Ideology and the Public School Monopoly

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I toured our local public high school not long ago after some renovations. It’s my old school and my kids attended there as well, though it’s been largely stripped of its old character. Our sweet tour guide, when asked about school security and whether any staff are armed, said no, and then proudly informed us that the temperament of the school was “pretty progressive”, and that sort of thing would not go over well. Later, as I stepped into the new library, I happened to notice a table right up-front intended to showcase several books. The first title I laid eyes on was “Social Justice”, a topic emphasizing all manner of grievances, current and historical, the identification of culpable parties (and their unworthy descendants), and presumed correctives. The latter include reparations, redistribution, control of speech, criminalization, and often shaming. At best, these correctives deliver palliatives to the aggrieved that must be forcibly extracted by the state from others, with little consideration for the predictably disastrous second-order effects they engender.

The prominent display of the social justice book and our tour guide’s attitude regarding security were unsurprising manifestations of the educational emphasis our kids get today: the public schools have become indoctrination camps. Of course, a good class in American history will leave no doubt about the injustices that have occurred in our nation over 250 years. There were many individual victims and many groups were victimized. We could say the same about a good class in European history, or the history of events in any region of the world. However, the social justice doctrine being peddled to our children today assigns blame for victimhood to anyone deemed not to be a victim, as well as the growth and very success of western civilization, including capitalism, this despite the unprecedented comforts available today across the socioeconomic spectrum. It’s as if the SJWs wish to convince our children that all economic gains are of the zero-sum variety.

The politicization of the curriculum in our schools is an extremely dangerous phenomenon. Many schools are banning literature, distorting history, subverting science in favor of politicized orthodoxy, and teaching social justice math“, which I’m sure is heavy on zero-sum word problems. And how about this “Run from the cop” worksheet given to first graders in a Pittsburgh school! Federal and state education authorities are taking an active hand in much of this. For example, a new ethnic studies curriculum for California high schools proposed by the state Department of Education takes a notably anti-Israel perspective. At the federal level, there is the Common Core initiative (and see here) which, in addition to educational inefficacy, is a source of many of the same concerns cited above. President Obama’s school discipline policy, heavy in its emphasis on “disparate impact”, was perhaps even more disastrous (and see here).

Social studies textbooks today are increasingly written by leftist authors who distort U.S. history, present anti-science viewpoints on environmental topics, and promote the divisive tenets of multiculturalism. The U.S. history covered in this prominent textbook is subject to a variety of left-wing biases, but it is not unique in that regard. And it’s not only a matter of bias in favor of collectivist philosophy and leftist interpretations of historical events. For example, it’s way over the top to teach public school children that Christians are bigots.

But God bless the teachers, many of whom are indeed wonderful people, and many of whom are very good at what they do (my daughter being a prime example!). There is little doubt, however, that leftism dominates the faculty in most public schools. John Hinderaker writes of the political activism practiced by the faculty at a high school in Edina, Minnesota, where lessons about “white privilege” are part of the curriculum even in the feeder schools. It’s a travesty that many of our nation’s public school teachers are products of university schools of education with extremely low academic standards relative to other academic divisions within those universities. And these schools of education have been thoroughly politicized. Needless to say, a good many of their graduates are easily cowed by the typical “feel-good”, free-lunch, social justice arguments made by the Left.

In a sense, these civil servants are a local counterpart to the army of federal bureaucrats sometimes known as the “deep state”. They are funded by taxpayers and are often represented by powerful unions. Under-performing teachers are difficult to dismiss, and they are able to exercise great discretion in the messages they deliver to students. As Darleen Click writes, “The ‘woke’ want your children“.

The leftist thrust of public education today descends from a long evolution shaped by “progressive” education reforms, and most reforms receiving attention within today’s education establishment fail to address the single biggest problem: the public school monopoly. That inattention is reinforced by attempts to maintain ideological purity among participants in the debate over school reform. Social studies teachers Mike Margeson and Justin Spears, writing for the Foundation for Economic Education on the motives for establishing public education, say the following about historical reforms:

The objective was to nationalize the youth in a particular mold. … From Luther to Fichte, the idea to use the coercive power of the state to force kids into schools and indoctrinate them was clear. Horace Mann became instrumental in importing this system and helping it spread throughout the United States.”

Breaking the public education monopoly is imperative to improving both the quality and cost of education. That means choice, in all it’s liberating glory. J.D. Tuccille has a great take on this issue: choice is the only way we can assure that our children are taught from a perspective that parents most prefer. Many parents know that they must take an active part in educating their children. That includes their role in selecting the school they believe will be best for their kids, as well as ongoing scrutiny of the school’s performance. A simple by-product of choice is that schools and their faculties might be more circumspect about shading their instruction with their own political agendas.

 

 

Another Flop at the Impeachment Playhouse

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Listen, President Trump drives me crazy. His policy instincts often strike me as dangerous: trade protectionist, inflationist, and cronyist. I’m still suspicious that he might play ball with statists left and right on critical issues, when and if he perceives a political advantage in doing so. And Trump is hopelessly inarticulate and belligerent. Nevertheless, I will almost certainly vote for him in 2020 for several reasons, not least because the feasible alternatives are completely unacceptable. That view is reinforced by the behavior of the Democrat party in their effort to fabricate “high crimes and misdemeanors” on Trump’s part. That effort is not just dishonest, it is foolish, and they have a lot to lose. Their machinations are likely to blow up in their faces.

For one thing, the Democrats don’t seem to have much of a case. This time they are focused on a May 2019 phone conversation that took place between Trump and the recently-elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The Democrats contend that Trump held up military aid in order to pressure Zelenskiy to investigate the Biden family’s activities in the Ukraine, a charge flatly denied by Zelenskiy. In fact, at the time of the call, the Ukrainians has no idea that military aid had been suspended, a fact first reported by The New York Times.

The Trump Administration released a transcript of the Zelenskiy call, which offers no evidence that a quid pro quo was offered by Trump. Even the text messages released this morning fail to support the claim. Joe Biden’s name came up during the call in connection with potential interference by the Ukraine in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. That’s reasonable in light of the events reported to have taken place, and it is certainly within the scope of presidential powers, as were Trump’s efforts to discuss election interference with Australia, the U.K., and other countries.

