Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal

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John Stuart Mill: Strong Feelings Strongly Controlled by a Conscientious Will

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"Strong Feelings Make Me Stronger" by thezgi

Although I have been Associate Chair for Administration and Director of our Master of Applied Economics Program, I am saved from some of the more onerous leadership and decision-making roles within my department because I am considered a bit unpredictable and a bit too much outside valued boxes. (There is also a tendency to consider someone who has a generally has a positive outlook on people and situations as a less serious person.) In On Liberty, Chapter III: “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being,” paragraph 16, John Stuart Mill extols the virtues of being, in modern slang, a bit of a “loose cannon" and a bit of an "Energizer Bunny": 

As is usually the case with ideals which exclude one-half of what is desirable, the present standard of approbation produces only an inferior imitation of the other half. Instead of great energies guided by vigorous reason, and strong feelings strongly controlled by a conscientious will, its result is weak feelings and weak energies, which therefore can be kept in outward conformity to rule without any strength either of will or of reason. Already energetic characters on any large scale are becoming merely traditional. There is now scarcely any outlet for energy in this country except business. The energy expended in this may still be regarded as considerable. What little is left from that employment, is expended on some hobby; which may be a useful, even a philanthropic hobby, but is always some one thing, and generally a thing of small dimensions. The greatness of England is now all collective: individually small, we only appear capable of anything great by our habit of combining; and with this our moral and religious philanthropists are perfectly contented. But it was men of another stamp than this that made England what it has been; and men of another stamp will be needed to prevent its decline.

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Update: On the Facebook version of this post, David Yves offers this comment:

“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” -Bertrand Russell. If only we didn’t have to fear.

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Mormon Hell Tweets

Yesterday I posted my favorite song from the musical “The Book of Mormon”: the very moving "Sal Tlay Ka Siti." The title of the storified tweets linked from the title above is inspired by another, much campier, song from “The Book of Mormon”: "Spooky Mormon Hell Dreams." The tweets themselves are about Noah Smith’s guest post "Mom in Hell."

By the way, it is worth listening to the song “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” here and then reading "Mom in Hell" again with “Hell” replaced with “desperate poverty abroad” and “Heaven” replaced by “America.”

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The Message of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”

To folks in desperate poverty around the world, America is heaven on earth. Maybe we should let people into heaven.  

I saw the musical “The Book of Mormon” in London with my family during the week I went to the Bank of England to talk about eliminating the zero lower bound (and wrote A Minimalist Implementation of Electronic Money  and How to Set the Exchange Rate Between Paper Currency and Electronic Money).

To me, the most moving and powerful song was the one above: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” Though Salt Lake City is a very nice city, the song is really about America and what America means to people in other countries much poorer than ours. I hope you take time to listen to the song and think about its message. Here is the link to the video above that has the lyrics and audio for the song Sal Tlay Ka Siti from the play. But you can watch it right here. (The music starts about 15 seconds in.)

Note: my column “The Hunger Games is Hardly Our Future: It’s Already Here" has the same message. I think you will like it. I also put out a couple of tweets about immigration on Monday morning while reading the Wall Street Journal article “Jeb Bush to Decide by Year-End Whether to Run for President”:

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Noah Smith: Mom in Hell

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Coppo di Marcovaldo’s “Inferno”

This is a guest post by Noah Smith. 

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How can you be happy in Heaven while your mom is in Hell?

In his famous 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, Jonathan Edwards said:

There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.

Now, in a time when most people still lived lives of poverty and hardship, florid language like that was probably necessary just to get people to pay attention in church. But the sermon illustrates something that I’ve never really understood about Christianity - the idea of Hell.

In the Christian concept of Hell, if you believe in Jesus (and in some denominations, maybe satisfy a few other requirements), you go to Heaven, and if you don’t believe in Jesus, you go to Hell. So in Christianity, it’s perfectly possible for you to be in Heaven while your mom is in Hell, experiencing all the nasty stuff that Jonathan Edwards describes.

