The Invisible Order of the Black Family: Part 2

Part 2: “Swapping” as an Entrepreneurial Response to Poverty

(Read Part 1 here.)

The central response to poverty observed by Carol Stack in All Our Kin was the formation of kin networks based on de facto acts of motherhood and the willingness of fathers to take responsibility for their children, whether in or out of wedlock. These kin networks formed the basis for the use of reciprocal exchange to extend the effective size of the household in “The Flats.” An interesting exercise for EconLib readers while reading this book is to find the ways that Stack might have better understood those exchanges if she had a background in basic microeconomics.

Stack devotes an entire chapter to what she terms “swapping.” Faced with deep deprivation, nothing can go to waste or sit idly, whether a physical object or the time of residents. The solution is what Stack terms an “intricately interwoven” system of exchange through which resources, including time, are given to others in the community with the expectation that they will reciprocate at some point in the future. It is tempting to see this as mutual gifting or barter, but the swapping of The Flats is better understood as a sophisticated form of credit. If you received resources from other members of the community, the expectation was that you would reciprocate. Stack defines the swapping process as the exchange of “any object or service offered with the intent of obligating” (1974, 34). These exchanges could involve anything from household objects like a TV or coffee pot, to things like clothing or cash, but also to services such as childcare and housing. Most strikingly, children were frequently moved from house to house over the course of their childhood as it became easier for one or another relative to care for them. Note how this challenges the standard idea that a family exists within one household.

The economic function of swapping is that it became a way to reallocate resources to those who needed them most at any particular time. Stack sometimes implies that this swapping wasn’t “productive,” but from a subjectivist perspective, all of these exchanges were mutually beneficial and utility-enhancing. Economically, this sort of exchange behavior can be seen in three complementary ways. First, it is a form of credit, as Stack’s use of the phrase “with the intent of obligating” suggests. Those who have objects or time or space that is greater than their current needs can “save” by providing those resources to others with the expectation of being able to draw on that saving later in the form of resources from the recipient. Second, swapping can be seen as a way of minimizing the “idleness” of resources. A typical middle-class family might think nothing of having a closet full of clothes that are there in case we want them. In a poor community, unworn clothes would be seen as wastefully idle. They could be put to a more valuable use by being worn by other members of the community. Clothing not currently being used was fair game for swapping. One can extend this analysis to other household objects as well as household space and the time of community members. If some kin find themselves with the time to care for the child of other kin who are struggling, they will do so with the expectation of reciprocation down the road.

Finally, swapping’s main economic effect was extending the effective size of a household to the entire network of kin. What swapping does is to enable people to draw on a larger range of other people and resources as inputs into household production. Whether taking the form of financial resources, objects like a couch or clothing, or time devoted to child care, swapping enables residents of “The Flats” to not be limited to what is available within the four walls of their homes for household production. Living space, childcare, and other resources can come from anyone or anywhere within their personal kindred. The combination of large personal kindreds and swapping enabled families to have access to more resources, both human and material, than a superficial approach might suggest.

The message of All Our Kin was not that the Black family was “just fine.” Rather it was that in order to understand how social institutions actually operate, we need to be willing to challenge our pre-existing categories, and try to understand how the people themselves see their situation and what sorts of steps they are taking to ameliorate it. The synoptic, statistical data-driven perspective of governments, often combined with an uncritical acceptance of their own experiences of institutions like the family as both descriptively and prescriptively “normal,” can hide the myriad ways that entrepreneurial humans respond to the challenges of poverty. The result in the 1960s was an overstatement of the dysfunctionality of Black families, creating a problematic cultural meme that would persist and negatively affect policy making for decades.

 

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Correlation and causation

Bryan Caplan has a new post where he claims that people can avoid poverty with three simple steps:

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.

This made me wonder if Bryan was confusing correlation with causation.  He denies this:

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.

I am not at all convinced by this argument.  Indeed I don’t see any real argument being made here.  It seems equally plausible to me that the sort of person who doesn’t finish high school is different, on average, from those who do.  The dropout may (on average) be less smart, less interested in classes, less motivated, and/or perhaps a bit anti-social.  None of those traits are normally associated with financial success.  If you put a gun to their heads and forced this cohort to finish high school, would that by itself change those personal characteristics?  Maybe slightly, but how much?  Would this group then become identical to other high school grads?  I doubt it.