If you don’t know it already, a successful impeachment in the House of Representatives will not remove Trump from office. It will constitute a referral of charges to the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, and a conviction requires a two-thirds majority. Ain’t gonna happen.

In the meantime, there really is no formal “impeachment” underway, despite what you think you’ve heard. This is a “proceeding” that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi really had no authority to initiate, and there is no set of rules or procedures guiding the spectacle. An impeachment investigation requires a House vote, but Democrats voted to table a resolution calling for such a vote because they really don’t want one, not yet anyway. Why? Because it would force them to go on record before they’re quite sure they want to, but more importantly it would demand due process for the accused. A House vote for an impeachment investigation would give House Republicans subpoena powers, something Democrats don’t want to take a chance on.

Again, the whole effort by the Democrats will ultimately be futile, and the trial proceedings in the Senate might be very ugly for them as well. It is likely to shed light on several matters that offer unflattering context for the impeachment effort and might well lead to criminal charges against prominent Democrats and their operatives:

These are all troubling questions that should be investigated. We may or may not get to the bottom of it before the impeachment vote in the House, if it ever occurs. Senate Republicans will undoubtedly be interested in pursuing many of these areas of inquiry, and Joe Biden will not come out of this unscathed. There is likely considerable evidence to support claims that he used political influence to gain his son Hunter favor in the Ukraine and China. 

This month, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz is expected to release his report on the origins and conduct of the Russia investigation into Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. including potential corruption of the FISA process. His report will reflect the findings of two U.S. attorneys conducting separate inquiries into various aspects of the matter. These reports are a potential disaster for Democrats. Perhaps the distraction of impeachment theatre seems desirable to them, but the longer they continue the fruitless effort to “get Trump”, which began well before he was elected, the more incompetent they look. They don’t seem to have noticed that the whole spectacle is strengthening Trump’s base of support.

Which brings me back to Trump’s belligerence, which I briefly decried above. And it’s true, I often wince, but then I often laugh out loud as well. His political opponents and the media are constantly aghast at his every unapologetic response to their attacks. I will readily admit that it’s deeply satisfying to witness him hurling the crap right back at them, right on the schnoz. In the case of the impeachment drama, his base of support and many others in the middle know the Dems richly deserve it.

 

The Leninists Among Us

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I suggested recently that the pursuit of zero-sum gains, and zero-sum thinking generally, is a form of social rot. How timely that Gary Saul Morson has offered this interesting essay on “Leninthink” in the October issue of The New Criterion. It validates my conviction that a zero-sum view of the world invites social brutalism and economic cannibalism. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin, was of course the first premier of the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. His philosophy was a practical derivative of Marxism, a real-world implementation of a “dictatorship of the proletariat“. Morson describes Lenin’s view of social relations thusly:

Lenin regarded all interactions as zero-sum.To use the phrase he made famous, the fundamental question is always ‘Who Whom?’—who dominates whom, who does what to whom, ultimately who annihilates whom. To the extent that we gain, you lose. Contrast this view with the one taught in basic microeconomics: whenever there is a non-forced transaction, both sides benefit, or they would not make the exchange. For the seller, the money is worth more than the goods he sells, and for the buyer the goods are worth more than the money. Lenin’s hatred of the market, and his attempts to abolish it entirely during War Communism, derived from the opposite idea, that all buying and selling is necessarily exploitative. When Lenin speaks of ‘profiteering’ or ‘speculation’ (capital crimes), he is referring to every transaction, however small. Peasant ‘bagmen’ selling produce were shot.

Basic books on negotiation teach that you can often do better than split the difference, since people have different concerns. Both sides can come out ahead—but not for the Soviets, whose negotiating stance John F. Kennedy once paraphrased as: what’s mine is mine; and what’s yours is negotiable. For us, the word ‘politics’ means a process of give and take, but for Lenin it’s we take, and you give. From this it follows that one must take maximum advantage of one’s position. If the enemy is weak enough to be destroyed, and one stops simply at one’s initial demands, one is objectively helping the enemy, which makes one a traitor. Of course, one might simply be insane. Long before Brezhnev began incarcerating dissidents in madhouses, Lenin was so appalled that his foreign minister, Boris Chicherin, recommended an unnecessary concession to American loan negotiators, that he pronounced him mad—not metaphorically—and demanded he be forcibly committed. ‘We will be fools if we do not immediately and forcibly send him to a sanatorium.'”

The ruthlessness of Lenin’s mindset was manifested in his unwillingness to engage in rationalizations or even civil debate:

Lenin’s language, no less than his ethics, served as a model, taught in Soviet schools and recommended in books with titles like Lenin’s Language and On Lenin’s Polemical Art. In Lenin’s view, a true revolutionary did not establish the correctness of his beliefs by appealing to evidence or logic, as if there were some standards of truthfulness above social classes. Rather, one engaged in ‘blackening an opponent’s mug so well it takes him ages to get it clean again.’ Nikolay Valentinov, a Bolshevik who knew Lenin well before becoming disillusioned, reports him saying: ‘There is only one answer to revisionism: smash its face in!’

When Mensheviks objected to Lenin’s personal attacks, he replied frankly that his purpose was not to convince but to destroy his opponent. In work after work, Lenin does not offer arguments refuting other Social Democrats but brands them as ‘renegades’ from Marxism. Marxists who disagreed with his naïve epistemology were ‘philosophic scum.’ Object to his brutality and your arguments are ‘moralizing vomit.’ You can see traces of this approach in the advice of Saul Alinsky—who cites Lenin—to ‘pick the target, freeze it, personalize it.'”

This offers a useful perspective on why it’s so difficult to have civil discussions with leftists today. They have inherited versions of Lenin’s polemic style. You’re more likely to be verbally attacked by the Left than to be engaged in a productive exchange of ideas, as I’m constantly reminded by observing the behavior of SJWs on social media. Leftist retribution is swift. Glenn Reynolds has mused, “As the old saying has it, the left looks for heretics and the right looks for converts, and both find what they’re looking for.” That might be too optimistic!

