29 Aug 2016

Cass Sunstein on Social Cost of Carbon

Climate Change, Shameless Self-Promotion 9 Comments

My latest at IER. How do you guys feel about my demonstration below? I think it’s pretty decisive, but then again, I’m presumably biased to like my own argument.

To avoid  confusion, I’m not going to use indenting etc. The italicized block quote below is from Cass Sunstein, and then the rest is my reaction.


First established by the Barack Obama administration in 2010, the central value for the social cost of carbon, last updated in 2015, is now $36. That figure is set within a range from $11 to $105, meant to acknowledge scientific and economic uncertainty. (Disclosure: As administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, I was involved in the process.) The $36 figure has international resonance; many nations are paying attention to it. It also plays a large role in discussions about the size of any possible carbon tax.

Although Sunstein doesn’t seem to realize it, the above statements contain a shocking admission. The “scientific and economic uncertainty” surrounding the concept mean that the Obama Administration was reporting a range for the “social cost of carbon” going from $11 to $105. When journalists or others cite the point estimate of $36, that is simply the “central value” in the broader range. As Sunstein himself admits later in his article: “Any particular number will of course be highly controversial.”

That range is enormous if the “social cost of carbon” (SCC) is going to be the foundation of the cost/benefit analyses of regulations involving greenhouse gas emissions. What would the world need to look like for Sunstein (or the circuit judges) to agree with the petitioners, that the SCC is an arbitrary concept?

Things that are actually settled science do not exhibit such controversy. For example, this NASA page reports that the (equatorial) radius of the moon is 1,738.1 kilometers. Now that’s just a rounded estimate, of course. If we polled various astronomers and physicists, they might disagree slightly on the best figure to report for “the radius of the moon.” However, no reputable scientists would say, “Any particular moon radius reported is controversial, but we are confident the range of the true figure is between 531 kilometers and 5,069 kilometers.” Would that make you confident that the scientists had a good idea of how big the moon was? Note that I used the same ratio of lower and upper bounds to the “central value” that Sunstein used for the social cost of carbon.

Or take human population. Nobody knows for certain how many people are on planet earth right now, but surely the proper experts have a pretty good idea. This website for example says the figure is some 7.4 billion people. To repeat, this is obviously just an estimate, and various scientists might disagree with each other and the best figure to report. But surely they wouldn’t say, “To account for the uncertainty in our analysis, we will report a range for the total global population between 2.3 billion and 21.6 billion. This is settled science—we are really confident the human population is somewhere in that range.”

If a government agency issued that kind of statement—saying the global population was somewhere between 2.3 billion and 21.6 billion—after studying the matter, and then issued regulations and taxes costing trillions of dollars on the basis of these calculations, would you feel good about the process?

Of course not. Such huge disparities in the bounds would indicate that scientistsdon’t really have a handle on these issues. And by the same token, when Cass Sunstein proudly tells us that the Obama Administration thinks the social cost of carbon is $36 per ton, but that it issued a range of $11 to $105 because of the “scientific and economic uncertainty” (his phrase, not mine), that should be Exhibit A in the petitioners’ case.

29 Aug 2016

Ice Cube on Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Sanders

Trump 19 Comments

This interview was posted back in April, but I just saw a clip on Twitter yesterday. Look at Ice Cube–writer and performer on such songs as “F*** tha Police”–discussing Trump and Clinton:

(In case you don’t get the reference, Hillary Clinton in 1996 referred to “superpredators” whom the authorities had to “bring to heel.”)

What’s my point in posting this? Simply this: If your theory of Donald Trump’s support is that “there are more racists in America than I previously realized,” you are wrong. Sure, racists do support Trump, but that doesn’t explain why Trump is so popular.

Or, do you think Bill Kristol and Scott Sumner need to explain to Ice Cube the plight of minorities in America, and how he shouldn’t trust a white man spouting lies?

P.S. Remember kids, I do not like Donald Trump. But when people make asinine, smug criticisms of him–like saying Sean Hannity is the only person in America who supports Trump–then I must speak up. Yes, a Trump Administration would be awful (in an absolute sense), but a lot of the “big guns” opposing him right now don’t understand what it is that his supporters like.

