Multi-But-Not-Your-Culturalism

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Multiculturalism is not compatible with universal participation. Don’t think for a second that it has anything to do with a “melting pot” in which people from different cultures share a set of values and principles establishing their national identity and governing principles. Quite the contrary: multiculturalism is a clunky cauldron of “identities” competing in a grievance-sweepstakes, and admission to the competition is very selective. Indeed, you might not be from a culture that is celebrated by multiculturalists. And if your not, then your culture is probably one that deserves condemnation. The participation limits inherent in multiculturalism don’t stop there. If you so much as try to celebrate other cultures, you might be accused of cultural appropriation.

The trick to fully participate in multiculturalism is that your culture must have a claim to victimhood. But sometimes even that isn’t good enough. For example, even if your ancestors were holocaust survivors, your identification as a Jew might make your status quite fragile among multiculturalists. Don’t even mention it if you’re a Christian or of European extraction. Even Asians and “white Hispanics” are sometimes “othered” as well, depending on their economic status and political views. Again, as a minimum requirement, your culture must have a claim to victimhood or else you are, by default, part of the privileged class. And yeah, you’re probably a racist to boot.

Rod Dreher prefers the term asymmetrical multiculturalism as a reference for this kind of identity politics. It’s so asymmetrical that even white, gentry progressives who voice unqualified approval are stymied by its power to suppress their own expression of thought. He quotes a reader whose wife recently attended a brunch with some urban friends:

Every single friend confessed that they and their husbands plan to sell their homes and move to other areas of the county because ‘the schools have gotten so bad.’… All of these nice, liberal-signaling people are uprooting their entire lives to get their kids into better schools, but they can never speak the reason aloud. The schools turning bad is force majeure, you see, like a hurricane or an earthquake, but with utterly mysterious origins, like a pulse from another dimension that leaves the world’s top scientists scratching their heads.”

Their children apparently attend schools with growing cohorts of otherwise intelligent, immigrant children who are unprepared to learn, in English, at the same pace and under the same set of behavioral expectations as their own. If you are white, you cannot speak constructively of any shortcomings that might crop up within a multicultural community, especially one with a population of illegal immigrants, without being condemned as a racist. Critical words are seen as evidence of prejudice, according to this view. Its power is manifest in the reluctance of these brunching progressives to articulate the reasons for the decline of their local schools.

At the same time, you better not intimate that your own group has a legitimate “identity”. Peggy Noonan reports that the Inclusive Communications Task Force at Colorado State University has advised that one should not speak of “Americans” because “it erases other cultures”. It makes no difference whether your interests as an American align with those of other groups. Just do not speak of it!

Everything in this game of status depends on the whims of the coterie of jealous multicultural gatekeepers. Writing for The Claremont Institute, Ryan P. Williams describes multiculturalism thusly:

… multiculturalism defines and defends the rights of groups rather than individuals and denies the possibility of any natural standard from which to assess the goodness of political or moral arrangements. … multiculturalism denies equality of each under the law of all. But so too does multiculturalism therefore abandon any principled adjudication of willful or rival claims to prestige, honor, and resources advanced by groups as a matter of right. Will and force replace reason and deliberation.

Multiculturalism is based on the nominal equality (really, the contending wills or force) of oppressed groups, but on a sliding scale regulated by fashionable opinion in the universities and their applied-science workshop, the administrative state. Justice means the due distribution by the state of prestige, power, and resources to this ranked system of groups.”

It would be wonderful if multiculturalism had only to do with the pride, recognition, and the broad sharing of diverse cultures. Today, unfortunately, that is not the thrust, if it ever was. Instead, it is about the promotion and elevation of some cultures at the expense of others. Its rewards are arbitrary and without reference to merit, and it seeks to levy corresponding punishments on those without fault. It is a zero-sum system of thinking about the distribution of rewards and the value of lives. Its advocates are preoccupied with valuing the injustices of the distant past as obligations of innocent human contemporaries. It is about keeping score, rather than creating value. It is bigotry and racism by another name. And it rejects our constitutional principles in favor of selectively assigned rights, including “rights” to reparations.

These are the kinds of dangerous tenets that are slowly becoming institutionalized in our schools, media, administrative agencies, private businesses, and even in the language. We can hope that because the current variant of multiculturalism is so insane, it might be politically unstable. Such a corrupt philosophy attracts corrupt, power- and rent-seeking individuals along with throngs of unstable social justice warriors. Multiculturalism, at least in this perverse form, might well sow the seeds of its own destruction before its divisiveness destroys the country. 

Behold Our Algorithmic Overlords

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A willingness to question authority is healthy, both in private matters and in the public sphere, but having the freedom to do so is even healthier. It facilitates free inquiry, the application of the scientific method, and it lies at the heart of our constitutional system. Voluntary acceptance of authority, and trust in its legitimacy, hinges on our ability to identify its source, the rationale for its actions, and its accountability. Unaccountable authority, on the other hand, cannot be tolerated. It’s the stuff of which tyranny is made.

That’s one linchpin of a great essay by Matthew D. Crawford in American Affairs entitled “Algorithmic Governance and Political Legitimacy“. It’s a lengthy piece that covers lots of ground, and very much worth reading. Or you can read my slightly shorter take on it!

Imagine a world in which all the information you see is selected by algorithm. In addition, your success in the labor market is determined by algorithm. Your college admission and financial aid decisions are determined by algorithm. Credit applications are decisioned by algorithm. The prioritization you are assigned for various health care treatments is determined by algorithm. The list could go on and on, but many of these “use-cases” are already happening to one extent or another.

Blurring Private and Public Governance

Much of what Crawford describes has to do with the way we conduct private transactions and/or private governance. Most governance in free societies, of the kind that touches us day-to-day, is private or self-government, as Crawford calls it. With the advent of giant on-line platforms, algorithms are increasingly an aspect of that governance. Crawford notes the rising concentration of private governmental power within these organizations. While the platforms lack complete monopoly power, they are performing functions that we’d ordinarily be reluctant to grant any public form of government: they curate the information we see, conduct surveillance, exercise control over speech, and even indulge in the “deplatforming” of individuals and organizations when it suits them. Crawford quotes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:

In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. . . . We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies.”

At the same time, the public sector is increasingly dominated by a large administrative apparatus that is outside of the normal reach of legislative, judicial and even executive checks. Crawford worries about “… the affinities between administrative governance and algorithmic governance“.  He emphasizes that neither algorithmic governance on technology platforms nor an algorithmic administrative state are what one could call representative democracy. But whether these powers have been seized or we’ve granted them voluntarily, there are already challenges to their legitimacy. And no wonder! As Crawford says, algorithms are faceless pathways of neural connections that are usually difficult to explain, and their decisions often strike those affected as arbitrary or even nonsensical.

