Free Markets and Tolerance: Make More Stuff I Don’t Like, Please!

The other day I told my Facebook friends that my current favorite thing is when the Spring collections from fashion designers come out and they’re full of edgy, wild, often gender bending designs (especially this year in the men’s collections–because Billy Porter) and dads everywhere repost the runway images and declare with outrage that they won’t be buying any of THIS nonsense.

Do they really mean to suggest that if the clothing had been more traditionally styled they’d have laid out $800 for a t-shirt?

Sometimes, you–whoever you are–just aren’t the target audience for a product. I’m Jewish, so I’m not buying any Christian rock anytime soon, but you don’t see me getting all outraged over that trinitarian stuff they keep trying to foist on me. It’s not FOR me. If I liked it, the Christian rockers would be doing their job wrong.

If my crew of Facebook dads liked the current collections from cutting edge fashion houses, those fashion houses would be doing their jobs wrong.

I don’t like olives. I also don’t like horror movies. I don’t like death metal, or rice pudding, or perfumes that smell like food. I don’t like self help books, white wine, spray air fresheners, acrylic yarn, spider plants, flip flops, or golf.

I’m not an exceptionally disagreeable person–at least I don’t think I am. But I’m a person, and that means there are things that I don’t like. I have, in other words, what economists would call preferences.

Free markets mean I can satisfy my preferences for things that I do like–dark chocolate, movies about superheroes, lyrics-driven angsty guitar folk/roots/punk music, clotted cream, perfumes that smell like incense, books about magic and alternate universes, Cabernet, herbal wreaths, cashmere yarn, rose bushes, block heeled boots, and taekwondo. 

The market doesn’t deliver everything I want to me, of course. Sometimes this is because the technologies to make the things I want don’t exist yet. (Apparently this includes a chocolate yogurt that actually tastes like both chocolate and yogurt). Sometimes it’s because I’m weird enough that not enough people want the things that I want (Cars with all the bells and whistles BUT that still have windows that roll down manually). Sometimes it’s because I want stuff I can’t afford (diamond necklaces, houses by the ocean, a Shakespeare First Folio). But most of the stuff I want is out there, and if I choose to spend some of my money on it, I can get it. That’s how functional markets work.

And people who make stuff to satisfy my effective demands (that means my demands for things I can afford) are getting better and better at knowing what we want and providing it. Targeted advertising sometimes feels a little creepy, but it’s also how I found out there’s a Canadian bookshop that curates boxes of books and goodies for kids exactly the ages that mine are. It’s how I found my favorite pair of shoes. And it’s how I discovered the wonders of Japanese office supplies. 

But sellers’ increased ability to cater to my weirdo wants and desires isn’t limited to me. (As my parents always told me, the world isn’t here to make me happy.) This increased ability to fulfill wants and desires serves all of us. It means my husband can find t-shirts with jokes about his favorite band’s lead singer’s dogs. It means my older daughter can find enamel pins for a web series I’ve never heard of, and my younger daughter can find socks decorated with the faces of her favorite K-pop idols.

It means that people who like olives and horror movies and death metal and all the other stuff I don’t like can find those things too.

A free market is going to make a lot of stuff I don’t like, don’t want, and don’t need.

If the market offers something illegal, I can bring legal action. If it offers something I think is immoral, I can protest or boycott. That’s cool. I don’t have to buy everything the market offers. If I don’t like olives, no one’s going to make me buy them. But I can rest perfectly content knowing that people who do like the revolting salty ovoids can buy them. In exchange for providing me with the stuff that I do want, the free market asks only that I tolerate the wants of others even if I don’t share them. In nearly every case my preference for a particular good or service is just that–a preference. It’s not a referendum on my character, or yours, if we disagree about olives, or white wine, or superheroes. 


That’s what makes it great. Even if it does mean that olives, somehow, persist.

If it presents me with things that are tacky, or irritating, or taste bad, I can complain to my friends on Facebook if I want, or I can just realize that not everything the market puts out is for everyone. 

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Whose Body Is It Anyway?

When I taught benefit‐​cost analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, one of the first principles I explained was that, to do a good analysis, you need to consider the costs and benefits to the various people affected rather than taking as gospel the desires of policymakers. We studied both good and bad examples of benefit‐​cost analyses. In the bad ones, a common error was to leave out the gains to consumers when they consumed items that policymakers did not want them to. A typical case was alcoholic beverages; policymakers kept overlooking the enjoyment that consumers receive from a drink.

In his book The Rediscovery of Tobacco: Smoking, Vaping, and the Creative Destruction of the Cigarette, independent journalist (and one‐​time Cato staffer) Jacob Grier avoids that error. Not only does he consider the costs of cigarettes and other forms of tobacco to their users and to nonsmokers, but he also considers the benefits to users. In doing so, he makes a case for people’s freedom to smoke or inhale what they want when it does not inflict harm on non‐​users. Along the way, he details how the antismoking movement has shown its disregard for the interests of smokers. He also shows that the damage from secondhand and “thirdhand” smoke is often overstated and that the harm from e‐​cigarettes is overstated and the benefits understated. Although I am a dyed‐​in‐​the‐​wool nonsmoker and non‐​vaper and Grier did not persuade me to try these substances (nor did he attempt to change readers’ minds), I learned a lot from this book. You could say that I “rediscovered tobacco.”

