When to blame?

This comment by Arthur Schopenhauer raises some interesting questions:

If a person is stupid, we excuse him by saying that he cannot help it; but if we attempted to excuse in precisely the same way the person who is bad, we should be laughed at.  And yet the one quality, like the other, is inborn.   This proves that the will is the man proper, the intellect the mere tool.

While one can question any of these three claims, there is a real issue here that cannot be easily dismissed.  Thus I do not think being bad is entirely inborn, but then neither is being stupid.  Academic education is possible, and moral education is also possible.  With some effort, we can get smarter and we can get better. I doubt that any modest difference in the extent to which stupidity and badness are inborn can fully explain society’s vastly different attitude toward these two traits. And Schopenhauer’s conclusion about “the will” being the man proper leads one to ask:  Why are people viewed this way?

One possibility is that the harm from stupidity is usually internalized to a much greater extent than the harm from being bad.  We blame people for being bad because bad behavior has much greater external costs than stupid behavior.  A person can stupidly throw away a fortune at a casino with very little in the way of legal or moral sanction.  But if someone uses fraud to steal a fortune from another person, we call them evil and throw them in prison.  Stupid behavior causes harm, but much of the harm (not all) falls on the person that engages in the foolish actions.  If we consider both blame and prison to be forms of deterrence, then these sanctions are less necessary where a person is already being punished for their foolish behavior.

Think about two societies.  One is a community of average American families in Ohio, and the other is a few hundred hunters and trappers who live alone and isolated from each other in Alaska. The community in Ohio might condemn drug use, fearing that it could cause people to become irresponsible, unable to support their families.  In the wilds of Alaska, it’s unlikely that “society” would much care if an isolated hunter was using drugs.  If it interfered with his ability to hunt and trap, he would pay the price without any government sanction.

From this perspective, society’s system of morality, our code for choosing when to blame people and when not to blame people, might be viewed as a sort of tool, like a shovel or a scalpel.  Blame is a tool we use to discourage people from imposing external costs on society.

If I’m right, then stupidity that does not involve external costs would only be condemned when we actually care about the person hurting themselves.  And I think this is mostly true.  I might yell at a neighbor’s kid for scratching my car, but I won’t yell at that kid for not studying harder at school.  The child’s parents love their child much more than I do, and might yell at them for not doing their homework, for being “stupid”.  (That’s not to say parents cannot also punish children for selfish reasons, but surely the world contains at least some “tough love”.)

I am not saying that people consciously act as utilitarian moralizers, rather that we’ve evolved in such a way that we instinctively try to use our moral system in an effective way, a way that makes society work better.  We instinctively overestimate the difference between being stupid and being bad.

I’m also not saying that our moral sanctions are always appropriate—that would be absurd.  It’s highly unlikely that the prohibition of alcohol was optimal during 1920-33, but not optimal in either 1910 or 1940.  More likely, we sometimes make mistakes when deciding whom to blame and what sanctions to apply.

It’s also possible that our moral indignation is more convincing if we do not understand where it comes from and what’s its purpose is.  This sense of indignation is so innate that it might lead us to get angry at a zoo animal that kills a child that has wandered into its cage.  That anger won’t deter other zoo animals, but the basic instinct that makes us angry is appropriate in the vast majority of cases where children are intentionally harmed.

Indeed there have been times when I’ve yelled at my computer.

PS.  In politics, we are reassured if we find evidence that voters on the “other side” are merely being stupid, rather than malicious.


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Strangely Liberating

Working on my taxes recently reminded me of a fun discussion I had with the late Stephen Williams, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. (He’s pictured above.) I never met him and we mainly corresponded by email. After I told him that in December 2017 I had doubled my usual charitable contribution to the Institute for Justice so that I could get the tax deduction one last time (due to the 2017 tax cut law), we went back and forth.

Here’s the email thread with Steven in box quotes:

Last chance for taking deduction because of increase in the standard



Yes on both. My state and local tax deduction is limited to $10K, our mortgage balance is so low that our annual mortgage interest is less than $3K, and my normal charitable deductions are around $2K. So I don’t come close to $24K.



So here’s the big question on the tax-elasticity of donations:  Will you maintain your historic level?  (Of course one swallow doesn’t make a summer, or one donor a supply curve.)


