Central Planning With AI Will Still Suck


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Artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) will never make central economic planning a successful reality. Jesús Fernández-Villaverde of the University of Pennsylvania has written a strong disavowal of AI’s promise in central planning, and on the general difficulty of using ML to design social and economic policies. His paper, “Simple Rules for a Complex World with Artificial Intelligence“, was linked last week by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. Note that the author isn’t saying “digital socialism” won’t be attempted. Judging by the attention it’s getting, and given the widespread acceptance of the scientism of central planning, there is no question that future efforts to collectivize will involve “data science” to one degree or another. But Fernández-Villaverde, who is otherwise an expert and proponent of ML in certain applications, is simply saying it won’t work as a curative for the failings of central economic planning — that the “simple rules” of the market will aways produce superior social outcomes.

The connection between central planning and socialism should be obvious. Central planning implies control over the use of resources, and therefore ownership by a central authority, whether or not certain rents are paid as a buy-off to the erstwhile owners of those resources. By “digital socialism”, Fernández-Villaverde means the use of ML to perform the complex tasks of central planning. The hope among its cheerleaders is that adaptive algorithms can discern the optimal allocation of resources within some “big data” representation of resource availability and demands, and that this is possible on an ongoing, dynamic basis.

Fernández-Villaverde makes the case against this fantasy on three fronts or barriers to the use of AI in policy applications: data requirements; the endogeneity of expectations and behavior; and the knowledge problem.

The Data Problem: ML requires large data sets to do anything. And impossibly large data sets are required for ML to perform the task of planning economic activity, even for a small portion of the economy. Today, those data sets do not exist except in certain lines of business. Can they exist more generally, capturing the details of all economic transactions? Can the data remain current? Only at great expense, and ML must be trained to recognize whether data should be discarded as it becomes stale over time due to shifting demographics, tastes, technologies, and other changes in the social and physical environment. 

Policy Change Often Makes the Past Irrelevant: Planning algorithms are subject to the so-called Lucas Critique, a well known principle in macroeconomics named after Nobel Prize winner Robert Lucas. The idea is that policy decisions based on observed behavior will change expectations, prompting responses that differ from the earlier observations under the former policy regime. A classic case involves the historical tradeoff between inflation and unemployment. Can this tradeoff be exploited by policy? That is, can unemployment be reduced by a policy that increases the rate of inflation (by printing money at a faster rate)? In this case, the Lucas Critique is that once agents expect a higher rate of inflation, they are unlikely to confuse higher prices with a more profitable business environment, so higher employment will not be sustained. If ML is used to “plan” certain outcomes desired by some authority, based on past relationships and transactions, the Lucas Critique implies that things are unlikely to go as planned.  

The Knowledge Problem: Not only are impossibly large data sets required for economic planning with ML, as noted above. To achieve the success of markets in satisfying unlimited wants given scarce resources, the required information is impossible to collect or even to know. This is what Friedrich Hayek called the “knowledge problem”. Just imagine the difficulty of arranging a data feed on the shifting preferences of many different individuals across a huge number of products,  services and they way preference orderings will change across the range of possible prices. The data must have immediacy, not simply a historical record. Add to this the required information on shifting supplies and opportunity costs of resources needed to produce those things. And the detailed technological relationships between production inputs and outputs, including time requirements, and the dynamics of investment in future productive capacity. And don’t forget to consider the variety of risks agents face, their degree of risk aversion, and the ways in which risks can be mitigated or hedged. Many of these things are simply unknowable to a central authority. The information is hopelessly dispersed. The task of collecting even the knowable pieces is massive beyond comprehension.

The market system, however, is able to process all of this information in real time, the knowable and the unknowable, in ways that balance preferences with the true scarcity of resources. No one actor or authority need know it all. It is the invisible hand. Among many other things, it ensures the deployment of ML only where it makes economic sense. Here is Fernández-Villaverde:

The only reliable method we have found to aggregate those preferences, abilities, and efforts is the market because it aligns, through the price system, incentives with information revelation. The method is not perfect, and the outcomes that come from it are often unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, like democracy, all the other alternatives, including ‘digital socialism,’ are worse.”