This is from David R. Henderson, “Whose Body Is It Anyway?” Regulation, Spring 2021.

Another highlight:

Grier notes an interesting difference in research methodologies between studies of the health effects on smokers in the 1940s and 1950s and the later studies of researchers on secondhand smoke. The earlier researchers had noticed a huge increase in deaths from lung cancer in the first half of the 20th century and wanted to figure out why. They established a clear relationship between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. But, notes Grier, research on secondhand smoke “reversed that approach.” He writes, “Scientists started out with a hypothesis — that secondhand smoke was causing lung cancer in nonsmokers — and took on the task of finding the bodies.”

My one criticism:

Antismoking activists, he notes, didn’t stop with secondhand smoke. They raised the ante by stirring up concern about “thirdhand smoke.” What’s that? Grier quotes a definition the New York Times posited in 2009: “the invisible yet toxic brew of gases and particles clinging to smokers’ hair and clothing, not to mention cushions and carpeting, that lingers long after secondhand smoke has cleared the room.” Grier comments that he does not know “if studies will ever successfully demonstrate that thirdhand smoke increases the risk of any particular disease, and, crucially neither do the researchers who have been promoting these fears to the public for more than a decade.” This is awkward wording. He seems to be saying that the researchers have no evidence, but I wish he had stated his point more clearly.

Read the whole thing. To do so, you need to go to the link and then download the pdf.

 

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Repealing Political Discrimination

Most skilled American workers are now at least somewhat afraid to criticize fashionable left-wing views.  They feel quite fearful to do so on the job, and fairly fearful to do so on social media.  One tempting way to quell this high anxiety is to pass new laws against political discrimination.  Washington, DC already has such a law:

[T]he District of Columbia Human Rights Act prohibits all employers in the District from refusing to hire, terminating, or otherwise discriminating against any individual with respect to his or her “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” on the basis of the individual’s political affiliation.  D.C. Code § 2-1402.11.

Before passing a new law, however, one should always ask, “Can we accomplish the same end by repealing – or liberalizing – an existing law?”  And in this case, the answer is clearly yes.

But first, let’s back up.  Why are high-skilled employers almost uniformly eager to enforce left-wing fashions, such as adopting an official “anti-racist” philosophy?  Sincere commitment is part of the reason, but far from the whole story.  Political philosophy is too variable to explain such uniform workplace policies.  A better story, in my view, is that almost all employers – left, right, and in-between – fear race and gender discrimination lawsuits.  And since their inception, such lawsuits have been sliding down a slippery slope.

The slippery slope looks something like this:

1. The law initially bans conscious decisions by employers to base hiring, promotion, or compensation on race or gender.

2. Discrimination gradually gets reinterpreted to include “unconscious” behavior with similar effects.

3. The next step is to blame employers for saying “the wrong thing,” even if there’s no discernable effect on workers’ objective career outcomes.

4. Then you blame employers for failing to deter their employees from saying “the wrong thing” to each other.  This is when workers go from looking over their shoulder before they say something negative about a specific person, to looking over their shoulder before they say anything that would upset their most hypersensitive colleague.

5. Finally, you blame employers for failing to failing to induce employees to say “the right thing” loudly and often.  In other words, for failing to build a “culture of inclusion.”

Why has the slope been so slippery?  Because if you’re doing less to “fight discrimination” than other firms, you worry that you might be perceived as “soft on discrimination” and get sued.  (And if you do more to “fight discrimination” than other firms, even better). You definitely don’t want to loudly announce, “We’ve gone far enough.”  Such words are financially dangerous.  As I’ve said before:

Imagine what would happen if a firm’s top brass loudly declared that, “Discrimination simply isn’t a problem here” – and routinely fired complainers for contradicting the party line.  Picture a firm blanketed in propaganda telling workers to “Be color-blind,” “Laugh it off,” and “No one likes a tattle-tale.”  A small business in a conservative area might get away with this for a few years, but a Fortune 500 company that stuck to its right-wing guns would go down in flames.

You could argue that employers still overreact to the risk of lawsuits.  I’m sympathetic; contrary to what you’ve heard, even hiring by IQ is fairly safe.  But there’s no need to resolve this debate here, because what I’m going to propose is similarly good at defusing both justified and unjustified fear.

My proposal:

1. Amend discrimination law to explicitly state: “Political speech by employers or employees, on or off the job, shall never be considered a form or indicator of ‘discrimination.’  ‘Political speech’ includes the expression of any allegedly racist or sexist views.”

2. For further teeth, add: “Any employee who lodges any formal complaint – internal or external – about a co-worker or employer’s political speech forfeits any right to sue that employer for discrimination for any reason whatsoever.”  This preserves firms’ right to handle offensive speech internally; they can still fire you for singing Hitler’s praises on the job.  But it also gives firms a free hand to handle these internal complaints as it sees fit, without fear of legal blowback or second-guessing.  In fact, it gives firms an incentive to urge employees to voice their complaints internally to ensure that the firm won’t have to deal with such complaints in court.

Most people, I suspect, will object that these legal changes for going too far.  Since I think discrimination laws do little to reduce genuine discrimination, I obviously disagree.  But I’m unlikely to persuade such people here.

