New podcast episode out featuring Sam Hammond of the Niskanen Center about his paper on “The Free Market Welfare State.” In it, he makes the argument that social spending is not only compatible with but even strengthens free market policies. Native feed here but of course you can always listen on iTunes and any of your favorite podcast providers. I wrote a short write-up with some points of skepticism of Sam’s paper in a previous post here.


It’s hard to imagine a left-wing version of Trump. And for Trump’s detractors, it’s even more difficult to imagine lefties ever compromising their values the way conservatives have to support Trump. But maybe it’s not as farfetched as you think, and the case of Rod Blagojevich in Illinois proves it.

Trump has diverged from the Paul Ryan-rhetoric of the Republican party when it comes to inclusivity, trade, immigration, and entitlement reform. At some point, it’s worth considering what Republicans are even supporting when they support Trump if not just “my team is better than your team” tribalism. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans put up with all of Trump’s incompetence, corruption, and vulgarity for “Gorsuch and tax cuts.” So, at the end of the day, they’ll look past all of Trump’s imperfections because he gave them a conservative – specifically a pro-life – Supreme Court pick and a tax cut that was promoted as being a prudent supply-side boost.

Maybe there is a model for this type of left-wing forgiveness too. First elected in 2002, Rod Blagojevich was the Democratic Governor of Illinois until he was impeached in 2008. He won re-election in 2006 while publicly being under numerous Federal investigations and being exceptionally incompetent. He beat state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka by 11% with a 36% approval rating versus 56% disapproval rating (sound familiar?!). Through the re-election campaign and while he was later on trial for selling Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder, Illinois Democrats engaged in what they hopefully see now as embarrassing oversight of Blagojevich’s transgressions because he was able to deliver on some key progressive promises like death penalty reform and expanded healthcare for children.


Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in prison

In retrospect, Blago was unbelievably corrupt, incompetent, and divorced from reality. One story from his deputy Governor claims that he would hide in the bathroom when confronted with tough budgetary decisions, like an 8-year old thinking they can avoid a math test by just pretending it doesn’t exist. Even after being caught on tape selling the vacant Senate seat, Blagojevich allegedly still had plans for an eventual Presidential run. The only parallel to total shamelessness and ignorance of reality I can think of is the man who sits inside the Oval Office now.

So how could Illinoisans still vote for him, even with so much obvious idiocy and corruption as of the 2006 re-election campaign? Well if Trump supporters’ motto is “Gorsuch and Tax Cuts,” the Blago equivalent could be “Child Healthcare and Gun Control.” Anecdotally, I remember talking to people defending Blagojevich because of his increase in child healthcare coverage and engaging in different forms of “Well, he might not be perfect but Topinka…” Yes, the same justification for Trump voters doing anything to not vote for Hillary. In a Presidential nominee, Democrats’ justification would likely be “Pro-choice nominee and single-payer.” Voting for a Blago that would give liberals those two things is an entirely plausible alternative to voting for a Lindsey Graham-type Republican candidate that would scrap Obamacare and nominate a pro-life SCOTUS judge.

It’s hard to imagine who exactly would embody a left-wing version of Trump. Seth Stevenson wrote a while back at Slate about how Sean Penn could be this figure. His piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll just summarize it by saying a left-wing personification of Trump and Democrats voting one in is not all that difficult to imagine.

The idea of homeownership is deeply embedded into the narrative of the American dream. Owning a home is almost synonymous with controlling one’s own destiny, financial security in retirement, and setting up roots in a community. For more than a century, politicians have encouraged this mentality and pushed policies that shift people into homeownership over alternative means of residence and investment. But this culture has led to imprudent investing, regressive wealth distribution, and a perpetuation of inequality. America needs to get over its cultural obsession with homeownership and the accompanying policies that ostensibly promote it.

Homeownership as an investment

In the wonderful story of homeownership, families that plunk down money into home equity over the course of a 30-year mortgage are promised a comfortable nest egg by the time they reach retirement. Encouraging Americans to save more is a worthy goal, but investing in a home often fails to deliver on the storied promise. Putting significant savings into home equity is the equivalent of putting all of one’s eggs into one basket and it’s a basket that cannot move its physical location. Stock prices go up and up over the long term with bumps along the way, so anyone who can ride out the ups and downs will do well over a time span like thirty years. Yet unlike an S&P ETF, a house cannot always wait until retirement to be sold. Families need to uproot themselves and move for a variety of reasons. When this situation arises, they may find themselves in the middle of a down housing market. And as we saw in 2008, housing prices are not guaranteed to go up over time. Housing prices in a fixed location have even less certainty than an S&P index fund.

