Thursday, January 28, 2016

Eating Their Own

It is hard to avoid a bit of schadenfreude over the latest exercises in campus-wide petulant left-wing temper tantrums.  Take the University of Missouri, for example, where the President was recently relieved of his duties.  That someone so committed to the silliness of much of academia – a commitment that is a must in order to rise to be President of a major university - can be ousted so quickly over being insufficiently sensitive to the tender sensibilities of a small, thoroughly left-wing faction of a student body, is sad in many ways, but its overall effect is humorous.  It’s reminiscent of those committed Communists, who happily sent other insufficiently pure Communists to Siberian work camps, suddenly finding themselves on trial for their sins against Communism.  You can only feel so sorry when a zealous prosecutor of imaginary crimes finds himself accused.

I know nothing of the former President of the University of Missouri, but if he has anything in common with most other University presidents, he has let an ever more demanding leftwing constituency become increasingly more powerful over time.   With that power has come an ever-decreasing sphere for free speech on campus, with speech codes that essentially make any conservative-leaning utterance a hate crime.  The unfortunate reality is that the college and university system is of value to us today only for its STEM and business education, where the objective is for the student to learn something useful.  The humanities, on the other hand, have been hijacked by people who care nothing for imparting wisdom, but deeply for inculcating their strange narrative of the rampant injustices of American society on a student-body that lacks the discernment to reject it.

Ponder the irony of one of the demands of the beleaguered college students – that they should be able to attend college for free.  The central complaint of the Occupy Wall Street crowd was similar – damn those banks for expecting to be paid back for student loans.  Those demanding free tuition or forgiven debt find themselves in the unenviable position of obtaining no marketable or useful knowledge from their degree.  What they have learned is that life is, like, unfair and stuff, and dammit if they are not the ones to right the wrongs of so many years.  And so college-educated people who have benefitted from taxpayer subsidized below-interest loans, and (often) taxpayer subsidized tuition, strike the pose of the victim – the Victim! of …. Something …   Anything will do really.  Racism, sexism, rape culture, the NRA, religion, rape culture (you can blame that twice!), cloudy weather, parents who didn’t care, parents who cared too much, etc.  Doesn’t really matter – in fact, you get points, and possibly tenure someday, for recognizing some hitherto undiscovered font of injustice.  For example, if you were clever enough, you could have been the inventor of the microaggression, which is all the rage on campuses where the old fashioned macro-aggressions have long ago largely disappeared.

Lest you think the heavily government subsidized college student (with parents often subsidizing the rest of it) is in fact a person of privilege (and not just white male privilege), consider that all of those kids who went to work straight out of high school to support themselves have been spared the daily possibility of microaggressions!  When was the last time a mechanic suffered a microaggression at work?  Has Pat Buchanan ever been invited by the campus fascists to speak at the auto body shop and violate their safe space?  I think not.  (In point of fact, your average mechanic probably suffers microaggressions daily, but fortunately lacks the university training to know it, otherwise most trips to the car shop would be met with self-indulgent protests and refusals to work on the part of the mechanics). 

Now if I were a former American Studies major finding myself peddling fair trade coffee for $10 an hour while dodging calls from the bank for overdue loan payments, I might ponder to think how did it come to this?  Odds are none of them got that initial student loan package with a rock-bottom interest rate and muttered to themselves, I’ll get those fascist bankers if it’s the last thing I do.  No, they were probably happy to be joining the parade of friends off to college, more than happy to have someone else foot a portion of the bill.  And now when it should be clear to them that the sum total of the useful learning culminating from four years of grievance studies is knowing the difference between a cappuccino and a latte, who do they blame?  Not the beloved professors!  The banks and the taxpayers who refused to foot the entire bill! 

So let’s say we did let them off the hook – forgive their student loans and refund whatever portion of their tuition they otherwise paid for.  Where does that leave their career prospects?  Right where their revered professors knew it would – nowhere, but for coming back to school and beginning the cycle again.   It’s a clever con when you think about it – for four years we take your money in exchange for planting a bug in your ear that you are a victim of everyone but for your well-meaning professors, and when you find yourself penniless and going nowhere, your education has equipped you only with a ready set of all the groups at fault for your dire straits excluding only yourself and your alma mater.

I like to think that there are parents of these college protestors who eagerly await their return over Thanksgiving, so they can smack them upside their heads.  (I think of the teenager in Baltimore who was getting smacked up the side of his head by his Mom for trying to participate in the Freddie Gray protests last summer.)  Cause I can guarantee you not one of those so engaged in the protest would be a “non-traditional” student paying their own way.  Such students actually demand an education, and are not seeking to have their delusional megalomania about their vaunted self-importance validated through the threat of violence or force by the feckless adults that comprise University administrations.  No, this is a dance between students and administrators where regardless of the outcome the money keeps flowing in from the parental coffers, the students learn nothing, and the only cost to the university is the occasional ritual sacrifice of one of its own.  These students need an adult to smack them (metaphorically or otherwise), and there aren’t any on campus.

