November 2019

November 27, 2019 3:21PM

Voters Like Benefits But Don’t Like Paying for Them

A banner headline in the (paper) Washington Post today reports:

Poll: Americans like Green New Deal’s goals, balk at cost

Funny, that. When you ask Americans if they support a proposal that would “create millions of good, high‐​wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century; [and secure] clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; a sustainable environment; and justice and equity” — they approve!

But when you tell them that it might “increase federal spending by trillions of dollars”—gee, ya think?—support collapses:

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This is not a new phenomenon, but it’s good to see leading pollsters such as the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the National Opinion Research Center (which conducted the poll) picking up on the point. Cato’s director of polling, Emily Ekins, has found similar results:

The Cato 2018 Health Care Survey…first replicated the results from myriad other surveys finding a majority (65%) of Americans favor regulations that prohibit insurance companies from refusing to cover, or charging higher premiums to, people with pre‐​existing conditions, while 32% oppose. However, support plummets when Americans are faced with likely consequences of these regulations.

The new Cato 2018 Paid Leave Survey of 1,700 adults finds that nearly three‐​fourths (74%) of Americans support a new federal government program to provide 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents or to people to deal with their own or a family member’s serious medical condition.… However, majorities of Americans would oppose establishing a federal paid leave program if it cost them $450 a year in higher taxes.

Advocates often present policymakers with polls that show popular support for some proposed government program — the Green New Deal, paid family leave, child care, free college, etc. But those polls never seem to point out the costs of the free service. When a poll does note costs, support tends to drop by a lot.

Note that even this Post‐​Kaiser poll mentions the large increase in federal spending, but doesn’t point out that federal spending has to be paid for with taxes. In polls about “larger government with more services,” there’s evidence that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer “smaller government with fewer services” rises by about 9 points. So if Post‐​Kaiser had also asked respondents whether they would support the Green New Deal if it meant substantially higher taxes, support would have fallen further below 30 percent.

Any policymaker trying to ascertain what voters want should remember to look at both sides of the ledger: what they say they want in theory, and what they’re willing to give up to get that benefit.

November 27, 2019 10:27AM

Thankful for More Educational Freedom (Hopefully) On Its Way

Pilgrim Thanksgiving prayer

If you know your United States history, you know that the Pilgrims came to North America seeking to practice their religion free from the constraints of the Church of England. If you know your U.S. history well, you know that what many call the beginning of public schooling was the Massachusetts Bay colony’s law of 1647 requiring towns to supply some form of education, lest children fall victim to “that old deluder, Satan.” And if you know your history really well, you know that as public schooling developed it was repeatedly beset by religious conflicts, first as the schools were de facto Protestant, then as they became de facto agnostic.

What am I thankful for this Thanksgiving? That we may be on the verge of tearing down barriers to people directing education funds to schools sharing their religious values, barriers that do not just hurt religious families, but by forcing all to support one system of schools also keep non‐​religious families from getting what they want. Where religious people are sufficiently numerous, they can sometimes create de facto religious public schools, and where they are not sufficiently numerous to exert outright control educators will often avoid things that upset them.

The barriers I’m speaking of are “Blaine Amendments,” named after 19th century U.S. Senator James G. Blaine but found in 37 state constitutions. They are being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. The case involves a scholarship tax credit program that was struck down by Montana’s supreme court because it would have allowed scholarships to be used at religious schools. Oral arguments are scheduled for January 22, 2020.

These amendments, originally created to keep money in de facto Protestant public schools and out of Catholic institutions, are often interpreted to mean that no government money may go to religious schools even if directed by the free choice of parents. Basically—and as these Cato amicus briefs lay out in greater depth—they force religious people to pay for government schools that legally cannot teach religious beliefs as true, or make policies based on religious convictions. Indeed, the schools often teach things and institute policies that contradict people’s religious beliefs. That violates religious freedom and renders religious people unequal under the law.

The prospects for these amendments being struck down, or at least sufficiently curbed that people can get tax credits for funding religious school scholarships, are good. From Zelman v. Simmons Harris, in which the U.S. Supreme Court established that parents can take state vouchers to religious schools without violating the U.S. Constitution, to the Trinity Lutheran decision that states cannot bar institutions from participating in funding programs simply because they are religious, precedent is on freedom’s side.

For this we should all be thankful. Because more freedom is what America is supposed to be about.