28 Aug 2016

Misguided Charity and Standard Free-Market Arguments

Religious, Voluntaryism 20 Comments

When I was at an Austrian economics conference in Rosario (Argentina) last week, they showed us a long segment from the Acton Institute’s film, “Poverty, Inc.” Here’s the trailer:

You can see some quick allusions to it in the trailer, but one of the themes is that sending free stuff actually makes the recipient countries poorer, because local entrepreneurs can’t develop. For example, they interviewed a guy trying to sell medical supplies, and he complained that every once in a while, in a completely unpredictable pattern, some international organization would dump months’ worth of free medical supplies onto the community, making him have to shut down for that period.

To be sure, there were plenty of other points the video brought up, but I’m guessing most of you can see why I want to focus on this particular point. It’s because it sounds eerily similar to standard arguments for protectionism.

(These points came up explicitly in my debate on free trade with Vox Day, hosted by Tom Woods.)

In other words, if a free market economist is going to say, “Of course we don’t need tariffs to keep out cheap goods, would we also keep out the sunlight to help our candle makers?” then don’t we similarly need to say, “Of course it helps an African country if an aid group gives them a bunch of medical supplies for free. If you doubt that, would we be helping the Africans by sending in Seal Team 6 to steal their syringes?”

And yet… It is also typical for a free market economist to say that the welfare state has hurt poor people, by trapping them in a cycle of poverty. But how do you reconcile that with a typical utility-maximizing agent? It can’t hurt to give someone options, right? So if the government says to women, “We will send you food stamps if you have kids and no husband,” how does that hurt them? Don’t the women rationally choose the option that is best?

Note, I’m being facetious here. I don’t think the welfare state helps poor people. But this Acton movie really got me thinking and I realized that several standard free market arguments on various issues are at best in tension, and at worst are contradictory.

Leaving the realm of secular economics models, it is certainly true that a Christian charity would not want an able-bodied person to be a recipient of assistance for years at a time. That would be considered harmful not just to the people paying for it, but to the recipient too. This is actually one of the reasons I personally think private, religious charities are better than secular State ones. I think the people running the private versions (in general) actually care more about the genuine welfare of the people they’re dealing with, and thus try to restore them to self-sufficiency rather than viewing them as clients.

27 Aug 2016

More Griping About Gary Johnson

Libertarianism 44 Comments

Both in recognition of my (perhaps disproportionate) annoyance, and to avoid alienating potential future Murphy book buyers, I am really trying to contain my social media criticism of Gary Johnson. But let me gripe about him here.

This recent Reason interview is astonishing. First of all look at this:

NICK GILLESPIE: Earlier this week, you suggested you were in favor of a carbon tax or fee. Yesterday, at a rally in New Hampshire (video here), you said you were against it. What is your position on carbon taxes?

GARY JOHNSON: [A carbon tax] sounds good in theory, but it wouldn’t work in practice. I never called it a tax. I called it a fee. As it was presented to me, this was the way to reduce carbon and actually reduce costs to reduce carbon. Under that premise—lower costs, better outcomes—you can always count on me to support that [sort of] notion. In theory it sounds good, but the reality is that it’s really complex and it won’t really accomplish that. So, no support for a carbon fee. I never raised one penny of tax as governor of New Mexico, not one cent in any area. Taxes to me are like a death plague.

Yeah, it’s glad that he switched, but his emphasis on his word choice is absurd.


Anyway let’s move on. Look at this:

GILLESPIE: Let’s talk about vaccines. There are no federal laws mandating vaccines, and that’s how it should be, as far as you’re concerned.


GILLESPIE: Various states treat vaccines differently, and you’re not wild about the range of individual choice and opt-out provisions, but you do believe it’s a state-level decision—or certainly that it’s not a federal-level decision.


GILLESPIE: There are people who say vaccines cause autism [and other problems] or that vaccines don’t work. Are you in that camp?

JOHNSON: No, I chose to have my children vaccinated. I understand all the concerns that some people have, but for me personally, I made a decision to have my children vaccinated. I want people to make decisions and I believe in [opt-outs]. With the exception of a few states, everyone has an opt-out. But I also want to say that, as president of the United States, if I am confronted with a zombie apocalypse that will happen unless the total herd is totally immunized, I will support [mandatory vaccinations].

Now, in fairness, is Johnson just cracking a joke at the end there? I mean, of course he’s being funny with the zombie thing, but what I mean is this: Is Johnson actually trying to say, “If there were a genuine public health emergency, and reputable doctors convinced me it would save many lives, then I would impose a federal mandatory vaccine”? Because if so, then yet again he announces a principle of liberty and then flushes it down the toilet if it has dire consequences. It’s like saying, “I’m in favor of the right to bear arms, unless a lot of people started getting shot.” Or, “I’m in favor of freedom of the press, unless too many people started buying Nazi books.”