Later, he says:

… markets work when we implement simple rules, such as first possession, voluntary exchange, and pacta sunt servanda. This result is not a surprise. We did not come up with these simple rules thanks to an enlightened legislator (or nowadays, a blue-ribbon committee of academics ‘with a plan’). … The simple rules were the product of an evolutionary process. Roman law, the Common law, and Lex mercatoria were bodies of norms that appeared over centuries thanks to the decisions of thousands and thousands of agents.” 

These simple rules represent good private governance. Beyond reputational enforcement, the rules require only trust in the system of property rights and a private or public judicial authority. Successfully replacing private arrangements in favor of a central plan, however intricately calculated via ML, will remain a pipe dream. At best, it would suspend many economic relationships in amber, foregoing the rational adjustments private agents would make as conditions change. And ultimately, the relationships and activities that planning would sanction would be shaped by political whim. It’s a monstrous thing to contemplate — both fruitless and authoritarian.

Statism and Self-Harm


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Some have a tendency to think their problems can be solved only through the intervention of some powerful, external force. That higher power might be God, but at a more temporal level, government is often presumed to be a force to fix all things that need fixing. “There oughta be a law” is a gut reaction to things we find injurious or that offend; government has the resources, or the coercive power to get the resources, to undertake big, appealing projects; and of course government has the coercive power to “rearrange the deck chairs” in ways that might satisfy anyone’s sense of justice and fairness, so long as they get their way. Whenever people perceive some need they believe to be beyond their private capacity, or mere convenience, government action is the default option, and that’s partly because many think it’s the only option.

That’s the appeal of “democratic socialism”, to use a name that unintentionally emphasizes a very real danger of democracy: the tyranny of the majority. It’s a dismal way station along the road to serfdom, to borrow a phrase from Hayek.

Government, however, repeatedly demonstrates it’s sheer incompetence and its expedience as a vehicle for graft. And it’s not as if these failures go unrecognized. Everyone knows it! This is nowhere more true than when the state interferes with private markets or attempts to steer the economy’s direction at either an aggregate or industry level. But here we have a dark irony, as told by Nick Gillespie at Reason:

Again and again—and in countries all over the world—declines in trust of government correlate strongly with calls for more government regulation in more parts of our lives. ‘Individuals in low-trust countries want more government intervention even though they know the government is corrupt,’ explain the authors of a 2010 Quarterly Journal of Economics paper. That’s certainly the case in the United States, where the size, scope, and spending of government has vastly increased over exactly the same period in which trust and confidence in the government has cratered. In 2018, I talked with one of the paper’s authors, Andrei Shleifer, a Harvard economist who grew up in the Soviet Union before coming to America. Why do citizens ask a government they don’t believe in to bring order? ‘They want regulation,’ he said. ‘They want a dictator who will bring back order.'”

Against all historical evidence and forebodings, the wish for a benevolent dictator! As if it’ll be different this time! Are we all statists? Certainly not me, but the Left is full of them. One prominent example is columnist Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who has expressed the sometimes fashionable view that “things get done” under dictatorships:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. … That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”

Tell it to the interred Kazakh and Uighur Muslims undergoing “reeducation” in China. The Right has its share of statists as well, and it is typically expressed in desires for enforced social conservatism.

People seem to have a vague idea that everyone else must either be misbehaving or in misery. And despite the well-tested fallibility and lack of trust in government, people persist in believing that the public sector can conjure magic to solve their problems. But the state gets bigger and bigger while solving few problems and exacerbating others. In fact, as government grows, it makes rent seeking a more viable alternative to productive effort. Like the giant zero-sum game that it is, the expansion of government provides the very means to pick away at the wealth of others. When faced with these incentives, people most certainly will misbehave on small and large scales!

The truth is that individuals hold the most potent regulatory force in their own hands: the voluntary nature of trade. It protects against over-pricing, under-pricing, and inferior quality along many dimensions, but it demands discipline and a willingness to walk away. It also demands a willingness to put forth productive effort, rather than coveting the property of others, and taking from others via political action. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, if you think things are expensive now, wait till they’re free!