Ministry of Wokeness

Political correctness plays a central part in this story. There is no question that the platforms are setting policies that discriminate against certain viewpoints. But Crawford goes further, asserting that algorithms have a certain bureaucratic logic to elites desiring “cutting edge enforcement of social norms“, i.e., political correctness, or “wokeness”, the term of current fashion.

First, in the spirit of Václav Havel we might entertain the idea that the institutional workings of political correctness need to be shrouded in peremptory and opaque administrative mechanisms be­cause its power lies precisely in the gap between what people actu­ally think and what one is expected to say. It is in this gap that one has the experience of humiliation, of staying silent, and that is how power is exercised.

But if we put it this way, what we are really saying is not that PC needs administrative enforcement but rather the reverse: the expand­ing empire of bureaucrats needs PC. The conflicts created by identi­ty politics become occasions to extend administrative authority into previously autonomous domains of activity. …

The incentive to technologize the whole drama enters thus: managers are answerable (sometimes legally) for the conflict that they also feed on. In a corporate setting, especially, some kind of ass‑covering becomes necessary. Judgments made by an algorithm (ideally one supplied by a third-party vendor) are ones that nobody has to take responsibility for. The more contentious the social and political landscape, the bigger the institutional taste for automated decision-making is likely to be.

Political correctness is a regime of institutionalized insecurity, both moral and material. Seemingly solid careers are subject to sud­den reversal, along with one’s status as a decent person.”

The Tyranny of Deliberative Democracy

Crawford takes aim at several other trends in intellectual fashion that seem to complement algorithmic governance. One is “deliberative democracy”, an ironically-named theory which holds that with the proper framing conditions, people will ultimately support the “correct” set of policies. Joseph Goebbels couldn’t have put it better. As Crawford explains, the idea is to formalize those conditions so that action can be taken if people do not support the “correct” policies. And if that doesn’t sound like Gleichschaltung (enforcement of conformity), nothing does! This sort of enterprise would require:

 “… a cadre of subtle dia­lecticians working at a meta-level on the formal conditions of thought, nudging the populace through a cognitive framing operation to be conducted beneath the threshold of explicit argument. 

… the theory has proved immensely successful. By that I mean the basic assumptions and aspira­tions it expressed have been institutionalized in elite culture, perhaps nowhere more than at Google, in its capacity as directorate of information. The firm sees itself as ‘definer and defender of the public interest’ …

Don’t Nudge Me

Another of Crawford’s targets is the growing field of work related to the irrationality of human behavior. This work resulted from the revolutionary development of  experimental or behavioral economics, in which various hypotheses are tested regarding choice, risk aversion, an related issues. Crawford offers the following interpretation, which rings true:

“… the more psychologically informed school of behavioral economics … teaches that we need all the help we can get in the form of external ‘nudges’ and cognitive scaffolding if we are to do the rational thing. But the glee and sheer repetition with which this (needed) revision to our under­standing of the human person has been trumpeted by journalists and popularizers indicates that it has some moral appeal, quite apart from its intellectual merits. Perhaps it is the old Enlightenment thrill at disabusing human beings of their pretensions to specialness, whether as made in the image of God or as ‘the rational animal.’ The effect of this anti-humanism is to make us more receptive to the work of the nudgers.”

While changes in the framing of certain decisions, such as opt-in versus opt-out rules, can often benefit individuals, most of us would rather not have nudgers cum central planners interfere with too many of our decisions, no matter how poorly they think those decisions approximate rationality. Nudge engineers cannot replicate your personal objectives or know your preference map. Indeed, externally applied nudges might well be intended to serve interests other than your own. If the political equilibrium involves widespread nudging, it is not even clear that the result will be desirable for society: the history of central planning is one of unintended consequences and abject failure. But it’s plausible that this is where the elitist technocrats in Silicon Vally and within the administrative state would like to go with algorithmic governance.

Crawford’s larger thesis is summarized fairly well by the following statements about Google’s plans for the future:

The ideal being articulated in Mountain View is that we will inte­grate Google’s services into our lives so effortlessly, and the guiding presence of this beneficent entity in our lives will be so pervasive and unobtrusive, that the boundary between self and Google will blur. The firm will provide a kind of mental scaffold for us, guiding our intentions by shaping our informational context. This is to take the idea of trusteeship and install it in the infrastructure of thought.

Populism is the rejection of this.”

He closes with reflections on the attitudes of the technocratic elite toward those who reject their vision as untrustworthy. The dominance of algorithmic governance is unlikely to help them gain that trust.

What’s to be done?

Crawford seems resigned to the idea that the only way forward is an ongoing struggle for political dominance “to be won and held onto by whatever means necessary“. Like Bryan Caplan, I have always argued that we should eschew anti-trust action against the big tech platforms, largely because we still have a modicum of choice in all of the services they provide. Caplan rejects the populist arguments against the tech “monopolies” and insists that the data collection so widely feared represents a benign phenomenon. And after all, consumers continue to receive a huge surplus from the many free services offered on-line.

But the reality elucidated by Crawford is that the tech firms are much more than private companies. They are political and quasi-governmental entities. Their tentacles reach deeply into our lives and into our institutions, public and private. They are capable of great social influence, and putting their tools in the hands of government (with a monopoly on force), they are capable of exerting social control. They span international boundaries, bringing their technical skills to bear in service to foreign governments. This week Peter Theil stated that Google’s work with the Chinese military was “treasonous”. It was only a matter of time before someone prominent made that charge.

The are no real safeguards against abusive governance by the tech behemoths short of breaking them up or subjecting them to tight regulation, and neither of those is likely to turn out well for users. I would, however, support safeguards on the privacy of customer data from scrutiny by government security agencies for which the platforms might work. Firewalls between their consumer and commercial businesses and government military and intelligence interests would be perfectly fine by me. 

The best safeguard of viewpoint diversity and against manipulation is competition. Of course, the seriousness of threats these companies actually face from competitors is open to question. One paradox among many is that the effectiveness of the algorithms used by these companies in delivering services might enhance their appeal to some, even as those algorithms can undermine public trust.

There is an ostensible conflict in the perspective Crawford offers with respect to the social media giants: despite the increasing sophistication of their algorithms, the complaint is really about the motives of human beings who wish to control political debate through those algorithms, or end it once and for all. Jonah Goldberg puts it thusly:

The recent effort by Google to deny the Claremont Institute the ability to advertise its gala was ridiculous. Facebook’s blocking of Prager University videos was absurd. And I’m glad Facebook apologized.

