Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Frum's Continuing to Make Sense

Just read a very good post by David Frum. I really wish this guy represented the mainstream GOP. I think his criticism goes along well with what I've been saying about the far right, they didn't pay attention to developments in political thinking springing from the collapse of the Soviet Union and other developments in political theory and economics over the past 30 years. They're devoted to doctrinaire understandings of the political and economic theories that brought them to power in the 1980s. These theories were a big step forward from the Democrats of the 1970s but they still seem to believe that the left is what it was instead of seeing how much it has changed. There are very few Progressives that retain a belief in anything approaching socialism, continuing to yell about it simply makes it look like the right has stopped paying attention.

Back to Frum, my favorite bit was this:
The most centrally planned sector of the American economy is energy. The federal and state governments command utilities to buy certain percentages of their electricity from wind and solar, regardless of price. The federal government commands that ethanol be mixed into gasoline, again regardless of price. Governments subsidize favored “green technologies” with grants and tax credits. Meanwhile a non-green technology, the incandescent light bulb, has been banned outright.

“Socialists” did not make this mess. Every one of these distortions was championed by President George W. Bush and remains the declared policy of congressional Republicans. Republicans have chosen energy command and control because the market-maximizing alternative is an energy tax – and taxes are ideologically taboo.

Look at most of the policies being pushed by Progressives, most of the big ones are explicit recognition that central planning is a failure and that market mechanisms have to be used. Our understanding of what works and what doesn't has changed radically. Every time someone on the right shouts socialism they reveal that they're paying no attention to what people on the left actually profess and believe.

As a side note, this will probably be my last post focusing on the right. I think I get somewhat too emotional about the subject to write about it in an even-handed manner and will avoid explicit references from here on. There may be one last post on media bias but that will definitely be it (thinking about what to include in that post and proving my point without writing a paper is what led me to the conclusion I'm too emotional on the subject). For a final clarification, my critique has always been of the far right, not the Republican Party proper. I'd classify myself as actually being most comfortably characterized as a member of the Progressive wing of the Republican Party, if that wing still existed. An updated version of that which existed at the beginning of the 20th century to account for what we've learned since then* of course, but the basics of Teddy Roosevelt's philosophy sits well with me. The reason I get so worked up about the subject is that I feel so betrayed by the dissolution of what I feel to be the most sensible combination of philosophies that American politics has enjoyed and I blame this dissolution on the far right.

[Hat Tip: Ross Douthat for the Frum link]

*I feel the big advantage that Progressives have is that most of us have the humility to know how much our understanding of the world has changed over the course of time and to know our beliefs about what works must change with experience and knowledge, there is no such thing as a principle that is fixed despite the evidence, except for toleration and mitigation of harm.


  1. I like you're ending. Being a progressive is mostly about seeking progress, in whatever way seems best. Mistakes are inevitable; progressivism will be completely different tomorrow than it is today.

  2. SirW, you've never sounded younger to me but blessings upon you.

    It's very hard for me to imagine a progressivism that doesn't try to identify and solve every problem as a public problem, and I feel like I know a lot of limitations on the government's ability to regulate well, even if you recalibrate every functionaries intentions to "good." But I share this with progressives- I love living in a country diverse enough for every form of folly.

  3. Doug,

    I'd agree that progressivism does have a distinct tendency to end up using public power to solve problems, I think this is often seen as a second best option due to the failure of informal options to sway customary business practices however. The most frequent example of this is the tendency of business to leave money on the table because of a resistance to taking up simple conservation measures.

    While I rarely bring up work, I think some reading I've been doing for work is relevant to this issue. I've been doing a lot of reading on visitability, basically the notion that any home should have the very basic accessibility features that are required so someone with a disability can easily visit, if not live in a home. This generally involves a ground level point of access, slightly wider doorways, and one ground floor bathroom.

    At construction, these features add less than 1% to the cost of almost any home. They also raise long term value of that home because later alterations for an aging owner don't require expensive alterations to the basic structure of the home. The movement has been very successful in getting non-profit agencies to adopt these practices, several Habitat for Humanity chapters have taken it up for instance and found it adds little to the cost of each home (though in most cases they use the redesign to add other features people find valuable that raises the cost).

    The problem is private industry. They resist any pressure to change the way things are done, even though little to no added costs are necessary. Part of the problem is that there are some upfront costs to changing building plans, this seems easily surmountable since the changes could be incorporated in the general turnover of design rather than needing to be done upfront. The main problem seems to be that the builder sees little profit from this even if there is no additional cost. The added pool of customers is rather small and few prospective buyers are thinking of these issues when buying a new home, they only think of it once a problem has occurred. Then they value the changes highly but there is no way for the builder to realize a portion of this added value. Converting a home to be visitable is also extremely expensive to do if the initial construction did not incorporate this in the upfront design so you can't maximize value by leaving it to the consumer after purchase.

    This is where the well meaning progressive runs into a problem. Sending representatives to builders and showing the examples like Habitat don't seem to make any difference. They're happy with the way things are going and recognize that they won't realize any additional value from the home, all the additional value will be gained by the purchaser (when they break a leg or when grandma gets old enough to need a wheelchair for instance) but the market is structured in a way that the producer can't realize this added value, it's not something your initial homebuyer is going to be concerned about at purchase.

