Russ Roberts

George Will on America, Politics, and Baseball

EconTalk Episode with George Will
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Author and syndicated columnist George Will talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the state of the country, the nature of politics, and at the end, a little about baseball. The conversation begins with Will discussing his career and how someone with a Ph.D. from Princeton got involved in politics and then writing. Will then discusses the current political environment and how little some things have changed in politics. Other topics include the future of journalism and Will's predictions for how the Chicago Cubs will fare this season (4th place).

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: February 15, 2011.] Start with your biography. Tell us how your career started and how you got to how you are. I grew up in Champaign, IL; I was a faculty brat. My father was a Professor of Philosophy at the U. of Illinois. Went away to school at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, which I could afford to do only because Trinity alumnus had set aside scholarship money for Illinois students. After Trinity, I went to Oxford for two years studying what's called PPE--Policy, Philosophy, and Economics. Leaving Oxford, I didn't know quite what I wanted to do, so I applied to law school, and Princeton in philosophy. I went to Princeton because it was midway between two National League cities, which will give you a sense of how fundamentally unserious I was as a scholar. I got a Ph.D. in three years and went off to teach, intending to make a career of it and taught for a year at Michigan State U. and then at the U. of Toronto. Went to Michigan State in the fall of 1967; Toronto in the fall of 1968. In the fall of 1969, Everett Dirksen died, Illinois Senator, minority leader of the Senate then for the Republicans, and the Republicans shuffled their leadership and a Colorado Senator named Gordon Allott, of whom I had never heard, became third ranking Republican in the Senate and chairman of the Policy Committee. He decided he wanted to hire to write for him a Republican academic, and there weren't any. 1960s; I was the only one in North America and I was in Canada. By serendipity he heard about me; I got to Washington and went to work for him. In January 1970, through Kent State, Watergate, the beginnings of Watergate. In the summer of 1972, I decided three years was going to be enough and I wanted to move on. Like so many people who come to Washington, I never looked back. Decided to stay. I called Bill Buckley, who I knew vaguely, had written a couple of things for National Review (NR) and I said the NR needs a Washington Editor. And Bill, as was his wont, said: You're right, I do; and you're it. At that time, Agnew was going around the country mau mauing the press about being too liberal, and editorial page editors were looking for conservative columnists. So just as I was leaving the Senate staff--Allott lost that year, which wasn't easy to do--we lost in Colorado while Nixon was carrying 49 states defeating McGovern; but we did lose. I began writing for NR in January 1973, at a time when Meg Greenfield, Deputy Editor of the Washington Post said: Why don't you also begin submitting columns to us? Essentially, William Safire, Pat Buchanan, and I became columnists at the same time. The Post wanted Safire, lost, and settled for me. He ended up at the New York Times. In the fall of 1973, the Post started a writers' group--as simple and cheap to syndicate two as one; I was the second. Now they've got a whole stable of people they've been syndicating for more than 30 years. So, you almost became a lawyer, professor. Well, I did become a professor for two and half years; if Dirksen hadn't died in a timely manner, I would be a retired college professor somewhere today. The world would be a poorer place. Well, I'd be poorer, that's for sure. That's relevant, but I was thinking the rest of us. Twists and turns: you could have stayed an academic; you could have gone into politics with more enthusiasm. I couldn't have gone into politics in Canada. I might have moved around. In 1973, you started being syndicated by the Washington Post. They started syndicating me in 1974. And the rest is history. Along the way you've added some TV work; you've written some books. I've published 13 books, written more than 4000 columns, filled more pages of Newsweek than anyone in the history of that magazine. The 4000 columns is kind of remarkable. Do you have a routine, and if so, have you had one since the beginning? Well, no, I don't have a routine. I'm writing 123 columns a year, 5 every two weeks, 2 for the newspaper each week and every other week for Newsweek. I'm always writing book reviews; usually at work on a book of some sort, so basically, I write all the time. I come in in the morning; I know what I want to write about; I've never been without a topic; I've always had in my wallet half of a 3x5 card with a list of--right now--probably 15 topics that I'm hoping to get to. When I first started as a columnist, I asked Bill Buckley what I now know is the question most frequently asked of a columnist: How do you come up with things to write about. Bill's answer was: The world irritates me three times a week. The irritates, amuses, or makes me curious, mostly 5 times every two weeks. And sometimes a little more often. When something bugs you, you write it down on that little card? For example: I've been planning now a trip to Kansas City--for two reasons: The school system there closed about half its schools last September, and that matters not just because of the general condition of urban education but also because Kansas City was the scene of a disastrous judicial intervention in public schools. A judge ordered taxes to be raised, dislocation of governmental due process in an attempt to stem the problems of urban education by throwing money at them, with predictable and cataclysmic results. Second, I want to go to see Mr. Hoenig, member of the Federal Reserve Board, hawk on inflation; and since I don't think there are enough of those out there, I thought I'd go see him. And you'll write on both those things. Both.