But the fact that they apologized points to the fact that while many of these platforms clearly have biases — often encoded in bad algorithms — points to the possibility that these behemoths aren’t actually conspiring to ‘silence’ all conservatives. They’re just making boneheaded mistakes based in groupthink, bias, and ignorance.”

David French notes that the best antidote for hypocrisy in the management of user content on social media is to expose it loud and clear, which sets the stage for a “market correction“. And after all, the best competition for any social media platform is real life. Indeed, many users are dropping out of various forms of on-line interaction. Social media companies might be able to retain users and appeal to a broader population if they could demonstrate complete impartiality. French proposes that these companies adopt free speech policies fashioned on the First Amendment itself:

“…rules and regulations restricting speech must be viewpoint-neutral. Harassment, incitement, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress are speech limitations with viewpoint-neutral definitions…”

In other words, the companies must demonstrate that both moderators and algorithms governing user content and interaction are neutral. That is one way for them to regain broad trust. The other crucial ingredient is a government that is steadfast in defending free speech rights and the rights of the platforms to be neutral. Among other things, that means the platforms must retain protection under Section 230 of the Telecommunications Decency Act, which assures their immunity against lawsuits for user content. However, the platforms have had that immunity since quite early in internet history, yet they have developed an aggressive preference for promoting certain viewpoints and suppressing others. The platforms should be content to ensure that their policies and algorithms provide useful tools for users without compromising the free exchange of ideas. Good governance, political legitimacy, and ultimately freedom demand it. 

Renewables and Preempted Prosperity

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Coerced conversion to renewable energy sources will degrade human living conditions. That’s certainly true relative to a voluntary conversion actuated by purely private incentives. It’s likely to be true even in an absolute sense, depending on the speed and severity of the forced transition. A coerced conversion will mean lower real incomes during the transition (one recent estimate: $42,000 total loss per U.S. household to transition by 2030), and the losses will continue after the transition, with little redeeming improvement in environmental conditions or risk.

The Reality

There are several underpinnings for the assertions above. One is that the sensitivity of global temperatures to carbon forcings is relatively low. We know all too well that the climate models relied upon by warming alarmists have drastically over-estimated the extent of warming to date. The models are excessively sensitive to carbon emissions and promote an unwarranted urgency to DO SOMETHING… with other people’s money. There is also the question of whether moderate warming is really a bad thing given that it is likely to mean fewer cold-weather fatalities, increased agricultural productivity, and significant reforestation.

Another underpinning is that the real economics of renewable energy are vastly inferior to fossil fuels and will remain so for some time to come. Proponents of renewables tend to quote efficiencies under optimal operating conditions, free of pesky details like the cost of installing a vast support infrastructure and environmental costs of producing components. Solar and wind energy are tremendously inefficient in terms of land use. One estimate is that meeting a 100% renewable energy target in the U.S. today would require acreage equivalent to the state of California. And of course rare earth minerals must be mined for wind turbines and solar panels, and fossil fuels are needed to produce materials like the steel used to build them.

But the chief renewable bugaboo is that the power generated by wind and solar is intermittent. Our ability to store power is still extremely limited, so almost all surplus energy production is lost. Therefore, intermittency necessitates redundant generating capacity, which imposes huge costs. When the winds are calm and the sun isn’t shining, traditional power sources are needed to meet demand. That redundant capacity must be maintained and kept on-line, as these facilities are even costlier to power up from a dead start.

LA Hucksterism

These issues are typified by the unrealistic expectations of Los Angeles’ plan to replace 7% of the city’s power consumption with renewables. The cost predicted by LA regulators is slightly less than 2 cents per kilowatt hour for solar and even less for battery power, which are unrealistically low. For one thing, those are probably operating costs that do not account for capital requirements. The plan promises to provide power 16 hours a day at best, but it’s not clear that the 7% estimate of the renewable share takes that into account or whether the real figure should be 4.2% of LA’s power needs. The project will require 2,600 acres for solar panels, and if it’s like other solar plant installations, the stated capacity is based on the few hours of the day when the sun’s rays are roughly perpendicular to the panels. So it’s likely that the real cost of the power will be many times the estimates, though taxpayers will subsidize 30% or more of the total. And then there is the negative impact on birds and other wildlife.

The Question of Intent

Michael Schellenberger goes so far as to say that a degraded standard of living is precisely what many fierce renewable advocates have long intended. Modern comforts are simply not compatible with 100% renewable energy any time soon, or perhaps ever given the investment involved, but a target of 100% was not really intended to be compatible with modern comforts. In fact, the renewable proposition was often intermingled with celebration of a more austere, agrarian lifestyle. Schellenberger discusses the case of Martin Heidegger, an early anti-technologist who said in 1954 that modern technology “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy....” Of course, Heidegger was not talking about the use of solar panels. Others, like Murray Bookchin, were ultimately quite explicit about the “promise” of renewables to dial-back industrial society in favor of an agrarian ideal. And here’s a quote from a new book by John Barry, Professor of “Green Political Economy” (!) at Queen’s University Belfast:

The first question which serves as the starting point of this chapter is to ask if the objective of economic growth is now ecologically unsustainable, socially divisive and has in many countries passed the point when it is adding to human wellbeing?”

If that’s the question, the answer is no! The quote is courtesy of David Middleton. Green Professor Barry has one thing right, however: growing anything will be tough after crowding erstwhile farm and forest land with solar panels and wind turbines. But at least someone “green” is willing to admit some economic realities, something many alarmists and politicians are loath to do.

Welfare Loss

Involuntary actions always involve a welfare loss, as “subjects” must sacrifice the additional value they’d otherwise derive from their own choices. So it is that coerced adoption of renewables implies a starker outcome than zero economic growth. Objective measurement of all welfare costs is difficult, but we know that the adoption of renewables implies measurable up-front and ongoing economic losses. Matt Ridley notes that the impact of those losses falls hardest on the poor, whose energy needs absorb a large fraction of income. This, along with fundamental impracticality and high costs, accounts for the populist backlash against radical efforts to promote renewables in some European states. The politics of forced adoption of renewables is increasingly grim, but attempts to sell a centrally-planned energy sector based on renewables continue.

Ridley is rightly skeptical of carbon doomsday scenarios, but the pressure to curb carbon emissions will remain potent. He advocates a different form of intervention: essentially a carbon tax on producers with proceeds dedicated to new, competing sequestration or carbon capture technologies. Still coercive, the tax itself requires an estimate of the “economic cost of carbon”, which is of tremendously uncertain magnitude. The tax, of course, has the potential to do real harm to the economy. On the other hand, Ridley is correct in asserting that the effort to fund competing carbon-capture projects would leverage powerful market forces and perhaps hasten breakthroughs.

