Oct 30 2014

The Cities’ Bridges

Three cities, each some distance from the other, were spread out along one side of a great river. The river was wide and deep, with a powerful and fast current. Lumber was in short supply, and boats were scarce. Crossing the river was dangerous and rarely accomplished. There were legends that across the river lay an undiscovered country, where could be found great wealth and knowledge. Occasionally, someone with an adventurous and seeking spirit would would search out that wealth and knowledge. They would diligently save their resources to be able to build a boat, and then carefully practice their boating skills to be able to make the crossing. When they finally made the crossing and then returned, they spoke of marvelous wonders that could only be understood by going there and experiencing them. Each city had skilled engineers and builders capable of building a bridge, and materials necessary to do so. Intrigued and excited by the stories of the undiscovered country, the people of each city decided to build a bridge from each of their cities to connect itself to the other side.

In the first city, the citizens were concerned with the trivialities of life, such as sporting contests, entertainment, and personal gossip. They could not be bothered with the details of such things as bridge-building. They left these sorts of problems to their leaders to solve, blindly giving them power over such matters. No one monitored the leaders or held them accountable for their actions. Because of this, the evil and corrupt were most attracted to leadership positions. Those few leaders who did not start out corrupt were quickly corrupted by the system—by the lack of accountability and by the influence of already-corrupt leaders who preceded them. The corrupt leaders used their power to benefit themselves and not the people. The leaders discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone tried to challenge their leadership, the leaders would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power. The leaders cared about money, not about wisdom or knowledge. When the city decided to build a bridge, the leaders craftily drew out the process so they could run up the expenses and divert as much money from the project to themselves and their cronies. Eventually, new corrupt would-be leaders were able to seize power and, seeing that much of the ongoing project expenses would still go to the old leaders’ cronies who had secured the building contracts, they canceled the old bridge project, making excuses about the bridge’s quality and safety, and started a new one they could control. This process repeated yet again. The first city never completed a bridge, having only the eyesore of three incomplete bridges jutting out partially into the river, only half finished. The townspeople found utility in the unfinished bridges—they used them for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but they never served the purpose for which they were built, and the meager uses to which they were put could not justify the expense of building them.

In the second city, the wealthy and powerful cared about little beyond their own social standing and wealth. There was less personal corruption among the city’s leaders, but they were controlled by the elite citizens, and the leaders managed the city’s affairs to further the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The wealthy and powerful did not like to think of themselves as being only concerned about their own interests, so they pretended to make shows of their concern for the interests of the poor. But really such shows were just status competitions amongst themselves to prove which of them could appear more concerned and charitable. When it came down to a conflict between charity and their own interests, they always supported the city policies that would promote their interests. They discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone outside of the elite tried to challenge the leadership of the elite, they would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power and position. None of the elite wanted to have a new road to the river and a bridge built near their homes. They were worried about all the extra traffic on the road, the unsavory characters whom it might bring close to their neighborhoods, and that it might ruin their views of the river. They wanted all of the benefits of the bridge without bearing any of its costs. They were concerned with unimportant minutiae of the bridge’s construction and spent years debating unnecessary and irrelevant details of its construction. Eventually the bridge was built, but on the poor side of town. The bridge had taken so long to build that its design had been changed several times over its construction, and it had become saddled with so many unnecessary elements that it was ugly, and not entirely safe. To make sure that the new road and bridge did not facilitate travel for those they deemed undesirable, the elite imposed a toll on anyone crossing the bridge or using the road. Worse still, the wealthy citizens set up a company owned by themselves that would control and operate the road and bridge. They planned to use the profits from the tolls to pay lavish salaries to themselves and toward the upkeep of their own neighborhoods, rather than for the benefit of all townspeople. But the country on the other side used a different kind of currency than the town, and citizens from the other country were unable to pay the tolls to cross the bridge. Being offended at the wealthy townspeople’s unjust attempts to control access to their country and at being spurned by the wealthy townspeople, the citizens of the country on the other side of the river refused to allow contact between their country and the town, and they closed the bridge at their end. As in the first city, the rich townspeople were still able to find utility in the unfinished bridge, using it as a space for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but the bridge never served its real purpose and the meager uses to which it was put never justified the expense of building it.

In the third city, the poor did not let their leaders or the wealthy take advantage of them and the wealthy and powerful did not seek to abuse their power for their own gain. The residents of each neighborhood met together often, to foster a sense of community. They banded together to assist one another, to fight injustices, and ensure that wrongdoers were held accountable. They sought for unity not just within neighborhoods, but also between them. The townspeople from all walks of life strove to create friendships one with another and to be a unified people. They kept their leaders accountable and they limited how long anyone could remain in power. Because of all this, there was much less difference between income and wealth of the richest and the poorest citizens. When the townspeople decided to build a bridge, they did not delegate its construction to someone else, but each person volunteered his skills and cooperated in his field of expertise to build it. They built the road and bridge through the middle of town, to give everyone equal access, and to unify the town around the bridge. They cared more about the long-term welfare of their community than about petty concerns. All townspeople contributed their time and money to the bridge’s construction, and it was built quickly and efficiently. When it was done, it was beautiful and became the pride of the town. Access to cross the river was given to all townspeople equally, because they had all contributed what they could to its construction. There was free intercourse between the town and the country on the other side. The wealth to be found on the other side was not money, but a great library full of books teaching knowledge and wisdom. Through the greater knowledge and wisdom that they learned, along with their trade with the other country, the town grew prosperous and its people’s lives became more full of joy and meaning.

