Thursday, March 19, 2020

Bernie Sanders: Electability and Policy

Many say that they like Bernie Sanders' policies, but they are not voting for him in primaries because they think he is not electable.

I think he is not electable - and I also think he would be a bad president both because of his policies and because of his rigid, dogmatic character.

Sanders is the only major Democratic candidate during this primary season who has said he is against putting a price on carbon emissions. Instead, he proposes spending trillions of federal dollars on a a top-down remake of much of our economy.

A price on carbon emissions is the lowest-cost method of controlling global warming. Some of Sanders' proposals seem very expensive and wasteful. For example, he wants to spend over $500 billion creating a national smart grid. Twenty years ago, a smart grid seemed like a good idea, despite the cost, because it was the best way to deal with the intermittency of solar and wind power: the sun is always shining and the wind is always blowing somewhere, and if solar or wind power are not available in one place, a smart grid would bring them there from somewhere else.  But today, the cost of battery storage is so low and declining so rapidly, that it seems that local generation with battery storage is more cost effective than shuttling electricity back and forth across the country.

Just as important, if we passed legislation putting a price on emissions, with the price increased steadily over the years, the policy would last long enough to control global warming, since it is difficult to pass new legislation that would change it. But budget allocations are made each year, and if there were one Republican president before we reach net-zero emissions, he would derail Sanders' plan.

Sanders really does think like a socialist. He believes in top-down command-and-control economics rather than in the market.

In the 1960s, when Sanders came of age, many believed that socialism could out-perform capitalism. But the world became disillusioned with socialism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as it became clear that it led to economic stagnation: socialism collapsed in Russia and eastern Europe; China kept talking about socialism but added a large private sector that is responsible for its economy's dynamism; India and other countries with moderate forms of socialism privatized their state-owned industries. It takes extraordinary ideological rigidity to live through this and still believe in top-down socialist economics, like Sanders.

This rigidity would prevent Sandeers from being effective as a president, since he is incapable of the compromises that are needed to get anything done. Elizabeth Warren campaigned for Medicare for All but also said that in the first couple of years, she would focus on smaller policy changes to extend health insurance to more people, since Medicare for All is not feasible immediately. Bernie Sanders has not said anything like this, and he seems to be incapable of thinking like this. As a result, he would fritter away all of his political capital as president demanding Medicare for All, which Congress will not pass, rather than working on smaller measures that Congress would pass.

Sanders and his young supporters remind me of a saying from the old days when socialist still seemed economically viable: If you are not a socialist at age twenty, you do not have a heart, but if you are still a socialist at age forty, you do not have any common sense.

But that saying applies much more strongly to Sanders. He lived through the world-wide collapse of socialism without learning anything from it, which requires an almost unbelievable absence of common sense. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Michael Kimmelman versus Trump

Donald Trump is considering an executive order that would require classical or traditional styles for almost all federal buildings, and New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman rushed to the opposite extreme and produced the worst architecture criticism to appear in the Times since his predecessor Nicolai Ouroussoff left.

He used Thomas Phifer's United States Courthouse in Salt Lake City as an example of one of his favorite federal civic buildings, which this regulation would not allow. It is the building to the left in this picture, and it is obviously a forbidding, sterile monolith. Architects loved it, but ordinary people hated it and named it the "Borg Cube" after a villainous alien race in Star Trek that used cubical space ships.
Kimmelman's article uses a picture that looks at this building head-on, so it looks like a free-standing minimalist sculpture in the middle of its grassy grounds.

Here, we use a picture showing the face it turns to the street, to make it obvious how completely it ignores its urban context. Across the street, there is a older building with stores and restaurants facing the sidewalk, creating an attractive place for pedestrians. But the courthouse has a blank wall facing the sidewalk, then a lawn, and then set back behind the lawn, the forbidding blank wall of the courthouse building, creating a miserable place for pedestrians.

Anyone who admires this building either doesn't care about or doesn't know anything about placemaking.

The building is a typical example of the most obvious fault of modernist architecture: it tries to create a sculptural object in space rather than creating a good place for people to be.

The architects who admire it have a post-romantic view of the architect as an artist whose only obligation is to his own creative genius, rather than thinking of architects as professionals who have an obligation to create good places for their clients. It is as if a lawyer speaking in court only cared about his own flowery rhetoric and did not care about his client.

Trump's new guidelines would replace guidelines adopted in 1962, the heyday of mid-century modernism, which say that design should, "flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa." This is just another way of stating the modernist ideal of the architect as an artist with obligations to his own creative genius rather than to his clients.

