing a different world.

Trusting Experts

So, let us say that Nichols is an expert, and that he is being selfless. Handing over our policy decisions and our fates is a path fraught with problems. Primary among those “who gets to decide who the experts are?” Expertise is subjective, and the determination of whether someone is an expert demands other experts in that field. Who then appoints those people? This works us into a circular argument, and we wind up with a lot of people claiming expertise, but no objective way of making that determination.

I spent two decades working in China, and three decades studying it. Am any more or less an “expert” in China business than a newly-minted Harvard Ph.D. who did his dissertation on my field? Or than a journalist who has covered business in China for twenty five years? Says who? And why? You see where this is taking us. Multiply this problem by hundreds of fields, and the issue of determining expertise becomes non-trivial.

Once we have decided who the experts are, which ones do we trust? Any competent trial lawyer or white-shoe K Street lobbyist will tell you that on any issue, there are experts, but that often no two experts will reach the same conclusion, and often their conclusions will be diametric. Brookings, RAND, Heritage, CATO, and the Progressive Policy institute are all staffed by experts, but if you got all of their experts on any given issue in a room, you would have a war. Who decides among them and their recommendations?

Further, a reliance on experts implies that there are only two classes of people in any given field of knowledge: experts, and laymen, and only the former have value. This is poppycock. Apart from those with the highest level of mastery are polymaths (who are deeply conversant in multiple fields, though not necessarily expert in more than one;) apprentices, students, enthusiasts, buffs, and talented amateurs. People at any of these levels can make profound contributions to their fields.

Three examples jump to mind. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp proved the value of amateur astronomy when they discovered the comet that was later named after them. A clerk in the German patent office turned astrophysics upside down when he wrote a short paper describing a general theory of relativity. And corporate finance executive Edward Miller, Jonathan Parshall, a software executive, and Anthony Tully, an IT support specialist each conducted research and wrote books that have forced us to reevaluate the history of World War II in the Pacific.

Broad-based Problems, Narrow Solutions

But among all of these, the biggest problem is the nature of expertise itself. Experts are expert, by definition, because they spend their lives focused on a narrow enough field that they are able to achieve a greater degree of knowledge than most others in their field. For that reason, they are excellent at answering specialized and narrow questions. Unfortunately, their expertise is of declining value as they touch on questions that have implications far beyond their narrow field of expertise, and it is axiomatic that many of the most vexing problems faced by government go far beyond an expert’s ken.

Elizabeth Coleman, who retired from the presidency of Bennington College last year after a quarter century in the role, frames the problem with experts more eloquently:

Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the role model of intellectual accomplishment. While expertise has had its moments, the price of its dominance is enormous. . . . Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making?”“What kind should we be making?” “And “What kind can we be making?” move off the table.

These are precisely the kinds of questions our polity faces today.  You can substitute “nation” if you think “world” is too arrogant, but the issue stands. These are not the kinds of questions Mr. Nichols and his fellow experts are best suited to answer. They are the kind left to the rest of us.

The Tyranny of Experts

Which brings us to the final problem. Nichols contends that the idea that we all have a right to our own opinion is silly and sanctimonious. He is wrong. Giving us each the right to our own opinion, to express it, and to be proven wrong or vindicated is an essential part of the American democracy. To suggest otherwise steps beyond the arrogance of a learned man in awe of his credentials: it is to place us on the road to a technocratic tyranny where we are all the docile wards of the incredibly smart.

Aldous Huxley would have recognized what Nichols is suggesting, as would anyone who has read Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a world where because all men are not equal, their say in the way the world is run is not equal. That may appeal to the elitists. But that is not democracy, that is not the way the founders of the United States meant this country to be, and it is not a country that I would want to live in, either as an expert or a layman.

Let us keep this in mind: experts have value in that they should always be invited to inform the broader debate. Laymen need to think more critically and question the definitive statements of those who are not deeply knowledgable in the field in question. When faced with an expert versus a layman, deference should be paid to the point of view of the expert, but critical deference should be paid to all.

But experts should never be allowed to dominate that debate or, even worse, by dint of their knowledge be allowed to circumvent it. They are our servants. We shall not be theirs.

Getting to “Yes” On Pension Reform

Pension Reform Handbook: A Starter Guide for Reformers
L
ance Christensen and Adrian Moore

The Reason Foundation
July 2014

On the day when the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a state law against the unionization of public employees, our neighbors over at the Reason Foundation have issued a study on pension reform. Lance Christensen and Adrian Moore, both of whom have extensive experience in the trenches trying to fix dysfunctional government, frame the study as a guidebook for legislators and others who need to make reform happen.

I will confess that I do not know enough about state employee pensions to make any emphatic statement about government employee pension reform, but like most citizens, I am caught in a quandary. Part of me wants to give police and firefighters a comfortable retirement. But the other part of me is aghast at how high the bill for public employment has climbed as a percentage of GDP. There has to be a way of taking care of the people who serve us without bleeding the populace or shutting vital public services.