The richest source of zero-sum gains is through the levers of government, which possesses the necessary coercive power to achieve that aim. When coercive power is so ruthlessly exercised, the appearance of loyalty to those in power becomes paramount for survival. This can make it necessary to display an outward acceptance of fanciful claims:

Lenin’s idea that coercion is not a last resort but the first principle of Party action. Changing human nature, producing boundless prosperity, overcoming death itself: all these miracles could be achieved because the Party was the first organization ever to pursue coercion without limits. In one treatise Stalin corrects the widespread notion that the laws of nature are not binding on Bolsheviks, and it is not hard to see how this kind of thinking took root. And, given an essentially mystical faith in coercion, it is not hard to see how imaginative forms of torture became routine in Soviet justice.

Dmitri Volkogonov, the first biographer with access to the secret Lenin archives, concluded that for Lenin violence was a goal in itself. He quotes Lenin in 1908 recommending ‘real, nationwide terror, which invigorates the country and through which the Great French Revolution achieved glory.'”

Morson provides this revealing quote from the madman Lenin himself:

The kulak uprising in [your] 5 districts must be crushed without pity. . . . 1) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Take all their grain away from them. 4) Identify hostages . . . . Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry . . . . Yours, Lenin. P. S. Find tougher people.”

At least today the Lefties try to dox people first, rather than #2. The hanging might have to come later.

There is a real danger in encouraging such zero-sum notions as redistribution and class warfare. Even today’s preoccupation with identity politics is one of zero-sum emphasis. Furthermore, the concepts of mass victimization and social justice promote a delusion of righteousness, a necessary precondition to the kind of monstrous acts of a Lenin. Anyone truly interested in promoting an atmosphere of social cooperation should recognize the echos of Leninism we see today from Leftists on social media and in the streets. These tyrants must be resisted before we’re all on the wrong side of the ultimate zero sum outcome.

Memes, Satire, and Deception

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Not long ago I wrote about how Snopes.com, the alleged “fact-checking” site, had become so politicized that its staff was rating posts on The Babylon Bee as false. Those posts were plainly written as satire. A related issue came to mind last weekend when I saw a meme on social media attributing the following statement to President Trump: “My crimes can’t be investigated while I’m president“. The meme used quote marks, but there was no link to a source.

It’s well known that Trump’s legal team contends that certain statements and actions he might take are protected by executive privilege and immunity. Given Trump’s frequent clumsy use of the language, I thought there was an outside chance that he DID say something like that! My uncertainty was ironic in the wake of my Snopes post! So I did a quick search and found an article in Vanity Fair headlined: Trump: My crimes can’t be investigated while I’m president, without quote marks. The opinion piece that followed was indeed a characterization of the Trump team’s legal strategy. The headline was obviously sarcasm and of course there was no attribution. Trump did not make any admission of criminal activity, contrary to the meme’s implication.

I knew the poster of the meme, whom I’ll call Dan, to be an individual who regards Trump with contempt, and certainly not the sort of guy who would bother to investigate the veracity of such a claim. Against my better judgement, I decided to tweak him a little. I asked if he could provide a source for the quote. He didn’t respond until late afternoon the next day, and not before one of his pals had attacked me for asking the question.

The crux of their defense was this: “It’s a meme! Don’t you know what a meme is?” There were other choice words from Dan’s pal… insults that is. The idea seems to be that memes can say anything and it’s okay if we say so. After all, they must think, people should know that such a misquote is fine because it illustrates the wrongheadedness of the Trump legal strategy… and Trump… via satire.

Do people know that it’s satire? No link. No source. Quote marks added. It was clearly intended to influence people, and I think it was intended to deceive as well. I’m not a Trump hater — more a critic of leftism having little choice other than Trump — but even I had to check on the quote! I’m pretty sure that lots of Trump haters and many non-haters would be duped. Not too many would bother to check, but at least a few did: I was surprised and delighted that Snopes rated the claim as false on Monday, and in a relatively straightforward way. Well, bully for Snopes!

Okay, the ridiculousness of it all! The idea that Trump would take ownership of alleged crimes, as in “my crimes”, an admission of guilt, is kind of funny, but mostly because it sounds like the kind of sloppy language he might have used. And of course people with a jaded view of Trump’s assertion of presidential powers might find the “quote” apropos. They should have their fun, but many of them know little about executive privilege, which is intended to protect the confidentiality necessary to carry out many presidential duties, or they give it short shrift, at least when a republican is in the White House. Less informed Trump detractors might be ready to accept the quote as fact without question.

What’s the difference between satire of the sort produced by The Babylon Bee and the fake quote? Again, posts from the Bee always link to its site, allowing immediate investigation for those who find the headline plausible. The story at the link always adds additional satire, usually so ridiculous that anyone should get the idea. But in case that’s not enough, the Bee clearly promotes itself as “Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire“. Yes, the Bee has an edge and it is often political. It is designed to get a laugh, provoke thought, poke fun, and influence people. Some of the humor might be too close to the truth to suit observers on the Left, but perhaps that’s why it annoys them so much. Nevertheless, it is satire and it says so.

Humor has long been used as a political tool, but does good faith require some form of demarcation between purported facts and…  the joke? The problem is that many such distinctions must be understood from context, or at least from experience with the source. Cartoons are readily interpreted as humorous commentary. A comedian’s audience is generally under no misapprehension about the “facts” presented during the set. Parody and satire might or might not be billed as such. Much like a comedy club, the audience is probably uninterested in fact-checks. But what about internet memes? They often lack the context provided by a source. It’s still a relatively new form of commentary and an extremely effective means of spreading messages… and misinformation. People have an irrational tendency to believe things they see in print. Quote marks are meaningful, and they should lend legitimacy to a retelling of someone’s words.

Was the “quote” so outrageous that I should have known it was merely a sarcastic meme? Maybe not when the subject is Trump! Anyway, my real objective was to make sure before taking a little dig at Dan, the poster. I quickly concluded the intent of the meme’s creator involved deceit, and I still think so. It’s all too common, which is too bad, but let the social media user beware!