The townspeople of the first two towns continued in their ignorance and misery, unaware of the wisdom and joy that was possible. Occasionally, a few residents from the first two towns would learn of the third town’s prosperity and try to move there. The third town welcomed with open arms all those who proved they were willing to become one with the townspeople. All those who adopted its language and customs and worked to build, support, and contribute to the community, were welcomed. These things were required of the newcomers because these things had given the community the strength and unity to build its bridge. The newcomers who proved themselves became great pillars and defenders of the community, and they experience and delighted fully in the wisdom and joy to be found there. All others who came to the town and did not adopt the town’s language and customs, and all those who did not work to build, support, and contribute to the community, were cast out, and permanently forbidden from returning to the town. They were cast out because they were seeking to gain all of the benefits of living in the town, but without paying the necessary costs and undertaking the required responsibilities of becoming a townsperson, and allowing such people to remain would destroy what had made the town great.

Nov 04 2011

Meet the 18 non-Christian American presidents

Category: government,history,politics,religion,United StatesJames @ 6:00 pm

Over at GNXP, Razib Khan points out the errors1 some media commentators have made when they’ve claimed that if Mitt Romney wins the 2012 presidential election, he would be the first non-Christian president in the United States, or least the first president outside of “orthodox” Christianity.2 3 Razib points out that this is simply not true – we have had non-Christian presidents before, and cites President Taft (a Unitarian) as an example.

Well, as it turns out, we have had a lot of Presidents whose religious beliefs placed them outside of orthodox Christianity – including Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln – and other presidents whose devotion to Christianity are highly doubtful – including Eisenhower.

I’m not interested in the debate about whether Mormons are Christians or not; frankly, I find that debate to be fruitless and boring. But I do think it is very interesting to see just how many of our presidents have been irreligious or held non-traditional religious beliefs. It is nice to help dispel people’s ignorance about American history and about the purported orthodoxy and piousness of our forefathers, especially when people who are historically misinformed try to justify their religious prejudice on the basis of ignorant misunderstandings of American history. Some of these presidents were closer to traditional Christianity than others, but likely none of them would meet the strict definitions for orthodoxy being bandied about by commentators and conservative Christians. So, without further ado, the following is my list of America’s irreligious and non-Christian presidents:4

George Washington

Washington did attend church, but not regularly (for example, attending just sixteen times in 1760 and fourteen times in 1768).5 Ministers at the churches where he attended mentioned that he did not take communion.6 After he had died the minister at one of the churches Washington frequently attended was asked about Washington’s religious beliefs, to which the minister replied, “Sir, Washington was a Deist!”7 Deists generally rejected the divinity of Jesus and rejected the idea of a personal god who intervenes in the affairs of humankind. They were definitely not traditional Christians.

John Adams

John Adams was a Unitarian.8 Unitarians reject trinitarianism, and are thus not traditional or orthodox Christians.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the miracles of the New Testament.9 He also rejected the doctrine of the trinity.10 His beliefs seemed to have incorporated elements of Deism11 and Unitarianism.12

James Madison

Deism / Unitarianism.13

James Monroe

At least one scholar, Franklin Steiner, has concluded that it was doubtful he had religious beliefs,14 and others have classified him as a Deist.15

John Quincy Adams


John Tyler


Millard Fillmore


Abraham Lincoln

Historian Mark Noll explained that “Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian belief.”19 Wikipedia explains that

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, stated that Lincoln admired deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire, and had read and knew of Charles Darwin before most. “He soon grew into a belief of a universal law, evolution, and from this he never deviated.”20

Some people claimed that Lincoln converted to Christianity after his son died and as the Civil War raged on. Several of his close associates, however, denied this. Lincoln’s private secretary, Colonel John G. Nicolay, stated in 1865 that “Mr. Lincoln did not, to my knowledge, in any way change his religious ideas, opinions, or beliefs from the time he left Springfield to the day of his death.”21 Judge David Davis , Lincoln’s lifelong friend and executor said that Lincoln “had no faith in the Christian sense of the term.”22 And finally, Wikipedia explains:

His biographer, Colonel Lamon, intimately acquainted with him in Illinois, and with him during all the years that he lived in Washington, says: "Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men." Both Lamon and William H. Herndon published biographies of their former colleague after his assassination relating their personal recollections of him. Each denied Lincoln’s adherence to Christianity and characterized his religious beliefs as deist or skeptical.23

Ulysses S. Grant

He was unbaptized and was never a member of any church, but he did accompany his wife to her Methodist church.24

William Howard Taft


Dwight D. Eisenhower

Until he became president, he did not belong to any church and had never been baptized. He was baptized as a Presbyterian only after he was elected president.26


The following presidents were not members of any church:27

William Henery Harrison

Andrew Johnson

Rutherford B. Hayes


Thefollowing presidents have been classified as most likely being unbelievers:28

Martin Van Buren

Zachary Taylor

Chester A. Arthur


So,by my count, out of the United States’ forty three presidents, eighteen were non-believers or unorthodox. That means 42% of the Presidents were not “traditional Christians.” If the next president is not a Christian, he will be joining a distinguished body of some of our country’s best leaders, a body that includes close to half of our presidents!

Update: Honorable Mentions

Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both Quakers. The Quakers are a religious group which has no set dogma, and there is a variety of belief amongst Quakers. Many, if not most, Quakers would self-identify as Christians. Some conservative Christians, however, have accused the Quakers of not being Christian (much like they have done with Mormons). If you include Hoover and Nixon on our list, the number of non-Christian presidents rises to 20.


2 "Electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would mean electing, for the first time, a president whose religion is not part of orthodox Christianity.” http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2011/10/mormon_controversy_pastor_robert_jeffress_may_be_doing_mitt_romn.html

3 “[T]heological honesty demands that we recognize that Romney would be the first president to be so far outside the Christian denominational mainstream.” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-10-24/romney-isn-t-christian-and-that-s-all-right-jeffrey-goldberg.html

4 Most of my sources come from the citations to this Wikipedia article: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Religious_affiliations_of_United_States_Presidents

5 Ford, Paul Leicester. The True George Washington (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1897), 78.

10 Holmes, David Lynn (2006). The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. US: Oxford University Press. pp. 225 pages. ISBN 0195300920; Clark, J. C. D.. The language of liberty, 1660-1832. p. 347. (letter to J.P.P Derieux, July 25, 1788, Papers vol 13, p 418)

11 Thomas Jefferson (1803). H.A. Washington (1861). ed. April 9, 1803 letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley; Albert Ellery Bergh, ed (1853). May 5, 1817 letter to John Adams.

