Posts tagged with: bryan caplan

America could have saved more jobs if, prior to the Industrial Revolution, politicians had banned the use of tractors. But that would have made everyone (especially those of us living in 2014) much worse off. Many Americans understand this point and yet still believe that when workers lose their jobs, we automatically become worse off.

Economist Bryan Caplan explains the problem with this ‘make-work’ bias, and why we are better off because of 19th century workers who lost their farm jobs.

61-kids-expensiveAs any parent can attest, kids are expensive. They take up space (increasing the cost of housing), eat everything in your kitchen (increasing the grocery bill), never remember to turn off lights (increasing the cost of utilities), and find dozens of other ways to drain your banking account. From birth to high school graduation, the average cost to raise a kid is $241,080.

The high cost is often proffered as an explanation for why families today are much smaller than in the past. But as Bryan Caplan explains having kids was never a paying venture:

One popular story about the decline in family size over the last two centuries goes like this: Back in the old days, having kids paid. Children started working when they were quite young, and provided for their parents in their old age. Then industrialization and/or the welfare state came along and changed everything. Young children ceased to contribute much economically to their families, and once Social Security, Medicare, and so on were in place, people stopped supporting their aging parents.

It turns out that this story is only half true. Yes, in the modern era, people give little financial assistance to their elders; even in late adulthood, old-to-young transfers remain larger than young-to-old transfers. The flaw in the story is the assumption that things used to be different. In an eye-opening 1996 JEL piece, Ted Bergstrom summarizes evidence showing that even in pre-modern societies, kids did not pay.

Caplan also adds this intriguing question, “If parents in 1850 were willing to support five or six kids with a negative financial return, why aren’t we?”

Sadly, because unlike most people in 1850, we measure the worth of children in financial terms. Theologian Al Mohler noted this a few years ago:
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Hurricanes almost always leave two things in their aftermath: broken windows and articles advocating the broken window fallacy.

As economist Don Boudreaux wrote earlier today, “Americans will soon be flooded by commentary that assures us that the silver lining around the destruction caused by hurricane Sandy is a stronger economy. Such nonsense always follows natural disasters.” The only detail Boudreaux gets wrong is that such nonsense has preceded the actual disaster. The Atlantic, wanting to get a jump on being wrong, published an article today at noon arguing that Hurricane Sandy will “stimulate the economy” in two ways:

First, the threat of a dangerous event pulls economic activity forward. Families stock up on extra food and supplies to prepare for a disaster. Second, and much more significantly, the aftermath of storms requires “replacement costs” that raise economic activity by forcing business and government to rebuild after a destructive event.

Frederic Bastiat provided the ultimate rebuttal to this spurious thinking 162 years ago in his essay ‘That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.’ So why do we people make the same claim that destruction is economically beneficial? Could it be that people are simply unaware of Bastiat’s “parable of the broken window”?

Back in August economist Bryan Caplan asked why the one group that should be familiar with Bastiat’s essay—economists—don’t universally love it:
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“Scandinavian economies are some of the most market-oriented on the planet” says economist Scott Sumner, who adds “Denmark is the most market-oriented country on earth.”

This peculiar claim is even more curious considering that it is based on the Heritage Foundation’s 2012 Index of Economic Freedom. On the Heritage Index, which ranks countries based on ten components of economic freedom, the United States comes in at #10, lumped in with the “mostly free” countries. All of the Scandinavian countries are lower on the list: Denmark (#11), the Netherlands (#15), Finland (#17), Sweden (#21), Iceland (#27), and Norway (#40).

Each of these countries are considered “less free” on Heritage’s Index than such nations as the U.S., Canada, and Chile, mostly because they have high levels of wealth redistribution. But Sumners thinks that the “size of government and degree of market freedom” are “two completely separate issues.”

The inimitable Bryan Caplan explains why Sumners is wrong and why size of government and economic freedom are inextricably connected:
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“‘What’s stopping Warren Buffett from paying more taxes?’ is a red herring,” says economist Bryan Caplan. ” The fundamental question is: ‘Why is government’s share of the voluntary donations market so damn small?’”
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I have a deep and abiding love for liberty—which is why I find myself so often in disagreement with libertarians.

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I have argued for many years now that free markets are intrinsically good. I have tried to engage this issue with Christians but many are either not interested or do not see any importance in the pursuit. I know markets can become bad masters when people lack virtue. I also know that the alternatives to free markets have littered the twentieth century with more death than any single cause in human history. (Think socialism, fascism and Marxism.) And representative democracy, a republic of just laws, is not perfect either but it sure beats the alternatives. Shared power is always better than control by the one or the few. Social engineering and economic planning by an elite and powerful few strips us of both human dignity and true freedom.

Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, is the author of a new book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics, that has a significant bearing on how we should think about the political side of economic concerns in America. Professor Caplan concludes, in words that are not at all comforting to me personally, that most Americans cast their votes on the basis of irrational biases about economics. This, he reasons, is why candidates who oppose free markets, free trade, profits and immigration win. Sadly, I am quite sure that he is right about this point.

Creators Syndicate writer John Stossel, in reviewing the professor’s new book, says: "People tend to acquire wrong opinions about economic policy packaged in worldviews they inherited while growing up." Since people resist, and often strongly, having their own worldview challenged or changed they will vote for those candidates who make them feel good. Stossel concludes that this means "They will vote irrationally." I have long sensed that this was true on an intuitive level but the professor’s argument tends to fortify what I had only sensed but not quite had a handle on how to argue my case well. Simply put, most voters see no compelling reason to vote otherwise since their choices in elections bear no direct consequence on their lives, at least as they understand their lives. Gloomily Stossel concludes, "When irrationality is free, people will indulge their biases." (more…)