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Diminishing Returns of the Victimhood Narrative

There is a guy by the name of Arnold Kling who has put forth what he calls the “Three Axes Model” to explain the lens through which liberals, conservatives, and libertarians view political issues.  Liberals are focused upon protecting the oppressed from the oppressors, conservatives upon protecting civilization from barbarism, and libertarians upon protecting freedom from government coercion.  Because each group conceives of issues within differing “either-or” frameworks that are not necessarily compatible, they tend to talk right past each other. 

This is fundamentally what is occurring with the marriage debate – liberals see it as an effort to overcome the oppression of homosexuals perpetrated by the homophobic religious nuts, while the conservatives see gay marriage as potentially weakening the historical focus of marriage as a relationship that is uniquely capable of producing little barbarians that are in great need of the civilizing influence of two dedicated parents.   I’ve already discussed the issue of gay marriage ad nauseum, so my point is not to rehash that whole debate, but it is a neat little illustration of how the three axes model illustrates the reasons for a non-debate with people talking past each other. 

The three axes can of course line up at certain points – maybe all three at once on the rare occasion, but more often it is two of the three.  As an example, a libertarian concern for freedom and a liberal concern for the oppressed would lead both to call for the abolition of slavery, which we can all agree is a good thing.   The conservative impulse may be concerned with the same end, but might be against means of achieving such an end in a way that is potentially fatally disruptive to social order.  Many of the founding fathers, slaveowners themselves, were interested in manumitting their own slaves and openly wished for the long-term abolition of slavery, but saw no short-run solution that wasn’t potentially destructive.  And, of course, the short-term solution ended up being a blood bath.

The 3 Axes model explains why it is hard to predict which side libertarians or those with libertarian leanings will take when they make the calculation to not vote libertarian.  Many of them chafe at the perceived coercion of the pro-life leanings of Republicans, and choose freedom by voting Democrat; others take greater umbrage at the incessant regulation of economic life, and choose freedom by voting Republican.

One of Kling’s points is that there are certain issues where it is probably best to choose one of these axes over another, but that none of the three axes always represents the most reliable and prudent viewpoint.   I think this is my fundamental objection to liberalism – it has won the largest battles it was appropriate to fight, and rather than claim the laurels of its victory, it extends the label of oppression in ever more questionable ways.  And as each such labeling calls for ever more government coercion to redress the perceived oppression, it has become heavy-handed and onerous.
Once a victory is won, liberalism either redefines the definition of victory for an already designated victimized group, or searches hell and high water for a till now unrecognized group of victims.  

In either case, the argument gets stretched more thin, and to compensate for such thinness the rhetoric gets ever louder (think of the erudition and measured tones of a Martin Luther King speech versus the huckstering of Al Sharpton).   Slavery is abolished, and with it 100 years later the scourge of Jim Crow laws and their denial of civil rights (and note the civil rights movement was about one layer of government redressing another level of government’s unjust oppression), arriving at a point where the dream of judging a man by the content of his character rather than the content of his skin becomes a possibility.   Fifty years later, in the face of enormous economic progress for blacks in America, a liberal is forced to identify conservative talking points like “tax relief” or “deregulation” as codespeak for “nigger go home.”   

The oppression narrative is so powerful in today’s political discourse that the mere passive fact of being oppressed confers a modicum of automatic status as a measure of inherent virtue.  It is not so much a recognition of “look at what you have overcome,” but instead a “look at what you are faced with overcoming.”  The mere act of suffering with no transcendence is taken as an indication of virtue.  The compelling narrative of suffering for its own sake appears to be so important in the eyes of the voting public that white liberal male politicians feel like they have to make their own personal sufferings over the death of a sister (Al Gore), the death of a wife (Joe Biden), the fatherly abuse of a mother (Bill Clinton) a central point of their campaigns, no doubt as a way to establish credibility among other passive sufferers.  I remember thinking in the early primary debates in 2008, that as Joe Biden would wax on about the death of cherished first wife, Chris Dodd was sitting there thinking “you lucky bastard, why can’t I have a dead first wife?”

For women and minority politicians, there is no need to recount personal tragedies as a means of establishing credibility in the eyes of liberals who think along the oppressor-oppressed axis; the historic sexism and racism is sufficient.  For them, even if such hurdles have diminished enormously over time, the glass is eternally half empty, so that denial of subsidized contraception is given the same status as the denial of voting rights.   But white guys gotta establish their cred, and lacking any oppression from the man (because they are the man), they turn to the sometimes (if they are lucky) cold-hearted hand of fate.

There is no payoff to stoic forbearance of suffering a private grief, even though such forbearance is the more worthy attribute.  The political payoff is in sharing your pain, and being tight-lipped about it is taken as an indication that you are immune from personal human suffering.  For Ronald Reagan, having an abusive alcoholic father was not a fact to broadcast; it was a fact to bury.  Burying it, in today’s nomenclature, would be taken not as an indication of forbearance, but of denial, and evidence of his strangeness.  For Bill Clinton, in contrast, it was a de facto demonstration of his virtue, and later an exonerating explanation for serial womanizing.  It is now Jerry Springer’s world, and we’re just living in it.