14 Steiner, Franklin (July 1995) [1936] (Paperback,190pp). The Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents: From Washington to F. D. R.. Freethought Library. NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 0879759755.

22 Id.

28 Id.

Oct 31 2011

Not Too Big to Fail

Category: economics,government,policyJames @ 9:00 am

What does it really mean for an institution to be too big to fail? The idea is that some banks and companies are so big and integral to the national economy that if they fail, it will cause disastrous ripple effects for the economy and cause a wave of bankrupt corporations and failed banks.

Proponents of this idea of “too big to fail” argue that the only solution available to government is to bail out distressed institutions which are too big to fail. Critics of this idea argue that the failure of these institutions would not be as disastrous as claimed.

This talk about "too big to fail" is probably nothing new to you. It certainly isn’t new to me. Like most people, I’ve been uncomfortable and angry about the huge amounts of money the government poured into failing institutions. I’ve never done much about it, because at the end of the day none of us average citizens have much say in this debate or in the resulting government policies. If you’re not a politician, government regulator, or bank executive, your opinion on the issue doesn’t count for much. After much thought about the issue, though, I’ve concluded that this doesn’t mean we’re powerless to influence the future of these big institutions, and I think that there are good reasons for us to exercise our power to change them.

The bailouts given out by the United States government were mostly done under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). The U.S. Treasury has spent over $200,000,000,000 ($200 billion) bailing out banks,1 and another $100,000,000,000 bailing out other institutions (such as AIG and the automotive industry).2

If they are too big to fail, then they are too big

Whether or not the TARP recipients were really too big to fail, something needs to be done. If these institutions are not really too big to fail, then it means their lobbyists are too powerful. It means that these institutions managed to fool the U.S. government into offering a huge unneeded bailout. If they managed to fool the government so badly, then we must make these banks smaller to ensure the health and vitality of our democracy.

But even if the banks really were too big to fail and TARP was a necessary program, we still need to make the TARP recipients smaller. When institutions become so big that they can rely on the government to immunize them from the consequences of their leaders’ bad decisions and stupid risks, we have a big problem. You don’t have to be an economist or social scientist to understand that programs like TARP will encourage executives at big banks to take bigger risks than they otherwise would – if the bank succeeds, it will reap the benefits (and the executives will get their bonuses), and if it fails, then the U.S. taxpayer will cover the loss.

Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England (somewhat akin to the Chairman of the Federal Reserve in the United States), very aptly summarized the problem:

If some banks are thought to be too big to fail, then . . . they are too big. It is not sensible to allow large banks to combine high street retail banking with risky investment banking or funding strategies, and then provide an implicit state guarantee against failure.3

Part of the beauty of a properly functioning market economy is that competition prunes out the loser institutions. Poorly managed businesses will naturally fail, and the resources being put into those businesses can be freed up to be used more productively elsewhere. Nothing should be too big to fail. Failure is essential to the orderly functioning of the economy: poorly-run institutions should fail to make room for well-functioning institutions to succeed.

A Solution

It thus does not matter whether the banks were too big to fail or not. Either way, they are too big. When presented with situations like this, most people just say “someone should do something about that” and then ignore the problem. But politicians and government regulators have been completely unwilling to take drastic action, such as breaking up the big banks (which is what Alan Greenspan suggested4) or taking other less drastic steps to address the problem. If “someone” is going to do something about it, it has to be you and me!

But what can average citizens do? Here’s my solution: take your money out of the big banks. The only reason the big banks are so big is because people keep their money there. If lots of us started closing our accounts at the big banks and depositing our money somewhere else, the banks would get smaller.

Not Too Big

Let’s make sure that no banks is ever again too big to fail. The easiest way to determine whether an institution falls into that the “too big to fail” category is to see whether they received TARP funds. Each bank that received TARP funds had to fulfill the U.S. government’s TARP participation criteria. This means the government believed that the institution was too big to fail. And each bank that accepted TARP funds also implicitly acknowledged its belief that it was too big to fail. So if you want to stop banks form being too big to fail, here is all you need to do:

1. Find out if your bank received TARP funds. To find out, you can search for it here or look on this list. If you didn’t find your bank on the list, it is very possible that it still received TARP funds. A lot of smaller “local” banks are actually owned by larger bank holding corporations. For example, National Bank of Arizona is not really an Arizona bank. It is owned by Zions Bancorporation,5 which is the 34th largest bank in the United States, with over $51 billion in assets.6 You can quickly find out if your bank is subsidiary of a bigger bank holding company by doing a quick search on Google or Wikipedia (or even easier, just call your bank to ask).

2. If your bank is a TARP recipient, close your account with your bank. Make it very clear to them when you are closing the account that you are closing your account because the bank was a TARP recipient and that you are trying to do your part to shrink the size of the the bank to make sure that it will not be too big to fail, and thus a threat to our national economy (and, potentially, our political system). Be pleasant, but firm, and make it clear that you are not withdrawing your money to penalize or attack the bank, but out of a sense of civic duty to protect our national economy and the integrity of our system of government.

3. Third, deposit your money in a small community bank or into a credit union (these were the types of institutions that avoided making the risky loans that caused the financial crisis in the first place – we should reward theirresponsibility). Some people have claimed that having these big mega banks is good for the economy because they can achieve economies of scale. Well, credit unions consistently have better interest rates and lower fees than the big banks,7 so it seems like their small size hasn’t really been an obstacle to their efficient functioning so far.

4. The big banks derive a lot of their revenue from credit card use. If you have a credit card that has been issued by a bank that accepted TARP funds, consider canceling it and getting a card from a smaller institution. If you are worried about whether canceling the card will affect your credit score, then just stop using that card and start using a card from a small institution.

