Is Modern Democracy So Modern and How?

The Decline and Rise of Democracy, a new book by David Stasavage, a political scientist at New York University, reviews the history of democracy, from “early democracy” to “modern democracy.” I review the book in the just-out Fall issue of Regulation. One short quote of my review about the plight of modern democracy in America:

[Stasavage] notes the “tremendous expansion of the ability of presidents to rule by executive order.” Presidential powers, he explains, “have sometimes been expanded by presidents who cannot be accused of having authoritarian tendencies, such as Barack Obama, only to have this expanded power then used by Donald Trump.” We could, or course, as well say that the new powers grabbed by Trump will likely be used by a future Democratic president “who cannot be accused of authoritarian tendencies,” or perhaps who might legitimately be so accused.

The book is a book of history and political theory, not a partisan book. But the history of democracy has implications for today. An interesting one is how bureaucracy typically helped rulers prevent the development of democracy. Another quote from  my review—Stasavage deals with imperial China and I compare with today’s America:

At the apogee of the Han dynasty, at the beginning of the first millennium CE, there was one bureaucrat for every 440 subjects in the empire. … In the United States, which is at the low end of government bureaucracies in the rich world, public employees at all levels of government translate into one bureaucrat for 15 residents (about one for 79 at the federal level only).

If you read my review in the paper version of Regulation, beware. I made an error in my estimate for the federal bureaucracy and the printed version says “37” instead of “79”. It is corrected in the electronic version. Mea culpa.

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What Is Populism? The People V. the People

“Populism” has received many definitions and historical interpretations. Some analysts take it simply as a more active form or stretch of democracy, but this may underplay the existence of very different theories and practices of democracy. One analytically useful definition of populism was given by political scientist William Riker in his 1982 book Liberalism Against Democracy. He defines the essence of populism as a political ideal in which the will of the people ought to be public policy: “what the people, as a corporate entity, want ought to be social policy.”

“The people” and “the will of the people” have long been invoked by populists of the right and populists of the left. Carlos de la Torre (University of Florida) summarizes the history of populism in Latin America (see his article of the Oxford Handbook of Populism, 2017):

I understand populism as a Manichaean discourse that divides politics and society as the struggle between two irreconcilable and antagonistic camps: the people and the oligarchy or the power block. Under populism a leader claims to embody the unitary will of the people in their struggle for liberation.

The idea of the will of the people being incarnated in a popular leader was strongly expressed by Hugo Chávez, whom de la Torre quotes as saying:

This is not about Hugo Chávez, this about a people. … I am not an individual, I am the people.

Closer to us, both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren have invoked the will of the people, in a less flamboyant manner:

Elizabeth Warren (quoted by David Frum in The Atlantic, December 2019):
“We have to … have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

 

Donald Trump at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 25, 2019:
“A permanent political class is openly disdainful, dismissive, and defiant of the will of the people.”

Jack Holmes, politics editor at Esquire, who believed that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primaries platform was reasonable, wrote (“The President’s War on Democracy Is a War on the American People,” August 14, 2020), speaking of president Donald Trump:

Since democracy is our mechanism for communicating the will of the people into the laws and policies that govern our lives, this does not merely make the president an enemy of democracy. It makes him an enemy of the people. He ought to recognize the phrase.

Populists of the left and populists of the right invoke the same will of the people against each other. Populism is the people against the people.

Which brings us back to William Riker, who explained, on the basis of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and social choice theory, that the “will of the people” simply does not exist. It does not exist because there is no “the people” to have a will like an individual has. The “will of the people” is a rhetorical device to exploit a large proportion of the individuals who are the only reality under “the people.” The people’s preferences cannot be aggregated into a sort of social superindividual without being either dictatorial or incoherent, which is the essence of Arrow’s theorem. Those who pretend to represent the will of the people, from the French Revolution until 20th-century populist experiments, can only be authoritarian rulers, with or without the legal forms of democracy. (See also my Econlog post “Missing Something About Populism?“)

The tyrannical strand of the French Revolution—there was also a classical-liberal strand, rapidly overcome—was anchored in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who made “the people” and “the will of the people” the foundation of his political philosophy (see his The Social Contract, 1762; see also Graeme Garrard’s short piece, “The Prophet of National Populism“). Rousseau may be the father of modern populism of the left and of the right.