    The alternative of course is regulation to force builders to conform. This is problematic for the modern progressive however because the additional administrative burden is a dead weight loss to society. Not every home can be built cheaply to these specifications (depending on the nature of the lot and a few other issues, the claim is that 98% can, seems high to me but I'd buy that the majority of homes can be) so allowing the needed exceptions will make for complex regulation. So it becomes a matter of weighing the benefits of visitability vs. the dead weight loss from regulation. The market simply isn't structured in a way that allows the producer to profit from the long run interests of the future owner. This requires a structural shift, either in the way the market is institutionalized or through government intervention.

  4. Great example, Tzi, and since I work with people with disabilities for my living (or manage/torture people who do,) I can talk a little about that.

    It's plausibly true that 98% of structures can be made accessible to a visitor with a 1% increase in cost of construction. To have a permanent ramp outside the front door of my office would be illegal, ironically because it would make the sidewalk unpassable to people in wheelchairs. To bring it in would be expensive and take about 6 square feet in an 800 square foot space, and that's before we get to the restroom. The cheapest way to do it would be to have built the building in the 40s a few feet back from the sidewalk which would have cost about 50 of the 800 sq. ft.

    Or, we could do what we did and build a wooden ramp we can set up when someone needs to come in in a wheelchair, which cost about $5 in materials and is needed about once a year. The problem with doing this by regulation is that the regulations would either be so complex that hardly anybody, including compliance officers, would know just what they were, or the regulations could be simple in which case the low-cost solution that our disabled clients have been happy with for the seven years since we moved into this office would probably be non-compliant. My house could easily be made visitable to people in wheelchairs but to make it habitable by them it would either have to be a single story and half its size, a single story with a much smaller yard or include an elevator. Those are pretty significant distortions, regardless of actual costs.

    I definitely agree with the last paragraph in your reply- there are always costs to regulations and usually benefits that should be weighed against each other. What I don't trust about our politics right now is this: Progressives seem to see problems and devise solutions without much consideration for whether the problem is solvable or whether the cost of the solution makes the solution practical. Conservatives have the exact same problem.

    One side just seems to assume that if they are annoyed by something, that thing should be banned or discouraged. The other side seems to assume nothing will ever be as annoying as a regulation, including buildings that collapse in a shallow breeze and kill thousands.

    I have spent the last ten years working with government on disability issues and I have hardly met a progressive or a conservative politician or a staff-person for such a politician that would go anywhere near the level of detail that you imply with "it becomes a matter of weighing the benefits of visitability vs. the dead weight loss from regulation."

    Which is the biggest reason I end up sounding kind of conservative a lot of the time. If nobody making rules is going to count the cost or consider the most efficient solution, I think it's best to only make them when a 30,000 foot view makes the problem and solution obvious. Global warming is an example of that, integration was when I was born but isn't now. Accessibility, I sort of doubt. Workplace discrimination, I sort of doubt. Sexual harassment I sort of doubt. Where to allow mosques, I totally doubt.

  5. Doug,

    I'll probably do a post on visitability soon actualy, it's an interesting subject and illustrates a few points I'd like to get into further.

    I agree with your view of the current politics. My experience with progressives is usually from the academic side, the thinking on the subject has moved on faster than many of our elected officials have. Though from having something of an inside view we actually think about regulatory burden, cost/benefit, measureable outcomes, and sustainability (usually meaning get someone other than government to start picking up the tab voluntarily once things get rolling) quite a lot.

    The problem generally comes down to what really is an elitist view. The academic community has largely come to the conclusion that laws don't really alter behavior, laws change procedures which then have impacts on behavior. The problem is that outside of academia the view persists that laws lead to behavior changes meaning that whatever thing needs to be changed can be solved with a law.

    It's a big conundrum for policy makers. It's very easy to get people riled up enough that they'll support the idea of banning something. It's much more difficult to get them to support a more indirect method, such as a small incentive program or a long term mandate aimed at behavioral change.

    To go back to visitability for a moment, a way to change behavior might be a mandate that when new building plans are added to plan books that a visitable version should be drawn up as well. Builders would have show clients this plan and explain the long run advantages to potential customers. Visitability could be mandated for teaching in architectural schools and a brief online refresher course (say a 1 or 2 hour online certification class) for renewal of licensing (or whatever it is that architects need, I'm pretty sure they don't just let anyone build without proving they know code). This would all be aimed directly at changing behavior rather than expecting that new laws would directly translate into the desired behavior and without promoting visitability over other considerations.

    Back away from visitability for a moment, I do realize that many progressives put banning or discouraging something over potential costs. Which is why I very much desire to be a Republican progressive if such a thing still existed. I see one of the big advantages to modern techniques and analysis is that it promises to significantly shrink regulatory burden and decrease the level of employment at the state level. A lot of these schemes would result in more funds passing through government hands (Pigovian taxes are really popular) but it would do so at little net loss since administrative costs would go way down with more decision making being done by private individuals. It's a radically different conception from the current conservative frame of small vs. big government though so I don't see the Republicans evolving in this direction any time soon.

  6. Nope, I don't see that either but I agree with you. The market approach is more efficient than the regulatory approach, although both are easily overdone.

  7. I applaud your final thought and remind you of a very similar quote from many years ago.

    "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."
    - Thomas Jefferson

    This always seemed so logical to me, but could never be embraced by the screaming fringes, who's shear noise drowns out the kind of thinking and actions that will insure our prosperity as a country.