Dear Steve,

Hey, I thought I was talking to a judge, not a literate economist. 🙂

That IS the question, isn’t it. I’m not sure of the answer. 2019 will tell. One little difference I’ve noted already: In 2018 I’ve given small amounts (I think $50 in each case) to 2 go fund me sites (one a woman who is a friend of a friend of a friend facing cancer with few financial resources and one a state employee in Montana who quit his job rather than cooperate with ICE in turning in workers). I probably would have given to neither of those causes but instead would have looked around for a tax-deductible charity that mimicked, as close as possible, the same ends. Not worrying about the tax consequences felt strangely liberating.



I especially like your last sentence!


As it turns out, I was back a little higher in 2019 than in my normal pre-2017 charitable contributions.

I said time would tell. Well, 2020 shouted. Going through our charitable that can be deducted, I found a little over $3,000. But my wife and I each gave between $3,000 and $4,000 to various people who suffered hardship because of the lockdowns. And yes, it was strangely liberating to do it with no thought of tax consequences.




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Logical and Praxeological Impossibilities

Logical impossibilities make rational discourse impossible. A and non-A cannot both be true. Everybody cannot have an income higher than the median or the average. Nobody can consume if nobody produces (including do-it-yourself). Everybody cannot consume more if everybody produces less. You can’t be inclusive without admitting the non-inclusive in your inclusive set. And so on.

There also exist praxeological impossibilities which make any rational discourse about society impossible. I take “praxeology” to mean the logic of human action in relation to individual incentives. For example, you cannot consume something that you want but cannot produce yourself, except if somebody else is motivated to produce it for you through exchange or out of benevolence.

Another example of praxeological impossibility—this one relevant to the current predicaments of a certain American governor: If anybody accused of “inappropriate behavior” by somebody must immediately resign, it would be impossible for anybody to hold a “position” for any predetermined length of time longer than the time it takes to formulate an accusation. The reason is that anybody who wants somebody to resign would only have to accuse him of inappropriate behavior. (On the other hand, of course, if charges of real assault, as opposed to the chameleonic “inappropriate behavior,” were not investigated and, if revealed founded, prosecuted, potential criminals would have incentives incompatible with a free and peaceful society.)


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The Logical Basis is a Difference in Incentives

British economist Charles A. E. Goodhart writes:

Thus, people voting with their dollars are supposed to be rational and to reach an efficient outcome, but when they vote with their ballots, they may not achieve their own best interests. I have always found it difficult to perceive the logical basis for this dichotomy.

This is from his “The Free Banking Challenge to Central Banks,” Critical Review, Summer 1994.

The basis for the dichotomy is a difference in incentives. When people are spending their own money, their expenditures have a strong influence on what they get. If I decide to buy a Camry, for instance, I get a Camry. But when people vote, their vote is not determinative. To continue with the car case, if we were voting on whether Toyota Camrys or Honda Accords are provided, our individual vote has a tiny, tiny probability of influencing whether Camrys or Accords are provided. Therefore, we have little incentive to compare the two.

Economists call this “rational ignorance” and it sometimes bleeds over into what co-blogger Bryan Caplan calls “rational irrationality.”

By the way, this article is a reading for Jeff Hummel’s Masters course in Monetary Theory and Policy, a course offered by San Jose State University’s economics department. I’m watching it on Zoom, doing all the reading and homework, and learning a lot.


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An Unnecessary “Stimulus”

In two Defining Ideas articles in 2009, “Who’s Afraid of Budget Deficits? I Am” and “Furman, Summers, and Taxes,” I criticized Lawrence Summers and Jason Furman, two prominent economists who worked in the Obama administration, for their dovish views on federal debt and deficits. They had argued that we shouldn’t worry much about high federal budget deficits and growing federal debt. Of course, that was before the record budget deficit of 2020. Now even Summers is worried. In two February op-eds in the Washington Post, Summers argues against the size and composition of the Biden “stimulus” bill.

Summers makes a solid argument, on Keynesian grounds alone, that the proposed $1.9 trillion spending bill is much too large. He also, to his credit, digs into some of the details of the bill, pointing out how absurd they are. Had Summers looked at more details, he could have made an even stronger case against the measure. For instance, one major provision of the bill, the added unemployment benefits through August, will actually slow the recovery. And other provisions of the bill, like the bailout of state and local governments, are bad on other grounds. The fact is that this is not your father’s or your grandmother’s run-of-the-mill recession. It was brought about by two things: (1) people’s individual reactions to the threat of Covid-19 and (2) politicians’ reactions, in the form of lockdowns, to the same threat.

These are the opening two paragraphs of my latest article for Defining Ideas, “An Unnecessary ‘Stimulus’“, Defining Ideas, March 5, 2021.

