22 Aug 2019

Murphy Stuff

Bob Murphy Show, Economics, Slavery 11 Comments

==> Ep. 51 of the Bob Murphy Show features Hannah Cox explaining why conservatives should oppose the death penalty.

==> I take on Joe Weisenthal on negative interest rates.

==> I argue that, contrary to some leftist progressives, slavery was nota boon for American capitalism. Excerpts:

There is no doubt that a healthy adult slave in a region with adequate natural resources can produce more than a subsistence amount of output, allowing for the owner to keep the slave alive and keep the surplus for himself, living up to the Marxist vision of how labor markets work in general. So if the question is, “Was US output higher with millions of productive slaves working, than it would be if those slaves suddenly disappeared?” then the answer is, “Yes, of course, slavery was ‘productive’ in this sense.”

But that’s not really the question. The question is, if all of the plantation owners in (say) the year 1850 had suddenly freed all of their slaves and turned them into free laborers, what would that have done to the course of US economic development? Is it really true that this change would have made the country as a whole poorer?


Slavery was a monstrously unfair and immoral institution, but it was also inefficient, compared to a system based on free labor. Although I understand the rhetorical context of these arguments in regards to reparations and pride in U.S. history, it’s very dangerous to be making the case that enslaving others is the path to national greatness.

21 Aug 2019

The Problem With “Fact Checking” Websites

Climate Change 15 Comments

This is absolutely hilarious. On Facebook a screenshot of this AP News article is floating around…

And then look at how this “fact checker”-type website tries to downplay the obvious critique.

19 Aug 2019

My Plan to Keep Greenland White

Climate Change 11 Comments

In my latest IER post, I sketch out a scenario entirely consistent with the UN reports on climate change, to show how a voluntary approach could solve any problems from a melting ice sheet. (There might be other, secondary problems, but we don’t need to worry about rising sea levels drowning London.)

An excerpt:

Now for the next component of my thought experiment, let’s further assume that humans do nothing at all about the accumulated stock of CO2 they’ve pumped into the atmosphere, and that they maintain this posture for an additional century. That is, except for whatever sopping up measures they deploy (through the private sector) to achieve net-zero emissions starting in the year 2100, humans don’t do anything extra to deal with the legacy of the past. They merely say, “From this point in 2100 going forward until the year 2200, we will just make sure that we are no longer contributingcarbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but we won’t lift a finger to do anything about what we already put up there.”

So of the 7.3 trillion tons of carbon dioxide lingering in the atmosphere[3] that is the accumulation from human emissions during the prior century, the question is: How much will natural causes alone remove, from 2100 through 2200?

Well, despite the true-but-possibly-misleading statements about carbon dioxide emissions contributing to global warming “for thousands of years,” actually about 70 percent of human-caused atmospheric CO2 would be removed naturally in a century. So of our stipulated 7.3 trillion tons of “excess” (human-caused) CO2 in the atmosphere as of the year 2100, only 30 percent—in other words, 2.2 trillion tons—would remain by the year 2200. The rest would have been dissolved into the ocean and absorbed by other natural “carbon sinks” over the course of the 22nd century.

18 Aug 2019

Question about Intelligent Design

Evolution 45 Comments

Hey folks, I am sorry for being so lax in my usual Sunday postings. All I can say is, I’ve had a lot going in my personal life. I hope in September I’ll have a routine established again.

In the meantime, I think some of my spiritual thoughts will find expression in the solo episodes of my podcast. Sometime soon, I want to do an intro on the topic of “Intelligent Design.” I’m not going to go into anything empirical, but instead I just want to grapple with the concept of it.

Specifically, I am going to argue that there is nothing unscientific per se about the hypothesis that an intelligence was behind the design of particular biological structures. Yet I know that many scientists (and pop cheerleaders of science such as Bill Nye) argue that Intelligent Design (ID) is not merely wrong, but that it’s antithetical to modern science itself.

If any of you feel the same way, please articulate your objections in the comments of this post. It will help me organize my thoughts.

17 Aug 2019

Special Deal for Mises Seattle

Austrian School No Comments

Hey kids, I have a limited number of special-price ($25) tickets, which includes lunch, if you want to join us in Seattle. Details are here for the event. Contact me if you want in.

16 Aug 2019


Potpourri 2 Comments

==> My latest episode on the Bob Murphy Show is a fun one, where I analyze the cult classic, “They Live.”

