Tagged: institutions

Three Types of Racism

  1. Scientific Racism: “Some races are biologically inferior and should therefore be treated differently.”
  2. Cultural Racism: “Some races are culturally inferior and should therefore be made to adapt to the superior culture.”
  3. Institutional Racism: “Some institutions have bad incentives that attract scientific and cultural racists and enable them to act on their racism without fear of bad consequences.”

All three forms of racism exist.  I think the first two statements above are false, while the third is true.

Those who believe in either of the first two are not likely to change easily, and almost never through direct argument.  A steady drip of experience could potentially affect them, and more likely a generational change.

The third type of racism is the kind that can be meaningfully alleviated by ignoring, defying, or innovating around the bad institutions.  When the bad institutions are undermined the first two forms of racism tend to shrivel and go into hiding.  The existence of bad institutions protects and perpetuates racist beliefs and actions.

In the long term, markets do not reward racism.  Free association does not perpetuate it.  It is for this reason that racists everywhere are always forced to go to violent state institutions to codify racism in the face of market pressure in the opposite direction.  When the market isn’t racist enough, the law is invoked.

You can justifiably scream about people’s horrible beliefs, but until you alter the incentives they face the outcomes are unlikely to change.

Entrepreneurship Needs the Right Context

Entrepreneurship is really sexy right now.  Startup founders are like rock stars and you can’t go a day without seeing articles about them.  As far as it goes, I welcome this trend.  Entrepreneurship, as J.B. Say might define it, is the act of moving resources from lower to higher valued uses, or more concretely, creating a new process or product to solve old problems in innovative ways.  This seems a pretty good thing to glorify, at least compared with some other superficial traits that get a lot of attention.

Still, if entrepreneurship is praised across the board, regardless of the context, bad things can happen.

Absent competition and markets, being entrepreneurial has no value.  In fact, it can destroy value if channeled into the political process.  Political entrepreneurs find new ways to access resources first taken from others by force (taxation), and therefore do not create wealth.  They shift existing wealth around with no value-add, because the profit/loss signals are short-circuited.  Furthermore, they divert resources from productive activity to lobbying, currying favor, or massive projects with populist appeal but no market value.

Just about any entrepreneurial endeavor with the words “green” or “sustainable” has a high likelihood of being a fraudulent political game rather than genuine value creation.  The web of grants and subsidies and tax incentives and price supports and mandates in this industry make it all but impossible to identify real value creation as distinct from political shenanigans.  There are a great many media friendly entrepreneurs who chase government dollars instead of private investor or customer dollars, which are the real indicator of value creation.

Furthermore, all the buzz about entrepreneurship has given tech founders a huge platform from which to weigh in on a great many other issues.  Many people assume anyone smart enough to build a great app or billion dollar company could improve public policy.  The problem is that policy doesn’t get debated and implemented in a startup environment, but a monopolized, violence-backed, and fundamentally warped institution with all the wrong incentives.  The technocratic desire many startup types have to make gov’t more like a Silicon Valley company is what Hayek might call the fatal conceit.  It won’t work.  “If only smart people would control all the resources (and the guns that seize them) we’d make public infrastructure flawless!”  This kind of thinking is more dangerous, even if more noble on its face, than political actors openly seeking their own enrichment and not trying to solve grand problems with central plans.

The same thing happened in the industrial era.  Titans like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie were heroes because of their amazing success at improving the world through entrepreneurial action in the market.  When they turned their attention to politics, Gilded Age entrepreneurs built up a horrific behemoth of graft and monopoly that only slowed progress.

In a free or mostly free market entrepreneurs are the greatest force for good the world has ever known.  More than any amount of philanthropy or good intentions.  Outside the market context there is nothing inherently noble about entrepreneurship, and when directed to the political process it can be downright destructive.

How Change Happens – Higher Ed. Edition

The current higher education model is flawed.  If we’re serious about changing it, first we need to get serious about understanding how social change happens.  Intentions and action are not enough to bring about desired ends.  We need an understanding of the causal relationships involved in order to effectively bring about change.