And the ending:

First, the economy is recovering. In January, the International Monetary Fund predicted that real GDP will grow by 5.1 percent in 2021. Possibly that’s because the IMF understands that this is not a typical recession. The slump we’re in was due initially to people’s fear of the virus, a fear whipped up by Dr. Anthony Fauci and others. But now it’s due mainly to lockdowns. As the percent of the US population that has had COVID-19 rises and the number of people vaccinated rises, we are getting closer to herd immunity. Then people will feel even safer going out and governments will have fewer excuses to keep their economies locked down. We can all become Florida or Florida-Plus. That will all happen without any stimulus bill.

Second, the $1.9 trillion bill represents government taxing us or our children in the future to spend money in places where we the people have chosen not to spend it now. The bill is, in essence, a huge instance of central planning with government officials’ preferences overriding ours. The bill, for example, contains $28 billion for transit agencies, $11 billion in grants to airports and airplane manufacturers, and $2 billion in grants to Amtrak and other transportation. How does the government know that those are the right amounts? What if, as I predict, when the pandemic and lockdowns end we will still have fewer people wanting to ride transit because they and their employers will opt for a hybrid model of some at-home work and some in-office work? The effect of this misallocation of resources won’t necessarily show up in GDP because GDP measures government spending at cost rather than at value. But this spending will make us somewhat worse off. It’s far better to rely on people having the freedom to make their own allocations.

If the government gets out of the way, the economy will recover. Maybe it takes an outsider to see that and to say that. I just did.

Read the whole thing.


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PC and PG Matter More than Content at Google

Transparency and directness – I have always been a pretty passionate guy, especially at Waze. After the acquisition, I was invited to speak on many different Google panels and events and very quickly, I began racking up my HR complaints. I used a four letter word, my analogy was not PC, my language was not PG… I actually stopped speaking at events where the majority appreciated what I was saying but the minority that was offended by something (words and not content) made it a pain. I began watching what I said, what I discussed and began wearing a corporate persona (I was still probably one of the less PC characters at Google but this was my cleaned up act…). I value transparency and feel that people should bring themselves to work but that also means a certain tolerance of people not saying something exactly as you would like them to or believing something you don’t. That tolerance is gone at Google and “words” > “content” is the new Silicon Valley mantra of political correctness. You can say terrible things as long as your pronouns are correct or can say super important things but use one wrong word and it’s off to HR for you…

This is from Noam Bardin, “Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long?“, PayGo. It time stamps as “a few seconds ago,” but I know that can’t be right because I read it this morning. That’s a picture of Bardin at the top.

Bardin was CEO at Waze, one of my favorite apps when I’m driving. (Because I have a radar detector, the warning about cops is less valuable to me when I’m driving than the warning about cars parked on the side of the road.) Waze was bought out by Google some years ago.

The whole article is full of insights, some of which Arnold Kling has highlighted. It’s really a beautiful analysis of incentives. The part I quote above is one of the most disturbing. Bardin’s comment about Google on the issue of words versus content reminds me of Professor Henry Higgins’s comment, in his My Fair Lady song, “Why Can’t the English Teach Their Children How to Speak?”, about the French: “The French never care what they do, actually, As long as they pronounce it properly.”

Similarly, the people at Google’s HR don’t care how terrible are the things you say as long as you use the right words. I’m sure this is an exaggeration and that Bardin knows it’s an exaggeration, just as I’m sure Henry Higgins was exaggerating, but Bardin’s making an important, and concerning, point.


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Private versus Government

In his textbook Public Finance, 7th edition, 2005, Princeton University emeritus professor of economics Harvey S. Rosen, discussing the idea that incentives to monitor are better in the private sector than in government, quotes Adam Smith’s statement to that effect in The Wealth of Nations. He also gives a famous modern example. Rosen writes:

Anecdotal evidence for this viewpoint abounds. One celebrated case involved New York City, which spent $12 million attempting to rebuild the ice-skating rink in Central Park between 1980 and 1986. [DRH note: think about that–that’s 6 years.] The main problem was that the contractors were trying to use a new technology for making Iceland it did not work. In 1986, after spending $200,000 on a study to find out what went wrong, city officials learned they would have to start all over. In June 1986, real estate developer Donald J. Trump offered to take over the project and have it completed by December of that year for about $2.5 million. Trump finished the rink three weeks ahead of schedule and $750,000 under projected cost.

I remembered this passage when I was preparing for a Zoom interview on Monday with a high school senior in Arizona. He asked good questions and I gave him this example and a number of others.


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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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Great Moment in Public Service Number 12,933

I live in Monterey County, where the Monterey County Health Officer, Dr. Edward Moreno, has had a lot of control over our daily lives since last March. Many of us were hoping that at least he would do his job and get Monterey County its pro rata share of the Covid-19 vaccines allocated to California.

