Nonsense on stilts

It turns out that my recent post on finance did not satiate my urge to make counter-intuitive arguments.  So today I’d like to argue that happiness is unrelated to utility, that you should try to purchase a house next door to a child molester, and that the US government first impoverished our banking system, and then took advantage of its weakened state with predatory lending.  (After all, if Michael Pettis can sell out his blog readers for a cushy job in banking, why can’t I?)

Part 1.  What if utility and happiness are unrelated?

Imagine a country called “Lanmindia,” where much of the population has seen its legs blown off in horrible accidents.  Does that sound like a pretty miserable place?  Happiness research suggests not.  The claim is that there is a sort of natural “set-point” for happiness, and that after winning a lottery one is happy for a short time, and then you revert right back to your natural happiness level.  I find that plausible.  They also claim that if someone loses a limb, then they are unhappy for a short period and then revert back to normal.  I find that implausible, but if the evidence says it is the case then I guess I need to accept that.

My claim is that although Lanmindia is just as happy as America, it has much lower utility.  Let’s define ‘utility’ as “that which people maximize.”  People very much don’t want to have their legs blown off, and hence emigrate from Lanmindia in droves.  People behave as if they care about utility, not happiness.

Do I have any proof?  No, but I’ll provide two pieces of evidence, one macro and one micro.  The Economist recently did an absolutely heartrending story about the plight of undocumented farm-workers in California.  I wish I could quote the entire piece, as the cumulative effect is very powerful, but space constraints limit me to a shorter passage:

Farm work has, for most crops, become no easier since Steinbeck’s day. Strawberries, the crop the Vegas started out with, are nicknamed la fruta del diablo (the devil’s fruit) because pickers have to bend over all day. “Hot weather is bad,” says Felix Vega, but “cold is worse” because it makes the back pain unbearable. Even worse is sleet or rain, which turns the field into a lake of mud. The worst is picking while having the flu.

Every crop exacts its own particular discomfort, as this correspondent discovered on an August day picking grapes in the very part of the San Joaquin Valley where Steinbeck’s Joad family looked for work. Working with two Mexican brothers and a young Mexican couple, he cut the grapes, collected them in tubs and periodically dumped them into a wagon pulled by a tractor.

The lanes between vines are exactly as wide as the tractor, so the little group had to duck into and underneath the vines all day long. They crawled alongside the tractor, trying to avoid having their feet run over. Within hours this correspondent’s shins were bleeding as the wagon’s metal protrusions slammed into them, which seemed unavoidable. With an encouraging smile, a co-worker pulled up a trouser leg to reveal his own scarred shin.

Because the pickers were squatting or kneeling under the vines and twisting to reach up for the grapes (the low-hanging fruit proving the trickiest), their necks and shoulders were soon in agony. Standing up to relieve their backs thrust their heads into the vines, which are covered in pesticides. There are many cases of birth defects and cancer in the families of farmworkers. But as the heat climbed above 100°F (about 40°C), the vines, soaked in toxins or not, became allies. The air underneath them is stagnant, as in a sauna, but their foliage is the only available shade.

Just as the heat threatened to overwhelm this correspondent, the woman in the group broke into a slow Mexican song, which somehow helped. But heatstroke is common in the fields. In 2008 Maria Isavel Vasquez Jiminez, a 17-year-old Mexican girl who was pregnant, collapsed while picking grapes and died two days later.

Hungry amid food

As Tom Joad in Steinbeck’s novel discovered, many farmworkers, even as they spend their waking hours picking food for others, can barely afford to eat. Between harvests they have no work. When they do work, their wages are meagre. The workers picking grapes with this correspondent got $8 an hour. That is vastly superior to the $9 a day””not hour””which the tractor driver says he used to get at home in Mexico. But costs in the United States are higher too.

You should read the entire piece, as there is 5 times more of this woe.  At the end, the reporter asks the following question:

Teresa, Felix and Gonzalo Vega only nod sadly when asked about the rancour, the Arizona law, the politics. They feel they had no choice in coming illegally. Would they do it again? “No, not if I had known what lay ahead,” says Felix. But after a silence, he corrects himself. Yes, he would, because even though he doesn’t think he’ll ever get papers, he has two sons who are American and could be lawyers or writers one day, living openly.

Teresa Vega is the most reticent. She admits that her “plan didn’t work”. She hears that Erminio, at home in Oaxaca, is not doing well. He is often ill. “He needs love” and doesn’t get enough, she says. But then she, too, reverses herself. She always thinks of her first son, the one who died because she had no money to save him. Yes, she would come again.

If the life described in this piece is accurate, then life in Mexico must be an absolute living hell.  Why else would millions of desperate Mexicans endure the following to try to reach those California fields?

Once they walked all night through the desert of Arizona, slashing themselves on fences of barbed wire and running out of water, before border-patrol agents ambushed them. The agents tied them up, shouted at them, threw them into a van and then into a freezing jail, where they slept on a bare floor for several nights until enough migrants had been rounded up to fill a bus that took them back to the Mexican side.

On another crossing Mexican bandits waylaid them. They pointed guns, stole their food and stripped them naked. Because the Vegas speak an indigenous language called Mixtec and understand little Spanish (and no English), Mr Vega’s wife and the other women did not understand the bandits and feared they would be raped. They were not, but then had to cross the frigid night desert without clothes, food or water, until la migra caught them again.

Gonzalo Vega, yet another cousin, made the trip with his wife, five months pregnant, and his two younger brothers, who were seven and ten at the time. He carried all their water and food, but the children struggled. After a day and two nights of walking they were desperate for sleep, but Gonzalo didn’t let them rest in the freezing cold lest they not wake up again. He could not light a fire, because la migra would have seen it.

They threw themselves into ditches whenever the border patrol’s SUVs approached. Once Mr Vega’s wife fell hard onto her bulging belly. The worst moment came when la migra caught them again, beat Gonzalo and threatened to take his brothers away from him. When the family was allowed to remain together, even the cold jail floor felt good, he recalls. Gonzalo’s group succeeded on the fifth try.

So just imagine how bad Mexico must be.  Even worse, income in Mexico is highly unequal, with a tiny elite of wealthy and many poor people.  Yet it turns out that if Mexico is a living hell, it is an extremely happy living hell.  Robin Hanson recently cited research that shows Mexico is the second happiest country on Earth.  I claim that Mexico is a country with very low utility, full of very happy people.  Think of ‘happiness’ as “personality,” and think of ‘utility’ as “living conditions.”

Many bloggers have been commenting on a NYT piece where a Chinese mom explains the rigorous upbringing she imposed on her children.  Bloggers as diverse as Matt Yglesias and Bryan Caplan suggested that this type of mother was quite cruel.  Define ‘cruelty.’  My hunch is that these mothers lower their children’s utility, but don’t make them unhappy.  My evidence?  My daughter has a Chinese mom who makes her take all sorts of lessons, and she seems 10 times happier than I was as a kid with enormous freedom.  How’s that for a scientific study?

So what are the policy implications, should government officials try to maximize happiness or utility?  I’m a utilitarian, so naturally I favor utility.  Do you really want to defend a policy goal that implies there’s little point in clearing land mines from Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, because happiness always reverts to a set-point?  I dare you to see the movie Turtles Can Fly, and then insist happiness matters more than utility.  (Note that this view doesn’t really conflict with Caplan and Yglesias, although I probably left that impression above.)

One last point.  It is true that richer countries tend to be happier.  Does that disprove my set-point theory?  No; countries full of happy people tend to be more civic-minded, as depressed people are resentful of others.  Civic-minded cultures tend to produce governance that is relatively free market and non-corrupt.  Denmark is the happiest of all developed countries, the most civic-minded of all developed countries, the least corrupt of all developed countries, and the most free market of all developed countries.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  And yet my theory doesn’t work for developing countries, and I have no idea why.

Part 2.  Why you should move next door to a child molester.