I believe a solution is possible, but it demands that we as the people insist that process be open, transparent, and free from the influence of special interests that would freeze the process. And it starts with jettisoning some ideological baggage. If we Republicans are willing to grant that public workers have to be protected from exploitation, Democrats must be willing to grant that the status quo is set to bankrupt American government.

Fixing inequality with wisdom

Inequality: Growing apart
The Economist
September 21, 2013

The editors at The Economist make a thoughtful case for how America can recover its promise of equal opportunity while addressing the growing inequality in our nation’s economy. And they manage to do so without pandering to liberal anti-capitalists who want to sock it to the rich, or the Tea Party reactionaries who see any government involvement in the economy as The End of Liberty in Our Time.

They call, in effect, for a radical simplification of the US tax code, eliminating loopholes that exclusively benefit the wealthy, and plowing the resulting windfall into early childhood education.

It is a thoughtful piece and worthy of a wider debate. Tax code reform is long overdue, and the nation spends too much treasure chasing revenue.

At the same time, we need to look carefully at how to spend the money on restoring opportunity. Simply running an aqueduct of cash into schools, for example, will not end their dysfunction. We need a vehicle that works before we fuel it.

But the editors are looking the right way. A simpler tax system and a hyper functional education system are two essential keys to fixing America’s ills.

Can Social Conservatives Really Be Fiscally Conservative?

Social conservatives who are not fiscal liberals are either hypocrites, sadists, or unrealistic. Think about it. If you vote against abortion or birth control, are you not making a silent choice to underwrite the fiscal burden all of those unwanted births will impose on society? Because if you are not, then you are making a series of choices with only one possible outcome: a larger underclass increasingly dependent on either government handouts or NGO support.

It is time for all of us who carry the monicker of “conservative” to realize that we must make a choice between running the country on the one hand and engaging in moral crusades on the other. It is time for us to put the social agenda back in the freezer, or send it to church. We have bigger fish to fry than worrying about what’s going on in America’s pants.

Can an Innovator Fix Downtown Las Vegas?

Image representing Tony Hsieh as depicted in C...

Image via CrunchBase

What Happens in Brooklyn Moves to Vegas
Timothy Pratt
NYTimes.com

We have a great deal of faith in entrepreneurs here at the Bull Moose. At the same time, we’ve made no secret of our belief that business acumen does not necessarily translate into the skills required to run a government.

That said, Timothy Pratt’s feature in today’s New York Times Magazine about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh‘s vision to transform downtown Las Vegas through his Downtown Project offers an interesting approach. Will Hsieh’s efforts work? Perhaps: he’s leading with human capital rather than infrastructure, a unique approach that Harvard economist Edward Glaeser suggests is the proper approach.

What seems a little light is the longer-term vision. Hsieh is putting into place something that is likely to work for 5-10 years, but what does it do for the city over the long term? How does Hsieh’s vision turn Las Vegas into something more than a desert railroad junction surrounded by casinos? The grand difference between a transaction-driven businessman and a vison-driven statesman is the distance to the horizon.

Hsieh’s Downtown Project is worth watching, not just to see if his approach bears fruit, but to see if his vision evolves with his success.

RAND: Amnesty and an End to Ambiguity

“Immigration Reform”
James P. Smith
Farsighted Leadership in a Shortsighted World
RAND
September 2012

Kids hold signs in front of Los Angeles City H...

Kids hold signs in front of Los Angeles City Hall, demanding general amnesty for all immigrants. Photos taken at the immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles, California on May Day, 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a nation of immigrants, it is actually unsurprising that immigration should be a major political issue. Those of us who are here do not want our lifestyles and our earning power diluted by an inrush of competition. Those of us who are not here want a chance at the lifestyles and earning power available to most Americans.

The matter is not a simple battle between the selfish and the sympathetic: there is an economic case as well. James P. Smith, a University of Chicago-trained economist, writes that while both highly-skilled and unskilled immigrants make a positive contribution to the nation:

The effects of immigration on taxes are generally positive at the federal level, but they are negative at the state and local levels in places where there are lots of low-skilled immigrants.

Smith’s approach is to mix economic rationality with a dash of compassion. He believes that a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million-plus undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., along with a strict enforcement of immigration laws after that effective amnesty, would end the current ambiguous situation we have in place now. His is a workable political compromise that is likely to bridge both sides of the issue, and for that he should be commended.

However, he stops short of establishing an enduring principle on which future decisions on immigration can be made. Core questions remain unanswered. A few of the most important ones: why do we allow immigration in the first place? Under what circumstances, (i.e., a resurgence in manufacturing) would America benefit from reopening the doors to unskilled immigrants? What is likely to happen to non-grain agriculture if the flow of illegal immigrations stops? And, in the meantime, how do we propose to do an adequate job policing our border without bankrupting the nation?

Until we come to a national agreement on the principles that drive immigration policy, our solutions will never be anything more than short-term expedients.