Single-Provider Education, Ideology, and Lunch


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Advocates of public education sometimes can’t help themselves from demanding that parents abandon their own informed judgments and principles for the good of the collective. A friend sent me the links below along with his misgivings about the motives at play. These are his words:

Here are two examples of something that drives me crazy and amounts to little more than treating my child (and me) as a [resource] to be spent for the improvement of others. The first calls for parents who pack lunches (because they are healthier and cheaper than school lunches) to stop packing and use the school hot lunch so the added scale of moths could improve foods for everybody.

The second is the same, but about attending public school instead of private – again, so that the parental force added to the public schools will help improve public schools. Never mind if public schools are actually good for you.” 

The links are from the New York Times and Slate, respectively:

Why Are You Still Packing Lunch for Your Kids?

If You Send Your Kid To Private School, You Are a Bad Person

In terms of the simple economics, I’d boil these motives down to two things: a desire to achieve scale economies, which is forgivable as far as it goes; and a desire to strengthen the public education monopoly. Of course the latter brings perks for all those who participate in the management and operation of public schools, which have absorbed an ever-increasing volume of resources with little or no improvement in academic results. But the motives involve politics as well as economics. The apparent mission of the public school monopoly encompasses more than the mere provision of education. As I have discussed in more detail in an earlier post, it fosters the inculcation of collectivist values in our children. Public schools, and a few private schools catering to wealthy progressives who would say public schools are good for your kids, are hotbeds of social justice doctrine and identity politics.

Here are my friend’s closing thoughts:

“I’ve always been resistant to private school because we already pay for public [schools] and public [schools] are good enough. But lately I’ve been thinking about private school, in large part to keep [my son] away from these sorts of folks who want to use him for their own purposes…”

Those purposes can be kept in check only through school competition and parental choice. Like any creditable provider of services, schools should cater to their customers, not the other way around.



Diversity and Despotism


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Diversity is a fine thing, but who can define it precisely, and along what dimensions? It is essentially an amorphous concept, defined in ways that vary with context and often by political fiat. In my view, the best diversity outcome is always that which results from impartial decisions. That goes for hiring, firing, admission, and the like; in distributing rewards; in making loans; and in price or non-price rationing decisions. And by “impartiality” I mean those decisions should be made without respect to superficial qualities such as skin color, country of origin, sexual preference, religious faith, and political philosophy.

“Superficiality”, however, depends on the context of the decision at hand, or it might describe an outcome that is superficial to the decision criteria: an impartial selection of candidates for jobs that require great physical strength is likely to be skewed toward males. Likewise, an impartial selection of candidates for jobs that require strong English language skills is likely to favor those whose first language is English. And an impartial selection of a new physics professor should be the candidate having the strongest expertise in physics. The point is that impartiality can seldom guarantee outcomes that are consistent with the demands of diversity activists. In fact, to the extent that diversity objectives may emphasize qualities that are superficial to the decision at hand, they undermine impartiality.

Should research physicists devote their energies to dreaming up ways to promote diversity within their field? Electrical engineers? Will that help them advance the state of knowledge in their disciplines? As a member of an alumni board, I have personally witnessed the department of economics at a state university grapple with diversity reviews and/or mandates in hiring, class enrollment, and curriculum. Economics is actually a field that has strong things to say about the negative consequences of bias and discrimination, and the department should not have to jump through hoops proving it to “diversity administrators” who may well lack the qualifications necessary to assess that part of the curriculum. There is no question that devoting energy and resources to these bureaucratic pursuits is wasteful of faculty time as well as resources furnished by taxpayers. But that isn’t even the worst of it.

The amorphous nature of diversity confers power on its enforcers in business, government, and academia. We know that rank-ordering alternatives in pursuit of an objective may conflict with the selection that best satisfies the diversity fashion du jour. But today our society has devolved to the point at which corporate HR departments insist that individuals be browbeaten into “recognizing their bias” and evaluated on “promoting diversity”. Hiring and promotions at universities in fields as “diverse” as physics and language arts are dependent on a candidate’s ability to convince diversity administrators of their sincere and inventive strategies to promote diversity.