Now, a Christian will tell you, we don’t know who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. But after you die, you must surely be able to know. If you’re in Heaven, and you want to say hi to your mom, you can just look her up. If she’s in Heaven with you, you should be able to easily find her, using whatever version of the white pages exists in Heaven. If you can’t find her, you will know by process of elimination that she must be in Hell.

So, you’re supposed to be happy in Heaven, right? But suppose your mom goes to Hell. How can you be eternally happy, knowing that your mom is experiencing eternal torment?

Maybe Heaven changes you. Maybe once you go to Heaven, you don’t mind if your mom is in Hell. But that would be a really big personality change, right? I think that if I became someone who didn’t mind my mom suffering eternal torment, I wouldn’t really be me anymore. It would be someone else in Heaven, and I’d just be gone.

Now, a Christian believer in Hell might respond, “What’s to understand? If you go to Heaven and your mom goes to Hell, then you’re just going to have to deal with it.” But in that case, the idea that Heaven is a place where you’re happy forever has got to be tossed out the window.

So I just don’t understand how the Heaven/Hell system works. If people only cared about themselves, then it would make sense, but we care about other people too. And it’s just flat-out impossible for most people to be totally happy while knowing that someone they love is being tortured eternally in the most horrific concentration camp in the cosmos. But according to Christianity, that situation is perfectly capable of happening.

I just don’t get it.

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Don’t miss Noah’s other guest religion posts:

  1. God and SuperGod 
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God

For other religion posts, see my Religion, Philosophy, Humanities, Science Fiction and Science sub-blog. 

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John Stuart Mill: Against Enforced Moderation

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I have always thought of moderation as a good thing, but John Stuart Mill is willing to take the contrary position and argue against moderation if moderation is imposed by someone else. Here is what he says in On Liberty, Chapter III: “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being,” paragraph 15:

There is one characteristic of the present direction of public opinion, peculiarly calculated to make it intolerant of any marked demonstration of individuality. The general average of mankind are not only moderate in intellect, but also moderate in inclinations: they have no tastes or wishes strong enough to incline them to do anything unusual, and they consequently do not understand those who have, and class all such with the wild and intemperate whom they are accustomed to look down upon. Now, in addition to this fact which is general, we have only to suppose that a strong movement has set in towards the improvement of morals, and it is evident what we have to expect. In these days such a movement has set in; much has actually been effected in the way of increased regularity of conduct, and discouragement of excesses; and there is a philanthropic spirit abroad, for the exercise of which there is no more inviting field than the moral and prudential improvement of our fellow-creatures. These tendencies of the times cause the public to be more disposed than at most former periods to prescribe general rules of conduct, and endeavour to make every one conform to the approved standard. And that standard, express or tacit, is to desire nothing strongly. Its ideal of character is to be without any marked character; to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.

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Thomas Jefferson and Religious Freedom

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Thomas Jefferson

In his book Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America (p. 307), Jack Rakove writes:

As he later explained in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson had further reasons for making historical literacy the foundation of a common education. Rather than “putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.” … the kinds of historical facts that Jefferson deemed useful and his ideas of education carry over into the subject of bill 82, the bill for religious freedom. Though its formal purpose was to disestablish the Anglican Church, its deeper animus was to free individuals from any obligation to adopt religious views they found unpersuasive. In Jefferson’s view, all religious belief was finally a matter of individual opinion. The history of religious establishments was an unrelenting story of corrupting alliances between churchmen and rulers, abusing their power to impose their opinions and modes of thinking on others. This too was a form of tyranny, as inimical to liberty as anything else the Stuarts and other execrable autocrats had attempted. For Jefferson as for Locke, religion was not  a matter of children inheriting the faith of parents. It was instead a subject of inquiry, and no one could simply adopt another’s convictions. The point of reading history first, scripture later, was to empower individuals to judge the claims of all religions by teaching them that much of what passed for orthodoxy in other times and places depended on the impure alliance of church and state.  