Economists have known for years that deaf people should move right next door to an airport.  The noise won’t bother them, and the house will be much cheaper.  Recent research by Scott Wentland, Raymond Brastow, and Bernie D. Waller Jr. suggests that families without children should move next door to child molesters.  Why?  Because houses are much cheaper, indeed $14,340 cheaper if within 0.1 miles of a child molester in rural Virginia.  I met Scott at the recent AEA meetings, and he talked me into attending his presentation.  I’m glad I did, as I had no idea such bargains were available.  Afterwards Scott told me that he had also been surprised by the large effect, but when he started talking to other people he found that women were especially likely to check the registry of sexual offenders before buying a house in a given neighborhood.

Of course if you actually have young children you might want to live somewhere else.  And even if you don’t, you might want to move two or three houses away from the molester–at least if it gives you a creepy feeling to look out the window and see him (it’s usually a man) barbecuing in the back yard.

Part 3:  Poor, poor, pitiful banks.

Consider the following.  The Fed spots a weakened banking system in mid-2008, and then pounces in for the kill.  They engineer the biggest drop in NGDP since 1938.  More importantly, they drastically reduce NGDP expectations for the out years.   This sharply reduces asset prices and causes a severe banking crisis.  Then in late 2008 and early 2009 they snap up all sorts of financial assets from the weakened banking system at rock bottom prices.  Between early 2008 and early 2009 IMF estimates of banking losses nearly triple, as NGDP growth expectations plummet.  But the worst doesn’t happen and we don’t have another depression.  Instead the Fed begins QE in March 2009, and NGDP expectations start rising.  As they do so the estimated losses to the banking system fall back to more modest levels (again using IMF data.)

Then reports start coming in that the Treasury may actually make a profit from the TARP program, as they forced banks to pay interest on the loans received from the government.  Those banks that did not want to participate were given an “offer they could not refuse.”  At first is seems impossible that the government could profit from these “bailouts,” and people looked for other possible losses outside of TARP, such as the Fed’s purchases of toxic assets.  But then it’s is reported that the Fed made record profits of $47.4 billion in 2009.  It looks like the Fed made some great deals.  Then the doubters claimed that the Fed’s losses would show up once the economy started to recover.  But just yesterday the following obscene profits were reported by the Fed:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve is paying a record $78.4 billion in earnings to the U.S. government, reflecting gains from the central bank’s unconventional efforts to lift the economy.

The payment to the Treasury Department for 2010 is the largest since the Fed began operating in 1914. It surpasses the previous record $47.4 billion paid in 2009, the Fed said Monday.

The bigger payment mostly came from more income generated by the Fed’s massive portfolio of securities, which includes Treasury debt and mortgage securities.

My more progressive readers will notice that the US government committed almost every imaginable financial sin:

1.  Insider trading.  The Fed waited until things looked very bad, and asset prices were at rock bottom before pouncing.  They knew that they were not going to allow a depression, and then engineered a recovery right after the purchases, through a policy of QE.

2.  They charged usurious interest rates in the bailout, taking advantage of the weakened position of impoverished and desperate banks, just like payday lenders.

Here’s my question:  What should we taxpayers do with this huge windfall received from the banking industry?  Should the Fed profits of nearly $80 billion be used to pay off the national debt, or fund new entitlement programs?  And is it fair to extract so much wealth from the banking industry at a time when they were already seeing a sharp increase in loan defaults?  The Finreg bill has a consumer protection agency, how about a banker protection agency to protect banks from predatory lending by the government?  And is there a moral hazard problem here, with the government not vigilant enough in preventing financial crises, knowing it can profit handsomely during a crisis by taking advantage of weakened banks.

PS.  I was just kidding about Michael Pettis, he is doing great work nurturing alternative rock bands in Beijing, such as The Carsick Cars.  I’m glad he found extra funding.

PPS.  I am actually serious about two of these three posts, can you guess which ones?  (The other is just to annoy people.)

PPPS.  I’ll do another post soon describing my panel (with DeLong) at the recent AEA convention.

PPPPS.   Traumatic events make people say and do some really foolish things.  (I know; I’ve been there myself.)  Exhibit A is the attempt by some progressive bloggers to blame loudmouth Republicans for the recent tragedy in Tucson.  They did the same in 1963, until it was discovered that the killer of JFK was a leftist, not a conservative.  It would not surprise me if we eventually find out that the nut in Tucson was not a loyal fan of Rush Limbaugh.  The populist right should be held accountable for bad policy, not political violence.



75 Responses to “Nonsense on stilts”

  1. Gravatar of Ryan M Ryan M
    11. January 2011 at 15:38

    I hope the one you’re kidding about is the third part. Those “profits” are just accounting magic, right? I thought it took on a ton of toxic assets that aren’t correctly accounted for on its balance sheet.

  2. Gravatar of Dirk Dirk
    11. January 2011 at 16:00

    “And yet my theory doesn’t work for developing countries, and I have no idea why.”

    Happiness studies have shown that money does matter for happiness, but only up to about $15,0000 a year. Mexico’s per capita GDP is almost that. Lanmindia might be an unhappy place if their economy was too crippled.

  3. Gravatar of Dirk Dirk
    11. January 2011 at 16:01

    I meant $15K

  4. Gravatar of Dirk Dirk
    11. January 2011 at 16:51

    I’ve grown suspicious over the happiness ratings by country. Different surveys show vastly different results and the stats change from year to year more than seems reasonable. The $15K threshold theory I quoted is inconsistent with a lot of the country rankings, yet I don’t know if this means that the $15K theory — derived from worldwide surveys — is more or less accurate than the country rank surveys.

    Ultimately, set-point theory seems pretty compelling, and I’ve been blogging about it a while (in an unscientific fashion).

  5. Gravatar of Thorfinn Thorfinn
    11. January 2011 at 16:55

    With Part 2, you have the difficulty of re-selling the home after you leave, so in terms of a financial investment it may be a wash (unless you really enjoy the benefits of cheaper housing).

  6. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    11. January 2011 at 17:09

    Ryan, Yes, the third, but not in the way you suggest. I believe the government is actually benefiting from the bank bailout, but they will lose money bailing out F&F&FDIC.

    The fake part is my moral outrage at the poor banks being taken advantage of by the government. I oppose laws banning payday lending and insider trading, so I certainly don’t care if the government does it. (And I might add that Congressional staffers can legally do insider trading, so obviously the government also sees it as OK.)

    I also don’t think the Fed intentionally drove down NGDP to impoverish banks–that was all spoof. Of course what actually happened was observationally equivalent.

    Dirk, I mostly agree, except newer research shows it doesn’t level off at $15,000. Rather it is roughly log linear and keeps rising all the way up to the richest countries. (I think Wolfers did this research, but am not sure.)

    You are right that Mexico isn’t all that poor, but it is very unequal, and that is also surprising in light of the high levels of happiness.

    Thorfinn, Two comments:

    1. Yes, I definitely enjoy the benefits of cheaper housing. My next house (which will be in West LA,) will be my last. I want to get all the house I can.

    2. The molester is likely to leave before you (assuming both you and him have average duration), thus producing not only a cheap house, but a capital gain.

  7. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    11. January 2011 at 17:28

    ‘My next house (which will be in West LA,)…’

    You’re leaving Bentley?

  8. Gravatar of Indy Indy
    11. January 2011 at 17:51

    1. I think “happiness” has different meanings for different people, and would tend to vary from culture to culture. Is it Charles Murray’s “lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole” or “momentary contentedness” or “current psychological state” or … what?

    I think my friends, if you were to ask them if they were “happy” would think about the question in diverse ways – some giving a kind of instant evaluation of “at this point in time, I don’t feel blue or stressed out” and some thinking quite deeply about it in terms of life direction, future plans, past regrets, pressures and frustrations vs joys and hopes, changes they would like to make, etc… It would be a very poor poll of them to ask them such an over-simple question that hides so much granular difference in the way they react to it.

    Also, if there is any genetic component to one’s average emotional disposition (don’t you know people who seem to be born into a type – that are always cheery, even when they “ought” to be depressed, or always glum, even when they “ought” to be delighted?), then one would expect the average answers to be different from one group to another.