November 26, 2019 3:40PM

Thanksgiving Dinner Costs Less and Other Reasons to Be Thankful

Watching the news or discussing it with your family at Thanksgiving dinner, it is not hard to fall into the trap of thinking that the entire world is moving in a negative direction. It may be a challenge to find reasons for optimism, let alone thankfulness. But as the Thanksgiving holiday draws near, know that the data clearly show that a great many things are improving.

Please don’t just take my word for it. To see the evidence for yourself, just spend some time poking around the data on Human​Progress​.org. Our database documents progress in areas as diverse as air travel safety (welcome news for those traveling for the holiday) and declining rates of hunger and poverty.

One thing that has improved over time is the cost of Thanksgiving dinner itself. After declining in recent years, in 2019 the nominal cost of Thanksgiving has increased by just a single cent, according to the latest numbers from the American Farm Bureau Federation, an industry group representing the country’s farms.

The AFBF sent a total of 250 volunteer shoppers to check prices at grocery stores in 38 different U.S. states for this year’s survey. The volunteers were instructed not to take advantage of any special promotional coupons or purchase deals. So the AFBF survey may actually overestimate the cost of Thanksgiving dinner.

Adjusting for inflation reveals even better news, showing that the cost of Thanksgiving dinner declined slightly from last year, decreasing by nearly 2 percent to reach close to an all‐​time low.

That’s great news for the 90 percent of Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving. Fortunately, the main course on many Thanksgiving tables, the turkey, costs slightly less than last year. In 2019 the average nominal cost of a Thanksgiving turkey stands at $20.80 for a 16‐​pound bird. That’s roughly $1.30 per pound, a 4 percent decrease from last year. And that’s before adjusting for inflation!

The inflation‐​adjusted cost of Thanksgiving has fallen every year since 2015, as has the nominal cost, with the exception of this year’s 1 cent increase.

The increasing affordability of Thanksgiving dinner is even more impressive when accounting for population growth. The U.S. population has increased by 37.5 percent since 1986. During the same period, the amount of time it takes a typical blue‐​collar worker, such as factory workers or machine operators, to earn enough to afford Thanksgiving dinner has declined by 33.8 percent. Moreover, the total bill—or the amount that the U.S. population collectively spends on Thanksgiving dinner—has declined by over 9 percent.

That’s according to Professor Gale Pooley of Brigham Young University at Hawaii, who co‐​authors the Simon Abundance Index with the editor of Human​Progress​.org, Marian Tupy. The Index measures the changing prices of 50 basic commodities and how they relate to changes in the size of the world population.

The Simon Abundance Index for 2019 found that for each percentage increase in the world’s population, the average time price of commodities (e.g., the amount of time working needed to earn enough to buy commodities) has declined by slightly more than one percent. You can explore the Simon Project findings in depth on Human​Progress​.org.

It seems that, on average, every child born on our planet over the past decades has grown up to make resources less scarce by contributing to innovation and the global economy. And as resources become more abundant, they also come down in price. That allows each one of us to spend less time working to afford goods like Thanksgiving dinner, and more time on what matters most to us. As you gather around the Thanksgiving table, that is something for which you can be thankful.

November 26, 2019 8:02AM

What to Be Thankful For

Endless war. A $23 trillion national debt. Intrusive regulation. Criminal injustice. Presidents who don’t think the Constitution limits their powers. It’s easy to point to troubling aspects of modern America, and I spend a lot of time doing that. But when a journalist asked me what freedoms we take for granted in America, I found it a good opportunity to step back and consider how America is different from much of world history — and why immigrants still flock here.

If we ask how life in the United States is different from life in most of the history of the world — and still different from much of the world — a few key elements come to mind.

Rule of law. Perhaps the greatest achievement in history is the subordination of power to law. That is, in modern America we have created structures that limit and control the arbitrary power of government. No longer can one man — a king, a priest, a communist party boss — take another person’s life or property at the ruler’s whim. Citizens can go about their business, generally confident that they won’t be dragged off the streets to disappear forever, and confident that their hard‐​earned property won’t be confiscated without warning. We may take the rule of law for granted, but immigrants from China, Haiti, Syria, and other parts of the world know how rare it is.

Equality. For most of history people were firmly assigned to a particular status — clergy, nobility, and peasants. Kings and lords and serfs. Brahmins, other castes, and untouchables in India. If your father was a noble or a peasant, so would you be. The American Revolution swept away such distinctions. In America all men were created equal — or at least that was our promise and our aspiration. Thomas Jefferson declared “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” In America some people may be smarter, richer, stronger, or more beautiful than others, but “I’m as good as you” is our national creed. We are all citizens, equal before the law, free to rise as far as our talents will take us.