On the other hand, many who share my concerns about freedom of expression will object that my proposed legal changes don’t go far enough.  Under my system, stridently left-wing employers can continue to impose a rigid orthodoxy.  Toning down the fear of lawsuits only changes the behavior of employers who were motivated by fear in the first place.

Fair enough, but I maintain that my proposal strikes a reasonable balance.

Reducing the threat of lawsuits will restore variety by reviving competition.  Strident left-wing workplaces aren’t a big deal as long as we unbelievers can take our labor and go elsewhere at reasonable cost.  And yes, strident left-wing employers have rights, too.  If they want to spend every Friday doing struggle sessions, they should be free to do so.

Other employers, however, shouldn’t lose sleep over lawsuits if they offer their workers a more genteel experience.  While I’m not sure, I definitely predict that my proposed revisions of existing discrimination law would lead to robust competition between employers to create workplaces where no one walks on eggshells.  Since worker preferences vary, we will witness a wide range of options.  But since only a few fanatics savor stifling left-wing dogma, we’ll no longer witness much of that.

I for one have already seen enough stifling left-wing dogma to last a lifetime.

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Why Human Space Exploration Matters

Unity proves elusive, but Americans who cannot seem to agree on much else— from Trumpian and traditionalist conservatives on the right, to certain libertarians, to liberals and progressive social justice advocates— do seem to agree on at least one big policy thing: space does not matter much, and other things matter much more than space. Cue the familiar disagreements on what those “other things” are. But the first part undoubtedly stands. Broadly speaking, the principals guiding our politics today—and, it would seem, the median journalist and current events commentator on Twitter— could not care less about whether humans make progress in space, or whether we as a species ever develop the technologies required to allow human inhabitation of other planets and celestial bodies at scale. (Transitory enthusiasm for the recent Perseverance landing does not, to my mind, negate this judgement.) The voting masses, by and large, seem to share in their leaders’ lack of real and urgent concern in this regard. Other crises have consumed us, and space seems—as in fact it is—so remote from our cares.

As a result, our discourse doesn’t much dwell on the desirability, not to mention the possible necessity, of advancing human space exploration capabilities.

I view this as an unfortunate collective oversight.

While the yields to space exploration and the development of spaceflight technology may appear minimal in the immediate future, shifting our perspective to the longer term renders the human situation vis a viz space exploration extremely clear: if humans want to survive in perpetuity, we need to establish ourselves on other planets in addition to Earth. It is as simple as that. And yet we are not doing all that much to make that happen.

To be clear, I’m long on Earth, too, and hope that technological improvements will continue to allow our species to get “more from less” right here on the third rock from the sun, enabling us to keep occupying the planet that saw us evolve into consciousness. I like to imagine that the distant future on Earth has the potential to be an extremely pleasant one, as advances in our scientific understanding and bio-technical praxis should hopefully allow our descendants to clean up any of the remaining messes previous generations will have left behind (e.g., nuclear and industrial waste, high amounts of atmospheric carbon, other lingering nasties) and stable-state free societies will hopefully allow all persons (or very nearly all persons) to live free and meaningful lives in productive community and exchange with their fellows. As the previous qualification highlights, the trickiest problems here on Earth and extending to wherever humans end up in the spacefaring age will still be social and political, and their successful resolution will depend more on the future state of our governing arts than our hard sciences.

But regarding the negative events that could very well happen to Earth I think we all need to be equally clear: life might not make it here. There is no guarantee that it will, and in the very long run, with the expansion and subsequent death of our sun, we know with near certainty that it will not. Consider just a few possible extinction-level events that could strike even earlier: large meteors, supervolcanic eruptions, drastic climactic disruption of the “Snowball Earth” variety. As SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently observed on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, “A species that does not become multiplanetary is simply waiting around until there is some extinction event, either self-inflicted or external.”

This statement, applied to the human species, is obviously true on its face. As doomsday events go a giant asteroid might be more shocking, since we (people living today) have never experienced one before while concerned atomic scientists warn us about the nuclear bomb all the time, but the odds that we blow ourselves up are still there. Slim, but there. It’s more plausible that a severe nuclear war and the nuclear winter it would likely trigger would leave the human population greatly reduced as opposed to completely extinct, but then the question becomes: why is that a risk we would want to take? The bomb is here to stay for now, but there is no reason that 100% of known life in the universe needs to stay here on Earth to keep it company, waiting around for something even more destructive to show up.

While we’re on that happy subject: Do you have any good intuitions about our collective chances against hostile, or simply arrogant or domineering, technologically-advanced extraterrestrial lifeforms, if and/or when they decide to pay us a visit on our home turf?

These scary situation sketches will suffice. At bottom, the core reason I am a believer in the need to make life—and not just human life—multiplanetary is the same basic reason I would never counsel a friend to keep all their money and valuables in one place: diversification is good. Wisdom and experience suggest we store precious resources in multiple safe(ish) places. Diversification limits our exposure to risk, and increases our resilience when bad things do happen. One reserve gets hit, two or three others survive, and you probably feel that the effort to spread things out was worth it.