The great truth that flies in the face of civics textbooks and popular myth is that politics is not the source of social change.  It’s more like the last in a line of indicators of cultural shifts that have already occurred.  Politicians and the policies they create only change after the new approach is sufficiently beneficial to the right interests, and sufficiently tolerable to the public at large to help, or at least not harm, political careers.  Of course some politicians guess wrong and suffer accordingly, but by and large the political marketplace tends toward preservation of the status quo until a new direction is imperative for survival.

An entire, and entirely fascinating, branch of political economy called Public Choice Theory examines the incentives at work in the political marketplace in depth, and I highly encourage anyone attracted to political action to gain a working knowledge of this field.  It reveals, in short, that incentives baked into the democratic system create and perpetuate policies that are bad for the public at large, and good for particular concentrated interests.  What Public Choice has a difficult time accounting for is the role of changing beliefs.  There are countless policies that, based purely on the incentives of various interests, ought to be in place but are not, or vice versa.  Some things are simply out of bounds, no matter how much a particular group might benefit and be willing to lobby, because the general public finds them unacceptable.

Contrary to the seemingly ironclad rule of interest driven politics, public beliefs can and do change, and dramatically sometimes, putting parameters around the area within which political actors can ply their trade.  Slavery is a striking example.  At one point, it would’ve been hard to get elected, at least in some areas, if you publicly supported abolition.  Not too many decades later, it’s unthinkable to get elected anywhere if you’ve ever even joked about supporting slavery.  There is certainly a complex relationship between changing economic incentives and public beliefs, but it is undeniable that the about-face on the ethics of slavery was more than a mere shift in power among competing interests.  What most of the public found tolerable they now find reprehensible.

Our institutions are formed by incentives, and incentives are constrained by beliefs.  That makes the beliefs of the public the ultimate key to change.  Smaller changes might occur within the window of things already publicly acceptable, but major change requires a shift in that window.  How to change those beliefs?  There are two primary drivers, both of which feed each other; ideas and experiences.

Ideas are the raw data that form beliefs.  If you accept the idea that minimum wage laws make lower skilled individuals less employable, and you accept the idea that a society with fewer unemployed persons is desirable, then you will have the belief that minimum wage laws are bad.  If, on the other hand, you’ve never really thought about the economics behind minimum wage at all, but your low skilled neighbor lost his job when minimum wage increased, that experience might also cause you to believe minimum wage laws are bad.

I spent a good part of my life focusing entirely on disseminating ideas as a way of changing belief.  It was fulfilling and, I think, valuable work.  But it wasn’t until relatively recently that I began to understand the immense value of experience as a vital second prong when it comes to changing beliefs and the world.

Consider the difficulty of convincing your mother that the New York City taxi cartel is inefficient or immoral.  It requires a great deal of economic theory or philosophizing about rights and coercion.  Your mom might have other things she enjoys more than reading books on these subjects.  Even if you convince her, her newfound belief will probably barely register among things she cares about.  Sure, taxis aren’t the greatest.  So what?  She’s never had that bad an experience.  Even if a policy change to end the cartel were possible, your mom mighn’t pay any attention, or she may be concerned about what the new world without cartels would look like in practice.

Now consider recommending your mom use Uber on her next trip in to Manhattan.  She uses it, likes it, and becomes a regular customer.  She may be completely ignorant of the current cab cartel and the problems with it, but she’s now a believer in an alternative system.  If Uber comes under attack from vested interests, she’ll defend it.  If the chance to end the cartel comes up, she won’t fear because she already knows what the world looks like without it.  She can’t easily be convinced out of her experience.

It is for this reason that dictatorial countries not only ban literature that propagates new ideas, but also goods and services that compete with government monopolies and let people experience something better.  The Soviet Union feared blue jeans, jazz, and Marlboro cigarettes as much as free market textbooks.

If we want to break out of the educational rut it requires new ideas and new experiences.  We mustn’t only talk about new approaches, we must build alternatives.  The best part is, you don’t have to wait on anyone.  You can take your own path right now, and by so doing not only improve your life, but serve as an example to others of what’s possible outside the status quo.  Educational entrepreneurs, not just intellectuals, will change the hidebound approach to education.  It’s already happening.