8:42Do you still enjoy it? Oh, yeah. Like being a surgeon or fighter pilot: if you don't enjoy it, you can't possibly do it. Certainly can't do it well. If you can't do it well, you shouldn't do anything. After all these years, I think in 750-word chunks. I've got the rhythm; it would be hard to stop. Do they edit you at all? I have a very good editor, who tightens up a paragraph, puts a comma there; extremely helpful. Do you ever fight with them? No, never. Remember, I have 450 editors around the country; the Post is not my paper other than that they syndicate the column. I haven't been in the Washington Post building for years. The papers can run it or not run it as they see fit. How about Mr. Buckley--did he give you any advice now and then? Yes, periodically; he'd say: That's a cliche; that's awkward. He was exceedingly tolerant. Story: When I began writing for him in January 1973, the very week that Judge Sirica's imposed draconian measures on James McCord, one of the Watergate burglars, caused him to crack and the unraveling of the coverup began, I saw very early that Nixon was guilty and was probably going to have to go. NR subscribers, including the generous people whose contributions kept it afloat--like most small magazines, it didn't turn a profit and depended on contributions--they tended to rally around Richard Nixon and to view this as a kind of attempt to overturn the 1972 election. And, I became a big problem for Bill; cost him contributors; and not once ever did he try to restrain what I wrote about Nixon. To his great credit. Never tried to temper my writing at all. They do a memo within NR surveying various things and one topic had the simple headline on it: Letters to the editor and George Will--because they were all the same thing, people mad at me. Bill, with exquisite fairness, just rode it out, partly because I think of all people he suspected what was coming. His brother James Buckley, then Senator, was one of the first if not the first Republican to say Nixon should resign. Has the process gotten any easier or harder? I don't really know. I think I write a little more complicated columns, less opinion, more facts; plenty of opinions in my columns but I'm not doing my job right if people don't learn things. It's a craft, not an art. I'm not painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It's like making shoes. Albeit good shoes.