It reminds me of that classic Saturday Night Live skit, where Eddie Murphy goes about his day in white-face, and finds to his surprise that white people never have to pay for anything.  As a white guy, absent telling people that someone you loved died, it is simply assumed that everyone around you lives forever, and so you cannot possibly have any empathy.  This leads to asinine observations, such as the one made by Obama upon the appointment of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, that being a Latina woman she was uniquely capable of compassion in her judicial opinions.  Law, to be just, requires objective administration, and so the highlighting of her subjective viewpoint is rather contrary to just law.  White men can’t jump, and apparently we also can’t empathize. 

The evidence that the oppressed/oppressor narrative has largely run its course in America is best demonstrated by a simple comparison of the two most recent events taken as an indication of a country still struggling with racism – the Trayvon Martin death and the Ferguson Missouri police shooting of the gentle giant Michael Brown– with our not so distant past.  Sixtty years ago in the south if a black man made the mistake of making eye contact with a white woman, he could end up hung.  That black man was likely to come from a very much in tact family, as the rate of illegitimacy among African-Americans at the time was very low.  Now, sixty years is a pretty short span of time, but there is no better measure of progress on racism than the material available for those who make their living by selling racism as a problem (Sharpton, Jackson, and now, regrettably, arguably Eric Holder and Obama) to sell their wares.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, the first time I heard of the story there was a picture of a nine year-old happy kid on the cover of People magazine, conveying the impression immediately that he was nine years old when shot dead.  We were also told he was just buying some candy at a 7-11 like any kid, when in fact he was buying the ingredients to a homemade narcotic.  He was seventeen; had a history of trouble and marijuana use; slow-walked a one-hundred yard stretch for thirty minutes to induce a confrontation with George Zimmerman after telling a friend he was being stalked by a “fag” who he was going to beat to a pulp; and then proceeded to beat the guy to a pulp. 

That “fag” unfortunately didn’t fit the stereotype of a racist redneck with a set of balls hanging from the bumper of his truck, and a confederate flag flying from the antenna.  Zimmerman was civic minded, trying to police the neighborhood in response to rising crime.  He had also successfully confronted local police in connection with defending a badly treated older black man.  But the real problem was his race.  Zimmerman was half Hispanic, which is usually sufficient to be considered fully Hispanic (i.e., fully entitled to status as a victim of white oppression).  But the oppressor-oppressed model doesn’t do well with ambiguity, and a Hispanic murder of an African American has no historical precedent as a reference point to suggest the lack of progress on the part of the oppressors.  Which called for a simple fix on the part of the New York Times - a change in their editorial policy to henceforth call him a White Hispanic.  What, you didn’t know about the White-Hispanic branch of the KKK?

The kid in Furgeson is another case in point, with the immediate media coverage being so fawning that Rush Limbaugh referred to the kid that got killed as the gentle giant.  The gentle giant, it turns out, had that same day stolen cigars and man-handled an Indian clerk at a convenience store, and also beat the cop to a pulp.  The eyewitness account of his friend, that the gentle giant was peacefully surrendering, was contradicted by many other eyewitnesses, and unless the cop broke his own eye socket to cover for himself, his injuries speak for themself.  Being a cop can be a difficult job sometimes, and under stress people can screw up; not too long after this incident an unarmed white kid was shot dead by a black cop in Utah.  Is this evidence of racism?  Or is the far more plausible explanation simple human error under stress? 

In both cases, the black kids who got shot were either in trouble or looking for trouble.  Under such circumstances, the overwhelming statistical reality is that it is far more likely as a matter of pure statistics that another black kid will end up dead, rather than that a white cop or a White Hispanic neighborhood watch guy will take out the black kid gunsmoke style.  If you are the parent of a black kid who is on the straight and narrow, fearing his death at the hands of a racist white cop while turning a blind eye to the much more real possibility of death at the hands of a classmate, is highly irrational.  It is a sad reality that there are circumstances in which a kid in a mild amount of trouble meets an undeserved tragic death, but it is no indication whatsoever of lingering life-threatening racism.

Even as the facts emerged in the case of Michael Brown that totally disarmed the racist cop/innocent black kid narrative, we got the familiar refrain, which goes back to the time Dan Rather fell for the obviously hoaxed documents surrounding George W. Bush’s military service, that the story, while “fake,” is nevertheless “true.”  That is, while the fact pattern in the Brown case doesn’t specifically fit the narrative that liberals and the media chose to purport as the reality for a young black American, it nevertheless does happen and is a reality in America.  But if it were to happen with any real frequency, aren’t we entitled to a “real” and “true” example? If, for example, it happens 50 times a year, can’t we dispense with the “ fake” but “true” gentle giant as a kid who was clearly looking for and finding big trouble, and instead find a kid who wasn’t looking for trouble and then found it?

Two other cases have since come to the attention of the media – Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Eric Garner in Long Island.  In the case of Freddie Gray, charges have been brought against the six cops, but three of the six cops are black.  Of the six, only four have been charged with either murder or manslaughter, and three of those four were black.  In the case of Eric Garner, the arrest was supervised by a female African American.  Neither fits the racist cop narrative at all.