Addendum: this is not about anger

I started writing this post a few months ago, but never quite got it polished and ready to post. Since then, the Occupy Wall Street (“OWS”) movement has taken off, and along with it, a movement to penalize big banks by encouraging people to take their money out of the big banks and put it into credit unions. The people involved in this movement are explicit that they are motivated by their anger with the banks and the feelings that the big banks are acting unjustly. Anger against your fellow citizens (even if they are bank shareholders and executives) is a terrible way to motivate and sustain a political movement. Anger leads to irrationality. Anger divides communities and sets people against each other (for example, just look at the “53%” movement which has already formed in opposition to OWS).

The OWS crowd have even set up a Facebook event encouraging people to take their money out of the big banks all on the same day. If they’re actually successful in creating a mass movement, it is a recipe for starting a run on the banks. A run on the banks would just create a second financial collapse.

Let me be clear: what I’m advocating is not motivated by any animus for big banks, or by any desire to hurt them or penalize them. Like I said before, many big banks are actually bank holding companies that own a number of subsidiaries. Other banks are the product of growth or many acquisitions of smaller banks. We need a gradual and sustained movement to show the banks that, if things stay as they are, people will continue to withdraw their money. We don’t want all of the big banks to collapse – we want them to get smaller. A gradual and growing movement will give the big banks time to shrink in an orderly fashion, hopefully by spinning of their subsidiaries or by splitting themselves into smaller independent units.

This is about us normal citizens rationally taking actions to get the result our leaders have failed to seek, to make sure our country’s economy stays healthy and robust. Don’t take your money out of your bank because you’re mad. Take your money out because it’s the right thing to do to make sure that we never have a set of banks that are so big they can demand hundreds of billions of bailout dollars to survive.

If, like me, you’re concerned about the state of our economy, and the risks of continuing to have giant banks that can demand government largess to help them continue to operate, but don’t feel terribly sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street movement, please help spread the word. You can do something to help our country without becoming an unproductive Angry Protester.


Oct 16 2011

The 99 Percent of Americans Who are Rich Fatcats

Category: economics,government,politicsJames @ 9:00 am

The Occupy Wall Street (“OWS”) movement has been building up steam. The press has been mentioning it more and more. A popular slogan shouted at OWS is “we are the 99,” implying that the top 1% of Americans have been exploiting the rest of us. Along with that slogan, there is a popular blog / Internt meme called “We Are the 99 Percent” in which people hold up hand written signs describing their struggles since the economic crash.

I must say that I completely agree that Wall Street, the big banks, the government, and greedy CEOs are huge problems, and that their misdeeds have tremendously hurt millions of people and plunged our country into terrible economic problems. I really feel for those who are hurting because of others’ mistakes. I really want the malfeasors to be held accountable.

But from what little I’ve read on the “we are the 99 Percent” blog, it seems like most of the people submitting their stories are complaining because they made poor life choices, and now they’re in a rough spot because the economy tanked. From what I’ve seen of the OWS protesters, I get the same impression. They don’t seem to be really suffering, and most of them seem to be doing relatively well. How many of the protesters at Wall Street have expensive Mac laptops, iPhones, pricey monthly cell phone contracts, and flat screen TVs at home connected up to a full cable tv package? Everything I’ve seen indicates that a significant percentage of OWS-types enjoy many of these perks of the upper-middle-class lifestyle. They hardly seem like people who are really poor.

And even the poorest five percent of Americans are still richer than 70% of the rest of the world. What does that mean? It means that The poorest five percent of our fellow Americans have incomes that would make them upper middle class in most of the world.

Like the OWS protesters, I worry about poverty and inequality, but I worry about REAL poverty and inequality– like people who don’t have clean water to drink and who live in huts with dirt floors. I worry about people who have to helplessly watch their children die of dehydration caused by a bad case of diarrhea (which kills millions of kids in the developing world).

By global standards, nearly all of us Americans are rich fatcats who are skimming undeserved wealth off the top. Nearly all of those OWS protesters are part of the 99 percent of Americans who enjoy unprecedented wealth and prosperity (by global standards). If those protesters really care about inequality and exploitation of the poor, they would look in the mirror and realize that, on a global scale, each of them is guilty as well. It’s easy for them to complain about all the rich people above them on the pyramid, but they don’t seem very willing to recognize the life of undeserved privilege (undeserved, at least, when you evaluated their lifestyles by the same standards they use to evaluate the merits of others’ wealth) that each of them already enjoys compared to the vast majority of humanity who sit below them on the income pyramid. If they don’t want to be hypocrites — if they really want all of the rich to held accountable and forced into a life like all of the “average” people in the world — they should each sell all their fancy first world toys, give the proceeds to the poor, and devote themselves to a lifetime of backbreaking manual labor doing subsistence farming on a small plot of land, or go live in a shantytown in New Delhi or Lagos.

Oct 06 2011

The problem with elections

Category: government,law,politicsJames @ 9:40 pm

Even though the 2012 presidential elections are still over a year away, the news is already saturated with stories about the Republican candidates campaigning. We all take for granted that democracy is the ideal system of government, and that our system of elections is an ideal way to select our country’s leaders. But is it?

Being a politician requires two completely different skill sets: campaigning skills and governing skills. The two skills sets are very different from one another. A candidate’s skill at campaigning tells you very little about their skill at governing, and vice versa.

Someone who is good at governing is a good leader and manager. They are intelligent and able to quickly get up to speed on almost any issue; they have the insight to hire intelligent and competent advisors and subordinates; they listen and consider the opinions and views of the people around them, outside experts, and the opposition; they are able to analyze and synthesize these divergent views and decide on the optimal course of action; they are not afraid to admit they’re wrong, and are willing to change their opinion in the face of convincing evidence; they are good at bringing people together and getting them to agree and reconcile their differences.