Perhaps this illustrates what John Maynard Keynes wrote at the end of the General Theory:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

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What Is Populism? The People V. the People

“Populism” has received many definitions and historical interpretations. Some analysts take it simply as a more active form or stretch of democracy, but this may underplay the existence of very different theories and practices of democracy. One analytically useful definition of populism was given by political scientist William Riker in his 1982 book Liberalism Against Democracy. He defines the essence of populism as a political ideal in which the will of the people ought to be public policy: “what the people, as a corporate entity, want ought to be social policy.”

“The people” and “the will of the people” have long been invoked by populists of the right and populists of the left. Carlos de la Torre (University of Florida) summarizes the history of populism in Latin America (see his article of the Oxford Handbook of Populism, 2017):

I understand populism as a Manichaean discourse that divides politics and society as the struggle between two irreconcilable and antagonistic camps: the people and the oligarchy or the power block. Under populism a leader claims to embody the unitary will of the people in their struggle for liberation.

The idea of the will of the people being incarnated in a popular leader was strongly expressed by Hugo Chávez, whom de la Torre quotes as saying:

This is not about Hugo Chávez, this about a people. … I am not an individual, I am the people.

Closer to us, both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren have invoked the will of the people, in a less flamboyant manner:

Elizabeth Warren (quoted by David Frum in The Atlantic, December 2019):
“We have to … have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

 

Donald Trump at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 25, 2019:
“A permanent political class is openly disdainful, dismissive, and defiant of the will of the people.”

Jack Holmes, politics editor at Esquire, who believed that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primaries platform was reasonable, wrote (“The President’s War on Democracy Is a War on the American People,” August 14, 2020), speaking of president Donald Trump:

Since democracy is our mechanism for communicating the will of the people into the laws and policies that govern our lives, this does not merely make the president an enemy of democracy. It makes him an enemy of the people. He ought to recognize the phrase.

Populists of the left and populists on the right invoke the same will of the people against each other. Populism is the people against the people.

Which brings us back to William Riker, who explained, on the basis of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and social choice theory, that the “will of the people” simply does not exist. It does not exist because there is no “the people” to have a will like an individual has. The “will of the people” is a rhetorical device to exploit a large proportion of the individuals who are the only reality under “the people.” The people’s preferences cannot be aggregated into a sort of social superindividual without being either dictatorial or incoherent, which is the essence of Arrow’s theorem. Those who pretend to represent the will of the people, from the French Revolution until 20th-century populist experiments, can only be authoritarian rulers, with or without the legal forms of democracy. (See also my Econlog post “Missing Something About Populism?“)

The tyrannical strand of the French Revolution—there was also a classical-liberal strand, rapidly overcome—was anchored in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who made “the people” and “the will of the people” the foundation of his political philosophy (see his The Social Contract, 1762; see also Graeme Garrard’s short piece, “The Prophet of National Populism“). Rousseau may be the father of modern populism of the left and of the right.

Perhaps this illustrates what John Maynard Keynes wrote at the end of the General Theory:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

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Repression of Economic Freedom: The Case of Eggs

There exist some people, usually called “economists,” who have a theory that explains why price ceilings create shortages. Most other people believe that there is no relation between prices and whether shelves are bare or fully stocked. Within this last category, there are those who insist that prices should be prevented from rising when supply decreases or demand increases.

In a recent post (“Why Shortages Are Not More Widespread,” August 17), I wondered why, despite the “price gouging” laws on the books in more than two-thirds of American states (including virtually all the largest ones), shortages were not more widespread; and why prices of meat, poultry, fish, and eggs had been allowed to rise, thereby preventing shortages of them. I wondered if farmers are more immune to the heavy and arbitrary hand of the state.

An article in the Wall Street Journal by agricultural economists Richard Sexton and Daniel Sumner, both at the University of California at Davis, just shed more light on this issue (“New York AG Lays a Rotten Egg,” August 30). At least one large egg producer has been sued. Small farmers, even if they are official favorites of the state, may now yield before the threat they may have thus far ignored.

On August 11, New York Attorney General Letitia James sued Hillandale Farms, a large producer and supplier of eggs based in Ohio, for having “exploited hardworking New Yorkers” and “made millions by cheating our most vulnerable communities and service members.” It committed these horrible sins by letting consumers bid up the price of eggs instead of finding none on what would otherwise have been bare grocery shelves.

New York State’s “price-gouging” law (General Business Law, Section 396-R) states:

During any abnormal disruption of the market for goods and services vital and necessary for the health, safety and welfare of consumers or the general public, no party within the chain of distribution of such goods or services or both shall sell or offer to sell any such goods or services or both for an amount which represents an unconscionably excessive price. …

This prohibition shall apply to all parties within the chain of distribution, including any manufacturer, supplier, wholesaler, distributor or retail seller of goods or services or both sold by one party to another when the product sold was located in the state prior to the sale.

The was amended in June and, as the astute reader may guess, not in order to make it less liberticidal but instead to extend its reach. In the quote above, “or services or both” was added after “goods.”

The petition against Hillandale Farms is presented to the Supreme Court of the State of New York on behalf of “the People,” as if it were some sort of super individual à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A few quotes:

The People of the State of New York (“the People”) …

The NYAG [New York Attorney General] on behalf of the People, alleges upon information and belief …

The People repeat and re-allege paragraphs 1 through 67.

In their Wall Street Journal piece, Sexton and Sumner report that “price gouging”—which is part of the economic freedom to respond to price signals—motivated egg suppliers to expand their production capacity, with the result that by late-April, “though demand remained high, prices in New York and nationally returned to pre-pandemic levels.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, egg prices at the retail level are still about 6% higher than in February, but they are down 11% from their April peak. This is what we would expect: if prices are not effectively capped, they will soar in an emergency and, as suppliers try to profit from these higher prices, more production will be forthcoming, which will eventually push prices back down—although not necessarily to their original level if demand remains higher and long-term marginal production cost increases.

The efficiency of letting prices respond to conditions of supply and demand is involuntarily confirmed by the Attorney General’s own charts, one of which is reproduced below, representing the invoice prices of eggs sold by Hillandale to Stop & Go.

One would think that, in “the country of free enterprise” as we used to say, the president would give the Medal of Freedom to Hillandale Farms and other egg producers who made this happen by increasing their production to profit from high prices. (Let’s keep our dreams under control. The current president understands economics as little as the framers of price-gouging laws: he invoked the Defense Production Act precisely to be able to cap the prices of medical goods and PPE, which is why they remain in shortage, contrary to eggs.) The New York Attorney General shows that economics was not her strong field in college or that she has an illiberal conception of the state or that she is willing to say anything—as can be double-checked in two sections of her petition:

50. Hillandale informed the NYAG that its customers have “agreed to” [sic] Hillandale’s pricing practices.

51. To the extent that any such agreements with its customers purport to allow Hillandale to charge unconscionably excessive prices for eggs during an abnormal market disruption, such provisions are illegal, in violation of public policy, and unenforceable under New York law.

The Attorney General might reply that the New York price-gouging law does not forbid a supplier to charge higher prices if his own suppliers charge him more. She claims that Hillandale faced no such higher cost and she is asking the court to force the company to pay her office all egg sales revenues in New York State over and above what they would have been at the prices prevailing in the 30 days preceding its “price gouging.” She is also asking the court to force the company to “disgorge all profits” (among other penalties). How any profit could be left if her first request is granted is another mystery.

She obviously ignores there is always a cost of doing something, which is the opportunity cost of not doing the next most profitable thing instead. The farmer who caters to more hens could instead work elsewhere or take more leisure. And consider that if everybody is forbidden to charge higher market prices (what purchasers are willing to pay) except those who are faced with higher accounting cost, the ones at the beginning of the supply chain—the farmers in our case—will not increase production and shortages will appear and move the chain up to the final consumer. Finally, who trusts government bureaucrats to calculate a private producer’s costs?

Except to those who prefer allocation by government instead of by the market (despite the experience of Venezuela or the Soviet Union), price controls make no sense. (See also my Econlog post “Good Government Greed, Bad Economic Freedom,” August 12.)

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Philippe Lemoine on Covid-19 conspiracy theories

A great deal of confusing and contradictory information has been written about the events surrounding the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China. Philippe Lemoine has now provided a long and carefully documented account of the early days of the epidemic. This will be followed up with three more installments, discussing conspiracy theories regarding acknowledgement of human-to-human transmission, the origin of Covid-19 (lab or natural), and pandemic data from China.

