The Independent Institute


50 Years Ago Today: The Detroit Riot and the Decline of Civil Rights Liberalism

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Fifty years ago today (July 23, 1967), the largest urban riot of the 1960s rocked Detroit for five days (July 23-28). An encounter with the police (shutting down an illegal after-hours bar), sparked looting and arson on a scale far surpassing the riots that had burned in other American cities. While such riots often started with incidents involving law enforcement, the police were ordered—again and again—to stand down and let a small minority of African Americans loot property of small business owners and others (both black and white).

The Detroit Riot marked a turning point in how American policymakers dealt with race. The classical liberal tradition of civil rights, with its emphasis on rule of law and equal protection (regardless of race) gave way to policies that purposely treated minorities as “protected categories” deserving of treatment not accorded other citizens. This was a crisis response to the riots and also the consequence of a “riot ideology” that condoned lawless mobs—as long as they were black. In short, the things that civil rights activists had long fought against—racial categories in the law, preferential racism (formerly for whites, now for blacks and others), and lawless mobs—were embraced as the means to achieve “social justice.” Ever since, classical liberals have struggled to get us back to the colorblind law and individualism that were at the core of the long civil rights movement. The story of that long civil rights movement is told in my Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (University Press of Kentucky for the Independent Institute, 2009). I deal with Detroit (and other) riots in the article “‘Burn, Baby, Burn’: Small Business in the Urban Riots of the 1960s”, which is a good starting point to understand the competing interpretations of the riots.

In the next several days, I will comment on the turning point of 1967-1968, beginning with the Detroit Riot and its aftermath. What lessons have policymakers learned? Are they the correct ones? How may we revive the classical liberal tradition of civil rights?

Stay tuned.

Public Choice Analysis a Scheme for Imposing Racist Oligarchy on the USA? Preposterous!

Public choice analysis shows, among many other things, that organized political interests will tend to dominate the political process at the expense of the unorganized members of society. This is not a claim that “the rich” will necessarily dominate “the poor” in the political process, although the rich obviously have an advantage in influencing politics, other things being equal. “The rich” and “the poor” are not standard categories in public choice analysis. In empirical public choice studies, one finds, for example, that groups such as the National Education Association exert disproportionate influence on legislation and regulation related to the public schools. Are school teachers members of “the rich”? Hardly. Likewise, labor unions such as the Service Employees International Union pack substantial political punch. Do the members of this union belong to “the rich”? Hardly.

The claim that public choice analysis is intended to, or actually does, assist the rich in dominating the poor, or the capitalists in dominating the workers, or the whites in dominating the blacks cannot be made in good faith by anyone who has the slightest familiarity with public choice analysis. Questions posed in these forms are simply not component parts of public choice analysis. Nor were they among the concerns of James Buchanan, one of the leading founders of modern public choice analysis. Buchanan’s principal concern pertained to the use of constitutional restrictions that would, to the maximum feasible extent, allow each individual’s preferences to be registered in the political process and prevent special interests and the state itself from overriding the rights and interests of those with the least voice in the process.

Progressives who do not understand public choice analysis (and indeed object to it on principle) seek to force it into the Procrustean bed of quasi-Marxist class-struggle analysis—you know, capitalists versus the oppressed working class as a whole—or into a quasi-Marxist multiculturalist framework in which privileged straight white men as a whole oppress women and members of ethnic and sexual-preference minorities as a whole. These aggregations are so coarse that they invite the mockery of informed people, and they certainly cannot be sustained by systematic research of the kind one finds in the pages of Public Choice and related peer-reviewed journals.

Nancy MacLean’s thesis that James Buchanan and his comrades in the development of public choice analysis sought to subvert democracy and put in its place a racist oligarchy at the behest of evil billionaires is too ludicrous to take seriously. Yet, today, a multitude of progressive academics and their fellow travelers are treating this baseless accusation as if it were an established truth. Ignorance is a sorrowful thing, but ignorance conjoined to ideological blindness is a vastly more wretched thing.