The “skills” most politicians have developed to win elections are quite different. Politicians focus on rhetorical ability and convincing people to like them. They are more concerned with appearance than substance. They are good at winning arguments and convincing people that their opinion is right (especially in campaign debates); they are good at criticizing their opponents; they are good at making promises to win votes, even though many of those promises will be impossible to keep if they win; they are good at playacting and projecting their “image”; they are good at marketing and selling themselves; they are good at using all the dirty campaign tactics, but are equally good at distancing themselves from all of that negativity.

It is easy for candidates to talk in broad terms about their policy goals and the like, but that rarely tells you very much about how good they will be at implementing their goals, or even whether they really will try to implement them.

It seems to me that many of the skills required for successful campaigning are antithetical to the skills required for good governing. And unfortunately, most people don’t pay very close attention to how a politician is actually governing. The skills that will propel a person to power, therefore, are usually their campaigning skills.

What is the end result? We get “leaders” who are good at holding fast to their pre-determined positions and who are good at selling themselves, but who lack meaningful leadership skills. I’ll write more later about how we can fix this problem with new ideas about government.

Jul 13 2011

Why Don’t Brazilians Emigrate?

What is the most commonly-spoken language in South America? If you said Spanish, you’re wrong. It’s Portuguese. Portuguese is the unexpected winner (unexpected, at least, in most Americans’ minds) because Brazil is such a big country (bigger than the continental United States). Brazil is the fifth most populous country in the world, with a population of nearly 200 million (only China, India, the United States, and Indonesia have bigger populations).1 In 2007 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated, however, that only about 250,000 Brazilians were living in the United States.2

This means that about .13% of Brazilians have emigrated to the United States. Compared to other similar countries, this is a small number. For example, there are about 135,000 Argentines living in the United States,3 out of a total Argentine population of about 40 million4 and there are about 70,000 Chileans living in the United States,5 out of a total Chilean population of 17 million.6 This means that about .34% of Argentines and about .41% of Chileans live in the United States. The proportion of Argentines in the United States is thus over two and a half times greater than the proportion of Brazilians and the proportion of Chileans in the United States is more than three times greater. So why don’t Brazilians emigrate as much as other Latin Americans? This post gives my completely anecdotal explanations.

My observations are based on my family background and personal experience. My mother is Brazilian and immigrated to the United States when she was in her 20s. Out of the eight children in her family, she and only one sister have come to the U.S., while the other six siblings have stayed in Brazil. In my own personal experience, I have lived in Brazil as an adult, speak Portuguese, and minored in Latin American studies as an undergraduate. Here are my explanations for the relative rarity of Brazilian migration to the United States:

1. Internal migration. Brazil is a large continental country with a growing economy and increasing opportunities. The big cities of in the relatively wealthy state of São Paulo (it it were its own country, the state of São Paulo would be the 16th-largest economy in the world7) are inundated with immigrants from the Northeast of Brazil seeking jobs and better opportunities. It is far easier to migrate within your own country (and thus avoid the necessity of learning another language and adapting to a new culture).

2. Opportunities are available for the ambitious. My mother’s family was relatively poor when she was a child (they even lived in a dirt-floor house for a while). Even though Brazil’s growth has been inconsistent over the last 40 years, the general trend has been upward over that time. For those who are ambitious and smart, there are good opportunities for a prosperous life in Brazil. It is not as easy for the poor in Brazil to escape their poverty, but it is possible. In spite of their humble background, all of my mom’s siblings are solidly middle class and enjoy good lives in Brazil. I don’t think any of my Brazilian aunts and uncles or cousins would ever consider leaving — they have everything they need in their own country.

3. Sentimentality. Brazilians are much more openly affectionate and devoted to their relationships with friends and family than most Americans and they would see the separation as a huge drawback.

4. Patriotism and national pride. Brazilians are proud of their country, its potential for greatness, and its achievements (just ask a Brazilian who invented the airplane — they will vehemently deny that it was the Wright brothers, but instead insist that it was a Brazilian named Santos Dumont). They don’t want to leave and give up something to which they feel so much attachment and pride.

5. The lack of a large Brazilian diaspora. It is easier to emigrate when you are going to a place that already has living there a large group of your fellow countryman who speak your language and can help you adapt to your new country. The lack of many large Brazilian migrant communities in the United States makes it more difficult to immigrate. In the places where there is an established Brazilian community — Massachusetts (which has its roots in early-20th century Portuguese cod fisherman who immigrated there first), New Jersey, and Miami — there are plenty of new Brazilian immigrants.

(As an interesting aside: there was a 2005 Brazilian novela (daily nighttime serialized TV show) which was set in Florida and dramatized the plight of immigrants in Brazil. The novela was called “América.” Even though the novela portrayed a generally negative view of illegal immigration and of life in the United States, illegal immigration from Brazil to the United States temporarily skyrocketed as a result of the novela. Perhaps another explanation is that the lack of immigration is because of a lack of general knowledge about potential options to immigrate. The United States is close to Mexico and Central America, so knowledge about options for migration is easier for citizens of those countries, and the cultural and linguistic ties they have with Spanish speaking countries in South America perhaps makes that knowledge more widespread in places like Argentina and Chile than in Brazil.)

This post was based on a comment I left here.




Apr 17 2011

What If Everyone Paid the Same Taxes as You?

Category: economics,government,law,taxesJames @ 5:54 pm

The U.S. government has provided an interesting tool1 that tries to show you where your tax dollars are spent. You just put in the amount of Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes you paid, and it shows how much of that money will go to different government programs and expenditures.

Over at Econlog Arnold Kling points out2 that for most of us, the calculator makes it look like most we get a bargain in government programs and benefits for a relatively small amount of taxes paid. Kling suggests a more interesting calculator would be one that calculates how much money the government would have if everyone paid the same amount of taxes that you pay.

Progressive taxation means that people with higher incomes also pay higher tax rates3 About 150 million individuals file tax returns every year.4 The budget for 2010 estimated that total government revenue would be $2.381 trillion. This averages out to about $15,900 in revenue for each tax return filed. If you paid less than that in federal taxes (including Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes) this year, then that means you’re getting a good deal because someone else is paying more.5 Now, there are good justifications for having a progressive taxation system. The marginal utility of each additional dollar decreases as a person’s income increases. Moreover, the wealthy owe their good fortune to being able to live and work in the United States, so it makes sense that they give something back.