==> At IER I coincidentally have a new post talking about Greenland’s ice sheet. Did Trump read my post and then get interested? I’ll never tell. An excerpt:

Wow, the critic seems to have a point! In his model, Nordhaus assumes that the damage from a melting ice sheet comes from rising sea levels. And, as the critic points out, Nordhaus’ calibration assumes that at a 7-meter sea lever rise (SLR), global GDP would only be reduced by 7 percent from what it otherwise would have been. Is that really plausible, since many coastal cities would be underwater?

Yet hold on a second. If you look carefully at the sea level diagram (you can click through the twitter links to get a large view), you’ll see that a sea level rise of 7 meters doesn’t occur for at least another 500 or so years.

Is it really so obvious that in the year 2500, humans would be devastated by certain major cities today being underwater? Over the course of centuries, wouldn’t humans move out of the way? There are already plans for developing floating artificial cities (called “seasteading”), and even with our current technology, portions of the Netherlands can survive being almost 7 meters below sea level right now.

==> I made this list of contrarians, though I think they took down the appendix that contained the names (including mine) after some people got mad.

==> Uh, has anyone heard of these “water bears” before this issue of us dropping them on the moon by accident? I suspect it’s a joke and I’m not going to be the gullible sucker.

==> Lots of people on social media understandably thought this article and the quotes in it were hilarious.

==> On Contra Krugman I hosted the 200th episode all by my lonesome.

08 Aug 2019

Scott Sumner Sweepstakes

Humor, Scott Sumner 8 Comments

OK, before I post these links, you have to know the context: When I’m traveling, I basically read the whole internet on my phone. And when I see something that I want to comment on, I save that page.

Since I read EconLog and TheMoneyIllusion, I end up accumulating things from Scott Sumner. The reason I pick on him, rather than, say, Robert Reich, is that everybody who’s free market knows the problems with Reich. In contrast, Scott is very influential in libertarian and even some Austrian circles, and so when he writes things that jump out at me, I feel it’s my duty to flag them. Sort of like, “OK kids, if I can’t convince you that the Fed didn’t have a super-tight monetary policy in 2009 the way Scott claims, just by appealing to charts, what if instead I show you his reasoning in other areas?”

(To be sure, Scott could in response tell people I like Intelligent Design theory. Fair enough.)

==> Way back in December, Scott had a post on the claim that China was stealing intellectual property, and along the way he dealt with the trendy catchphrase, “Taxation is theft.” Now, there are plenty of ways one could go in this discussion, but the one thing I wasn’t expecting from Scott was this:

As an analogy, some people argue that “taxation is theft”. My response is “so what”? That doesn’t make taxation bad; you’d want to evaluate taxes on a case-by-case basis, on utilitarian grounds. Is it good theft or bad theft?  Don’t let words do the thinking; look past them to the underlying concepts.

==> I bookmarked this Sumner post on “In search of monetary equilibrium,” and I think it was because I liked it. Or at least, Scott made me think through some new things because of it. (So I’m tough, but fair, like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.)

==> In March Scott had a post entitled “Who’s Afraid of Taxing the Rich?” Uh oh. As bad as you think it might be, it’s worse. He writes:

The fallacy that “taxing the rich” is about getting rich people to write checks to the government, rather than reducing the consumption of the rich.  Any tax that does not reduce consumption by rich people is not taxing the rich. If Warren Buffett writes a big check to the Treasury and reduces his charitable giving rather than his consumption, then you have not taxed Warren Buffett…

There are much worse things than countries that bend over backwards to favor the rich, as we currently see in Venezuela.  So I don’t regard the lack of luxury taxes as a huge problem for America, in and of itself.

My biggest complaint is that our failure to tax the rich in a reasonably sensible way (by taxing high levels of consumption) will lead us to attempt to tax the rich in a highly inefficient and destructive fashion, say with a tax on capital income, and not even succeed in our objective.

==> I liked this Sumner post on “how to sell a new idea in macroeconomics.”

==> Oh boy, this Sumner post on utilitarianism was a doozy. After he kinda sorta takes a swipe at the Sermon on the Mount, Sumner argues:

Critic:  Utilitarianism implies people should do X in situation Y.  That would lead to a nightmarish society.

Me:  You are not thinking holistically enough.  You need to go beyond the direct effect of doing X, and consider the broader ramifications on society.  Activities that create a “nightmarish society” are almost certainly not creating a happier society.  For instance, if hedonism leaves one with a sickness in one’s soul, then it’s not making you happy, is it?  So stop blaming utilitarianism for bad ideas.