Review: Book of Henry Breaks from Convention to Ask Important Questions

Critics panned The Book of Henry when it opened in June, but this may say more about their ability to step outside their pre-conceived ideas about what a movie “should be” than anything else. The film’s storyline conforms much more to what a reader would expect in a suspense novel than the conventional three-act structure—inciting incident, hero’s journey leading to dramatic climax, and then conclusion—taught in film school.

This break from convention gives The Book of Henry unusual depth and sophistication in dealing with significant social issues, including the loss of a child from illness, the unwillingness of bystanders to stop child abuse, the meaning of parental responsibility, redemption, and the validity of vigilante justice. The Book of Henry is a conscious genre bender and does a remarkable job weaving the character arcs and personal journeys together to create a complete story and movie.

The film begins with a story revolving around an 11-year old boy genius, Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special, The Confirmation) and his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay, Room, Shut In), both of whom live in upstate New York with their single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams, The Impossible). Susan has all but abdicated her role as mother, allowing Henry to step in as a de facto father figure by virtue of his intelligence and precociousness. Henry’s smarts have enabled him to create a nice financial nest egg for his family, but his mother insists on working at a local diner as a waitress. Thus, the opening minutes suggest The Book of Henry is perhaps a redemption story about Susan told from the point of view of her children.

Henry, however, discovers that Christina, the girl next door played by dancer Maddie Ziegler in her debut film role, is sexually abused by her stepfather Glen (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad, Little Miss Sunshine, Sons of Liberty). Driven by a strong sense of justice and ethics, Henry attempts to enlist his mother and other adults to help Christina, but to no avail. His frustration mounts as he grapples with intransigence, disbelief, and apathy. Adults either don’t believe an eleven year old, or are afraid to intervene. The stepfather, after all, is the police commissioner and well connected in the local community, creating a specter of retribution. As the principal of Henry’s school tells him, she needs more than the words of an 11 year old before she can accuse the police chief of child sexual abuse.

The principal’s practical ripost to Henry’s sense of injustice puts the question of personal responsibility at the center of the story and the motivations of the characters. Having exhausted all avenues, frustrated by the lack of cooperation from adults (and agencies), Henry resolves to kill Christina’s stepfather. Now, The Book of Henry transitions into a Hitchcock-style suspense movie. (This is where many film critics seem to have jumped ship.)

But suspense quickly turns to tragedy. As Henry plots out the murder, taking notes in his journal, he is diagnosed with late-stage brain cancer and passes away quickly, too quickly for him to carry out his plan. (These scenes are also among the film’s most poignant and emotionally wrought, a testament to the directing skills of director Colin Trevorrow, Jurassic World, Star Wars: Episode IX.)

Henry’s unexpected death dramatically shifts the film yet again to the point of view of Susan, who is emotionally unprepared to deal with his death let alone the full responsibility of parenting Peter and saving Christina. The remainder of the movie focuses on Susan’s coming to terms with Henry’s death, her challenges assuming the role of a parent, and her fumbling attempts to grapple with the consequences of Henry’s solution to ending Glen’s abuse of Christina.

The Book of Henry wrestles with enormously complicated personal and social issues, and the screenwriter Greg Hurwitz (crime novelist and comic book writer, Orphan X, Batman: The Dark Knight) has masterfully weaved together varied individual character journeys to tell this layered and nuanced story. Henry goes from boy genius with the confidence to accomplish almost anything, to a frustrated pre-teen committed to an outlandish murder plot, to a scared child facing his own heartbreaking mortality. Susan’s arc takes her from irresponsibility enabled by her son’s unique abilities, to a parent struggling to reset her relationships and reground herself in the reality of parenting. All the supporting players have meaningful character arcs as well (including the stepfather), creating tension that pushes the story forward.

Amidst this complexity, The Book of Henry doesn’t lose its grip on some of the weightiest issues in civil society: What are our individual responsibilities when our institutions are corrupt? What lines can be drawn in the name of justice and the protection of human life? Does the goal of saving of one human life from abuse and trauma justify the taking of another life? What responsibilities do those working within corrupt institutions have to intervene for the sake of justice, irrespective of the personal or professional risk?

