Archive for November, 2015

Do you believe poverty is worsening?

November 28, 2015

UnknownThe global population living in extreme poverty has risen in the last 20 years – indeed has almost doubled – say two-thirds of Americans in a recent survey. Nearly all the rest guessed poverty has merely stayed the same.

“Rising poverty” is a pessimist idee fixe, so ubiquitous that most folks unthinkingly consider it an obvious truism, to be sanctimoniously deplored. I have actually seen people’s eyes sparkle when talking of “rising poverty;” puffing up one’s moral vanity feels good.

Unknown-1Well, sorry to be a killjoy, but global poverty has in fact plummeted in recent decades. If world poverty were a stock, you’d have lost your shirt on it. The 95% of Americans who believe otherwise are misinformed.

This little known secret was revealed by Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times op-ed, citing World Bank figures: since 1993, the proportion of world population living in extreme poverty (defined as earning less than $1.00-$1.25 daily) fell by more than half, from 35% to 14%. Adding insult to injury, Kristof also noted the child death rate, before age five, dropped by more than half since 1990.* And whereas in the ‘80s only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school, now 80% do. Literacy is rising and disease rates are falling. And so on. (Bill and Melinda Gates similarly argued in the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that pessimists are wrong and global conditions are improving markedly.)

imagesYet still there’s rising inequality, we’ve still got that for moralizing lamentation, no? Well – Kristof’s data refute that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The rich are getting richer, yes, but so are the poor, though not as fast, which does increase wealth gaps. However, globally, inequality between poor countries and rich ones is indisputably lessening, simply because the former have higher economic growth. (Even with today’s big slowdown, the Asian Development Bank projects 5.8% 2015 growth for the region, minus Japan. For advanced countries, 3% is considered sizzling.)

images-1The left, wedded to a mantra of rising poverty and inequality, is all about wealth and income redistribution to fix it. But part of why developing economies are growing faster than advanced ones, reducing the gap between them, is because wealth is in fact being redistributed from the latter to the former. This is what Trump yaps about with his China bashing. And, ironically, the left hates it too – all the whining about “shipping jobs overseas.” That redistributes wealth from richer to poorer people. Shouldn’t the left love it?

Unknown-2But of course poorer countries aren’t simply sucking our wealth away. To the contrary, a more integrated global economy with fewer artificial barriers enables goods and services to be produced where it is cheapest and most efficient, and this makes the whole world richer – including us. Cheaper production in China or India or Vietnam reduces prices for U.S. consumers (to the tune of trillions of dollars in fact), enabling more spending on other things, which stimulates job creation, making up for jobs lost. Everybody wins.

Further illuminating what is happening and why, author Ronald Bailey provided a commentary (on Reason.comon Kristof’s piece. What has enabled many developing countries to improve by taking advantage of global trade opportunities is better economic policies – in a nutshell, more economic freedom for their people to do so – phasing out dysfunctional old socialist nostrums (this is the “neoliberalism” lefties condemn). Bailey cites a 2015 Fraser Institute report giving countries economic freedom ratings, based on various measures. The 102 countries continuously rated averaged 5.31 in 1980, rising to 5.77 in 1990, 6.74 in 2000, and 6.86 in 2013.

Bailey notes that such economic freedom, and its handmaid, rule of law, tend to flourish in politically and economically stable countries. And it should be no surprise that all those conditions combine to unleash human ingenuity and enterprise, creating wealth and reducing poverty. Bailey also cited data showing that such nations tend to have markedly reduced fertility rates (thus controlling population growth), better environmental stewardship, and higher life expectancies than in more repressive and misgoverned lands.

Bailey concludes by saying that it is in “democratic capitalist countries that the air and water are becoming cleaner, forests are expanding, food is abundant, education is universal, and women’s rights respected.”

images-2Free market capitalism admittedly produces uneven results – as will any economic system – but is far better than any alternative for giving the greatest number of people the best opportunities and quality of life. The gigantic poverty reduction and welfare improvement of recent decades was not the product of socialism, but of getting away from such economic folly. And a market economy is also ethically superior because it works by increasing freedom rather than restricting it. That’s what I call social justice.