This is almost literally the reductio ad absurdum that I said Leland Yeager flirted with, in my review of his book on utilitarianism. But back then, I knew Yeager wouldn’t have actually written out the absurdity; my point was, his actual argument was pretty close to it, and hence suspect.

So back to Sumner: No, if someone argues that a straightforward application of utilitarianism would lead to horror, you can’t merely say, “People don’t like horror, so actually, utilitarianism doesn’t lead to that.” That’s a terrible argument. Bernie Sanders could just as easily say, “It’s not very ‘social’ if people don’t get universal access to high-quality health care and food, so stop pointing at Venezuela as if that proves something.”

(There are other problems with Sumner’s arguments, which commenters pointed out at his post. It was borderline nightmarish to watch.)

08 Aug 2019

Murphy Quadruple Play

All Posts, Climate Change 2 Comments

==> I will be writing a weekly-ish article for Mises.org now, here is my first one on Judy Shelton.

==> At IER, I point out a pretty astonishing remark from a PhD physicist who wrote a NYT article on climate change modeling. Here is her quotation: “In this situation, the best we can do is improve computer models to obtain more accurate, approximate solutions. It is knowledge we urgently need: As Earth continues to warm, we face a future of drought, rising seas and extreme weather events. But for all we currently know, this situation could be anywhere between a mere annoyance and an existential threat.”

==> Yikes I just realized I am way behind on IER posts for you folks. So here I talk about planting trees and how a new study disrupts the standard social cost of carbon calculation, and then in this one I talk about Canada’s proposed ban on single-use plastics. For the tree one, here is an analogy I thought was pretty good:

Citing a figure that planting a new tree costs roughly 30 cents, Prof. Crowther remarked that we could plant the target of 1 trillion trees by spending about $300 billion. Sure, that’s a big number, but it’s nowhere close to the economic cost of imposing a worldwide carbon tax, the “solution” that many economists have been promoting for years as a no-brainer. (William Nordhaus’ model in its 2007 calibration estimated that even his modest carbon tax would cause several trillion dollars [in today’s dollars] in economic compliance costs, while the more aggressive proposals would cause more than $20 trillion in economic costs.)

This episode is a specific example of the type of problem Ronald Coase warned about [and that I explained earlier in the article–rpm]. Specifically, the carbon tax logic assumed that the problem was, “People are emitting too much carbon dioxide and we need to coerce them into scaling back.” But what if instead the problem was, “People aren’t planting enough trees, and we need to coax them into planting more”?

To give some quick numbers: By some estimates, a single healthy tree can sequester up to a ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old, and we also read that a silver maple tree will absorb 400 pounds of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 25 years old.

So consider a coal-fired power plant that is going to emit a ton of carbon dioxide in order to produce some additional electricity. If the pro-tax economists had gotten their way, there would be a $42 tax levied on the power plant, since the Obama EPA estimated that that was the “social cost of carbon” for the year 2020.

Yet if there is room on Earth for more trees—given the plans of everybody else—that Obama-era estimate greatly overstates the harm of the emission. Rather than imposing $42 in damages as the EPA calculations suggested, the power plant owner could spend a mere $3 to plant 10 trees, meaning that over the next two decades the trees would have absorbed more than the additional emissions, and would in fact continue reducing CO2 in the atmosphere for decades beyond.

As this simple example illustrates, a carbon tax of $42 would have been a gross overkill. It would have led power plants and other firms to scale back their emissions in very costly ways that stifled economic growth, when—apparently—there was a much cheaper solution available. And notice throughout all of this discussion, I am stipulating the basic externality framework for the sake of argument, and am merely showing the problems that Ronald Coase demonstrated with this one-size-fits-all way of thinking.

A Theater Analogy

Consider a movie theater. It’s a problem that people sometimes drop popcorn and other litter on the floor. Now there are two ways the theater could respond: (1) It could install cameras and personnel to monitor the customers and heavily fine anybody caught dropping stuff on the floor. This would be a huge inconvenience and make movie-going far less pleasant. Or (2) the theater could hire personnel to clean up the floor after a show. And notice that even if some combination were used—maybe the theater calls the police on somebody who just runs up and down the aisles dumping soda on the floor—there is no reason that the “fine” imposed on litterers should be used to pay the salary of the employees who pick up popcorn with a broom. Those are two totally different considerations.

When it comes to carbon taxes, the conventional logic has simply assumed that penalizing emissions is the appropriate solution to the ostensible problem of harmful climate change. But maybe that is totally wrong. Perhaps it would make far more sense to pay people to plant trees.