I approached this piece with a bit of skepticism, as in February I had been highly critical of China’s initial response and I had heard that Lemoine’s account was less critical of China. In fact, his account seems pretty even-handed and I found it persuasive. Here’s one excerpt, summarizing the events of late December 2019:

The truth is that, all things considered, and despite a few mistakes at the end of December, the identification of SARS-CoV-2 as the cause of the outbreak was remarkably fast. It could probably have been identified even faster had the cluster of pneumonia been noticed sooner. According to the New York Times, which relied on Chinese media reports and interviews with former officials, the system created after the SARS epidemic in 2002–04 to detect outbreaks of infectious diseases didn’t work properly. Every suspicious case was supposed to be immediately reported to the national health authorities in Beijing, who employ people trained to detect contagious outbreaks and take steps to suppress them before they spread. This system was created to prevent precisely the kind of political interference that had kept Beijing in the dark and delayed the response at the beginning of the first SARS outbreak in 2002. According to the Times, it didn’t work because the local health authorities insisted on controlling what was reported to Beijing instead of allowing doctors to report the information, as intended. That is why the national health authorities only realized there was a cluster of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan on December 30th, when rumours of SARS began to appear on social media. . . .

Needless to say, bureaucratic ineptitude is hardly unique to authoritarian countries in general, or to China in particular. It is a consequence of human frailty, and the conduct of many countries during this pandemic—including, and perhaps especially, some of the West’s democracies—offers countless examples of bureaucratic incompetence. We’ll probably never know exactly what went wrong in those very early days of the pandemic and who bears personal responsibility for China’s mistakes, because police states do not conduct public inquiries that risk undermining their own legitimacy and authority. We can speculate that, had everything worked exactly as it was supposed to, SARS-CoV-2 might have been identified as the cause of the pneumonia outbreak a few days, or perhaps a week, sooner. But we don’t live in a world without human error, we live in this one.

There are several lessons to be drawn from Lemoine’s research (my interpretation, not necessarily his):

1. My February post suggesting that China was the worst possible place for a Covid-19 epidemic to begin was clearly wrong.  They made mistakes, but no worse than one would expect in most countries.

2.  The US government response to the epidemic was at least as dishonest as the Chinese government response, and far more incompetent.

3.  US government claims of a Chinese Covid-19 conspiracy are false.

This issue is important, as the US government is currently using the alleged Chinese cover-up as one of the excuses for starting a cold war with China.  Recall that the Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War we all based, in part, on false conspiracy theories peddled by the US government.

I eagerly await the next three installments in his series.  I expect Lemoine’s full account to eventually become the definitive history of the initial outbreak.  Read the whole thing.

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What does the UK want from Brexit?

When the UK voted to leave the European Union, many Brexiteers argued that this would allow Britain to move toward free market policies, free of burdensome EU regulations.

Today, the two sides are still engaged in difficult negotiations. Contrary to the arguments made by prominent Brexiteers back in 2016, it’s not at all clear that the EU will agree to a free trade agreement. Interestingly, the sticking point seems to be Britain’s reluctance to follow free market policies:

It is safe to say, though, that any Brexit deal will not fail over fish. The really big issue is what the EU refers to as the level playing field. Within that category, the state aid regime is one of the toughest elements. The EU wants the UK to adopt a legal framework for competition policy that broadly mirrors its own. What the EU fears is a politicised state aid regime where a British government subsidises companies for opportunistic reasons, and thus undermines competition with EU companies. It is highly unlikely UK prime minister Boris Johnson could agree to this.

Here Wolfgang Münchau of the FT is suggesting that Britain’s Conservatives are so eager to start subsidizing their corporations that they are willing to walk away from a free trade deal with the EU rather than forgo that sort of interventionism. Britain has drifted far from the lofty ideals of 2016. But then that’s often how nationalism evolves over time.

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Are the old opposed to progress?

The Economist has an interesting article (focused on UK politics), which suggests that the answer is yes. I’m less sure, but the article is full of interesting tidbits.  Here’s how it begins:

Clive thinks immigration has overwhelmed the health service. Pat says her town is swamped by new housing. Elizabeth voted for Brexit, but doesn’t want a trade deal with America, “especially the pharmaceutical side of it, Trump and his chickens.” So did Kathleen, but she now thinks a no-deal exit will mean shortages of groceries and medicines. “I’m prepared to do without stuff,” she says.