Henry’s perspective is clear. When challenged by an adult claiming that violence should be avoided at all costs, he says the one thing worse is apathy in the face of injustice. It’s up to his mother to test the truth of Henry’s statement.

The Book of Henry is an ambitious film that dares to threaten the conventions of modern filmmaking. The movie is part coming of age, part tragedy, part Film Noir, and a lot Hitchcockian suspense. Some critics call this a “mess,” and lament the film doesn’t know “what it wants to be.” In fact, screenwriter Hurwitz and director Trevorrow know exactly what the film should be and keep it focused and cohesive. The second part (more Hitchcock) is intimately tied to the first part (tragedy).

While not perfect, The Book of Henry deserves a far wider audience than its disappointing box office suggests. Viewers on Rotten Tomatoes give this movie stronger marks than critics by a 3:1 margin. While viewers are sometimes more generous because they reward entertainment over craft, in this case they may well have allowed themselves the latitude to enjoy a complex plot and story structure more typical of suspense novels than remain trapped in filmmaking conventions and genres.

Writers Who Cannot Swim Should Stay Out of the Deep Water

I am a fan of astrophysicist Alex Filippenko, a famous prof at UC Berkeley. When I was homeschooling my stepson John Allen Hunley, we used a huge set of DVD’s in which Filippenko presents a fascinating intro course on astronomy and astrophysics. He is a wonderful teacher. My point here, however, is that in relation to what Filippenko knows and has accomplished in his field, I am a complete nincompoop. If I were to write a book aimed at showing how he has played a central role in bringing about a coup by astrophysicists to take over the U.S. government and turn its telescopes on the common people, everyone would rightly regard me as a total nut case.

Is Nancy MacLean’s book on Jim Buchanan any less preposterous? As Michael Munger has described in detail, MacLean has undertaken to portray Buchanan as the central figure in a Koch-funded conspiracy to destroy American democracy and replace it with a racist plutocracy. She has undertaken this fantastical enterprise notwithstanding that she lacks even a freshman-level understanding of the content and historical development of economics in general and public choice analysis in particular. In short, she has set out to write about one of the deepest thinkers of the past sixty-five years in economics and political philosophy without having a clue about these areas of study. Is it any wonder that she has produced a howler?

(P.S. Look for my book to be published soon by an obscure press without peer review. Tentative title: The Protocols of the Elders of Astrophysics.)

What Is Kim Jong-un Thinking?

An interior monologue by North Korea’s dictator might go something like this:

I can see myself as if I were back at the Liebefeld-Steinholzi school in Bern, Switzerland, with everyone convinced I was crazy because I talked little and was fixated on my PlayStation, keeping quiet for hours on end, observing others. What is going on in that weird head of his, what’s he thinking? they wondered.

I do the same to capitalist governments. I keep them thinking that I am crazy and willing to provoke an Armageddon—that’s how I have gained so much time since taking power in 2011. Now the world knows I have nuclear weapons and missiles, and it is too late to stop me. The advantage of the guy who makes others think he is crazy is that he alters their expectations. Had I not seemed insane, just like my father, the great Kim Jong-il, the evil bourgeois Westerners would have launched a devastating surgical attack on my nascent nuclear program. But my nuttiness served as a deterrent. What they believed to be dementia was nothing more than my “Juche” ideology, a nationalist self-confidence, my grandfather Kim Il-sung’s glorious contribution to socialism, which makes us indecipherable to foreigners.

When my father negotiated with the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea between 2003 and 2008, all he did was gain time while the nuclear program, our guarantee of survival, continued. Just as in 2012 I promised to freeze nuclear tests in exchange for food. Everything—my “Juche” madness, the tactical negotiations—was a means to an end. Now that we are nuclear, Trump will not attack because he believes me capable of immolating myself by launching chemical weapons or a nuclear bomb on Seoul or Tokyo: I have led them to the point where the bourgeois imperialists have no options. They wasted them. With the children that my beloved Ri Sol-ju will give me, my government will be eternal.