See also "The Importance of the Next Generation: Thomas Jefferson Grokked It."

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John Stuart Mill: Different Strokes for Different Folks

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Preference heterogeneity—different people wanting different things—has been a major theme in my research. In On Liberty, Chapter III: “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being,” paragraph 14, John Stuart Mill emphasizes the benefits for people’s welfare of letting them pursue their own desires, even if some of those desires are hard for us to understand:

I have said that it is important to give the freest scope possible to uncustomary things, in order that it may in time appear which of these are fit to be converted into customs. But independence of action, and disregard of custom, are not solely deserving of encouragement for the chance they afford that better modes of action, and customs more worthy of general adoption, may be struck out; nor is it only persons of decided mental superiority who have a just claim to carry on their lives in their own way. There is no reason that all human existence should be constructed on some one or some small number of patterns. If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode. Human beings are not like sheep; and even sheep are not undistinguishably alike. A man cannot get a coat or a pair of boots to fit him, unless they are either made to his measure, or he has a whole warehouseful to choose from: and is it easier to fit him with a life than with a coat, or are human beings more like one another in their whole physical and spiritual conformation than in the shape of their feet? If it were only that people have diversities of taste, that is reason enough for not attempting to shape them all after one model. But different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral, than all the variety of plants can in the same physical, atmosphere and climate. The same things which are helps to one person towards the cultivation of his higher nature, are hindrances to another. The same mode of life is a healthy excitement to one, keeping all his faculties of action and enjoyment in their best order, while to another it is a distracting burthen, which suspends or crushes all internal life. Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable. Why then should tolerance, as far as the public sentiment is concerned, extend only to tastes and modes of life which extort acquiescence by the multitude of their adherents? Nowhere (except in some monastic institutions) is diversity of taste entirely unrecognised; a person may, without blame, either like or dislike rowing, or smoking, or music, or athletic exercises, or chess, or cards, or study, because both those who like each of these things, and those who dislike them, are too numerous to be put down. But the man, and still more the woman, who can be accused either of doing “what nobody does,” or of not doing “what everybody does,” is the subject of as much depreciatory remark as if he or she had committed some grave moral delinquency. Persons require to possess a title, or some other badge of rank, or of the consideration of people of rank, to be able to indulge somewhat in the luxury of doing as they like without detriment to their estimation. To indulge somewhat, I repeat: for whoever allow themselves much of that indulgence, incur the risk of something worse than disparaging speeches—they are in peril of a commission de lunatico, and of having their property taken from them and given to their relations.

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Jonathan Haidt—What the Tea Partiers Really Want: Karma

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I am a fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work. I learned a lot from his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and used those ideas in my column “Judging the Nations: Wealth and Happiness Are Not Enough.” I also quoted one of my favorite passages from The Righteous Mind in ”God and Devil in the Marketplace.”

Jonathan wrote a very interesting piece in the Wall Street, October 16, 2010: “What the Tea Partiers Really Want.” Here is a key passage:

But the passion of the tea-party movement is, in fact, a moral passion. It can be summarized in one word: not liberty, but karma.

The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for “deed” or “action,” and the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it’s just a law of the universe, like gravity.

Karma is not an exclusively Hindu idea. It combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced. In 1932, the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget found that by the age of 6, children begin to believe that bad things that happen to them are punishments for bad things they have done.

To understand the anger of the tea-party movement, just imagine how you would feel if you learned that government physicists were building a particle accelerator that might, as a side effect of its experiments, nullify the law of gravity. Everything around us would float away, and the Earth itself would break apart. Now, instead of that scenario, suppose you learned that politicians were devising policies that might, as a side effect of their enactment, nullify the law of karma. Bad deeds would no longer lead to bad outcomes, and the fragile moral order of our nation would break apart. For tea partiers, this scenario is not science fiction. It is the last 80 years of American history.