Friday, December 04, 2015

The Peril of Reading to Your Kids

Every once in awhile, some learned man with impeccable academic credentials spouts an opinion that is so wrong on so many levels that it wakes the Hatcher from his blogging slumber to make it a teaching moment, lest my readers (or reader, whatever the case may be) find themselves parroting the same asininity while drinking at the corner barn, thereby spreading the infection.

Reading to your kids gives them an advantage in life. Given this fact, Adam Swift, a professor of philosophy at Warwick University, recently opined that you should think twice about trying to help your kids: “I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.”

I know when I used to read to my kids, I not only had that thought in my mind constantly, it was the primary source of pleasure. Let’s face it, reading Harry Potter to your kids gets old, but when you know you are simultaneously doing the equivalent of kicking other people’s bratty kids hard in the ass, it greatly enhances the experience. Contra the pleasure I took from that knowledge, Swift would prefer that we all agonize while reading Where the Wild Things Are to little Johnny and little Suzie over the fact that little Johnny and little Suzie will someday, by virtue of that moment, be callously piloting their environmentally damaging yachts right past a river shanty town filled with adults rigging vines to broken sticks as a makeshift fishing pole because their parents didn’t read to them.

While Professor Swift still allows this practice, quite magnanimously I might add, albeit with a modicum of hand-wringing guilt, there are some things up with which he will not put, including sending your kid to an elite private school, which cannot be justified. Whereas in the case of the reading to your kid, there is a family relationship “good” to be considered and weighed against the unfair disadvantaging of other kids, in the case of the elite private school, it is unadulterated unfair disadvantaging of other kids for pure sport, with no ancillary benefit.

Now, the common sense reader will at this point be thinking to himself – Hatcher, clearly you read something in the Onion. I assure you I did not. Those without common sense, and equipped with their PhDs in some arcane tribal studies (women’s studies, American studies, African American studies, Latino studies, etc.), will on the other hand recognize the incongruity of this opinion with common sense, and then champion it for that reason. Because common sense is just a tool of the man; and the rejection of such common sense yields certain benefits, chief among them the egalitarian spreading of misery.

The thoughtful liberal reader may dismiss my focus on some crackpot liberal professor as a means to tar and feather the overall egalitarian sentiments of liberals, which in his opinion is otherwise defensible and doesn’t require the extremes of asininity as displayed by Swift. But I would submit to that reader that it is highly likely that your understanding of economics is such that you should agree with Swift. You just don’t realize his conclusions follow quite logically from your shared lack of understanding of economics.

Ahh, where to begin? Let’s start with the author’s complete lack of understanding of the concept of a proxy. There are undoubtedly studies out there that form the starting point of his opinion that kids who were read to by their parents as children achieve more success as adults. The “read to by parents” is a proxy for the extent of the parental investment in a kid’s education; it is not by itself necessarily the cause of later success. A proxy is by its nature a crude but effective measure of some more complex variable, and it works because it is positively correlated with that more complex variable. Reading to your kids is likely to be correlated with helping them with homework, guiding them in their choice of classes, eating dinner together as a family, and being raised by a two-parent family, all of which add to the parental investment in a kid’s education. It is also likely to be correlated with factors that have nothing to do with parental investment, but which we would expect correlate with later success. I would bet someone who reads to their kid is likely to have a higher than average level of education, and perhaps a higher IQ, which is in part hereditable.

The misunderstanding of a proxy can lead to absurd conclusions. For example, similar studies about educational achievement in the past showed that parental ownership of a library card was the single best predictor of educational achievement, trumping spending per pupil, education level of the teacher, and other factors. Everyone understands that “library card ownership” is a proxy for something that is harder to measure. Failure to understand that fact would lead to absurd recommendations such as simply distributing a library card to all parents. The “read to by parent” proxy would lend itself to a similar absurdity, since it takes no account of the time read. A recommendation of reading for 1 minute per day is not likely, by itself, to do much good.

That policy recommendation, however, would at least have the benefit of good intentions – i.e., if mere possession of a library card magically yielded educational benefits, the policy recommendation at least seeks to spread that benefit as widely as possible. In the case of our erstwhile philosopher, he reaches the exact opposite conclusions – if an observed proxy correlates with success, those who are already in a privileged position should think twice about reading to their kids, lest they exacerbate the economic inequality. Perhaps he’s given up as hopelessly utopian and unrealistic on the “lifting all boats” approach of exhorting the shift-about parents to put down the remote control, rip the game controller out of their kid’s hands, and read a little Dr. Seuss out loud. As recommending that parents act like parents is apparently asking too much, the approach is to sink as many other boats as possible.

Which beckons the question – how does sinking the boats of the kids who want to hear Where the Wild Things Are help the kids whose parents don’t read? The “sink as many boats as possible” approach of the good philosopher has a certain perverse logic to it if, as must be the case with this guy, one suffers from the economic delusion that the pie of economic goodies is fixed in size. If you suffer from fixed pieism, any action that takes a piece of pizza away from one kid leads to another kid getting it, and so sabotaging one kid’s chances at success increase the success chances of the kids whose parents have neither the time nor the inclination to read to their kids. To a fixed pieist, the sinking of little Johnnie’s boat helps to lift little Suzie’s boat.