What I’m saying here has strong undercurrents of common sense, yet our approach to the human population itself—the universal store and font of “human capital”—does not currently prioritize diversification to the degree our technological capabilities would allow. The distribution of the human population, and of almost all human knowledge and works, is overwhelmingly local. (Let us set to one side the possibility that aliens somewhere maintain an archive of captured human information.) Establishing outposts at least as large as those we maintain in Antarctica on the Moon and Mars, or other more suitable sites, by the end of this century would be a great first step toward genuinely diversifying the physical locations of the most precious resources known to us: human consciousness and creativity, human love and human soul, the great works in which all these things are displayed. Add also to this list repositories of scientific knowledge and knowhow, seed reserves, and certain materials necessary to re-start the manufacturing of fundamental technologies. Spreading these goods to a few additional locations within the solar system would be a major species-and-civilization-level accomplishment that all living at the time could feel satisfied by, and even take some pride in. And this is something that we seem to be just on the cusp of being able to do, given our recent and rapid technological advances in rocketry, computers, and materials science and engineering, among other important fields for space exploration and settlement. Quickly the uniplanetary human situation is becoming, if it is not already, one of pure choice.

Who, then, will take us beyond the “exclusively-Earth-based” stage of our civilization? Many will have a role to play, as space is not just for nerds. Humanists and economists (two audiences with whom this site is popular) should want humans to greatly improve their spaceflight and off-world-dwelling capabilities, too—not just technophiles and STEM types. There need not be a clash of visions between cyber-futurists who would bring self-sustaining cities to Mars and classicists who would rather see us die out on Earth than submit to a posthuman, dystopic future among the stars. Alignment of visions is key. Humanistic input early in the development of space settlement plans would allow for the design of better, more user-oriented (in the richest sense of the phrase) systems and processes for settling space colonies. The kind of space future humans have—and I am relatively confident we will have a robust one, someday—depends in part on the kinds of choices we make today about the plans for and structure of our involvements on other worlds. All sorts of experts, artists, and practitioners—from physicists to economists to poets—should have a say in these decisions.

Certainly humanists and economists could exert a positive influence on our space future by leaning into, instead of opposing, human space exploration, and by taking a constructive-critical interest in the plans and ideas of those who are already making progress toward space exploration today. Rather than cede the field completely to those who will build the rockets and raise the off-world settlements, social science and humanities advocates should get invested in the various problems space exploration will pose and that their disciplinary perspectives can help resolve. For instance, one space challenge for humanists and economists to consider is what kind of cultural practices and social institutions will be necessary to enable small, fledgling space colonies to grow and to thrive with a minimum of conflict, all while poised precariously somewhere out there on the barren edge of a brutally indifferent cosmos.

There are other questions as well: How well will markets function—and what kinds of markets will function—in remote areas among small groups of space settlers? Are there minimum population density requirements for an adequate off world division of labor, considering not just baseline productive necessities but also humankind’s need to consume and participate in leisure-based culture? As these complex, interdisciplinary queries suggest, successful space exploration and off-world settlement will entail much more than a string of engineering advances. Humanists, economists, historians, and indeed all students of human culture will continue to have their place in the economy of things, even when that economy is dispersed amongst the stars.

Analogies to our space present spring to mind from other ages of human adventure, exploration, and discovery. Certain critics of space exploration are wont to point out the rapacity that has often attended early human colonial efforts, like those of European powers in the “New World”-era Americas. I point out in reply, however, that such comparisons are hardly appropriate when discussing the settlement of barren planets wholly void of (sentient) life. At a minimum, concerns about the exploitation of other worlds would require there to be exploitable agents on those worlds in order to be justified. In reality, we have little reason to believe that there will be much to find on our first stops beyond Earth besides (potentially very valuable) minerals, rocks, dust, and ice. Discovering liquid water, or microscopic life, or even hints of extinct former life, would be like finding El Dorado. But unlike the conquistadores, we have good evidence-based reasons to believe in the existence of what we are looking for, and we can all but guarantee that no blood will be shed in the process of our looking for it.

(I’d be more worried about the potential for competition among fellow human space settlers or prospectors to occasionally turn violent in the absence of a meaningful law enforcement presence somewhere on the space frontier, than the possibility that we might discover, and then tyrannically dominate, ET’s home planet. And in the latter case, we have no reason whatsoever to believe that we would automatically be the ones doing the dominating.)

Space is vast, and the idea of humans exploring it is epic. But we will not realize that epic vision if the main legacy of those living today ends up being digital participation in dysfunctional politics, a declining emphasis on education, innovation, and productivity, and the willful sacrifice of culture to “culture wars.” Continuing down this path for decades would spell death to the optimistic interstellar imagination. If we choose to remain caught up with fighting amongst ourselves, we will just be “waiting around” in precisely the sense that Musk says, and we’ll be dumbing ourselves down as we do so. But if we choose instead—in budgetary and investment decisions and with our words and arguments about the relative importance of human space exploration in a world of scarce resources—to collaborate around a more hopeful, humane blueprint for the future continuity of our species, a much better world, a world of worlds, becomes possible for our descendants. In this world, the human future is significantly more secure than it is now, and the conditions for those who will inhabit it are far better. Isn’t this a world we would all prefer to be working toward?

 


Shanon FitzGerald is Assistant Websites Editor at Liberty Fund. He can be found on Twitter @shanonspeaks.