But it gets worse. Look at this:

GILLESPIE: What do you think of [Trump’s] recent appeals to black voters? He’s been saying to African Americans that the Democratic Party hasn’t really helped them much. That everything in their lives has gotten worse under Barack Obama and that Hillary Clinton is not their champion. Do you agree with Trump that Democratic Party policies haven’t really benefited the black community?

JOHNSON: I do. Both parties are engaged in pandering. The libertarian approach—equal opportunity—isn’t that what you really want? But I’d argue that equal opportunity currently does not exist.

GILLESPIE: How does it not exist, and what policies would you enact to make it a reality? Is it a question of ending a drug war that disproportionately impacts blacks, promoting school choice so they can escape chronically bad schools, and ending minimum-wage laws that price low-skilled workers out of getting their first jobs?

JOHNSON: All of what you just mentioned. Let me offer up a story. I was on Fox News’ The Five a couple of days ago with Eric Bolling. I made the statement that “black lives matter” and Eric chimed in to say, “All lives matter.” It’s not a criticism of him, it’s just indicative of the conversation [about race and politics]. I said, “Yes, all lives do matter, but blacks are getting shot at the rate of six times that whites are. If you’re of color and you’re arrested, there’s a four times greater likelihood that you’ll go to jail than if you’re white. Eric said, “Blacks commit eight times the crime.” My answer was little muddied, but I think I got to my point. Yes, blacks are being arrested, they are being charged, and they are being convicted at eight times the rate of whites. If that same scrutiny were applied to you and I as whites, we would have those same results. That’s the awareness [of unequal treatment] that doesn’t currently exist.

You might think, “What’s the big deal Bob? He’s appealing to everybody, unlike Trump.” Au contraire, mon ami, you don’t have my skills. After I point it out, go look again at what just happened in the above excerpt:

(1) Most important: Gary Johnson himself didn’t actually say anything he would do to help black people. Gillespie–I think on purpose, knowing Johnson is a babe in the woods on such matters–had to spoonfeed him the standard libertarian answers on this. Johnson nodded his head, and then went on to do this:

(2) Johnson relates an anecdote (which offers not a single new policy, in addition to the stuff Gillespie spoonfed him) in which he says some non sequitur statistics about the judicial system, Eric Bolling then cites a statistic that shows why Johnson’s numbers by themselves were a non sequitur,* and then Johnson agrees to Bolling’s number (but changes what it applies to–namely arrests versus conviction) and implicitly admits his original stat was off by 10050%. And this anecdote proves (in Johnson’s mind) why Bolling just doesn’t get it when it comes to race in America.

(* I’m not saying blacks are getting a fair shake from law enforcement. What I’m saying is that by itself, saying that “there’s a four times greater likelihood that you’ll go to jail” if you’re black than if you’re white, doesn’t prove anything. It’s like saying, “There’s institutional racism because white mortgage applicants are x% more likely to be approved than black applicants.” Bolling brings up a fact that–if true–would actually indicate that Johnson had just pointed out huge racism against WHITES, and Johnson just absorbs the number (and changes the unit of measurement) as if that were his point all along. Also, I’ve now read this passage from Johnson several times, and it’s possible that he was respecting the distinction between the two stats, but then in that case I think it goes against his original point. You guys can argue it in the comments if you’d like.)

Gillespie’s kid-glove treatment is most obvious here:

GILLESPIE: Let’s talk about Hillary Clinton. In response to being called a bigot and a racist by her, Donald Trump said that she was fundamentally not trustworthy. Do you agree with him on that?

JOHNSON: Yes, I agree with him.

GILLESPIE: So you’re in a weird position, aren’t you? You actually agree with both Hillary and Donald, but you don’t think either should be president.

Now, if Gillespie were doing anything besides giving a platform (and help from the interviewer) for Johnson to get out of the corners into which he’s painted himself, he would’ve said, “So you’re in a weird position, since on CNN in June you said Hillary Clinton was a wonderful public servant. Sooo, did you just learn in the last week that she’s not trustworthy? Was it the same person who set you straight on carbon taxes?”