There are two major fallacies in this logic. The first obvious one is that the pie is not fixed. If it were we’d all still be hunting and foraging for food. At some point someone had a parent who stealthily read to them out of the view of others who may have seen that activity for what it was – an effort to screw over their kids – but what inadvertently happened was the kid discovered agriculture, and the economic pie was forever increased to the benefit of all, no doubt to the chagrin of his mom, who was looking to starve the other kids. It was JFK who coined the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and while that concept has in the minds of many been disproven with the host of many “failed trickle down” economic policies, there is nothing more preposterous than to suggest that poor people have not benefitted from economic growth.

In terms of simple lifespan, have you ever noticed how all of the founding fathers, rich men for the most part, lived as long or longer than the average lifespan of today at a time when the average lifespan was less than 40? Now, much of that low life expectancy was due at the time to higher rates of infant mortality, which given medical technology at the time might have affected rich and poor alike – as medical technology improved with economic growth, improvements in infant mortality rates have helped rich and poor alike. But others who survived early childhood have also gained years. In 1850, the average 20 year-old could expect to live to be approximately 58 years old; today he can expect to live to approximately 78 years old. There may be small differences between the rich and the poor on this dimension, but no one truly believes that your average poor person still checks out at the age of 58.

Not only lifespan, but the drudgery of life has been improved for all. You know how a rich person did laundry in 1800? They didn’t. They hired poor people or maintained slaves to hand wash clothing. When the washer and dryer came into existence, it no doubt started as a luxury for the rich, but today it aint exactly a status symbol. More fundamentally, think of electricity – have you ever seen a poor person amazed by an electric light?

The overwhelming preponderance of those medical and other advances occurred in the U.S. and western Europe, under a system of free enterprise. Very few were made possible by advances made in the Soviet bloc and other communist countries. That is to say, most occurred under economic systems that were broadly indifferent to concerns over the inequality of income, or how such inequality might change with economic growth; whereas, in contrast, had we been reliant upon economies more focused on the gap between the rich and poor, we all still might be getting leached for infections rather than taking penicillin. The poor, quite simply, have arguably benefitted disproportionately from economic growth.

This fact gets obscured by the second fallacy – that income is an accurate measure of benefit. Again consider penicillin, which has a cost for a bottle of 500 mg pills of about $20 (affordable to most everyone in the US), and can cure people today of infections that may have killed them in 1900. Does one think of Alexandar Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, as a man of great wealth? I have no doubt he probably made a small fortune from his invention, and even if it were a great fortune, could we really begrudge him for it?

During the time he had patented rights to penicillin, Fleming may have earned as much as 30 percent of every sale of penicillin. But the price of penicillin was not so high that it didn’t see widespread and increasing use in a very short period of time. Take any given purchase of penicillin – assume during WWII Fleming was making $2 per prescription (probably much higher than what he actually made, and in today’s dollars equivalent to at least $10). Who do you think benefitted more from that purchase – Fleming or the patient? Fleming earned $2, allowing for the purchase of other things, whereas the patient had to give up $2, therefore losing the ability to purchase other things. From an income perspective Fleming benefits, and arguably the patient loses. But of course the patient is the big winner – had he chosen instead to buy a case of candy bars at a similar price, he might have soon been dead. Knowing the implications of the purchase, it is clear to the patient that the total benefit of the purchase of the penicillin is greater than that for the case of candy bars, and by a wide margin. In economic parlance, the patient’s consumer surplus, measured as what he is willing to pay for the product, less what he has to pay for the product, is far greater than the $2 Dr. Fleming walks away with, but this difference is invisible to people like Swift, who have so little understanding of economics.

No doubt the young Alexander may have at one time had selfish parents who read aloud to him and, more inexcusably, probably sent him off to a private school. Maybe the good professor Swift should treat the fruits of such selfish parenting in the same way we quite naturally recoil at the practical use made by the Nazis of corpses from the Holocaust, from which they made things like soap and lampshades. Who in good conscience could buy such goods? By the same logic, how can Dr. Swift tolerate the further enrichment of Fleming (or more ghastly still, his estate) via the purchase of penicillin? If he could trace back the parental reading aloud history that underlies every major invention and act appropriately in protest, the good Dr. Swift may find the remainder of his life nasty and brutish, but also mercifully short.

I will give him credit for one thing - going after private schools, which can't help but hit home to many of the limousine liberals who might otherwise say Swift offers something to think about.  It's easy to say let the flood gates of immigration open when you have your kids safely ensconced in private schools or affluent public school districts, where the schools won't be dragged down by the influx of students who can't speak English.  God forbid one person put their money where their mouth is and purposefully see to it that their private school bring in 50 new refugees as students.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hey Pope, Ever Think of Taking an Econ Course? Just Sayin.

What’d I tell you not two blogs ago? That growing income inequality will become increasingly the focus of the political dialogue, at the behest of those never satisfied with current large levels of income redistribution. And within a month, we have first Pope Francis railing against the income inequality supposedly created by an unfettered free market economy, and secondly Obama. Because as a Catholic I take Pope Francis seriously, and in contrast Obama has proven his utter lack of credibility on most any issue, I want to address Pope Francis’ comments here.