 

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John Stuart Mill: In Praise of Eccentricity

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Link for freely downloadable poster

In On Liberty, Chapter III: “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being,” paragraph 13, John Stuart Mill writes:

In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

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On Idealism Versus Cynicism

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Image source: “Noonan Goes All Krugman on Us” by Hendrik Hertzberg

I know from Twitter interactions that Peggy Noonan is not everyone’s favorite essayist. But I like what she has to say in her February 18, 2014 blog post “Our Decadent Elites.” She starts by talking about the TV series “House of Cards”:

“House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. 

Peggy points out how, rather than dispute the picture of Washington given by “House of Cards,” many Washington politicians “embrace the show and become part of its promotion by spouting its famous lines”. And she brings in the folks on Wall Street by flagging Kevin Roose’s fly-on-the-wall account of financial bigwigs at play in the New York Magazine: “One-Percent Jokes and Plutocrats in Drag: What I Saw When I Crashed a Wall Street Secret Society.”

What I like most is Peggy’s picture of how things should be. She writes:

We’re at a funny point in our political culture. To have judgment is to be an elitist. To have dignity is to be yesterday. To have standards is to be a hypocrite—you won’t always meet standards even when they’re your own, so why have them?

Judgement, dignity and standards are the watchwords. And here is her picture of the white hats (which is my attempt at a gender-neutral equivalent of “the good guys”):

No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”

Highlighting the key words, that is: 

  • earnest outsider,
  • sober steward,
  • grind,
  • carrying a cross of dignity,
  • staid,
  • willing to say “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”  

I think that often, doing good can be more fun than Peggy suggests. But in the tough cases, this is a good picture of the kind of idealism we should all strive for—and never be ashamed of.  

The need for such idealism cuts across all professions. For example, as I wrote in "When Honest House Appraisers Tried to Save the World,"

Being a bond-rater may not seem like the kind of job that could save the world, but it was. In particular, the financial crisis that has cost us so dearly since 2008 could have been avoided if the bond-raters had refused to stamp undeserving mortgage-backed securities as AAA.

On the whole, I am impressed with the degree to which the economists I know put truth first, and how seriously they take the responsibility to push public policy in constructive directions. And for unabashed idealism, the blogosphere is like a shining light in comparison to the darkness that Peggy sees in the halls of power.  

But is idealism a chump’s game that can only lead to personal disillusionment? I don’t think so. As I wrote in my 2013 Christmas column “That Baby Born in Bethlehem Should Inspire Society to Keep Redeeming Itself”:

… the fact that the young will soon replace us gives rise to an important strategic principle: however hard it may seem to change misguided institutions and policies, all it takes to succeed in such an effort is to durably convince the young that there is a better way. 

For those who have something worthwhile to say, there has never been a time in the earth’s history when it was easier to reach more young people to make one’s case. And somewhat parochially, I can’t help thinking that young economists are an especially important audience. (Here I include among economists all those who love economics, regardless of their level of formal training.) The world listens to economists—and will continue to listen to at least that subset of economists who put truth first, ahead of personal gain and partisan commitments. 

The wheel of time turns, and today’s darkness is swept into the grave (sadly, along with much that is very, very good). Let us create light for the future; then in the future there will be light.  

Update: In a tweet, Claudia Sahm speculates about the operative definition of “young.” My answer in that convo was this:

My image of “young” is someone who does not yet feel powerful, but is likely to have more influence in the future than now.

I have the sense that not yet feeling powerful often makes people more open to persuasion, starting with the time and willingness to hear out a new idea. “More influence in the future than now” has different timelines for different kinds of influence. Those under 18 are on a track to having more influence as voters in the future than now. Peak influence within economic in hiring and tenure decisions, and as journal referees and editors comes later. Peak influence within an organization like the Federal Reserve Board probably comes later still in the life cycle.  

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