Political Philosophy


The persistence of history’s effects on economic growth is significant and remarkably robust to negative shocks.

A paper by Comin, Easterly, and Gong asks the question “Was the wealth of nations determined in 1000 B.C.?” The paper looks at the relationship between the technology available in various regions in 1000 BC, 1500 A.D., and levels of per capita income today. Their findings suggest that history from three thousand years ago can be a strong predictor of economic standards of living today. The results are even stronger for the connection between 1500 AD and contemporary per capita incomes. These two chosen periods of time are picked as a way to tease out the impacts of industrialization and colonization, two massive forces prone to cause noise in the analysis. In a pre-explorer world with very little long-distance trade and very high isolation, the math of compound economic growth suggests, as the paper writes, “those who started out ahead would be even further ahead in both population and income today.” Further evidence from Nunn and Wantchekon (2011) shows that areas of Africa with higher participation in the slave trade centuries ago still suffer from lower levels of trust.

The larger question I think this idea begs is how persistent certain X-factors of economic growth can be throughout time. Economists theorize about factors like institutional quality, levels of trust, culture, access to trade, and natural resource environment, among many others, as the catalyzing “ingredients” for economic growth. However difficult it may be to nail down what these x-factor ingredients are, evidence suggests that the x-factors can survive massive external forces.

All areas started out as poor at one point. What made countries that initially escaped economic misery centuries ago in northwest Europe rich was the subject matter of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Of course many other countries have since followed suit, with the East Asian Tigers rising up to “Western” levels of wealth, and so-called emerging market economies realizing double digit economic growth. The exact recipe for a country to grow is debatable and varies across countries, but as a country finds this special recipe for economic growth, it’s nearly impossible for it to regress. Some countries may stagnate or exhaust their potential for a period of time. But only one country – Argentina – was considered high-income a century ago and middle-income today.

Think of the dramatic events that can happen that would seem to shake the x-factors out of its crucial hold. Political upheaval leading to “failed states,” a currency or financial crisis that breaks the economy, a civil war that breaks social fabric and kills millions of people. Surely, these would reset the conditions needed for economic growth?

While watching the great Babylon Berlin television show, I’m drawn to the powerful example of Weimar Germany – the country’s history between the two world wars. Consider what happened in Germany after 1913: first, the country led the losing side of a world war that killed 60-80 thousand of its soldiers and was fought partially in its backyard; then, experiencing massive sovereign debt and unable to reach any stability, the country entered a debilitating economic depression and accompanying hyperinflation that ravaged any sense of social fabric and functioning economy; then, Hitler took power and… you know this part of the story; then, the country was rebuilt in significant part by Turkish immigrants because so many German men had died; then the country was physically divided by a wall for the almost-45 years after WW2 ended, governed on one side by social democracy and the other by Soviet proxy rule. The tumult, uncertainty, constant mindless death, identity struggles, ripe distrust, and sheer hopelessness seem like overwhelming forces that would keep the country poor for a long time. Yet ten years after the Wall falls, the country is the de facto leader of the European Union, hosts the European Central Bank, and today has a top 5 economy in the world.

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Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany

 

There seems to be an implied “potential” GDP per capital level in Germany that was able to sustain itself throughout that near-century of struggle. Countries with less conflict and instability were poorer than Germany in 1913 and continue to be today. Very few Germans were alive before World War I that saw the transition into the euro currency on January 1, 1999. So what characteristic is it that Germany kept during the 1913-1989 period that allowed its potential standard of living to stay the same? The formal governmental institutions have changed dramatically, the demographic makeup has changed, and the surrounding world is entirely different. The physical geography has remained relatively constant, but this is not the underlying reason Germany is the 5th richest economy in the world today.

“Culture” is a squishy catch-all term that some social scientists like to use as the significant explanatory variable in economic growth. It could be a “Protestant work ethic” or the entrepreneurial spirit of diasporas like the Murid sect of Islam that explain why some groups are rich and others poor. If this is so, is culture really that persistent – and robust to so many outside forces – that it withstands the strongest winds of history?