(OK OK, that last line would be too much. But surely Gillespie should’ve asked Johnson why he recently praised Hillary Clinton and now says she’s untrustworthy.)


GILLESPIE: Let’s talk about your stance on religious-liberty issues, which has angered a lot people on the right and many libertarians. Your position is that you essentially want to extend anti-discrimination protections for race and gender to cover sexual orientation when it comes to businesses that are open to the public. Yet you support an opt-out for vaccinations. Why not support an opt-out for the religious owner of a business who doesn’t want to bake a gay Nazi wedding cake?

JOHNSON: Because it would create a new exemption for discrimination. At the end of the day we’re just going to agree to disagree. But you bring me specific legislation dealing with a cake baker not having to decorate a cake for a Nazi and I’ll sign it.

Now again, in fairness, it’s possible that that last line was a total 100% joke. But at this point, Johnson has given me no reason to believe that. This guy handles hard questions like Thomas Piketty at this point. Johnson fires from the hip on his personal feelings about a situation, someone points out that this position is neither libertarian nor coherent, and then Johnson refines the original statement with an arbitrary exception that neuters that one specific objection.


P.S. I’m adding this the next day: In the above, I suggested that school vouchers are a standard libertarian position. That may be true in terms of numbers (especially if we mean capital-L Libertarian), but a bunch of us actually don’t think school vouchers are libertarian. I mean, if you want to do a non-refundable tax credit for parents who yank their kids out of government schools, OK fine, but that’s not what “school vouchers” means to most people.

26 Aug 2016

Carlos and I Review 4 Points From Our Nashville Seminar

Lara-Murphy Show 1 Comment

Along with Nelson Nash, Carlos and I recently put on an IBC seminar in Nashville. In the latest episode of the Lara-Murphy Show, we review 2 points each, including, “Is my money safe in the bank?”

26 Aug 2016

Unfortunately Scott Adams Isn’t Even Keeping Up With His Own Schtick

Politics 10 Comments

I follow several bloggers with whom I disagree (sometimes strongly). Indeed it is a virtue if they have different conclusions, because perhaps my own view is wrong. But what makes me start losing interest is when these bloggers aren’t even internally consistent.

For example, back on June 28 Scott Adams (the Dilbert creator who has gained new fame for his analysis of Trump’s success) made it crystal clear that the Hillary Clinton camp had finally hit upon the right way to attack Trump:

While the Clinton campaign itself has been notably weak with its persuasion game, the folks on her side have been viciously effective at branding Trump a crazy racist.

Nothing else in this election matters.

Viewed through the Master Persuader filter, the facts of this election don’t matter because facts are not persuasive. The lies don’t matter. The flip-flopping doesn’t matter. Trump’s command of the issues don’t matter. Trump’s insults don’t matter. Policies don’t matter. Trump University doesn’t matter. Even charges of sexism are not enough to derail him.

The persuasion kill shot against Trump is the accusation that Trump is a crazy racist. When you combine crazy and racist, you have a lethal persuasion cocktail. And that’s what the Clinton side has done.

The folks on social media tested lots of accusations against Trump until they found traction with the “crazy racist” theme in all its forms. And Clinton’s campaign team wisely amplified it.

Remember when social media was saying Trump wasn’t serious about running, or that he was a clown, or he was doing it for the money? Those accusations didn’t get traction, and Trump swept them away with his continued success.

But the accusations kept coming, one after another, until the combo of crazy and racist bubbled to the top, as measured by social media virality. The Clinton campaign recognized the crazy racist theme as the best approach and started hammering on it through a variety of “fear Trump” message. Fear works when facts do not. And “crazy racist” is totally scary. And totally working. You can test it for yourself by asking any anti-Trumper to list the top three reasons for disliking Trump. Some form of “crazy racist” will normally come out on top. Persuasion-wise, every other reason is just noise.

Now at the time, I cut Adams some slack–even though I thought it was a bit silly–for this analysis, because he was stressing the combination. I mean, people had been denouncing Trump as a racist since his infamous Mexican rapist remarks. So it would have been ridiculous for Adams, in June 2016, to say, “Ah, Team Clinton has finally started closing the persuasion gap, by hitting on the clever idea of calling Trump a racist. Good thing they have ‘Godzilla’ advising her, who would’ve thought to call the Republican a racist? Excellent brainstorm coming from the annals of hypnotism.”