    As far as what people are maximizing (defined as “utility”), you would have to ask people, when given some options, “Why are you making this particular choice?” And they would answer, “I prefer it”. Why do you prefer it? “I think my life would be better making that choice.” “What do you mean by ‘better’?” At this point it’s getting awfully circular, but a “way out” could be “I mean that I expect I would experience that scenario in a superior way to what I expect from the others.” “What do we call the pursuit of scenarios of superior experiences?” The pursuit of happiness?

    “What would happen if I were to take that choice away and you had to pick a less desirable option? “I would be upset.” What if I restored your preferred option? “I would be …


    I don’t think you will be able to distinguish choices that people are making to “maximize utility” from choices that they are making to “maximize happiness”, even if they often are incorrect-to-the-upside about their actual future level of happiness. Don’t the ancient philosophers often mention the ironies and paradoxes and human follies of people who think they are pursuing happiness but frequently fail because they don’t really understand what will make them happy?

    So maybe utility and happiness are different, but “expected marginal utility” and “estimated marginal happiness” are the same – it’s just that the internal intuitive model most people use to estimate changes in happiness is flawed – because they don’t really understand the real nature of their own happiness, at least, not sufficiently to make predictions and, inductively from those predictions, to make truly happiness-maximizing choices.

    Maybe the thing people are really maximizing is the dictates of their own self-delusions. If so – should the education system be more concerned with helping people have better personal-happiness-estimator models – maybe with personality tests or some such? Plenty of food for thought.

    2. There are a lot of fun law-school examples of houses the price of which become spoiled by infamy, or some horrible or tragic event (or even legend, i.e. a haunting) – either in the house or nearby. The Jon-Benet Ramsey house in Colorado was an example – it sold for a considerable discount on the prevailing rate, if I remember correctly.

    3. Hank Greenberg has a cri-de-coeur in the WSJ (you can do the google trick to get past the wall) about the nationalization of AIG that is remarkable close to your position. Probably only one of you is serious, and I think it’s him.

  9. Gravatar of marcus nunes marcus nunes
    11. January 2011 at 18:19

    “Part 3” reversed:U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in a letter to Sen. Bernard Sanders, defended emergency actions the Fed took to stem the financial crisis and disputed allegations of conflict-of-interest issues at the Fed. ( Read the full letter.)

  10. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    11. January 2011 at 18:58

    Patrick, When I retire in about 6 years.

    Indy, I don’t like Murray’s definition, as I don’t think anyone is capable of grasping their “life as a whole.”

    I did like this comment from you, which might be about right:

    “So maybe utility and happiness are different, but “expected marginal utility” and “estimated marginal happiness” are the same – it’s just that the internal intuitive model most people use to estimate changes in happiness is flawed – because they don’t really understand the real nature of their own happiness, at least, not sufficiently to make predictions and, inductively from those predictions, to make truly happiness-maximizing choices.”

    Marcus, Thanks, it is interesting that they reported banks quickly repaid TALF loans in order to get cheaper financing elsewhere. It supports my “usury” argument. 🙂

  11. Gravatar of Mark A. Sadowski Mark A. Sadowski
    11. January 2011 at 19:30

    I hope you enjoyed the AEA conferance. I chose not to attend because I didn’t really have the means this year (I wish I was a millionaire like you). Next year will be different (God willing). Someday I’ll meet you and others face to face.

    Yes, I’m the insane nut next door according to my neighbors. I have my father’s sharpshooting rifles in my attic and I fully know how to operate them accurately (much thanks to my father). But I haven’t looked at them over 9 years (since he died). I have absolutely no interest in shooting anyone in the head. This incident absolutely sickened me (especially since I’m a Democrat).

    What distressesd me with this incident is that people will think mental illness implies the urge to actual violence. This is not the case. Most mentally ill people are perfectly harmless.

  12. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    11. January 2011 at 19:45

    A couple of things.

    1) The FED made money on the S&L bailout as well.

    2) I think you can make an argument that what happened on a lot of the assets was not so much that their price went down but that they lost liquidity. Liquidity is measured by the spread between the bid and the offer. Most of the assets were always going to return a hundred cents on the dollars but their trading price went from a bid offer of 98-99 to a bid offer of 28-99. The FED was able to buy a lot of stuff near the bid price. A guy from AIG told me at the start of the crisis that they would not lose anything on the assets if they held them to maturity, the only problem was the need to put up collateral on mark to market of quoted prices.

  13. Gravatar of Full Employment Hawk Full Employment Hawk
    11. January 2011 at 19:45

    “Farm work has, for most crops, become no easier since Steinbeck’s day. Strawberries, the crop the Vegas started out with, are nicknamed la fruta del diablo (the devil’s fruit) because pickers have to bend over all day.”

    The real problem for economics to deal with is that technology exists to have most of this backbreaking work done by machines operated by machine operators sitting in air conditioned cabs. The only reason the work is still done in this lo tech way is that the cheap, largelyh illegal, immigrant labor makes it more efficient. The failure of Mexico to have become a wealthy nation where their people do not feel the need to risk their lives to do such backbreaking work is a major puzzle that economists working in economic development need to solve.

  14. Gravatar of Dirk Dirk
    11. January 2011 at 20:27

    I admit I read carelessly and missed some of your irony regarding set-point theory the first time, particularly since Hanson has no trace of irony. He goes off on EMs and it gets hard to keep track of who is being serious very quickly.

    I believe set-point theory is true as a generality for the reason that one’s sociability, which is a key factor in happiness, doesn’t change much over the course of their lives. But losing a leg in a land-mine is likely to put a damper on your social life. Stephen Hawking, because of his unique ability, was able to maintain an active social life despite his physical condition and therefore lead a life about as happy as he would have if he’d stayed healthy.

    I suspect Hanson’s EMs are going to be pretty unhappy.

    Obviously there are other variables to happiness than sociability (money, etc.), but I think sociability is the key to set-point theory and mostly explains where, why, and how it holds and where it doesn’t.

    The trouble with all this happiness stuff is that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

  15. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    11. January 2011 at 20:49

    As for the strawberry pickers…. there is no loss in happiness since that is a constant and not a variable….. and they made the choice to come to the U.S. to work (and would do it again in hindsight) ergo net increase in utility. So what is the issue?

  16. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    11. January 2011 at 22:37

    I say we use it as a downpayment on all the money we’re gonna lose in fannie and freddie….

  17. Gravatar of Mark A. Sadowski Mark A. Sadowski
    12. January 2011 at 00:25

    …especially as it was all a result of the big bankstas bets. See you in the funny papers.

  18. Gravatar of Wm Wright Wm Wright
    12. January 2011 at 01:17

    Not quite subliminal:

    “In the recent election campaign Arizona’s District 26 House candidate Terri Proud posed with a group of women holding firearms. Here’s an ad on the Pima County Republican website (now scrubbed), placed by Giffords’ opponent, Kelly, in the recent election.” (Sat. 6/12/10 10:00 am)

    “Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Garrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 . . . ”

    ‘Nuf said”

  19. Gravatar of Dirk Dirk
    12. January 2011 at 01:22

    If Hanson’s EMs have human replica brains and robot bodies (or no bodies), they are going to want to have sex with human women. If human girls aren’t into that, the EMs are going to be pretty miserable.

  20. Gravatar of Andrew Andrew
    12. January 2011 at 06:26

    How will the government lose money “bailing out” the FDIC? Its budget comes from premiums paid for by the banks. If anything, you could argue that it was predatory like the Fed. Not a single penny has been given to the FDIC by the Treasury.

  21. Gravatar of OGT OGT
    12. January 2011 at 06:31

    If the recent log-linear research on international comparisons you are referring to is the same paper I saw they were referring to ‘life satisfaction,’ which is a slightly different measure. For example, a separate US study reported that, ‘happiness’ plateaus at 75K per year, while ‘life satisfaction’ did not.

    Not sure what the policy implications of that are.

    If Mexican society is particularly socially immobile, immigrants might be individuals with particularly high aspirations and so be a couple of standard deviations away from the central ‘happiness’ tendency in Mexico. Immigration, then, represents a sorting feature based on societal structural preferences, even if Mexico is not a hell hole. Social scientists tend, I think, to overweight central tendencies and pay to little attention to distributions.