As for marriage, the Nordic countries tend to have a much higher share of births out of wedlock, and yet typically have relatively low rates of poverty:

You might argue that their culture is different, and that in Scandinavia even unmarried men often take an interest in raising their children.  I accept that, but again it just makes me wonder if it’s marriage that is the key, or if the deciding factor is the personal characteristics of those who fall into poverty.

I certainly agree that working hard and being responsible are useful traits, and that some people are poor due to unfortunate life choices.  I would push back, however, against any suggestion that there are simple public policy fixes, such as policies that discourage people from dropping out of high school or encouraging marriage.  Those policies might work, but simple correlations don’t prove that.  (BTW, I lean toward policies that make work more attractive, such as low wage subsidies and housing deregulation, as opposed to basic income programs that might discourage work.)

Also keep in mind that definitions of poverty are based on “households”, where the poverty line increases only modestly each time a person is added to a household.  Thus if two single people making $10,000 each decide to double up and live in the same apartment, that pushes them above the poverty line.  It’s not obvious their situation improved (otherwise no one would ever chose to live alone), but the US government treats the decision to share an apartment as an improvement of living standards.  This biases the statistics toward the conclusion that marriage improves one’s economic well being.

Thus you might just as well argue that poverty could be almost eliminated if everyone lived like Chinese college students in the 1980s, with eight people per apartment.

Even with minimum wage jobs, a household of eight will earn far more than $47,650.  But would those “households” be better off, or would people get on each other’s nerves?  (My wife shared a room with 7 other college students in the 1980s, in Beijing.)

Finally, most women have a strong preference to have children.  Finding a suitable husband is not always a “simple” process.

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The Invisible Order of the Black Family: Some Observations on Carol Stack’s All Our Kin

Part I: The Household, The Family, and the State

Carol Stack’s All Our Kin is a classic ethnography from the late 1960s. The context for the book was the Moynihan Report on the state of the Black family produced by the U.S. government in 1965. The report’s conclusion was that the Black family was dysfunctional and in disarray. Stack and others explored the validity of that conclusion and examined the question of whether the official data used in the report had missed aspects of the lived lives of Black families, particularly poor ones. Stack’s strategy adopted a radical approach: she engaged in participant-observer research by living in a poor, urban, Black community in the American Midwest, which she refers to as “The Flats.” She spent several years there, integrating herself into the community to the extent possible. This enabled her to see the workings of family structure from the inside in a way not possible when one looks only at the statistical data and similar forms of evidence. The conclusion of All Our Kin is that even though poor Black families were not functioning ideally, they were not nearly as dysfunctional as portrayed in the Moynihan Report.

I first read All Our Kin in the context of teaching about the family. One of the key insights of the book is that we have to disentangle function and form when we analyze the family, as well as other social institutions. Too often we assume that only one kind of form can provide the function we expect from an institution. With the family, we tend to treat the two-parent nuclear family this way. But we also see this with various structures of property rights, as Elinor Ostrom’s work on community responses to commons problems has shown us. If we treat one particular form as a proxy for function, we can miss the creative ways in which humans develop other practices and norms that can perform the same function. Understanding how particular social structures attempt to solve specific problems will require the kind of up close work that Stack did in this book, and that Ostrom did in her research as well. If we base policy on the assumption that there’s only one set of social practices that can solve a particular problem, we are highly likely to overlook the invisible order-generating processes that both Stack and Ostrom observed. Even if these alternative institutions do not perform ideally, they may be the comparatively best option we have, or they may point us in a different direction in the search for changes in policy or other institutions that would improve outcomes. Stack’s book shows that family policy needs to take account of the actual bottom-up sources of social order, particularly in the context of families of color or immigrant families, where histories of poverty, current discrimination, and the legacy of slavery have produced a wider variety of functional family structures.

Stack’s book is of interest to Econlib readers in particular for several reasons. (I have a more extensive treatment of Stack in my chapter “Reciprocity, Calculation, and Non-Market Exchange,” in  Commerce and Community: Ecologies of Social Cooperation, Robert F. Garnett Jr., Paul Lewis, and Lenore T. Ealy, eds., New York: Routledge, 2015.) The first reason is that it represents a challenge to the way governments collect data and use them to make policy. In that way, Stack’s book anticipates some of the themes in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, written three decades later. The Moynihan report approached its subject matter with a framework that was based on a particular view of the family and that wanted to organize what it found in ways that were amenable to public policy, particularly the policies from the era of President Johnson’s Great Society programs. In choosing that approach, it could not see the way people “on the ground” actually organized their family life and how that structure enabled them to respond to poverty and discrimination in reasonably effective ways. All Our Kin is a great story about human adaptability and the importance of bottom-up social coordination, both of which are frequently overlooked by the state.