I’m not trying to argue for or against a progressive tax system. I just think it is interesting for each of us to realize how our tax system is structured and how our taxes compare to what other Americans pay.

To that end, I’ve accepted Arnold Kling’s invitation and I’ve created a very basic calculator to let each of you get an idea of what the government’s revenue and deficit would be like if every taxpayer paid the same amount of taxes that you do. All you need to do is enter into the first box the total amount that you paid in taxes for 2010 and then hit enter (make sure to include in that total income taxes and also Social Security and Medicare taxes). The calculator will then show how much total government revenue would decrease, what the total deficit would be, and the percentage the deficit would increase if everyone paid the same amount of taxes that you did in 2010. The government’s tax calculator says that a family of four with a total income of $80,000 would pay $9,983 in taxes this year, so $9,983 is set as the default starting number for the calculator.

Tax Comparison Calculator:

[price-calc variation=tax]


For comparison, here are the actual 2010 budget numbers:

Total Revenue: $2,381 billion
Total Expenditures: $3,552 billion
Total Deficit: $1,171 billion6

Some caveats: this calculator is pretty basic, so it’s only going to give you a ballpark figure. The calculator assumes that the government’s only source of revenue is individual taxpayers paying Social Security, Medicare and income taxes. In reality, the government has other sources of revenue including payroll taxes from employers and corporate income tax, so the calculator’s numbers are overestimates (in other words, if everyone really did pay the same taxes as you did, the deficit wouldn’t go up as much as the calculator shows). Since the vast majority of government revenue comes from individuals, however, these numbers work for each of us to get a ballpark idea of the progressive nature of our tax system, how our taxes compare to the average amounts paid, and the general trends of what would happen if everyone paid the sames taxes that you do.




3 The top one percent of wage earners pay a little less than 40 percent of all income taxes, and a little under 30 percent of all federal taxes. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/04/david_cay_johns.html

5 To compare your taxes to the averages I’m quoting, you would need to include Social Security, Meidcare and income taxes. I know that the government has other sources of revenue, including payroll taxes from employers and corporate income tax, so the $15,900 figure overestimates the actual average amounts paid by individual taxpayers, but since the vast majority of government revenue comes from individuals, these numbers work for each of us to get a ballpark idea of how our taxes compare to the average.

Apr 14 2011

Do you really have a right to that?

Category: government,law,rightsJames @ 6:07 pm

Do we have a right to receive an education in the same way that we have a right to free speech? Do we have a right to healthcare in the same way that we have a right to own property? We often use the word “right” without thinking much about what the word actually means and without considering what the government is obligated to do about our rights. There are actually two very different conceptions of rights, and these two different conceptions are at the root of many political disagreements in the United States. Unfortunately, because most conservatives or liberals don’t even know that the other side has a different conception of rights, both sides often end up talking past each other in political discussions.

Positive and Negative Rights

Philosophers have created many ways to categorize rights: natural rights vs. legal rights1; claim rights vs. liberty rights2; individual vs. group rights.3 These are all great ways to classify rights, but when it comes to our relationship with government, the most useful category is positive versus negative rights.4

From the point of view of an individual citizen, a positive right is a right to get something from the government. A positive right thus obligates the government to take action. When we talk about having a right to eduction or a right to health care, we are talking about positive rights.

A negative right is a right to be left alone – the right for individuals to act without government interference. A negative right thus obligates the government to not take action. This includes things like the right to free speech, the right to keep and use property, freedom of religion, etc. Most (if not all) of the rights listed in the U.S. Bill of Rights are negative rights.

Like almost any human attempt at classifying and categorizing something, the categories of positive and negative rights are not perfectly black and white. Some people have argued that almost any right can be understood to be either positive or negative, depending on how you approach and define the right. In spite of this criticism, I still think that it is useful and meaningful to distinguish between positive and negative rights. The most recent national debate in the United States where differences between positive and negative rights came up was with healthcare reform.

Is There a Right to Healthcare?

When the U.S. Congress was considering various reforms of the U.S. health care law in 2009 and 2010, many Democrats zealously defended such reforms by arguing that health care was a right, and that the U.S. government was therefore obligated to ensure that everyone had access to health care.5 Puzzled Republicans scratched their heads and wondered why Democrats would use such an obviously flawed argument to defend their proposals, since healthcare was obviously not a right.6 So who was correct? They both were. The two sides didn’t understand each other because Democrats tend to believe in positive rights while Republicans generally do not.

In the debates about the health care bill, people on opposite sides were often talking past each other because they didn’t understand the opposing side’s view about rights. If everyone understood the difference between positive and negative rights would it eliminate political discord in our country? No, but it would at least lead to better-informed debate about the issues. So let’s learn about each side’s justifications for their ideas about rights.

Why do Democrats believe in positive rights?

One of the principal reasons to support the idea of positive rights is a concern about equality. Starting with the Progressive Era,7 during the Great Depression and World War II, and culminating in the Civil Rights movement, many Americans became more aware of inequities in our society such as segregation and wealth disparities. Many people became devoted to achieving greater equality and to the idea that government was the best tool to bring it about.

In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Democrat) proposed that the United States adopt a second bill of rights8 to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee individuals’ rights to employment (with a living wage), freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, housing, health care, education, and social security. Roosevelt died a little over a year later, and his second bill of rights was never seriously considered in Congress. But his ideas have held powerful sway over many people ever since.

