Posts tagged ‘Bryan Caplan’

Squishy Words That Create Problems For Using Results of Scientific Studies

The IPCC AR4 summary report had this critical conclusion:

Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.[7] It is likely that there has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent (except Antarctica)

I want to come back to this in a second, but here is a story the Bryan Caplan posted on his blog.  He is quoting from Tetlock and Gardner's Superforecasting

In March 1951 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) 29-51 was published.  "Although it is impossible to determine which course of action the Kremlin is likely to adopt," the report concluded, "we believe that the extent of [Eastern European] military and propaganda preparations indicate that an attack on Yugoslavia in 1951 should be considered a serious possibility." ...But a few days later, [Sherman] Kent was chatting with a senior State Department official who casually asked, "By the way, what did you people mean by the expression 'serious possibility'?  What kind of odds did you have in mind?"  Kent said he was pessimistic.  He felt the odds were about 65 to 35 in favor of an attack.  The official was started.  He and his colleagues had taken "serious possibility" to mean much lower odds.

Disturbed, Kent went back to his team.  They had all agreed to use "serious possibility" in the NIE so Kent asked each person, in turn, what he thought it meant.  One analyst said it meant odds of about 80 to 20, or four times more likely than not that there would be an invasion.  Another thought it meant odds of 20 to 80 - exactly the opposite.  Other answers were scattered between these extremes.  Kent was floored.

Let's go back to the IPCC summary conclusion, which is quoted and used all over the place  (no one in the media ever actually digs into the charts and analysis, they just stop at this quote).  A few thoughts:

  1. This kind of conclusion is typical of team process and perhaps is a reason that large teams shouldn't do scientific studies.  We wouldn't have aspirin if 500 people all had to agree on a recommendation to allow it.
  2. Climate alarmists often claim "consensus".  Part of the way they get consensus is by excluding anyone who disagrees with them from the IPCC process and publication.  But even within the remaining core, scientists have vast differences in how they evaluate the data.  Consensus only exists because the conclusions use weasel words with uncertain meaning like "most"  and "significant"  (rather than a percentage) and "very likely" (rather than a probability).
  3. Is "most" 51% or 95%?  The difference between these two is almost a doubling of the implied temperature sensitivity to CO2  -- close to the magnitude of difference between lukewarmer and IPCC estimates.  Many skeptics (including myself) think past warming due to man might be 0.3-0.4C which is very nearly encompassed by "most".
  4. It may be that this uncertainty is treated as a feature, not a bug, by activists, who can take a word scientists meant to mean 51% and portray it as meaning nearly 100%.

For an example of this sort of thing taken to an extreme, arguably corrupt level, consider the original 97% global warming consensus survey which asked 77 scientists hand-selected from a pool of over 10,000 working on climate-related topics two questions.  Answering yes to the two questions put you in the 97%.  In the context of what was written above, note the wording:

That anything-but-scientific survey asked two questions. The first: “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?”  Few would be expected to dispute this…the planet began thawing out of the “Little Ice Age” in the middle 19th century, predating the Industrial Revolution. (That was the coldest period since the last real Ice Age ended roughly 10,000 years ago.)

The second question asked: “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?” So what constitutes “significant”? Does “changing” include both cooling and warming… and for both “better” and “worse”? And which contributions…does this include land use changes, such as agriculture and deforestation?

Good Lord, I am a hated skeptic frequently derided as a denier and I would answer both "yes" and be in the 97% consensus.  So would most all of the prominent science-based skeptics you have ever heard of.

 

What Differentiates Republicans and Democrats

I saw this chart from Cato a while back (click to enlarge)

With the proviso that it is super dangerous to analyze this sort of data by eyeballing a scatter chart, it sure looks to me like the difference between Republicans and Democrats is mainly on economic rather than social issues.  This is surprising, I suppose, because Democrats and the media focus most of their criticism on Republicans for being social dinosaurs, but it looks like the social issues are not as much of a discriminator.  I also find it surprising given recent the Republican affinity for what strike me as liberal economic ideas, including Trump's protectionism and the strong vote for a minimum wage in red-state Arizona.

I will say however that Bryan Caplan has been on this for years.  As he reiterated the other day,

I regretfully invoke my Simplistic Theory of Left and Right.  The heart of the left isn't helping the poor, or reducing inequality, or even minority rights.  The heart of the left is being anti-market.... The second half of my Simplistic Theory says: The heart of the right is being anti-left.

