Archive for the Category Utilitarianism


Misleading moralistic macro

Continuing in the theme of cognitive illusions, I’d like to discuss how moralistic reasoning distorts our view of macroeconomics.  Consider the following from

During the recent fight over extending unemployment benefits, conservatives trotted out the shibboleth that says the program fosters sloth. Sen. Judd Gregg, for instance, said added unemployment benefits mean people are “encouraged not to go look for work.” Columnist Pat Buchanan said expanding these benefits means “more people will hold off going back looking for a job.” And Fox News’ Charles Payne applauded the effort to deny future unemployment checks because he said it would compel layabouts “to get off the sofa.”

The thesis undergirding all the rhetoric was summed up by conservative commentator Ben Stein, who insisted that “the people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities.”

Both liberals and conservatives are engaging in moralistic thinking, and both are wrong.  They’re fighting the age-old battle over whether the unemployed are the “deserving poor” vs. the “undeserving layabouts.”  To utilitarians like me, there are no “just deserts,” just more or less utility as a result of various public policy options.

I don’t see any evidence that the unemployment problem is caused by laziness.  Or perhaps I should say that I doubt the work ethic of the recently unemployed is much different from the employed.  There are definitely people who would rather not work if they didn’t have to (like me), especially those with dangerous, dirty, or unpleasant jobs.  Or lots of exams to grade.  But people also like money, and I’d guess the vast majority of unemployed people would rather be back at work.

But the liberals are also wrong; 99 week unemployment insurance probably does modestly raise the unemployment rate.  It’s only natural that a person who loses a fairly good job would like to return to a fairly good job.  A laid off accountant would be foolish to accept a job as a maid, janitor or coal miner.

But the main point of my post is that it’s a big mistake to form opinions about the impact of macro policies on the basis of personal observation, or intuition about human nature.  And that’s because of the fallacy of composition.  If an accountant losses his UI and becomes desperate for work, that doesn’t increase his chances of getting his old accounting job back.  But if every unemployed worker loses his or her UI and becomes desperate for work, it does increase the chances of the accountant getting his job back.  The reasons are complex.

Let’s start by assuming that UI doesn’t affect NGDP, rather the path of NGDP is determined by the Fed.  Of course Krugman and Eggertsson would not agree, they’d argue that less UI would reduce NGDP.  But recent actions by the Fed indicate that they won’t let inflation fall below about 1%, and that also puts a floor on NGDP.  Every time the economy weakens, the Fed does more QE, or at least more talk about future expansionary actions.

If we hold NGDP constant, then how does eliminating UI raise RGDP?  It does so by sharply boosting the supply of labor, which depresses the equilibrium nominal (and real) wage rate.  Workers who are desperate for work now throw themselves onto the job market.  Suppose each worker becomes willing to accept a job paying 40% less than his former job.  This lowers wages at all levels, and for any given NGDP that increases employment.  It is equivalent to a rise in AD.  The accountant who suddenly becomes willing to be a bank teller, paradoxically is more likely to get his old job back, because the general expansion of the economy that results from lower wages leads to a greater need for accountants.  Of course this process wouldn’t work perfectly, but there would be some tendency for employment to increase.

So the liberals are right that the unemployed aren’t lazy, but the conservatives are right that less UI would reduce the unemployment rate.

By now you might have assumed that I am advocating cutting UI.  If so, you are again engaged in moralistic thinking, assuming that someone making a technical argument is actually making a normative argument.  I don’t have strong views on exactly where the UI cut-off should be.  In the long run I’d like to see the system reformed to include more self-insurance, but for right now you can make a respectable argument for keeping UI in place, despite the modest increase in unemployment.  It does reduce suffering in the short term, suffering caused by needlessly contractionary policies instituted by policymakers who may not even know a single unemployed person.  (Oops, now I’m being moralistic.)

One other quick example of the problems with moralistic thinking.  Liberals say cutting the estate tax favors people like Paris Hilton.  Conservatives counter with stories of family businesses that must be sold off to pay the estate tax.  If these were actually the two arguments, I’d go with the liberal view.  I’m a utilitarian who thinks a dollar is worth much more to a poor person that a rich person.  But I want to abolish the inheritance tax precisely because it’s not a tax on the rich; it’s a tax on capital, whereas we should be taxing consumption.  We need a progressive consumption tax.

Part 2:  Always avoid annoying alliteration

I just noticed that my last three posts have been entitled Disinflation denial, Avoid asymmetries, and “Misleading moralistic macro.  I apologize.

