Odds and ends

1.  In a recent post, I asked people why I should be impressed when people tell me that conservative judges are being appointed.  After all, I’d not impressed if someone tells me they know a conservative plumber.  Alex Tabarrok has a couple of recent posts that help to clarify my thoughts on this issue.  Before discussing the posts, let me emphasize that I am not a legal expert.  But that disclaimer cuts both ways.  If I’m not even smart enough to understand the issues that Alex raises, how could I possible be expected to have an intelligent (and positive) opinion of “conservative judges”?

Alex points out that in many states the police are given legal protections that other Americans do not have.  Thus if they are arrested for a crime, they cannot be vigorously interrogated, in the way that an ordinary person is questioned.  On the face of it, that would seem to violate the “equal protection” clause of the 14th amendment.  Why should some Americans be denied legal rights available to others?

So here’s where the conservative judges come in.  How come I never read about conservative judges upholding the Constitution by striking down these violations of the equal protection clause?  I’m not saying that conservative judges never make “liberal” rulings.  In some obvious cases, such as flag-burning, conservatives did uphold the 1st amendment.  (Of course in this period of radical left-wing speech codes, the 1st amendment is being increasingly viewed as a right wing idea, similar to the 2nd amendment.)  But overall, when I read articles about how conservative justices rule, it usually tends to favor policy outcomes that are “conservative”.

2.  I recently did a post showing how pessimism is intellectually fashionable.  Another good example of this problem is Greece’s supposedly “unpayable” public debt.  I’ve always been skeptical of the claim that Greece’s debt was unpayable.  To me, it seemed more a question of the Greek’s not wanting to repay the debt.  Like a number of other European countries, Greece’s government spends over 50% of GDP.  But you can have a perfectly fine Western social welfare state spending far less (say 30% to 40%), as we observe in both rich countries like Australia and Switzerland and poorer countries such as Estonia and Slovakia.  If Greece reduced the non-interest part of its spending down that range, it would be able to divert enough funds to service its debt.

I have not followed events in Greece, but I do notice that yields on Greek debt are now plummeting, to levels suggesting that Greece is not likely to default on its debt.  I did a post last May that pointed out that the debt market’s implied probability of default had fallen to 40%.  Since then, bond yields on Greek public debt have plunged to well below 4%, 200 basis points below the levels of last May.

That does not prove that Greece will not default on its debt, rather that default is certainly not inevitable.  Once again, the pessimists were wrong.  And once again the good news got almost no press attention, while the previous bad news got headlines in the “serious” international media.

If you form an opinion about the world by consuming the media, you will be consistently wrong about things.  Your views will be too pessimistic on issues where the media is already pessimistic, and perhaps a bit too optimistic in areas receiving no media attention, but where a “back swan” could appear suddenly.

3.  In an opinion piece in the NYT, Angus Deaton made the following claim:

This evidence supports on-the-ground observation in the United States. Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer have documented the daily horrors of life for the several million people in the United States who actually do live on $2 a day, in both urban and rural America. Matthew Desmond’s ethnography of Milwaukee explores the nightmare of finding urban shelter among the American poor.

It is hard to imagine poverty that is worse than this, anywhere in the world.

A person may have difficulty imagining far worse poverty levels in other countries, but that’s not because they do not exist.  In fact, the bottom 2% of the world community is so much worse off than the bottom 2% of Americans that they might as well be living on different planets.  For people who don’t understand this fact, I’d suggest they read more about what life is really like for the world’s poorest people in places like Congo, North Korea, Somalia, Mali and Yemen.  (I’m actually pretty surprised to read this comment from Deaton, who’s an expert on poverty.)  Or read a book about the Great Leap Forward.

4.  Unlike me, Ross Douthat does not suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome.  Indeed he writes opinion pieces that are 10 times more thoughtful and 100 times better written than the trash in this blog. I agree with almost everything is this brilliant essay:

And where an abnormal response to Trump has kept things on an even keel, it hasn’t been furious protests; rather, it’s been a collective decision by many different actors, from his own appointees to his congressional opponents to foreign leaders the world over, to simply behave as if he isn’t actually the president, as if the system around him is what matters, and his expressed desires are just a reality TV performance.