 

 

 

Doomsayers Batting Zero, Draft Kids To Cause

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Empiricists, take note: The kids were out in the streets on Friday, skipping school to warn us of a climate doomsday fast approaching. Like Greta Thunberg, one of several teenage girls billed as modern-day Cassandras, they just know it. But wait, I think I heard the same thing many years ago… doomsday is nigh! In fact, I’ve heard it over and over through my entire adulthood. And here’s the empirical regularity: “Goose Eggs: No Climate Doomsday Warning Has Come True“. Ever. From the link:

     “Some examples:

    • 1967 — Stanford … expert Paul Erlich predicted “time of famines” in 1975.
    • 1971 — A top NASA expert predicted an “ice age” by 2021.
    • 1988 — It was predicted that the Maldives would be under water by last year.
    • 2008 — Gore said the Arctic would be free of ice by 2013.
    • 2009 — [Prince] Charles said there was just 96 months left to save the world.”

Here are a few other warnings that haven’t panned out:

Within a few years ‘children just aren’t going to know what snow is.’ Snowfall will be ‘a very rare and exciting event.’” — Dr. David Viner, senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia [March 2000]”

[By] 1995, the greenhouse effect would be desolating the heartlands of North America and Eurasia with horrific drought, causing crop failures and food riots…[By 1996] The Platte River of Nebraska would be dry, while a continent-wide black blizzard of prairie topsoil will stop traffic on interstates, strip paint from houses and shut down computers. — Michael Oppenheimer in 1990″

There have been many others (also see here and here). Oh, but you just wait, they say. This time it’s different  and it won’t be long!. You know, people just love to worry. Even so, what kind of daft world do we inhabit with children and adults completely freaked out about “problems” that don’t approximate reality.

Predictions of a more clinical variety, such as upward temperature trends, have been way off on a consistent basis: much too high, that is. But here’s the key: all of the other calamitous developments said to be in our future are predicated on those temperature forecasts. The warnings are not based on data per se, but on on crappy climate models (and see here), which are simplifications of reality, loosely calibrated to capture a relatively short period of historical records. And the models are crappy because they often rely on one input, CO2 forcings. The modelers have difficulty addressing the empirical sensitivity of temperature to carbon, the net effects of radiative forcing, clouds, and ocean circulation. In many prominent cases they don’t even try. Hey look, we’re all gonna die!

A striking misconception one hears repeatedly is that we experience many more hot days, and they are hotter, hot days than in the past. Sure, extremely hot days are bad, but not as bad as extremely cold days, and probably worse than warm nights. The truth is, however, that nearly all of the warming experienced over the past few decades has been in nighttime lows, not daytime highs. More “seasoned” climate alarmists don’t seem to have any memory of the hot days of their youth, and the kids… well, they just fell off the turnip truck, so they have no idea.

One of the great perversions of climate alarmism is the notion that the private enterprise system must be heavily regulated or even abolished in order to put an end to global warming. Never mind that governments are directly responsible for a major share of environmental degradation. And as private economies flourish, the environmental efficiency of production actually improves. In fact, if one were to stipulate that climate change is a problem, as I will for just this one sentence, vibrant capitalism offers the best path to environmental solutions. There are several basic reasons. One is that economic growth and higher income levels give consumers the wherewithal to demand and pay for costlier “green” products. More fundamentally, economic growth facilitates development and investment in cleaner technologies by business and government.

Miss Thunberg doesn’t understand any of this, of course, but she’s a pretty good little scold:

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean, yet you come to us young people for hope. How dare you.”

Here’s Arthur Chrenkoff’s take on poor Thunberg and her message:

“[She] should be going to Beijing or Bangalore and staging her protests there instead of, or at least in addition to, Sweden or New York. She should be hounding President Xi and Prime Minister Modi about their shameful emissions. She should be leading throngs of Asian kids out of schools for her Friday student strikes. She should be castigating the industries and the consumers of the developing world for destroying the planet and killing humanity in the process. She should be doing all this if she were serious about the global nature of the problem.”

I especially like this quote from Scott Adams on the “child advocate” phenomenon we’re witnessing:

Adults sometimes like to use children to carry their messages because it makes it hard for the other side to criticize them without seeming like monsters. If adults have encouraged you to panic about climate change without telling you what I am telling you here, they do not have your best interests at heart. They are using you.

Of course, Thunberg is thoroughly propagandized and a useful theatrical tool for the alarmist establishment. She has made all sorts of ridiculous and unquestioned claims before the United Nations and elsewhere (e.g., people are dying from climate change (no); that she can “see” CO2 (okay, her mother said that, but what a hoot!). Don’t think for a second that “we have to listen to the children” is uttered sincerely by any adult climate alarmist. It’s manipulation. I feel sorry for Thunberg not least because she is probably deeply frightened about the climate, but also because she is a tool of a death cult.

You really can’t blame kids for being worried about bogeymen foisted upon them by foolish elders, but you can blame the adults for their own frightened acceptance of chicken-little climate augury. And that’s what the kids are being taught. The schools certainly won’t penalize them for missing classes. In fact, many of their teachers accompanied them to the protests.

The climate scare is part of a larger agenda to dismantle not just capitalism, but a host of innocent individual liberties. Scaring children and making teens into miserable pessimists will groom them as good (if neurotic) environmental soldiers for life. They’ll be fit as compliant subjects of a new, environmental fascist state, never to know the sweet freedom and growth possible without the needless bindings imposed by climate cranks. Children, the protection you’ve been told to demand isn’t necessary or worth it. You’re fighting for goose eggs!

 

 

Who Are the Zero-Sum Winners?

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Productive effort seldom goes unrewarded, but all too often rewards are directed to nonproductive activities and secured in ways that are outright takings of resources and rights from others. These are zero-sum propositions at best, as the rewards come only at equivalent or greater costs to others. Gains from zero-sum activities are often purely consumptive in nature and tend to foster more destructive behavior. A clear-cut example is outright thievery, but there are many cases in which, by matters of degree, the perpetrators are not even dimly aware that their gains bring harm to others.