Wilhelm Ropke was a German economist who was tasked with re-making the West German economy in the aftermath of World War II. In his day, he was a very powerful advocate of the free market economy, and additionally he was a devout Catholic. Presumably his economic beliefs would be out of favor with Pope Francis, given the Pope’s current views, but there is a quote from Ropke that captures perfectly the sentiment I had, as a Catholic advocate of free markets, in reading the Popes comments:

…we need a combination of supreme moral sensitivity and economic knowledge. Economically ignorant moralism is as objectionable as morally callous economism.

In parts, the Pope’s comments are objections to morally callous economism, but much of it is economically ignorant moralism. The Pope has the supreme moral sensitivity, but in my humble opinion he clearly lacks the economic knowledge. As a result of this ignorance, he argues for those things that will tend to more fully entrench the morally callous economism he rightly opposes.

Consider this sentence from Pope Francis:

Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.

What economy does this describe? If these comments were addressing political competition for the reigns of very powerful centralized government (i.e. the entire developed world), rather than competition within free markets, they would be far more accurate. The “laws” of competition and the survival of the fittest are terms used to describe competition among firms – that is, competition among entities started with capital supplied by an entrepreneur – so in the current framework, we are discussing competition among those the reflexive anti-market left regards as powerful. The competition refers to two bears going at it, not a bear fighting a bunny.

The evolutionary analogy to survival of the fittest is wrong in so far as it evokes the zero-sum competition between two animals for a fixed food supply; two competing firms compete to serve a common set of customers, and the one that serves the customers more fully is going to be more successful. You don’t win by force of might, you win by serving others – this is a fairly important distinction to be made when the subject is an economy that serves human need. Companies operating within a free market economy have no powers to compel anyone to purchase anything. The extent of their power over their customers is limited to the extent that they can offer a comparatively better product and a more attractive price. Railing against such competition is equivalent to railing against service to those the firm is trying to serve; surely the Pope does not mean to bemoan a system that puts the less efficient producer out of business. If so, he would be advocating for the rich and powerful entrepreneur over the “powerless” consumer.

Consider the company that takes more of your money than any other – is this a case of you as lamb being eaten by the lion? I pay untold amounts in mortgage interest each year, but nothing compelled me to enter into such mortgage loans, and indeed I was quite happy to get the money. Banks would seemingly fit everyone’s definition of the powerful eating the powerless, but the housing crisis consisted primarily of the powerless defaulting on their debt obligations to the banks and then carrying on with their lives none the worse for the wear; where are banks that have set up the private debtor’s prisons for the powerless who crossed them?

A successful corporation, in isolation from the state, has little power under any understanding of that word. The largest and most powerful of companies employs a miniscule fraction of the workforce, and must offer them opportunities that are more favorable to them than the millions of other potential employers. The same company has sales that are a miniscule percentage of GDP, and has no ability to compel you to purchase their products. To the extent that they make extensive profits, their re-investment decisions have a small impact on the course of the economy, but so what? They do not finance such investments out of compulsory payments from workers or customers.

Pope Francis’ antidote to a misplaced concern over a system of competition that empowers those he views as powerless is to turn to the state:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

The first sentence can probably be refuted with a thousand facts, the simplest of which is to recognize that nearly every measure of health and well-being increases with national income, and that in general those economies that are characterized by more economic freedom tend to be richer. One of the largest problems among the impoverished or marginalized people within the U.S. economy is obesity! But even the United States, certainly one of the richest countries, can hardly be characterized as an unregulated free market economy. It has a highly progressive income tax system, vast social welfare income redistribution programs, a system of compulsory and tuition-free primary and secondary education, and enough regulations to make every attorney in America living high on the hog. What Chesterton said of Christianity can be said for free market economics – the problem is not that it has been tried and found wanting, the problem is that it has not been tried.

The use of the term “trickle-down” is a gratuitous prejorative of the left to decry market economies. I need not naively or otherwise “trust” the goodness of those wielding economic power in a free market system, because no single person or firm wields any discernible economic power in a free market system. With respect to my own life within such an economy, I wield that power – I am free to make decisions as to work, savings, and spending.

In economic markets, it is the firm that is relatively powerless, and the consumer that holds the power – he can vote with his feet every day. In political markets, elected officials wield far more power than voters, who have much less freedom to vote with their feet, and otherwise have infrequent opportunities to vote otherwise. It is politics that determines the dividing line between the economics sphere and the political sphere – if it determines there is no dividing line, as in say the Soviet Union, all of the power to vote with your feet – the power held by the lowliest of the low in free markets – is subsumed within the state.

It is only as the economic sphere is increasingly determined by the political sphere that economic power becomes concentrated, but it becomes concentrated via government. To take the very relevant recent example of Obamacare, a health insurance company cannot compel me to purchase health insurance in a system founded upon economic liberty; it is only with the power of the state, in a setting where economic liberty is not valued, where it becomes a law that I must purchase health insurance or otherwise face a penalty. Insurance companies do not make and enforce laws – they provide a private good. Governments make laws, and once they decide they are free to make laws regarding the purchase or supply of private goods, it is only then that we need to worry about naively trusting the goodness of those wielding economic power, because it is only then that such power becomes concentrated and meaningful.