Policies are regressive and destabilizing

Agencies, legislation, and fiscal policies have been set up in the name of promoting homeownership. Perhaps the most significant is the mortgage interest deduction (MID). By deducting the interest paid on a mortgage from their taxes, families are incentivized to take out more expensive mortgages than they’d otherwise without the deduction. Politicians sometimes defend the policy as helping the group of people just on the margin of being able to afford a home. This tax deduction, the thinking goes, will give them that extra boost that brings them into that exciting club of homeowners. Regardless of intentions, this has led to American housing policy emphasizing wealthy homeowners rather than those on the border of rental and ownership.

Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 9.32.24 AM

Source:  Vox

Policies like the MID also serve to destabilize our financial system. As Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles argue in their recent book The Captured Economy, current housing policies encourage an over-realiance on debt that makes for a massive house of cards in the financial system. All the while, homeownership rates have barely budged from their 1980 levels.

Compared to a more targeted policy like down payment subsidies based on applicants’ income, the MID bloats purchases across the spectrum and means even slight moves in the economy can cause a wave of foreclosures. Unfortunately, the MID is so embedded in middle class society that it’s a political non-starter when it comes to reform or abolishing a law that almost all economists believe is bad.

Aggravate NIMBYism

By tying families to homes that are immobile and a significant amount of their savings, homeownership pressures people to move heaven and earth to preserve the value of their homes. This perpetuates NIMBY – Not In My BackYard – policies that often serve a narrow group of residents over the common good. When a city like San Francisco sees a massive increase in demand for housing due to an economic boom, construction of new housing is often choked off in part because the existing residents know an increased supply or disruption in neighborhood aesthetics will lower their home values. The residents who would like to live in San Francisco but cannot afford it have no political clout compared to the current residents. Shutting people out of productive hubs like Silicon Valley perpetuates inequality by keeping lower-income people in low productivity areas and giving owners of capital more wealth.

As Mehrsa Bardaran has noted, NIMBYism can drive otherwise progressive people to go to extensive lengths to preserve their home values. Existing homeowners, because of the potential of the policies to lower home values, often vehemently oppose policies that encourage integration of neighborhoods and schools. Although the policies may have uncertain effects on housing values, the risk involved with changing the character of their neighborhood and education system is too great to endure when it comes to their retirement nest egg. The existing public education landscape in America, tying school funding and choice to property taxes and zip codes, is strongly kept in place by a desire to preserve property values.

Every area needs to put undesirable infrastructure like garbage dumps, sewage plants, or prisons somewhere. Because people are so closely tied to the value of their homes, political pressure is placed on politicians to place these structures far away from the highest-value homes rather than what make most sense for the community. Now whether one is a renter or an owner, no one wants to be next door to a toxic waste dump. But the motivation to make sure it’s not in Your Back Yard is much higher when you’re an owner compared to if you’re a renter with much more mobility. Simply put, the risks involved to your property value from any change in your neighborhood can be so daunting that the political equilibrium is just to maintain a stagnant status quo.

Racial Wealth Gap

The racial wealth gap in America today is staggering. The median white household has $171k in wealth compared to $17.6k for the median black household. Matt Rognlie, now at Northwestern University, separated the different kinds of wealth making up the prolific dataset in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century that described the increasing inequality in wealth. For America, he found that housing alone could essentially explain this entire divergence of wealth. If we are going to be serious about narrowing the racial wealth gap, we need to reconsider housing policy in America and recognize that our current policy scheme that claims to encourage homeownership but instead perpetuates NIMBYism and bloats the housing market is a significant contributing factor.


Without an emphasis on homeownership, would Americans stumble into retirement without a nest egg and live in communities where ever-transient families shied away from setting up roots and investing in local social institutions? Germany and Switzerland, compared to the American rate of around 65%, have homeownership rates of around 40%. These countries have different policies and cultures that can substitute for positive effects of homeownership, but they certainly aren’t community-less dystopias or non-saving wastelands. A gradual transition to less ownership and more rentals in America is possible and would improve the finances and social cohesion of America.

What follows is the seventh installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 5, Chapter 3 of Wealth of Nations.

