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The Treason of the Clerisy

Yet in the late nineteenth century the artists and the intellectuals-the “clerisy,” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and I call it-turned against liberal innovation. The treason of the clerisy led in the twentieth century to the pathologies of nationalism and socialism and national socialism, and in the twenty-first century to the pieties of radical environmentalism, and to the dismal pessimism of the union left and the traditional right. The clerisy provided the “scientific” justifications for such attitudes, as in scientific materialism or scientific imperialism or scientific racism or scientific Malthusianism or, lately, scientific neoeugenics. The scientific schemes reasserted an elite control over newly liberated poor people. Consider Mao’s Little Red Book, say, or Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which extracted from the scientific dreams of left or right a plan for an ant-colony society governed by the Party.

Deirdre N. McCloskey. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (Kindle Locations 636-640). Kindle Edition.

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The Difficulty of Measuring Inequality

from The Inequality Hype by Neil Gilbert in The American Interest:

However as Richard Burkhauser pointed out in his presidential address to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, the market income of a tax unit is a poor indicator of how much money families actually have to live on.7A more inclusive measure of the income that remains in households after subtracting what they must pay in taxes and adding the money they receive through government transfers transmits a different image of the American experience. Applying these criteria, instead of a decline we see a 32 percent increase in the mean income of the poorest fifth between 1979 and 2007. (Table 1) Overall, this broader measure still reveals a rise in inequality during that period as the mean income of those in the top bracket climbs by 54 percent.8 But it, too, is incomplete.

Along with taxes and transfers, the most authoritative and extensive measure of income also incorporates capital gains. Along with Burkhauser and his colleagues, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agrees that a comprehensive definition involves the sum of market income adjusted for taxes, household size, cash and in-kind transfers, and capital gains.9 However, the consensus unravels over the issue of exactly how to value capital gains. The basic choice is whether to focus on the total taxable gains realized in the year capital assets are sold or the annual change in value of capital assets whether or not they are sold. This is not just a matter of bookkeeping. The choice to include either realized or accrued capital gains in the calculation of annual income has a considerable impact on the rates of inequality.

The CBO favors the use of realized capital gains that are reported on tax returns. After factoring in the impact of taxes, capital gains, and government transfers the CBO data reveal a sharp decline in inequality compared to when it is measured solely by market income. According to these figures, between 1979 and 2010 the household income in the bottom quintile increased by 49 percent, the income in the middle three quintiles increased on average by 40 percent, and those in the highest bracket increased by 71 percent.10 While incomes increased across the board, the largest gains registered on the two ends of the income distribution. These findings temper progressive arguments that focus on the increasing inequality of market incomes to demonstrate the need for greater social welfare spending.


This is a very short excerpt from a lengthy article that focuses on just one consideration, capital gains measurement, and its impact on the measurement of inequality.  The more salient point is that inequality is far more difficult to measure than most realize and the main stream reporting does not even try to comprehend the difficulty and thus the shallowness of their reporting on this issue


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The True Anti-Intellectuals

Jeff Jacoby at The Boston Globe writes a wonderful piece to start the year,  What experts predict, reality will contradict

“I think that you listen too much to the soldiers,” wrote the British statesman Lord Salisbury to the viceroy of India in 1877. “No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts.”

But the experts themselves — often mistaken, but never in doubt — rarely seem to learn that lesson. Their forecasts will keep flowing in the year ahead, undeterred by their egregious blunders in the one just ended.

2016! Was there ever such a year for making donkeys out of seers? An entire column could be filled with nothing but the names of sages and savants, supposedly adept in the ways of politics, who confidently assured everyone that Donald J. Trump couldn’t possibly win the Republican presidential nomination, let alone be elected president of the United States.


Daniel Kahneman has observed that even the most credentialed and intelligent are prone to errors of probability. The more isolated that our academic establishments get from intellectual diversity the greater this error rate will likely become.

History is filled with predictions of an apocalypse that never happened, and missed the travesties that did. (although WWII was widely predicted.)

In a field of great uncertainty the best bet is a regression to the mean.  It’s as good a bet as always splitting aces or always doubling on a dealer 6.

The greater the certainty and the greater the credentialism of the predictors, the more likely the regression is  to be the preferred bet.

The less tolerant the consensus is of dissent or skepticism,  the more likely they are to be wrong.

Addressing the limits of the intellect is not to be anti-intellectual. It is the opposite. Knowing the limits allows wiser application, greater respect, and lower risk.  This makes intellectualism more acceptable and trustworthy to a wider populace. It is the blind faith in credentialism and consensus that damages the reputation of the intellectuals.  The cynicism and demonization of skepticism and true debate is the height of anti-intellectualism.

Even the wide swath of citizens that find policy and ideology boring can be quite animated at the consequences of these ideas. We would be surprised at the value that the addition of humility would bring to the world of ideas.

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Best of Kevin Williamson 2016

I collected excerpts from the blog for the best of 2016 and so may came from Kevin Williamson at National review that I broke his out to a separate post:

People Aren’t Widgets by Kevin Williamson

But every expensively miseducated jackass who thinks he should be president of these United States has an opinion about what a bottle of grape soda ought to cost in Des Moines or Dixville Notch. The assumptions in Washington are the same as those in Beijing: that everything is subject to political power, that it all comes down to having the right sort of enlightened rulers with the right sort of enlightened ideas, that everything else — the real world — is detail. But human beings, and their relationships, are not electrical circuits. They are not governed by circuit breakers. Not in reality.

What Trump Doesn’t Understand — It’s a Lot — about Our Trade Deficit with China by Kevin Williamson at National Review

Our trade deficit with China isn’t a product of the Chinese getting rich — it’s a product of their being poor. We will not have more-balanced trade with China until Chinese people have a standard of living that is more like that of Americans. Putting a 45 percent tax on American shoppers and people who build computers in the United States (you know who does that? Lenovo, a Chinese company) or build robotics systems using some imported components isn’t going to change any of that. What’s worse, it will exacerbate one of the real problems that U.S-based firms do face: relatively high business taxes. Remember, much of that Chinese trade deficit comes from electronic equipment and industrial machines used by American companies rather than from cheap plastic waterguns, and Trump wants to put a 45 percent materials-and-equipment tax on top of the 40 percent they pay in corporate income taxes.

Engineering Better Voters by Kevin Williamson at National Review

 Progressives are a funny bunch in that they do sincerely believe that government should be empowered, almost without limitation, to do the will of the People, who are sovereign, but they imagine that the People speak with one voice, or at least that they should speak with one voice. When the People get froggy and refuse to fall in line behind, say, the Affordable Care Act, which the best experts drew up on behalf of the People, who (so the story goes) gave Barack Obama a mandate to reform health care, then something must be wrong. And we all know what that is: Too much debate and too much political discourse including too many voices, some of which — those of Charles and David Koch, for instance — must be silenced in order for the People to be heard as one voice, the way it was intended. (No, we are not allowed to ask: Intended by Whom?) So we arrive at the strange situation in which the Left desires maximal formal participation in democratic processes but heavy restriction of everything ancillary to those processes, most especially political speech.

Kevin Williams at National Review, Bitter Laughter

A nation needs its Twains and Menckens. (We could have got by without Molly Ivins.) The excrement and sentimentality piles up high and thick in a democratic society, and it’s sometimes easier to burn it away rather than try to shovel it. But they are only counterpoints: They cannot be the leading voice, or the dominant spirit of the age. That is because this is a republic, and in a republic, a politics based on one half of the population hating the other half is a politics that loses even if it wins. The same holds true for one that relies on half of us seeing the other half as useless, wicked, moronic, deluded, or “prehensile morons.” (I know, I know, and you can save your keystrokes: I myself am not running for office.) If you happen to be Mark Twain, that sort of thing is good for a laugh, and maybe for more than a laugh. But it isn’t enough. “We must not be enemies,” President Lincoln declared, and he saw the republic through a good deal worse than weak GDP growth and the sack of a Libyan consulate.

The better angels of our nature have not deserted us. It is closer to the truth that we have failed them, and the impossible situation of 2016 — a choice between two kinds of corrupt, self-serving megalomaniacs — is only the lesion that denotes a deeper infection. There is no national vice-principal’s office or confessional into which we can drag ourselves and shame-facedly admit that we messed up, say that we’re very sorry, and promise to do better next time. But we must nonetheless admit that we messed up, say that we’re very sorry, and promise to do better next time. And there will be a next time, irrespective of the hysterical ninnies who insist that if this election does not go their way, then this is the end of the nation.

Kevin Williamson at National Review, The New New Malthusians:

For well over a century after Malthus’s death, variations on his prophecy — that growing human populations would eventually overwhelm the world’s natural resources, resulting in famine and other unpleasantries — thrived. They are, in fact, the most popular genre of political writing. Apocalypticism is the great survivor of the world of ideas, mutating as necessary: Many popular modern libertarian figures, natural enemies of the Malthusian creed, make a good living promising that disaster lurks just around the corner, and that it can be best weathered with a large investment in gold coins or freeze-drying equipment for your bunker. A form of Austrian economics (often half-understood) “guarantees” this outcome in much the same way that Malthus’s calculations “guaranteed” mass starvation some years ago.

The super-neo-reverse Malthusians mainly are concerned with a different commodity: labor. We are getting so good at making things, they say, that there simply won’t be enough jobs in the future. Which is to say, they believe that we are going to make ourselves poor through abundance.

Kevin Williamson (again) at National Review, Sneaky Inflation

The perverse fact is that government efforts to make politically important goods such as education and health care less expensive make them more expensive. This is because most government programs are designed as though supply and demand do not actually exist, or as though they are optional. Consider not only Obamacare but all of the other efforts we’ve made over the past several decades to make health care more affordable. None of those programs subtracts from the number of Americans needing or desiring medical services; none of them adds to the number of physicians, dentists, nurses, or pharmacists available to meet that demand, or to the number of hospital beds, clinics, or pharmaceutical factories. Demand is what it is, and supply is what it is, and the government simply dumps money into the equation. A larger quantity of money chasing an unchanged supply of goods is something close to the classical definition of inflation, so it is no surprise to see medical prices increasing far more rapidly than those of other consumer goods.

And one of his last of the year, The Last Days of Barack Obama

The idea that a large, complex society enjoying English liberty could long endure without the guiding hand of a priest-king was, in 1776, radical. A few decades later, it became ordinary — Americans could not imagine living any other way. The republican manner of American presidents was pronounced: There is a famous story about President Lincoln’s supposedly receiving a European ambassador who was shocked to see him shining his own shoes. The diplomat said that in Europe, a man of Lincoln’s stature would never shine his own shoes. “Whose shoes would he shine?” Lincoln asked.

As American society grows less literate and the state of its moral education declines, the American people grow less able to engage their government as intellectually and morally prepared citizens. We are in the process — late in the process, I’m afraid — of reverting from citizens to subjects. Subjects are led by their emotions, mainly terror and greed. They need not be intellectually or morally engaged — their attitude toward government is a lot like that of Trump’s old pal Roy Cohn: “Don’t tell me what the law is. Tell me who the judge is.”

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Progress and Pain

from the WSJ Notable and Quotable: The Human Side of Trade by Russ Roberts

Suppose a scientist invents a pill that once you take it lets you live until 120 with no health issues whatsoever. Once you turn 120, you die a peaceful death on your birthday. Suppose the scientist, in a gesture of good will, charges $10 for the pill.

 Should we let the scientist sell the pill? Is it good for the country? It’s good for almost everyone. But it’s going to be very hard on a very large group of people immediately:

Doctors. Nurses. Health Care administrators. People who build hospitals. People in medical school. People who teach in medical schools. People in health insurance companies. Pharmaceutical companies. Researchers. You get the idea. It’s millions of people. This is a very disruptive technology.

What’s going to happen to all those people?

Mass unemployment. All of the skills of all of those people are no longer valued. The past investments made in those skills are now wasted. Incomes of those workers will inevitably plummet overnight. . . .



Progress involves loss and loss involves pain, whether it is brought by competition, free trade, or technology. We struggle to balance benefits of creative destruction with the pain incurred in the process; ameliorating the pain without de-incentivizing  the necessary adjustments.