12:38Let's turn to the country. You hear a lot of complaints that American politics has gotten grosser, dirtier, more partisan. What's your take on that? It certainly hasn't gotten dirtier in the sense of dirty tricks or corruption; there's never been less of that. The ethics rules are if anything too stringent now. The press scrutiny of dirty tricks and the public intolerance of that is now at a high level. So in that sense, politics has never been cleaner. In an inherent sense, I would go so far as to say corruption and administrative state we have--the government is so big and so deeply involved everywhere you or it turns in the allocation of wealth and opportunity that the national pastime is no longer baseball--it is rent-seeking. That just comes with the territory. One of the crowning ironies of our day is that liberals, who are the great architects of our state, are also the great complainers about lobbyists, who are the natural consequence of the growth of the administrative state. When government decisions allocation great wealth and opportunity, great wealth will be spent on influencing government decision-making. Follows like night to day. Market working. In that sense, politics is a little more coarse than it used to be. But, what people are complaining about nowadays is the tone, the shrillness and the stridency. I would say two things: Revisit the 1790s, when the Federalists said that if Jefferson is elected in 1800, he will confiscate the Bibles and the Jeffersonians said if the Federalists win and if Adams wins in 1800, we will have a monarchy and the Republic will be overthrown. Revisit the 1850s with the sectional crisis and the lowering cloud of the Civil War, when Preston Brooks, Congressman from South Carolina walked across the Capital to the Senate floor accompanied by a man carrying a gun so he could hold off any Senators who might come to the aid of Charles Sumner and beat Charles Sumner, the Senator from Massachusetts, nearly to death with his--Brooks'--cane. Brooks was out for three years; the people of South Carolina, so pleased were they with Brooks' behavior they sent him an avalanche of canes. Revisit the Red Scare of the 1920s, the McCarthyism of the late 1940s and early 1950s. We go through these periods. We don't have people in Congress any more like James Eastland or Rankin of Mississippi or Talmadge of Georgia. As the country has become nicer and more civilized, politics has also become so. What's different today is there are so many more megaphones for so many more ignoramuses, frankly; and the number of outlets ravenous for people to come on and talk and write have grown much faster than the supply of talent. So, you've got some pretty weak minds out there. The cacophony is pretty unpleasant. But most of these people, be it of the right or the left, have pretty small audiences, and their audiences are either true believers or masochists who want to be offended. The vast majority of our 308 million people in this country are too busy doing other things to pay any attention to it. National pastime for a group of folks who like consuming it. Most of us are making a living. But they're the junkies, paying attention. You mention the country has gotten nicer. I think that's true; it feels like it's true. One measure would be what it's like to go to school when you are 11, 12, or 15 and different from the other kids. It seems to me things aren't as tough as they used to be; we're more tolerant on that dimension. Probably less tolerant elsewhere, but there is a certain civility to modern life that seems to be different. Is that true? Is it just imagination? It's true. Especially in the South, it used to be routine that the majority insulted the minority in common, daily behavior. Sometimes they didn't know they were insulting someone, didn't intend, but they did, just by treating African Americans as a caste, and an inferior caste. It's much better to be gay in America today than it used to be. A good thing. Why did that happen, do you think? Well, it happened with regard to race because a bunch of extraordinarily brave and far-sighted people, Martin Luther King, and a whole bunch of others, decided it was time to put an end to it. The second World War had a lot to do with this, sheer unmerited good luck of this country in having someone like Martin Luther King come along to channel the growing anger and rage into constructive channels. Martin Luther King had the genius to say: We're not asking America to change; we're asking America to be true to its old commitments. He grounded the Civil Rights movement in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence. Extraordinarily shrewd political man. Of course, it took a long time. Well, did it now? Once it got started, it went awfully fast. I'm just thinking back to 1776. And then we had the collapse of reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow; but once the Civil Rights movement got going after WWII, by 1975 we'd really changed the country. That's amazingly quick. That's 110 years from Appomattox, but 30 years after the second World War, and 20 years after Brown vs. Board of Education.