In a post titled “Wokeademia“, John Cochrane comments on these “diversity political tests”:

It’s not about whether you are ‘diverse,’ meaning belonging to a racial, gender, or sexual-preference group the University wishes to hire. It is a statement, as it says, of your active participation in a political movement.”

He quotes Jerry Coyne on the “diversity equity and inclusion statement” required by the University of California:

Why is it a political test? Politics are a reflection of how you believe society should be organized. Classical liberals aspire to treat every person as a unique individual, not as a representative of their gender or their ethnic group. The sample rubric dictates that in order to get a high diversity score, a candidate must have actively engaged in promoting different identity groups as part of their professional life…. Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is indeed a political test…The idea of using a political test as a screen for job applicants should send a shiver down our collective spine….”

Cochrane sheds additional light on this phenomenon in a follow-up post:

I started this series impressed by the obvious political and free speech ramifications. There is a much simpler economic explanation however. As the quotes from the UC system make clear, the central requirement of the diversity statements is to document past active participation in, and require future approval and participation in all the programs produced by the diversity staff.

Jerry Coyne may have nailed it: ‘By hiring large numbers of deans and administrators whose job is to promote initiatives like the above, colleges like Berkeley have guaranteed that this kind of process will only get more onerous and more invidious. After all, those people have to keep ratcheting up the process to keep their jobs going.'”

Here is one more follow-up from Cochrane on the spread of Wokeadamia in which he offers a sampling of academic job descriptions from schools around the country. The heavy emphasis on one’s track record in promoting diversity, and on one’s future plans to do so, may well eclipse a candidate’s actual qualifications for the job!

It’s fair to say the misplaced emphasis on diversity has reached crazy proportions. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, reports on a recent episode at the University of Montana in which the school held an essay contest for Martin Luther King Day as part of its effort to respond to complaints of a lack of racial diversity on campus. The population of the state of Montana is just 0.4% African American, so it should come as no surprise that there are relatively few blacks on the campus of the state university. The nine-member prize selection committee had a non-white majority, but only six students entered the contest, all of whom were white. All four winners were white females. Not only were the selections condemned by activists, but the winners were threatened and the university effectively negated the whole contest.

Until such time as thought, feelings, personal preferences, and technical expertise are officially outlawed, people will make decisions that seem arbitrary to others. That’s often because others don’t understand the decision parameters and are in no position to judge its impartiality. But sometimes personal preferences will reflect bias against superficial characteristics. Economists have noted that such bias nearly always comes at a cost to the decision maker. For example, if the best job candidate is black, then the decision to hire a white is economically inferior and will harm the firm’s competitiveness. And of course there are laws prohibiting overt discrimination in many aspects of economic life. Beyond that, we can condemn such bias as might exist, but it is often impossible to discern except as an often errant appeal to statistical genera or “disparate impact”, and it cannot be prevented while maintaining a free society. Political tests, in particular, are not consistent with a free society and should themselves be prohibited.

Beepocamyth: Neonics Don’t Kill the Buzz


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False claims that a certain class of pesticides threaten the world’s bee populations are commonplace, and we hear the same more recently about various species of birds. The origins of the “beepocalypse” rumor were not based on scientific evidence, but on a narrative that developed among environmental activists in response to a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that began around 2006, roughly a decade after neonicotinoid pesticides (so-called neonics) replaced earlier, more toxic compounds as the pesticides of choice. But Jon Entine writes at The Genetic Literacy Project:

What causes CCD? It still remains a mystery, in part. But researchers turned up historical examples of CCD-like bee die offs across the globe over hundreds of years, well before the introduction of pesticides, but activist groups would have none of it.”

CCD essentially tapered off by 2009, according to Entine, and the number of honeybee colonies are higher now that before the introduction of neonics. See Entine’s charts at the link showing changes in honeybee populations over time. In Australia, where the use of neonics has been especially heavy, bee populations have grown steadily and remain quite healthy.

Entine’s article provides a nice summary of the real and imagined threats to the world’s bee populations as well as distorted claims associated with normal winter die-offs. He provides a number of useful links on these subjects, and he summarizes research showing the lack of any real threat to bees from neonics:

Over the past seven years, there have been a flood of studies about the potential impact of neonics on bees. Many small-scale, forced-feeding studies that generally overdosed bees with neonics found various negative effects; not a surprise, many entomologists have said, as they do not replicate real world impacts.