People who believe in positive rights see recognition of positive rights as a natural progression and outgrowth from the negative rights recognized in the Eighteenth Century in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Starting in the 1970s legal theorists have talked about three generations of human rights corresponding to the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity.9 The negative rights of the type listed in the Bill of Rights are the first generation (liberty); the second generation are positive rights to things like housing, employment, and healthcare (equality); and the third generation being things like group rights, rights to self determination, and rights to a healthy environment (fraternity). They see the recognition of positive rights as part of the natural progression from feudal medieval societies to modern democracies, the recognition of negative rights in the Bill of Rights was merely one step in that progression, not the end of it.

Why do Republicans reject the idea of positive rights?

Republicans and Libertarians generally reject the idea that people are entitled to positive rights. There are three reasons for this:

First, we live in a world of limited resources. This means that governments may often simply lack the resources to fulfill positive rights. They criticize the notion of positive rights as just being a way for people on the left to dress up their political goals using “rights” language in order to make their political goals seem more legitimate.

Second, the notion of a positive right creates a corresponding obligation for others to fulfill it. In other words, if I have right to housing, then that means that everyone else in society has an obligation to build me a house. Critics of positive rights argue that the only way for governments to guarantee people’s positive rights is to illegitimately force other people to act against their will to fulfill those purported rights. What if you don’t want to build a house for someone else? For the government to fulfill a person’s right to housing, it will need to take some of your property from you to pay for that other person’s house.10 Critics thus argue that positive rights lead to the erosion of negative rights and lead to an ever-larger government which must infringe individuals’ negative rights with greater and greater regularity. French philosopher Frederic Bastiat summarized this argument:

People not only want the law to be just; they also want it to be philanthropic. They are not satisfied that justice should guarantee to each citizen the free and inoffensive exercise of his faculties for his physical, intellectual, and moral development; they require of it that it should directly spread welfare, education, and morality throughout the country. This is the seductive aspect of socialism.

But, I repeat, these two functions of the law contradict each other. We must choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free. M. de Lamartine wrote me one day: “Your doctrine is only the half of my program; you have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity.” I answered him: “The second half of your program will destroy the first half.” And, in fact, it is quite impossible for me to separate the word “fraternity” from the word “voluntary.” It is quite impossible for me to conceive of fraternity as legally enforced, without liberty being legally destroyed, and justice being legally trampled underfoot.1112

Third, American conservatives also tend to be originalist13 in their views toward constitutional interpretation (IE they believe that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted according to its meaning as originally understood at the time of its ratification). Originalists point to the text of the Bill of Rights and most other constitutional amendments dealing with rights which seem to only recognize negative rights. Many conservatives thus also reject the notion of positive rights as being antithetical to the American constitutional system.


You might be wondering where I stand on the positive rights debate. I’m not sure I agree with either side. I have real trouble accepting the idea that someone can have positive rights which entitle them to infringe other people’s individual rights. My tentative conclusion is that there are not positive rights, but that there are “positive obligations,” meaning that even though the poor shouldn’t have a legal right to take my property from me, I am morally obligated to freely use my property to help the poor.

Now that you’ve finished reading this, there are two things you should do: First, think about what conception of rights makes most sense to you and about how you should apply that conception to your political beliefs. Second, whenever you hear people disagreeing about politics (or, heaven forbid, you get in a political disagreement yourself), think about how these conceptions about rights influence each side’s argument, and try to have some more empathy for both side’s views.

Also, like I said at the beginning of this, there are other ways to approach the question of what is a right. I invite you to read and think about these other ways too (I included footnotes to the Wikipedia articles about each of those different approaches, and the Wikipedia articles have footnotes to other good sources to get you started).





5Like this Washington Post op-ed praising the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as “enshrine[ing] the principle that all Americans have the right to health care — an extraordinary achievement that will make this a better nation.”

6For example, in his 2010 speech at CPAC, Glen Beck said “[w]e don’t have a right to health care, housing or handouts.”

10See, for example, this editorial criticizing the notion that healthcare is a right:

That people think they have a “right” to health care just goes to show how little people think at all. “Rights” only make sense when they can be applied universally, without causing a “wrong” to someone else. You can have a right to own property, for example, because everyone can enjoy the right under the same terms and conditions. You can have a right to say what you like too…as long as everyone can say what he likes. But if you have the right to a cat scan, someone must have an obligation to make the machine…to put it in service…to run it…to maintain it…to offer it to you…and to interpret the results, etc. Who is this poor slave who has been shackled to your service?

12Economist F. A. Hayek also argued along these same lines:

Question: Well, then, why isn’t there any such thing as social justice?

Hayek: Because justice refers to rules of individual conduct. And no rules of the conduct of individuals can have the effect that the good things of life are distributed in a particular manner. No state of affairs as such is just or unjust: it is only when we assume that somebody is responsible for having brought it about. . . .

In the same sense, a spontaneously working market, where prices act as guides to action, cannot take account of what people in any sense need or deserve, because it creates a distribution which nobody has designed, and something which has not been designed, a mere state of affairs as such, cannot be just or unjust. And the idea that things ought to be designed in a ‘just’ manner means, in effect, that we must abandon the market and turn to a planned economy in which somebody decides how much each ought to have, and that means, of course, that we can only have it at the price of the complete abolition of personal liberty.

Feb 24 2011

More Priuses Won’t Make Much Difference (Fewer Suburbans Will)

Category: cars,Energy,government,policy,United StatesJames @ 7:41 pm

It is common to hear people say that we need more Americans to drive Priuses, hybrids, and other cars with good mileage. But measuring fuel efficiency by miles per gallon (MPG) is worse than useless: it’s misleading. It makes it almost impossible to easily compare cars and figure out how much fuel each car will really use.

We Should Focus on Minimizing the Fuel We Use, Rather than on Maximizing the Distance we Can Drive

We use MPG in the United States to measure a car’s efficiency. As you probably know, MPG measures how far a car can go on a given amount of fuel. This means that MPG is a good way to measure efficiency if you’re trying to maximize the miles you drive. MPG is not the best measure of efficiency, though, because most people drive a similar number of miles per week. According to the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey, the average miles driven per driver per day is consistently about 31 miles per day during the week (27 on Saturdays and 22 on Sundays).1 Demand for gasoline is inelastic: as gas prices change, the quantity purchased by drivers does not change very much. 2 I think that this is because people rely on their cars for transportation, and can only cut the distance they drive costs so much, since they still need to go to work, shop for groceries, etc. So, really it is not demand for gasoline that is inelastic, but demand for a given amount of transportation.