Equality for women. Throughout much of history women were the property of their fathers or their husbands. They were often barred from owning property, testifying in court, signing contracts, or participating in government. Equality for women took longer than equality for men, but today in America and other civilized parts of the world women have the same legal rights as men.

Self‐​government. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that “governments are instituted” to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that those governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Early governments were often formed in the conquest of one people by another, and the right of the rulers to rule was attributed to God’s will and passed along from father to son. In a few places — Athens, Rome, medieval Germany — there were fitful attempts to create a democratic government. Now, after America’s example, we take it for granted in civilized countries that governments stand or fall on popular consent. 

Freedom of speech. In a world of Fox and MSNBC, Facebook and Twitter, it’s hard to imagine just how new and how rare free speech is. Lots of people died for the right to say what they believed. In China, Russia, Africa, and the Arab world, they still do. Fortunately, we’ve realized that while free speech may irritate each of us at some point, we’re all better off for it.

Freedom of religion. Church and state have been bound together since time immemorial. The state claimed divine sanction, the church got money and power, the combination left little room for freedom. As late as the 17th century, Europe was wracked by religious wars. England, Sweden, and other countries still have an established church, though their citizens are free to worship elsewhere. Many people used to think that a country could only survive if everyone worshipped the one true God in the one true way. The American Founders established religious freedom.

Property and contract. We owe our unprecedented standard of living to the capitalist freedoms of private property and free markets. When people are able to own property and make contracts, they create wealth. Free markets and the legal institutions to enforce contracts make possible vast economic undertakings — from the design and construction of airplanes to Bitcoin and Venmo. But to appreciate the benefits of free markets, we don’t have to marvel at skyscrapers while listening to music on our iPhones. We can just give thanks for enough food to live on, and central heating, and the medical care that has lowered the infant mortality rate from about 20 percent to less than 1 percent.

A Kenyan boy who managed to get to the United States told a reporter for Woman’s World magazine that America is “heaven.” Compared to countries that lack the rule of law, equality, property rights, free markets, and freedom of speech and worship, it certainly is. A good point to keep in mind this Thanksgiving Day.

A version of this article was published in 2004 and was included in my book The Politics of Freedom.

November 25, 2019 4:28PM

Speech Paternalism and the People Most Likely to Advocate It

Facebook has decided not to suppress putative falsehoods in political ads on its platform. This decision has many critics. I see three ways forward for Facebook.

First, stay with the policy. The policy is close to the American free speech tradition. It assumes Facebook users have the right and ability to discern truth and falsehood. Regardless of their veracity or original target audience, all political ads are preserved in Facebook’s Ad Library, where anyone can view them.

Second, refuse to run ads with “falsehoods.” Suppressing falsehoods in ads would produce false positives: some “lies” would turn out to be truths. Many “lies” would turn out to be contestable propositions that one side or the other deems “an obvious lie.” Some valuable speech will be suppressed, and both sides in our pathological politics will conclude that Facebook has sided with their adversaries. Regulation to follow. Facebook could simply refuse to run any political ads. Determining what is a political ad will be a problem. It is a troublesome distinction even in the less punitive context of Facebook’s advertiser registration requirement. But note: suppressing all political ads will produce large numbers of false positives (that is, worthwhile speech that is treated like a lie). That doesn’t seem like an idea to be pursued in a liberal society, even though, of course, Facebook has the right to refuse to run all ads.

Third, limit the reach (but not the content) of ads with falsehoods. Here’s the idea: instead of presenting a political ad to 500 users, all of whom might be open to the content of the ad, Facebook could refuse to sell political ads to fewer than 5,000 users. (The numbers may not be exact, but you get the idea). Where a smaller audience might not have seen any debate about the ad, the larger audience will have many people who have doubts about the content of the ad. A debate might well ensue. The 500 users that might have heard nothing against the ad have the possibility of hearing “more speech” about the “lie.”

This third option is brilliant in its own way. This revised policy would not suppress speech directly. Instead, Facebook could say that broadening the audience for an ad would foster more speech about the ad and thereby improve public debate.

But this policy actually contravenes an idea undergirding free speech: people have the right and ability to discern truth from falsehood. Critics of microtargeting disagree. Writing in the New Scientist [paywalled], Annalee Newitz recently argued that “microtargeting allows political lies on Facebook to reach only the people most likely to fall for them.” Those people, she writes, need to hear from “watchdog groups” who presumably will set them straight. Can counterspeech rooted in the belief that some people are incapable of distinguishing truth and lies ever be consistent with free speech? Facebook is free, of course, to practice such speech paternalism. But it will have forsaken a fundamental belief of the liberal tradition and no doubt have opened the door to ever more bullying in the future.