While policymakers, pundits, professors, and provosts squabble about the future of higher education and jockey to secure their position, entrepreneurs are busy creating and delivering alternatives across the globe.  The educational consumer is enjoying new experiences and getting new ideas about education in the process.  The old guard can argue any which way they like, but at the end of the day they’ll have to prove more valuable to the learner than the myriad new options.  All the protections and advantages in the world can’t stop competition now.  Technology has helped break it wide open.


Excerpted from The Future of School.

A Few Insights on Institutions and Sports

One of the reasons I love sports is the opportunity they provide to see how formal and informal institutions and norms interact to create outcomes, often surprising.  When athletics and economic thinking intersect, I’m a happy man.

An excellent article on Grantland by Brian Phillips got me thinking again about the incentives in college basketball.  Small changes in formal rules and small changes in the informal enforcement of those rules can lead to pretty big consequences.  In the case of college basketball it’s resulted in a far more painful viewing experience.  Watch some of the tournament games this year and you’ll see what I mean.  Basketball is a game of runs and big emotional momentum swings over a series of plays.  Yet instead of fast paced scoring streaks I’ve mostly witnessed a baseball-like process of a play or two followed by long pauses for TV or coaches timeouts or free-throws, followed by another play or two.

There are several possible changes that could improve the experience.  Economists Ed Lopez and Wayne Leighton in their phenomenal book, Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers discuss the origin of the shot clock.  The game was in a similar place.  The best teams were known to get a small lead and then pass the ball for several minutes at a time to run out the clock.  A sensible strategy but a horrible spectator sport.  The introduction of the shot clock dramatically improved the experience.

The shot clock is an example of a new formal rule.  Mike Munger and Russ Roberts talk about not just formal but informal rules and norms in sports in one of my favorite EconTalk episodes.  We tend to assume the order around us, in the world as in sports, is the result of formal rules and enforcement, but more often there is a far more powerful substrate of informal norms and expectations with their own unique enforcement mechanisms.  Fights in hockey, or fake fights in baseball are great examples, as is the social approbation faced by teams who run up the score at the end of an inevitable victory in football, or those who continue to foul the opposing team when trailing by double-digits in the waning seconds of a basketball game.

What I like about the Grantland article is that it touches on formal and informal institutions in its analysis of what’s happening to college basketball.  It’s not only the number of timeouts allowed and the defensive rules (formal), it’s also the way refs choose to call fouls and coaches choose to reign in improvisation by players (informal).  The article went further than this.  It had some profound insight into something even more fundamental than formal and informal institutions.  It touched on the beliefs of fans, players, coaches, officials, and everyone involved.  It’s not only the rules written on paper, or the unwritten rules in our heads that create these outcomes.  The beliefs we have about the game and the rules create the context within which all these institutions must operate.  Beliefs are the ultimate binding constraint on what kind of institutions can exist.

In the case of college basketball, Phillips argues that we all know deep down it’s a professional affair the goal of which is entertainment, yet none of us wants to admit this to ourselves or publicly.  We wrap it in the cloak of character building, preparation for life, team-work, and a lot of old-timey notions about young men getting exercise for their bodies to compliment the mental exercise of a college education.  It’s not that sports don’t do these things or offer no life lessons.  Far from it.  It’s that the primary goal of sports is to make money like any other enterprise, and in our society the great lie we all pretend to believe is that self-interest is inferior to altruism as a motive (even though the beneficial outcomes of self-interested behavior far exceed all the altruism in human history).  We have to keep up the fiction that college athletics is not primarily a moneymaking entertainment enterprise.

Lots to think about on this topic, but I think the insights about the role of our beliefs (and the contradictory nature of our stated vs. revealed preferences) in shaping institutions which shape incentives which result in outcomes is powerful.  For the future of sports and society as a whole.

Institutions Can Improve Even If People Don’t

Originally posted here.

Airlines are loaded with passengers who surf the Internet while soaring through the air, chatting in real-time to anyone else on the globe, posting in social media, shopping, and downloading and reading books on a wide variety of readers. Such a scene would have astonished a person living 50 years ago, to say nothing of a person living 500 years ago.