Sadly, our society has undergone a transition to a state in which everyone collects ongoing streams of zero-sum rewards, which are, by definition, at someone else’s (and often our own) expense. The turbulence caused by this unnecessary and avoidable mix of costs and rewards is all too real for consumers and businesses, but again, they don’t always fully grasp its dysfunctional nature.

The Way To Positive Sums

Of course, there are winners and losers in almost any area of economic life. Even when two individuals engage in mutually beneficial exchange, an otherwise win-win situation, other traders might regret missing out on the deal. Pleasing buyers more effectively than one’s competitors might force those rivals to turn to other pursuits. That’s all for the best from a social point of view, unless they can come up with an even better idea to win back customers. In this way, things can keep getting better and better for everyone, even for the one-time losers who are free to compete in trades to which they are better suited. Winners, then, are defined by their success in creating value for others. These are the productive winners. But again, material success doesn’t always come so honorably.

Bobbing For Booty?

Purely “consumptive” or zero-sum winners might be simple crooks who are able to avoid apprehension, or perhaps they are dishonest business-people who sell goods with hidden defects or inferior workmanship. There are many degrees here: a talented salesperson with shoddy merchandise might compromise on price. A clever product manager might reduce the size of a package slightly without reducing price.

A simple gamble is zero-sum in a purely monetary sense, but both gamblers do it for enjoyment, so there are psychic gains involved. A successful gambler might be a zero-sum winner in a monetary sense, but luck usually runs out on honest players. A cheater qualifies as a zero-sum winner. Conversely, it’s not correct to say that casinos are strictly zero-sum winners, though the odds are always stacked in favor of the house and everyone knows it. Casino patrons enjoy the experience, including other amusements available in casinos, so they are often happy customers despite their losses. They are engaging in mutually beneficial exchange.

Private Affairs Made Public

A short-hand description encompassing much of our zero-sum havoc is “the public trough”. Many zero-sum rewards have arisen out of legislative battles, court cases, and regulatory actions restricting private decision-making and encroaching on private property rights. The unremitting tendency is for expansion of these kinds of actions. Where there are zero-sum winners at the public trough, or an opportunity to expand the trough itself, there are always more covetous seekers of zero-sum winnings, otherwise known as rent seekers. They are reliable promoters of “do-something-ism” relative to the outrage du jour through more legislation, lawsuits, and regulatory filings. The tragic thing about rent seeking is that the process itself consumes resources and undermines private incentives, thereby transforming zero-sum outcomes into wasteful, negative-sum outcomes.

Winners At the Trough

There are many kinds of zero-sum winners at the public trough. The winning and losing often occur separately and asynchronously, connected only by an enabling authority who sets rules and funds winners from proceeds taken from losers. For this reason, it is easy for citizens to lose track of the “zero-sumness” of the many benefits they receive. After all, the government can deliver things for “free”, right? And the connection between one’s obligations, losses, and the gains reaped by others is not always obvious.

All of the following involve some degree of zero-sum activity, and all attract rent seekers:

  • Public aid in exchange for no contribution to output, funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
  • Subsidies for politically-favored technologies that are otherwise uneconomic, funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
  • Farm subsidies when too much is produced and the output is not highly valued, leading to an overallocation of resources to agricultural activity and rents for farmers funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
  • Complex regulatory and tax rules generate income for compliance advisors such as attorneys, accountants, and consultants. Those are rents, pure and simple, paid for by parties who must comply under penalty of law.
  • Regulatory advantage conferred upon firms sufficiently large or dominant to afford compliance. That penalizes smaller competitors and undermines their market position. The additional profit large firms may earn as a consequence is a rent, funded by zero-sum losing consumers and weaker competitors.
  • The award of government contracts is often as much political as it is economic. Such a process is not subject to the market discipline imposed on private contracts, so there is ample opportunity for rents via cost-padding and graft, again funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
  • More generally, government purchases of any kind are subject to weak market discipline, like any buyer spending someone else’s money. Thus, government has a tendency to pay prices not supported by economic value, offering rents to suppliers, funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
  • The tax deduction afforded to employer-provided health care is a targeted subsidy that leads employees to over-insure. More fundamentally, these employees and their employers are zero-sum winners. It also creates profits for health insurers and drives up health care costs. The zero-sum spoils are to the detriment of other taxpayers and participants in the individual insurance market.
  • Drug prohibition drives up black market profits, creating zero-sum winnings at the expense and safety of users.
  • Social Security creates zero-sum winnings for those who will not or cannot save. But this is a mixed bag to the extent that some people are unable to save privately: their ability to do so is largely usurped via payroll taxes, both on them and on their employer. The many zero-sum losers would otherwise have no difficulty earning better returns on private investments.

There are many other examples. And almost everyone ends up on one side or the other of many different zero-sum outcomes. Show me a government action and I’ll show you zero-sum winners and losers. This is not to say there are no welfare gains associated with government action. Public aid, for example, is intended as social insurance and surely has some value in mitigating the risks of personal economic calamity. Nonetheless, the overextension and poor incentives of aid programs create a significant zero-sum component. Likewise, government spending on public goods creates social benefits, but government is insufficiently incented to economize, creating a zero-sum win for contractors and losses for taxpayers.

Not Zero Sum

While zero-sum winners collect economic rents, the existence of economic rents does not imply a zero-sum winning. For example, members of the so-called rentier class collect passive investment income. Those investments represent a supply of current resources to other parties hoping to transform them into a greater supply of future resources. That’s productive, and so the gains enjoyed by rentiers are not zero-sum winnings, but payments for the use of transformational capital.

Economic profits are those exceeding the owner’s opportunity cost, and they too are called rents. They should not necessarily be classified as zero-sum gains, however. Only sometimes. Successful innovators and first movers often earn economic profits as a reward for their efforts, as do alert entrepreneurs deploying their resources where they are most demanded. This “positive-sumness” applies to monopolists with a hot product just as surely as it applies to a firm facing nascent competition. But economic profits gained through political connections, outright graft, and government-enabled monopoly are zero-sum, enabled by non-market, authoritarian forces. Members of the political class tend to share in these zero-sum gains, and there are many losers.