In contrast, a multitude of large-population field studies—the ‘gold-standard’ of bee research—have consistently demonstrated there are no serious adverse effects of neonic insecticides on honeybees at the colony level from field-realistic neonic exposure. …

By last year, even the Sierra Club—for years one of the leading proponents of the honeybee Armageddon narrative—was backpeddling, writingHoneybees are at no risk of dying off. While diseases, parasites and other threats are certainly real problems for beekeepers, the total number of managed honeybees worldwide has risen 45% over the last half century.'”

Then Entine turns his attention to another front in the war on pesticides: a Canadian study in which white-crowned sparrows were force-fed a mixture of seeds and pesticide via gavage — ie, through a tube:

Only sparrows force-fed the highest dosage were affected, and then only temporarily. They stopped eating, quickly lost body weight and fat, became disoriented and paused their migratory flight—all after tube full of chemicals was forced down their throat and into their stomach. … That said, within a few days of what was likely a trauma-inducing experience, all recovered completely and continued their migration normally.”

Yet the authors reported that the very existence of some wild birds is threatened by neonics, and the media, always eager to report a crisis, ran with it.

Paul Driessen also describes the junk science underlying misleading narratives regarding pesticide use. It is a driving force behind legislation in the House and Senate that would ban the use of neonics in National Wildlife Refuges, where the Fish & Wildlife Service permits farmers to grow various crops. Driessen has some advice for Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), a sponsor of the legislation:

She should also recognize potentially serious threats to bees, wildlife, soils, waters and plants in refuges from sources that she, her colleagues and their environmentalist and media allies routinely ignore: solar panels, for instance. Not only do they blanket many thousands of acres, allowing little to grow beneath or between them. They can also leach cadmium and other metals into soils and waters. They should no longer be built near wildlife refuges.

Finally, it’s not just bees. It’s also birds, and bats – which are already being killed and even eradicated in many areas by America’s 56,000 wind turbines. Imagine what Green New Deal turbine numbers would do.”

More perspective is offered in this excellent six-part (and growing?) “Pesticides and Food” series (all at the link) by Kayleen Schreiber:

  1. Has pesticide use decreased? Yes, dramatically in per capita and per unit of output.
  2. Have pesticides improved?  Yes, with dramatically lower toxicity, improved biodegradability, and lower use rates.
  3. How dangerous is glyphosate (a herbicide)? Not very. Covered in my last post. Glyphosate is only 1/10th as toxic as caffeine.
  4. How do organic pesticides compare to synthetic pesticides? It’s a mixed bag, with great variability across both classes. Organics are more toxic in some applications, and synthetics are more toxic in others.
  5. Soil health: Are synthetic pesticides more sustainable than “natural” organics?  Organics require more tillage, which creates sustainability problems.
  6. Pesticide residues — Something to worry about? The USDA finds little residue in its testing, with extremely low detection rates for both organics and synthetics.



Knocking Noxious Weeds Down on the Farm


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Proof continues to mount that the use of glyphosate herbicide in agriculture and landscape weed control poses no danger to humans, the claims of covetous plaintiffs’ attorneys notwithstanding. Glyphosate is the compound in Roundup and Spectrum weed killers. Ag Daily summarizes the EPA’s 10-year review of the empirical evidence in “EPA reaffirms no human health risk from glyphosate has been found“. The article notes that glyphosate has been studied extensively around the globe:

The bodies supporting these safety findings include the European Food Safety Authority, European Chemicals Agency, German BfR, and Australian, Canadian, Korean, New Zealand and Japanese regulatory authorities, as well as the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues.

I should make one qualification about the EPAs findings: they apply to registered uses, and not to improper application or exposure to more than the prescribed use of glyphosate. Evidence that excessive exposure is dangerous is not in doubt, yet such findings are routinely presented as if they apply generally. This article in The Scientist makes clear that there are number of pathways along which glyphosate might be harmful to humans and animals (like anything else, really), but the evidence of those effects is mixed, at best, and limited to unrealistic conditions. Glyphosate, the so-called active ingredient, is heavily diluted for application, so it is correctly used in minute quantities. It is always important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use, wear appropriate protective gear, and in the kitchen, rinse your produce thoroughly just to be safe.