My second goal is to sharpen the contradictions between the United States and China. The Western bourgeois do not realize that my worst enemy is Beijing. They worry about nonsense—the fact that China and I have US$ 5 billion of bilateral trade, that my agents use Chinese companies to circumvent the sanctions—but what matters is that by provoking Washington I actually restrain Beijing. If there is something Xi Jinping loathes more than a nuclear North Korea, it’s the thought of a reunited, pro-American Korea. Having provoked the United States, as I have done by launching a long-range Hwasong-14, Washington will now blackmail Beijing expecting the Chinese to pressure me, something that the nationalist government in Beijing cannot afford to accept.

Look at them, Kim, they are already fighting—my second objective has been achieved. Now comes the third: terrify South Korea so that those South Koreans who want to get along with me will stop those who crave the American missile shield. Park Geun-hye, that corrupt president who approved the deployment of the anti-missile shield, those damn Thaad defenses, last year, was fortunately brought down from power and the recent bourgeois elections were won by the cowardly of Moon Jae-in, who has frozen their installation because he is scared of me.

Fear is not just good foreign policy—it works at home too: How could a boy in his late twenties, my age when I assumed power, impose himself on the communist structure if not through the use of Stalinist terror? I executed my Minister of Defense and seventy other officers, as well as Kim Jong-nam, my half-brother, who never forgave my father for picking me as his successor.

I will now press Ri Pyong Chol, Kim Jong Sik and Jang Chang Ha, the brains of my nuclear program, to accelerate the process until we begin the negotiations that China, the United States, and South Korea will beg me to initiate. . . .

Simple Democracy versus Racial Justice in the USA

I spent a large amount of my research time in the 1970s and early 1980s engaged in studies of race and economics in the USA, especially in the South. Among the conclusions I reached as a result of this work is one that pertains to l’affaire Nancy MacLean.

MacLean loves simple majority rule, and of course she hates every aspect of racial discrimination and oppression. Unfortunately for her, in U.S. history, she has to choose one or the other. In the South, where the great majority of U.S. blacks lived between 1865 and the 1960s, the general run of white people held views that adversely affected the well-being of black people—to put it mildly. The best friends the blacks had among the Southern whites were members of the local ruling class—big landlords, merchants, manufacturers, railroad operators, and so forth. Absent the domination of local politics by these oligarchs, the economic conditions of blacks would have been much worse. Given the operation of the type of simple democracy that MacLean adores, the South would have been an immeasurably worse hell for blacks that it was—and it was plenty bad as it was.

Review: All Eyez On Me and Hip Hop’s Shakespearean Tragedy

The most satisfied people leaving the theater after seeing the biopic All Eyez On Me are likely to be hip hop music fans and Tupac Shakur enthusiasts, one of the rap industry’s most talented and iconic artists. Others are more likely to feel that the tragically short life of Shakur, who was just 25 years old when he was murdered on the streets of Las Vegas in 1996, simply confirmed their worst suspicions about the misogynistic, violent, and narcissistic culture gangster rap lyrics seem to glorify. This is unfortunate because the story driving the film suggests Shakur’s life has more to teach us about tolerance, humility, and overcoming seemingly impossible odds.

Shakur’s lyrics, in keeping with much of the gangster rap culture at the time, projected thuggery, identity through violence, and a brutal world view with few values more important than loyalty. But Shakur, the film shows, was more layered than his music. The son of, Afeni Shakur (Danai GuriraThe Walking DeadEclipsed) a Black Panther Party leader in Harlem, Tupac grew up the projects of New York City, Baltimore, and Oakland, California. He witnessed the brutality of life, whether from drug gangs, drug addiction, or white cops using their authority to harass and subjugate poor blacks.

His politically radicalized mother also drove home the need for education, including, according to the film, classic literature such as Shakespeare. This family legacy emphasizing education and literacy led to the Baltimore School for the Arts where he met long-time friend Jada Pinkett Smith. Shakur’s life seemed to rock between survival on the street and self respect, particularly for his family. He used street talk with his casual friends and business partners but quoted Shakespeare with his more intimate friends.

