The Luckiest Crop in History

Recently, the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Gregg Easterbrook, which draws attention to the disconnect between the gloomy public on the one hand and the real state of America on the other hand. The prevailing mood in the United States is one of pessimism. For prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle, to use Easterbrook’s words, “the impending apocalypse has been issue number one.” Yet in almost every measurable way, this is the best time in history to be alive. The evidence goes on and on [links added]:   

Pollutiondiscriminationcrime and most diseases are in an extended decline; living standardslongevityand education levels continue to rise … A century ago, most Americans worked in agriculture: Today hardly any do, and we’re all better off, including farmers. That manual labor, farm or factory, has given way to 60 percent of Americans employed in white-collar circumstances … In 1990, 37 percent of humanity lived in what the World Bank defines as extreme poverty; today it’s 10 percent.  

Where did all this progress come from? Easterbrook rightly credits, “interconnected global economics.” Through an intricate symphony of competition and exchange, humanity has driven technology forward and achieved heights of prosperity that would be unimaginable to our ancestors.   

Unfortunately, Easterbrook also gives credit to top-down government planning where none is due. He cites the Affordable Care Act as an example of a successful reform, but rising life expectancy and improved health outcomes are long-term trends that both predate Obamacare and extend far beyond U.S. borders. It is far too soon to attribute any part of those trends to that highly problematic policy.   

Easterbrook even claims that, “In almost every case, reform has made America a better place, with fewer unintended consequences and lower transaction costs than expected. This is the strongest argument for the next round of reforms.” That is a sweeping overgeneralization, as it obviously hinges on the specific nature of reforms. Plenty of reforms throughout American history are now universally recognized as horrible mistakes – just look at alcohol prohibition.   

Despite some confusion about the drivers of progress, Easterbrook’s opinion piece is a refreshing reminder of the incredible progress humanity has made and well worth a read. It ends with this heartening quote that the data backs up:   

Recently Warren Buffett said that because of the “negative drumbeat” of politics, “many Americans now believe their children will not live as well as they themselves do. That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.” 

Topics:

A Difficult Truth: Noninterventionism’s Less Tolerant Faction

Libertarians and other advocates of a noninterventionist foreign policy—or its close cousin, a policy of realism and restraint —have grappled with how to respond to the candidacy of Donald Trump.  Some of Trump’s policy positions are refreshing and sensible.  His hostility to wars for regime change and nation building are a gratifying contrast to the enthusiasm for such ventures that both neoconservative Republicans and humanitarian interventionist Democrats have exhibited in recent decades.  Trump’s insistence that America’s longstanding allies in both Europe and East Asia do far more for their own defense also has at least the potential to significantly reduce the republic’s excessive and obsolete security burdens. Finally, his desire to avoid confrontational relationships with major powers such as Russia and China  is a rare voice of prudence among America’s political elite, and it has understandable appeal to noninterventionists.

But there are other Trump positions that are deeply disturbing, if not outright offensive to the kind of noninterventionists (or “cosmopolitan realists”) who have filled the ranks of Cato’s foreign policy program.  Trump’s hostility to free trade is both disappointing and myopic.  But his stance on immigration is even worse.  His proposal to build a wall along the border with Mexico to keep out undocumented Hispanic migrants is not only impractical, it conveys a message of hostility to such populations. Trump’s stance on Muslim immigration, especially his call for a “temporary” ban, conveys such hostility with even greater clarity.

Lesson from Cyprus: Spending Restraint Is the Pro-Growth Way to Solve a Fiscal Crisis

Much of my work on fiscal policy is focused on educating audiences about the long-run benefits of small government and modest taxation.

But what about the short-run issue of how to deal with a fiscal crisis? I have periodically weighed in on this topic, citing research from places like the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund to show that spending restraint is the right approach.

And I’ve also highlighted the success of the Baltic nations, all of which responded to the recent crisis with genuine spending cuts (and I very much enjoyed exposing Paul Krugman’s erroneous attack on Estonia).

Today, let’s look at Cyprus. That Mediterranean nation got in trouble because of an unsustainable long-run increase in the burden of government spending. Combined with the fallout caused by an insolvent banking system, Cyprus suffered a deep crisis earlier this decade.

Unlike many other European nations, however, Cyprus decided to deal with its over-spending problem by tightening belts in the public sector rather than the private sector.

This approach has been very successful according to a report from the Associated Press.

…emerging from a three-year, multi-billion euro rescue program, Cyprus boasts one of the highest economic growth rates among the 19 Eurozone countries — an annual rate of 2.7 percent in the first quarter. Finance Minister Harris Georgiades says Cyprus turned its economy around by aggressively slashing costs but also by avoiding piling on new taxes that would weigh ordinary folks down and put a serious damper on growth. “We didn’t raise taxes that would burden an already strained economy,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “We found spending cuts that weren’t detrimental to economic activity.”