Another set of evidence comes from Alexander de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. de Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s as a Frenchman describing what made America so different than its European counterparts. There’s a question about how accurate his descriptions were for the time, but he notes cultural differences between the regions of New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern colonies in his chapter “Origin of the Anglo-Americans.” His analysis is apt to ascribe contemporary differences as being borne out of differences set centuries before. For example, compared to England settlers, “the men sent to Virginia were seekers of gold, adventures, without resources and without character, whose turbulent and restless spirit endangered the infant colony.” Remarking on the lasting impact of of slavery in the South:

[slavery] was the main circumstance which has exercised so prodigious an influence on the character, laws, and all the future prospects of the South…it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance, and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the powers of the mind, and benumbs the activity of man. The influence of slavery, united to the English character, explains the manners and the social condition of the Southern States.

The areas were settled under slightly different circumstances and by slightly different groups that determined the nature of their political institutions and cultures. Remember, the settlement of these places by European pilgrims was centuries before – yet in his eyes, the differences persisted to that day. Even now, many of his descriptions of the regions ring true, at least to our intuitive sides – whether it be the individualism on the frontier or the commitment to localized governance. What’s striking is the strength of this persistence. The quality and type of institutions and culture that were set up at square one had such strong path-dependence that all of the coinciding forces that one would assume would “reset” the environments were in reality unable to change.

Perhaps revolutions can reset these environments. But do political revolutions change what we might believe to be the crucial x-factors conducive to economic growth?De Tocqueville also believed the American Revolution to be borne out of an ethos present at initial settlement, “the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, which had been nurtured in the townships and municipalities, [that] took possession of the State.” Maybe cultural revolutions – that at least claim to change the underlying social fabric of a nation – reset and redefine these conditions. But what are examples of true cultural revolutions? Did Mao’s gruesome one really change thousands of years of history for the Chinese people? Maybe on the surface, but I’m unconvinced it was a “reset” in the way meaningful to economic potential.

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Alexander de Tocqueville

But the vast majority of Americans are not children of Puritans, at least in the biological sense. Today, German is the most common ethnic group in the United States. And, importantly for this analysis, New England is now dominated by non-English people. Over 37% of New York City residents are foreign-born. In fact, every region has had its demographic makeup totally shaken up and redefined with each new wave of immigration and cross-mating of ethnicities and religions. If different groups are assumed to have a “culture” or “work ethic,” did the newcomers to these regions adopt the local customs rather than modify the regions to be more like their homelands? Compared to Germany’s 20th century, which has seen a nontrivial amount of inward migration, America’s demographic makeup has changed even more.

Yet the regions of the United States, as far as I can tell, are not defined by the Native American tribes that resided there pre-colonization. It could be that the newcomer migrants, unlike the original colonizers that wiped out the native population, never arrived in a critical enough mass to totally redefine the areas they moved into. Instead, their relatively small numbers meant they had no choice but to assimilate to the pre-existing norms, cultures, and customs of their destination. This usually meant they added their own flavor with a nod to their homeland, but it wasn’t a total reset.

So did the governments that were set up in Plymouth or Jamestown or the Pascua Florida peninsula in the 1500s – seemingly arbitrary and highly fungible at the time – define the destiny of these areas nearly five hundred years later? Does this mean that America’s national fabric – struggling to find itself amidst contemporary politics – will continue on relatively unscathed? The past shows that underlying cultural x-factors can have an incredible amount of resilience.

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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

 

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 fourth 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 1, Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations.

The book commonly referred to as “Wealth of Nations” is actually an abbreviation of its full-length title “An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” The question at this time was why, amidst millennia of abject poverty and subsistence-level living, a few countries mostly in the northwest of Europe had started to have a significantly better standard of living. For some, the answer was obvious: the farther from the equator you were, and the whiter your skin was, the more superior you were. For others, it was a country’s ability to hoard gold or other fine metals. Or maybe it was that good-ol’ Protestant work ethic? Smith rejected all of these explanations and instead used Wealth of Nations to argue that a nation’s standard of living is determined by its ability to utilize specialization and the division of labor.

Smith went farther than just rejecting the racial explanation as a determinant of wealth. He saw all humans as essentially equal in worth and dignity. What we perceive to be inequalities is actually the result of, and not the cause of, the division of labor.

The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labor. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came in to the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference.

Smith uses the comparison of a street porter and a philosopher as extremes of social standing. One is near the lowest status of society as far as prestige and perceived skill level, the other considered to be a wise and distinguished profession. But before they enter into schools or the labor force, their skills are basically equivalent. Through different levels of education, parenting, and circumstance, these previously-indistinguishable individuals end up working two jobs with incredibly different reputations in society. Yet deep down the two people are not so different.