Shakur, however, was a victim of the dysfunctional family dynamics as his father (and stepfather) disappeared and his mother succumbed to drug addiction. Shakur became the “man of the house” in his early teens, and the pressures of attempting to hold his family together at such a young age with few practical tools (or skills) are depicted well in the film. He tragically carries the anger of the black power movement along with the injustices he experienced daily as an African American male growing up in the 1980s and 1990s.

But this is not a conventional story of the corruption of fame and fortune, or the ability of wealth to project power and domination. On the contrary, All Eyez on Me is a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy, where the lead character rises to prominence only to be brought down a deeply ingrained character flaw. Indeed, Shakur’s murder is precipitated by his application of street justice in Las Vegas just as he seems to be maturing out of the gangster rap culture.

Shakur’s life has a lot to tell the more secular world about maturity, misogyny, violence and the illusion of control. The director, Benny Boom, best known for directing high-profile music videos, doesn’t pull punches. The screenwriters (Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian) have done their best to honor their subject.

Demetrius Shipp, Jr. provides an excellent performance in his first major film role as Tupac Shakur, and found chemistry with the actresses depicting the major women in his life, his mother Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira, The Walking Dead, Eclipsed), boyhood friend Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham, The Vampire Diaries, Addicted), his fiance’ Kidada Jones (Annie Ilonzeh, Person of Interest, Charlie’s Angels TV reboot). Unfortunately, these performances highlight the mediocre acting of many in the supporting cast.

The film is plodding at times, and sometimes directed with a heavy hand. One scene late in the movie or example, appears to borrow from a particularly brutal scene from the classic mobster film The Untouchables (1987). A lot of time is spent on Shakur’s backstory in the projects through the device of a TV interview conducted (Hill Harper, CSI: NYCovert Affairs) while he is imprisoned on what is projected as trumped up charges for enabling sexual assault (a real event). This backstory is important, and the use of the interview clever to help set up the central tensions in Shakur’s life, but slows the pacing significantly. The film picks up once Shakur is back in the rap community, driving his career forward as he is also beginning to question long-held beliefs about relationships and his role in the world.

If the goal of All Eyez On Me is to create biopic that keeps the life of this tragic figure visible within the music industry, Benny Boom and Morgan Creek Productions have accomplished their goal. This may be sufficient but this film had much more potential and seemed to aspire to more. Shakur struggled with many of the conflicts that hold back men from socially and economically isolated inner cities as they transition to adulthood and into the mainstream. The film hints at how Shakur struggled with these tensions, but fails to really deliver the coming of age story that could have taken his life into the mainstream.

Three Times Interventionists Moved the Goalposts, Part 3

Part 3 of 3

In previous Beacon posts (here and here) I explained that interventionists had often “moved the goalposts” in policy debates in which I’d participated. I first recounted an episode where Paul Krugman had moved the goalposts in a dispute over so-called fiscal austerity, and then I discussed the phenomenon in the context of the climate-change policy debate.

In the present post, I’ll focus on an example from the debate about Obamacare and Medicaid. As I stressed in the previous articles in this series, I don’t mean to suggest that only interventionists use this frustrating debate tactic. But since they often deem themselves as more scientific and rational than their opponents, it is particularly useful to document the examples in this 3-part series.

Episode #3: The Oregon Medicaid Experiment

Back in 2008, the state of Oregon had the funds to expand Medicaid coverage for its residents, but not enough money for all applicants. Therefore the state government employed a lottery to see who would get Medicaid and who would be denied. It was a great setup for an academic study, because it was one of the few times when researchers would have a literally controlled experiment. An academic team—including MIT’s Jonathan Gruber, the (in)famous proponent of the Affordable Care Act—received approval to go ahead with a two-year study of 10,000 Oregon residents, some of whom received Medicaid and some of whom were denied.

Normally, studies of Medicaid are plagued by a selection bias, because the people who are on Medicaid would tend (for other reasons) to be in poorer health. Additionally, the states that can afford to expand Medicaid might do so because they have a booming economy, which itself might promote better health outcomes. In such a context, researchers may quibble over the relevance of the results because of the confounding factors. The absence of such factors is the reason Oregon’s lottery design was such a unique opportunity for researchers.

