Scott Sumner  

Bryan Caplan's conventional views

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Bryan Caplan offers conventional views on a wide range of issues. Instead of offering my own, I'll comment on his:

1. Most academics are out of touch with the real world and have little useful to say about it.
The phrases "out of touch," "real world" and "little useful" are a bit too vague for my taste. Compared to what? I read this as Bryan expressing his disagreement with the views of many of his fellow academics on social/political/economic issues, not real world issues such as, "is continental drift occurring?"
2. American democracy is dysfunctional and will not noticeably improve.
Compared to what? Again, Bryan seems to be expressing frustration with political outcomes. But I'd like a sense of which countries he's comparing us to, and how far we fall short on a scale where North Korea is zero and Switzerland or Singapore is 100. Are we at 92.7?
3. A U.S. fiscal crisis is coming in a couple of decades due to aging, but we'll muddle through.

4. The E.U. will muddle through its current and impending problems, too.

Yes, I agree. But then is "crisis" the right word? What will this "crisis" look like? Greece? Japan?

5. Most old movies, poetry, and classic literature are boring.
Yes, but that's also true for most of the modern stuff. And it's also true that most non-boring movies, poetry and literature are old.
9. Unemployment of 5% or higher is extremely inefficient and socially dangerous.
10. You should marry someone who agrees with you on all important issues. Life will provide you with all the conflict you need to keep things interesting.

11. You should marry for true love.

I wish Bryan would make up his mind. More seriously, how many lives would you have to lead to find a perfect match?

12. You should not travel to countries with murder rates over 1-in-10,000.

13. Work hard, avoid conflict, and you will be rewarded in the long-run.

14. Teens should be actively discouraged from pursuing long-shot careers in sports, art, music, literature, and space exploration.

15. Raising kids is the most meaningful thing most people will ever do with their lives.

16. Teenage boys should stop taking stupid risks, and teenage girls should stop associating with teenage boys who take stupid risks.

I disagree with pretty much all of this. It's natural for teenage boys to take lots of risks. If we are trying to maximize aggregate utility, we should take far more risks and lead far more adventuresome lives. We can easily be replaced. We should encourage people to do great things, as there are big positive externalities. Ordinary people like me get lots of utility listening to great music, watching great films, or reading about someone climbing Everest.

Pro-football has such huge positive externalities that preserving it is a no-brainer. :)

"Meaningful" is a very hard word to define. But I believe that most men and most successful women do not find raising kids to be the most meaningful thing in their lives.

Hard work is fine, but don't count on it paying off. Life is not fair.

That 1 in 10,000 murder rate is not very high, just be careful which parts of those countries you visit.

20. Bourgeois is best.
For some people, but it's not for everyone. Bourgeois is boring. Thank God for bohemians.

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
E. Harding writes:

This is one of the few posts where I end up agreeing with Caplan more strongly than with Sumner.

Conor writes:

"Pro-football has such huge positive externalities that preserving it is a no-brainer."

That might be the darkest economics joke ever told.

Scott Sumner writes:

E. Harding, That's probably a wise move on your part.

Thanks Conor.

James writes:

Here, and also in the comment section of the Bryan's post there are challenges to the claim that American democracy is dysfunctional. Well, it seems that all parties have failed to clarify what it would mean for democracy to be functional in the first place.

If we thought the function of a democracy is to generate outcomes reflecting majority preferences, then American democracy is indeed dysfunctional. At the national level, the percentage of incumbents to get reelected far exceeds the public approval ratings of Congress, the President, etc.

If we thought the function of democracy was to generate economically efficient outcomes, or even just outcomes more economically efficient than markets, then American democracy is indeed dysfunctional. Not even the biggest fan of democracy puts even five percent of their personal economic decisions to a vote.

But both of these views are wrong because they misunderstand the function of American democracy. The function is to placate the populace while the people in the higher levels of the government enhance their own standard of living at the expense of the public. And it's working. People in America pay a significant portion of their income to the federal government, far more than any of those far right American colonists who protested taxation without representation, and most Americans do not seem to agree with how that money gets spent. And still people put up with this. That's a highly functional democracy.

On a totally different note, a Bohemian lifestyle generally means forgoing present period consumption in order to pursue one's dreams. That's pretty bourgeois.

Cameron writes:

Many of these aren't mutually exclusive, although I'm not even sure you meant to imply they were.

Bryan is saying YOU are better off avoiding certain risks, not that society is better off.

There's difference between "most people" and "most *successful* people" for raising children... selection bias.

And I'm pretty sure Bryan means policies in the US compared with what economists would vote for. (Source: Myth of the Rational Voter)

Really I'm just trying to justify all the nodding I was doing when reading both posts. :)

Sean writes:

Interesting how two of my absolute favourite econ/philosopher bloggers quite profoundly disagree on these quite fundamental issues. Next we need Arnold Kling to weigh in.

Nick writes:

On point 2 he says our democracy is failing not our government. Hard to put Singapore in at 100 on the 'Democracy is working' scale ... No matter how much you like their policies. It's a pretty vague argument, but I agree. We are polling a lot of people and holding a lot of elections but 'the will of the people' remains opaque in the results.

On point 15, I'm definitely too young for this one and I suspect both of you are as well. as fathers get older a higher and higher percentage express more and more satisfaction with the decision to become a parent. Possibly this is because only the ones with good kids bother to stay alive, I don't know. My father says it's because men enjoy their children much more as grown adults . . . So maybe you're a decade away from a big change in your thinking on this one.

Scott Sumner writes:

James, Yes, but don't bohemians put less emphasis on hard work, family, etc.

Nick, I asked because Bryan has stated that he considers Singapore to be a democracy. And it's certain a government that takes the advice of economists more than most other governments. Switzerland was obviously mentioned because it is highly democratic in structure.

Your second point makes sense, but I'm not confident I'll still be alive in another decade. I'm 59 and almost none of my male relatives lived beyond 69.

Scott Sumner writes:

Cameron, I read those comments as encouraging others to follow his advice. So he should give advice that is in the best interest of society.

If I say "You should donate anonymously to charity" it's not because I believe that advice makes "you" better off.

A Berman writes:

At one point you shift focus from personal happiness to external value:
"If we are trying to maximize aggregate utility, ...We can easily be replaced. ... there are big positive externalities"

But right afterwards, you shift right back:
"Meaningful" is a very hard word to define. But I believe that most men and most successful women do not find raising kids to be the most meaningful thing in their lives.
If you simply remain consistent with your earlier focus on externalities, then raising (multiple) kids is almost certainly the most meaningful thing most people can do.

TravisV writes:

Prof. Sumner,

I feel that your discussion of "fiscal crisis" is unclear. I'll attempt to describe what I think is your view of a possible future "fiscal crisis":

In Japan, the "fiscal crisis" is anemic real growth, and the U.S. might also suffer the same crisis (anemic real growth) in a couple decades.

You don't have a conventional view that (high debt / GDP) necessarily contributes much to anemic real growth. Rather, government overreach and suboptimal government policies contribute to anemic real growth.

Sumner described this government overreach and suboptimal government policies in posts such as the ones entitled "What is big government?" and "There's "big government" and then there's big government"

Is that approximately what your view of "fiscal crisis" looks like?

Taimyoboi writes:


"We can easily be replaced."

I don't think this is true even from the big picture, aggregate utility perspective that it seems like you are coming from.

Gene Callahan writes:

Our democracy is failing: here is my evidence to support this contention:

In 2004, 51% of Americans had negative views on the war in Iraq. So, in a working democracy, we ought to get one pro-war, and one anti-war, candidate, right? But the main anti-war contender on the Democratic side, Howard Dean, was trashed as unstable, and we got to pick between two pro-war candidates.

That is because the country is actually run by the military-industrial complex, just as Dwight Eisenhower predicted would come to pass.

eric writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness.--Econlib Ed.]

J Mann writes:
14. Teens should be actively discouraged from pursuing long-shot careers in sports, art, music, literature, and space exploration.
I'm torn on that one. (1) Selfishly, it seems to me that other people's teens should be free to engage in activities from which I will benefit. ;) (2) I think there's enough room in a lifetime to take a shot at one of those careers - how many people regret a foray into rock music or amateur golf versuse how many look back fondly, even if they ended up selling insurance someplace? (3) My general advice to teens is that it's good to have a goal, but stay open to unexpected opporunities. If you feel called to pursue space exploration as a teen, doesn't that lead to a lot of good places (if probably not space exploration)?
J.V. Dubois writes:

I am most on your side Scott, mostly because it comes down to definitions and there I like your pragmatic approach more.

As for some specific points:

10 + 11: I agree that he should make up his mind. Everybody knows that it is best to marry your best friend, not "true love"

12. 1-10,000 murder rate? Is this a weird way to say that you should not travel to subsaharan Africa, most of Latin America and Pakistan/Afghanistan? I can see that as reasonable argument but not for murder rate. Because then you should not visit Greenland where just one murder single-handedly made them the most dangerous country to live in.

15. Comeon, he should know that life has no meaning. But maybe this should read that rising kids will make you happy sometimes? Yes, then maybe ....

vikingvista writes:


function of American democracy. The function is to placate the populace while the people in the higher levels of the government enhance their own standard of living at the expense

That is what it does, but the ostensible reason for democracy was to placate factions' power transitions--to turn the high burden of bloody coups and revolutions into the lower burden of orderly ones. In that purpose it may be a partial success in restraining any one faction's influence on the state.

But if popular (mis)perceptions of democracy (e.g. empowers the individual, preserves liberty, is the will of the people, legitimize state action) are the standard, then it is almost entirely dysfunctional in every country ever tried.

Cultural factors and institutions other than (sometimes in spite of) democracy are responsible for what most people truly love about the societies they live in.

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