  22. Gravatar of jj jj
    12. January 2011 at 07:20

    Scott, if this had been three separate posts instead of one, you’d get 10x the traffic. The nuttier tea party elements would love item #3 — a good conspiracy story blaming the government. Lefties would like #1, because it talks about how crappy it is to be poor.

    Together in one post, though, they cancel each other out — but that’s why I like your blog!

  23. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    12. January 2011 at 08:32

    1. Happiness/Bliss/Laughter is the mind’s defense against misery. People who seek it do so for a reason… it is all they have. Measuring for it is like measuring for suffering. Satisfaction/Comfort/Ease is measurable in labor-returns. That said, a person’s own sense of utility is what matters – the social utility – it it deviates – is meaningless. You can work yourself to the bone, sacrificing everything, even familial bliss and be totally satisfied, totally at ease.

    2. Our policy should be “Manifest Destiny Mexico” – we should put all our pressure on their government to allow US citizens to OWN beach front property outright. It’s really just a big Florida that hasn’t learned to speak English yet. Seeing it any other way is ridiculous. Imagine the number of middle class baby boomers who could retire there for the ultra-cheap medical care and leave their very satisfied clan a beach house in the will.

  24. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    12. January 2011 at 09:08

    This is a brilliant set of posts by Scott Sumner, perhaps Amnerica’s best and worst blogger.

    Best for his wonderful commentary and insights–and worst for his form.

    Why clump together in one loooonnnggg post on one day all three ideas? Could you not spread out these posts into smaller posts on three days?

    Scott Sumner, you are my intellectually superior, but socially maladroit, doppelganger.

    On Happiness: I have long admired the seemingly innate sturdiness and happiness of Latins and Thais. I married a Thai, and nearly married a Mexican.

    Both groups tend to be very convivial, lots of talking.

    Some say if you have a family and group of friends and talk a lot, it is hard to be depressed.

  25. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    12. January 2011 at 09:09

    Mark, I agree about mental illness.

    dtoh, That sounds plausible to me.

    Full Employment Hawk, Yes, we don’t have good answers yet.

    Dirk, As I said, I also found it implausible that losing a limb would not permanently make you less happy. But lots of implausible things are true, and this appears to be one of them.

    dtoh, You said;

    “As for the strawberry pickers…. there is no loss in happiness since that is a constant and not a variable….. and they made the choice to come to the U.S. to work (and would do it again in hindsight) ergo net increase in utility. So what is the issue?”

    Is this addressed to me? The only issue I was trying to make is that happiness and utility are two completely different things.

    cassander, Yes, I agree. How ironic to have the big banks bailing out quasi-government institutions like F&F.

    WmWright, Nuf said? The guy was a computer game player. He was frustrated by being rejected by women. He was frustrated by being rejected for jobs. He became anti-government when Bush was president. Read left-wing 9/11 conspiracy stuff. Read Nietzsche. It’s over-determined!

    Andrew, That myth comes up all the time. FDIC is a government agency that is financed by a tax on banks. Like any other tax on competitive industries, it is passed on to customers. The public (bank customers) pays the full cost of FDIC bailouts of deposits. Those of us in less corrupt states like Massachusetts subsidize bank customers in high corruption states with lots of bank failures.

    OGT, I don’t see how your thesis gets rid of the problem. The horrible conditions in Mexico described in the article don’t just apply to migrants, they also apply to those who stay in Mexico.

    jj, Good point, except that for the most part it doesn’t describe how crappy it is to be poor, the article describes how crappy it is to be undocumented in America. American-born poor are waaaaaaay better off than undocumented workers. Indeed the living standards of American poor (on average, not homeless) are closer to American middle class, than they are to what is described in the article.

    Morgan, I’ve been to Mexico many times, and even conversed with the locals a bit. And I can assure you that your views will not be popular “south of the border.” We do seem pretty close on happiness however–for policy purposes it’s utility that matters, happiness is too amorphous.

  26. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    12. January 2011 at 09:12

    Benjamin, All good points. But there is a method to my madness regarding long posts. Separately they can be picked apart, but together I can shrug off the duds by saying “batting .333 in baseball is great.”

  27. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    12. January 2011 at 10:53

    Is baseball an analogy of life, or is life an analogy of baseball?

    Answer: Depends on the season, and how close your team is to the World Series.

  28. Gravatar of Liberal Roman Liberal Roman
    12. January 2011 at 11:34

    The only reason I like these attacks on conservatives for the shooting is not because I actually blame them for it, but because I have resigned myself to the fact that in politics the best way to fight fire is with fire.

    So, having had to face more than our fair share of unfounded, unfair, libelous attacks, I do not care how much the other side is ticked off by this attack. In fact, the more ticked off they become, the more I am convinced that it was a good political tactic. (And yes, this is what our democracy has come down to)

  29. Gravatar of Jay Z Jay Z
    12. January 2011 at 11:45

    Happiness (content) and discontent are both elements of survival. Wanting “more” allows for progress and adaptability, even though we’re not that much happier when we have more. When getting more is impossible for an individual or group, I think human nature and culture will find happiness somehow anyway as a survival mechanism. Too much contentedness and you have no progress, too much discontent and you have no stability.

  30. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    12. January 2011 at 11:53

    @Liberal Roman
    So we should just ignore anything you say from now on, and just assume you are attacking from a false position as you are now?

    In other words, should we just assume you are a troll?
    This is one reason why such attacks are a bad idea.

  31. Gravatar of Liberal Roman Liberal Roman
    12. January 2011 at 12:00


    Sorry, but that’s just our political system. The first person to back down from the escalating rhetoric loses.

    So, I feel no sympathy for Palin. What goes around (remember death panels?) comes around as they say.

    And even today, as she put out a scathing video lashing out at her attackers, do you actually think she did this out of actual anger for being associated with this act of violence? Or was her thinking more like…”damn it, they scored a punch on me…how do I respond??? I know. A personal, no holds barred, scathing rebuttal. That should work.”

    It’s all just a game.

  32. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    12. January 2011 at 13:46

    Scott, Manifest Destiny Mexico will be incredibly well received, if the credible alternative is a giant fence and loss of Birthright Citizenship in the US.

    They need to be told in no uncertain terms, that having a third world country on our border is not in our interest, and they can either accept the economic development policies form the north, or cease to the be able to make it across the border.

    BTW, we also should be broadcasting free English Lessons over all of Mexico to go along with our policy

    I say this an an advocate of open door immigration policy, I just think we can credibly bluff with them… and once the developing starts – their going to LOVE the economic boost.

    We have a ton of money to spend, and lots of perks to throw the way of their elected officials… to create the same policies there, that we have here.

    The way to truly solve the immigration problem is to get Americans thinking about what they can REALLY get out of a truly open door.

    Mexico as Florida isn’t a question of If, it is a question of When.

  33. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    12. January 2011 at 13:48


    Let’s be clear, the very best you can do for your side is to lose the bigger augments gracefully, so you can win some of the smaller points.

  34. Gravatar of Edwin A Edwin A
    12. January 2011 at 14:14

    Morgan, Dean Baker has a proposal you might like. Not exactly a Mexico takeover, but close enough.

    “This paper outlines a mechanism for taking advantage of these potential gains from trade: a globalization of the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Since most of the beneficiaries of Medicare are retirees, as are a substantial portion of the beneficiaries of Medicaid, they need not live near a workplace. Many beneficiaries have family or other ties to other countries. The globalization mechanism proposed in this paper would allow beneficiaries of these programs to have a voucher that would allow them to move to other countries and buy into their health care systems, with the government and the beneficiaries splitting the gains. To provide an inducement for other countries to participate, they would receive a premium (e.g. 10 percent) above their costs to ensure that they benefit from this process as well. “

  35. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    12. January 2011 at 14:48

    Liberal Roman, The problem with foolishness it it plays into the other side’s hands. Palin can pretend to be a martyr (obviously she is just pretending) and that strengthens her every time time a liberal attack looks unjustified. Drudge keeps dredging up more info showing the guy in Tucson wasn’t motivated by politics. There will be a backlash. Remember how McCarthyism ended up hurting the anti-communism effort more than helping? (Obviously I’m not comparing the two in scale, just overshooting.) The good news for the Dems is that the GOP will also overshoot, and look silly. I.e. Palin’s “blood libel” comment.