Indeed, progressive fans of Medicaid publicly recognized just how significant the Oregon study was. After the first year of results came in, things looked very promising. For example, in 2011 Ezra Klein wrote a piece for Bloomberg in which he referred to the Oregon Medicaid study as the “gold standard” in the field. He was confident that the study showed “Medicaid matters” because the participants who got Medicaid all had better scores on access to various types of care.

In his 2011 piece, Klein didn’t mention any possible shortcomings of the study on the question of how Medicaid affects recipients versus non-recipients. No, at this point it was the “gold standard,” and Klein wished we had other studies with similar design that could be applied to other questions. Indeed, Klein, tongue-in-cheek, whimsically wished the Oregon study had shown that Medicaid doesn’t help recipients:

When writing a column, you want surprising results. “Health Insurance Doesn’t Improve Health” is a great headline, even if it isn’t great news. But by September 2009, after the first year of coverage and data collection, the Oregon experiment wasn’t returning surprising results. Just encouraging ones.

But then a funny thing happened. After the second (and final) year of the study, the benefits of Medicaid were not nearly so obvious. It was still true that the Oregon participants who’d gotten Medicaid were better off financially, and they still reported to interviewers that they were in better health (compared to the control group who lost the lottery and were denied Medicaid coverage).

Yet on every one of the physical measures of health used in the study—such as blood pressure or cholesterol—there was no statistically significant improvement in the Medicaid group vs. the non-Medicaid group. This seems to be exactly what Klein said would have been a surprising finding that a headline writer would have relished.

Yet oddly, when opponents of more government in health care bring up this awkward result, suddenly the progressive proponents of Medicaid don’t call the Oregon study “the gold standard.” For example, Oren Cass is a critic of Obamacare who has been disputing the now-popular claim that Obamacare has saved tens of thousands of lives. Since Obamacare achieved increased health insurance coverage of Americans largely through Medicaid expansion, the Oregon study is quite relevant. Cass recently summarized the Oregon results for his readers by writing, “In a randomized trial in Oregon that gave some individuals Medicaid while leaving others uninsured, recipients gained no statistically significant improvement in physical health after two years.”

Cass’s language was quite precise and accurate. This is how the Oregon researchers themselves (including Jonathan Gruber) summarize their results:

In the first one to two years of coverage, Medicaid improved self-reported health and reduced depression, but had no statistically significant effect on several measures of physical health.

And yet, Ezra Klein argued that Oren Cass was wrong in his claims about the Oregon experiment. Thus, Klein is implicitly arguing that the Oregon researchers themselves didn’t understand their results as well as Klein did. (Also note that Klein edited his original article, so now you have to scroll to the bottom to see him talking about Oren Cass.) Furthermore, there is now no longer any talk from Klein of the study being the “gold standard,” after which other studies should be modeled. Nope, this is how Ezra Klein now talks about the Oregon Medicaid study:

These [conservative] arguments are mainly referencing a study known as the Oregon Medicaid experiment. The study took advantage of a situation that reads like a dark satire of the American health care system: Oregon had money to expand Medicaid, but not enough money, so it held a lottery for poor people who needed health insurance. If you won the lottery, you got Medicaid; if you lost the lottery, you got nothing.

This created two similar groups that researchers could study: one that got Medicaid, and one that didn’t. The study only lasted two years, and it only included 10,000 people, so there is much it can’t tell us about the long-term effects of having health insurance...

But the study also disappointed Medicaid’s backers: In particular, there was no evident improvement in blood sugar, blood pressure, or cholesterol levels after two years.

Some researchers have argued that the study didn’t have enough enrollees to measure those indicators...

But the Oregon study isn’t the only important study on the effects Medicaid has on health outcomes. [Bold added.]