The specific ways in which families in “The Flats” responded to poverty are also relevant to classical liberals. The Moynihan Report noted the frequency of fatherless families and portrayed them as evidence of the black family’s dysfunctionality. Many non-resident fathers did take on varying degrees of responsibility for their children, but this did not always, or even often, involve legal marriage. Unlike the standard model of the family held up as the ideal by the Moynihan Report, the families of “The Flats” (like other poor families, both historically and globally today) relied on persons outside the nuclear family and physical household to provide income and various forms of household production such as child care. For poor, Black families of this era, the “family” and the “household” were not coterminous in the way they tended to be for white observers.

What observers term as “extended family” was crucial to this adaptability. Mothers relied on their relatives, especially other women, to provide both physical resources and time. In addition, if the father stepped up and took responsibility for his child, even outside of a legal marriage, his extended family was brought into the kin network of the mother and child and could be drawn upon for various kinds of resources. Of additional importance is that the biological mother need not be the de facto mother for purposes of identifying whose extended family will be drawn upon. Motherhood, as well as a variety of other familial relationships, were defined within the community through a long-standing system of evolved norms. Stack argues: “The system of rights and duties should not be confused with the official, written statutory law of the state,” and that these rights and duties are “enforced only by sanctions within the community” (1974, 46). The evolution of norms and the social coordination that results, though pressed upon these families by poverty, are very much a Hayekian spontaneous order process, and one that was hidden from the official view of the state.

 

Part II coming next week.


*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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Romney’s child allowance proposal

Mitt Romney has proposed a child allowance of $4200/year for children under age 6 and $3000/year for children age 6 to 17, which is gradually phased out for people making over $200,000 (depending on the child’s age.) It is to be paid for without boosting the budget deficit, by reducing certain other poverty programs and also eliminating certain tax deductions, such as what’s left of the SALT deduction. (This last element is one of my favorite parts of the plan.)

I don’t know enough about the plan to have a firm opinion, but from a utilitarian perspective it seems to have some positive features:

Equity: The net effect is to shift money from the affluent to the poor, which probably results in a significant gain in aggregate utility.  (Yes, we can’t measure utility, but it seems likely that this factor is a net plus.)

Efficiency: It’s hard to say whether Romney’s plan improves or reduces efficiency, and that’s where I’ll focus the rest of the post.  But the mere fact that “it’s hard to say” is a sort of plus for the plan, because the equity considerations seem to be pretty clearly utility improving. With most welfare proposals, greater equity comes at a cost of lower efficiency.  I think it’s fair to say that either Mitt Romney is a very clever guy, or he has smart advisors, or both. At the end I’ll suggest a modification that would boost the equity of the plan, without any clear loss in efficiency.

1. Some conservatives like the fact that these child benefits would boost the birth rate, pointing to the fact that people say they want more children than they actually have.  I don’t share their worry that the birth rate is too low, and I don’t trust polls.  Some conservatives worry that paying poor people to have kids would cause so-called “inferior” people to reproduce.  I also don’t share this worry.  For me, the effect on births is a non-factor.

2.  Work disincentives can come from either the income or the substitution effects.  The substitution effect in Romney’s proposal is small, as parents don’t lose the child allowance until their income rises to well above $200,000.  So on that basis it won’t discourage poor people from getting a working class job.  There is a very mild work disincentive for upper middle class people experiencing the phase-out of the benefit.  The income effect refers to the fact that poor people might no longer work because they feel they can live on the child allowance without working (perhaps combined with other programs like food stamps.)  It seems to me that this disincentive would be quite modest for the size of benefits proposed by Romney.  Still, in net terms there’s probably a mild work disincentive from the issues I’ve discussed thus far.

3.  Many of the other provisions actually boost efficiency.  Several other (inefficient) poverty programs are either reduced or eliminated.  Furthermore, there’s a substantial gain from reducing the complexity of both the welfare system and the income tax system.  Eliminating the SALT deduction also discourages wasteful state and local spending.  So the various provisions that pay for the benefit have a significant positive impact on economic efficiency.

Combining points #2 and #3, I see no clear evidence of either an overall gain or loss of efficiency.  And again, the equity benefits seem pretty clear to me.

One final comment.  Why not make the child allowance fully universal, and then slightly boost the payroll tax (on wage income only) on people making over $200,000 a year to pay for it?  On an equity basis, that would redistribute money from the very rich down to the upper middle class, as people with very high wage income would pay more extra tax than they’d gain from the child allowance, while the opposite is true for the upper middle class—those making modestly above $200,000.