    I think it’s better to stick to the high ground. But I’m more dismayed by bloggers than Democratic politicians. I have extremely low expectations for politicians from either party. I do expect a bit more good sense from bloggers.

    Jay Z, That sounds right.

    Morgan, I used to visit Morelia in central Mexico back in the 1970s. The climate there is better than anywhere in America (except Hawaii.) So I understand your enthusiasm. And I’m sure some of that will happen. But Mexicans are pretty nationalistic (like us.) Ending the drug war would help, BTW.

  36. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    12. January 2011 at 15:02

    ‘Remember how McCarthyism ended up hurting the anti-communism effort more than helping?’

    I’m unaware of this. How, specifically?

  37. Gravatar of Andy Andy
    12. January 2011 at 15:13

    Lanmindians would be less happy (though not miserable). There are widespread misconceptions about the hedonic treadmill and Brickman’s research on lottery winners and paraplegics. Brickman et al. found that paraplegics were less happy than healthy people. They were not miserable – their reported happiness was above the midpoint of the scale – and the difference in happiness between them and healthy people was surprisingly small, but there still was a gap. Subsequent happiness research has found similar patterns of partial recovery from negative life events (like disability, divorce, and widowhood). For instance, see the graph on p. 310 of <a href=""Diener, Lucas, and Scollon (2006); here’s how they described the Brickman study (p. 309):

    “In the case of individuals with spinal cord injuries, Brickman et al. did find that the participants who were disabled reported significantly less happiness than did controls. In fact, when we calculated standardized mean differences in general happiness from Brickman et al.’s data, we found that the difference between the spinal cord-injured and control groups was about 0.75 standard deviations””an effect that most psychologists would consider large.”

  38. Gravatar of Winton Bates Winton Bates
    12. January 2011 at 15:40

    Scott, you raise interesting issues concerning the relationship between utility and happiness.
    I would like to mention a couple of points on the basis of my own reading in this area.
    First, re fixed set points. I think there is still support for this view among some happiness researchers, although there is longitudinal survey evidence that set points can change. See: Bruce Headey, Ruud Muffels and Gert Wagner,’Long running German panel survey shows that personal and economic choices, not just genes matter for happiness’ PNAS, 2010.
    Second, rather than arguing that utility and happiness are independent it might be more defensible to argue that utility (well-being) is a function of several things including health, wealth and happiness (i.e. emotional well-being). Gary Becker and Luis Rayo put that view – or something like it – in their comments on a Stevenson and Wolfers article (Brookings Papers … 2008, 1:88-95).
    Finally a couple of posts on my blog on the relationship between utility and happiness might be of interest to someone. See: here and here .

  39. Gravatar of Indy Indy
    12. January 2011 at 17:09

    @SSumner: “I did like this comment from you, which might be about right: “So maybe utility and happiness are different, but “expected marginal utility” and “estimated marginal happiness” are the same … ”

    Someone should right a “Nudge” like behavioral economics book about this. “The Economics of Folly: How chasing our fantasies diminishes our reality” or “First, Know Thyself: Properly Recalibrating Your Happiness-Estimation Model to Ensure Accurate Utility-Maximizing Decisions in Twelve Easy Steps.”

  40. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    12. January 2011 at 17:53

    “Denmark is the happiest of all developed countries, the most civic-minded of all developed countries, the least corrupt of all developed countries, and the most free market of all developed countries. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And yet my theory doesn’t work for developing countries, and I have no idea why.”

    1) Consider the following: Dissatisfied populations seek change. People who are too happy don’t. Happy populations can easily sustain social equillibria, meaning them may fall into self-sustaining extremes. Dissatisfied populations are unlikely to fall into either extreme, because they cannot abide a stable equillibrium.

    2) I’m surprised to find no Star Trek examples. The Planet Vulcan surely had the highest utility of any planet in the Federation, indeed the entire population actively sought the greatest good for the greatest number. Of course, no happiness to be found.

    3) You seem to put in a lot of effort to make the happiness vs. utility argument. Here’s the 1 sentence version: We could make everyone happier by putting drugs in the water, and likewise reduce social utility at the same time.

  41. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    12. January 2011 at 17:54

    OH, and I was sorely disappointed by Pettis. Not that he sold out, but that I can’t afford to read him.

  42. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    12. January 2011 at 18:09

    Patrick: two ways I can think of immediately:
    (1) Any concern for communist influence became dismissed as “McCarthyism”.
    (2) It helped generate anti-anti-communism by associating anti-Communism with grandstanding witchhunts.

    Liberal Roman: Trying to pretend one side’s rhetoric is somehow better than another’s is pointless, there are always counterexamples. Making grotesque assertions without evidence (indeed, against the evidence) dents credibility in a serious way and disables trying to critique such by others. When you get The Economist pointing out how offensive and stupid the tactic is, or James Taranto in the WSJ pointing out the blatant hypocrisy and how much is just self-serving, you are on a loser. As the polls are already suggesting.

    The comparison with the response to the Fort Hood massacre makes it all look worse. An American Muslim slaughters people yelling Allahu Akbar! (“God is Greatest!”) and the liberal/progressive response was all about not rushing to judgement. Someone with no connection to any political group, or even coherent political ideology, slaughters people, and it is all about rushing to judgement.

    Meanwhile, amidst all this apparently so terrible rhetoric, the US murder rate has fallen to the lowest level for four decades. Who knows, maybe intense rhetoric is cathartic? Or maybe it has no effect whatsoever on propensity to kill and the drop is entirely unconnected.

  43. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    12. January 2011 at 18:48

    Lorenzo, as for 1., that didn’t happen in the US. McCarthy’s close friend JFK talked about bearing any burden, paying any price in the long twilight struggle against Communism in 1961.

    And, I know you know that ‘anti-anti-Communism’ is the result of the fertile brain of Willi Muenzenberg from much earlier than McCarthy.

  44. Gravatar of Gooba gabba « Entitled to an Opinion Gooba gabba « Entitled to an Opinion
    12. January 2011 at 18:57

    […] to Scott Sumner I watched Turtles Can Fly. You bastard. Same goes for whoever put together the english-language […]

  45. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    12. January 2011 at 20:16

    Patrick> It definitely did happen. I think the perfect symbol of this is the department of State’s own official history. The money quote is:

    The mistaken notion that the Department of State somehow served the nation’s enemies lingered on for some years. One former Department of State employee, Epers , was found guilty of passing secrets to the Soviets in the late 1930s, but this exception did not detract from the fact that the criticism by McCarthy and others of like mind was unjustified.

    but the whole page is a perfect demonstration of the way that period has gone down in history. It talks about McCarthy’s famous list, and mentions that people were forced out of the Department, but somehow forgets to mention that there were actually quite a few high american officials who acted as soviet spies. My favorite touch is that it shows a picture of Alger Hiss, but without ever mentioning his name, or what he did.

  46. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    12. January 2011 at 20:17

    Woops, state department official history here:

  47. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    13. January 2011 at 07:43

    “Meanwhile, amidst all this apparently so terrible rhetoric, the US murder rate has fallen to the lowest level for four decades.”

    The best explanation I’ve seen for this phenomena was the legalization of abortion, not increases in gun ownership. Something no one really likes to talk about. It says nothing about the relationship between rhetoric and political animousity/violence. The vast, vast, vast majority of violence is not political. Political polarization levels are very high, compared to the post war years.

    Your better argument would be to consider episodes of political violence – against Reagan, Kennedy, etc.

    Of course, right wing radio talk shows could easily avoid this sort of criticism by not making stupid comments like “somebody’s going to take that guy out”, or publishing photos of politicians with cross-hairs superimposed on them. But then, that’s how they earn their money, isn’t it?