So why will some readers be surprised by my claim that Douthat and I agree?  Because it looks like we disagree:


Douthat:  Calm down folks, the Trump presidency is not a tragedy, just a farce.

Like I keep saying, don’t be fooled by framing effects.

There is one silver lining to Trump—he triggers some truly inspired writing.  Kevin Williamson is one of the best.

5.  I recently did a post on the rise of racism in the conservative movement.  Others are seeing the same thing:

That says a lot about the conservative movement. Intolerance always existed within it, but part of its success was how it managed to suppress the appearance of intolerance, to hide it behind terms and ideas that masked the movement’s true motivations. [William] Kristol said that those elements were “less healthy than I thought or hoped.”

Those elements started to come forward in the 1990s, Kristol said, starting with Pat Buchanan and continuing with Trump. “He’s an effective demagogue,” Kristol said of the president. “And then the rationalization of Trump, acceptance of Trump by so many Republicans and some conservatives, including conservatives I worked with and respect, has been disturbing to me.”

Kristol’s lament echoed what conservative commentator Charlie Sykes told Andrew O’Hehir in October 2017. “I knew that it was there, but I did think it was the drunk at the end of the bar, or it was your bigoted uncle at Thanksgiving,” he said. “This was a fundamental moral failing [of the conservative movement] that we did not draw the line on things like that. And as a result, that kind of racism, those conspiracy theories, that paranoid style festered. And it festered to the point that we can no longer control it.”

6.  My 12 recommendations for better living:

1.  Lead by example, don’t tell other people what to do.  (I.e. Tyler’s best advice is his life, not his list.)

2.  Don’t emulate me.

3.  Don’t write a principles of economics textbook.

4.  Don’t be born in North Korea.

I’m still working on the other 2/3rds of my list.

7.  It’s happening.



29 Responses to “Odds and ends”

  1. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    26. January 2018 at 09:37


    I’m not convinced we will avoid tragedy with Trump. I’m particularly disturbed, for example, by Republican attacks on the FBI and DOJ. Even some lawmakers have gone completely into Alex Jones conspiracies.

    I’m concerned that this, coupled with clueless and cowardly opposition from Democrats, it’s eroding support for our republican form of government, along with free markets. Support for authoritarianism seems to be on the rise.

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. January 2018 at 10:14

    Mike, Good argument, but when you take the long view these things go in cycles. Wilson was followed by Harding, and Nixon was followed by Carter.

    I share your concern, which is one reason why I think Trump is our worst President ever. But on balance I’ve always expected the outcome to be farce, not tragedy.

    i’m more worried about technology and apathy leading to a sort of “1984”, endorsed by both parties.

  3. Gravatar of David R Henderson David R Henderson
    26. January 2018 at 10:28

    @Mike Sandifer and Scott Sumner,
    It sounds as if you both think there’s no justification for Republican attacks on the FBI. Am I reading you both right?

  4. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    26. January 2018 at 10:38

    i’m more worried about technology and apathy leading to a sort of “1984”, endorsed by both parties.

    Heard on NPR (paraphrasing) “Orwell wouldn’t be surprised at the level of surveillance we have today. What he would be surprised at is that we’re buying the cameras ourselves.”

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. January 2018 at 10:56

    David, No. I have no well informed views on that issue.

  6. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    26. January 2018 at 13:37

    David Henderson,

    While the FBI and DOJ have always done many things I disagree with and have a checkered history, I see no reason to believe the current charges against them by some Republicans are true. Quite the contrary, I think there is a conscious effort to smear these institutions to try to protect Trump.

  7. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    26. January 2018 at 14:46

    The Ross Douhat and Kevin Williamson pieces were fun and sensible reads, thanks for the recommendations.

    On ethno-nationalism on the right (which btw is not the same as racism) and racism on the right, that was pretty inevitable once the progressivists embraced identity politics. If everything is “the fault” of cisgendered heterosexual white folk, of course there is an expanded political market for saying such folk are the pillars of society, culture, civilisation, etc. If progressivists are going to so constantly engage in irrelevant evocation of racial identity, then the game will spread. As it has.

  8. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    26. January 2018 at 14:59

    You seem to advise us to emulate Tyler Cowen, not you. I don’t see that emulating you is such a bad idea and, on the other hand, I must protest against the very thought of emulating Tyler: just how many of us do you think can come anywhere near his prodigious level of activity?