On efficiency grounds, my proposed modification would make the income tax system much simpler, so that’s a net gain.  The increase in the payroll tax rate would be smaller than the implicit marginal income tax during the phaseout range of Romney’s proposal (which mostly applies to people in the $200,000s), so extremely affluent people would face slightly higher MTRs while modestly affluent people would face significantly lower MTRs.  Overall, I doubt there’d be much change in economic efficiency, maybe even an increase.

 

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Caitlin Doughty on Death

What do you say when someone dies? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really learned how to talk about death. How to think about it. What to say to someone who’s recently bereaved? Just think about the language we do use. “Passed on.” “In a better place.” “Laid to eternal rest.” How about just “died”? The discomfort runs deep. Money doesn’t lie. And our aversion to death, especially in the United States, is big business. We pay for the body to be transported, embalmed, gussied up, and cremated, or perhaps buried in expensive caskets.

This is from Maria Konnikova, “How to Be Better at Death,” Freakonomics, February 3, 2021. It’s fascinating and informative throughout.

Parts of the interview reminded me of a book I read when I was about 17, a book titled Death, Here is Thy Sting. The sting was the high price of a casket, embalming, etc.

I chose to highlight the above passage because it relates to something I’ve followed. I never say that someone “passed” or “passed away.” It’s euphemistic and occasionally misleading. At pickleball a few months ago I was talking about my daughter having passed something or other. Someone who came in on the tail end and heard me saying that my daughter passed expressed her condolences. I quickly explained what I was saying.

I say what’s true: the person died. I got practice early on. My mother, who died of cancer on December 19, 1969, was bedridden at home from about mid-October on. (Actually, she spent her last 4 days in the hospital, connected to a bunch of tubes.) In early December, she dictated her obituary to either my sister or my brother. When she died, I called the Winnipeg Free Press to read the obituary over the phone. Here are two parts of the conversation:

David: On December 19, Norah Mary Henderson died.

Free Press: Uh, excuse me, what was that?

David: On December 19, Norah Mary Henderson died.

Free Press: Don’t you mean “passed away?”

David: No, I mean “died.”

Later, when I got to what would happen to her body, the conversation went as follows:

David: Her body will be donated to the University of Manitoba medical school.

Free Press: Don’t you mean “her remains?”

David: No, I mean “her body.”

The Free Press person writing it down was clearly uncomfortable. But they played it straight. I knew that if they didn’t, my mum (that’s the Canadian version of “mom” would have been pissed off.)

In December 2018, when I visited a funeral home in Toronto hours after discovering that my sister had died, I cut to the chase by saying to the employee: “I’m very sentimental about my sister; I have zero sentiment about a dead body.” I then went on to say that I wanted the cheapest cremation I could get.

 

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Unschooling + Math

One popular variant on homeschooling is called “unschooling.”  The practice varies, as practices always do.  The essence, however, is that the student does what he wants.  He studies what he wants.  He studies for as long as he wants.  If he asks you to teach him something, you teach him.  Yet if he decides to play videogames all day, the principled unschooling response is: “Let him.”

Almost every parent is horrified by the idea of unschooling.  Even most homeschoolers shake their heads.  Advocates insist, however, that unschooling works.  Psychologist Peter Gray defends the merits of unschooling with great vigor and eloquence.  According to unschoolers, the human child is naturally curious.  Given freedom, he won’t just learn basic skills; he’ll ultimately find a calling.

On the surface, unschooling sounds like Social Desirability Bias run amok: “Oh yes, every child loves to learn, it’s just society that fails them!” And as a mortal enemy of Social Desirability Bias, my instinct is to dismiss unschooling out of hand.

One thing I loathe more than Social Desirability Bias, however, is refusing to calm down and look at the facts.  Fact: I’ve personally met and conversed with dozens of adults who were unschooled.  Overall, they appear at least as well-educated as typical graduates from the public school system.  Indeed, as Gray would predict, unschoolers are especially likely to turn their passions into careers.  Admittedly,  some come across as flaky, but then again so do a lot young people.  When you look closely, unschoolers have only one obvious problem.

They’re weak in math! In my experience, even unschoolers with stellar IQs tend to be weak in algebra.  Algebra, I say!  And their knowledge of more advanced mathematics is sparser still.