I don't think the government should require a specific style, but it should adopt architectural guidelines that require buildings to break up their massing, to have human-scale fenestration, and to relate to their urban context, so we don't get more forbidding monoliths that turn their backs to the street like this Salt Lake City Courthouse. These guidelines would be something like form-based codes, so they would replace the mid-twentieth-century ideal of the architect as an artist creating sculptural objects with a twenty-first century ideal of the architect as a professional who should create human-scale places for the community.

Things might be different  if Trump had considered an executive order that required the style that he really likes best - the glitzy modernism of Trump tower. Then the critics might rush to the opposite extreme and call for a humanistic architecture rather than sterile glass monoliths.

See Kimmelman's article here 

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Mnuchin Should Study Economics

At Davos, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin dismissed Greta Thunberg by saying,
"Is she the chief economist, or who is she? I'm confused. It's a joke. After she goes and studies economics in college she can come back and explain that to us."
If Mnuchin really cared about the economics of global warming, he would talk about the special IPCC study of 2018 which showed that the present value of the damages avoided by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is at least four times as great as the cost.

But Mnuchin has shown over and over again that he cares more about ideology than about economics.

He has said that tax cuts will pay for themselves by stimulating growth, though it hasn't ever happened since Ronald Reagan first made that claim. In Reagan's day, they called it "voodoo economics."  Now, it is zombie economics - a theory that should be dead but that is kept alive, despite all the evidence against it, purely because right-wingers want it to be alive. Mnuchin ignores the empirical evidence in favor of his ideology.

He has said that we don't need government regulations to control global warming because businesses can do it on their own, ignoring a fundamental principle of economics, the idea of external costs. Basic economic theory tells us that the market benefits producers and consumers, but that their transactions can impose costs on third-parties who are "external" to their transactions. In theory (though not always in practice), the best response is to impose a tax on products that reflects their external costs - called a Pigovian tax. Mnuchin ignores basic economic theory in favor of his ideology.

In reality, Mnuchin is the one who needs to study economics. He needs to review the economic theory and the evidence that he has been ignoring. Then he needs to take a look at himself and to think about how much damage he is causing to future generations.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Jason Farago Reveals Himself

New York Times art critic Jason Farago inadvertently revealed something about himself in his review of Maurizio Cattelan’s work "Comedian," which consists of a banana duct-taped to the wall and which sells for $120,000.

Farago says this work is ironic and is a satire of the contemporary art world. But he prefers it to more direct criticism of the art world, such as "I Can't Believe You Morons Actually Buy this Shit" by the British graffiti artist Banksy. 
Why does Farrago prefer Cattelan? He compares "Comedian" to an earlier work by Cattelan, where he duct-taped his dealer to the wall, writing: 
"The banana should be seen in the context of this earlier work, which places the art market itself on the wall, drooping and pitiful. … Mr. Cattelan directs these barbs at art from inside the art world, rather than lobbing insults from some cynical distance. His entire career has been a testament to an impossible desire to create art sincerely, stunted here by money, there by his own doubts."
This is the end of the review: he doesn't go on to explain why it is better to remain in an art world that stunts you rather than leaving it and acting independently, as Banksy does.

A look at art history is enough to show us that this claim is completely implausible. For example, the Impressionists and the Vienna Succession left the mainstream academic art world that stunted them and produced fresh new art. Would they have done better to stay in the mainstream art world, paint in the academic style that they found stultifying - but include subtle ironies in these paintings showing how much they hate the academic art world as a testament to their impossible desire to create art sincerely? Obviously, this sort of hypocrisy is much more "cynical" than acting independently so you can forthrightly say what you really mean.

Farago's claim is so implausible that the only explanation is that it reflects his view of himself. His job as New York Times art critic is to produce admiring reviews of works in mainstream avant-gardist art world. But here he reveals that he really hates those works and considers them insincere and stunted by money - showing that his own work as a critic is also insincere and stunted by the money and prestige he gets from being an art critic of a major newspaper.
By saying he admires Cattelan's stunted work because Cattelan is an insider, he justifies his own choice of being an art-world insider.  

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Patriotic and Politically Correct Thanksgiving Myths

The old patriotic Thanksgiving myth says that the Pilgrims suffered through a hard winter, and then a Native American named Squanto acted as translator and let them make contact with his Wampanoag tribe, which taught them to plant corn. After a prosperous year, they had the first Thanksgiving, a feast with the Wampanoags, who became their miliary allies.