  9. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    26. January 2018 at 15:02

    Mike Sandifer: the right wing blogosphere is full of things such as
    which suggest the concerns over the FBI (such as “losing” 50,000 text messages) are not entirely fireless smoke.

  10. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    26. January 2018 at 16:59

    “the rise of racism in the conservative movement”
    Unless you’re referring to the alt-right, which seems to be in decline, there has been no such thing.
    “Alex Tabarrok has a couple of recent posts that help to clarify my thoughts on this”

    We f*cking told you this, just not understanding that you wanted examples. Here’s another one: Gonzales v. Raich.

    “Kevin Williamson is one of the best.”
    Well no surprise the drugs are stronger if you’re getting them nearer to the border.
    “Unlike me, Ross Douthat does not suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome.”

    “Indeed he writes opinion pieces that are 10 times more thoughtful and 100 times better written than the trash in this blog.”
    “Or read a book about the Great Leap Forward.”
    If you want to be antiquarian, read about pre-Mao China, to see how typical people in the worst-off countries today are still better off than typical Chinese were 100 years ago.
    “To me, it seemed more a question of the Greek’s not wanting to repay the debt.”
    Same with Germany spending way more on re-arming in the 1930s than paying reparations in the 1920s. Everyone hates making debt payments.

  11. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    26. January 2018 at 17:03

    Of course, there is a grain of truth in Douthat’s piece, which is that Trump is willingly more dependent on establishment conservatives than any US President before him. I find that a bad thing.

    Sumner, what are your thoughts on the recent Trump amnesty proposal. Up or down?

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. January 2018 at 19:53

    Lorenzo, I think some of it is a backlash to whacky identity politics on the left, as you say.

    I still don’t like it.

    Philo, I was referring more to the way he conducts himself. (Of course that might be just as hard for me as reading 4 books a day.)

    Harding, Why would I form an opinion on any Trump “proposal”. They are meaningless; he would withdraw the offer the moment Congress agreed.

  13. Gravatar of jmcsf jmcsf
    27. January 2018 at 05:08

    You could have included a trigger warning for #7, thanks.

  14. Gravatar of Dan W. Dan W.
    27. January 2018 at 13:33


    What will be your description of Trump be when his farcical Presidency realizes tax reform AND immigration reform? Obama did not even attempt such legislation. Bush did and flopped at it. But Trump does it. Yet you will never give him credit. That’s ok, he thinks even less of you than you do of him. 😉

  15. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    27. January 2018 at 16:58

    Scott: nor to do. A certain level of functional patriotism is required for an effective polity, particularly a democratic one, but identity politics in general is noxious.

    Mike Sandifer, a useful roundup on concerns about the FBI is here. https://bayourenaissanceman.blogspot.com.au/2018/01/the-deep-state-demonstrates-its.html

  16. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    28. January 2018 at 11:59

    I’ve been looking at quite a bit of Jordan Peterson stuff recently, got into it slightly before Tyler did. I’ve formed some of my own opinions on where he’s at and what his value is, but I’d be quite interested to hear Scott’s take on his ideas and his social/political influence. He’s getting influential enough that I think it’s worth familiarizing oneself with him.

    Apart from the stuff Tyler has linked, there are the two gender-speech debates on YouTube from the Canadian panel show and from the U of Toronto, excerpts from his psychology lectures, various video and radio interviews (the transcript of the one with Sam Harris is particularly fun) and longform print interviews such as this one with Quillette, as a reasonable place to start: http://quillette.com/2018/01/27/walking-tightrope-chaos-order-interview-jordan-b-peterson/

    I tend to feel that Scott would have something more interesting and more critical to say than Tyler has thus far.

  17. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    28. January 2018 at 12:31

    As usual Scott, just like Tyler, remind liberals that me that the real tragedy of modern conservatism, which seems to be fueled by racism and the quest for liberal tears, is not their results, but the fact that it lowers the influence of sensible economic conservatism. I imagine a Republican party that doesn’t hate immigrants and considers economic efficiency in healthcare and taxes, and I see a far better US.

  18. Gravatar of Kevin A Kevin A
    28. January 2018 at 13:36

    I’m fairly certain that Greece restructured part of their debt circa 2012.