It’s also important to note that in terms of toxicity, glyphosate is benign relative to the herbicides it replaced, a process that accelerated in the 1990s. Michelle Miller describes a basic relation that is critical to understanding the real dangers posed by any natural or manufactured substance: Risk = Hazard + Exposure. So-called “natural” herbicides used on organic farms are often applied heavily due to their relative inefficacy, so heavier exposure to those herbicides may well offset the presumed health advantages of organic foods.

Glyphosate has additional advantages: it minimizes tillage of fields, which reduces the energy-intensity of farming and avoids unnecessary microbial disturbance, thereby reducing emissions of methane, nitrous oxide, and CO2. It also improves farm yields, helping farms prosper and enhancing the world’s food supplies.


End of Snowfalls Is Greatly Exaggerated


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Snowcover Anomoly

Everyone seems to think it snowed more in their youth than in recent years, but that’s generally incorrect, at least for for late-stage baby boomers, Gen Xers, and Millenials. Gregory Wrightstone thought the same thing as he reflected on his youth in Pittsburgh, but after checking snowfall records he was surprised to find an upward trend. In “Warming and the Snows of Yesteryear“, Wrightstone says his look at the records from other areas showed similar upward trends. The chart above from NOAA shows the Northern Hemisphere has experienced mostly positive snowfall anomalies over the past 20 years. So, the truth is that snowfalls have not decreased over the last 50+ years, contrary to our fond memories of big snows in childhood. Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson thought the same thing in 1801, but I’m not sure whether he was right.

We’ve been told by climate alarmists that “snowfalls are a thing of the past” due to global warming (The Independent in March, 2000). If anything, however, snowfalls have increased, and big snowfalls still happen. As with so many climate predictions over the years, this too is a bust. Most of those predictions have relied on predictive models fitted with an inadequate historical record of data, and the models are inadequately specified to capture the complexities of global climate trends. Don’t bet the house on them, and don’t presume to bet my house on them either, please!

When Government Externalizes Internalities


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The headline describes a kind of government failure. In an ideal private transaction, costs and benefits are fully internalized by the buyer and seller. Both reap private gains, or surplus, from mutually beneficial transactions. On the other hand, there are cases in which external costs are inflicted on otherwise unrelated third parties, as when production emits pollutants. Or, there might be external benefits that inure to third parties, as when a homeowner pays to beautify their property and the whole neighborhood gains. These “externalities” are commonly citied as rationale for government interference in private markets. A good government, it is said, would seek to “internalize the externalities”, in one way or another, to prevent too much trade in a good imposing external costs, or too little trade where there are external benefits. Imposing taxes, granting subsidies, intervening with price controls, quotas, or various regulations are all ways in which corrective action might be attempted by public authorities.

The problem is that government often chooses badly, both misidentifying externalities, poorly estimating their magnitude, or in choosing how best to address them. When mistakes of this nature occur, the internal gains from trade are not just compromised or even destroyed. They are often externalized — revoked and redistributed to non-participants. The formerly private and internal gains may be extracted in the form of taxes, ultimately flowing to unconnected third parties. They are externalized internalizes, if I may coin a phrase. In other cases, in order to subsidize favored industries, individuals might be taxed on their income. Yet the favored industry is likely  unconnected or external to the taxed individual’s source of income. While the gains that might accrue in the favored industry are internalized there, their source is an externalized internality.

Putting the troubling issue of takings or confiscation aside, these mistaken interventions distort relative prices and production decisions, with false signals propagating into other markets — which again are external effects. This, in turn, distorts the allocation of resources across various uses. These cases are clear-cut examples of externalized internalities.

I will confine this discussion to economic matters. By “internalities“, I mean all things within the economic realm that are private and/or reserved to the individual by natural rights. That includes private property and the individual’s freedom to trade and contract with others.