I hope you all see what I mean. (Incidentally, in other recent posts Adams keeps saying what a brilliant idea this ‘Godzilla’ advisor has had, by stoking voter fears that Trump can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. Uh, is the idea that this Godzilla knows about arguably the most famous U.S. political ad of all time?)

So anyway, given that the only way I could give myself permission to keep taking Adams seriously was that he stressing the combination of crazy and racist in the “persuasion battle,” you can imagine my surprise when I read the following in his August 25 post:

Clinton will still say stuff about policies, and Trump will still do plenty of insulting. But overall, Clinton has embraced the full-Godzilla approach in which persuasion matters more than truth. Trump is doing something more like the opposite, including prepping for upcoming debates (even if he says he is not), and talking more about policy. He needs to do those things to prop up his brand to “presidential” level.

I heard Clinton call in to CNN last night and preview her new Trump-is-racist persuasion, and I have to say it was strong. Strong enough to win, unless Trump finds a way to counter it.

The Clinton persuasion method will involve dramatic and repeated shouting of racist claims against Trump. Examples:




Trump supporters will try to explain-away each bit of “evidence,” but will fail because of the sheer volume of them, and the limits on TV time. The facts will not matter. What matters is how often voters hear Trump’s name associated with one terrible accusation after another. That’s Godzilla’s persuasion advice, I assume.

See what I mean? He isn’t even bothering to include the “crazy” thing anymore. Now it’s just: “Wow, this Godzilla has finally gotten Team Clinton to call Trump a racist. Man that guy’s good.”

Last thing which pushed me over the edge: The reason Adams is so sure that Team Clinton has begun taking advice from “Godzilla” is that their strategy vis-a-vis Trump turned on a dime, right after Sanders dropped out. According to Breitbart:

Adams told Breitbart News that he believes that Cialdini may have sat out the Democratic Party primary — or perhaps worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders — then joined the Clinton effort once it became clear she would be the party’s nominee.

While Trump had been more effective at using persuasion techniques, he said, “the Clinton persuasion game went from non-existent, which I reported on for months, to solid-gold, weapons-grade, almost instantly, as soon as Bernie Sanders dropped out.”

Sanders had been outperforming expectations, and Clinton had been underperforming expectations. “Wherever you see somebody exceed expectations by that much, either they are a persuader, like Trump is, or they have somebody helping them,” Adams concluded.

That stopped, as soon as Sanders yielded to Clinton.

Adams explained: “Clinton stopped talking about her boring policies, and details, and her experience, and she went to pure persuasion. She went to the bigger scare,” which was the image of Donald Trump with his finger on the nuclear button.

The result, he said, was a lift in her poll numbers, and the ongoing slump in Donald Trump’s performance.

It would be “surprising,” he said, if Cialdini, or one of his students, weren’t helping Clinton, given his past involvement in the Obama campaign.

“His fingerprints are all over this.”

But is the above really a sign that a new advisor came on board right after Sanders dropped out? Or, is the more straightforward explanation that Team Hillary first had to knock out Sanders–which required a certain approach to appeal to idealistic and (sometimes) wonkish progressives–and then turn attention to Trump for the general?

Also, note in the above excerpt that (at least if the paraphrase is correct) Adams wasn’t even talking about “crazy racist,” instead he was saying more generally that Team Clinton was trying to use fear and the nuclear button approach.

In summary, I’ll still read Adams’ blog, which is unique and entertaining, but I’ve stopped humoring the possibility that he has a brilliant system of campaign analysis that most other pundits are missing.

25 Aug 2016

Bill Clinton in 1995 = Donald Trump in 2015

Immigration 14 Comments

My dad sent me this. Now admittedly, Clinton didn’t say Mexico is sending us rapists and some of them were (he’s sure) good people, talk about moratorium on Muslims, etc. But it is remarkable how closely this fits what the standard Trump stance was, and how this was nothing shocking back then.

(Remember kids: I DO NOT LIKE DONALD TRUMP.)

21 Aug 2016

Two Papers from Ashby Camp

Religious 7 Comments

One of my online students recommended that I read the work of his brother, Ashby Camp. A while ago I posted his thoughts on historical evidence for the Resurrection, and now he sends me two other pieces:

==> Archaeology and the Bible
==> Answering the New Atheism

I skimmed the archaeology essay on the plane, and it looked good to me (although of course I do not know this literature). I haven’t yet read the atheism one.