Mandated Misery

The attempt to force a complete conversion to renewable energy sources is meeting increasing political challenges as its cost is revealed more clearly by experience. Alarmists have long recognized the danger of economic damage, however. Thus, they try to convince us that economic growth and our current standards of living aren’t as good as we think they are, and they continue to exaggerate claims about the promise of renewable technologies. One day, some of these technologies will be sufficiently advanced that they will be economically viable without taxpayer subsidies. The conversion to renewables should be postponed until that day, when users can justify the switch in terms of costs and benefits, and do so voluntarily without interference by government planners.

Climate Activists Run From Rigor

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Climate activists are seemingly averse to empiricism, and to the scientific method for that matter. Esteemed climatologist John Christy makes that point abundantly clear in a recent speech entitled “Putting Climate Change Claims To the Test“. Christy was one of two lead authors of the third Assessment Report (AR3) of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2001, but his research into systematic discrepancies between climate models and actual temperature trends put him in the doghouse with the IPCC. He hasn’t been asked to serve as a lead author since. The transcript linked above is awkward in a few spots where Christy makes informal references to slides, which do, however, accompany and align with the transcript. He covers a lot of ground in this speech, but I’ll cover just a few points. Read the whole thing!

Christy notes that all of the climate models used by the IPCC have substantially over-predicted temperatures for the past thirty years, by an average across models of more than 2.5 times! He measured the errors 17 years ago and again recently, and the magnitude of those errors was almost identical. Yet little progress has been made in correcting the climate models. And why bother? The press simply won’t report the errors, and the IPCC and the activist community are too enraptured by their religious, end-of-days narrative to give it up.

Christy uses a stylized global “energy budget” to illustrate the various sources of climate forcing. He attributes the climate model errors to a failure to adequately account for the escape of energy from the atmosphere into space. He also demonstrates that the magnitude of carbon forcing from human activity represents a tiny contribution to the impact of Earth’s total energy forcings.

Another major point from Christy is that the climate research community has lost its scientific bearings. The very title of his speech refers to testable hypotheses, which is what real science is all about. Christy provides a punchy quote from Richard Feynman on this issue: “Science is a belief in the ignorance of experts.” Today it is routine for climate scientists to report results based on extrapolations from models hinging on mere assumptions they claim to have backtested. Those backtests are often based on flimsy standards and tend to receive little scrutiny, just as long as they are consistent with the so-called “expert consensus”. In other words, those claims amount to a big “what-if” exercise, and the underlying assumptions often lack rigorous testing. Christy goes on:

Michael Crichton says that in science consensus is irrelevant, what is relevant is reproducible results, consensus is inappropriate. So, as an aside, there’s a strange thing happening in climate science: the proliferation of unfalsifiable claims, in other words the unfalsifiable hypothesis.  Remember I said that scientific method: you make a claim and the claim has to be testable and falsifiable and then you check and see if it’s the real thing.

Well here’s the claim. Whatever happens is consistent with global warming.  Maybe it’s snow or no snow. More hurricanes? Less hurricanes? This method says wait for something to happen and then claim that human-caused warming is to blame. That’s the unfalsifiable hypothesis and it has no information value and there is no way to test it, it has no testable parameter and so it is not science. The unfalsifiable hypothesis predicts anything is possible therefore nothing is testable.

In other words, today climate research is infested with “fake science”. Christy marches through a variety of climate-related phenomena in his speech, offering evidence on each that is sometimes mixed but often contrary to the implications of climate models and claims made by activists. The big picture is nothing short of damning to the catastrophic warming narrative. Yet the dire scenarios feared by the Chicken Littles of the world, which never come to pass, continue to be reported eagerly by the media and pressed for costly political action.

Open Borders or Racism: a False Dichotomy

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What are you, a racist? To avoid that charge, apparently you must support fully open borders with absolutely no restrictions on crossings. The basis of that bizarre claim is that most immigrants are not of the ethnic majority, or rather most illegal immigrants are not of the ethnic majority. Thus, if you favor border controls of any kind, you must hate ethnic minorities. You are a racist! This hasty generalization is commonly made by reactionary minions of the Left, and it is standard rhetoric of leftist propaganda.

As many have noted, the U.S. benefitted for many years from a relatively liberal immigration regime, but policy became increasingly restrictive over a period of six or seven decades starting in the 1870s, sometimes in ways that were racially motivated. A few reforms began to take place in the 1940s, though various quotas remained a fixture. More recently, the threat of terrorism prompted restrictions, and the large population of illegal immigrants in the country, including immigrant children, stimulated debate over deportation vs. a path to citizenship.

Disparate Impacts

A real outcome of border controls takes the form of a “disparate impact”, a phenomenon prominent in areas of the law such as employment, fair lending, and fair housing. For example, standards like degree requirements or minimum credit scores tend to disqualify minority or “protected class” applicants disproportionately. Those standards, however, are not targeted explicitly at any class of individuals. Likewise, minorities represent a disproportionate share of those disqualified under immigration quotas. And minorities represent a vastly disproportionate share of illegal entrants apprehended by ICE because, as a practical matter, most border controls are targeted at country of origin, but not at specific minorities. Almost all illegal U.S. immigrants are members of populations that are ethnic minorities within the U.S. The top 10 countries of birth for all U.S. immigrants also have predominantly Hispanic or Asian population. These countries accounted for roughly 57% of legal immigrants in 2017.

The courts have generally ruled that business standards having a disparate impact are defensible based on business necessity and the absence of effective alternatives having less disparate impact. So the issue here is whether border controls meet a compelling need having nothing to do with racial or ethnic preferences, and whether any adverse impact on protected classes can be minimized.

The simple fact is that most Americans opposing illegal immigration simply want those entrants to go through a liberalized legal process, which would of course reduce the disparate impact of tight border controls. So the worst that can be said about a preference for legal over illegal immigration is that it might have a disparate impact on prospective minority entrants, and that is uncertain under a liberalized regime of legal immigration. This preference is not racist, and it is not racist to demand that all entrants be vetted and identified, whether you believe it is economically sensible or that immigrants are more or less likely to engage in criminal or even terrorist activity.

Public Resources

Again, there are strong rationales for controlling immigration and enforcing the border that have nothing to do with racial preference. Borders are a critical aspect of national sovereignty, of course, including taxpayer sovereignty. There is no question that large numbers of immigrants strain scarce public resources in a variety of ways including public aid, education, law enforcement, housing, and other public services. In fact, the mere existence of aid programs provides incentives that encourage immigration, especially as activists push for broader accessibility of program benefits. The consequent strain on public resources escalates costs to taxpayers and compromises the quality of public programs for the qualified citizen-beneficiaries for whom they are intended. There is nothing racist about asserting that those strains should be minimized for the benefit of taxpayers and beneficiaries. Indeed, a recent poll found that a majority of Hispanics favor controls on immigration, including a border wall.