Wrongly taxing presumed “bads” or wrongly subsidizing presumed “goods” are absolute cases of externalizing internalities. And taxing a “bad” excessively (at more than its true social cost) or subsidizing a “good” excessively (at more than its true social benefit) are cases of externalizing internalities. The political temptation to subsidize might be the greater danger, as it is all too easy for public officials and politicians to identify and sell “deserving” causes, especially if they intimate that others will pay.

For example, subsidized education, which primarily benefits private individuals, is billed to the taxpaying public. It over-allocates resources to education, including students with greater value as human resources in other pursuits. Subsidized energy pays the seller of a power source more than its value to buyers, courtesy of taxpayers, and over allocates resources to those energy sources relative to non-subsidized energy and other goods.

Even if an industry is taxed in exact accordance with its true social cost, there is still the question of how the proceeds of the tax are to be distributed. Ideally, unless the social costs are borne equally by all, the distribution should bear some proportionality to the damages borne by individuals, yet that is seldom considered outside of certain kinds of litigation. The true victims will almost certainly be shorted. Benefits will accrue to many who are free of any burden inflicted by the undesired activity. The corrective action thus fails to properly address the externality, and it bestows an incidental external benefit on wholly unconnected parties.

Likewise, subsidies paid to an industry in exact accordance with its true social benefits require taxes that may burden individuals who do not stand to benefit from the subsidized activity in any way. That is true unless the industry in question produces a pure public good. Indeed, if the taxed individuals had a choice in the matter, they would often use the funds for something they value more highly. Thus, suboptimal distribution of the tax proceeds for funding a less-than-pure “social good” involves the extraction of an internality.

Other forms of government action have similar externalization of internal costs or benefits. With the imposition of a wage floor, or minimum wage, the least-skilled workers are likely to lose their jobs. Consumers are likely to pay higher prices as well. The job losers become more dependent on public aid, which must be funded via taxes on others. The wage floor will also degrade working conditions for those lucky enough to keep their jobs. All of these effects of market intervention demonstrate the public piercing of internal gains from private, voluntary trade. Some of what is excised gets spilt, and some gets siphoned off to external parties. Thus internalities are externalized.

Regulation of private industry often results in regulatory capture, whereby regulators impose rules with compliance costs too high for small competitors and potential entrants to afford. This obviously strengthens the market power of larger incumbents, who may in turn increase prices or skimp on quality. Taxpayers pay the regulators, consumers pay the inflated prices, smaller firms shut down, and resources are under-allocated to the product or service in question. These distortions spill into other markets as well. All these effects are part of the despoilment of internal gains from trade. To the extent that trades are prevented at competitive prices, the external winners are those who capture trades at higher prices, along with the regulators themselves and anyone else standing to benefit from graft as part of the arrangement. And again, the wrongful gains to the winners can be described as externalized internalities.

There are many other examples of government failure that fit the description of externalized internalities. In fact, extracting internalities is the very essence of taxation, though we readily accept its use for expenditures on goods that are of a truly public nature, which by definition confer benefits that are non-exclusive. The classic case, of course, is national defense. The differences in the cases of government failure cited above, however, are that the internalities extracted via taxation or other forms of intervention are externalized for private gain by other parties, no matter how widely distributed and diffuse. This is an extremely pernicious kind of government failure, as it ultimately leads to a cannibalization of private activity via our role as public actors. Beware politicians bearing gifts, and beware them just as much when they demonize private trade.

EPA Concedes Puddles, Ditches to Owners


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Those who like their government served-up intrusive are reacting hysterically to the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which forbids the federal government from regulating waters that are not interstate waters or waters that aren’t or cannot be used in any way related to interstate commerce. The federal government will no longer have jurisdiction over normally dry, “ephemeral”  creek beds, private lakes and ponds unconnected to interstate waters, and most ground areas where rainwater pools, such as ditches on private property. This is a very good thing!

The emphasis of the new rule on interstate waters hews more closely to the constitutional limits of federal power than did the rescinded rule that had been imposed by the Obama Administration in 2015, which some called the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule (really an interpretation of “navigable waters”, or WOTUS as defined by the 1972 Clean Water Act). Christian Britschgi writes at Reason.com:

The Obama-era rule was controversial from the get-go, with multiple Red states filing legal challenges claiming it exceeded the federal government’s authority to regulate water pollution. A slew of federal court rulings stayed the implementation of the rule in over half the states.”