CRST Van Expedited: Back To the Dunking Booth for the EEOC

Of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s record in court, I wrote last summer that 

…it’s not easy to think of an agency to whose views federal courts nowadays give less deference than the EEOC. As I’ve noted in a series of posts, judges appointed by Presidents of both political parties have lately made a habit of smacking down the commission’s positions, often in cases where it has tried to get away with a stretchy interpretation of existing law. See, for example, the Fourth Circuit’s rebuke of “pervasive errors and utterly unreliable analysis“ in EEOC expert testimony, Justice Stephen Breyer’s scathing majority opinion in Young v. U.P.S. on the shortcomings of the EEOC’s legal stance (in a case the plaintiff won), or these stinging defeats dealt out to the commission in three other cases. 

Occasionally, as in the Abercrombie & Fitch case, the commission manages to prevail anyway. But in last week’s Supreme Court decision in CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC, it was back to the dunking booth for the much-disrespected commission. The ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, was unanimous. It laid out in detail a long tale of shoddy EEOC litigation waged against the Iowa-based trucking company CRST, in which the commission took a female driver’s complaint of sexual harassment during training and attempted to expand it into a giant “pattern and practice” lawsuit that might have been settled for millions. Rather than settling, the trucking company decided to fight. The ensuing litigation did not, to understate things, show the EEOC at its best.

Issa on the TSA: Privatize It

Rep. Darrell Issa proposes Cato-style aviation reforms in a CNN op-ed today. The congressman does an excellent job laying out problems with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and arguing that privatized screening would increase both efficiency and security.

Here are some excerpts:

These firestorms online and in the media [regarding security lines] have brought new attention to our broken airport security system, a problem that has been slowly growing for years. But if we really “hate the wait” and want to fix it, the solution couldn’t be any simpler: let’s get the TSA out of the airport screening business altogether.

The idea of privatizing airport security isn’t a new one. Look no further than Canada and almost every single European country, which all use private airport screeners.

Last year, an internal investigation revealed that undercover agents were able to sneak mock explosives or banned weapons through the agency’s security checkpoints a whopping 95% of the time.

A number of case studies show that private screeners are not only more efficient at their jobs, allowing them to screen more passengers in less time, but are also better at detecting threats.

Under the TSA’s “Screening Partnership Program,” 22 airports have been allowed to contract with private companies to administer airport screening operations. Numerous studies of those programs … offer ample evidence that private security screeners are much better able to detect dangerous objects, including explosives and weapons, than their government-employed counterparts.

Private screeners are also shown to process passengers more efficiently, too, meaning faster-moving lines and more taxpayer savings.

For more on privatizing the TSA, see here and here.

Release the Kraken

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Making headlines today (like the one above) is a new paper by Zoë Doubleday and colleagues documenting an increase the population of cephalopods (octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid) over the past 61 years.  The authors, after assembling a data set of historical catch rates, note that this population increase, rather than being limited to a few localized areas, seems to be occurring globally.

End of analysis.

From then on its speculation.

And the authors speculate that human-caused climate change may be behind the robust cephalopod increase. After all, the authors reason, what else has had a consistent large-scale impact over the past six decades? No analysis relating temperature trends (spatially or temporally) to cephalopod trends, no examination of other patterns of climate change and cephalopod change, just speculation.  And a new global warming meme is born—“Swarms of octopus are taking over the oceans.”

There is an overwhelming tendency to relate global warming to all manner of bad things and a great hesitation to suggest a potential link when the outcome is seemingly beneficial. We refer to this as the global-warming-is-bad-for-good-and-good-for-bad phenomenon. It holds a great majority of the time.

In the case of octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish, the authors are a bit guarded as to their speculation of impact of the increase in cephalopod numbers—will they decimate their prey populations or will they themselves provide more prey to their predators? Apparently we’ll have to wait and see.

No doubt, the outcome will be a complex one as is the case behind the observed population increases. Depletion of fish stocks, a release of competitive pressure, and good old-fashioned natural environmental variability are also suggested as potential factors in the long-term population expansion. But complex situations don’t make for great scare stories. Global-warming-fueled bands of marauding octopuses and giant squid certainly do. 

Reference:

Doubleday, Z. A., et al., 2016. Global proliferation of cephalopods. Current Biology, 26, R387–R407.

Free Markets Are Popular Where People Need Them

Polls recently have found that millennials have a more favorable view of socialism than older Americans do. Of course, Emily Ekins suggests that those attitudes are likely to fade as they start paying taxes. But I was interested to read this in the Washington Post today:

another Pew poll found that 95 percent of Vietnamese felt that people were better off in a free-market economy.

Wow, 95 percent. Rand Paul should run for president there. Today’s Vietnamese, of course, grew up in a Stalinist political and economic system. Since 1986 the Communist party government has pursued “market economy with socialist direction.” That’s not a Western-style free(ish) market, but it’s a lot better than Stalinist socialism, and the economy has prospered. Sounds like the Vietnamese people want more market, less socialist direction.

U.S. millennials grew up in a market economy, and after the fall of the Soviet Union they didn’t even hear much criticism of socialist economies, so they can support some imaginary vision of “socialism.” Even there, though, Ekins notes that 

millennials tend to reject the actual definition of socialism — government ownership of the means of production, or government running businesses. Only 32 percent of millennials favor “an economy managed by the government,” while, similar to older generations, 64 percent prefer a free-market economy. 

Pages