A further consequence is that citizens might perceive an unhealthy opportunism or exploitation by illegal immigrants availing themselves of what might seem like very generous public benefits. Rightly or wrongly, that perception tends to encourage forms of “otherism”. This is an example of how public policy can undermine social cohesion and the successful assimilation of immigrants.

The Labor Force

In general, immigration is a positive economic force. At a macro level, it supplements the growth of the labor force, traditionally a major driver of output gains. At the more fundamental micro level, it represents a movement of productive resources in response to incentives guiding them to higher-valued uses. The most productive workers tend to migrate away from low-wage economies toward high-wage economies. Again, however, low-productivity workers are attracted by the bundle of public benefits available, including our minimum wage laws. Those immigrants do not contribute to output gains at all if their productivity is less than the minimum wage. They will, however, attempt to compete for jobs at the minimum wage or even below that wage if their employers are willing to cheat.

Obviously, the legal minimum wage does not adjust to market conditions such as excess supplies of labor. The development of such a surplus would mean unemployment, including job losses among low-skilled legal residents. That is unfortunate not just for those losing jobs, but because these effects create more fertile ground for racism among both groups. This is another example of how public policy can create barriers to social cohesion.

So Who’s a Racist, Anyway?

Those casting aspersions of racism are often guilty of of losing historical perspective, and sometimes worse. A recent example is the refusal of democrats to deal with “the racist” Trump on the DACA bill he proposed in early 2018. That bill would have offered amnesty and a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers, individuals who arrived in the U.S. as undocumented child immigrants. How easy it is for progressives to forget that President Obama dithered away four years during which he could have proposed legislation to end the prosecution of Dreamers.

A more cogent example of selective memory among progressives is the history of the Democrat Party as one of racism, Jim Crow, and eugenics. The contention that the Republican Party has a history of racism is categorically false. We constantly hear that Republicans are guilty of using “dog whistles” to appeal to racist sentiment, but Mark Steyn provides a marvelous quote of James Taranto in which he gets at the truth of these divisive claims: “… if you can hear the whistle, you’re the dog.” There is great truth in that statement.

No one should forget that immigrants attempting to enter the country illegally are exposed to real dangers, and it should be discouraged. Natural conditions are harsh along the southern U.S. border, and many of those wishing to cross must contract for the services of guides who are often dangerous and untrustworthy. The risks for families and children should not be trivialized by those who would encourage massive flows of illegal entrants as a tool of policy change.

Border security is important to Americans because of the risks inherent in an uncontrolled border. These risks span national security, drug policy, taxpayer sovereignty, and other economic concerns. While racists might hate most immigrants, opposition to illegal immigration is often paired with support for liberalized legal immigration. That fact does not square with accusations of racism. Perhaps most importantly, encouraging an uncontrolled flow of immigrants in defiance of existing law creates harsh risks for the immigrants themselves, and especially the children who become innocent human collateral in the process. That the same shortsighted individuals who encourage such flows make a blanket charge of racism against those who demand a more rational and even liberalized process is grotesque and an affront to decency.

Mueller’s Muddle

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The Mueller Report effectively put to rest allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election, despite lingering wails from crestfallen Trump haters. But Trump lovers and haters alike might agree that the report should have settled much more, including whether there was evidence on which a charge of obstruction of justice could be brought against Trump. Robert Mueller demurred from that responsibility as a prosecutor, but he left a few tempting but ultimately dangerous crumbs for those still obsessed with toppling Trump.

Mueller’s statement last Wednesday wavered around the suggestion that Trump might be guilty of obstruction, a connotation colored more by politics than evidence. My conclusions, gleaned from both the report and a few other sources, are the following:

  • There was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
  • The original allegations were an attempted set-up of Trump. The scheme relied in part on the fraudulent Christopher Steele dossier, which was financed by the Clinton campaign, as well as a series of misrepresentations and suspicious contacts arranged by high-level officials at the Department of Justice and the FBI. That the entire investigation might have been compromised by such a conspiracy was not addressed by Mueller in the report, but we will learn more very soon when the DOJ’s Inspector General issues his findings. The IG will be interviewing Steele himself in the UK before long.
  • Mueller probably knew there was no collusion early in the investigation, but he persisted in “investigating” for two years. In my view, that created the appearance of an effort to entrap an angry Trump on obstruction charges.
  • Trump reacted to the collusion charges with a kind of raving petulance. Of course, it’s hard to blame him for his anger, and Mueller more-or-less acknowledged that. Trump did and said things that surely sounded intemperate, though some were within his prerogative (e.g., firing James Comey). Certain impulsive statements and actions might have risen to the level of obstruction had he not “changed his mind”, or had he bothered to follow-up on execution by aides. And Trump made statements (not under oath) that we’re intended to influence public opinion and possibly the willingness of certain witnesses to cooperate with investigators, but that sort of intent is hard to prove.
  • Of the ten instances of possible obstruction listed by Mueller in his report, two came dangerously close to qualifying as obstruction, two others were more of a stretch, and the rest were readily explained by motives other than an intent to obstruct, as Mueller sometimes indicated in the report.
  • Several of the possible obstruction issues were mitigated by Trump’s apparent willingness to cooperate with the investigation, including the provision to Mueller’s office of a huge volume of emails and documents, and by allowing members of the administration to be interviewed, some at great length.
  • Jonathan Turley has expressed his dismay at three underhanded actions taken by Mueller, one in the report itself and two in the wake of its delivery to his superiors at the DOJ (Attorney General William Barr and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein). The first was an omission: Mueller chose not to identify grand jury material that had to be redacted before release to the public. This was contrary to instructions and with knowledge that the omission would delay the report’s release to the public and reflect badly on Barr.
  • The second action noted by Turley was a letter sent by Mueller to Barr complaining about the “impression” created by Barr’s summary of the report, despite the fact that Barr had invited Mueller to review the summary in advance. The letter also asked Barr to “release uncleared portions of the report”, which Mueller knew was prohibited. This also seems to have been intended to reflect badly on Barr.
  • Turley’s third point is Mueller’s legally incoherent statement that “he would have cleared Trump if he could have” but chose not to draw a conclusion. Mueller invoked an opinion from the DOJ’s Office of Legal Council (OLC), which he claimed prohibited the indictment of a sitting president. But over a period of two years, he failed to seek further guidance on the question from the OLC, his superiors, or the Inspector General.
  • A more obvious explanation for Mueller’s failure to seek an indictment is that he knew that no grand jury would indict on the evidence as described in the ten instances of possible obstruction he listed in the report.
  • Essentially Mueller left the ball in Barr’s court to decide whether to seek an indictment of Trump on obstruction changes, and Barr decided that the evidence did not support it.
  • However, the very idea of obstruction is moot, or should be, given the first three points above. And apparently Mueller never intended to seek an indictment on collusion, as he stated again last Wednesday.
  • Mueller strayed outside the role of a prosecutor and potentially subverted the cause of justice in stating that he could not exonerate the president of obstruction. There is no such thing as “exoneration” of an accused in U.S. criminal law. Mueller’s role as a prosecutor was to make a determination as to whether he should recommend an indictment against Trump. It was not his role to determine Trump’s guilt and certainly not his innocence, and innocence must always be the presumption.
  • The Mueller report could provide Congress with a “roadmap” for impeachment of Trump on charges of obstruction. If House Democrats decide to take that road, it would very likely be a prescription for their electoral suicide.