Thank God Matt Yglesias is not a Rawlsian

I always thought the Rawlsian minimax principle was rather odd.  Recall that John Rawls once argued that public policies should be implemented if and only if they improved the welfare of those who are worst off in society.  I came up with all sorts of bizarre counterexamples, like what if a public policy massively improved the welfare of the top 99%, but slightly reduced it for the bottom one percent.  Say it made them $2 worse off.  At the time, I never thought my silly thought experiment would ever show up in the data.  Until today.  I found this graph at Matt Yglesias’ blog:

Yglesias argues that this graph shows that the British public did better under the Labour party than under the Conservatives.  He bases that claim on the fact that most of those in the bottom half did better.  I have no problem with that argument; it’s based on solid utilitarian reasoning.

As an aside, I still think the Conservatives did more to improve Britain.  They inherited a country going down the tubes, and made some very painful decisions to shut down a lot of uncompetitive manufacturing and mining.  The made the economy more efficient.  They ended double digit inflation.  These reforms hurt various sectors of the public, but were needed in the long run.  In contrast, Labour inherited an economy in very good shape, and left a fiscal train wreck when they left office in 2010.  And a bad recession.  Notice the data only goes up to 2008—let’s see how it looks in 2 years when we have the full data showing the Labour government’s entire term in office.

But I digress.  My main argument here is that Yglesias is quite rightly ignoring Rawls’ silly maximin principle.  The poorest of the poor didn’t do well under the Conservatives (losing about 0.2%), but they did even worse under Labour, losing 1.1%.  Rawls would clearly vote Conservative, but for the wrong reason.

If I thought this graph actually captured all the effects of government policy, I’d probably vote Labour.  But as I said, my hunch is that Labour was dealt a somewhat better hand.  And I think their record will look worse when extended up to 2010.

In praise of double standards

Bryan Caplan seems to be suggesting that double standards are morally indefensible:

We often have ethical arguments about when it’s morally permissible for us to do seemingly terrible things to them.  Examples:

1. When is it morally permissible for us to deliberately drop a nuclear bomb on their civilians?

2. When is it morally permissible for us to launch an attack that we expect will lead to ten civilian deaths for every target killed?

3. When is it morally permissible for us to torture one of them?

The general conclusion of these discussions – unsurprisingly given group-serving bias – is that it’s morally permissible for us to do almost anything to them.  Sure, there are a few random exceptions – it’s OK to nuke their civilian population, but wrong to waterboard suspects.  (Huh?)  But by and large, we give ourselves a big green light.

At the same time, we almost never have ethical arguments about when it’s morally permissible for them to do terrible things to us.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a debate about:

1. When is it morally permissible for them to deliberately drop a nuclear bomb on our civilians?

2. When is it morally permissible for them to launch an attack that they expect will lead to ten civilian deaths for every target killed?

3. When is it morally permissible for them to torture one of us?

If Caplan is criticizing double standards, then I don’t agree.  Suppose that in 1943 we knew for a fact that dropping a bomb on Germany and Japan, and killing 3,000 civilians, would have caused them to surrender.  Would the act have been morally justified?  I’d say yes, but only because we were fighting the “bad guys.”  On the other hand even if Al Qaeda knew for a fact that killing 3,000 Americans would cause us to surrender, it still wouldn’t be morally justified.  They were fighting the “good guys”  (or for you Chomsky fans, the “less bad guys.”)

Here’s another example.  Suppose I had been drafted into the German Army in 1940, was opposed the war, but was too chicken to refuse to serve.  Would it have been morally justifiable for me to shoot allied soldiers?  Of course not.  The only moral action would have been for me to intentionally shoot over the heads of enemy soldiers.  (Thereby hoping to end the war more quickly.)  On the other hand it would have been completely justifiable for Russian or American soldiers to shoot me.

BTW, here I am considering a separate issue from the validity of “rules of war.”  One can be a “rules utilitarian” and favor rules that apply to good guys and bad guys equally.  But that’s a different question from whether the liberal-minded German draftee is morally justified in shooting at enemy soldiers.

China and the pursuit of happiness

Under Mao Zedong China had a communist system so rigid it made the Soviet Union seem positively capitalist by comparison.  Since then, the Chinese government allowed farmers to control their own plots of land, allowed private rural enterprises, then welcomed $100s of billions in private foreign investment, then allowed private urban entrepreneurs, then privatized urban dwellings, then privatized many state-owned enterprises, and then set up two stock markets.  That’s a lot of capitalism.  Yet it’s also true that the Chinese state still dominates many parts of the economy, owns all the land, and has lots of controls that make it far less market-oriented than a place like Hong Kong.