Some of the straightforward differences between the new rule and WOTUS were mentioned above, but Anthony K. Francois of the Property and Environment Research Center gets into a bit more detail in his nice summary of these changes in federal authority.

In many cases, state and local governments already have regulatory authority over waters placed off-limits to the EPA. In fact, as Jonathan Adler wrote last summer, some of those state regulations are more stringent than the federal oversight now rescinded. That flies in the face of assertions by activists that states will be patsies in their dealings with property owners (the activists would call them “polluters”). So those who claim that the new rule will cause damage to the environment are really saying they only trust the EPA’s authority in these matters. They are also saying that no private citizen who owns property should be presumed to have rights over the industrial, commercial, or residential use of that property without review by the federal government. Under WOTUS, this represented such a severe abrogation of rights that it interfered with both productive activity and private enjoyment, not to mention the considerable confusion and costly litigation it prompted.

Weighing the costs and benefits of regulatory actions is a difficult undertaking. However, it is far too easy for regulators, with an imbalance of coercive power in their favor, to impose costly standards in locales where there may be little or no net benefit, and where individual property owners have no recourse. Regulators get no reward for protecting individual liberty and property rights, which skews their view of the tradeoff against potential environmental damage. Federal regulatory power is best kept within strict limits. The same goes for state and local regulatory power, but authority at those levels is at least more accountable to local interests on behalf of consumer, business and environmental concerns.

More Attacks On Private Charity


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The social corrosion brought on by the growth of government, and from advocates of greater government dominance, has many symptoms, but hostility to private giving and charitable work is one of its ugliest manifestations. There is a notion among leftists that almost any charitable gift could better serve its intended purpose were it simply turned over to a government agency tasked with an “appropriate” role. The attitude is partly explained by a fallacy of central planning, that charitable efforts scale so readily that the state should always be in charge, and indeed, a fallacy that the state has better information, is more effective at guiding outcomes, and could accomplish more were it not for obstacles created by pesky private efforts.

Even worse, private gifts and charitable efforts are often characterized as buy-offs to excuse evils perpetrated elsewhere by givers. That’s one of the themes I covered in “You’re Welcome: Charitable Gifts Prompt Statist Ire“. Karl Zinsmeister of Philanthropy magazine bemoans the extent to which private good works are condemned in “No Giver Is Safe: How the Left Is Poisoning Philanthropy“:

Names are being pried off of college buildings, museums are getting picketed, companies are facing boycotts. No giver is safe. Long-time tax protections for charitable giving, churches, and charities are being attacked and proposed for repeal. Activists demand that government be given the right to appoint board members at nonprofits. Privacy protections for donors and charities are being eroded.

The deep odium for personal wealth and private problem-solving nursed by fashionable chatterers today often surges into view when businesspeople take up philanthropy. Jeff Bezos donates a million Australian dollars to fire recovery and the plute-smashers swing their axes. David Rubenstein offers to renovate the Jefferson Memorial and other historical landmarks and gets attacked for being a private-equity villain. For crusading against malaria, Bill Gates is portrayed as a vainglorious megalomaniac.”

The income tax deduction for charitable giving is presumed by critics to benefit mainly the wealthy. But without the deduction, our system of income taxation would make it more difficult for all Americans to carve charitable donations from their household budgets. And as Zinsmeister notes, most charitable giving does not come from the wealthy. In fact, he says 36% is given by those earning less than $100,000 annually.

Antipathy for the wealthy is nothing new, and the haters never give a thought to how wealth is created: by producing things of value that otherwise would be unavailable, and that we purchase willingly. That goes for “big wealth” and “little wealth” alike. The attack on philanthropy is merely another front in the effort to delegitimize private wealth and ultimately its confiscation. That is both evil and short-sighted. Private charity is more efficient and cost effective than government aid (and see here and here), and it is an act of true virtue no matter how small, something that can’t be said for those who pretend that confiscating the wealth of others is an of caring.

A shout out to Dixon Diaz and thefederalistpapers.org for the great cartoon!