    When you restructured your debt, asking creditors to take haircuts or repaying in a way different from the original terms, you are defaulting.

  19. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    28. January 2018 at 14:27

    Lorenzo from Oz,

    The NSA is missing data it said it would preserve. Okay. It doesn’t mean there’s a conspiracy. It should be investigated, but certainly is no cause for claiming there is a ‘secret society” involved. Didn’t Congress and the White House just reauthorize broad NSA surveillance powers?

    I don’t think we should get distracted from the main issue here. Is there evidence Mueller and his team are biased? Did Mueller not remove two investigators from his team who were exchanging texts that revealed disdain for Trump? Have there not been Trump campaign and administration officials who’ve confessed to crimes already?

  20. Gravatar of Jonathan Jonathan
    28. January 2018 at 15:33

    I always thought the best analogy for Trump isn’t Hitler — it’s Berlusconi. Which is another way of saying farce instead of tragedy.

  21. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    28. January 2018 at 21:45

    Trump has got a lot done in his first year. Here is a good list, from a conservative who doesn’t like Trump:

    The only issue where aggressive opposition genuinely thwarted Trump beyond normal partisan Congress is immigration. Judges and the entire university system brook norms and technically violated laws, to fight against enforcement of existing immigration restrictions or moving policy in a restrictionist direction. Even here, immigration has probably been the most heated and contentious issue of our time, with our without Trump. I really can’t blame or attribute the intensity and unusualness of the immigration issue to Trump or Trump’s administration.

    Bill Kristol’s enthusiasm for demographic replacement of ethnically white people (https://youtu.be/mWJSKhEwjy8) does seem to mirror Scott Sumner’s view.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. January 2018 at 12:06

    Saturos, I’m not sure I have anything interesting to offer here, as I have not read that much of his work. Here’s a first reaction:

    1. He’s an outstanding communicator and his ideas are mostly sound, but not especially innovative.

    2. I’m more interested in people with brilliant ideas than people with very good ideas who are excellent communicators.

    But please don’t take any of that as criticism, as I haven’t studied him enough—maybe he does have brilliant insights. He’s still probably better than 99.9% of professors.

    And communication is a really important skill.

    Kevin, Yes, they defaulted. My point was that even after the default people kept saying the Greek debt was unpayable.

    Jonathan, Last year I frequently used the Berlusconi analogy. It’s one of the most accurate.

    Massimo, You said:

    “Bill Kristol’s enthusiasm for demographic replacement of ethnically white people (https://youtu.be/mWJSKhEwjy8) does seem to mirror Scott Sumner’s view.”

    Typical of you, he didn’t actually say that at all. Are Irish and Italians not white?

  23. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    29. January 2018 at 13:08

    It seems impossible for some to imagine that some of us don’t care about the racial makeup of immigrants. We just want open borders for non-criminals on both moral and economic grounds. Many racists don’t seem to believe that some of us don’t take race into account at all.

  24. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    29. January 2018 at 15:28


    “Typical of you, he didn’t actually say that at all. Are Irish and Italians not white?”

    Kristol really did advocate demographically replacing the white working class with new Americans in that clip. I’m not mischaracterizing what he said or quoting deceptively out of context. That’s exactly what he said. I’d imagine that despite my unpopularity among other commenters here, some would grudgingly agree with me. I’m sure others are comfortable rejecting or ignoring what I say regardless of its merit, but the ones that actually seriously consider it, I would be would agree with me on this.

    Kristol’s reference to Irish and Italians was a reference to past waves of immigration to the US, and yes, those were ethnically white.

    If Kristol was simply advocating harsh meritocracy that was otherwise racially/ethnically neutral, I’d be sympathetic. But he singled out ethnic whites as a group to be demographically removed/replaced. I can’t imagine him, or you, making similar comments about black, hispanic, or even some group of immigrants to be demographically removed/replaced for low socioeconomic performance.

  25. Gravatar of RobA RobA
    30. January 2018 at 05:14

    “Once again, the pessimists were wrong. And once again the good news got almost no press attention, while the previous bad news got headlines in the “serious” international media.”

    This is a great example of the well documented phenomena of “negativity bias.” See “Negativity Bias, Negativity Domination, and Contagion” by Rozin and Royzman.

