Sunday, April 30, 2017

I'll Have What She's Having

This email from Marco Bresba to Tyler Cowen on food versus music as social status signature really resonated with me.

I have always been out of step with music culture. Growing up I was 1-2 decades behind my peers enjoying music from my parent's generation and the 1/2 generation between us. Because I never liked kid's music, though, I was an outsider in kindergarten (listening to adult music) and then an outsider in junior high and high school for the same reason. My horizons have very much broadened in the past two decades and I have friends, lovers, and (mostly) the Internet to thank for that.

People think of me as a foodie, a title I cringe at a bit when assigned to me. I am definitely 1+ standard deviations to the right on food knowledge, experience, and willingness. But at the same time, I know what I don't know and don't do.

My relationship with food and my fellow man is a perfect microcosm for how I see most issues. I agree with no one. On the one hand I try to hold back a knee-jerk, mocking disdain for those to the left of me on the distribution (to abuse that analogy a bit more). The complacency (and that is the perfect methaphor) aggravates my less-charitable self. Eventually I come around to my higher principles--de gustibus non est disputandum--and I seek to accept their mockery of my choices leaving an open door to help guide them along the journey should they choose enlightenment. And yes, I am being sarcastic about my arrived status because . . .

On the other hand I have a hard time hiding my inner-eye roll at those reaching mightily for ultimate food nirvana. My knee-jerk reaction to those demonstrating their fringe and elite status is to assume it is not genuine. I keep waiting for them to rediscover the hot dog, but only concede that it is a desired food once deconstructed from a food truck or simply for the sake of irony. This extreme is its own version of complacency. Rather than make choices for themselves, we have a group looking to peers for the next best (and approved) thing.

This is me at any dinner party. I am either the most avant-garde among a group of conventional wisdom followers (whose motto might be "Choose Sliced Bread, the best thing from here on out!) or I am the most conventional (small-c conservative) among a group of would-be trend setters. Like I say, my food tastes are a microcosm. For once conversation starts I will find myself uneasily choosing how much to politely disagree and hoping the others will appreciate that true respect comes not from acquiescence but from honest/divergent/challenging discussion.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

To UBI, or not to UBI

Alternatively titled, "I Wish I Were BIG".

An idea that has been percolating for a couple years now is a replacement of the current welfare/income transfer system with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) or Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). This idea has origins back to Milton Friedman's Negative Income Tax idea first introduced in Capitalism and Freedom back in 1962.

Watch this space. I predict this idea grows to dominate the debate especially as the unarguably unsustainable social welfare systems reach critical breaking points.

I find the idea fascinating for a number of reasons. My biases creep in all along this debate starting with its origins with Friedman. Some central considerations:

  1. Is the proposal(s) simplification a feature or a bug? My bias is to always simplify all else equal.
  2. Does it replace the entire welfare system (including Medicare and Social Security)? My bias is to replace it all.
  3. Can we reliably replace rather than have this be a politically-captured add on to the current mess? My bias is to avoid opportunities for add on--i.e., I worry about this risk.
  4. Can we trust people to make their own decisions (i.e., cash versus in-kind support)? My bias is to allow adults to be adults and not dictate their choices at least not through the government. On-the-ground private charity will undoubtedly find their mileage varies along this dimension. 
  5. Should it be a very basic subsistence level of aid or a substantial amount (i.e., allow you to pursue that well-fed artist career you've always dreamed of)? My bias is to the low end.
The tension between directional versus destination libertarians is thick here. The interesting and constructive debate is fully within the directional camp (i.e., is this a long-term improvement towards the ideal?). By no means is this a first-best solution (i.e., not a destination).

Bryan Caplan is against the idea. My bias is to first assume Caplan is correct in all things he has a strong opinion on. David Henderson agrees with Caplan. The discussion between Caplan and Ed Dolan is a very thorough treatment of the topic (DEFINITELY read the whole thing). Now cue Mike Munger to start making the strong case for it. Arnold Kling was not impressed. And he makes a strong point about means-tested aid versus behavior-tested aid including where (government or private charity) the competitive advantage in each resides. 

The devil is in the details SO MUCH in this quagmire. Perhaps the most critical (and damning) question is who would be politically capable of achieving this type of a change. While I am very sympathetic to the idea, I cannot conceive of any name attached to the Congressional act that would give me any trust I could support the measure.

P.S., Sorry for all the "i.e." use.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Cure for What Ails American Trade

Trump wants to “win” international trade, and he is considering renegotiation of finalized deals and taxes (for imports) and subsidies (for exports) to accomplish the feat. Those won’t work. Here is what will.

You have to make America lousy, again for the first time. Cue the action plan—do them all for the full interactive effect (links are in some cases NSFW):
  1. American assets are too attractive to foreigners. Require that U.S.-based assets cannot have more than 25% foreign ownership.
  2. The dollar’s too damn high! We have to make import purchases less desirable and export sales more desirable. Inflation is the tool for the task. Announce and begin immediately paying off all U.S. government liabilities (interest, salaries, and debts) with newly created money. Hey, we just cured the national debt as well. 
  3. Rates of return are too good. Increase taxes especially on savings/investment. Take the current rates, and double them.
  4. Importing is too easy. Prohibit customs processing for imports on days that begin with the letters “W” or “T” (for “Win Trade”).
  5. Reduce property rights. The security investors enjoy knowing that American assets are relatively secure in title and protected from theft and abuse is making investment in America too desirable. Start with strong asset forfeiture confiscation and regulation which effects de facto takings. 

This is just a start. If we really put our minds to it, we can certainly screw this place up.

P.S., I can’t believe I just linked to Krugman. See what Trump has done to this country!