The power to compel – a power reserved exclusively to the state – is the power that we should be concerned with. In an unregulated free market economy, no company possesses that power. But once we take our successful corporation out of the hypothetical world of free markets, and put them into an economy where the state plays a vigorous and active economic role, it should not surprise us that such companies will attempt to achieve through the unique power of government what it cannot achieve on its own – namely, the restraint of competition for the purpose of self-enrichment. It is not just companies that do this – labor unions do it as well – and in both cases it involuntarily diminishes the power of consumers, who would otherwise collectively wield the relevant economic power through their voluntary actions.

Pope Francis’ cursory dismissal of free market economies leads logically to his advocacy of the very concentration of economic power, in the hands of the state, which brings about much of the misery he seeks to curtail:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.

This quote reflects a cognitive affliction of the left with respect to economics, best referred to as “Fixed Pieism.” If the economic pie were fixed, a system bent on cutting all of the slices evenly would achieve that goal quite easily. But the pie has hundreds of millions of potential bakers, and if you tell them all in advance that they will get an even slice regardless of their input, you will get a much smaller pie. In light of this, it is shocking that after the collapse of communism someone can make the claim that growing income inequality is the result of ideologies that defend free market principles? In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when we no longer needed to trust the propaganda of the Soviet Union with respect to their claims of economic growth and income equality, it became evident that it had neither – in a system of government and economics whose very premise was the eradication of inequality, the degree of income inequality was worse than it was in the United States. Beyond that, its lack of growth meant that if you were unfortunate enough to be at the poor end of the spectrum, you were likely worse off, and certainly no better off, than the poorest in the United States.

Who is it, then, that is placing naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power? Is it me, who advocates a system that essentially removes all such power, or is it the Pope who wants to in effect create such power by placing it in the hands of the state, which he regards as “charged with the vigilance of the common good.” It may be so charged, but the understanding of the term “common good” varies across and within countries. In Iran, there may be universal agreement that the common good would have the Pope submit to Islam or be beheaded. One would hope that their vigilance in that regard comes to naught.

Consider when there is disagreement over what constitutes the common good within a given society, surely one such view will win out over the other in the political arena, which most likely results in using the power of the state to forcibly compel some of its citizens to follow a policy it disagrees with. Right now the good old U.S. of A., charged as it is with the vigilance of the common good, is making it compulsory for any Catholic employer (lay or clerical) to subsidize birth control and abortion against the dictates of his conscience. Does the Pope regard this development as one where the state is rightfully exercising its control over an ideology which defends “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace”? Whether or not the Pope thinks so, I can tell you right now Obama and the Democratic Party does. Careful what you wish for!

Catholic social teaching has long championed the concept of subsidiarity – which holds that societal problems should be handled at the lowest capable unit of society. Resolution of such problems should start at the family unit, progressing sequentially if no resolution is possible to civic associations, parishes, local governments, state governments, and finally federal governments. Excepting the family for the moment, what you’ll notice as you progress up this list is that one’s own connection to such organizations is progressively less voluntary (i.e. civic associations are entirely voluntary, and mobility from town to town is easier than that from state to state, which is again far easier than nation to nation), and secondly that those empowered with making decisions become more and more remote from those for whom decisions are being made. (Within the family unit, obviously kids do not choose their parents, but husband and wife do, and they are far more vested in the well-being of their children to merit decisions being made by politicians who are entirely removed from the consequences of their policies.) The concept of subsidiarity suggests the obvious – that the federal government, rather than the family unit, should be responsible for providing for the national defense, and conversely that the family unit, rather than the federal government, should be responsible for providing for the well-being of aged parents.

This is the danger – when the federal government takes upon itself the functions that are best fulfilled by the more intimate and responsive “little platoons” (Edmund Burke’s phrase for the mediating institutions that form the fabric of civic life), they tend to destroy the ability of such little platoons to play that or any other role. The result is seldom as intended, and it matters not a bit if the state is motivated by beneficence. The state, being the largest and most powerful organization within the social chain, always survives the destruction of the little platoon. Once it kills off the little platoon, the problems created by the state cannot be handed back to the little platoon, and as a result those problems reinforce the case for even more state power.

Want an example? When the states of Europe decided to take on the responsibilities for the aged through forced savings on their part, it did not take long for Europeans to figure out that the same taxes are paid and the same benefits doled out no matter the number of children you have raised. In contrast to the bad old days, when having children was in part a way to invest in your own care and protection while you were young and energetic enough to raise them to be responsible to society and to you in your old age, now you knew you’d get a check just for showing up at 65. The predictable result – increased tax burdens made it harder to raise children, and less economically important to do so – so people had fewer kids. This was individually rational, but collectively crazy – there is no next generation to pay for the current retirees, and now those economies are in crisis as a result. To paraphrase Mark Steyn, the problem with socialism isn’t that eventually you run out of other people’s money, the problem is that you eventually run out of other people. But not this - that crisis will demand a state response, because it cannot be handed back to the children who were never born.