I like the way he puts the last bit, because I SURE would struggle to call modern Republicans pro-market.

In this post, by the way, Caplan is skeptical about the feasibility of progressive-libertarian concerted action on certain issues.  I know my friend Brink Lindsey is working on a book to be released in the fall which will make a case for such areas of cooperation.

I will say from my personal experience that as a libertarian I was able for years to make common cause with the Left on certain issues and on the Right for other issues.  I found, starting a couple of years ago when I tried to participate in the leadership of a pro gay marriage effort, that it was increasingly hard for me to work with the progressive Left.  To work with me, they demanded not just that I agree with the issue at hand, but that I also had to pass any number of other litmus tests unrelated to the issue we were working on -- ie I could not be allowed to work for gay marriage given that I had expressed skeptical opinions on the minimum wage and catastrophic man-made climate change.

Well, I Was Uninvited to Speak on Climate -- A Post-Modern Story of Ignorance and Narrow-Mindedness

Well, I got dis-invited yet again from giving my climate presentation.  I guess I should be used to it by now, but in this case I had agreed to actually do the presentation at my own personal expense (e.g. no honorarium and I paid my own travel expenses).  Since I was uninvited 2 days prior to the event, I ended up eating, personally, all my travel expenses.  There are perhaps folks out there in the climate debate living high off the hog from Exxon or Koch money, but if so that is definitely not me, so it came out of my own pocket.   I have waited a few days after this happened to cool off to make a point about the state of public discourse without being too emotional about it.

I don't want to get into the details of my presentation (you can see it here at Claremont-McKenna College) but it is called "Understanding the Climate Debate:  The Lost Middle Ground" (given the story that follows, this is deeply ironic).  The point of the presentation is that there is a pretty mainstream skeptic/lukewarmer position that manmade warming via greenhouse gasses is real but greatly exaggerated.  It even suggests a compromise legislative approach implementing a carbon tax offset by reductions in some other regressive tax (like payroll taxes) and accompanied by a reduction in government micro-meddling in green investments (e.g. ethanol subsidies, solyndra, EV subsidies, etc).

I am not going to name the specific group, because the gentleman running the groups' conference was probably just as pissed off as I at the forces that arrayed themselves to have me banned from speaking.  Suffice it to say that this is a sort of trade group that consists of people from both private companies and public agencies in Southern California.

Attentive readers will probably immediately look at the last sentence and guess whence the problem started.  Several public agencies, including the City of Los Angeles, voiced EXTREME displeasure with my being asked to speak.  The opposition, particularly from the LA city representative, called my presentation "the climate denier workshop" [ed note:  I don't deny there is a climate] and the organizer who invited me was sent flat Earth cartoons.

Now, it seems kind of amazing that a presentation that calls for a carbon tax and acknowledges 1-1.5 degrees C of man-made warming per century could be called an extremist denier presentation.  But here is the key to understand -- no one who opposed my presentation had ever bothered to see it.  This despite the fact that I sent them both a copy of the CMC video linked above as well as this very short 4-page summary from Forbes.  But everyone involved was more willing to spend hours and hours arguing that I was a child of Satan than they were willing to spend 5-minutes acquainting themselves with what I actually say.

In fact, I would be willing to bet that the folks who were most vociferous in their opposition to this talk have never actually read anything from a skeptic.  It is a hallmark of modern public discourse that people frequently don't know the other side's argument from the other side itself, but rather from its own side (Bryan Caplan, call your office).   This is roughly equivalent to knowing about Hillary Clinton's policy positions solely from listening to Rush Limbaugh.  It is a terrible way to be an informed adult participating in public discourse, but unfortunately it is a practice being encouraged by most universities.  Nearly every professor is Progressive or at least left of center.  Every speaker who is not left of center is banned or heckled into oblivion.  When a speaker who disagrees with the Progressive consensus on campus is let through the door, the university sponsors rubber rooms with coloring books and stuffed unicorns for delicate students.  There are actually prominent academics who argue against free speech and free exchange of diverse ideas on the theory that some ideas (ie all the ones they disagree with) are too dangerous be allowed a voice in public.   Universities have become cocoons for protecting young people from challenging and uncomfortable ideas.