One of the biggest misconceptions of Adam Smith is the idea that he believed unregulated free markets were perfect and ideal. While he believed the market system to be the best way to fight poverty and increase the produce of a nation, he knew that market economies were not without their faults. Specifically, Smith observed that the specialization from division of labor, while allowing the flourishing he saw in Northwest Europe at the time, has the inevitable consequence of intellectual atrophy. From this, he justified a public provision of education to promote a well-informed electorate and prevent superstitious ignorant beliefs.

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too are perhaps always the same, or very nearly same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention…He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become…the uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard, with abhorrence, the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier.

The worker whose entire life is devoted to one tiny task in the pin factory will cease to exercise the vast majority of his or her brain. This mind-numbing life is accompanied by a decrease in “marital spirit” – the desire to go to war for one’s country. Smith contrasts all of this with the people in less economically developed societies.

It is otherwise in the barbarous societies…of hunters and shepherds…invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity, which, in a civilized society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people. In those barbarous societies, as they are called, every man, it has already been observed, is a warrior.

These societies that have yet to reach commercialization and industrialization require every person to be a jack-of-all-trades, stimulating the parts of their brain required for war, cooking, navigation, etc. It is by necessity that these people lead well-rounded lives and are always ready for battle.

In addition to the decrease in martial spirit, Smith noticed the harm this intellectual atrophy would have on society. The population would be prone to superstition and ignorance, with detrimental effects on civil institutions.

The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one.

A base level of education is necessary to mitigate the dumbing effects of division of labor. (though his idea of public education is a little different than how we imagine it today). Marx even picked up on this in his description of the alienation of labor.

The complete lyrics to The Dumb Specialist:

Through division of labor, so improved and refined
With so much variety of goods I can try
And all that specialization at the cost of my mind
A few operations take all my time

And from this mindless employment, I’ll avoid and abhor
The life of a soldier, I won’t go to war

Will I forget how to read? My intellect atrophies
I’m drawn to superstition from the routine of my trade

For the hunters and shepherds, though their state is so rude
Every man is a warrior, industrious too
And all that specialization at the cost of my mind
A few operations take all my time

Mental invigoration, can I be saved? Ten years of education, I’ll be ok


Discussions of higher education policy in America are structured around three assumptions: 1) a college degree is a necessary ticket to get into the middle class; 2) debt from college is crippling millennials’ financial trajectory; 3) the existing college landscape perpetuates inequality. Policies typically aim to level the playing field in terms of access and financial hardship. In order to correctly address these goals, several misconceptions about the typical college experience in America need to be corrected. The narrative commonly depicted in the media is inaccurate and counter-productive to achieving goals of equity and decreased financial duress.

Reading popular newspapers and watching adolescent hijinks movies, one gets the impression that the median American college student lives in a dorm, graduates in four years, and spends a good amount of time participating in alcohol-fueled debauchery. The years before college are wholly dedicated to gaining acceptance to that elusive elite private university. The time in between school years is spent between the promising unpaid internships and the well-paid summer gig in the big city.  But pretty much of none of this represents what one would call a typical American college experience.

By nature of being in organizations that have mass exposure, the people in Hollywood or those writing for the Washington Post and the New York Times disproportionately craft the narrative around what college in America “looks like.” While not everyone in these industries come from privilege or attended an elite university, it’s fair to say that they are relatively high-performing and many of their peers had similar experiences in college. Their view of college is one defined by four years of self-exploration, graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and a first taste at independence and adulthood.

Despite the constant discussion of what’s going on at the Ivy League universities, NYU, Berkeley, or Stanford, more than 40 percent of the undergraduates last year in America went to community colleges. How often does the New York Times do a profile of the student activities or cuts to funding at any community college? More often, there seems to be an article about how more Americans are choosing to study one particular university in Scotland; while this may be relevant to those in the New York Times newsroom and their social bubbles, we’re talking about a few hundred people a year enrolling at St Andrews. Only 62% of those attending a community college are able to attend full-time, throwing shade on the image of the idle student sleeping until noon. The wild dorm life is less common than one might think as well. Over half – yes half – of American undergraduates live at home during their studies and around 40% work 30 or more hours a week. And although the commonly pictured college student is on the cusp of their 20s ready to freshly face the world, a quarter of undergraduate students are actually older than 25, and an equal number are single parents.