Staunch unschoolers will reply: So what?  Who needs algebra?  The honest answer, though, is: Anyone who wants to pursue a vast range of high-status occupations.  STEM requires math.  CS requires math.  Social science requires math.  Even sophisticated lawyers – the kind that discuss investments’ Net Present Values – require math.

Won’t kids who would greatly benefit from math choose to learn math given the freedom to do so?  The answer, I fear, is: Rarely.  For two reasons:

First, math is extremely unfun for almost everyone.  Only a handful of nerds sincerely finds the subject engaging.  I’m a big nerd, and I’ve done piles of math, yet I’ve never really liked it.

Second, math is highly cumulative.  Each major stage of math builds on the foundation of the previous stages.  If you reach adulthood and then decide to learn math to pursue a newly-discovered ambition, I wish you good luck, because you’ll need it.

What’s the best response?  Mainstream critics of unschooling will obviously use this criticism to dismiss the entire approach.  And staunch unschoolers will no doubt stick to their guns.  I, however, propose a keyhole solution.  I call it: Unschooling + Math.

What does Unschooling + Math mean?  Simple: Impose a single parental mandate on unschooled children.  Every day, like it or not, you have to do 1-2 hours of math.  No matter how boring you find the subject, you’re too young to decide that you don’t want to pursue a career that requires math.  And if you postpone the study of math for long, it will be too late to start later on.

While most people don’t wind up using much math on the job, ignorance of basic math is still a severe handicap in life.  And when smart kids don’t know advanced math, they forfeit about half of all high-status career opportunities.

We should have a strong presumption against paternalism – even the literal paternalism of a parent for his own child.  “Maybe the kid is right and the parent is wrong” is a deeply underrated thought.  The value of math, however, is great enough to overcome this presumption.  To be clear, I don’t mean that the government should force homeschoolers to teach math.  What I mean, rather, is that homeschoolers should require their kids to learn math.  Guilt-free.

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Reflections on One Billion Americans

Matt Yglesias’ new One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger is a delightful book.  But should you take my word for it?  Since I’ve published book-length defenses of both natalism and immigration deregulation, I’m obviously going to smile upon a book that reaches the same conclusions, right?

Truth be told, though, I often dislike books whose conclusions I endorse.  You can’t just be right; you have to be right for the right reasons.  By this demanding standard, One Billion Americans does well, though there is ample room for improvement.   Critical observations:

1. Matt relies heavily on the “national greatness” argument for population growth: The U.S. needs more citizens to remain the world’s dominant power.  While I grok the appeal of this argument, I am puzzled by Matt’s lack of enthusiasm for other pro-population premises.  Most notably: Life is well worth living, and it’s better if more people enjoy this opportunity.  And: Welcoming migrants from poor countries enriches humanity by moving talent from places where it produces little to places where it produces much.  More generally: The positive externalities of population are much larger than the negative externalities.  To be clear: Matt mentions all of these points, yet strangely only national greatness seems to animate him.

2. On further reflection, national greatness is one of the weakest and most dubious arguments for raising U.S. population.  Key question: What is the probability that fervently trying to hold China at number two ends up sparking World War III over the next fifty years?  Even if the chance is only 5%, why risk it?  Furthermore, if you’re eager to maintain American hegemony, advertising your intent is probably counter-productive; the prudent course is to cloak your geopolitical ambitions in universal and humanitarian garb.

3. Matt curiously neglects “brain drain” and related arguments against increasing immigration to the First World.  Should we really be trying to increase our national greatness at the expense of the greatness of all the other nations of the world?  Or just trying to increase our national greatness at the expense of China and other heinous dictatorships?  Or what?

4. Matt favors universal social programs to encourage fertility across-the-board, but only selective deregulation of immigration.  He explicitly opposes open borders: “We shouldn’t just recklessly throw the borders open to just anyone who happens to show up…”  This may be good politics, but it’s bad public policy.  Why?  Simply put: Welcoming immigrants is virtually a free lunch, but incentivizing fertility is very pricey.  So the wise course is to welcome immigrants of all skill levels, but target fertility incentives to where they’ll do the most good.

5. What fertility incentives do the most good?  Matt wants the government to lavishly fund virtually everything that makes having large families easier.  He doesn’t seem interested in research on comparative elasticities of different natalist programs.  Nor is he interested in demographics; whose fertility should we try hardest to encourage?