November 25, 2019 4:11PM

How to Improve Thanksgiving Air Travel

Millions of Americans will deal with the hassles of air travel this week as they join their families for Thanksgiving. Airports are crowded, flights get delayed, and travelers get stuck in long security lines. Things may get worse as aviation demand rises and puts even more strain on the system. The chart below shows total annual U.S. airline passengers on scheduled flights.

In most industries, businesses respond to rising demand by investing in new capacity. But in aviation, major parts of the industry—security screening, airports, and air traffic control—are run by the government, an institution not known for investing efficiently. The solution is to privatize all these aviation infrastructure activities, which is the successful approach taken by Canada and numerous European countries.

U.S. airport screening is run by the unionized Transportation Security Administration, which has a reputation for intrusive pat downs and inept management. Former TSA chief Kip Hawley called the agency “hopelessly bureaucratic.” Studies in the past found that TSA screening performance is no better, and possibly worse, than private‐​sector screening, which is allowed at some U.S. airports. The TSA has a habit of wasting money on useless activities, leaving it less to invest on things that benefit travelers, such as more screening stations.

Congress should move responsibility for screening to the airports and allow them to contract out to expert security firms. Private firms would be able to flexibly adjust their workforces to reduce congestion, and they would end low‐​value procedures that waste traveler time.

Another barrier to aviation efficiency is that all U.S. commercial airports are owned by governments. Federal funding for “airport improvements is provided in a highly politicized manner with little regard for return on investment,” noted the Eno Center. At the same time, the federal government restricts airports from raising fees to fund their own improvements.

The current funding system, which relies on politicians, makes no sense. If airports were privatized—as they have been in many other nations—they could access funding from customer charges, advertising, and debt and equity to invest in new facilities and meet rising demands.

Air traffic control also suffers under government ownership. ATC is a complex, dynamic, high‐​tech business, and yet we run it as a D.C. bureaucracy. The Federal Aviation Administration’s record on technology upgrades has been poor. It is moving ahead with NextGen, a series of projects to bring GPS and digital communications into air traffic management. But upgrades have been delayed because of FAA mismanagement and inefficient federal funding. The airline trade association discussed FAA reforms in this recent testimony.

The solution is privatization. In Canada the ATC system is run by the nonprofit corporation Nav Canada, after being privatized in 1996. The reform is a big success. Nav Canada has an excellent safety record, is a leader in technology, and has won international awards for performance. The Canadian system would be a great model for U.S. reforms.

America was the global leader in 20th century aviation, but today we risk falling behind. To meet growing passenger demand and improve the public’s flying experience, policymakers should adopt the best practices of 21st century aviation, including privatizing security screening, airports, and air traffic control.

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Chart data from here and here.

November 25, 2019 3:29PM

Women Too Gutsy for Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton have a new book out, The Book of Gutsy Women. The publisher says they “share the stories of the gutsy women who have inspired them—women with the courage to stand up to the status quo, ask hard questions, and get the job done.” They certainly tell the stories of some inspiring women — Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Anne Frank, Maria Montessori, Marie Curie, and more. But I couldn’t help noticing some women who didn’t make it into the book’s 432 pages.

  • not Margaret Thatcher, who fought every day to make her way up in an almost totally male‐​dominated political system;
  • not Ayn Rand, who fled the Bolshevik revolution to become a bestselling novelist of ideas in her third language;
  • not Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, who became the only Member of Congress to vote against U.S. participation in both World War I and World War II;
  • not Anne Hutchinson, who fought the Puritan theocracy of Massachusetts and was banished from the colony;
  • not businesswomen such as Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, and Estee Lauder, all of whom climbed out of poverty and built major cosmetics businesses;
  • not Marva Collins, Virginia Walden Ford, and Eva Moskowitz, who fought to give poor families alternatives to failing public schools;
  • not Lilli Vincenz and Barbara Gittings, who came out of the closet and fought for gay and lesbian rights when doing so could mean losing one’s job, family, or life;
  • not Deirdre McCloskey, who as a successful 53‐​year‐​old economist in 1995 decided to recognize her female identity and transition.

I suppose these women were just a bit too gutsy for the authors. Thatcher too capitalist, Rand too individualist, Rankin too antiwar, and so on. These women epitomize the line from historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: Well‐​behaved women seldom make history. And they don’t quite fit the parameters of Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s East Coast Establishment woke‐​but‐​not‐​too‐​woke liberalism.