No matter how aggravating and uncouth you find Trump, and no matter how unwise his policies might prove to be, he was elected fair and square. Nevertheless, his opponents in Congress and on the campaign trail can’t easily give up the impeachment rhetoric without angering their leftist base. But not all congressional Democrats are voicing support for impeachment proceedings, and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi is doing her best to manage the division without making a commitment either way. The Senate will never go along with impeachment, of course. Now, a House vote to merely censure Donald Trump is mentioned as a possible “exit-ramp” to compromise that would let the hard-line impeachers down easy. Whatever they do, however, some Democrats might hope to drag out the process in an attempt to inflict maximal damage to Trump’s reelection prospects. And that, too, is probably ill-advised, because people are getting tired of all this.

Warming Bias and Hot-Town Thermometers

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A few little-recognized facts about global warming are summarized nicely by climate researcher Javier in a comment on this post by Dr. Roy Spencer:

It is mainly over land and not over sea. It is mainly in the Northern Hemisphere and not in the Southern Hemisphere. It is mainly during winter and not during summer. And it affects mainly minimal (night) temperature and not maximal (day) temperature.”

I added the hyperlinks to Javier’s comment. The last two items on his list emphasize a benign aspect of the warming we’ve experienced since the late 1970s. After all, cold temperatures are far deadlier than warm temperatures.

Here is a disclaimer: my use of the term “global warming” refers to the fact that averages of measured temperatures have risen in a few fits and starts over the past four decades. I do not use the term to mean a permanent trend induced by human activity, since that time span is very short in climatological terms, and the observed increase is well within the historical range of natural variation.

Few seem aware that the surface temperature record is plagued by an obvious issue: the siting of most weather stations in urban environments. In fact, urban weather stations account for 82% of total stations in the U.S., as Jim Steele writes of “Our Urban ‘Climate Crisis’“. Temperatures run hot in cities due to the heat-absorbing characteristics of building materials and the high proportion of impervious ground cover. And some stations well outside of metropolitan areas are also situated near concrete and pavement. There is little doubt that urbanization and thoughtless siting decisions for weather stations have corrupted temperature measurements and exaggerated surface warming trends.

Hot summer days always arouse expressions of climate alarm. However, increases in summer temperatures, and daytime temperatures, have been relatively modest compared to increases in winter and nighttime temperatures. In Roy Spencer’s post, (also linked above), he reports that 80% of the U.S. warming observed by a NASA satellite system (AIRS) from September 2002 to March 2019 occurred at night.

Of course, climate alarmists also claim that global warming makes temperatures more volatile. So, they argue, there are now more very hot days even if the change in the average summer temperature is modest. The facts do not support that claim, however. Indeed, the world has experienced less temperature volatility as global temperatures have risen. And less extreme weather, as it happens, is contrary to another theme in the warmest narrative.

There is some reason to believe that the relative increase in nighttime temperature is connected to the urban heat island effect. Pavement, concrete, and other materials retain heat overnight. Thus, increasing urbanization leads to nighttime temperatures that do not fall from their daily highs as much as they did a few decades back. The magnification of daytime heating is not as pronounced as the effect of retained heat overnight, which causes the diurnal temperature range to decrease. But I should note that some rural farmers insist that nighttime lows have increased relative to daytime highs there as well, and Roy Spencer himself is not confident that the satellite temperature data on which his finding was based reflects a strong urban heat island effect.

For perspective, it’s good to remember that we live in the midst of an interglacial period. These are relatively brief, temperate intervals between lengthier glacial periods (see here, and more from Javier here). The current interglacial is well advanced, having begun about 11,700 years ago, but Javier estimates that it could last for another 1,500 years. That would be longer than the historical average. At the peak of the last interglacial period, temperatures were about 2C higher than today and sea levels were 5 meters higher. The last interglacial ended about 120,000 years ago, but the historical average time between interglacials is only about 41,000 years. These low frequency changes in the global climate are generally driven by the Earth’s axial tilt (obliquity), recurring cycles in the shape of our eliptical orbit around the Sun (eccentricity), and the Earth’s solar exposure (insolation) and albedo.

Biased surface temperature records have both inspired and reinforced the sense of panic surrounding global warming. Few observers seem to understand the existence of a strong bias, let alone its source: the urban heat island effect. And few seem to realize that most of the warming we’ve experienced since the 1970s has occurred at night, not during the day, and that these changes are well within the range of natural variation. Dramatic climate change happens at both long and short time scales for reasons that are largely astronomical. The lengthy historical record accumulated by paleoclimatologists shows that current concerns over global warming are exaggerated. I’m quite confident that mankind will find ways to adapt to climate change in either direction, but some global warming might be beneficial once the next glacial period begins.

 

The UN’s Mass Extinction Fiction

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A big story early this month warned of mass extinctions and a collapse of the planet’s biodiversity. This was based on a report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). A high-level presentation of the data by IPBES was constructed in a way that is easily revealed as misleading (see below). But the first thing to ask about bombastic reports like this is whether the authors are self-interested. There is big money in promoting apocalyptic scenarios and public programs to avert them. Large government grants are at stake for like-minded scientists, and political power is at stake for biodiversity activists worldwide. Like many other scare stories reported as “news”, this one feeds into the statist political agenda of the environmental Left.

Exaggerated claims of species endangerment are not a new phenomenon. We’ve heard grossly erroneous forecasts of polar bear extinctions, frightening but false warnings of a “beepocalyse”, and faulty claims about declines in the population of African elephants. These are headline-grabbing and more thrilling to report than mourning the prospective loss of an obscure species of cave lichen. But a mass extinction is something else! Dan Hannon reminds us of the following:

In 1980, for example, the Jimmy Carter administration distributed to foreign governments a report claiming that, by the year 2000, 2 million species would be wiped out. In fact, by 2010, there had been 872 documented extinctions.” 