6. Given a finite budget for promoting fertility, however, the natural goal is to raise the fertility of people who are most statistically likely to enrich humanity.  This in turn requires us to defy Social Desirability Bias and admit that we can probably help the world a lot more by boosting elite fertility – the fertility of the rich, smart, well-educated, creative, and entrepreneurial.  I am well-aware that most people who talk this way are frightening misanthropes.  But I’m neither; you don’t have to be a superstar to live a meaningful and productive life.  My point, rather, is that encouraging fertility costs money – and you get more bang for your buck by targeting incentives at the would-be parents whose kids will contribute the most to the world.  (Caveat: It might cost more money to induce an elite couple to have an extra child, so it’s conceivable that you get more bang per buck by targeting sub-elites).

7. Matt barely discusses my favorite natalist policy: large non-refundable lump-sum tax credits.  By my calculations, these are the Holy Grail of tax policy: In the long-run, they more than fund themselves.  Key point: You only get the incentive insofar as you pay taxes in the first place.

8. Here’s the worst paragraph in One Billion Americans:

And over the long haul, universal programs probably do more to help the neediest than microtargeted ones do anyway.  The old saying about this is that “programs for the poor become poor programs” – programs that are easily subject to political attack – while universal programs garner stronger support.  The political science on this is not entirely unambiguous, but there is enough evidence on it to suggest that there ultimately isn’t a real trade-off between helping the poor and helping everyone.

Consider: Making programs universal easily multiplies their cost by a factor of five or ten.  Since even means-tested programs are expensive, Matt is talking about spending many trillions of extra dollars.  At minimum, you’d expect him to advocate ten million dollars of research to improve the quality of the “not entirely unambiguous” political science on this question.  If there’s a moderate chance we can painlessly save trillions of dollars, wouldn’t it be prudent to explore this possibility?

9. Matt’s cavalier support for universal programs is part of a much larger pattern: He favors massively more government spending on virtually everything.  Frankly, he’s a parody of a big-spender – even when he freely admits that government has an awful track record for waste.  Thus, after explaining that public transportation costs far more to build in the U.S. than in Europe, he still calls for bigger budgets:

The goal is to spend a little more and in exchange get a lot more – but still with plenty of jobs for everyone.  In France, they use a twelve-person crew on a tunnel-boring machine (TBM), while America uses twenty-five.  We don’t need to fire half the TBM operators; what we should do is hire 50 percent more but insist on building three times as many tunnels.

For Matt, apparently, spending 50% more is spending “a little more”!

10. Matt correctly explains that according to National Academy of Science estimates, the average immigrant to the U.S. is a net fiscal positive.  And he toys with the idea of imposing surtaxes on low-skilled immigrants to sweeten the calculation.  But if we followed even half of Matt’s spending advice, steep surtaxes would be required to prevent immigrants from becoming big net fiscal negatives.

11. If I were an environmentalist, I would be underwhelmed by Matt’s attempt to assuage my fears:

[W]e can’t just ask people to give up the fruits of prosperity.  Nor does it make sense to try to minimize the number of prosperous people.  What the world needs, climatewise, is to develop and deploy technologies that will make prosperous lifestyles sustainable.  If that can be done, the number of prosperous people is irrelevant.

Any alarmist worth his salt will object, “Let’s hope for the best but prepare for the worst.  Even if cheap, green technologies become available, dysfunctional policies could well prevent them from being deployed.  So let’s hedge our bets by continuing our efforts to restrain population growth – at least until Matt’s techno-topia arrives.”

12. Lest you get the wrong impression, Matt has excellent discussions of…

a. How absurdly low U.S. population density is, even ignoring Alaska and the Rockies.

b. The evils – and anti-natalist side effects – of helicopter parenting.

c. Deregulating childcare.

d. Mariel boatlift revisionism and anti-revisionism.

e. The JTWBDAAIOACDT argument (my label, not Matt’s).

f. How much of the damage of climate change ultimately stems from immigration restrictions.

g. The theory and practice of moving the federal government to the Midwest.

h. The ins and outs of housing deregulation

i. Peakload pricing.

j. America’s absurdly high infrastructure costs.

13. The only major category of spending that Matt wants to cut is defense.  A great choice – but hard to reconcile with his national greatness agenda.  If he were really serious about “standing up to China,” you’d expect him to copy-and-paste his position on tunnel-boring machines: Let’s have 50% more military – and do three times as much with it.

Overall, this is the best big-picture progressive policy book I can remember.  That said, One Billion Americans’ only stereotypically progressive feature is its commitment to profligacy.  Everything else should appeal to rationalists of across the spectrum.

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Who Owns Your Genes?