Because people will tend to drive the same amount, regardless of the cost of gasoline, then all other things being equal, most car buyers will still try to maximize their car’s efficiency. Thus, whether they like SUVs or compacts, if car buyers have two options that are identical in every respect except for different fuel efficiency, I think that most of them will choose the car with better fuel efficiency. Of course, different car models are never exactly identical, and fuel efficiency is just one of many factors a buyer will consider. MPG does not give car buyers the best information to make an informed choice. Since the miles we drive is usually pretty constant, what most of us should want to do is to minimize the amount of fuel we use to go a given distance, rather than maximize the miles we can go on a given amount of gasoline.

There are other good reasons for us to focus on decreasing fuel consumption, rather than maximizing the miles we drive. At the national level, many Americans would like our country to decrease its dependence on foreign oil. Assuming that domestic oil supplies stay constant, the only way to do that is to decrease the petroleum we consume, not to maximize the miles we drive. Similarly, most people would like to minimize the pollution created by automobiles. Since the number of miles driven is pretty constant, using less gasoline per mile driven is a great way to accomplish that.

MPG is Inadequate

MPG isn’t the best way to help people understand the best ways to minimize fuel use. It is deceptive because it obscures the real differences in efficiency between cars. When people buy cars, they tend to think that the improvement in fuel consumption between a 10 MPG car and a 15 MPG car is the same as the improvement between a 15 MPG car and a 20 MPG car. This is not true. As MPG increases at a linear rate, the improvements in fuel efficiency decrease at a hyperbolic rate. This means that the greatest gains in fuel efficiency don’t come from building more cars with very high MPG, but by replacing the cars with very low MPG. To help new car buyers better grasp this, instead of using MPG, we should rate cars based on how many gallons it takes to go a given distance, such as Gallons per 1,000 Miles (GPM).

The following table helps illustrate why GPM is a better measure. The table gives us a comparison of a set of hypothetical cars. The first column shows the MPG of the car. The second column shows GPM, or in other words, the gallons of fuel it would take to drive 1,000 miles in that car. The next column shows the amount of gas saved by driving this car instead of driving the worst car (in our chart, a car with 10 MPG, which is the MPG for city driving of a 2011 Chevrolet Suburban3). The next column shows the incremental amount of fuel saved by driving this car instead of the car listed just above it in the chart. As you can see, the fuel savings from switching from a 10 MPG to a 15 MPG car is 33 gallons. The savings from going from a 20 MPG car to a 25 MPG car is 10 gallons. To save 10 gallons from a 50 MPG car, you’d have to switch to a 100 MPG car. There are rapidly diminishing returns for developing cars with ever-higher MPG.

This graph shows how quickly the fuel savings tapers off. The x-axis shows miles per gallon. The y-axis shows the gallons of gasoline used to travel 1,000 miles. As you can see, there is a steep drop off from 10 MPG up to about 25 MPG. After 25 MPG, the curve’s slope decreases significantly (meaning that you get less and less fuel savings from each improvement in MPG), and after 50 MPG, the curve flattens out considerably (meaning that the fuel savings become pretty minimal).

A Hypothetical Example

An example might help show how big a difference using GPM can make. There are about 250 million cars in the United States.4 Cars in the United States average about 17 MPG.5 To simplify things, let’s imagine a hypothetical world where all cars in the United States either get 30 MPG or 10 MPG. To get an average of 17 MPG, this would mean that there would be 87.5 million cars that get 30 MPG and 162.5 million cars that get 10 MPG. Assuming that people drive an average of 900 miles per month, in our hypothetical example the United States would be using 17.28 billion gallons of gasoline per month.

Now let’s assume that we want to increase the country’s average MPG to 20, but only by changing one of the two types of cars. If we did this by increasing the MPG of the 30 MPG cars, we would have to increase them to 38.5 MPG. After this change, the total fuel usage would be 16.67 billion gallons per month, which would save 584 million gallons of gasoline.

If we decided to increase the MPG of the 10 MPG cars (but leave the 30 MPG the same), we would have to increase them to 14.62 MPG. After this change, the total fuel usage would be 12.63 billion gallons per month, which would save 4.65 billion gallons of gasoline. The net change in average MPG would be the same, but increasing the efficiency of the 10 MPG saves almost 8 times more fuel than changing the 30 MPG cars.


So what does this all mean? Are programs like Cash for Clunkers a good idea, since they encourage people to replace low MPG with high MPG cars? No. There are considerations other than fuel efficiency to consider (such as the inefficiencies involved in destroying still-functioning cars and then manufacturing their replacements). Cash for Clunkers produced a net loss for the economy – for each car in the program, the total costs outweighed the benefits by $2,000.6 Accounting for all of the costs and benefits, the program thus lost $1.4 billion.7 A study by Edmunds indicated that the program cost $24,000 for each new car sale it generated.8 Additionally, because manufacturing a new car uses significant resources, replacing an already-existing functioning car with a new car causes waste that is difficult to offset, even considering the newer car’s greater fuel efficiency.9

The best thing we can do is make information about GPM easily available to car buyers, so that they can make better-informed decisions when they’re buying a car. It is easy to calculate – all you do is take the reciprocal of the car’s MPG (divide the MPG by 1), and then multiple it by 1,000:

The U.S government requires car manufacturers to list MPG for city and highway driving on cars. It would make a lot more sense to require that they list GPM.

Until it becomes standard to list GPM information for each car, though, you can at least calculate it out yourself and become a more informed car buyer.



1 http://nhts.ornl.gov/tables09/ae/work/Job13285.html. Here is the data for each day’s average miles driven: