Quick Note

I am back at school in Massachusetts now, and I can already tell that work and activities will be mounting in the days and weeks ahead, so this blog may be pretty empty for strings of time.  Anyway, I want to look back on summer for a few last moments with these two songs which were my “summer anthems”:

WU LYF-“We Bros”

This is my favorite song on WU LYF’s (stands for World Unite-Lucifer Youth Foundation) debut album Go Tell Fire to the Mountain.  The vocals have a raw style which makes me think of primordial times.  This song starts slowly but really gets anthemic towards the end.

Dirty Gold-“California Sunrise”

The title is a bit cliche and obvious for a summer song, but I enjoyed this band’s EP Roar a lot in general.  They sound a little like Vampire Weekend with less electronic backing, and more nostalgic lyrics in my opinion.


What I’m Reading 9/5/11

A great amount of learning comes from reading.  All the greatest political, economic, or philosophical thinkers of our time began by reading the work of those who came before them.  In my case, although my aims may not be as high, I also believe that the best way to increase one’s understanding of the world is through reading.  So, I also want to use this blog as a place for me to reflect on the books I’m reading at the moment.

Right now, I’m in the middle of F.A. Hayek‘s The Road to Serfdom.  So far, I’ve enjoyed Hayek’s even-tempered analysis of central planning and it’s implausibility.  However, what struck me most was his takedown of the stereotype that a classical liberal government act in a “laissez faire” manner with the economy.  I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with that doctrine’s possible consequence of allowing private individuals or corporations to distort the free market.  For example, industrial companies should pay for dumping waste into public waterways or emitting toxins into the air, but classical laissez faire states that any government policy in response would be burdensome regulation.  I agree with Hayek’s view that government intervention helps preserve a free market by correcting for the negative effects that cannot be reflected in price.

Also, I especially enjoyed the section on the role of rule of law in a free society, as opposed to arbitrary governance that will arise from central planning.  I feel that adhering to sound principles, though, may be harder to spin politically.  Anyone in support of more active government policies can cast it as government “caring” for the people.  However, a politician running on principles based on keeping the rule of law may seem like a do-nothing.

Finally, would it be useful for lawmakers to put forth some sort of “modern” rules of law on the economy, criminal justice, social services, etc.?  Have they done so already in some other way?  Of course we have the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, but it’s possible that people see them more symbolically today considering the actions and rhetoric coming from politicians that are accepted by most.  If something was explicitly stated as a rule of law, would that have any effect on citizens’ mindset?

Anyway, I have strayed a bit far from Hayek now, but I will post more of my thoughts as I continue reading.  Also, I will not just be reading from the classical liberal tradition (which you may have noticed that I subscribe to right now).  I want to read from other perspectives to strengthen whatever view of mine that will come forth.

Affirmative Action and High Minimums

So I’m a bit late to the party in commenting on this post from Julian Sanchez.  He talks about a group of people called “satisficers” who are only motivated to keep earning money up to a certain threshold, after which any marginal increase in income will not lead to increased motivation.  Tax policy should take into account the psychologies of this group, he says:

For folks like this, the conventional prediction about the effects of taxation may be quite reversed: Since they are highly motivated to achieve some relatively fixed acceptable income level (assuming the cost of sustaining their lifestyle remains constant), but their interest in money past that point drops off sharply, raising taxes may actually cause them to increase effort or productivity in order to keep hitting the same target they achieved with less work at the lower rate. Something similar might happen in a double-income household (assuming two satisficers with comparable thresholds): If they can make it on one income, they prefer that one partner stays home with the kids, or takes time out of the workforce pursuing a dream of starting a business or launching a new career or, hey, going on American Idol… even if they’d be substantially wealthier with two incomes.

He makes a good point, and it made me think of an analogy to college admissions. In this case, the workers parallel with students and income scale parallels with college ranking.  Now this may not be a perfect analogy, but it leads to some interesting observations.  We could see affirmative action as a type of tax instituted by colleges on a high-achieving race or demographic.  In classical terms, i.e. goal is to maximize college admission, this “tax” should decrease motivation for top students to work hard, and we should see an overall decrease in achievement at the top of our student ranks.  Looking at the admitted students into top colleges though, we see that these classes are populated by a huge swath of 2400 SAT’s, leadership positions, and extracurricular awards.  So it seems that the “tax” of affirmative action has little negative effect on student’s achievement.

However, if we see these top students as satisficers who have a very high minimum expectation, the current outcome makes a lot of sense.  Through affirmative action, “taxes” increase on a certain group, which now will be even more motivated so that they can achieve the same level of “income,” which is in this case a college admission.  So affirmative action is increasing the effort that students put into getting into college, which runs counter to what one would expect regarding motivations and incentives.  I think because so much weight is given to college in today’s society, that students will go to great lengths to make themselves desirable to the colleges they like.  The same idea of satisficers instead of maximizers applies to average students as well.  The average high school student might see getting into the state university as enough of an expectation and have no motivation to study any harder.  If that is so, and average high school students see state university as their minimum expectation, then could we motivate students to work harder by making laws that raise university standards?  Such a law would have to assume that most students think as satisficers.  It would make sense with the culture of “getting by with the minimum” throughout one’s teen years.

Note that I only considered the effects of affirmative action on student achievements, but that may not exactly parallel with other aspects of teen life, such as emotional and physical health.  It’s very possible that teens are more stressed from having to work harder to reach their minimum expectation.  They can definitely suffer from things such as getting less sleep or spending less time with friends.  Obviously, it is not a perfect parallel with what Julian describes, but I think the analogy is an interesting view of student motivations.

Road Trip Politics

I have been quite busy the past few days, as my family just completed a move from St. Louis to Minneapolis.  And though 600 miles of driving through Iowa cornfields doesn’t sound terribly exciting, I found myself intrigued by a number of things along the way.  Every so often, in the middle of a sea of corn, I would see this:

Apparently, two of the states I drove through, Iowa and Minneapolis, rank 2nd and 4th, respectively in power generation in the country.  I wish that more of the farmland could be turned multi-use: for growing crops to feed us and generating energy to power us.  That is such a superficial description though.  My father, who works in utilities, told me that a decent number of wind turbines will never pay for themselves.  Because their lifetimes are in the range of 20-30 years, deviations from ideal conditions can cause power outputs to fall below expectations.  The irony here is that sustainable energy initiatives seem unable to be economically sustainable themselves.

But then, I decided to search around some more for wind turbine facts, and found various places (here, here, and here, to name a few) stating that they can pay for themselves in as little as 6 years, and then start making a profit!  Now, that makes me wonder why wind is one of the heaviest subsidized energy sources by the government.  If there is profit to be made in a reasonable time period, why aren’t private investors jumping on board to finance wind power with their own dollars, instead of taxpayer dollars?  Maybe I’m missing some explanation for this, and I would appreciate hearing an answer.  It’s confusing, because on one hand, advocates for wind energy say that it can pay for itself, and even generate a profit, but then, they are asking the government for support.

That’s not to say I’m against alternative energy sources such as wind power.  I believe that climate change is a real problem concerning our future, and that reason alone seems like enough to justify government funding.  But when advocacy groups start to sell it as a good deal, they’re just misleading the public.  It takes away from why we should really care about alternative energy: so that there can still be a livable Earth in a few centuries.  All this talk about wind “paying for itself” only opens wind energy up to criticism from its opponents that they can skew as an argument against all wind energy itself.  I think that wind energy advocates would serve themselves and the public some good if they were honest about the costs, and instead, focused on the real long-term benefits (and when I say long term, I mean many generations, not just the 20-30 year lifespan of a turbine).

But if there really is some good explanation for why wind energy is both a smart investment and something the government must get involved in, please do let me know.  Or rather, an explanation why a smart investment cannot gain enough funding from the private sector.  I’m all ears.

Anyway, a few other musings from my road trip:

Does paving roads give any net benefit to society?  How do the costs of laying down fresh asphalt compare to the benefits of better fuel efficiency (in theory), safer roads (in theory), and civilian comfort?  Because if the net benefit were positive (or even slightly negative), it would be a great infrastructure jobs program.

Iowa was remarkably mild in political messaging, at least in the portion I drove through (basically IA-27).  It consisted of Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and … Waterloo (hometown of our favorite Republican presidential aspirator).  The only thing I saw was a sign saying, “Smile, your mother chose pro-life!” which pales in comparison to something like this (a little graphic).

Learning To Be Wrong

“The only real progress lies in learning to be wrong all alone,” said Albert Camus.  Coming from an influence such as Camus, this statement can only be more true for any young thinker.  My own worldview has gone through significant changes the past few years, so empirically, I can affirm that having my views challenged has brought me to a greater understanding of the world already.  I want this blog to be a place where I continue to research, shape, and challenge my perceptions.  That said, I want to take this post to look back on the relatively short history of my views to let readers know how I’ve gotten to this point, and possibly offer a lesson on judging people’s political views.

My interest in politics only picked up in the summer of 2008.  Yeah, I was part of the Obama wave, for no particular reason besides his “coolness”.  I didn’t actually participate in anything election related (I can’t vote yet!) but I did start reading the occasional political article in Time or Newsweek.  Before then, I had always been focused on my education and cared little for anything requiring excess reading; however, the greater world, much which seemed related to politics, had become exposed to me.

For the rest of 2009 and early 2010, I called myself a Democrat, though I still didn’t really care for political discussion.  I just thought, “Democrats are smart and don’t like war, Republicans are rich and possibly racist.” I lived in a pretty Republican/conservative place, so I met my fair share of passionate young Republicans, espousing how Obama was going to take all their money and how we needed to bomb the Middle East.  At that point, I didn’t really know how to respond to them, and I didn’t want to either.  The majority of my classmates felt similarly besides one of them, I’ll call him Nathan.  I’d known him since elementary school and now in my English class, he showed us a letter he had written to President Obama, criticizing the healthcare plan (which was being debated at the time).  My teacher posted it on the bulletin board, and upon reading it, I came across various terms I’d never heard of, like “federal deficit,” “Medicare,” and “SEIU”.  I was near the top of my class based on grades, but felt really uninformed seeing his letter.  I wanted to be able to throw around terms like Nathan since he sounded pretty intelligent to me.

At that time too, the economy was in such a state that it was really hard to ignore any of the news about job losses, rising unemployment, and the specter of a depression.  I’d seen the pictures of the Great Depression and read The Grapes of Wrath and wondered if we were heading for anything like it.  Luckily, we haven’t, but I remember one night hearing on the news how Congress had voted to extend unemployment benefits to 99 weeks.  Like I said, I was around the top of my class academically, and had never faced a challenge that hard work couldn’t beat.  So, I really didn’t feel any pity towards the unemployed at the time, and actually felt a little angry that they couldn’t just try harder to find a job instead of relying on the government.  Last summer (2010), I started to find myself in agreement with many Republican positions.  I was in a bit of denial at first, as I couldn’t believe I was going to associate with a party which I knew for fighting wars and supporting racism.  I feel that this was the first time I “learned to be wrong,” as I realized I had misconceptions about Republicans.  From there, things really snowballed, since as I became more aware of politics, I especially payed attention to the opinions of those around me, who were mostly conservative.

The next school year (fall 2010), I started at a boarding school in Massachusetts.  Naturally, I was in for a shock from my Midwestern roots.  I always knew there we Democrats on the East coast and that some had pretty cogent thoughts.  At my school, I felt a little overwhelmed by their sheer number, but at first, didn’t take the time to hear them out.   I was still quite entrenched in conservative beliefs about the wide range of issues.  Just about the only place where I would side with liberals was on global warming-but I felt that it wasn’t a problem government should deal with.  Anyway, shifting from a place where my conservative beliefs weren’t really challenged to a place where they were almost foreign really confused me at first.  To me, it seemed that my peers just didn’t understand things they way they should, and if they could just see things the way I did, they would naturally fall into place with my views.  My first instinct was to retrench with the conservative side and research, so that I could engage and win in political debate.  I read a lot of RedState and FoxNews, but I never became a fan of Beck, Limbaugh, or any of those other hosts.  I had heard about Fox’s right-wing bias, but didn’t feel it to any more extent than the liberal lean of CNN, MSNBC, etc.

I was able to hold a decent argument with my liberal friends from reading these sources, but I always felt that their points had some personal flair which mine lacked.  I realized that I had bought in too much to a narrow source for my political news and opinion, and it really wasn’t allowing me to speak with my own voice and mind.  I still felt like I was a conservative though, and found a site better suited to my conservative view that was gradually becoming more open, RealClearPolitics.  The daily aggregate of news and opinion helped bolster a more intellectual conservative view in me, though I still held many liberal views with disregard.  I read them, but I would usually try to come up with some sort of rebuttal, that was quite possibly faulty and without factual evidence.  As I read through RCP’s daily collection of articles, I found myself skimming more and more of the conservative ones, and actually reading more of the liberal ones.  I realized that having my view challenged was something I found interesting, whereas reading the same old articles about, say, cutting taxes or ending regulation to be a little bland.

And finally, one day this spring, I came upon Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish.  He called himself a conservative, which drew me in.  Upon reading into his views though, I found he agreed with much of what today is called “liberal”!  His writing was intriguing though, and confused/stimulated my thinking even more, because I was supposed to agree with him, being a conservative.  So for a few months, I begrudgingly read his blog, and some of those which he linked to, often which were liberal.  I felt that if I wasn’t going to agree with them, I might as well learn what I can, and mold it into my view of conservatism.  All this time, I continued to hold pretty strong conservative beliefs and had altered only a few of my views.  I felt pretty comfortable having an ideology I could identify with, no matter what it was, and didn’t exactly want to leave it for the shifting unknown of someone still finding one.

This next time I “learned to be wrong” was after reading this article by Fareed Zakaria about conservatism.  It resounded to me akin to the feeling of the persona in Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

My old perception of a rigid conservatism had been crushed, and replaced by Conservatism.  That championed by Edmund Burke, George Will, and of course, Sullivan.  Conservatism had to be rooted in reality, and not some hard ideology.  I realized that I could still hold on to my old beliefs about free markets and moral responsibility.  They wouldn’t influence my pragmatic desire to solve problems based upon empiricism.  I would like to believe that no tax increases and less regulation will help the country recover; however, if the evidence stands against it, then I must stop beating the same dead horse.  This is what it meant to be a “true” conservative, a conservative in the classical sense.  It was a truly liberating experience to be not beholden to any firm set of views.

By now, I have almost recounted to the present day my journey.  Thinking about Camus’ quote, the one thing I have to disagree with is doing this “all alone”.  I feel thankful to all the sources of knowledge that I have turned to, and without them, I would still be quite ignorant about things.  Despite the many changes my ideology has already undergone, I still feel nascent in the arena of politics and economics.  There is still much to read, learn, and ponder in the days and years ahead for me.  And I’m sure I’ll be wrong many times along the way.