Doctor He Jiankui was sentenced to a three year prison term, fined $430,000, and fired from his academic position as Associate Professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. Did he engage in groping a patient? No. Poisoning a client? Again, no. According to the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency, Dr. He and two others, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, were convicted of gene editing fetuses.

His clients were a healthy mother and a father who was HIV positive. Dr. He engineered the genes of their twin girl babies so they would be resistant to HIV..

At the outset, this appears to be an agreement between consenting adults to engage in a capitalist act. The couple knew of the risks involved in this new medical technology. According to the defense, He did not hide these from the mother and father. They agreed to the procedure since they weighed the dangers of AIDS for their daughters more heavily than the perils of the new, unproven, technique.

Why, then, were He and his two colleagues arrested and convicted? It is all too easy to surmise that this was done because it occurred in China, withits reputation as a lawless country. The fact of the matter is that if He had performed this CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing operation in the United States, a similar fate would have befallen him. This is because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved of this technique for human beings in terms of reproduction.

What are we to make of all of this? Let us adopt a set of private property rights economic freedom spectacles through which we can best perceive all such controversial acts. We start by asking, who were the owners of the property in question? This, presumably, would be the parents. Did they receive informed consent from the supplier of the service? Not according to the local Shenzhen court. Let us, however, abstract from this finding. Instead, we adopt a Platonic perspective. This is because although we are indeed interested in this one case, we also want to derive a principle to deal with all such violations of the law. So let us assume that there was no fraud involved here.

Should He and his colleagues have then been found guilty? Well, they did break an extant law. This leads to another question: is it a proper law that prohibits voluntary trades of this or any sort? The answer emanating from the free enterprise philosophy is a clear “No.” Rather, this would be a victimless crime, and all those even properly found guilty of violating it, should be set free.

Was there a victim here? Yes, possibly. If the dangers of this procedure were indeed of greater moment than these two children suffering from AIDS, then, yes, they might be considered victims. After all, one day that now manageable disease might be fully cured. But this is clearly a judgement call upon which reasonable people can disagree. The parents would certainly not be guilty of child abuse even were this contrary to fact conditional to come into being. They were doing what they thought best for their children.

What of the doctors involved? It is difficult to see them in any other way than as heroes. They put their careers and their freedom on the line, in order to help this mother and father be good guardians. Yes, Dr. He jumped the legal gun, whether that of the FDA in the United States, or its Chinese counterpart. But the monopoly powers of these government bodies are incompatible with the free enterprise ethic through which we are viewing their behavior. These organizations, too, can err. But when they do (thalidomide, anyone?) they carry on merrily into the sunset. They cannot be bankrupted through erroneous decisions. That is no way to run a railroad.



Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans.

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The Decriminalization of Polygamy

Utah’s anti-polygamy laws came under fire on December 2013, by US Federal Judge Clark Waddoups. He ruled in Brown v. Buhman that this state’s ban on polygamy was unconstitutional.

This year, Utah state Senator Deirdre Henderson sponsored a measure that would decriminalize this practice but not legalize it. The Utah state Senate approved this bill unanimously. If signed into law, plural marriage would be punished with fines of up to $750 and community service, but would no longer warrant a jail sentence of up to five years as a third degree felony.

Let us react to this initiative under six headings: 1. religion, 2. sociology, 3. libertarianism, 4. aesthetics, 5.feminism and 6. practicality.

 

1- Religion. From a religious point of view, this new policy, if signed into law is to be welcomed. The Church of Latter Day Saints has traditionally favored this marital practice. According to some Mormon interpretations, polygamists will enjoy glorification in heaven. The Utah territory was settled in 1847 and this practice was then common. It was only ended in 1890 as a precondition for statehood, which would quell continued persecution. Still today numerous followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints engage in this relationship. If we take freedom of religion seriously, we must support this bill becoming law. No one under it is forced to engage in polygamy. It would only provide that those who do so will not be imprisoned; they should not be fined either, but that is a fight for another day. If polygamy between consenting adults is not a victimless crime, then what is? Critics charge it will harm the children resulting from such unions, but they offer no evidence for this contention.

 

2- Sociology. What will be its social effects if this bill becomes law? Boys and girls are born in roughly equal numbers, but do not survive to adulthood in like manner. Males succumb more heavily to suicide, imprisonment, murder, occupational and other accidents, military deaths, etc. Thus, there are more women than men of marriageable age. (In China matters are reversed, with their one child policy, but Utah is not located in that country). Polygamy could even up these odds. No longer would there be numerous women unsuccessfully seeking a marriage partner. But would this not be unfair to males? Not really, given the greater statistical precariousness of male lives.