  48. Gravatar of Wonks Anonymous Wonks Anonymous
    13. January 2011 at 12:04

    McCarthy was right. J. Edgar Hoover had access to the Venona transcripts and was using McCarthy to go after his rivals in the CIA, who had taken to cultivating communists. But the CIA had assets in the media which they used to retaliate against McCarthy.

    The abortion theory was interesting, but Foote & Goetz showed it resulted from a coding error. Levitt & Donahue have redone the study in reply, but on the whole it seems hard to have much confidence in it. Furthermore, their paper was on the sudden decline in the mid-nineties, so it wouldn’t say much about the decline in recent years.

  49. Gravatar of Indy Indy
    13. January 2011 at 14:30

    And here’s the Satisfaction with Life Index Denmark still #1. US: #23. Mexico: #51

    Not sure how well it correlates with Real GDP per Capita (PPP). Money isn’t everything. But, in general, wouldn’t you expect people to want to migrate from lower-to-higher satisfaction, even if that isn’t necessarily proportionally lower-to-higher wealth?

  50. Gravatar of Indy Indy
    13. January 2011 at 14:31

    Woops, wrong link in the last one! My apologies. Here the real Satisfaction with Life Index.

  51. Gravatar of Cassander Cassander
    13. January 2011 at 17:32

    Wonks> I’m not so sure I would go so far as to say McCarthy was right. It’s quite possible that someone was was leaking him information, but if that was the case I have a hard time imagining he wouldn’t have come up with something more conclusive during the Army Hearings, since there were actual spies in the Army Signal Corps(the army’s code breakers). Of course, it’s also perfectly possible that McCarthy took information he was leaked and ran off a cliff with it.

  52. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    13. January 2011 at 19:11

    Patrick, It made it uncool to be an anti-communist.

    Andy, Thanks, That’s what I would have expected. I wonder why the press misreported the study?

    Winton, That interpretation sounds plausible.

    Indy, Yes, I’ve also been less than impressed by what I’ve read of behavioral econ studies of happiness.

    Statsguy, Why would drugs in the water reduce social utility?

    As far as political violence, it was worse when I was younger. Both sides constantly use violent metaphors in their political speech, even Obama does on occasion. One can easily put together a long list for either side of the political spectrum, but this rhetoric does not cause violence. Just as movies with lots of sex and violence do not cause anti-social behavior.

    The problem with talk radio is not violent rhetoric, it’s stupidity. It leads to bad public policies, by feeding voters misinformation.

    Lorenzo, You said;

    “The comparison with the response to the Fort Hood massacre makes it all look worse. An American Muslim slaughters people yelling Allahu Akbar! (“God is Greatest!”) and the liberal/progressive response was all about not rushing to judgement. Someone with no connection to any political group, or even coherent political ideology, slaughters people, and it is all about rushing to judgement.”

    Economists at elite universities really ought to be above this nonsense, it’s embarrassing to see them make complete fools of themselves reacting one way to events like Fort Hood, and completely differently to Tucson. I have a simple rule–I’m pro-free speech. In the NYC mosque case it pisses off the right, and in this case it pisses off the left.

    Wonks Anonymous, You said:

    “McCarthy was right.”

    No, he wasn’t. But I do agree with you about the abortion study–I believe the effect was probably small.

    Indy, Yes, and Mexico leads the world in “subjective well-being.” I’d think people would want to go to the place with the highest “well-being,” but what do I know? These things seem very sensitive to the way the question is asked. Lots of Mexicans want to move to the US; that’s the only fact that seems at all meaningful to me. I infer the US governance system is preferred to the Mexican system.

  53. Gravatar of Bryan Willman Bryan Willman
    13. January 2011 at 19:21

    Why is happiness the goal?

    In the stream of human history, the “goal”, set by genetics and selection, is to “win” – as in humans continue to survive, humans related to the person under study continue to survive, and so on. I suppose a whole other set of definitions of what constitutes “winning”.

    And in any case, politics and the political economy are not particularly driven by “happiness”, but rather by various notions of “winning”…

    As for the farm workers – well, the old orchard/vinyards are too small for the machines. As they change over to support machines (different row widths) people will go from working very hard to be poor to simply being unemployed. Out of the pan into the fire?

  54. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    14. January 2011 at 07:58


    I strongly suspect these happiness surveys are absolute garbage. Simply ksking people whether they’re happy gets you almost nowhere.

    When I counseled sexual abuse and rape victims as an intern, all of them initially described themselves as happy and rarely depressed. However, after treatment began, all of them concluded they were miserable. This was true after the beginning of counseling, but especially after psychotropic treatment.

    Lower levels of utility, which I think mirror happiness, feel natural as the economics of the brain(behavioral economics) requires it, sans metacognition, which is often confused when facing abstract problems. They confuse their relative highs with absolute potential highs, in my estimation.

    As I formulate it, the best way to measure happiness is to do things like measure relative risk aversion, differential responses to psychotropics such as antidepressants and anxiolytics, and the use of brain scanning technology, such as differential activation rates of left and right hemispheric prefronal cortices or FMRI scans of things like amygdalic activity, both of the latter in response to reward and punishment. One can also take hormonal evidence into account, such as average cortisol levels, for example.

    These can all be used in conjuction, along with other methods, to provide extremely compelling evidence of relative happiness as a function of average mood.

    We’ve already had a back and forth on the operationalized definition of utility, which mine being biologically based. Again, I think mine is more useful, at least in terms of model building supported by experiment and applications.

  55. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    14. January 2011 at 08:21

    Liberal Roman,

    I agree with you about the need for Democrats, and liberals in general, to start hitting back and get dirty if need be.

    This is not a country that strikes me as receptive to rational, evidence-based responses, or passive approaches. Somehow, I doubt Gandhi would get much political traction here as it currently stands. Even if I’m wrong, I don’t see a Gandhi here anywhere.

    There were people who tried to appeal to what they saw as the better natures in Germans under Hitler, at least some of whom met their fates in the camps. Maybe Republicans aren’t Nazis, but they do employ the propaganda techniques of Goebbels.

    I find it extremely naive to think a bunch of turned off, ill-informed citizens, mostly devoid of critical thinking skills, can be appealed to on a rational basis with much consistency. Politics is about personality and attention-getting, and even boldness, especially at times like these.

    FDR basically took every opportunity to tear down Hoover’s image, despite the latter having done rather extraordinary humanitarian work, for the betterment of the nation it turned out.

    Yes, Hoover’s economic policies(to the degree they existed) were disastrous, but FDR perhaps went overboard in the manner which he hung the country’s woes around his neck.

    This was a pretty good thing. Countries sometimes even need “great” people to serve as sacrificial lambs.

    The Republicans in office are not even great people. They are anything but honest and their placement of their political interests over those of citizens is appalling. They deserve nothing but the most competent, coordinated, ruthless efforts to politically destroy not only their party and related movements, but even them personally. This should be done legally and nonviolently.

    Those who more or less see the two parties as roughly equally bad are way off. As misguided as Democrats may often be, there is a clear difference in their implicit values and the way they practice politics.

  56. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    14. January 2011 at 10:43

    ‘”McCarthy was right.”

    ‘No, he wasn’t.;

    Here, Scott, you’re simply flatly wrong (and I know you wouldn’t want to spread misinformation talk-radio-like) With the recent publication of Stanton Evans’ ‘Blacklisted by History’ the anti-McCarthy arguments are completely untenable.

    The book is based on hundreds of thousands of documents from the FBI, the Venona decrypts, and Soviet archives. Other support comes from Stephen Kock’s ‘Double Lives’ and Jung Chang’s biography of Mao.

    If you don’t believe me, tell me one thing you’re sure McCarthy was wrong about. Or give me the name of one person McCarthy unfairly persecuted. I assure you ahead of time I’ll be able to show you specifically that you’re wrong.

    Btw, for whoever referenced the Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy won that hands down. The Army lost something like 40-1 on their complaints.

  57. Gravatar of Ottovbvs Ottovbvs
    14. January 2011 at 11:36

    “Happiness Surveys?”…The Fed “engineered” the 2008 recession…????