Let’s suppose neoliberalism works.  What should have happened as a result of all those Chinese reforms.  Here are three choices:

1.  China stays as poor (in relative terms) as in 1976.  Comparable to central Africa, or Bangladesh.

2.  China grows rapidly, but even in 2010 remains much poorer than Mexico.

3.  China grows at explosive rates, and became a fully-developed country by 2010.

Which would be the outcome that would vindicate neoliberalism?  And which would refute it?  I could imagine reasonable people saying #2 would vindicate the neoliberal reforms.  That’s what I’d say, and that’s what happened.  I could imagine someone hostile to capitalism insisting that only #3 would count as success.  But I must admit that until I read this book review from John Gray, I could never have imagined someone arguing that only outcome #1 would vindicate neoliberalism.  At least that’s what I think he is saying.  See what you think:

Disdainful or ignorant of the past, Ridley is uninterested in the forces that shape events. He writes hundreds of pages about the wealth-increasing virtues of free markets, but allots post-Mao China only a few lines. This brevity is symptomatic, as China falsifies Ridley’s central thesis; the largest burst of continuous economic growth in history has occurred without the benefit of free markets. Wealth has been created as never before, not as a result of evolutionary change, but as a product of revolution and dictatorship.

Am I misreading Gray, or is he actually saying that all that growth that followed Mao’s death is evidence that market reforms don’t work?  If I met him I’d love to ask him what sort of outcome for China would count as success for their neoliberal reforms.  I’ve noticed that when people have a strong aversion to a particular ideology, the answer is often a null set.  Is it just me, or do you guys think that if China was still as poor as sub-Saharan Africa, Gray would be using that fact as evidence neoliberal reforms don’t work?

At the opposite extreme, this is from an excellent book review written by Ronald McKinnon:

John Williamson (1990) did all a great favor by writing down the rules for what he called “The Washington Consensus” for developing countries to follow to absorb aid efficiently:

1. Fiscal policy discipline.
2. Redirection of public spending from subsidies (“especially in discriminate subsidies”)
toward broad-based provision of key pro-growth, pro-poor services like primary
education, primary health care, and infrastructure;
3. Tax Reform””broadening the tax base and adopting moderate marginal tax rates:
4. Interest rates that are market determined and positive (but moderate) in real terms;
5. Competitive exchange rates;
6. Trade liberalization””with particular emphasis on the elimination of quantitative
restrictions; any trade protection to be provided by low and relatively uniform tariffs;

7. Liberalization of inward foreign direct investment;
8. Privatization of state enterprises;
9. Deregulation””abolish regulations that impede market entry or restrict competition, except for those justified on safety, environmental and consumer protection grounds, and prudent oversight of financial institutions.
10. Legal security for property rights.

To provide perspective on these ten rules, the year 1990, when Williamson wrote, is important. It was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the complete collapse of confidence in Soviet-style socialism. The rules reflect the hegemonic confidence that most people then had in liberal market-oriented capitalism””think Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But, 20 years later, should the meteoric rise of socialist China””both in its own remarkable growth in living standards, and in the effectiveness of its foreign “aid” to developing countries, undermine our confidence in Williamson’s Washington Consensus?

Surprisingly, no. The Chinese economy itself has evolved step-by-step (feeling the stones) into one that can be reasonably described by Williamson’s 10 rules!

At first glance McKinnon can seem just as out of touch as Gray, albeit in the opposite direction.  After all, we all know that China is following its own “Beijing consensus” which is much more state-led that the US system.  That’s partly true, but McKinnon makes a good case that China is gradually moving in the direction of the Washington consensus, even as we move in the opposite direction.  The book review (which is quite long) also has some very interesting information about China’s involvement in Africa.

McKinnon may be a bit over-optimistic, but he’s much closer to the truth than Gray.  And Gray isn’t just wrong about the China’s economy, he also misses important changes in China’s political system, which is much less based on the whims of a single dictator than Gray suggests.  This book review from The Guardian does a nice job of showing what happens when you really do give absolute power to a single man:

The book’s title is somewhat misleading. Horrific as it was, with its cannibalism and people eating mud in search of sustenance, the famine generated by the Great Leap’s failure and the diversion of labour from farming was only part of a saga of oppression, cruelty and lies on a gargantuan scale. Initially launched to enable China to overtake Britain in steel production, Mao’s programme took on a deadly life of its own. At the apex of the system, the chairman refused to recognise reality, spoke of people eating five meals a day, insisted on maintaining food exports when his country was starving and indulged in macabre throwaway remarks such as: “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”

.   .   .

Finally, somebody had to confront the leader. As China descended into catastrophe, the second-ranking member of the regime, Liu Shaoqi, who had been shocked at the conditions he found when he visited his home village, forced the chairman to retreat. An effort at national reconstruction began. But Mao was not finished. Four years later, he launched the Cultural Revolution whose most prominent victim was Liu, hounded by Red Guards until he died in 1969, deprived of medicines and cremated under a false name.

The Cultural Revolution is widely remembered, the Great Leap much less so. Having gone through those two experiences, not to mention the mass purges that preceded them and the Beijing massacre of 4 June 1989, it is little wonder if the Chinese of today are set on a very different course that rejects ideology in the interests of material self-advancement.

In my view the most important engine of human progress is not science, but rather the growing acknowledgement that governments should be at least somewhat utilitarian.  Not chasing grand dreams of one sort or another, but rather focused mostly on the well-being of the average person.  China’s hardly a model in that regard, but despite all its problems it is definitely moving in that direction.  It’s a pity that Gray doesn’t understand that the dramatic progress he describes has occurred precisely because China is far less dictatorial and far more market-oriented than in the 1970s.

Another person who doesn’t seem to get it is Adam Phillips, who seems positively disdainful of the “pursuit of happiness.”  Oddly, he seems to think the monsters of the 20th century were not out fanatically pursuing glorious crusades, but rather merely engaged in the mundane task of making the German, Russian, Chinese and Cambodian people more comfy:

What exactly might it mean to have an “unalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness”, given that it is fairly obvious that the pursuit of happiness is so morally equivocal – could be, among other things, a threat to the society that promoted it? At first sight it seems to be a pretty good idea; if we are convinced of anything now we are convinced that we are pleasure-seeking creatures, who want to minimise the pain and frustration of our lives. Or at least a “we” could be consolidated around these beliefs. We are the creatures who, possibly unlike any other animal, pursue happiness. But the pursuit of happiness, like the pursuit of liberty – the utopian political projects of the 20th century – has legitimated some of the worst crimes of contemporary history across the political spectrum.

Think about it.  Do you really think Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were trying to make people happier?   Does the description of Mao’s reaction to the famine sound like he’s a utilitarian?

One guy who does get it is V.S. Naipaul:

Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue . . . This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the civilization to so many outside it or on the periphery.  I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition.  It is an elastic idea; it fits all men.  It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit.  So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement.  It is an immense human idea.  It cannot be reduced to a fixed system.  It cannot generate fanaticism.  But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.  (Talk given in 1991)

That’s right, the key word isn’t happiness, it’s ‘pursuit.’  Life should be a sort of adventure.  The philosopher kings that are disdainful of markets and democracy want society to embody their ideas.  The utilitarian says “let 6.7 billion adventures bloom.”

HT:  John Taylor, Tyler Cowen, Robin Hanson

The arrogance of the here and now

And now for something completely different.  I’m bored with the Fed, so I’d like to discuss a few ideas triggered by something I recently ran across in a novel by Javier Marias:

The present era is so proud that it has produce a phenomenon which I imagine to be unprecedented: the present’s resentment of the past, resentment because the past had the audacity to happen without us being there, without our cautious opinion and hesitant consent, and even worse without our gaining any advantage from it.  Most extraordinary of all is that this resentment has nothing to do, apparently, with feelings of envy for past splendours that vanished without including us, or feelings of distaste for an excellence of which we were aware, but to which we did not contribute, one that we missed and failed to experience, that scorned us and which we did not ourselves witness, because the arrogance of our times has reached such proportions that it cannot admit the idea, not even the shadow or mist or breath of an idea, that things were better before.  No, it’s just pure resentment for anything that presumed to happen beyond our boundaries and owed no debt to us, for anything that is over and has, therefore, escaped us.  It has escaped our control and our manoeuvrings and our decisions, despite all these leaders going around apologising for the outrages committed by their ancestors, even seeking to make amends by offering offensive gifts of money to the descendants of the aggrieved, regardless of how gladly those descendants may pocket those gifts and even demand them, for they, too, are opportunists, an eye on the main chance.  Have you ever seen anything more stupid or farcical: cynicism on the part of those who give, cynicism on the part of those who receive.  It’s just another act of pride: how can a pope, a king or a prime minister assume the right to attribute to his Church, to his Crown or to his country, to those who are alive now, the crimes of their predecessors, crimes which those same predecessors did not see or recognize as such all those centuries ago?  Who do our representatives and our governments think they are, asking forgiveness in the name of those who were free to do what they did and who are now dead?  What right have they to make amends for them, to contradict the dead?  If it was purely symbolic, it would be mere oafish affectation or propaganda.  However, symbolism is out of the question as long as there are offers of “compensation”, grotesquely retrospective monetary ones to boot.  A person is a person and does not continue to exist through his remote descendants, not even his immediate ones, who often prove unfaithful; and these transactions and gestures do nothing for those who suffered, for those who really were persecuted and tortured, enslaved and murdered in their one, real life: they are lost forever in the night of time and in the night of infamy, which is doubtless no less long.  To offer or accept apologies  now, vicariously, to demand them or pro-offer them for the evil done to victims who are now formless and abstract, is an outright mockery of their scorched flesh and their severed heads, of their pierced breasts, of their broken bones and slit throats.  Of the real and unknown names of which they were stripped or which they renounced.  A mockery of the past. No, the past is simply not to be borne; we cannot bear not being able to do anything about it, not being able to influence it, to direct it; to avoid it. And so, if possible, it is twisted or tampered with or altered, or falsified, or else made into a liturgy, a ceremony, an emblem and, finally, a spectacle, and simply shuffled around and changed so that, despite everything, it at least looks as if we were intervening, even though the past is utterly fixed, a fact we choose to ignore.  And if it isn’t, if that proves impossible, then it’s erased, suppressed, exiled or expelled, or else buried.  And it happens, Jacobo, one or the other of these things happens all too often because the past doesn’t defend itself, it can’t.

I love this passage, especially the final sentence.  It also touched off a train of thought, or perhaps I should say resentments, that go back to my childhood.

As a schoolboy I always resented the unspoken assumption that we were right and that every other time and place was wrong.  Even if we romanticized some aspect of the past, or some exotic culture in a faraway country, we were always implicitly flattering some aspect of  ourselves.  At first I was drawn to science fiction, as a way of escaping the here and now.  As I got older I became more interested in history, and in travel literature.  The more exotic the better.

As an adult I have mostly come to terms with our culture, but still am very annoyed by the way we think about other times and places.  History is increasingly seen as nothing more than victims and villains, especially by liberals.  Conservatives see the future as a sort of dystopian nightmare, at least if the residents of future worlds have the temerity to discard our value system.  We have obviously achieved perfection, even though every previous generation before us was morally flawed.  I don’t know whether future citizens will embrace designer babies, or cryonics, but that’s there decision, isn’t it?  Our ancestors would be shocked by gay marriage, or the fact that we routinely wager on the death of our spouse, where a “win” occurs if the spouse dies.

[For those who don’t know, our ancesters understood that life insurance was morally revolting.]

If I ever became well-known then future people would look back at me and be disgusted by some aspect of my life.  “Sumner was a decent economist; pity about the meat-eating.”

And then there are foreign cultures.  We like to pride ourselves with our love of “diversity,” but how many people enjoy living in a world where others don’t share their moral intuitions?  When we read this in the NYT:

We asked to see Jovali’s parents. The dad, Georges Obamza, who weaves straw stools that he sells for $1 each, is unmistakably very poor. He said that the family is eight months behind on its $6-a-month rent and is in danger of being evicted, with nowhere to go.

The Obamzas have no mosquito net, even though they have already lost two of their eight children to malaria. They say they just can’t afford the $6 cost of a net. Nor can they afford the $2.50-a-month tuition for each of their three school-age kids.

“It’s hard to get the money to send the kids to school,” Mr. Obamza explained, a bit embarrassed.

But Mr. Obamza and his wife, Valerie, do have cellphones and say they spend a combined $10 a month on call time.

In addition, Mr. Obamza goes drinking several times a week at a village bar, spending about $1 an evening on moonshine. By his calculation, that adds up to about $12 a month “” almost as much as the family rent and school fees combined.

I asked Mr. Obamza why he prioritizes alcohol over educating his kids. He looked pained.