Of course, that figure does not account for the multitude of new species discovered. There are many. Recent examples just gruesome enough to garner attention are the three new species of bird eater tarantulas discovered in 2017.

In the more general mass-extinction context of the IPBES report, the blame for the extremely pessimistic outlook is placed squarely on human activity. The authors allege CO2 emissions as the primary culprit, which is at best a theory and one at odds with the chief driver of extinctions during the industrial era. That is the introduction of non-native species into environments having flora or fauna unable to withstand new competitors. Matt Ridley elaborates:

The introduction by people of predators, parasites and pests, especially to islands, has been and continues to be far and away the greatest cause of local and global extinction of native fauna.”

There is no question that the IPBES report on extinctions was intended to create alarm. As Gary Wrightstone demonstrates, the lack of rigor and misleading expositional techniques used in the report are a tell:

… the data were lumped together by century rather than shorter time frames, which, as we shall see accentuates the supposed increase in extinctions. … The base data were derived from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List, which catalogues every known species that has gone the way of the dodo and the carrier pigeon. Review of the full data set reveals a much different view of extinction and what has been happening recently.”

The more granular charts Wrightstone presents are indeed contrary to the narrative in the IPBES report. And Wrightstone also highlights the following in a postscript:

In an incredibly ironic twist that poses a difficult conundrum for those who are intent on saving the planet from our carbon dioxide excesses, the new study reports that the number one cause of predicted extinctions is habitat loss. Yet their solution is to pave over vast stretches of land for industrial scale solar factories and to construct immense wind factories that will cover forests and   grasslands, killing the endangered birds and other species they claim to want to save.”

The enduring extinction racket is one among other fronts in the war on capitalism. The IPBES report must use the term “transformative” a thousand times, as it recommends “steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth“. Matt Ridley highlights the faulty attribution of alleged declines in biodiversity to “western values and capitalism”:

On the whole what really diminishes biodiversity is a large but poor population trying to live off the land. As countries get richer and join the market economy they generally reverse deforestation, slow species loss and reverse some species declines.”

And Ridley also says this:

A favourite nostrum of many environmentalists is that you cannot have infinite growth with finite resources. But this is plain wrong, because economic growth comes from doing more with less. So if I invent a new car engine that gets twice as many miles per gallon, I’ve caused economic growth but we’ll use less fuel. Likewise if I increase the yield of a crop, I need less land and probably less fuel too.”

It’s no coincidence that future extinctions foretold by IPBES are predicted to have drastic impacts on less-developed countries. It thus appears that IPBES exists in a happy synergy with the UN’s climate Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as proponents of the Paris Accord and the entire climate lobby. An objective that helps them garner support around the globe is to redistribute existing wealth to less-developed countries in the name of environmental salvation. That would prove a poor substitute for the kinds of free-market policies that would truly enhance prospects for economic growth in those nations.

The threat of mass extinctions is greatly exaggerated by the UN, IPBES, climate change activists, and members of the media who can’t resist promoting a crisis. Any diminished biodiversity we might experience going forward won’t be solved by limiting economic growth, as the IPBES report claims. Instead, advances in productivity, particularly in agriculture, can allow expansion of native habitat, as recent experience with reforestation and global greening demonstrates. This principle is as applicable to under-developed countries as anywhere else.

The kinds of centrally planned limits on human activity contemplated by the IPBES report are likely to backfire by making us poorer. Those limits would impose costs by misallocating resources away from things that people value most highly. They would also force people to forego the adoption of innovative production techniques, leading to the substitution of other resources, such as inefficient land use. And those limits would deny basic freedoms, including the unfettered use of private property.

Tax Returns, Politics and Privacy

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It’s a constitutional crisis! Or so claim congressional Democrats, but at this point it looks more like a one-party panic attack. They keep sniffing the trailing fumes of the Mueller investigation, which turned up nothing on the President, or at least nothing worth prosecuting. There is also an ongoing dispute over the President’s tax returns, which he has chosen not to make public. Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal subpoenaed the IRS for six years of Trump’s tax returns, but that is likely to be ignored. There is no law or requirement that Trump release the returns, and the IRS would be under no obligation to comply with the subpoena if it has “no legislative purpose”, as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said of an earlier request by Neal. For his part, Trump has falsely claimed to the public that an ongoing audit prevents him from releasing his tax documents, but he is fully within his legal rights to withhold his returns, at least for now. His decision is, no doubt, political and it may be wise to that extent. Nevertheless, the suspicion that Trump is a tax cheat is fueled by his very reluctance to make the returns public.

Constitutional Protection

The legality of Trump’s refusals to make the returns public is established in the Constitution, according to law professor Adam Grewal of the University of Iowa:

Though a federal statute seemingly compels the IRS to furnish, on request, anyone’s tax returns to some congressional committees, a statute cannot transcend the constitutional limits on Congress’s investigative authority. Congress enjoys a near-automatic right to review a President’s tax returns only in the impeachment context.”

If explicit action is taken to impeach the President, justifiably or not, then presumably he or the IRS would be forced to turn over his tax returns to Congress. Even then, however, it would probably become the subject of a protracted court fight.

Partisan Charges

It’s not surprising that Trump has engaged expensive tax experts for the Trump organization and his personal taxes. Of course he has! Anyone in his position would be crazy not to. Minimizing taxes is a complex undertaking even for those having far less wealth and business complexity than a Donald Trump. There is no reason why he should have foregone any tax advantages for which he or his business was entitled. And in fact, he was entitled to use losses on a number of failed enterprises over the years to offset other income for tax purposes. Under these circumstances, a tax liability of zero is not terribly surprising.

Specific claims that Trump is a tax cheat are as yet unfounded. As Jeffrey Carter explains, there is an array of tax provisions intended to provide incentives to businesses precisely because tax law has been crafted to encourage business activity; real estate development is no exception. The idea is that businesses encourage employment, income, incremental tax revenue, and eventually more development. While I generally oppose tax provisions that impinge on specific kinds of human activity, there is nothing illegal or even immoral about taking advantage of tax rules that exist. In fact, there are legal tax maneuvers that can allow a successful real estate development business to generate continuing tax losses.

There are allegations that the Trump organization used fraudulent appraisals to understate values of buildings as a means of minimizing taxes. A variety of appraisal techniques are used in commercial real estate, each involving a series of assumptions and possible adjustments. Appraisals might be especially difficult for complex properties such as large, high-end gambling developments. Perhaps reviews of appraisals are part of the ongoing IRS audit to which Trump referred. There’s little doubt that Trump’s tax advisors would have sought to use the most advantageous techniques and assumptions that would pass scrutiny by the IRS and other tax authorities. However, it is unlikely that he was intimately involved in the appraisal process himself. The audit should determine whether their methods were excessive, not a swarm of politicians and leftist journalists. The penalties for any past understatement of taxes might be financially significant, but his presidency would almost certainly survive such a finding.