How do we account for this? A person born five centuries ago is probably just as smart as someone born today. The raw material of the human brain has not changed much during this span of time. Yet people are today infinitely more capable of accomplishing almost any task imaginable than people in 1512.

The greatest navigator of centuries past would have found it a monumental task to leave from one destination and arrive at a precise latitude and longitude halfway across the globe, and it would have taken months. Today, a half-witted teenager can use Google Maps and modern transportation to accomplish the same feat in a single day.

The greatest communicators in the past were unlikely to reach 1 million people with their ideas in a lifetime. Today, the most-incoherent celebrities can reach millions in minutes on Twitter. Conversely, if the greatest scientists today were sent back in time, they would be able to achieve almost nothing absent computers and modern lab equipment.

A weak and feeble worker today can move more tons of earth than the strongest shovel-wielding excavator of the past. Given the inherited technological progress of humanity, even an average Joe can do amazing things with ease. It does not take a superior human to achieve superior results.

Economically speaking, the marginal productivity of workers increases with the capital and technology available to them.

But let’s broaden the point to issues of morality. How can we become better people — more peaceful, cooperative, and creative — in the same spirit in which we have become more effective and productive with better technology? We need better moral “capital” and moral “technology” that enables morally superior outcomes even without morally superior people.

The moral technology I am speaking of is social and political institutions. A person born today is more or less likely to be more or less moral than a person born 500 years ago, but they can be more or less likely to act morally based on the institutions around them.

Moral institutions change and evolve just like technology. They can reduce or expand not only the morality of individuals on the inside, but the harm or good caused by their actions on the outside. The most saintly person born into a world where slavery was the norm would have very limited ability to stop the practice, though she could abstain from participating in it ,at great personal cost.

A horrendously evil person born into a world where slavery is considered abhorrent would be unable to lord over slaves, without tremendous personal cost. It is entirely possible that many people living today have it in them to be on par with the worst slave masters in history — only the opportunity for their evil does not present itself, given the progress in this area of our social and political institutions.

This does not mean that individual choices are meaningless. Far from it. A moral person can always do good within their institutional framework, and a good framework can exponentially enhance the good one can do. Individual choices are vastly important.

But in order for the world to be free of oppression by states, for example, it does not require that every individual be an angel or that the average morality of the population be better than it currently is.

How can institutions improve if morality does not? Institutions are ultimately the result of our beliefs. Better beliefs will result in better institutions, but better beliefs do not require morally superior people any more than beliefs in a heliocentric solar system require more-intelligent people.

Many people believe the Earth revolves around the sun not because they are smarter than ancient peoples, but because they grew up in a world where that was accepted. Many people believe slavery is wrong not because they are morally superior to all people from ages past, but because they grew up in a world where slavery was condemned.

The broader social narrative creates the institution. But where does this narrative come from? Here’s where individuals come in again.

Progress typically begins with iconoclasts and radicals espousing and experimenting with ideas that challenge the status quo. This is true of technological, intellectual and moral progress. The few who advance these radical ideas attract small, but influential followers, and some minds are changed by argument alone. But the real change comes when discussion turns into demonstration.

When the Wright brothers got off the ground, when slavery ended in some countries and the economy did not collapse — these occasions did more to change the prevailing beliefs about manned flight and slavery than did the necessary intellectual work that preceded them.

People do not have to possess superpowers to learn and adapt. All humans do it. Learning even to reject foundational and dearly held beliefs is possible and frequent in history, especially because the change typically takes place over several generations, so that each generation has to learn to give up only a part of the cherished belief. When it is understood that a new belief will result in better outcomes, it can be adopted with relative speed and ease, sometimes without any conscious “a ha!” moment at all.

Neither technological nor institutional progress is inevitable. History is replete with times of retrogression and collapse. When there are no radicals challenging the status quo, innovating and demonstrating new and better beliefs, it is not long before the prevailing institutions stagnate or advocates of a romanticized past win the day and drag humanity backward.

Progress is not inevitable, but progress is entirely possible even with flawed humans like us. Our beliefs can change as we learn better ways of doing things, and with our beliefs will change our institutions. Better institutions — free institutions, rather than coercive ones — will result in a better world.