Don’t we say to ourselves:  “Oh dear, I’d never behave that way.”  As if we know how we’d behave if we were a poor villager in some God-forsaken part of the Congo.

I suppose people will think I am advocating moral relativism.  Actually I am not making any sort of moral argument, my argument is aesthetic.  I am celebrating the existence of times and places that are rich and strange worlds unto themselves, whether it be 17th century Venice, 18th century Tahiti, 19th century London, or 21st century Tokyo.

I hate how our discussions of “the far” always implicitly assume that we are right and they are wrong.  If East Asian culture is more puritanical than us in some respects, we are to believe that they are Objectively Wrong.  And if in other respects the very same society is less puritanical, well they are also Objectively Wrong in those practices.  Thus I find it refreshing to read travel literature like this from Lawrence Osborne:

I got a lift with John Purdoe back to Sukhumvit, and in the car he told me why he, too, was exiled in Bangkok, though he had never expected to be.  A Jewish boy from Brooklyn working closely with a Catholic priest in a Buddhist slum in Southeast Asia.

“I just wish sometimes I could talk to someone about Isaac Bashevis Singer.  I wish I could talk to someone who’s actually heard of Isaac Bashevis Singer.  But who can I do this with?  There’s no literary culture here.  It’s embryonic.  It’s the one thing that bothers me.  One has to do without that.”

At this very moment, a bike shot by with two Thai girls perched behind the driver.  It was lightly raining and they held two banana colored umbrellas above their identical haircuts.  As they glided past his window they shot John a declarative, sultry, all-the-sex-you-want smile.  For the scholarly-looking boy from Brooklyn, it was enough,

“And then that happens.  You get that come-hither look.  Spontaneous, for no reason, just like that.  Woman to man.  No, no come-hither looks in Brooklyn.  That’s what keeps me here, apart from the work with father Joe.  The come-hither look.  It makes your day.  Perhaps you find that foolish.”

‘Not at all.  It’s like being surrounded by open doors.  You aren’t going to walk through them, but they’re open all the same.”

“Exactly.  It makes you feel alive.  Here, you are alive.  This is the most alive place on earth.  Even if it doesn’t have Isaac Bashevis Singer.  And even if our women wouldn’t understand in a million years.”

Wouldn’t they, though?  I have met plenty of farang women who love Bangkok precisely because it’s the only city in which they aren’t constantly harassed.  No one even looks at them.  They can wander the three-a.m. bars with total anonymity, impunity, for once in their lives reduced to the status of sexual ghosts.  As for the Gloria Steinem brigade—well, what was the point of even trying.  There was no pleasing them about anything.  They were not inclined to consider the question of sex as anything but a problem of crime.  And I thought of all those “hard-hitting exposes” you see in the Bangkok Airport about the sex business, consisting of interviews, economic analyses, and political laments, and I wondered why I never found this type of enquiry particularly enlightening.  Perhaps because it contains so few surprises.  Perhaps because we are invited so crudely to disapprove and wring our hands.

There is social science and there is literature.  Two totally different and incommensurable ways of apprehending the world.  I am a social scientist, and a utilitarian to boot.  The ultimate do-gooder.  I suppose some will be outraged by what seems like moral relativism.  “Why shouldn’t all societies follow our utilitarian values?”  Umm, since when are we utilitarians?  Which Western nation has followed Iran’s policy of saving thousands of lives by allowing the sale of organs?

I’m all for making the world a better place; but please, let’s not mix moral and aesthetic judgments.  And I wish we could be a bit less arrogant in our belief that our values are obviously better than those of the past, those of the future, and those of other cultures.

We all live in our own worlds and we all do the best we can; even when we are failing to do the best we can.

PS.  Readers:  Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.  I feel ready to return to economics.  BTW, don’t be fooled by the cover of the Osborne book, it’s G-rated.

PPS.  The Congo article reminded me of this Robin Hanson post.

PPPS.  And I forgot to mention bias against other generations.  Being the father of a little girl, I am frequently asked how I’ll deal with my daughter’s adolescence, as if it is some sort of horrible affliction.  “Aren’t you worried . . . ”   There’s an interesting question here.  I suppose young people may underestimate the risks of certain types of behavior, and nervous middle-aged parents overestimate those risks.  But who is further from the truth?

Am I really claiming that young people might be more mature than we are?  Of course not.   Seven-year olds rarely hold grudges for more than a few hours.  I know adults who react to a real or imagined slight by holding a grudge for decades.  Young people simply don’t have the discipline or maturity to persevere in that way.