    Generally speaking, negative entities (perceptions, attributions, and evaluations) are thought to be more salient and more powerful than corresponding positive entities, and they are perceived in more detail. The impressions left by negative entities last longer than the impressions left by positive entities. Negative evaluations are also more contagious than their opposite.

    Beware of Greeks bearing gifts…!

  26. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. January 2018 at 08:32

    Massimo, Your either being disingenuous or you are really dense. Mike Sandifer, Kristol and I could care less whether immigrants are one race or another.

    I know it hard for people like you who are obsessed with race to imagine that, but it’s true. He just wants hard workers. He says that if that leads to non-white immigration reducing the percentage of Americans who are white then he’s fine with that. But it’s not what he’s advocating. He’s advocating immigration of hard workers.

    You don’t seem to understand that America is not a white country, in the sense that Japan is a Japanese country. America is a multiracial country, and always has been.

    Rob. Yes, it also explain why so many Americans don’t know that the past 30 or 40 years have been by far the best years in human history, with the greatest progress.

  27. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    30. January 2018 at 11:24

    Scott, maybe the racialists are right. Have you considered implementing a pure Aryan comment policy? Have candidate commenters submit their notarized gene sequences so you can ensure there are no racial impurities. For example, Hitler clearly spelled out in Mein Kampf that Slavs are a slave race. People here might lump them in with some fuzzy notion of “whites” but why pollute your comment section with impure slave genes for the sake of some sort of false pan-white political correctness? Practice good racial hygiene! You’re best off with 100% pure Aryan commenters, and we have the technology now to ensure it. Sieg Heil! /s

  28. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    31. January 2018 at 14:10

    t want open borders for non-criminals on both moral and economic grounds. Many racists don’t seem to believe that some of us don’t take race into account at all.”

    I’m sure you would object to a racially discriminatory immigration model, so in that sense you do care of the racial makeup of immigrants. But, while I don’t know you, I do believable that you/Sumner/Kristol don’t wish ill upon white individuals or any individuals regardless of their race/ethnicity/religion. I don’t either.

    I do believe that you/Sumner/Kristol are imposing this open borders morality mostly exclusively on the US the Europe, and maybe Canada + Australia. And Sumner seems to be saying that Japan is an ethnically homogeneous nation and is morally allowed to be that way and aggressively restrict the rights of others to live in Japan and gain membership into Japanese society. You/Sumner/Kristol really do expect the ethnically white groups of the planet to make the biggest sacrifices, and hold them morally reprehensible for any resistance, and have almost the opposite expectation for most non-white groups of the globe.


    “You don’t seem to understand that America is not a white country, in the sense that Japan is a Japanese country. America is a multiracial country, and always has been.”

    Not to be petty, but Japan is multi-racial, there have long been indigenous Ainu living in Japan, there are black Japanese, Brazilian Japanese, and Han Chinese Japanese. And even what is considered “ethnic Japanese” has tons of admixture as well. Secondly, why does this matter? Even if some people have a perception of Japan as a homogeneous ethnic nation state, are you advocating that this perception grants present day Japan some kind of moral privilege to deny entry and membership and deport others today?

    There is also the notion that nations are owned by their citizens and their descendants. Or as the preamble to the US constitution declares, “for ourselves and our posterity”. Citizens have proportional ownership of their nation like stockholders own stock in a company. Others can buy stock in a company, but they can’t just waltz over and claim equal ownership. Existing citizens of all races have proportional ownership of the US, but that isn’t something that foreigners have a rightful claim to.

    Next, I agree with the win-win positive sum gains of trade, I like the idea of more voluntary exchange by maximizing human mobility, I like the idea of giving more people on Earth more opportunity, and if you can iron out the problems, I would support an open borders movement. But as it is, it doesn’t seem reasonable or honest.

    @Tom Brown, That comment is crazy and is mostly just calling me a racist rather than making any particular point.

  29. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    6. February 2018 at 09:16


    very simple questions: Are you saying that a nation like Japan has a moral license to exist as an ethnically homogeneous nation? Does Japan have moral license to exclude foreigners on racial grounds to keep their ethnic identity? Are you saying that the blacks/Muslims/whites who permanently live in Japan somehow less Japanese?

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