I will take this all as a spur to do a next generation video or video series for YouTube  -- though YouTube has started banning videos not liked by the Left, there is still room there to have a public voice.  I just bought a nice new microphone so I guess it is time to get to work.  I am presenting in Regina next week (high 22F, yay!) but after that I will start working on a video.

Postscript:  You know what this reminds me of?  Back when I was a kid, forty years ago growing up in Texas, from time to time there would be a book-banning fight in the state.  Perhaps there still are such fights.  Generally some religious group will oppose a certain classic work of literature because it taught some bad moral lesson, or had bad words in it, or something.  But you know what often became totally clear in such events?  That the vast vast majority of the offended people had not actually read the book, or if they had, they could not remember any of it.  They were participating because someone else on their side told them they should be against the book, probably also someone else who had never even read the thing.  But I don't think that was the point.  The objective was one of virtue-signalling, to reinforce ties in their own tribe and make it clear that they did not like some other tribe.  At some point the content of the book became irrelevant to how the book was perceived by both tribes -- which is why I call this "post-modern" in my title.

I Never Listen to Democrats; I Learned Everything I Need To Know About them From Rush Limbaugh

One of my huge pet peeves is when people rely only on their own side for knowledge of their opponents' positions.  The inevitable result of this is that there is a lot of debating against straw men.

As an aside, this is why I really like Bryan Caplan's ideological Turing test.  If you are going to seriously debate someone, you need to be able to state their arguments in an unironic way such that that person's supporters would mistake you for one of their own.  If I were to teach anything at all political, I would structure the course in a way that folks would debate and advocate both sides of a question (that is, of course, if any university would allow me to ask, say, a minimum wage advocate to take the opposite position without accusing me of creating an unsafe environment).

Anyway, a while back I asked if the folks who were protesting the showing of American Sniper on campus had actually seen the damn movie.  I suspected they had not, or at least really interpreted film differently than I do.  Though perhaps pro-soldier, I read the movie as having a pretty stark anti-war message.

Anyway, American Sniper has become a favorite target for banning within our great universities the purport to be teaching critical thinking.  This is from one student group's (successful) appeal for a ban on showing the movie on campus:

This war propaganda guised as art reveals a not-so-discreet Islamaphobic, violent, and racist nationalist ideology. A simple Google search will give you hundreds of articles that delve into how this film has fueled anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments; its visceral "us verses them" narrative helps to proliferate the marginalization of multiple groups and communities - many of which exist here at UMD.

This is not the language people would use if they had actually seen the film.  Instead of taking specific examples from the film, they refer to Google searches of articles, perhaps by other people who have not seen the film (as an aside, this has to be the all-time worst appeal to authority ever -- I can find not hundreds but thousands of articles on the Internet about anything -- there are tens of thousands alone on the moon landings being faked).

So In The End, The VA Was Rewarded, Not Punished

Remember the whole VA thing?  It has mostly been forgotten, though we will all remember it again, or more accurately get to experience it ourselves, once the Democrats manage to get single payer passed.

People talk about government employees being motivated by "public service" but in fact very few government agencies have any tangible performance metrics linked to public service, and when they do (as in the case of the VA wait times) they just game them.   At the end of the day, nothing enforces fidelity to the public good like competition and consumer choice, two things no government agency allows.

I will admit that government employees in agencies may have some interest in public welfare, but in the hierarchy of needs, the following three things dominate above any concerns for the public:

  • Keeping the agency in existence
  • Maintaining employment levels, and if that is achieved, increasing employment levels
  • Getting more budget

But look at the VA response in this context:

  • The agency remains in existence and most proposals to privatize certain parts were beaten back
  • No one was fired and employment levels remain the same
  • The agency was rewarded with a big bump in its budget

The VA won!  Whereas a private company with that kind of negative publicity about how customers were treated would have as a minimum seen a huge revenue and market share loss, and might have faced bankruptcy, the VA was given more money.

Murry Rothbard via Bryan Caplan:

On the free market, in short, the consumer is king, and any business firm that wants to make profits and avoid losses tries its best to serve the consumer as efficiently and at as low a cost as possible. In a government operation, in contrast, everything changes. Inherent in all government operation is a grave and fatal split between service and payment, between the providing of a service and the payment for receiving it. The government bureau does not get its income as does the private firm, from serving the consumer well or from consumer purchases of its products exceeding its costs of operation. No, the government bureau acquires its income from mulcting the long-suffering taxpayer. Its operations therefore become inefficient, and costs zoom, since government bureaus need not worry about losses or bankruptcy; they can make up their losses by additional extractions from the public till. Furthermore, the consumer, instead of being courted and wooed for his favor, becomes a mere annoyance to the government someone who is "wasting" the government's scarce resources. In government operations, the consumer is treated like an unwelcome intruder, an interference in the quiet enjoyment by the bureaucrat of his steady income.