No such luck.

Here’s what a local weekly publication, the Carmel Pine Cone, reported in an email on February 13:

On Thursday the Wall Street Journal, citing data from Feb. 9, reported that Alabama had the worst vaccination rate in the nation, with just 10,013 doses administered per 100,000 residents. But on the same date, Monterey County said only about 8,000 doses had been administered here per 100,000 county residents. Nationwide county-by-county vaccination data doesn’t seem to be publicly available, but if Monterey County is that far behind Alabama, the county’s vaccination rate has to be one of the worst in the country.

Many of us suspect that Dr. Moreno has not been aggressive in pushing our county’s case and getting more vaccines.

And in a front-page news story in the February 12 Pine Cone, we might have found out why. Here’s a paragraph from a story about the grilling that Monterey County supervisor Mary Adams got in a recent town hall:

As for Moreno, who is often under fire for his poor communication skills, failure to crack down on the county’s hot spots and dysfunctional vaccine rollout, she [Supervisor Mary Adams] said, “I hear so many people say Dr. Moreno is not the greatest communicator. Dr. Moreno is the most shy person I have ever met, and this is agony for him to have to speak publicly. He also is very conscious of giving precise and correct answers.”

The reporter, Mary Schley, adds:

Unmentioned during the call was the fact that Moreno’s job description requires him to be able to “prepare clear and concise written and oral reports,” and “speak effectively before large groups.”




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Will Walmart Save America?

My question is only partly rhetorical. Just two days after I published my post “Vaccine Adventures,” I read in the Wall Street Journal that the federal and state governments had started allocating vaccines to large pharmacy chains, including Walmart (Sharon Terlep and Jaewon Kang, “CVS and Walmart Decide Who Gets Leftover Covid-19 Vaccine Doses,” February 11). After reading this story in the wee hours of February 12, I went on Walmart’s website and, in just a few minutes, made myself an appointment for six days later. Appointments are available at 20-minute intervals during the whole day.

The efficiency of Walmart is legendary despite its being a behemoth, just as the inefficiency of the government is legendary because it is a behemoth (and other reasons explored by the economics of public choice).

Yesterday, another Wall Street Journal story described the rollout of Walmart’s Covid-19 vaccination (Sarah Nassauer, “Walmart’s Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout Heads to Small Town,” February 14). To get an idea of “what the weather [is] really like on earth” (le vrai temps qu’il fait sur la terre) to borrow an expression from Saint-Exupéry (in his novel Southern Mail or Courrier Sud), a few quotes from this Wall Street Journal story are useful:

Skowhegan, Maine—Pat and John Thomas were watching the news one night last week when they saw that Walmart in this central Maine town of 8,000 people was taking appointments for the Covid-19 vaccination. They had signed up for shots at a hospital about a month ago but still hadn’t heard back. Ms. Thomas, a 74-year-old retiree, jumped on the computer.

On Friday the couple got the Skowhegan Walmart’s first doses …

Walmart Inc., the U.S.’s largest retailer and private employer, is set to become one of the biggest distributors of the Covid-19 vaccine as the federal government enlists retail pharmacies to accelerate what has been a choppy rollout. …

Walmart is likely to benefit in other ways. Many of the people getting the vaccine at the Skowhegan store Friday didn’t previously have patient profiles in Walmart’s system, said [regional Walmart manager] Mr. Tozier. “We are making relationships with new patients,” he said.

Ann Jackson and her husband, Norman Jackson, 73 and 76 years old respectively, arrived for their vaccine appointment midmorning after waiting for weeks to get an appointment at the local hospital, said Ms. Jackson. Later, she added chips, bananas and T-shirts to her cart. “You never want to waste the trip to Walmart,” she said.

Contrary to what I implied in my previous post, there seem to be incentives enough for private pharmacies, at least those with a Walmart sort of efficient logistics, to administer Covid-19 vaccines when Big Brother releases them.

Such recourse to private enterprise could partly protect us from the central planners in DC and the state capitals. But why give the vaccines to some private organizations but not others—say, to Walmart but not to Hannaford? Is it because the central planners know better where demand is most intense or where low-cost distribution is most likely? That would possibly be a first in the history of mankind.

It would have been much more efficient, from the beginning, if the government had sold the vaccines to whoever was willing to buy them in order to make a profit and had given vouchers to whoever wanted to be vaccinated. After this redistribution of purchasing power, the market—that is, individual demands—would have decided where the vaccines should go.


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