By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter.

This is a radical contrast to any “nature” arguments in a “nature versus nurture” debate. This specifically departs from Aristotilean thinking that certain people like the Barbarians were meant to be slaves (thus explains our lyric “so Aristotle was wrong about the slaves”). The commercial economy, in addition to giving us the capability to innovate and flourish, also gives us deep material inequality that deceives us into thinking we are less equal in worth or dignity than we actually are.

It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.

Just as with Smith’s conception of sympathetic fellow-feeling, this propensity to engage in commerce is universal across people. In fact, it is what separates us from other animals. Unlike dogs, for example, humans are able to engage in trade and specialize.

It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any species of contracts…The strength of the mastiff is not in the least supported either by the swiftness of the greyhound, or by the sagacity of the spaniel, or by the docility of the shepherd’s dog.

So the next time you go down to your corner store to buy a pack of gum or toothpaste, think to yourself, “damn, it feels good to be human.”

The complete lyrics to “The Street Porter & the Philosopher“:

Well at six years old we seem to be
In ability nearly the same soon changed by modernity
And our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

But the fellow dogs separately
Can’t utilize their different skills: strength, swiftness or docility
From no innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

It’s our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

 

What follows is the third installment in a long-overdue 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 3, Chapter 2 of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love…he desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness.

We are motivated, Smith says, to behave in a way that not only garners approbation of those around us but to live in a way that makes us the proper beneficiary of that approbation. Our love for society and the desire to share in the sentiments of others leads us towards cooperative and ethical behavior.

To judge our actions to the best of our abilities, we use our capacity for sympathetic fellow-feeling to put ourselves in the shoes of our peers and see what they would think of our actions. But oftentimes our interactions with others lack a third party to judge our actions and sometimes we engage in behavior without even a second party directly involved. Smith develops a mechanism for how we judge the propriety of our actions known as the “impartial spectator.” This spectator is an imaginary figure that looks onward at our behavior from the outside, full of all the information others may lack that is needed to judge our actions.

But in order to attain this satisfaction, we must become the impartial spectators of our own character and conduct. We must endeavor to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them.

If we have the opportunity to cheat on an exam or find a wallet on the street, what pulls us towards “doing the right thing” when we could reasonably get away with unethical behavior? It is this desire to be lovely, the desire to be worthy of our peers’ praise. If we ace an exam and win lots of awards, we have an empty feeling inside, knowing we don’t deserve the accompanying accolades.

On the contrary, if we are doubtful about [being the natural object of approbation], we are often, upon that very account, more anxious to gain their approbation and provided we have not already, as they say, shaken hands with infamy…

This explanation is an interesting contrast to many predecessors, contemporaries, and later thinkers who explain human morality as coming directly from God or purely utilitarian motivations derived from expected reciprocity. Our innate desire to belong, be understood, and share in the sentiments of others is what drives us to live ethically and the impartial spectator is our best conception of how our peers’ will judge our actions.

The song is in a sense a love song to our own impartial spectator. Here are the complete lyrics to Impartial Spectator:

How am I to know if what I do is right or wrong
I’m seeking approbation from the need to get along
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

Tell me how it seems from the outside looking in,
I want to be worthy of your praise devoid of sin
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

The emptiness of fame when the public misconstrues,
Fills me with anxiety, ‘cuz you know it’s not true
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

Check out this artistic rendition of Smith’s Impartial Spectator on our very own unisex t-shirt (Available for purchase at the Theory of Moral Sentiments price of $17.59).

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What follows is the second installment in a long-overdue series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.” The first post for the titular track can be found here. Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by the first section and chapter of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Of the many misunderstandings of Adam Smith’s work, the idea that Smith saw humans as being motivated entirely by rational self-interest is the one that looms largest. The robotic Homo Economicus model of human nature so dominant in modern economic theory is far from how Smith explained human behavior. The first song on Silent Revolution, called “Fellow-Feeling,” invokes his idea that the basis of human behavior is not in rational utility maximization, but rather sympathetic fellow-feeling and a desire to share in the sentiments of others.