The new politically correct myth says that, in the years that followed, the Pilgrims deliberately wiped out the Wampanoags to take their land, just one example of Europeans wiping out Native Americans.

The facts are more complex. The Wampanoags made this military alliance because their population dropped when they caught infectious diseases that the Europeans brought to America, and their weakness led the Narragansett tribe to their west to invade their territory.  They formed a military alliance with the Europeans because they needed their help to defend themselves from being wiped out by another tribe of Native Americans!

All through human history and prehistory, groups of people have expanded their own territory by wiping out or driving away other groups of people. It goes beyond human history: populations of chimpanzees expand their territories by ambushing and killing individuals from other nearby populations, and populations of ants war with any nearby ants that are not genetically related to them.

The evolutionary reason is obvious: if a population of humans or animals increases the size of its territory, it is able to grow larger. Populations that have a genetic predisposition to take over land from weaker neighbors grow faster than those who don't, so this disposition spreads through the gene pool.

The politically correct seem to think that this tendency to expand is a trait of Europeans and not of their innocent victims, but it is actually a tendency of humans, chimpanzees, ants, and many, many other species of animals.

Rather than politically correct recriminations about the past, we need to realize that we are all have this same potential, so we can all rise above tribalism and see that our loyalty to humanity as a whole is more important than our loyalty to our own group.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019


Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, based his philosophy on this claim: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. The said truth is that it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."
As an empiricist, he had to base his moral philosophy on observations of people’s actual behavior, falling into the error of claiming that what people actually do is a basis for deciding what people should do.  But there is an even more obvious error here.
Nature impels us to seek pleasure and avoid pain for ourselves and for a small number of relatives and friends, but nature obviously does not impel us to believe that everyone else’s pain and pleasure is as important as our own. In fact, hedonist philosophers before Bentham’s time, such as the Epicureans, based their ethics on pain and pleasure one’s acts cause to oneself, not to others.
How does Bentham jump from the empirical observation that people seek pleasure and avoid pain to themselves to the moral judgment that people should maximize pleasure and minimize pain for everyone?  There is obviously another principle that we do not know empirically added to the empirical observation that we people seek pleasure and avoid pain - something like “we should consider all people to be equally important” or “we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us” - and this added principle is not known by empirical observation of people’s usual behavior.
If this moral principle can be known by other means than observation, then it is plausible that other moral principles might be known by other means than observation - including principles that override the idea that the goal of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Do We “Own Ourselves”?

The philosopher Robert Nozick argues for libertarianism by saying that we “own ourselves.” If the income tax is used for programs that help the poor, the government is taking people’s money, which is equivalent to coerced labor, which is equivalent to slavery.
Of course, the comparison to coerced labor is obviously absurd.  An income tax law that lets me work at my current job and takes one-third of my earnings is much less coercive than a law that says I must leave my job and work without pay for the government one year out of every three.  And the comparison to slavery is even more obviously absurd: a law that says I must work for the government one year out of three is much less coercive than slavery, which means that I must work for my owner every year and that my owner can sell me to another owner.
It is not as obvious, but I think we can reject the idea that we “own ourselves” on the ground that we have obligations to others. For example, we clearly have a strong obligation to our children and we have some obligation to everyone, as we can see through these two thought experiments.
Imagine that someone has a child and, a few months later, says, “I am a libertarian, and I believe that I own myself. If I want to use some of my income to raise my child, I can choose to do that; but if I want to spend all of my income on myself, I can also choose to do that. Laws that say I have to pay child support are taking my income, which is equivalent to coerced labor, which is equivalent to slavery.” Virtually no one would agree that it is morally right to choose to abandon your child and spend all your money on yourself, and this implies that we have special obligations to some people and do not “own ourselves” completely.
Imagine that someone is walking down the street and sees a car hit another pedestrian, drive away without stopping, and leave the victim lying on the street bleeding. No one else is around to report the accident. This person says, “I am a libertarian, and I believe that I own myself. If I want to dial 911 and call an ambulance, I can choose to do that, but if I want to keep going to the restaurant where I am having dinner and don’t want to waste time calling an ambulance, I can also choose to do that. If anyone says I must call the ambulance, it is like defending slavery. Virtually no one would agree that it is morally right to go to dinner rather than calling the ambulance, even if you don’t know the victim and have no special obligation to him, implying that we have a general obligation to all people (at least in certain extreme situations) and do not own ourselves completely.
The idea that we can do what we choose because we “own ourselves” is clearly untenable.  There are good reasons that people should have a large realm of freedom, but the idea that we own ourselves is not one of them.