(All of this was already covered in my own very excellent 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism. I thank Scott Perlman for pointing me to the cited articles.)

*Meantime, Bernie Sanders saying America has the world’s highest child poverty rate is ridiculous. We measure it in relation to average U.S. incomes – which top worldwide scales. Of course child poverty is much worse in many countries that still are much poorer.

Human ingenuity: a new way to count

November 24, 2015

images-1My business is collector coins, which I often have to count. When they’re all identical they can be counted in stacks of ten. But for non-uniform coins, there seemed to be no alternative to, well, just counting them. Counting by twos helps a bit. But it’s still laborious, requiring concentration, and it’s easy to lose count, especially when dropping a coin or two.

Recently I had a mess of about 5,000 mixed coins I planned to sell in bags of 200. So I asked my wife, “Darling, do you have a little spare time?” And she agreed to help.

But my wife can have her own way of doing things.

UnknownSo after a while, I thought I’d better check on her, and lo, found a strange sight: a vast array of coins spread out in neat rows. Could this make sense?

Then she explained the method in this seeming madness: on a newspaper sheet, she’d marked out a grid of ten squares by twenty, to put one coin on each square. When done, she’d roll up the sheet to neatly funnel the coins into a bag.

imagesThe light bulb went on: I instantly grasped the system’s beauty. Laying coins out on the grid is actually faster than counting them one by one or two by two. Moreover, you cannot lose count or miscount. And no mental concentration is required – she did the job while watching TV!

Through all my decades counting coins, I had never thought of this. And when she finished, I carefully kept her grid sheet for future use.

I guess this shows my wife is smarter than me; but I was pretty smart to marry her.

Syrian refugees at the golden door

November 19, 2015

UnknownWhile Europe is taking in around a million Syrian refugees, the U.S. has signed up for 10,000. But even that’s being challenged unless our government can guarantee no terrorists will sneak in.

This might seem reasonable prudence; one presidential hopeful has labeled the alternative “insane.” Though in fact, the U.S. is already exceedingly cautious in screening refugees. Over-cautious one might say. Not only is the process long and tortuous, but no bureaucrat wants responsibility for approving someone who later does something bad, with Muslims in particular considered suspect. (I’ve written of the shameful consequent stonewalling toward Iraqi asylum-seekers.)

Is it plausible a would-be terrorist might hide among refugees? In France, maybe; but here, he’d likely flunk that extremely difficult acceptance process – while there are quicker and easier ways to get into America – as the 9/11 hijackers did. And have we forgotten the eleven million people already here illegally? Considering that, worry over the bona fides of a few thousand Syrians (who will be thoroughly vetted) is absurd.

But can we guarantee no terrorists will get in? No – but the quest for 100% safety is, as ever, a fool’s errand. Everything has risks, which we balance against rewards – as with automobiles. Except when, irrationally, we don’t – as with Syrian refugees (or fracking). You’re literally a thousand times likelier to die in a car accident than from terrorism. Yet we drive.

These Syrians are not terrorists but victims of terror. Which leads to the overriding point: we should welcome them because it’s the right thing to do, the humane thing, the compassionate thing. We are a big and rich country, caviling at a few thousand bedraggled refugees? Have we also forgotten the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty?images-1

But admitting refugees is not a sacrifice. Studies repeatedly show immigrants contribute more to a country’s economy than they cost. They work harder, on average, start more businesses, and commit fewer crimes, than the native born. They enlarge the economic pie. These Syrians will enrich America. It’s such a wonderful country, I want as many people as possible to enjoy it as I do. This is worth the remote risk of one doing harm.

During WWII, our golden door was mostly closed toward Jews trying to flee the Holocaust. (My mother’s family was lucky, having a U.S. relative to sponsor them; though a grandmother didn’t make it.)

imagesWe fortunate cosseted Americans can scarcely even relate to the nightmare these people endure. Syria’s horror might seem far away, and its victims unlike us. But all human beings are far more alike than different. Syrians feel pain just like you or me; suffer anguish and fear just as you would; love their children just as much.

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Fantasy sports versus the killjoy nanny state

November 18, 2015

The issue of the day is whether online “fantasy sports” (where you select imaginary teams from among real players, whose actual performance determines winners) is a “game of skill” or illegal gambling.

Our local newspaper quotes the state Attorney General’s spokesman (my emphasis): these are “illegal sports betting websites . . . causing the same kinds of social and economic harms as other forms of illegal gambling.”

images-3The same kinds of social and economic harms as the New York State government’s own horse betting operation; its state lottery; and the string of officially-sanctioned casinos now being built? That prey upon and exploit the poor, and destroy families by creating gambling addicts? Enticing poorer folks to blow their limited funds on foolish lottery bets with rip-off odds (compared to those in illegal gambling), promoting a something-for-nothing culture rather than working and saving?

Bad enough when the killjoy nanny state stops people doing things they enjoy. Worse when, with its other hand, it engages in the very same activities. The hypocrisy takes one’s breath away. Gambling used to be outlawed based on a misplaced moralism. Now it’s to enforce a government monopoly.

UnknownAnd meantime Governor Cuomo loudly (literally; that’s his idea of oratory) touts a $15 minimum wage* to supposedly help the poor. Maybe we should stop milking them for lottery revenues.

I’m so glad we live in a politically “progressive” state.

*Not applicable to the state government’s own employees! But finally the other day Cuomo said they too would get $15 — in 2021.

God and Man in Paris

November 16, 2015

We all must die.

imagesBut we don’t let that stop us enjoying life. Indeed, it makes it all the more precious. Those Parisians were out enjoying life – at restaurants, bars, concert halls, and taking pleasure in the company of others.

It is this that was targeted.

Not infrastructure, not government, not military, not cultural icons – no, they targeted just human beings in the act of joyful living. They attacked the very essence of living itself.

Ostensibly they did it for God. The true motivations are a vipers’ nest of psychopathology. But at its core this is anti-humanism: the antithesis between what makes life worth living and a bleak mentality that reviles it.

But it’s the essence of religion to embody seemingly transcendent ideas which, throughout history, have enflamed people to torture themselves (and others) in service thereto; ranging from Indian mystics sticking pins through their bodies, to Shakers abjuring sex and Russian Skoptsy going one better with castration, and now Muslim radicals aspiring to some sort of perverted purification through violence, cruelty, and the self-destruction of suicide bombing.

UnknownEnough. There is no god. Just us human beings, trying to make the best of our limited lives and to love one another.

(Acknowledgment: this was inspired by a posting from the British Humanist Association.)

The next president will be . . . Marco Rubio

November 12, 2015

Unknown-5News flash: The Rational Optimist blog can now call the next presidential election for . . . yes, Rubio.

We’re told Trump and Carson are “frontrunners” for the GOP nomination. I don’t know what that means when we’re talking 25% or so in polls. Last I checked it takes 50+% of convention votes. No way either guy can reach that. Especially when dividing the “outsider” vote between them. But even if those votes all went to just Trump, or Carson, it still couldn’t plausibly produce a convention majority.

imagesThere are really two contests. One is an outlet for folks to vent anger and disaffection, and mouth off for candidates who push their buttons. The ones Trump pushes are obvious. And Carson’s persona as the antithesis of the stereotypical politico is working for him. He’s also got a “magical negro” thing going, as inoculation against the idea that Republican Obama-hatred is race-based.

But the second contest is a presidential election. And when it comes to that, most voters will put aside their emotive responses to the likes of Trump and Carson, and get serious. And neither man can be taken seriously as presidential material, unless something has radically changed in the American mindset. Indeed, for all the Trump and Carson ballyhoo, voters are too timid for anything truly radical. After all, we’ve seen high levels of voter disaffection before, with Congressional approval ratings scraping 9% (and who are those clueless 9%?). Yet the Congressional re-election rate continues to exceed 90%!

So while Trump and Carson “lead” the polls, with meaninglessly anemic pluralities, the real battle is among the more conventional and serious candidates. Unknown-3Initially Bush seemed the man, just on general principles, and hence he’s raised a gazillion dollars. Proving yet again that money doesn’t “buy” elections. No amount of advertising can sell a product people don’t like, and Bush seems to be the lackluster Edsel of this campaign.

Unknown-1Marco Rubio has the pizzazz Bush does not, and is brightening as Bush fades. Rubio is attractive and articulate. And it isn’t flash without substance. While much of the Republican party seems mired in ruinous ideological fetishism, Rubio embodies what a relevant and truly progressive twenty-first century Republican party could be, tackling the country’s real problems with sensible approaches that emphasize the empowerment of people rather than government (in contrast to Democratic “progressives,” who are not my idea of progressivity).*

Bernie Sanders, for all his humorlessness, is another non-serious candidate. Admittedly, unlike Trump’s and Carson’s, his supporters wouldn’t flinch from actually making him president. But they can’t stop Hillary Clinton’s remorseless juggernaut. She’ll be the nominee.

With a presidential electorate fairly evenly divided between the parties, elections are decided by the swing voters who are actually the least engaged and informed and who vote impressionistically, with their gut, for the candidate whose persona they’re most comfortable with. They’re not ideological. images-1And between Clinton and Rubio, Rubio has the better story. Clinton personifies the poisonous political divisiveness of the past couple of decades; Rubio might offer a fresh start.

Watch for a smear campaign on Rubio’s personal finances. But against Hillary Clinton? Really? With her history of dishonesty, scandals, misjudgments, and massive conflicts of interest? (Declaring in the recent debate her pride in the enmity of pharmaceutical companies – which have given her millions!)

Unknown-4Overheard from an unsophisticated middle-American conversation: “Hillary is shifty. Like a car salesman.”

So on January 20, 2017: “I, Marco Rubio, do solemnly swear . . . . “

* For example, hostility to free trade and technological advancement, and intolerance of divergent views.

Self-Driving Cars – Buckle Your Seatbelts

November 7, 2015

Recently I responded to an essay suggesting that technological progress is juddering to a halt. Its author pointed to airplanes, hardly changed in decades.

UnknownWell, buckle your seatbelts, because transportation is about to be revolutionized – not in the air but on the ground, with the advent of driverless cars – sooner than seemed possible only a short time ago.

Driving safely on a busy street is actually a fiendishly complex challenge. But computers, with a form of artificial intelligence, can now master it. Better than you or me – far better. Google’s experimental self-driving cars have logged 1.8 million miles, with only a few minor accidents (not their fault) and no injuries.

Unknown-1Inevitably, there will be a first person killed by a self-driving car, provoking a great moral panic, and calls for banning the technology. While of course 30,000 Americans are killed annually by human-driven cars. Computer-driven ones won’t speed, drive drunk or distracted or sleepy or aggressively, nor make dumb mistakes, so they’ll cut highway carnage almost to zero. Eventually there will be calls to ban human drivers.

The Economist recently peered into the driverless future, and it’s a dramatic picture. Start with the fact that currently we all own our own cars, one of our biggest investments, yet on average they sit idle 96% of the time. That will look increasingly senseless (at least in urban areas) as Uber-type ride-summoning services become more ubiquitous, convenient, and cheap – because the biggest cost factor – driver compensation – will evaporate (along with a lot of driver jobs).

So car ownership will plummet. And as that 96% idleness rate goes way down, so will the number of cars society needs. The Economist estimated there’ll be up to 90% fewer around. (Look out, GM and Ford.) The eternal problem of parking will vanish, and indeed, a lot of the acreage devoted today to parking will be freed up for other functions. Unknown-2More efficient vehicle use will also mean fewer cars on the roads at any one time, which, together with trans-human reaction times and other driving capabilities, will make for smoother traffic flows and speedier trips. Traffic congestion will be a thing of the past. A study has estimated that 90% use of driverless cars would be equivalent to doubling road capacity.

Hence less road construction costs. Also, no more car insurance. No more tickets, so cops can do other things, like actually fighting crime. Children, the blind, the frail, could all ride. And today’s zillion hours spent behind the wheel can be devoted (safely!) to other activities too. Another study calculates America’s resulting productivity gain at over $1 trillion annually.

Easier and faster commutes can enable cities to spread out more (suck it up, James Howard Kunstler*). And The Economist didn’t even mention that significantly fewer cars utilized more efficiently should substantially cut fuel consumption and pollution, with an obvious panoply of benefits (suck it up more, Kunstler**).

imagesWhile misanthropes like him decry the automobile as a societal and environmental abomination, in fact its invention was a giant boon for human values. It gave masses of ordinary people newfound mobility, independence, and empowerment. Our love affair with the car hasn’t been irrational. Driverlessness will carry the paradigm to a whole new level, making the benefits even larger and more widely available, while eliminating many of the costs and downsides (notably all that injury and death).

In history’s long view, today’s widespread private car ownership (and often fetishization) will be seen as a brief and somewhat strange transitional interlude, between use of horses, and driverless vehicles.

images-1* Author of The Geography of Nowhere, vilifying suburban sprawl.

** He also has foreseen no technological remedy for our supposed “oil addiction.”

Charter Schools: How Democrats Betray Blacks

November 1, 2015

Unknown-6“Draining” is the word of choice. As in “draining money from public schools.” As if charter schools hurt public education – a sinister plot (“corporate” of course) to do just that. As if public education is great for everybody – including ghetto blacks.

Some folks hate the idea of profit-making business. As if that’s not the very thing that’s given us our prosperous lives. Generating the wealth we can spend on . . . well, stuff like public education. But never mind. Profit is evil; it’s greed. Surely we don’t want that corrupting our kids’ education.

Unknown-1Actually, I’ve always found rather better the services provided by profit-seeking businesses, competing for the consumer’s dollar, than by government. To survive, such businesses must satisfy their customers. Government bureaucrats, not so much. Would you find a nightly chocolate on your pillow on a government-run cruise ship?

Unknown-3Charter school detractors say they perform worse on average than public schools. But as I noted recently, former NY Education Commissioner David Steiner explained that charter school data is pulled down by a proliferation of what he called “mom and pop” operations, whereas larger, professional – “corporate!” – ones tend to perform admirably.

Meantime, some public schools do not. And, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, they’re too often schools serving inner city blacks — still separate and unequal. There are many reasons. One is that schools are funded, to a great degree, by property taxes, which favors white suburbs over black ghettoes. In the latter neighborhoods, charter schools are realistically the only hope. Steiner noted that Harlem kids in charter schools are seven times likelier to reach college.

Unknown-4So you might think the Democratic party, which owes its very viability to black votes, would champion charter schools. But of course there’s that ideological hostility to anything smacking of business or profit. And the party’s subservience to teacher unions, desperate to protect their near-monopoly. At recent Democratic national conventions, around one in eight delegates have been teacher union members.

Those unions have managed to convince most white Democrats that charter schools somehow threaten public education – the “draining” argument. And most white kids go to public schools that are pretty good; and the affluent ones can afford private schools. They see little to gain from charter schools.

But, again, things are very different in disadvantaged black neighborhoods where public schools do poorly, and charters – even if they didn’t actually outperform – would at least provide a spur of competition forcing public schools to raise their game. Yet blacks continue to vote Democratic, against their interests, somehow overlooking the party’s betrayal on this critical issue. When will they wake up and rebel? Why don’t Republicans stress this issue more?

Unknown-5Speaking of “draining money” – Dale Russakoff’s recent book, The Prize, chronicles what happened to the whopping $100 million Mark Zuckerberg donated to fix Newark’s failing public schools. What happened was . . . not much. The money basically went down the drain, and the public schools are as bad as ever. Reform efforts were defeated by a combination of factors, prominently including the entrenched interests of the status quo. One might conclude the system is (as bureaucratic systems tend to be) impervious to real change. But meantime Newark charter schools are doing great.

And here in financially struggling Albany, the city aims to blow a whopping $196 million to build literally the costliest high school in history. That works out to about $90,000 per high school student! One weeps to think what even a tenth of that amount could do to improve actual education – which a palatial building will not.

That’s what I call draining money from public education.