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What the Success Sequence Means

[continued from yesterday]

…This is a strange state of affairs.  Everyone – even the original researchers – insists that the success sequence sheds little or no light on who to blame for poverty.  And since I’m writing a book called Poverty: Who To Blame, I beg to differ.

Consider this hypothetical.  Suppose the success sequence discovered that people could only reliably avoid poverty by finishing a Ph.D. in engineering, working 80 hours a week, and practicing lifelong celibacy.  What would be the right reaction?  Something along the lines of, “Then we shouldn’t blame people for their own poverty, because self-help is just too damn hard.”

The underlying moral principle: You shouldn’t blame people for problems they have no reasonable way to avoid.  You shouldn’t blame them if avoiding the problem is literally impossible; nor should you blame them if they can only avoid the problem by enduring years of abject misery.

The flip side, though, is that you should blame people for problems they do have a reasonable way to avoid.  And the steps of the success sequence are eminently reasonable.  This is especially clear in the U.S.  American high schools have low standards, so almost any student who puts in a little effort will graduate.  Outside of severe recessions, American labor markets offer ample opportunities for full-time work.  And since cheap, effective contraception is available, people can easily avoid having children before they are ready to support them.

These realizations are probably the main reason why talking about the success sequence so agitates the critics.  The success sequence isn’t merely a powerful recipe for avoiding poverty.  It is a recipe easy enough for almost any adult to understand and follow.

But can’t we still blame society for failing to foster the bourgeois values necessary to actually adhere to the success sequence?  Despite the popularity of this rhetorical question, my answer is an unequivocal no.  In ordinary moral reasoning, virtually no one buys such attempts to shift blame for individual misdeeds to “society.”

Suppose, for example, that your spouse cheats on you.  When caught, he objects, “I come from a broken home, so I didn’t have a good role model for fidelity, so you shouldn’t blame me.”  Not very morally convincing, is it?

Similarly, suppose you hire a worker, and he steals from you.  When you catch him, he protests, “Don’t blame me.  Blame racism.”  How do you react?  Poorly, I bet.

Or imagine that you brother drinks his way into homelessness.  When you tell him he has to reform if he wants your help, he denounces your “bloodless moralism.”  Are you still obliged to help him?  Really?

Finally, imagine you’re a juror on a war crimes trial.  A soldier accused of murdering a dozen children says, “It was war, I’m a product of my violent circumstances.”  Could you in good conscience exonerate him?

So what?  We should place much greater confidence in our concrete moral judgments than in grand moral theories.  This is moral reasoning 101.  And virtually all of our concrete moral judgments say that we should blame individuals – not “society” – for their own bad behavior.  When wrong-doers point to broad social forces that influenced their behavior, the right response is, “Social forces influence us all, but that’s no excuse.  You can and should have done the right thing despite your upbringing, racism, love of drink, or violent circumstances.”

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should pretend that individuals are morally responsible for their own actions to give better incentives.  What I’m saying, rather, is that individuals really are morally responsible for their actions.  Better incentives are just icing on the cake.

This is not my eccentric opinion.  As long as we stick to concrete cases, virtually everyone agrees with me.  Each of my little moral vignettes is a forceful counter-example to the grand moral theory that invokes “broad social forces” to excuse wrong-doing.  And retaining a grand moral theory in the face of multitudinous counter-examples is practically the definition of bad philosophy.

Does empirical research on the success sequence really show that the poor are entirely to blame for their own poverty?  Of course not!  In rich countries, following the success sequence is normally easy for able-bodied adults, but not for children or the severely handicapped.  In poor countries, even able-bodied adults often find that the success sequence falls short (though this would be far less true under open borders).  Haitians who follow the success sequence usually remain quite poor because economic conditions in Haiti are grim.  Though even there, we can properly blame Haitians who stray from the success sequence for making a bad situation worse.

Research on the success sequence clearly makes people nervous.  Few modern thinkers, left or right, want to declare: “Despite numerous bad economic policies, responsible behavior is virtually a sufficient condition for avoiding poverty in the First World.  And we have every right to blame individuals for the predictable consequences of their own irresponsible behavior.”  Yet if you combine the rather obvious empirics of the success sequence with common-sense morality, this is exactly what you will end up believing.

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What Does the Success Sequence Mean?

If you live in the First World, there is a simple and highly effective formula for avoiding poverty:

1. Finish high school.

2. Get a full-time job once you finish school.

3. Get married before you have children.

Researchers call this formula the “success sequence.”  Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill got the ball rolling with their book Creating an  Opportunity Society, calling for a change in social norms to “bring back the success sequence as the expected path for young Americans.”  The highest-quality research on this success sequence probably comes from Wendy Wang and Brad Wilcox.  In their Millennial Success Sequence, they observe:

97% of Millennials who follow what has been called the “success sequence”—that is, who get at least a high school degree, work, and then marry before having any children, in that order—are not poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28-34).

One common criticism is that full-time work does almost all the work of the success sequence.  Even if you drop out of high school and have five kids with five different partners, you’ll probably avoid poverty as long as you work full-time.  Wilcox and Wang disagree:

…This analysis is especially relevant since some critics of the success sequence have argued that marriage does not matter once education and work status are controlled.