We ought to continue to discuss and demonstrate the fact that states — their oppressions, confiscations, impositions, kidnapping, counterfeiting, and war — are not necessary or beneficial. Better morality is always better, but if we change the prevailing narrative about states, we can live in a stateless world even without a saintly populace.

It is a false and arrogant belief that only angelic geniuses are capable of believing that statelessness is possible and desirable. If a bunch of idiots can live in a world of technological wonder, so too can a bunch of jerks live in a world of freedom.

Beyond Good & Evil

Since our move to South Carolina I’ve had a renewed interest in American history and, in particular, the history of the South and the institution of slavery. I’m a Yankee invader, so my notions of the South were pretty simplistic. I saw monuments and read snippets that were incongruent with the narrative I grew up with regarding the Civil War, slavery, and the South in general. It became clear how uncomfortably complex the whole mess was.

A friend recommended Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese. What an excellent book! The author filters some things through a lens of Marxian class theory, which is not really my thing, but the book is jam-packed with counter-intuitive insight and uses tons primary sources in a very enlightening way, not just a bombardment of long quotations or endless footnotes which historians sometimes do. The book is a great reminder of how much more complex the world is than we try to make it in retrospect. American slavery was not a simple story of good people and evil people. It was not a simple case of economic exploitation. It was an elaborate and highly nuanced institution with unlikely defenders and enemies. It was an evil institution, but the people within it were not necessarily evil or good.

I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that institutions can be good or evil even if the people within those institutions are not. I think it’s important to remember this. It doesn’t let us off the hook with sweeping declarations of good and evil. It forces us to look at the world as it is, and understand that people respond to incentives, and that good people can support bad institutions because of false beliefs. It doesn’t mean they aren’t accountable for their beliefs, but they mightn’t be knowingly engaging in evil.

Genovese’s book revealed that some slave owners abhorred the institution. Why didn’t they simply free their slaves? Sometimes state law prohibited or made very difficult the freeing of slaves. Some owners believed that, once freed, the slaves would risk re-enslavement by others, a much crueler life in the free but still racist North, or great hardship in a world for which they were not equipped. Whether this was true, there was some reason for slave owners to have such fears. Some freed slaves did suffer these fates. One doesn’t have to hate slavery any less or agree with the logic of these conflicted slave owners to allow the possibility that they needn’t have been pure evil. One former slave owner wrote how wrong he had been to assume that the slaves needed him and that he needed the slaves. He described how poorly most plantations were doing financially, and how the end of slavery actually improved them economically. He talked about how well the former slaves got on away from the plantation. Both of these outcomes surprised him. His worldview was so entrenched that he failed to see how the institution was harming not only the slaves but his own economic well-being.

The more difficult fact is how many slaves claimed to not want freedom, and how many chose not to take it when given the chance. One could make the material case that some slaves might have had better lives on a plantation than the other options available at the time, and that is certainly worth considering, but it strikes me that there’s something deeper at play here. There is a belief in one’s own helplessness and a fear of the unknown common to all people who have long been oppressed. When the Soviet Union fell there were stories of people who did not know what to do and longed for the security of the previous tyranny. Abused spouses sometimes exhibit similar behavior. Fear of the unknown dangers of freedom does not make the captives bad people in any of these cases. It reveals the complex nature of such institutions and reminds us that long-run oppression of such magnitude requires far more than physical force: it requires some level of belief on the part of oppressors, oppressed, and third parties that the institution is either moral, necessary, or at least inevitable.

We do ourselves a disservice if we boil everything down to good vs. evil and explain every tyranny as the result of raw physical power. People are complicated creatures who seek the most gain at the least expense and who accept or contrive all manner of beliefs to justify their choices. Or maybe the beliefs come first and determine the choices. Either way, in the long run ideas shape the institutions we live under. History and our own times are better understood when we treat people like rational actors whose choices are shaped by their beliefs rather than evil egomaniacs or saintly altruists.

There is a lot to learn from the experience of American slavery. It was a unique institution, but not so unique that it doesn’t have modern lessons and parallels. Many people failed to see beyond slavery. What evils do we fail to see beyond or imagine the world without? Robert Higgs provides some provocative food for thought here.