Zero-Sum Psyche

Unfortunately, zero-sum thinking is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, despite our transition to a higher plane of social cooperation via markets. Even in those markets, certain outcomes might seem zero-sum in the moment. Witness the widespread denigration of the profit motive, which produces efficient outcomes in the long-run. As noted above, over time, the biggest winners tend to be those capable of creating the most value.

If you ask school children today how to get rich, many will say “win the lottery” without hesitation. I know, I know, government-sponsored lotteries are a relatively new phenomenon, and some of the lottery proceeds may benefit schools or other public programs, but the idea that a game of chance is so indelibly ingrained in the minds of children is a manifestation of the psychology of zero-sum success.

The Tangled Mess

So we have the zero-sum winners: successful gamblers, thieves, and rent seekers. The latter root deeply for gains made possible by government intervention in private affairs, actions that always leave room for enduring rents. They always lobby fiercely for new public interventions that might confer private advantages. And then we have the hapless public, stumbling through a series of zero-sum gains and losses made possible by the Leviathan they know and obey. They should look in the mirror, because every law and every program they have allowed their political leaders to hatch, reliably sold as good and just, creates more zero-sum activity to the detriment of long-term economic welfare. Roll it back!

Amazon Fire Fraud

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Leftist activists recently pounced on another opportunity to mischaracterize events, this time in the Amazon Basin, where recent fires were held to be unprecedented. The fires were also characterized as evidence of a massive conspiracy between capitalists and the new government of President Jair Bolsonaro to open the rain forest to commercial exploitation. Warren Meyer squares away the facts at this Coyote Blog post, which is where I found the chart above. Forest clearing in Brazil has been much lower over the past 10 years than during period 1988-2008. It stepped-up somewhat during the first half of 2019, but it still ran at a rate well below 2008. A key reason for the increase is fascinating, but I’ll merely tease that for now.

As for the fires, Meyer provides the following quote about this year’s fires from NASA in a statement accompanying a satellite photo:

As of August 16, 2019, satellite observations indicated that total fire activity in the Amazon basin was slightly below average in comparison to the past 15 years. Though activity has been above average in Amazonas and to a lesser extent in Rondônia, it has been below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to the Global Fire Emissions Database.

So what was the cause of all the alarm? Meyer points to a August 22 story in the Washington Post, though WaPo might not have been the first. The article was either poorly researched and “fact checked” or it was a deliberate attempt to raise alarm. The sloppy story was picked up elsewhere, of course, and distorted memes spread on social media condemning the Brazilian government and capitalism generally.

The burning that is taking place has been started by farmers preparing land for crops, a process that occurs every year. Meyer quotes the New York Times on this point, which noted that very little of the burning was taking place in old-growth forests.

What’s really ironic and crazy about all this is that U.S. environmental policy is responsible for some of the burning that is taking place in the Amazon. Meyer notes that U.S. ethanol mandates have subsidized a years-long trend of increased sugar cane production in the Amazon Basin. Of course, burning is a regular part of the normal sugar cane harvest. Moreover, that production has contributed to land clearance, offsetting some of the forces that have brought the rate of deforestation in Brazil down overall.

The whole episode dovetails with the ongoing narrative that fires are burning out of control across the globe due to climate change. We heard similar propaganda last year after several large fires in California. Michael Shellenberger does his best to set the record straight, demonstrating that the annual land area burned worldwide has declined by 25% since 2003. He contrasts that record with the hopelessly errant reporting by major media organizations.

As P.T. Barnum once said, a sucker’s born every minute. He might as well have been talking about the armies of well-meaning but gullible greenies who fall for every scare story told by the likes of Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio. And scare stories are exactly what these tales of a global conflagration amount to. Meanwhile, as Alexander Hammond explains, global reforestation has taken hold. In what is apparently a paradox to some, this is largely the result of economic growth. Hammond discusses the logical connections between economic development and environmental goods, including reforestation and biodiversity. The bottom line is that the best policies for reforestation are not those imposing obstacles to growth, as the environmental Left would have it. Rather, it is policies that promote development and income growth, which are generally more compatible with individual liberty, that will encourage growth in the world’s forests.

“Recycling Is Largely Fake”

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The quotation headlined above is from Duke University economist Michael Munger, and it’s essentially what I’ve contended for years (see “When Is Recycling Not Wasteful?“). Munger’s latest essay on this subject is entitled, “For Most Things, Recycling Harms the Environment“. The reasons are very basic: resource costs. As Munger says, the degree of economic and environmental justification for recycling varies, depending on the item, but few supporters of recycling ever bother to look into the details.

First, a very basic economic point: resource conservation is beneficial for the environment. Sometimes there are technological trade-offs between conservation of different resources, but costs are always a matter of resource use: less use, lower total costs. Resource conservation is synonymous with lower costs. Indeed, that is why we are told to recycle, and that is what most people think they’re doing when they recycle.

But while recycling always conserves some resource more or less directly, the mere process of recycling uses other resources. This includes the costs of rolling trucks to collect the items, including fuel, labor, machinery and labor for sorting, water, chemicals, more distant shipping, and separate processes to convert the items into usable goods. In its entirety, then, recycling often does not conserve resources.

Voluntary consumer-recyclers seldom face the marginal costs of recycling directly. This highlights the general nature of environmental problems that arise in any society: external costs are often borne by parties external to the activity in question. And here is where the story of recycling’s poor economics gets interesting. Recycling advocates would have us believe that our private use of products, for which we generally pay full cost, imposes external or social costs on others unless we recycle all recyclable components of the product and it’s packaging. In fact, the opposite is often true!