The regression results indicate that after controlling for a range of background factors, the order of marriage and parenthood in Millennials’ lives is significantly associated with their financial well-being in the prime of young adulthood. Simply put, compared with the path of having a baby first, marrying before children more than doubles young adults’ odds of being in the middle or top income. Meanwhile, putting marriage first reduces the odds of young adults being in poverty by 60% (vs. having a baby first).

But even if the “work does all the work” criticism were statistically true, it is misses the point: Single parenthood makes it very hard to work full-time.

A more agnostic criticism doubts causation.  Sure, poverty correlates with failure to follow the success sequence.  How, though, do we know that the so-called success sequence actually causes success?  It’s not like we run experiments where we randomly assign lifestyles to people.  The best answer to this challenge, frankly, is that causation is obvious.  “Dropping out of school, idleness, and single parenthood make you poor” is on par with “burning money makes you poor.”  The demand for further proof of the obvious is a thinly-veiled veto of unpalatable truths.

A very different criticism, however, challenges the perceived moral premise behind the success sequence.  What is this alleged moral premise?  Something along the lines of: “Since people can reliably escape poverty with moderately responsible behavior, the poor are largely to blame for their own poverty, and society is not obliged to help them.”  Or perhaps simply, “The success sequence shifts much of the moral blame for poverty from broad social forces to individual behavior.”  While hardly anyone explicitly uses the success sequence to argue that we underrate the blameworthiness of the poor for their own troubles, critics still hear this argument loud and clear – and vociferously object.

Thus, Eve Tushnet writes:

To me, the success sequence is an example of what Helen Andrews dubbed “bloodless moralism”…

All bloodless moralisms conflate material success and virtue, presenting present successful people as moral exemplars. And this, like “it’s better to have a diploma than a GED,” is something virtually every poor American already believes: that escaping poverty proves your virtue and remaining poor is shameful.

Brian Alexander similarly remarks:

The appeal of the success sequence, then, appears to be about more than whether it’s a good idea. In a society where so much of one’s prospects are determined by birth, it makes sense that narratives pushing individual responsibility—narratives that convince the well-off that they deserve what they have—take hold.

Cato’s Michael Tanner says much the same:

The success sequence also ignores the circumstances in which the poor make choices. Our choices result from a complex process that is influenced at each step by a variety of outside factors. We are not perfectly rational actors, carefully weighing the likely outcomes for each choice. In particular, progressives are correct to point to the impact of racism, gender-based discrimination, and economic dislocation on the decisions that the poor make in their lives. Focusing on the choices and not the underlying conditions is akin to a doctor treating only the visible symptoms without dealing with the underlying disease.

Strikingly,  the leading researchers of the success sequence seem to agree with the critics!  Wang and Wilcox:

We do not take the view that the success sequence is simply a “pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps” strategy that individuals adopt on their own. Rather, for many, the “success sequence” does not exist in a cultural vacuum; it’s inculcated by an interlocking cultural array of ideals, norms, expectations, and knowledge.*

This is a strange state of affairs.  Everyone – even the original researchers – insists that the success sequence sheds little or no light on who to blame for poverty.  And since I’m writing a book called Poverty: Who To Blame, I beg to differ…

* To be fair, Wang and Wilcox also tell us: “But it’s not just about natural endowments, social structure, and culture; agency also matters. Most men and women have the  capacity to make choices, to embrace virtues or avoid vices, and to otherwise take steps that increase or decrease their odds of doing well in school, finding and keeping a job, or deciding when to marry and have children.”

[to be continued]

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Against Apology Perfectionism

After last week’s post on apologies, a few readers sent me links on the psychology of effective apologies.  Maximally effective apologies include the following elements:

  • Expression of regret
  • Explanation of what went wrong
  • Acknowledgment of responsibility
  • Declaration of repentance
  • Offer of repair
  • Request for forgiveness

A similar piece elaborates:

Taking responsibility means acknowledging mistakes you made that hurt the other person, and it’s one of the most important and neglected ingredients of most apologies, especially those in the media.

Saying something vague like, “I’m sorry if you were offended by something I said,” implies that the hurt feelings were a random reaction on the part of the other person. Saying, “When I said [the hurtful thing], I wasn’t thinking. I realize I hurt your feelings, and I’m sorry,” acknowledges that you know what it was you said that hurt the other person, and you take responsibility for it.

Overall, this seems like plausible advice.  Ideal apologies will indeed have all six elements.  The harsh reality, though, is that ideal apologies often require the superpower of telepathy.  Why?  Because the person who wants to apologize doesn’t understand why the other person is upset, and the person who wants an apology refuses to explain themselves.  So unless the would-be apologizer can read minds, “sorry for whatever I did” is the best he can do.

The bigger question, though is: How will people actually use this research?  Will they learn to make better apologies?  Or simply to expect better apologies? I suspect that the latter effect will far exceed the former.  Ironically, the net result of this research is probably to exacerbate conflict rather than defuse it.

As far as I can recall, I have never received an ideal apology – or anything close to it.  In fact, I doubt I’ve received a dozen halfway decent apologies in my entire life.  If I held this dearth against people, I wouldn’t have a friend left in the world.  Instead of expecting apologies from others, I generally make excuses on their behalf.