    “Or give me the name of one person McCarthy unfairly persecuted.”

    George C. Marshall?

  58. Gravatar of Ottovbvs Ottovbvs
    14. January 2011 at 11:42

    “Yes, Hoover’s economic policies(to the degree they existed) were disastrous, but FDR perhaps went overboard in the manner which he hung the country’s woes around his neck.”

    FDR didn’t need to do anything, his policies had been hung around Hoover’s neck long before the ’32 election. And yes Hoover did great humanitarian work and had a great personal story of achievement but he failed lamentably as president. That’s the difference between being merely competent and being great.

  59. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    14. January 2011 at 12:37

    Patrick> You’re absolutely right. I was confusing the Army-McCarthy Hearings with McCarthy’s investigation of the army. Despite the existence of real spies in the army signal corps, McCarthy went after a dentist and a highly decorated general. Not only were those men not spies, but he committed the ultimate sin in american politics, looking bad on television.

    More generally, I don’t think that any of the people McCarthy went after specifically (Owen Lattimore, John Service, etc.) were later found to be spies, unlike the people identified by Elizabeth Bently and Whittacker Chambers. If McCarthy did have inside information, he was singularly incompetent. I think it more likely that he was just an opportunist who demagogued what had been a legitimate issue.

  60. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    14. January 2011 at 14:28

    Cassender, you’re very badly informed. McCarthy began his investigation at the request of the G-2 officers at Ft. Monmouth, NJ. He did help them with their security problems, as the Commanding General of that post said at the time.

    Which was why the Pentagon finally filed charges with the Senate against McCarthy; he was embarrassing the political army (not the soldiering army). That’s the origin of the Army-McCarthy hearings.

    When it turned out that the Sec’y of the Army (the complaining party) had had a stenographer listen in on his telephone conversations with McCarthy and Roy Cohn, and that there were transcripts of those, Pres. Eisenhower (a career Army man) ordered them boxed up and transferred to the White House, where he denied them to the Senate when subpoenaed. That wasn’t done because the transcripts were detrimental to McCarthy’s cause.

    Eisenhower’s VP later used that event as a precedent twenty years later when he tried to keep his tape recordings away from congress under the same Executive Privilege argument. The Supreme Court didn’t agree in that later dispute.

    Btw, the Army dentist WAS a communist. The General you mentioned was committing perjury during his testimony. Owen Lattimore also committed perjury and was indicted for it, And, finally, John Stewart Service did in fact get himself arrested for espionage for passing secret documents to the Communist agent Phillip Jaffe (of Amerasia fame). McCarthy publicized that latter fact and Service had to resign from the State Dept (the Truman Admin had brushed his arrest under the rug in 1945).

    So, you’re wrong on all counts. Care to try again?

  61. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    14. January 2011 at 15:11

    The army dentist was a communist in the 30s, but as far as I know there was no evidence he was a spy. What would he have done, passed on information about top secret flouridation techniques? Service was arrested, but released. As fas as I know the only evidence against him was his one meeting with Jaffe. He also doesn’t even show up in the Venona files. As for Lattimore, the biggest evidence against him was Budenz’ testimony, which contradicted statements had had made previously. Lattimore was indicted for perjury, but the charges were thrown out for being trivial. He also doesn’t show up in the Venona files.

  62. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    14. January 2011 at 15:53

    Patrick: (1) Take your point on Munzenberg and the origins of anti-anti-communism (which I should have remembered, having reviewed two good biographies of himself here and here), though I would still say reaction to “McCarthyism” gave anti-anti-communism a new impetus.
    (2) It did outside the US. I suspect it did within the US too — for example, Hollywood and academia. You’re not going to tell me that anti-blacklisting did not become a theme?

    Mike S: So, you are looking forward to the entire US becoming like California? It is human to think that rhetoric against “people like me/people I like” is worse than rhetoric by “people like me/people I like” but finding counter-examples is not hard. And accusing one’s opponents of complicity in a murder to which they have no connection? Not the moral high ground.

    StatsGuy: I was just making the point that arguing that intense rhetoric is provoking violence while the murder rate is dropping is a stretch. Yes, I guess one can try and counter with “but its political violence that matters”, but that just highlights what a stretch it becomes. The reality is, the US is a low-political violence country. That is why people toss around intense rhetoric, they do not think it leads anywhere. That and politics is struggle and conflict so appropriates that rhetoric — starting with “fighting election campaigns”.

    All parts of the US political world where horrified by the actual events in Tucson. Which puts the US light years of somewhere with truly rancid politics, such as Pakistan. But Pakistan is not so much a polity as a pathology.

  63. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    14. January 2011 at 17:00

    ‘Service was arrested, but released. As fas as I know the only evidence against him was his one meeting with Jaffe.’

    Wow, you’re even worse informed than I imagined! That’s completely wrong, whatever source has been abusing you ought to be abandoned. The entire sordid history of Service’s treason is covered in detail in ‘Blacklisted’. Really. Including the FBI wiretaps on the phone of Tommy (the Cork) Corcoran as he conspires with the Justice Dept prosecutor to whitewash Service’s arrest.

    ‘He also doesn’t even show up in the Venona files.’

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And, there are still lots of Venona cables not decrypted to this day.

    You’re equally wrong about everything else. Latimore’s indictment was thrown out on a technicality, not because he wasn’t lying, nor because it was trivial. The issue with the dentist was who had promoted him, not that he was a spy. Like Annie Lee Moss; what was a CP member doing working in the Pentagon code room?

    Lorenzo, it’s hard to know what you’re getting at. There was a revival (or maybe a ‘vival’) of anti-anti-communism in the 70s, thanks to the Vietnam War. It’s hard to see how McCarthy could have done anything to make that worse, nor that it wouldn’t have happened if he’d never existed.

    I also should point out that JFK was ‘cool’, and an anti-communist (anyone for a jelly doughnut?). Alger Hiss’s nemesis, Nixon, was elected in 68 and reelected in a landslide four years later. J Edgar Hoover was quite admired by Americans. ‘I Led Three Lives’ was a popular TV show. And, of course. we did send hundreds of thousands of troops to SE Asia to fight communism. So, I fail to see how Joe McCarthy did anything to hinder the fight.

  64. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    14. January 2011 at 17:56


    I meant to say that the manner in which Roosevelt constantly reminded people of Hoover’s failings was distasteful, though perhaps necessary.

  65. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    14. January 2011 at 18:24


    You replied: “Mike S: So, you are looking forward to the entire US becoming like California? It is human to think that rhetoric against “people like me/people I like” is worse than rhetoric by “people like me/people I like” but finding counter-examples is not hard. And accusing one’s opponents of complicity in a murder to which they have no connection? Not the moral high ground.”

    None of that is relevant. I never defended unions, especially public ones. In fact, in comments to other posts here I’ve mentioned how I thought unions were missing the point and were harmful.

    I also never mentioned or defended California. These are straw men.

    And these articles in NR and WSJ are garbage and just the sort of right-wing nonsense that’s considered middle of the road these days.

    I want the NYT, and every media source if it could occur, to have a liberal bias in its reporting. I’ve never found an objective news source of any kind and I’d prefer to see liberal propaganda to counter that from conservatives, but with liberals playing to win by always being on offense. I wouldn’t read the propaganda, but I want it out there, dominating the messaging.

    Of course, even if stopping short of propaganda, news will almost always have a liberal bias if it’s objective.

    I’m tired of liberals apologizing for around 80% of news reporters having liberal voting records, for example. In fact, the more formal education one has, the more likely one is liberal anyway. I think that flatters liberalism. Otherwise, one supports the sort of growing unabashed anti-intellectualism all around us.

    I used to think Krugman was a political hack, but now I think he’s dead on with most of his stated perspectives about Republicans and conservatives in general. He more strident he gets, the more I agree with him.