On the Death Penalty and Ideological Turing Tests

Actually trying to understand how those you disagree with think, rather than just accepting some straw man version, can make one a much better debater.  Bryan Caplan's ideological Turing test is not just about empathy and being open to opposing arguments, but it also pays dividends in making better arguments for one's own positions.  I love how Jesse Walker begins his pitch to Conservatives against the death penalty:

The typical conservative is well informed about the careless errors routinely made by the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Service, and city hall. If he's a policy wonk, he may have bookmarked the Office of Management and Budget's online list of federal programs that manage to issue more than $750 million in mistaken payments each year. He understands the incentives that can make an entrenched bureaucracy unwilling to acknowledge, let alone correct, its mistakes. He doesn't trust the government to manage anything properly, even the things he thinks it should be managing.

Except, apparently, the minor matter of who gets to live or die. Bring up the death penalty, and many conservatives will suddenly exhibit enough faith in government competence to keep the Center for American Progress afloat for a year. Yet the system that kills convicts is riddled with errors.

Soft Head, Soft Heart Argument

Bryan Caplan asks:

So I propose a simple challenge to pave the way to my refutation: Tell me how to sell the abolition of the minimum wage to the typical Feeling American.

Please don't give me any "hard heads, soft hearts" answers.  Give me "soft heads, soft hearts" answers.  You're trying to persuade Oprah Winfrey, not Data from Star Trek after he gets his emotion chip.

I am not sure what makes for a soft head argument, but lots of talk about oppressors and racism combined with argument by anecdote rather than facts felt right, so this was my shot at it:

Bobby is a black teen in Chicago. Since he has just 9 years old, the only way he could support his family and survive in his neighborhood was to join a gang and deal drugs.

After his recent arrest, Bobby wants to go straight, to escape the cycle of crime and violence into which he has become trapped. But no one will hire him without experience. He needs a history showing he can do simple things, like show up reliably to work on time, cooperate with other employees, and interact well with customers.

Bobby would be willing to work for free to gain this experience, to get a toe-hold on the simple skills many of us take for granted. Be he can't. he is barred by law. He cannot legally be offered a job for less than $8.25 an hour, a wage he could one day earn but right now lacks the basic skills to justify.

The minimum wage raises the first rung on the ladder of success higher than Bobby can possibly reach. This is not an accident. Early proponents of the minimum wage in the early 20th century supported it precisely because it protected white workers from competition from blacks attempting to enter the work force. The minimum wage began as, and still is, a tool of oppression,preventing young men like Bobby from gaining access to good employment.

Today, the unemployment among black teens has risen to nearly 40%. This is because the government has been working for years to help older white workers with political clout keep men like Bobby out of the workforce, and the minimum wage is their most powerful tool for doing so.

Draft and Slavery

I have a hard time seeing how anyone can deny that drafted soldiers are slaves of the state.  They are giving their time and labor only under compulsion, and while they may be better off than ante-bellum slaves in that they may eventually get freed after their term is over, to some extent they may be worse off as their time in servitude is a) more dangerous and b) involves taking morally more questionable actions (e.g. killing people).

I have assumed that those who supported the draft either were arguing that that threats in wartime justified this awful step or they were statists that already saw all the rest of us as slaves anyway.

However, Bryan Caplan had a useful observation on this:

It's tempting to dismiss all this as doublethink, but after many years of reflection I think I finally figured out what most people are thinking.  Namely: They implicitly regard slavery not as mere involuntary servitude, but as low-status involuntary servitude.  Since most of us honor, respect, and even adore all our soldiers, conscripts have high status - and therefore can't be slaves.  From this point of view, saying "conscription is slavery" isn't righteously standing up for the rights of conscripts; it's wickedly denying them their high status.  Sigh.

This rings true to me, but offers another avenue for those of us who oppose the draft -- the draft reduces the perceived status of those who serve voluntarily, something I certainly think happened in the Vietnam War.  In a way, it is reminiscent of how the existence of affirmative action tends to undermine the perceived accomplishments of successful minorities.