Similarly, it is a sad economic reality of life that feel good policies that intervene in free labor markets to alleviate the plight of the poor often have the very opposite effect. Earlier this year, the Pope was questioned by an unemployed worker in Italy who was lamenting the indignity of being out of work. True to the sentiment of his writings, the Pope decried the system of international capitalism as the likely culprit, but he needn’t have looked further than the laws in place in Italy to protect that man from being fired by any employer. Throughout Europe, the state imposes very hefty fees to firms who fire people. The naïve purpose is to dissuade companies from laying people off, and it no doubt has this affect once they are hired, but unfortunately that is not the only effect. The law also obviously dissuades people from hiring new workers, and is largely attributed as the reason for much higher levels of unemployment in Europe versus the United States. Net effect – the law increases the unemployment it seeks to end. It is the supposed beneficence of the state, not the cruelty of capitalism, which leads to that man’s unemployment. In theory the market stands ready to take on this social problem should the government understand the folly of its ways, but in reality such laws dampen the entrepreneurial spirit of the people, or otherwise drive it away to more hospitable economic climates. And so again a problem created by the state will lead to the demand for the state to find a solution.

We can make the same observation with the health of the Catholic Church - aside from the economic ignorance displayed in the Pope’s comments, the thing that is even more striking as a Catholic is the cover given to the legitimacy of political power, when the health of the Church is typically inversely related to the use of political power for this same reason. The state, as it turns out, is a more jealous god than God! In Communist countries, religion was rightly viewed as an obstacle to state power, and was summarily eliminated. In the Western world, as state power has grown, it has squeezed out or minimized the Church in more benign ways, many of which align with the anti-poverty concerns of the Church.

To give but one example in the United States, all children can go to secondary and primary school tuition-free, which is not to say that they can go to school cost-free. The fees are paid through property and income taxes, the payment of which limits the income available for Catholic parents to instead pay a cost of $5k to send their children to a Catholic school. A Catholic family is on the hook for the school taxes whether or not it attends the public school, and the majority choose to attend the public school at zero marginal cost.

The states could have established a tuition-free system of education that could have offered vouchers of equivalent value to be spent at a school of your choice. Such vouchers would have been more than adequate to cover Catholic school tuition, as it in general spends a much lower amount per pupil as compared to public schools. Insisting upon public provision, rather than simply seeking public financing, empowers the state to decide what educational content is in the best interest of its subjects, at the direct cost of the citizens. On its face, it is a benevolent policy, but it empowers government at the expense of the powerless.

Consider, then, what effect this simple policy of exclusion has upon the influence of the Catholic Church. Aside from the obvious benefits of educating the next generation of Catholics in the faith, having vibrant Catholic schools would also increase the participation of parents in parish life. The state, as I said, is a jealous god, and we are the poorer for it.

Finally, consider the family and its role in protecting children. The Pope understands that there is a crisis here:

The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children.

But he doesn’t seem to understand the role the state has played in this crisis. While not the sole source of the crisis (I would put the sexual revolution in there as a co-equal cause), welfare policies implemented by the states have helped leave families in tatters, with single mothers choosing the certainty of the state’s check over the uncertainty of the father’s work ethic.

The Pope is right to be concerned with what Ropke called morally callous economism, which Ropke defined as “the incorrigible mania of making the means the end, of thinking only of bread and never of those other things of which the Gospel speaks.” Ropke shared the concerns of the Pope in creating a human-centered economy, railing against the tendency of economism to “allow material gain to obscure the danger that we may forfeit liberty, variety, and justice and that the concentration of power may grow, and it is also economism to forget that people do not live by cheaper vacuum cleaners alone but by other and higher things which may wither in the shadow of giant industries and monopolies.”

If the culture is already pre-disposed to think only of bread and circuses, then free markets may lead to the further encouragement of that materialistic focus. In so doing, a free market economy may also take us further down the road to ignoring other values – even those of us who never set out to focus only on material objects might end up that way with the constant bludgeoning of advertisements we expose ourselves to. However, the danger inherent to excesses of consumerism are not best addressed by the state. In fact, they are best addressed by those little platoons – the family, the local community, the civic associations such as parishes, etc. that create true community – that is, all of the institutions whose survival is in jeopardy if the state becomes more powerful.

The Pope rightly laments the “lack of real concern for human beings” which leads to the reduction of man to “one of his needs alone: consumption.” I’ve written before about how the right to abortion reduces human life to a consumption choice: if motherhood is a choice that can be rejected on the basis of inconvenience to the lifestyle of said mother, it is not unlike the choice to buy a Coach bag or a Fendi purse. In such an environment, it is hard for me to understand in what way unfettered capitalism can lead to a more bluntly consumer culture. (I know others like to define the beginning of life in such a way that they can reject this conception, but the Pope certainly is not in that group.)

Here, then, would be one example where the state could surely step in and save the day. But don’t hold your breath – in the U.S., the most overtly religious nation in the Western world, not only is abortion considered a right, it is heavily subsidized. The Church, through its ministry and its appeal to conscience, has been and hopefully will continue to be the largest brake on such excesses of free markets. Unless, of course, it embraces the power of the state at its own expense. And then what it will get is the subsidization of anti-Christian “art” and free condoms, but no jobs for the poor.

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