My motives are partly strategic and partly sincere.

Strategically speaking, I know that demanding good apologies probably won’t work.  People are stubborn and self-righteous.  Unless I bite my tongue and appease them, I will be very lonely.  You could object, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”  But if a friend unapologetically hurts my feelings five days a year, but makes me happy the other 360 days, I count myself lucky.

Sincerely speaking, I know that lively social interaction is an inherently risky activity.  Boring, superficial conversations are safe: “Nice weather we’re having?” “Yes, quite.”  As soon as you stray from that time-worn path, you might accidentally say the wrong thing.  So if someone hurts your feelings as a result, the wise reaction is normally, “It’s all part of the game, no big deal.”

Wouldn’t I like to receive an apology every now and then?  Sure.  Wouldn’t I prefer apologies that contain an expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, acknowledgment of responsibility, declaration of repentance, offer of repair, and request for forgiveness?  Sure again.  But in my book, even a “Sorry I hurt your feelings” with a sincere tone is amazing is above the bar.  I’ll take it.  So should you.

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Putting Entrepreneurship on the Menu

Even before the arrival of COVID-19, the restaurant industry was being transformed by a variety of forces, in particular the competition for home delivery among UberEats, GrubHub, DoorDash and others. In addition, pop-ups, test kitchens, and food trucks offered unique dining opportunities at a very small scale and for short periods of time. These acts of entrepreneurship were possible because the food service industry is still largely characterized by “permissionless innovation.” The regulatory costs of entry are low, and physical and human capital are fairly mobile, all of which allows people to try out ideas and see what sticks. As COVID-19 has created new challenges for restaurants, even the innovators have to keep innovating to meet the new demands of consumers, not to mention complying with local public health regulations. Often the most valuable sorts of entrepreneurial innovations are not ones that make big headlines but ones that instead make improvements in existing products and services to better meet the needs of consumers.

Two examples of this sort of entrepreneurial innovation are taking place here in Fishers, Indiana. Although both of these innovations pre-date COVID-19, one is well-poised to take advantage of the changes the pandemic has brought, and the other has demonstrated the kind of flexibility that is often necessary for effective entrepreneurial responses to exogenous shocks like a pandemic.

The first example is a company called ClusterTruck. Based in Indianapolis, they recently opened a second kitchen here in Fishers. They are a nice example of innovating on an innovation. One of the problems with food delivery services like GrubHub is that the drivers are not employees of the restaurants, and the restaurants are dependent on the schedules of the drivers when they promise a delivery time. We’ve all had the experience of our order coming much later, or even earlier, than expected, or having food that was no longer hot. The creators of ClusterTruck were, as Israel Kirzner puts it, “alert” to the opportunity to improve that model. One of the ways they did that was by creating a restaurant that is delivery and pick-up only.

ClusterTruck has integrated the food preparation and the delivery process in two ways. First, the drivers all work for them. But they also won’t start preparing your food until they have one of the drivers committed for that delivery. This prevents food from sitting and waiting for a driver to pick up. And without seating, their whole kitchen is geared to competing and preparing delivery orders. It’s not a sideline. It’s what they do. Their app also has several nice innovations. One of those is the ability to order ahead for delivery at a specified time. With in-house drivers, Clustertruck can meet a pretty tight window that way. The other nice innovation is the ability to share a link to your order that allows other people to piggy-back on the same order but pay with their own account. So offices ordering lunch don’t have to worry about Venmo or other ways of settling up. Everyone can order and pay for their own meal but have it delivered together. And to be able to satisfy groups and families this way, their menu spans a variety of cuisines, from a few Asian and Mexican dishes to pub food and pizza.

This full integration from preparation to delivery, along with ordering ahead and the ability to easily order in groups, puts them a step ahead of the other platform-based delivery services. Nonetheless, like every other restaurant, they’ll have to provide good eats if they are going to expand the way they have planned. As the current big wave of COVID-19 will enhance the demand for home delivery of prepared food, their entrepreneurial innovations seem well-positioned to succeed.

The second example of innovation is illustrative of the flexibility that good entrepreneurship demands. COVID-19 has been devastating for local restaurants, as they operate on such thin margins that the loss of business over the last several months has been too much for them to continue. But how to keep a great menu alive in a different form that can work in the world of COVID? One answer comes from the world of test kitchens. This model, which predates the pandemic, is one in which space is created for a small number of counter-service restaurants to share, while rotating the particular cuisines that occupy the various slots. A particular idea might only be there for a few months while the owners try to discover if their model is workable, hence the “test kitchen” concept. This model allows them to share some overhead costs and work out recipes without having to worry about table service or other elements of a full-service restaurant. We have a test kitchen like this located inside a local brewery, which itself is a nice innovation given the mutual benefits involved.

One of the kitchens at our Fishers Test Kitchen is an Asian street food place called Lil Dumplings. It was opened by the chef from Rook, a very well-regarded Indianapolis restaurant, and served mostly dumplings. The full service Rook was a casualty of COVID, however, going out of business earlier this fall. But that loss also presented an entrepreneurial opportunity. The former chef recently switched the menu at his Test Kitchen location over to ramen and steamed buns, and is serving several items very similar to customer favorites from Rook. The test kitchen model gives entrepreneurs who are alert to changes elsewhere in the market the flexibility they need to quickly switch over a menu and meet that new demand. It also provides a cheap way of discovering whether Rook’s dishes are still valued by its former customers. (I can report that they most definitely are!) And doing it with counter service, carry-out, and delivery options makes the whole thing work in a pandemic.