The first of Smith’s two books, Theory of Moral Sentiments, starts with this:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principals in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others…for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane…

A few things to emphasize here: 1) as selfish as we may appear to be and often can be, we exhibit behavior suggesting we are interested in the well-being of others ; 2) there is universality in his analysis (“by no means confined to the virtuous and human”). Smith was writing specifically in contrast to David Hume and Bernard Mandeville‘s writings that took more of a utility maximization perspective. People’s tendencies to exhibit altruistic, sympathetic, or ethical behavior could be viewed through a redefined utility function, they argued. In other words, we are nice to each other and follow rules because it’s in our best interest. Smith is not convinced. He gives a number of examples where we put ourselves in the shoes of others, with no discernible self-interest or rational calculation.

When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm…the mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies…persons of delicate fibers and a weak constitution of body complain, that in looking on the sores and ulcers which are exposed by beggars in the streets, they are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation…

As another example, consider instances where we cry while watching movies. Our tears will not help the characters in the movie and the characters are often fictional and/or experiencing fictional events; there can be no explanation for our tears being out of expected reciprocity or benefit to anyone. So what gives? Smith would say our impulse towards fellow-feeling has put ourselves in the shoes of the characters concerned, and though we cannot feel exactly as they do, we respond as if it were happening – in part – to us. In his examples, seeing someone about to be hit, struggling for balance on a tight rope, or experiencing severe discomfort from homelessness, our reaction is so instantaneous that it’s hard to imagine it being the result of a rational calculation or perceived personal benefit.

This tendency towards sympathetic fellow-feeling not only governs our behavior, it is the basis for explaining what we truly desire. Rather than pursuing a straightforward utilitarian life of wealth, fame, and prosperity, what we seek is for others to share our sentiments. We want them to understand how we feel, like what we like, and – more importantly – dislike what we dislike. We can all relate to the giddiness of sharing with friends works of art that we enjoy. Knowing that they enjoy it as we do gives us a deep pleasure.

A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks around and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself…When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion…But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon such frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration.

Similarly, when our friends dislike people or things that we disliked, we are even more pleased (more on this in the future). To me, Smith believes that the deep pursuit of our lives is to feel we are correctly understood by the peers we care about, and to be worthy of accompanying praise.

Nestled towards the end of this section in TMS is a quick teaser on how Smith explains our ethical behavior.

We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave…It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.

Through the mechanism of fellow-feeling, Smith says we put ourselves in the position of those we see that are dead and think “wow, that would really be a bummer to be that guy.” Again, mourning for someone that’s dead – especially one in fiction or someone you don’t know halfway across the world – cannot be explained through the lens of rational self-interest. Your tears cannot bring them back to life, being sad does not benefit you, and crying for a fictional character should have no real effect on your well-being. But from this tendency to sympathize with the dead, we refrain from killing each other and are given “the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.” By understanding as best we can what it feels like to be dead – in the cold, dark grave, never again able to experience the pleasures of life – we aim to never put anyone in that situation nor put ourselves in that situation anytime soon.

So why can we sometimes be unethical? Aren’t there limits to our fellow-feeling? How does this square with the view of human nature found in Wealth of Nations and the market economy? Answers to all of that coming up later in this series!

 

The complete lyrics to “Fellow-Feeling”:

So I mourn for the dead, though they cannot hear my cries
What good is it unnoticed, what good is it to try
From that fear of cold and darkness, when imagined in that grave
Give power to restrain the injustice of mankind

The fortune of others, as I conceive
Not just the virtuous, or humane
However selfish that I may seem
Derive his sorrow
Though at ease I cannot feel his pain, imagination puts me in his place

The stroke is aimed (I shrink back) upon his arm
The beggar on the street, ulcers and sores
On the slackrope (I twist) the dancer writhes
Only conception
Yet enough to cause me that unease, the robust and feeble feel it too

To share the amusement of a book or a poem
And to enter in their sentiments just as if they were our own
The mortification when we jest and no one joins,
Feels so instantaneous that it cannot be self-love

 

P.S. here’s a selfie I took by the Adam Smith statue in Edinburgh last week

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Sam Hammond of the Niskanen Center wrote an excellent piece analyzing the under-appreciated complementarity of a strong social safety net and free market policies. Separating labor market and business regulation from social spending, Hammond goes on to argue that there is a steady equilibrium correlation between how free a country’s economy is and how generous their social safety net is. While I applaud his line of thinking on how free market policies and social insurance can be mutually reinforcing, I am not as convinced that there is necessarily a strong equilibrium relationship between the two, nor that the US is in an unsteady state that could lead it down the road to further reactionary populism.