Increasing student debt is placing significant burdens on graduates – and drop-outs – as they enter the labor market and eventually try to buy a home. Any level of debt of course is a higher burden for students coming from lower-income backgrounds and will discourage prospective students away from studying in the first place. But calls to have a student debt jubilee need to consider the profiles of this debt distribution. Those who hold the most debt are more likely to come from higher-income families, have additional degrees, and have a much higher lifetime income. Wiping out all student debt, in the simplest plan, would thus be much more regressive than most people realize. Lower-income students at community college would benefit from having their debts eliminated in this hypothetical situation, but most debt relief in dollar terms would actually be going towards people from higher-income families, with high future income, and with less financial burden. Assumedly, the taxpayers picking this up means a complete debt elimination would be a redistribution upward. Decreasing the financial burden of lower-income individuals in their higher education pursuits should be elevated as a policy priority – debt relief and support just needs to be targeted based on financial need rather than those with a steadier path to financial security.

Wealthy individuals love to make a philanthropic splash by giving money to build their alma mater a new library, football stadium, or dorm. But of the over $40 billion given to higher education institutions last year, nearly a quarter went to only twenty universities. Giving to Harvard to make sure the under-privileged kid can attend without paying tuition is ostensibly a noble cause, but the students that really need help are at community colleges, perennially ignored by the donor class and policymakers at large. The reality is that when elite university graduates give back to their alma mater, it’s more likely to improve the experience of someone from a middle-class background than give an underprivileged student an opportunity to succeed.

Stories about typical college life, even outside admissions and tuition costs, on things like “political correctness” again focus on campuses in that Ivy universe where only 0.4% of American students attend. Even among large universities, the actual destinations for most students are ignored in the national media narrative. During the most recent academic year, the four universities with the highest combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment were Texas A&M University, University of Central Florida, Ohio State University, and Florida International University.

When it comes to making glamorous movies or writing dramatic articles about college dreams, the focus understandably can be more centered on elite university life rather than the community college student who works in retail part-time. But if we are going to level the playing field in American higher education and improve the financial hardship of attendance, there needs to be a reality check of what the typical American college experience is. Obvious places to start would be giving community colleges need more funding, increasing childcare funding for students who are parents, and redirecting philanthropic efforts towards institutions that serve lower-income students. Without recognizing the typical student experience outside of the private/elite universities, we risk dodging the issue and potentially making it even worse.

Check out my latest post at Novel Stance about how economists need to incorporate sympathy more into their models. Here’s a bit:

Economic models’ overreliance on rational self-interest as the basis of human nature made their conclusions appear selfish and out of touch with reality. By not embracing a more nuanced view of human nature, economists lack a full understanding of how people behave and risk losing more credibility with the general public.

Read the whole thing here.

What follows is the sixth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Section 1, Chapter 1 of Wealth of Nations.

The reason why certain nations get rich and others don’t is from a country’s ability to utilize the gains from specialization and division of labor. If we are all left to independently grow our own food, tend to our own wounds, or build our own airplanes, we’d all have a material standard of living dramatically less than what we have by participating in a commercial society. The “Robinson Crusoe” scenario is an extreme example showing how much we gain by having people focus on fewer tasks and work together to produce more with this same amount of inputs.

Smith was inspired by this picture in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedie that showed the different stages of pin production.


Even in such a seemingly trifling trade, the tasks are split up between all the workers in a pin factory to significantly increase input.

One man draws out the wire; another straightens it…it is even a trade by itself to put them into paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operation, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands…

Within a firm, division of labor increases output. Twenty people trying on their own and separately to do all tasks needed in pin production will surely turn out fewer pins in a given day than when they work together.

…But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them, have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the…what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

And within a society, specializing and utilizing division of labor increases output even more. A brain surgeon’s time is too valuable to force him or her to grow their own food and learn to program their computer. Instead, the brain surgeon goes to the supermarket where specialists in food production sell their services and resources. Or buys the iPhone that was programmed by the people who studied computer science.

It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy.

The complete lyrics to Pin Factory:

From wire drawn until the straightening, pass through eighteen distinct hands
Ten people now could make more in a day than if left to do on their own
Cut then before put into paper, the pin comes out in completion
What seemed at first to be a trifling trade is revealed to greatly improve

And the master of a family knows this truth
That you don’t make at home what it costs less to buy

And the master of a family knows this truth
That you don’t make at home what it costs less to buy