They are part of a focus group organised by NatCen, a social-research institute, studying “affluent eurosceptics”, a Conservative-leaning middle-class tribe. Nearly half the group is over retirement age. They lament their children’s europhilia, their grandchildren’s idleness and the decline of Britain’s industrial prowess. Yet the thread that links their views is a preference for policies that harm growth, and an aversion to those which boost it. . . .

Onward, a think-tank close to the government, reported last year that the old are especially hostile to the “drivers of prosperity in the modern liberal market economy”. They are more likely to agree with statements such as “globalisation has not benefited most people”, “jobs and wages have been made worse by technological change” and “more people living in cities has made society worse.”

On the other side, younger voters tend to be more supportive of socialism, which in my view is a profoundly anti-progress ideology.  Nonetheless, it is striking how older voters have recently shifted on a wide range of issues.  They’ve probably always been more reactionary on social issues such as interracial marriage, gay rights and drug legalization.  But they have also become more skeptical of trade and immigration, and more hostile to building new housing.  Some of this reflects the fact that Nimby policies disproportionately hurt younger voters.

In the UK, older voters favor spending on health care (and pensions) over education. According to The Economist, they seem to have had their way, as spending on health care has risen from 6% to 7% of GDP while spending on education fell from 6% to 4% of GDP. I’m actually not convinced that public education does much to spur growth, but I’m almost certain that additional spending on health care doesn’t boost growth.

Leadership in the UK’s Conservative Party seems more pro-growth than the rank and file.  Recall that Brexit was sold as a way of making the UK a sort of Singaporean free trading nation.  That doesn’t seem to be happening:

Mr Johnson’s plan to offset the costs of Brexit by making Britain a nimbler, globetrotting place is not popular among the old. A trade deal with America will require loosening food regulations, to which pensioners are particularly hostile. Mr Johnson calls himself a Sinophile, but his mps have pushed him into banning Huawei, a telecoms company, from Britain’s fifth-generation (5g) mobile network on security grounds. Older voters, unlike the young, overwhelmingly support the move even if it harms trade with Beijing.

Prime Minister Johnson also seems to have lost out on the housing front:

Mr Johnson’s reforms to the planning system, announced on August 6th, might have threatened their back gardens, but concessions to nimbies ensure that the green belt, which prevents prosperous towns and cities from expanding, remains protected.

In America, the GOP recently bowed to reality, and switched from being an anti-zoning party (at the national level) to a pro-zoning party.

As populations age all over the world, we can expect an increasingly geriatric politics:

Increasingly, Britain is governed in the interests of voters with an insatiable demand for health care and pensions, while a sluggish economy struggles to fund them. But it would take a brave Tory to make the grey voter pay more tax. “Everything I’ve got I’ve earned,” says Kathleen. “The generation under me just seems to expect everything to be given to them.”

That last comment reminds me of amusing signs at Tea Party rallies:

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Mencken’s 100-Year-Old Prediction Realized, Twice

I raised before the question of the limits of civil conversation, the point at which it is legitimate to just laugh at a stupid idea that lacks any serious rational support or is backed by no argument at all, a point at which perhaps even the ad hominem temptation is not totally forbidden. Call a crank a crank. This is a difficult question but we can at least recognize the frequent benefits of free speech from those who step outside those limits while, of course, accepting the right of others to do likewise. Castigat ridendo mores—Correcting mores with laughter—says the motto of the Comédie-Française, an old theatre and theater company.

For the purpose of this post, let me define a moron as an individual who satisfies one of the two following conditions: he thinks that A and non-A can both be true (the anti-logic condition); he prefers X to Y, Y to Z, and Z to X (the intransitive-preferences condition).

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was an elitist libertarian (which, by itself, raises iconoclastic questions) and one of those free speakers who did not always, in his writings, engage in civil conversation. One hundred years ago, in the Baltimore Evening Sun of July 26, 1920, Mencken made a striking prediction, which, barring improbable events, is certain to be realized in less than three months, and for the second time in four years:

As democracy is perfected, the office [of president] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people … On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

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You Will Not Stampede Me

During the last twenty years, I’ve lived through a series of public crises.  9/11.  The Iraq War.  The Great Recession.  The Syrian Refugee Crisis.  ISIS.  Systemic sexism (“MeToo”).  Systemic racism.  And of course COVID-19.

In each case, society’s demands have been the same.