 

3- Libertarianism. From a libertarian point of view, the basic principle is to legalize anything between consenting adults. There is perhaps no more important arena of life in which this applies. Polygamy is a paradigm case. We already have serial plural marriage. There are those who have had many more than a single spouse over the years. But cross-sectional marriage, as well as time series, are equally voluntary.

 

4- Aesthetics. But is not this practice unseemly, disgusting, perverse, from an aesthetic point of view? De gustibus non disputandum. In tastes there is no disputing. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Yes, for most people, polygamy does not pass the “smell” test. But most people do not have to participate in this type of arrangement. No one does. The proposed law only legalizes this type of marriage. No one is compelled to embrace it.

5- Feminism. How can we look at this institution from a feminist perspective? Polygamy is all well and good, but we want equality. Polyandry (one wife, several husbands) should be treated in exactly the same manner. What is good for the goose should be good for the gander, too. The “libertarian” does not agree with the “feminist” on many issues, but on this one, an exception, we can all agree. Yes, polygamy should be legalized, and polyandry too. Polyandry, moreover, might make sense in a nation such as China, where the eligible men outnumber their female counterparts.

 

6- Practicality. Under legalization, polygamists can more easily avail themselves of services that are available to all others. For example, if they are abused, they can access the police. Yes, of course, some young girls have in the past been forced to take older men as husbands, and this is a clear and present rights violation, but monogamous marriages are not perfect either. Such rights violations should be attended in either case.

 


Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans.

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Comments on Siegel’s Fewer, Richer, Greener

Last week, I was part of the Cato Institute’s book forum on Laurence Siegel’s Fewer, Richer, Greener: Prospects for Humanity in an Age of Abundance.  Here’s my commentary on the book.


1. Vast areas of agreement:

a. Until March, the world was getting richer at a marvelous pace. Absolute poverty has been disappearing before our eyes after ten thousand years of apparent permanence.

b. Conventional measures sharply understated the glorious reality, because the environment keeps getting cleaner and the quality of the goods keeps getting higher.

c. Like it or not, global population is leveling off.

2. Overarching complaint: Siegel is so excited to share his conclusions that he rushes through the arguments in their favor. When the arguments are strong, the rushing is harmless. When the arguments are weak, the rushing leads Siegel to embrace errors.

3. Error #1: Leveling off of population now is a good thing. Siegel has no argument for this other than to say that population growth can’t be a good thing forever. But this argument would have been just as true when global population was 8000, 8M, or 800M.

True, Simon dodged the question of when population would start to be a problem.  But he genuinely demonstrated vast neglected upsides of population – especially the effect on innovation.  Almost all innovation really does come from high-population areas – and this can hardly be a coincidence.  Furthermore, the main downsides of population – pollution and congestion – can be easily mitigated with pollution taxes and tolls, rather than fewer births.

Key point: Siegel presents no evidence that extra population has ceased to be a good thing overall yet, so why is he so happy about falling birthrates?  The world is still mostly uninhabited – you could fit the entire world’s population into the continental U.S. at the density of Los Angeles.  So why not hope for a world population of 20B, 50B, 100B, or even a T?  If this seems absurd, imagine how absurd multiplying humanity 25-fold would have seemed 1000 years ago.  Yet this “absurdity” turned out to be awesome.

4. Error #2: We should just live with (or even celebrate) declining birth rates. If you do the math (as I have in an earlier Cato Unbound piece), you’ll discover that large tax credits for births are the holy grail of tax policy: They more than pay for themselves in the long-run. We can reasonably expect a $10k per birth one-time tax credit to increase fertility enough to ultimately yield about $250k in net present value for the Treasury.  A fantastic deal!

Also: Housing deregulation.  City-dwellers have few kids because they’re so cramped for space, but this is largely a product of zoning and land-use policies that grossly inflate the price of housing, especially in the country’s most desirable areas.

5. Error #3: Becker’s economics of the family readily explains declining family size. Reality: Kids were never a good financial investment. As a business model, hiring able-bodied farmers makes far more sense than breeding helpless infants and waiting 15 years for help.  Yes, modern economies offer many extra opportunities for child-free fun, but they also drastically reduce the pain of child-rearing and offer many extra opportunities for family fun.  Why rising wealth causes falling birthrates is a fascinating question that social scientists have still failed to successfully answer.

 

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