Therefore, governments, fully on-board with popular recycling myths, often mandate recycling, which is another way of saying that you are not free to make your own decision based on costs and benefits. So the costs of recycling are on you, but you are unimpacted at any margin along which you can make decisions. You are forced to internalize some part of the costs that are presumptively avoided via recycling according to the myth. You pay taxes to fund the collection of materials at the curb, but governments often require citizens to clean and sort those materials. That carries significant costs that governments prefer to remain implicit.

This is to say nothing of the actual net value of the recycled materials, which is often negative. Certain items require so much processing and produce materials of such low quality that no one wants them. Virgin materials are often cheaper than fully processed recycled material, and usually yield better quality, or both. Far better, then, to pay the cost of transporting these kinds of discards to landfills and paying for the low-cost landfill space, which is plentiful, contrary to greenist propaganda.

Munger provides examples of such wasteful-to-recycle materials. For instance, attempts to recycle glass bottles are often completely non-productive relative to landfilling. That’s due to cost factors, lousy quality after processing, and weak market prices for recycled glass. Plastics are of questionable value as recyclables as well: huge quantities had been shipped to the Far East, but the volume was too much for the Chinese (and too dirty, they claimed), so it often ended-up in landfills anyway. Last year, the Chinese banned imports of recyclable plastics from several countries, which means that our plastic materials are probably headed for our own landfills. Yet we still go to the trouble of preparing and collecting them for recycling.

According to Munger, aluminum cans are worthwhile to recycle relative to landfilling. So are certain types of cardboard (though the Chinese don’t want some of those either). Also, scrap metals are privately recycled via active markets for the materials.

Private parties who can internalize costs in their voluntary decisions are wise to abide by the following:

I have sometimes suggested a test for whether something is garbage or a valuable commodity. Hold it in your hand, or hold a cup of it, or tank, or however you can handle it. Consider: Will someone pay me for this? If the answer is yes, it’s a commodity, a valuable resource. If the answer is no, meaning you have to pay them to take it, then it’s garbage.”

Of course, society as a whole must internalize costs. There’s no way around it. Therefore, governments should behave as if they internalize costs as well, though they hardly ever do. They would sooner mandate recycling when they know full well that the simple economics outlined above don’t support it. That means an unnecessary consumption of resources is attributable to the recycling charade, which is environmentally unsound by the strictest of Green standards.

I am not quite so hard on government recycling mandates when there exist significant external costs associated with sending uneconomic trash to landfills, or when there are real efficiencies associated with recycling. Landfills must price their space efficiently, collecting sufficient fees from users to pay for environmental mitigation as well as the payoffs necessary to mollify those nearby who might happen to harbor NIMBY-ism. But recycling mandates offer strong evidence that the economics of recycling are not worthwhile. So please, whenever you are told that recycling is virtuous, be suspicious. As Munger says, it’s largely a fraud.

Mass Shootings and Mass Manipulation

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The drumbeat for gun control from Leftist authoritarians never stops, and the recent mass shootings in Dayton OH, El Paso TX, and Gilroy CA, have been greeted with so much political agitation that the victims have become mere footnotes. Attempting to marshal facts in this debate can be quite confusing due to the variety of definitions of “mass shootings”. This variety contributes to certain myths about guns and gun violence that are often repeated by the media to a brow-beaten public. The confusion also motivates anti-gun policy prescriptions that are likely to be ineffective at best, and in all likelihood, counter-productive.

What constitutes a “mass shooting”? The traditional FBI definition counted an incident as a mass killling if four or more people were killed, not including the perpetrator. Broader definitions include cases in which 4 or more people are killed or injured, including the perpetrator. Gun rights opponents seem to prefer expansive definitions, including those that count gang-related killings, domestic shootings, or those occurring in the commission of another criminal act. Criminologist John Lott contends that these kinds of killings are driven by fundamentally different social forces than the mass public shootings that are at the center of this debate. For example, with respect to gang killings, Lott says:

“... the causes and solutions to drug gang violence are dramatically different than for the vast majority of mass public shootings, where attacks are designed to kill or wound as many people as possible. Padding the numbers by lumping the two together doesn’t make much sense.”

The more expansive definitions give rise to the notion that mass shootings have been trending-up dramatically in America. In fact, as Christopher J. Ferguson reports, data from The USA TODAY/AP/Northeastern University mass killings database show that the rate of mass shooting incidents per year has been flat since the early 1990s and are not much higher than the averages of the 1970s.

Another prominent distortion often accepted uncritically is that the U.S. leads the world in mass shootings. The U.S. totals are often inflated, but part of the reason for this misperception is that it’s easy to undercount foreign mass shootings. They do not always receive the same intensity of news coverage as mass shootings in the U.S., and tracking reports published in other languages is inherently more difficult for researchers. Lott says the following:

Of the 86 countries where we have identified mass public shootings, the US ranks 56th per capita in its rate of attacks and 61st in mass public shooting murder rate. Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Russia all have at least 45 percent higher rates of murder from mass public shootings than the United States.”

The tragic nature of mass shootings should not prevent us from keeping the magnitude of these events in perspective, as Chris Buskirk explains in “Everything They’re Telling You About Mass Shootings Is Wrong“. For example, almost three-quarters of U.S. mass shootings in 2018 (four or more killed or injured) were associated with criminal activity, bar fights, and the like. And of course other social problems dwarf public mass shootings, such as the 70,000 opioid deaths that occurred in 2018, a phenomenon not coincidentally associated with the War on Drugs. And as Buskirk reminds us, the number of fatalities in public mass shootings is infinitesimal relative to the total number of defensive gun uses.

The Left’s reaction to these events is wrongheaded and their policy prescriptions are dangerous. A simple example is the widespread designation of buildings and public spaces as “gun-free zones”. However, it is highly likely that ending these designations would be an effective preventative against mass public shootings. John Lott writes in “How gun-free zones invite mass shootings” that 98% of the mass public shootings since 1950 occurred in areas where guns were prohibited. And we know that mass shootings are indeed prevented by armed citizens. Yet the Left staunchly opposes such a change and promotes the futile and foolish elimination of gun rights in general (also see this).

Leah Libresco, a statistician and former news writer at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, was highly disillusioned after devoting considerable effort to researching gun deaths. She expected to find that broad gun control measures were the answer. Instead, she says:

… the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence. The best ideas left standing were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns. 