Too often we think about entrepreneurial innovations as being big, grand things like the invention of the automobile or airplane. In fact, most of what good entrepreneurs do is to take existing products and services and find ways to improve them around the edges. Inventing the cell phone is great, but adding a camera on to it gives it an amazing new range of possibilities. Reorganizing the way in which a product or service is provided, as ClusterTruck has done, is one way to innovate, and taking advantage of a flexible production structure to recover some value from a failed business is another. Good entrepreneurs are people who are alert to these kinds of opportunities and take advantage of them to make consumers better off. Creating environments that allow for permissionless innovation of this sort is the best way for policymakers to attract that entrepreneurial energy and thereby improve their communities.

 

 

For more on competition and entrepreneurship, see Steve Horwitz’s Liberty Classic on Israel Kirzner’s classic work Competition and Entrepreneurship, new this month at Econlib.

 


*Steven Horwitz is the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise and Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy in the Department of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He is also an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA, a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute of Canada, and the economics editor at the Cato Institute’s libertarianism.org. He is the author of four books, including most recently Austrian Economics: An Introduction. He is also the 2020 recipient of the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

For more articles by Steven Horwitz, see the Archive.

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Happy birthday, LvB!

250 years ago today Ludwig van Beethoven was born. Beethoven’s greatness is quite too obvious to comment on it. The great composer had liberal sentiments; he had great hope in the French Revolution and in Bonaparte as a liberator, yet he was disappointed by the Napoleon crowning himself and came to resent him. Jim Powell had an amusing profile of Beethoven for the liberty-minded, here.

Sometimes people remark that Beethoven “wrote only one opera” and could not really play with the human voice as well as he did with music. True, Beethoven wrote only one opera, but it is “Fidelio”. “Fidelio” is first and foremost about marital love, something Beethoven did not enjoy himself. It is the story of the absolute commitment of a wife, Leonore (hence the title of the first version), a noblewoman of Seville who disguises herself as a boy to find her husband, Florestan, a political prisoner. This sort of story, set in a prison, was actually not uncommon during the French Revolution. Jailing opponents happened during the ancien regime and likewise in revolutionary times. Fidelio adapts “Léonore ou l’amour conjugal”, a work by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, who worked as a prosecutor in the city of Tours during the Reign of Terror.

Leonore/Fidelio wasn’t the luckiest, commercially speaking, of Beethoven’s works. It premiered right after the French army occupied Vienna. The local aristocracy had fled the Austrian capital and the mainly French audience was not particularly receptive to the story. Beethoven kept writing and rewriting it, so we have four magnificent overtures. But to many, the highlight is the chorus of the prisoners. Fidelio/Leonore convinces the jailer, Rocco, to allow the other prisoners a few moments of fresh air in the courtyard. The chorus movingly conveys the emotion brought up by this fleeting glimpse of freedom.

It is hardly original to comment that 2020 was a sad year for most of us. For music fans, it was also sad that we could not enjoy the many beautiful concerts that the Beethoven anniversary had in store for us. To remember Beethoven, my Institute has published (alas, only in Italian) a short piece written in 1953 by Epicarmo Corbino, an Italian liberal economist (and, briefly, Finance Minister after WWII) who fancied writing something on Beethoven. It is a short essay that proves that a social scientist may have some thoughts on music, too. We have also put together a playlist of Beethoven pieces, highlihgting those in which you can better sense his love and passion for liberty. It is accessible here.

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Spencer and Prejudice

Herbert Spencer’s “From Freedom to Bondage” famously claims that “[T]he more things improve the louder become the exclamations about their badness.”  And he offered a bunch of great examples.  Inspired by Spencer’s insight, I recently turned to Google Ngram to look at long-run trends for six oft-named expressions of prejudice.

 

 

 

 

Notice: Four out of six evils  – racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia – are now vastly more discussed that they were in early decades.  As Spencer would have predicted, it’s clear that all four used to be vastly worse.  When they were ubiquitous, people took them for granted.  Earlier generations clearly wrote virtually nothing in defense of prejudice.  Instead, earlier generations barely talked about it at all.

How would Spencer explain the result for “imperialism”?  Well, the Soviet Union aside, imperialism all but disappeared in the mid-70s, when the Portuguese finally abandoned their overseas possessions.  The result: While discussion of “imperialism” steeply fell, its been stuck at the level of the 1950s for the last thirty years.

What about “xenophobia”?  Objectively speaking, this form of prejudice massively outweighs all the others combined.  As I’ve said before, immigration restrictions make Jim Crow laws look mild by comparison.  Current immigration laws continue to deprive billions of their basic rights to live and work where they like.  Yet even today, we barely discuss the xenophobic attitudes that make immigration restrictions possible.  True, there has been a mild upward trend since 1990, but the ratio of words to harm remains miniscule.

I predict that a great conversation about xenophobia will come.  Judging by past trends, however, that conversation is going to happen a few decades after open borders arrives.

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