Why the Market Economy Benefits from a Strong Safety Net

As an economy grows and adapts to changing demands, Joseph Schumpeter observed, a process of “creative destruction” leaves newly obsolete industries and skills in the dust. The displaced workers from this process can be enticed by populist revolts that threaten to counteract the productive forces of a market economy. Hammond’s paper “argues that the countries that have eluded Schumpeter’s dreary prediction have done so by combining free-markets with robust systems of universal social insurance.” In other words, if any polity wants to enjoy the fruits of a well-functioning market economy, it needs to cushion the blow for those that are harmed by the inherent dynamism that allows it to prosper. With its relatively stingy cash benefits, the United States is at risk of sliding into a policy environment that removes its unique dynamism.

Hammond argues a more generous social safety net can complement, rather than work against, the power of markets by, among other things: 1) promoting entrepreneurial risk-taking by spreading out risk across society; 2) address the painful adjustment costs embedded in a dynamic globalized market economy; 3) replace policies that ostensibly increase economic security but inevitably decrease economic flexibility; 4) increase labor market flexibility by detaching “important social benefits…from any particular employer or market structure.”

The False Dichotomy of Economic Policy-making

Many tend to incorrectly see economic policy regimes as necessarily being a bundled package. One political party may favor stronger unionization, have a more interventionist approach to industry, a more progressive taxation scheme, and a more generous welfare state, while the other wants to decrease the power of unions, privatize more government functions, lower top marginal tax rates, and cut social spending. In reality, it’s not one bundle or the other. It’s possible to have a generous social insurance system as well as a lightly-regulated economy. Hammond makes a distinction between a Swedish “social insurance state” that has generous social insurance policies but a relatively unregulated marketplace, with a Venezuelan “interventionist state” that relies on nationalization and inflexible labor markets. Both can be referred to as “socialist” or “social democratic” in political discourse, but of course their policy combinations are far from identical. The ideal scheme, according to Hammond (and one I agree with), is one that combines the powers of the market economy with a generous welfare state.

[As a slight aside, this overall point is something I want to increasingly shout from the rooftops. Opponents of “capitalism” or market economies tend to associate pro-market reforms with skimpy welfare states, neoconservative foreign policy, and low environmental regulation. The Niskanen Center is great at producing work that combines ideal policies outside this false dichotomy.]

What Economic Freedom Should Really Mean

Often times, country rankings of “economic freedom” from the Heritage Foundation or Fraser Institute imply a necessary bundling of economic policy decisions. Both of these foundations, Hammond notes, value economic freedoms related to economic regulation, but they also value low government spending and skimpy social safety nets. To better get to an analysis showing the kind of government presence he’s talking about, he develops an index that separates social expenditures and pro-market institutions from “government size.” The economic freedom index thus values government transparency, rule of law, and regulatory efficiency while the social welfare index suggests higher income transfers. Economic freedom does not need to mean low taxation and social spending. We’re left with this graphic:

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The graphic suggests a correlation between his measure of economic freedom and income security. But instead of just saying this is a correlation, he believes the relationship is in fact an equilibrium, and countries that diverge from the path by becoming either economically less-free or decrease welfare spending are at risk of falling down the path to populism found in the bottom left quadrant. In theory, these countries are in disequilibrium, as I see it, because an economically less-free country with generous welfare spending would have low-growth that couldn’t support its welfare state. Meanwhile, an economically free country with skimpy benefits wouldn’t be able to cushion the blow from an ever-changing economy.

But is there a Steady-state Equilibrium?

This is where I’m skeptical. The United States is a significant outlier here. An atypical amount of our government spending goes towards military ventures, but I don’t think that collapsing military spending would result in a more generous welfare state. I’m drawn to this Glaser et al paper suggesting that skimpier US welfare state spending comes from historical and cultural realities that are hard to undo by overnight Federal policymaking. Specifically, the paper suggests that “racial fragmentation is a powerful predictor of redistribution” across countries, and America’s cultural/racial heterogeneity could lead to an unwillingness to provide strong social welfare benefits that is difficult to overcome. The United States is atypical in many regards to other OECD countries, and a big difference is this diversity. Scandinavian countries with relatively homogenous populations could be seen as more willing to provide a social safety net because people perceive their tax dollars as going to people just like them. Countries like Italy or Spain, with relatively less national unity than Denmark or Norway, have administratively weaker welfare states.