As with our other examples, my major problem here isn’t that Ezra Klein’s specific objections to Oren Cass (and other conservatives citing the Oregon study) are dubious. Rather, my point is that Klein’s tone now is night-and-day different from how Klein described the Oregon study back when it supported his policy views. Back in 2011, we never heard any misgivings about the study only lasting two years and only including 10,000 people. No, back then it was the “gold standard” and it confirmed that Medicaid improves the health of its recipients.


In this 3-part series of posts I’ve summarized three episodes in which progressive proponents of more government intervention have moved the goal posts in the middle of a debate. To reiterate, this is a human tendency not unique to interventionists. But it is particularly ironic that this group engages in the practice when they so often accuse their opponents of being unscientific and ignoring evidence.

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For more on economic theory and public policy, see Choice: Competition, Enterprise, and Human Action, by Robert P. Murphy.


Three Times Interventionists Moved the Goalposts, Part 2

Part 2 of 3

In a previous Beacon post, I explained that interventionists had often “moved the goalposts” in policy debates in which I’d participated. I specifically recounted an episode where Paul Krugman had moved the goalposts in a dispute over so-called fiscal austerity.

In the present post, I’ll focus on an example from the climate-change policy debate. As I stressed in Part 1 of this series, I don’t mean to suggest that only interventionists use this frustrating debate tactic. But since they often declare themselves to be more scientific and rational than their opponents, it is particularly useful to document the examples in this 3-part series.

Episode #2: Basing Climate Policy on the Peer-Reviewed “Consensus” Science

It is well established in the debates over climate change that people who question the orthodox views are denounced as “deniers.” The United Nations publishes a periodic report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that codifies the latest peer-reviewed results so that the public and policymakers can be informed by the genuine scientific consensus, rather than using cherry-picked authors or studies to justify their preconceived political views.

It’s also well established in the debates over climate change that the bare minimum humanity must do, is to take steps to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Indeed, the Paris Agreement (out of which President Trump recently pulled the United States) had, as its central component, a goal for all the participating nations of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels...”

With this as context, you may be amazed to learn that I used the most recent IPCC publications to make a strong case that the economic costs of limiting global warming to 2°C would exceed the benefits of avoided climate-change damages. In other words, using the UN’s own published summaries of the latest and most reputable literature on the costs and benefits of climate change policies, I was able to make a case that the 2°C ceiling would be a cure worse than the disease.

You don’t need to take my word for it. William Nordhaus, one of the pioneers in the economics of climate change and creator of one of the computer models used by the Obama administration’s task force on the “social cost of carbon,” has said that, “The scientific rationale for the 2°C target is not really very scientific.” In a world of perfect enforcement by governments around the world, Nordhaus thinks an optimal carbon tax would end up allowing some 2.3°C of warming, and if we take into account realistic limitations on government action, a more plausible target is closer to 4°C of allowed warming.

Now notice in my argument here that I am not “denying climate change” nor even using alternative modeling groups or rogue scientists. I am literally quoting from the UN’s own published documents and from a carbon-tax supporter whom the Obama administration acknowledged as an expert in the field.

Yet when I bring up these inconvenient truths, climate-change alarmists certainly don’t say, “Wow! You did exactly what we told you to do; you got your data from the latest IPCC report. Maybe the 2°C ceiling isn’t the slam dunk we’ve been confidently telling people.”

No, on the contrary I hear a combination of angry denunciations, plus an exasperated admission that the economic models leave out a lot of the problems associated with climate change. Some people will admit that the “median” projections might not justify the policies on a cost/benefit basis, but they nonetheless support them as analogous to insurance and push them as a way to minimize the chance of (unlikely) catastrophe.

Here again, it’s not that what the climate-change activists are saying is (by itself) an unreasonable claim. But I never heard all of the weaknesses of the UN’s published summaries of the peer-reviewed literature until I started pointing out that the UN documents didn’t support the mainstream policies advanced in the name of fighting climate change.


Thus we see how interventionists moved the goalposts in the climate policy debate. In the next and final installment of this series, we’ll see a similar move when it comes to discussing Oregon’s Medicaid experiment.