No Wonder Al Gore Is So Obsessed With Weather!

Bryan Caplan links a 2007 study that looks at voter turnout and weather, and specifically tests the conventional wisdom that rain helps Republicans (by disproportionately surpressing the Democratic vote).

The findings appear to be that bad weather does help Republicans and does supress turnout.  However, in studying presidential elections, he finds few that would have had their outcome changed.  Here, however, was one exception:

The results of the zero precipitation scenarios reveal only two instances in which a perfectly dry election day would have changed an Electoral College outcome. Dry elections would have led Bill Clinton to win North Carolina in 1992 and Al Gore to win Florida in 2000. This latter change in the allocation of Florida's electors would have swung the incredibly close 2000 election in Gore's favor.

Since we know from Gore that heavy snow, no snow, heavy rain, and no rain are all caused by global warming, his 2000 electoral defeat was obviously caused by manmade CO2.

A HUGE Government Benefit

I had not realized that some Federal employees did not have to participate in Social Security.  Intriguingly, this fact was raised by people who were defending government pay as not being excessive -- they said something like, "well, some workers don't even get Social Security."  Via Bryan Caplan

Some government employees don't participate in Social Security. How does that change the benefits picture?

[T]hat's irrelevant because they're neither paying nor receiving benefits. If you follow Social Security, you know it pays a low rate of return... [N]ot to participate in Social Security is actually a benefit, because they're keeping more.

I agree. Not participating in Social Security is a huge benefit.  The implicit return on "premiums" paid by you and your employer is typically below zero.  In other words, if you took your social security taxes and stuffed them in a mattress, you would get a better return.  As I wrote in the link above

as a retirement program, [social security] is a really, really big RIPOFF.  Ever worker in this country is being raped by this retirement plan.  In fact, it is the worst retirement program in the whole country:

  • As we see above, it pays a negative rate of return
  • It is not optional "“ you go to prison if you choose not to participate
  • Unlike a private annuity contract, the government can rewrite your benefits level any time, and you have to take it.  In fact, my statement says "Your estimated benefits are based on current law.  Congress has made changes to the law in the past and can do so at any time.  The law governing benefit amounts may change because, by 2040, the payroll taxes collected will be enough to pay only about 74 percent of scheduled benefits."
  • There are no assets backing this annuity!!  An insurance company that wrote annuities without any invested assets backing them would be thrown in jail faster than Jeff Skilling.  The government has been doing it for decades.

Don't Get Uppity

I have always wondered how people could describe European countries as more egalitarian than the US.  Yeah, I know the income distribution tends to be flatter, but that is almost entirely because the rich are richer in the US rather than the poor being poorer.  But pure income distribution has always seemed like a terrible way to make comparisons.  My perception has always been that class lines in Europe are much harder than they are in the US.  The elites in Europe have made a sort of arrangement in which they pay off the masses with an income floor and low work expectations in turn for making sure that none of the masses can in turn challenge their elite status or join their ranks.  The government protects large corporations form competition, foreign or domestic.  The government protects existing laborers against new entrants into the labor market.  The government makes it virtually impossible for the average guy to start a business.  The result is a lower and middle class who won't or can't aspire to breaking out of their class.  Elites are protected, and no one seems to care very much when political elites enrich themselves through public office and then entrench themselves and their families in the power system.  This, presumably, is why the American political class thinks so much of the European model.

Bryan Caplan writes via Marginal Revolution:

In the U.S., we have low gas taxes, low car taxes, few tolls, strict zoning that leads developers to provide lots of free parking, low speed limits, lots of traffic enforcement, and lots of congestion.

In Europe (France and Germany specifically), they have high gas
taxes, high car taxes, lots of tolls, almost no free parking, high
speed limits (often none at all), little traffic enforcement, and very
little congestion. (The only real traffic jam I endured in Europe was
trying to get into Paris during rush hour. I was delayed about 30
minutes total).

If you had to pick one of these two systems, which would you prefer?
Or to make the question a little cleaner, if there were two otherwise
identical countries, but one had the U.S. system and the other had the
Euro system, where would you decide to live?

Much as it pains me to admit, I would choose to live in the country
with the Euro system. If you're at least upper-middle class, the
convenience is worth the price. Yes, this is another secret way that
Europe is better for the rich, and the U.S. for everyone else.