    I want every person who’s against offering government benefits to the poor to depend on a minimum wage job for a few years, if they could even find a job in this economy. Let those who want to restrict immigration work in the fields described this Scott’s post. Go without healthcare for a few years and then tell me that everyone should keep their own money and/or whine about the imperfections in the new healthcare plan. Let’s see how long they’d even want discussions and debates on these issues when their needs won’t wait. Let them tolerate being sold on the notion that the wealthiest, most financially sound entity of any kind in the world can’t afford to help more.

    I’m tired of the lies.

  66. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    14. January 2011 at 18:32

    Bryan, Why should I care about genetics? I’d rather be happy and with one child, than sad and leaving 100 children behind.

    Mike, You may be right, but it’s interesting that behavioral economists insist they are pretty accurate. I don’t have an opinion either way.

    You said;

    “Maybe Republicans aren’t Nazis, but they do employ the propaganda techniques of Goebbels.”

    Like the big lie?

    Patrick, Take McCarthy’s first list, then take his second. Now find all the names deleted from the second. Now present evidence that they all were communists.

    If what you say is true, why do so many right-wingers insist it’s false? Surely they aren’t communist sympathizers. I have to rely on the history I read, and when the left and right both agree that someone was dishonest, it’s hard for me to see why I should reject than consensus. It’s up to the McCarthy sympathizers to convince right-wing historians. Once they do that I’ll listen. I don’t have time to investigate each individual charge. I don’t recall even mentioning McCarthy in my post.

    As far as hindering anti-communism, you may be right. I am probably reacting more to the environment when I came of age, the late 1960s and the 1970s, when it seemed to me that ‘anti-communist’ was a term of derision. Of course there is a big difference between the views of intellectuals, and the views of average people. You may be right about average people continuing to be anti-communist.

    BTW, just to be clear, I think anyone who was an anti-anti-communist should be ashamed of themselves. And I’d say the same about conservatives who sympathized with right-wing thugs.

  67. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    14. January 2011 at 20:20

    Patrick: on general politics, probably not. On cultural politics, perhaps it gave a rhetorical weapon that actually changed little. I never thought “McCarthyism” changed the big trends, there were far more important factors, but, in its net effect? Still suspect the net effect was a negative for the reasons I mentioned, even if other factors were bigger.

    Mike S: I am trying to gently suggest that trying to claim one side of politics is systematically more virtuous and selfless than the other is a losing game. That they may be closer to your values is a different claim: and if you have to conflate the two, you have a problem. As for wanting liberal bias, etc, that is a great way to completely lose touch with the actual ideological patterns of the US. (The data used there is a 2004 survey but the number of people identifying as conservative has returned to that level.)

    As for the NR and WSJ pieces, people said what they said. That may well be inconvenient, but tough, really. The Economist’s political blog had some sensible things to say about it, as did Jon Stewart.

    As it happens, I could easily make the same points in reverse as I did in my previous comment to some gung-ho conservative/Republican. The wit who called the recent mid-term election results not so much a mandate as a restraining order was on to something. But if you cannot work out why that restraining order was sought — rather than dismissing the concerns that drive them — you really are on a long-term loser.

  68. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    15. January 2011 at 01:29


    Most of the conservatives in office and those who vote for them are ignorant at best, and malevolent at worst. I think there’s a combination. Either way, I have no use for them or anything they express. I’ve read and heard enough of it for one lifetime.

    I don’t buy polls in which people self-report on ideology, or happiness as I stated above on another point. I meet too many who say they’re conservative, but don’t know what the term means. When they find out more, they see the conservatives in office as being extremely ignorant, crazy, evil, and dangerous. And perhaps we’ve all met women who take on the ideology of the men they happen to be intimate with at the time.

    Remember that not even half of citizens vote even in presidential elections, and far fewer do so in midterms. Far fewer still vote in state and local races.

    These are people disengaged and in some cases, and just go along with what’s popular or what people they know think. Sure, these are anecdotes, but they’re legion and I wonder if any of them are foreign in your experience.

    In any case, I’m not the one to engage with on this subject. I’m not longer open to input on the matter, unless there’s some kind of relevant, scientific research on one facet or another of this issue. I’m certainly not interested in the opinions of some comedian, and obviously even less the sorts of conservatives I describe.

    The kinds of conservatives I describe simply aren’t good people.

  69. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    15. January 2011 at 01:42


    You replied: “Like the big lie?”

    I’m not sure if you’re referring to Hitler and Goebbels propaganda here as compared to the Republicans, or comparing my perspective to Hitler’s concerning what he saw as Jewish conspiracies. Perhaps you’re doing both.

    I just point out that I think there’s a clear distinction between the motives and political methods of Democrats and Republicans, with the former being desirable even with all its party’s flaws. I’m not denying the Democrats have serious problems, like corruption for example, or economically ignorant people like Bernie Sanders or Dennis Kucinich, but I prefer their misguided good intentions over the alternatives.

    At this point, I prefer crooked Democrats to honest Republicans, of which I can name few. Ron and Rand Paul come immediately to mind.

    I was independent for most of my adult life and tried to be balanced, but it just isn’t possible for me anymore.

  70. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    15. January 2011 at 01:52

    I guess I should point out that I have few problems with conservatives like Milton Friedman, so this isn’t entirely ideological.

    Yes, I’m to the left of where he was, but my impression is that he was actually concerned about the less fortunate and had some very progressive ideas, like the negative income tax, for example. He just wanted to end government involvement where it was clearly causing problems, which usually meant less government.

    This is in sharp contrasts to conservatives today, some of whom actually refer to Friedman as a socialist and/or Keynesian. He’d turnover in his grave. Krugman made a point about this today, but it’s long been in my thoughts.

  71. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    15. January 2011 at 11:16

    Scott, as I’ve pointed out to you before, your attitude toward history is in direct contradiction to your attitude toward macroeconomics. You certainly don’t accept, unquestioningly, secondary source material–the consensus of the profession–in the latter. In fact, you’re quite heterodox in many ways, and you may well be correct.

    As to why so many believe myths about McCarthy, again, as I’ve already said, they rely on incomplete information. We have better sources now, including actual KGB files from Soviet archives. And, particularly useful for Evans, FBI files that were only comparatively recently released under the ’50 year rule’. Something the FBI investigated in the early 50s only came to the attention of scholars less than a decade ago.

    Yeah, it’s difficult to keep informed, but that doesn’t change the facts.

    As for McCarthy’s lists, first they weren’t his. They were from the intelligence arms of State, Treasury, and other government agencies. McCarthy initially refused to use any names, instead referring to ‘numbered’ files during the Tydings hearings. However, the Democrats forced him to reveal names, thinking he’d blunder and create a backlash. Still, no one–including yourself–has ever been able to name anyone unfairly so named.

  72. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. January 2011 at 14:58

    Mike, I’ve known lots of conservatives over my life, and they tend to be very nice people, some of the nicest I’ve ever met. So I can’t accept your view. Perhaps you’ve known a different mix of people.

    Patrick, You said;

    “Scott, as I’ve pointed out to you before, your attitude toward history is in direct contradiction to your attitude toward macroeconomics. You certainly don’t accept, unquestioningly, secondary source material-the consensus of the profession-in the latter. In fact, you’re quite heterodox in many ways, and you may well be correct.”

    The answer is simple, I’m an economist not a historian. If someone came onto my blog and said relativity was wrong, or quantum mechanics, I could not refute him. But I’d wonder why other scientists didn’t accept his view.

    A non-economist could not offer a very effective critique of my views on macro, and the same is true for me trying to refute a historian (unless the flaws are so obvious anyone can see them.)

    You haven’t yet told me why many right wing historians reject the argument you present. What is their counterargument? How did the history journals review that guys book? There are lots of questions to answer.

    I’m not saying you are wrong, but you are arguing at the wrong level. You need to analyze why right wingers believe what they do.

  73. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    15. January 2011 at 18:00


    I’m primarily referring to Republican politicians and the sort of people who support them.

  74. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. January 2011 at 18:52

    Mike, Politicians of both parties are slippery. The people who support them are fine, in both parties.

  75. Gravatar of Lycka som policymÃ¥l « Nonicoclolasos Lycka som policymÃ¥l « Nonicoclolasos
    17. January 2011 at 19:43

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