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For more on economic theory and public policy, see Choice: Competition, Enterprise, and Human Action, by Robert P. Murphy.

Three Times Interventionists Moved the Goalposts, Part I

Part 1 of 3

One of the most frustrating things in debate is when you decisively win the initial point of contention, only to have your opponent “move the goalpost” to a different claim. To be sure, this is a human failing, not unique to any particular political perspective. I’m sure I myself do this too. But I have certainly noticed it when people use it against me, and so in this series of posts I’ll review three times that interventionists moved the goal posts in a political debate.

Episode #1: Paul Krugman on the 2013 Budget Sequester

As part of the bipartisan compromise to raise the debt ceiling, a combination of tax hikes and budget cuts was activated in February 2013 when certain conditions hadn’t been met. At the time, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was aghast, calling the automatic measure a “fiscal doomsday machine” that would cost 700,000 jobs.

By April 2013, the economy didn’t seem to be in great shape. Krugman was confident that the budget cuts were taking their toll, even though the Federal Reserve had launched QE3 (in September 2012). Some economists—calling themselves “market monetarists”—had argued that easier money could offset the effects of the Republican austerity measures. But Krugman disagreed, writing in April 2013:

[A]s Mike Konczal points out, we are in effect getting a test of the market monetarist view right now, with the Fed having adopted more expansionary policies even as fiscal policy tightens.

And the results aren’t looking good for the monetarists: despite the Fed’s fairly dramatic changes in both policy and policy announcements, austerity seems to be taking its toll. I would add that the UK experience provides a similar lesson. Mervyn King advocated fiscal consolidation – I’d say that he shares equal responsibility with Cameron/Osborne for Britain’s wrong turn—but more or less promised (pdf) that he would and could offset any adverse effects on growth with monetary policy. He didn’t and couldn’t. [Bold added.]

So as of April 2013, the economy wasn’t doing so hot, and Krugman was happy to endorse Konczal’s idea that the U.S. experience would be a test of the relative power of monetary policy versus fiscal policy.

Well, as it turned out, the year 2013 was economically pretty good, relatively speaking. Several market monetarists, remembering that Krugman himself had said the fiscal tightening would be a test, started running victory laps. So did Krugman admit he had been wrong, and maybe the (modest) cutbacks in federal spending weren’t so disastrous as he had warned?

Nope. Here’s what Krugman wrote in January 2014:

One way to look at the US economy in 2013 is that it was, in effect, trying to begin a strong recovery, but was held back by terrible federal fiscal policy. Housing was making a comeback, state and local austerity was, if not going into reverse, at least not getting more intense, household spending was starting to revive as debt levels came down. But the feds were raising the payroll tax, slashing spending via the sequester, and more.

Incidentally, these other factors are why I don’t take seriously the claims of market monetarists that the failure of growth to collapse in 2013 somehow showed that fiscal policy doesn’t matter. US austerity, although a really bad thing, wasn’t nearly as intense as what happened in southern Europe; it was small enough that it could be, and I’d argue was, more or less offset by other stuff over the course of a single year. [Bold added.]

Does everyone see how Krugman moved the goalposts? Back in April 2013, when he thought he would win the argument, Krugman was happy to say the U.S. economy was providing a good test of his claim that budget cutting wasn’t going to be offset by the Fed. Then when the test he himself put forward blew up in his face, Krugman acted as if the market monetarists were the ones who had invented such a silly criterion—of course there are all sorts of other complicating factors, making it impossible to glean much from a single episode like the U.S. experience in 2013.

(Incidentally, not only did Krugman never admit any problems due to his warnings over the problems of Republican austerity, he eventually turned vice into a virtue: By early 2016 Krugman was citing the “Obama Boom” as proof that the Republicans had been refuted for warning about the job-killing effects of ObamaCare and the 2013 tax hikes.)


Thus we see a classic case of Paul Krugman moving the goalpost in the debate over fiscal “austerity.” In my next post I’ll document how interventionists moved the goalposts in the climate change debate.

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For more on economic theory and public policy, see Choice: Competition, Enterprise, and Human Action, by Robert P. Murphy.