I researched the strictly tightened gun laws in Britain and Australia and concluded that they didn’t prove much about what America’s policy should be. Neither nation experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun related-crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans.”

Then there are the continuing, uninformed calls to ban “assault weapons”. As Libresco explains:

 “… no gunowner walks into the store to buy an ‘assault weapon.’ It’s an invented classification that includes any semi-automatic that has two or more features, such as a bayonet mount, arocket-propelled grenade-launcher mount, a folding stock or a pistol grip. But guns are modular, and any hobbyist can easily add these features at home, just as if they were snapping together Legos.”

Bill Clinton weighed into the debate last week by claiming that his assault weapons “ban”, which began in 1994, was so effective that we should be eager to accede to plans recently put forward by Democrats. Mark Overstreet quickly called him out as a liar, and on no less than six counts. Not only were existing “assault weapons” exempted under Clinton’s “ban”, but Americans actually added to their private stocks of weapons that met the law’s criteria during its enforcement. Existing large ammunition magazines were exempted, as well as imports of such magazines. Thus, Clinton’s so-called ban did not even approach the draconian measures now being proposed, which range from manufacturing and import prohibitions all the way up to confiscation.

Also preposterous are the Left’s routine characterizations of mass shooters as “right-wing extremists”. The truth is hardly clear cut. For example, despite expressing strong anti-immigrant sentiment, the shooters in El Paso and Christchurch, New Zealand were both environmental radicals or “eco-fascists”, in the Christchurch shooter’s words. The Dayton shooter was a self-described socialist and a supporter of Bernie Sanders, as was James T. Hodgkinson, the gunman who attacked a group of Republican legislators at a baseball practice, seriously injuring Congressman Steve Scalese. These madmen clearly weren’t crazed right-wing zealots. If anything, their profiles usually reflect severe psychological as well as ideological confusion.

Even one public mass shooting is too many, but their prevalence in the U.S. has been exaggerated in several ways. The hyperbole is often politically-motivated, intended to create negative public sentiment toward Second Amendment rights. But you can’t stop public mass shootings by foolishly disarming or criminalizing the very law-abiding citizens who are often the only force capable of providing an immediate defensive response.

Snopes Attacks Satire In Ominous Self-Satirization

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Snopes.com began as an investigator of urban legends and rumors, exposing myths in an exercise that was useful and often fascinating. More recently, despite its founder’s weak argument to the contrary, Snopes has fully revealed its bias against certain political viewpoints, along with a tendency to avoid reporting some actual facts as facts when it suits itself. Lately this has reached a pathetic level, with the site drawing amused reaction to its confusion over the satiric nature of The Babylon Bee. The Bee is a truly funny site similar to The Onion, but it bills itself as “Christian Satire”. If you find that off-putting or think it means the humor must be cornpone, think again. Of course, there is no doubt that the Bee’s humor often pokes fun at the Left, which probably explains Snopes’ motives.

Snopes itself has not been above a bit of fibbing. Its “political fact-checker”, Kim Lacapria, is a former leftist blogger, known to have maligned the Tea Party as “Teahadists”, a funny mischaracterization of the unquestionably peaceful movement as violent. She’s not exactly a person you’d trust as an impartial arbiter of political “fact”. Linda Sue Grimes wrote an informative article with several prominent examples of bias by Snopes. There have also been reports of sordid personal and financial exploits  by one of Snopes’ founders, much of which stands up to scrutiny

In its latest misadventure in fact-weaving, Snopes’ has charged that the Bee published a story “intended to deceive” readers, and it claimed the Bee  had done so in the past. The story was entitled “Georgia Lawmaker Claims Chick-Fil-A Employee Told Her To Go Back To Her Country, Later Clarifies He Actually Said ‘My Pleasure“. It was inspired by an incident in which the same Georgia lawmaker apparently had too many items in the express checkout at a Publix grocery store. She claimed that an angry white man told her to “go back to where you came from”. However, the Publix clerk with whom she had the altercation, who happens to be Cuban, denies having said any such thing, though he did admit to calling her a bitch. The lawmaker’s allegation seems suspiciously coincidental, having come in the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s controversial tweet that the quartet of federal lawmakers known as “The Squad” should “go back to where they came from”.

Apparently, the humor in the Bee’s article was just a bit too subtle for Snopes, whose “woke” employees have particularly vivid imaginations. The Bee article was funny precisely because it ridiculed those who hear racial “dog whistles” everywhere. The idea that a Chinese employee working a drive-through at Chick-Fil-A would say such a thing is unlikely to say the least. Anyone who has ever visited a Chick-Fil-A knows it. Too many of those with whistles in their ears haven’t had the pleasure.

Has the Bee intended to deceive its readers in the past? Perhaps Snopes was referring to an article entitled “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication“. Snopes went to the trouble of calling that story false and bringing it to Facebook’s attention. Facebook actually issued a warning to the Bee (for which FB later apologized). But here’s the thing, in Grimes’ words:

Debunking a piece of satire renders the debunker as functionally illiterate, appearing too ignorant to understand that a piece of satire does not function to relay information as a news report would.”

It’s actually much worse than that. If Snopes wants to to assess the objective truth of claims, that’s one thing, but it has drifted into the assessment of literary and authorial intent. That’s ominous for the cause of free discourse, especially to the extent that social media sites rely on Snopes as a filter to deplatform certain voices or silence points of view. Snopes has no business attempting to draw distinctions between satire and “fake news” or any intent to deceive, because it’s bound to get it wrong and already has. They might as well fact-check stand-up comics whose routines might confuse a few dimwitted members of the public, and Snopes just might do so if the comic doesn’t support its preferred political narrative. Snopes’ role is not to protect the unsophisticated from satire, and apparently its fact-checkers feel no compulsion to debunk the satire produced by The Onion, for example. The Bee’s pointed satire often serves the purpose of exposing the Left for its congenital stupidity, but that is anything but an effort to deceive, as much as Snopes might wish it was so.