Arnold Kling  

Certainty and Uncertainty

PRINT
Power and Plenty... New Working Papers of Interest...

Tyler Cowen writes,


David R. Henderson asks me to list three policy areas where my views are uncertain. Since this blog (or at least this author) has been streaming uncertainty for over four years, this strikes me as an odd request.

In my essay on books of 2007, I said that Cowen and Dani Rodrik are notable for the way they allow for disagreement and self-doubt.

In my view, it is easier to talk with certainty about what won't work.

1. On health care, I am certain that single-payer system will not produce enough efficiency to solve the financial problems of health care. After all, Medicare is more fiscally unsound than our private health care system. As an aside, while I was in St. Louis we had dinner with a retired doctor. She told of an incident where, as a patient, she went to see a dermatologist about a rash. The dermatologist looked at her and told she was fine. This proved to be correct. However, he billed Medicare for $700 for surgery. She called Medicare to report the fraud, and, after she finally got through after considerable time in voice-mail hell, the person told her that, "No, everything is fine. Our records show that you had the surgery."

2. On education, I am certain that no policy will deliver major differences in results. I think that vouchers are rational, and I think that progressive vouchers would be more egalitarian than our current system. I hate the way that public schools are used for propaganda purposes (such as showing "An Inconvenient Truth"). But I don't think anybody has a replicable solution for better education.

3. On Social Security, I am certain that locking in the current statutory retirement age forever is misguided.

4. On global warming, I am certain that My Global Warming Question will not be answered for decades. Meanwhile, Bil McKibben, citing James Hansen, is certain that we already have enough atmospheric carbon dioxide to send the earth on an explosive path for warming. It seems as though we should know within ten years if they are right.

5. On biodiversity, I am certain that humans have more control over the fate of large animals than that of smaller species. It is sobering to think that we dictate where animals weighing more than a few pounds can live. In our cities, a shi tzu can survive but a wolf can't.

6. On drugs, I am certain that in the coming decades research and development will produce drugs that are more morally problematic than any of the drugs that are illegal today.

7. On immigration, I am certain that no immigration policy under consideration is going to have a big effect on the incomes of the unskilled in America.

8. On foreign policy, I am certain that if the United States is less assertive, those who become more assertive will not be characterized by peaceful beneficence. That does not mean that we should be assertive, but do not be surprised if our withdrawal ends up increasing rather than decreasing the amount of ugly events that occur in the world.

9. On water policy, I am certain that giving some segments (e.g., California farmers) subsidized access to water is not the best approach.

But basically I agree with Tyler. I am not certain what is the best approach. On health care, our system has so many flaws that single payer might be an improvement--although not nearly the improvement that its enthusiasts promise. On global warming, I think that it is possible that the models are under-predicting global warming, whether or not it is caused by our carbon emissions.


Comments and Sharing





TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/783
The author at Remains of the Day in a related article titled Some random links perused over the holidays writes:
    Tyler Cowen lists policy areas in which his views are uncertain. It's refreshing that even an economist of his stature can admit that he is uncertain on so many issues. Cowen links to Arnold Kling's list of what he is... [Tracked on January 2, 2008 2:17 AM]
COMMENTS (5 to date)
Russ writes:

Very good intellectual honesty. This kind of thing should be encouraged. I'm not sure why.

Peter Schaeffer writes:

“I am certain that no immigration policy under consideration is going to have a big effect on the incomes of the unskilled in America”

Really? It sure looks like corporate America doesn’t believe you. The cheap labor lobby seems convinced that the heavens will fall if the United States enforces its immigration laws and removes the illegal alien population. They appear quite convinced that a “guest worker” program is essential to their bottom lines.

Save for the La Raza nutcases (Graham, McCain, Martinez, etc.) essentially all of the Republican support for the Amnesty bill came from the cheap labor lobby. Of course, there isn’t that much difference between the La Raza and cheap labor lobbies.

Indeed, a significant fraction of the Democratic support for the bill also came from cheap labor Democrats (rather notably Teddy K.). Of course, much of the honorable Democratic opposition (Dorgan, Tester, McCaskill, etc.) was explicitly anti-cheap labor.

However, I have a natural experiment that should resolve this question. Let’s have the United States government repatriate the illegals via employer sanctions and interior enforcement. Clearly there is no downside to doing so. At worst, we will have better schools, less gridlock, less crime, lower taxes, cleaner air and water, more natural resources, more affordable housing, fewer social divisions, etc.

If you are correct, then America gets all of the upside gains from immigration enforcement and unskilled wages don’t change. If I am correct, wages for unskilled workers rise substantially in addition to the all of the positive changes mentioned above.

A few states (Arizona, Oklahoma) have already started the “natural experiment”. So far only positive results have been observed. Let’s make it national.

TGGP writes:

That does not mean that we should be assertive, but do not be surprised if our withdrawal ends up increasing rather than decreasing the amount of ugly events that occur in the world.
Good thing I don't live in most of it.

cactus writes:

"No, everything is fine. Our records show that you had the surgery."

I remember receiving a bill - apparently, the insurance company had paid for my entire hospital stay but for whatever reason decided I owed them for part of the cost of the epidural applied during my C-section. I quickly spotted three problems with the bill: 1. I hadn't been in the hospitalized at all since obtaining that insurance, 2. I am now and have always been a male and 3. I have yet to reproduce. I'm not sure how the whole issue was resolved between the insurance company and the hospital, but they all decided it was best to leave me out of further discussions once I threatened to sue everyone involved on behalf of my non-existent child.

And no, it wasn't a public hospital or government provided insurance. I really wish I had saved that bill.

jp writes:
That does not mean that we should be assertive, but do not be surprised if our withdrawal ends up increasing rather than decreasing the amount of ugly events that occur in the world. Good thing I don't live in most of it.

That reminds me of a joke. It's OT but I'll post it anyway. I think it comes from a Chris Rock routine.

Women never dress warmly enough. And they're always cold. "Oooh, it's chilly." They assume you're going to give them something you're wearing so they won't be cold.

The other night I came out of a restaurant with my girlfriend. She said, "Oooh, it's chilly out here." I said, "Yeah! Good thing I got this coat!"

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top