Although Nordic countries have recently experienced a surge in “otherness” migration – and with significant frictions politically as they try to protect their natives and welfare states – it’s not clear to me that the dust will settle with these countries having their generous welfare states remain in place. I don’t mean to argue against diversity or say it can’t coexist with strong social spending; instead, I want to assert the common tension between the two and point out that America’s atypical cultural heterogeneity could be an endogenous force working against political willingness to increase social spending. Further, as Hammond notes, Sweden was in an equilibrium in the 70s and 80s more in line with the bottom left quadrant of his graphic than the top right. A particularly bad recession in the early 90s shocked the country and resulted in liberalization of markets but preserved strong social insurance programs. But if Sweden can suddenly switch quadrants, what makes Hammond so sure it can’t just as easily switch back?

A further argument against the inevitability of this equilibrium is in the United States’s long history. Sure, countries in the Anglo world are today on a more authoritarian path with Trump/Brexit than many other OECD countries, likely stemming from an inability to protect citizens who were displaced by globalization. But the United States has never had a particularly strong welfare state? The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is a part of what is deemed American exceptionalism. The United States transitioned from an agricultural country to industrial without falling out of this bottom right quadrant. The transition didn’t come without side effects – agricultural subsidies today can be seen as a historical concession towards farmers harmed by the change – but the United States still never left its unique quadrant. Now, maybe I’m oversimplifying United States economic history here, or not involving the nuances of European economic history either. But if I really am misunderstanding history, it begs the question of whether Hammond can show that his graphic is robust enough throughout time in order to prove that this is indeed an equilibrium.

To say that a more robust welfare state counteracts the forces that led to Trump and Brexit also seems like a stretch to me. Specifically, Hammond believes that a well designed welfare state could alleviate “search and adjustment costs…with a system of subsidized employment for the long-term unemployed, combined with job search and relocation supports for geographically locked workers.” I’m skeptical the proverbial rust-belt Trump voter that used to thrive in a coal-fueled world or manufacturing-based American economy will be helped much by this. These workers have a strong connection to the identity their job provides them. I don’t just mean the purpose or community employment gives them. A coal miner isn’t suddenly going to become a male nurse just because that’s where the economy is producing jobs, no matter how much assistance the government gives them. The assembly line worker in West Virginia isn’t going to start to learn Python and move to Silicon Valley. The fact of the matter, as I see it, is that the economic displacement from globalization and automation interacts with a stubbornness of human nature that leaves many workers potentially unable or unwilling to participate in the new economy, regardless of government support. [I’d note that this job-identity relationship extends to professional-class workers who probably refused to work retail jobs during the Great Recession. Our employment opportunities are tied to how we see ourselves, and I think government spending can only do so much here.]

Hammond writes that “unregulated open economies are vulnerable to reactionary populist backlashes when the forces of creative destruction leave large swaths of society behind.” But take a look at his graphic showing OECD countries and their level of “cash minimum-income benefits.”

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Greece paints a picture of an unstable populist backlash, but what about other countries on the left-side of this distribution? Is Canada unstable? South Korea? Hong Kong and Singapore are atypical city-states, but I don’t see them as being at risk of going in a more authoritarian direction, either. Perhaps it’s possible for countries to exist as free-market states without having pressures to increase its social welfare spending. History, culture, demographics, or even size/government setup – something particularly unique about the United States – could lead countries to a steady-state outside the correlation Hammond’s graphic suggests. And if there is no equilibrium, can we really think of these as being necessarily reinforcing rather than just a correlation?

How to Improve American Social Insurance

Outside any theoretical equilibrium, I would like to see the policies Hammond argues for. While I may not be convinced the United States must do this in order to avoid becoming more of an authoritative populist country, I still believe a stronger safety net can complement the wonders of the market economy discusses previously. So how can the United States transition into more a top-right quadrant country? Hammond argues that social insurance schemes can be more politically viable and successful if they are designed to be “neutral” and “universal.” It’s important to be neutral – in the sense that as little as possible is left up to the discretion of policymakers that will likely pander to special interests – to avoid favoritism and cronyism. It’s important to be “universal” because programs perceived to be designated only for the poor are typically poorly-run and underfunded. Making social insurance schemes something that everyone benefits from and pays into will ensure more forces that lead to beauracratic quality and efficiency. Federalism and American attitudes could make this a relatively difficult process, but still one worth pursuing.

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