First, hysteria.  We’re all supposed to embrace fear and anger as the leitmotivs of our lives.

Second, herding.  We’re all supposed to not merely refrain from criticizing the popular view, but to fervently join the chorus calling for action.

In each case, I have spurned the demands of society.  I refuse to get hysterical.  I refuse to herd.

For any specific crisis I downplay, strangers usually assume a left- or right-wing motive.  Against the War on Terror?  Leftist*.   Against #MeToo?  Rightist.

Those who know a bit about me suspect libertarian wishful thinking: I pretend the world is fine in order to deny the need for decisive government action.  In that case, though, shouldn’t I grant the severity of the problems – then blame the government?

A better story is that I’m a contrarian.  If most people are incensed about something, I go out of my way to be blasé.  To quote The Misanthrope:

What other people think, he can’t abide;

Whatever they say, he’s on the other side;

He lives in deadly terror of agreeing;

‘Twould make him seem an ordinary being.

Indeed, he’s so in love with contradiction,

He’ll turn against his most profound conviction

And with a furious eloquence deplore it,

If only someone else is speaking for it.

Though I love to read these immortal lines aloud, I deny that they describe me.  My position, rather, is that society is consistently wrong.

Though the details vary, there are two crucial constants: First, hysteria is absurd; second, herding is reckless.

Let me elaborate.  To paraphrase the world’s best graduation speech, trying to figure out what’s going while high on negative emotions is “as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.”  Of course, if you’re the sole person hysterical about your cause, you’ll probably do no harm.  But when lots of people are hysterical in the same way, they generally wreck havoc.

That’s right, I stayed calm on 9/11.  When Americans started calling for blood on 9/12, I saw horrible writing on the wall.  Though not as horrible as the writing turned out – without the Iraq War, we probably wouldn’t have had the Syrian Civil War, ISIS, the refugee crisis, Brexit, or Trump.

Aren’t the public crises I named extremely heterogeneous?  Sure, in some ways.  The Great Recession directly caused massive global harm.  Almost all of the damage of the War on Terror, in contrast, was indirect – the product of a massive overreaction to a statistically tiny evil.  Nevertheless, these diverse public crises also share crucial similarities.  Most notably:

1. Almost no one carefully measures the severity of these crises until the crisis is practically over.  Instead, what drives perceptions is availability bias – well-publicized emotionally gripping anecdotes.  The correlation between these anecdotes and the actual size of the problems is low at best.

2. Almost no one seriously asks, “What, if anything, would be a well-tailored response to this crisis?”  Instead, societies embrace action bias, rushing to “do something,” flailing about wildly, then gradually lose interest until the next crisis.  Perhaps we’re already doing enough about terrorism?  Will invading Iraq will make things worse?  Maybe we shouldn’t collectively punish refugees or males or whites because a few bad apples do awful, dramatic things?  If coronavirus is ten times worse than flu, perhaps we should make ten times as much effort to combat it, not a thousand times?  All reasonable questions, yet impotent in a crisis.

If I were in charge, would I have done so much better?  Though I’m well-aware of my own self-serving bias, I believe I would have done much better.  I wouldn’t have fought the War on Terror, not even in Afghanistan.  I would have met the Great Recession with nominal GDP targeting and labor market deregulation, not bailouts and fiscal stimulus.  I would have welcomed refugees from the Middle East.  I would have enforced existing laws against rape and murder, not start witchhunts for “systemic sexism” or “systemic racism.”  And I would have met coronavirus with moderate caution, not shutdowns or putting ten percent of the workforce on welfare.

Yes, perhaps I’m mistaken about one or two of these crises.  What clear, though, is that society’s method of certifying and addressing crises is deeply defective – and that’s highly unlikely to change.  While I’ve got to live with that, I get a small sense of comfort from staying aloof from the madness.  Staying aloof, and quietly thinking, “You will not stampede me.”

* I have even been publicly accused of being a “communist“!

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Capitalists of the world unite!

This has to be a first:

Now Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters are wielding a new protest weapon: their stock-market trading accounts. To show support for Jimmy Lai, the publisher who was arrested Monday under the city’s new national security law, Hong Kongers have been buying shares of his media network Next Digital Ltd. The result has been a more than 1,000% gain in two days that propelled the stock to a six-year high.

I’m not sure how effective this will be, but I applaud the spirit of these advocates of freedom for Hong Kong.

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