Again, Trump may be wise to withhold his tax returns. In today’s political environment, every deduction, credit, and loss carry-forward would be characterized by Democrats and the media as an affront to the American people. In fact, most American taxpayers attempt to minimize their taxes, as well they should. In a world with a simple, sane tax code, a simple definition of taxable income, and a competent IRS, there would be little reason for the clamor over public disclosure of tax data by public officials or candidates for office.

Universal Tax Disclosure? No

That brings me to the subject of a rather striking proposal: Robin Hanson believes that all tax returns should be made publicly available: yours, mine and Donald Trump’s. That change was made in the U.S. in 1924, but soon reversed, according to Hanson. It is done today in Norway, though the identity of anyone seeking that information on a taxpayer is made available to the taxpayer. Without the latter condition, the idea seems like an invitation to voyeurism, or worse. The several rationales offered by Hanson all tend to fall under the rubric that “transparency is good”. He includes critical remarks from Tyler Cowan on the proposal, dismissing them all on various grounds. But I happen to agree with Cowan that not all transparency is good. In fact, my first reaction is that the proposal would be an unnecessary extension of the intrusion into private affairs made by government taxation of income.

Universal tax disclosure might have some value in discouraging tax evasion, and perhaps the IRS could create a schedule of buy-off rates by income level at which tax information would be kept private. However, I’m skeptical of the other benefits cited by Hanson. For one thing, if the identity of the inquirer is revealed, many of the purported benefits would be nullified by discouraging the queries. To the extent that transparency has value, many credit transactions or credit payment mechanisms already require verification of income. Insurance underwriting is also sometimes dependent on proof of income. I am skeptical that the ability of workers to collect information from the tax returns of other individuals would greatly improve the efficiency of labor markets. The value of income data to counter-parties in other kinds of relationships, such as prospective marriage, would seem to be balanced by the value of privacy. Hanson says that people don’t place a high value on privacy, but it clearly has value, and I’m not sure his Twitter poll with a single price point is a valid test of the proposition. And again, with the simple tax code we should have, the benefits of acquiring the tax returns of politicians would boil down to an opportunity for shaming the rich and “tax pinchfists” (successful tax minimizers), which is what some of this is about anyway.

Conclusion

Donald Trump’s tax returns are a prize that his detractors hope will reveal an abundance of classist political fodder and perhaps even evidence of misdeeds. They can only hope. Unless Articles of Impeachment are drafted in the House of Representatives, the Constitution protects President Trump’s tax returns from congressional scrutiny. Trump is probably wise to resist disclosure of his taxes, since the returns would be picked over by the Left and criticized for any whiff of tax management, legal or otherwise. Trump’s businesses hired experts to aggressively minimize tax liabilities, but there is no evidence that they engineered any illegal maneuvers.

Finally, to suggest that all tax returns be made publicly accessible is to support a massive invasion of privacy. Then again, the very imposition of our complex income tax code is a massive invasion of privacy, and one that creates a substantial compliance burden on all income earners.

A “Right to Health Care” Is Code for “Freebie“

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The existence of a right to health care is often taken for granted without a moment’s reflection on its absurd implications. Does your right to health care exist regardless of how you comport yourself? Do you smoke or drink heavily? How much treatment for diseased lungs and livers will be owed to you? Do you take physical risks? By how much are the world’s ERs and orthopedists in thrall to you? There are always people who can benefit from additional care, so providers must then come face-to-face with truly daunting obligations. Are caregivers to be in bondage? Can they take vacations? After all, delivery of care is their duty to all health-care rights-holders. If you are entitled to health care as a basic right, does that relieve you of any responsibility to purchase insurance coverage? Or does that become everyone else’s responsibility? 

These are just a few of the decisions that have to made to determine the boundaries of a “right” to health care. The answers are dependent on politics and, surrounding many details, bureaucratic rule-making. It is an odd thing for a so-called “right” to be subject to the shifting vagaries of politics and the day-to-day decisions of bureaucrats.

There is an important distinction between two different kinds of rights, however. The least controversial rights place obligations on others only insofar as they must tolerate free exercise by the rights-holder. So it is with free speech, religion, and private property, which only compel others to inaction. For that reason, they are sometimes called “negative rights”, a rather unfortunate appellation. Trevor Burrus draws contrasts between negative rights and those which obligate others to take action. The latter are called “positive rights”, which is equally unfortunate and dubious.

The problem is that no one has an indisputable right obligating others to take action on their behalf. One may feel it is their moral imperative to aid others under some circumstances, as under a physician’s oath, but ultimately, in a free society, such acts are voluntary. Neither should these actions be matters of state compulsion. Instead, they are ordinarily self-imposed as professional duty or Samaritanship. The point is that a positive right to health care cannot exist without the consent of someone else: those second parties (providers) or third parties (payers) upon whom the exercise of the right depends.

Don Boudreaux states things simply: asserting a right to healthcare is really a demand that health care be “free” at the point of service, despite its resource costs. Inspired by this misguided notion, vote-seeking politicians have given us a history of efforts to subsidize health care via Medicaid, Medicare and tax deductibility. But as Boudreaux explains, this has driven up health care costs, often undermining the ability to access the very care meant to have been available in greater abundance. Boudreaux’s key insight is the application of real-world scarcity to the problem of inventing “rights” that require the positive action and resources of others.

A hot topic in the current health care debate involves coverage of individuals with pre-existing conditions and the subsidies necessary to ensure that they get care. Do they have a right to that care? Perhaps a “positive right”, but maybe not: as a society, we might choose to ensure their care, but if that is a political decision lacking the full consent of all potential payers, the delivery of care is really just an act of majoritarian compassion, not an absolute right.

The most fundamental of human rights, so-called negative rights, require only tolerance from others. In a free society, so-called positive rights do not exist without the voluntary consent of those who must shoulder the burdens necessary to allow the exercise of those rights. The burdens might involve tasks or payments on the rights-holders behalf. Human rights should never be conceived as creating enforceable, involuntary debts for second or third parties to be repaid with action. Without full consent, government creates such obligations only by force and the taking of resources. Health care should be viewed as a real right only to the extent that caregivers and payers agree to provide the needed resources voluntarily. That doesn’t mean we lack an ethical obligation to care for the sick, only that sick individuals may not demand free, unrestricted care.