19:56When I think about it, government legislation on these kind of topics, I like to say that government can't change human beings; we need to change ourselves. Legislation often leads to unintended consequences. What do you think of the argument that Civil Rights legislation played a role in the changing of the attitudes--not the behavior, the attitudes? It's easy to say people pay lip service or there's political correctness, but I think people react differently and have very different attitudes at heart than they did when I was growing up or 50 or 60 years ago. Of course, legislation did. First of all, the Supreme Court put its prestige on the line, and in doing so acquired vastly new prestige with Brown vs. Board of Education. Constitutional law; it's a fact that the country is broadly deferential to and wants to follow the Supreme Court. Second, you can say all you want that you can't legislate morality, and you can say maybe you shouldn't legislate morality; but you certainly can; we did. We said, from now on it is just not acceptable in America--we are going to stigmatize it with law, we are going to make you people sit next to one another in school and go to the same swimming pools and go to movies together and eat at the same lunch counters: Get over it. And you know what? People got over it. That approach didn't work so well with other things, right? Not with other things. We legislated against taking drugs or Prohibition--people didn't get over it. There you were legislating against appetites. This is legislating against a kind of moral behavior, and stigmatizing it worked. Stigma is very powerful. I wonder how much of that is cultural versus they work together. I'm not a fan of political correctness at all, and yet I think there are some benefits from taking care not to hurt people. Rent-seeking, a topic closely related to the work at George Mason U. and the work of Gordon Tullock and others here in the area called Public Choice. I think you said it was ironic that people who support the expansion of the administrative state, to the left of center, also are against, resent, surprised by the profusion of rent seeking as people look to take advantage of the large administrative state. How do you explain that attitude? It's just that people have strangely bifurcated minds. They are unlikely to see the bad consequences of their good intentions. People are heavily invested--liberals are particularly--in the self-image that they are uniquely disinterested and public-spirited. They look around and they see the seamy side of Washington, the K Street side, if you will, and they say: Gosh, how did that happen? And they don't want to say: It happened because of me. Of course, they'd like to say, to put the best shine on it: If people just behaved themselves, this wouldn't happen. But people won't behave themselves. People are as the Founders--cold-sighted, clear-eyed gentlemen--understood are interested creatures, and they will pursue their self-interests. You try, therefore, to create a government, as Madison said: Republican remedies for the diseases to which republics are susceptible. One of those is faction and self-interestedness going too far, and being incited by the opportunities provided by a government that simply has too much to say over the allocation of wealth and opportunity. I share your worldview with the Founders that people are self-interested; being an economist I also think that they are altruistic at times--many times. But it's interesting that my hope--and maybe I'm being as idealistic and unrealistic as any liberal of the modern variety--is that people might actually start to feel ashamed. They'll uphold the Constitution. I can imagine a world--faraway world--where government was allowed to do what it was allowed by the Constitution and not much more than that. That's a world I'd like to live in, and I can imagine convincing people that that's a world they'd want to live in. Am I any different from the guy on the left who says: Well, lobbyists should just start to feel ashamed of themselves? No, you have a little more realism than they do. Not a lot more, but a little more. Why? Well, look at the Tea Party Movement. The Tea Party Movement is a genuine, spontaneous combustion of people doing what Americans do. We are a relentlessly forward-looking and forward-leaning people. But, our politics always has a retrospective cast to it, because people take their bearings from the Founding moment, from the Revolution and the Declaration that launched it; and from the Constitution. The Tea Party Movement takes its bearings from something that happened in 1773. It's a Madisonian recoil from what Governor Mitch Daniels from Minnesota called the shock and awe statism of the Obama administration. Which indicates a pretty strong residual respect for the Madisonian idea of limited government. Although, the parody of the Tea Party Movement is: Keep the government out of my Medicare payment. I understand. The easy part is the low-hanging fruit: get rid of corporation republic broadcasting. Well, of course get rid of that. But that's a rounding error on the GM bailout. Earmarks. Trivial. We could even throw in the Amtrak subsidy. There are so many little things--they don't add up to much even when you add them all together.
27:01The Constitution. Does it have any role to play in modern American political life, public policy? Sure it does, because there is this great residual respect for it. More respect for it than understanding of it, but respect for it is not a negligible force. People do have to, at the end of the day--and this is another Tea Party achievement--people are now reminded that we are a government in theory of delegated, enumerated, and limited powers. And, once you can reinsert that vocabulary into the national political argument, you've made progress. No doubt. As we are recording this we are in the midst of some sort of unknowable transition, say, in Egypt. I think there is a tremendous amount of sympathy among the average American--we love seeing a dictator leave. We don't like seeing what often comes in his place. A democracy in Egypt might not be a very pleasant thing. Democracy in Pakistan could be a disaster. But still, it's enspiriting to see it happen. But here at home, we are heading, in the Supreme Court, with the coming case of the constitutionality of the health care mandate, to decide whether there are any limits to the power that a government can derive under the power to regulate interstate commerce. And, if there aren't, then the Madisonian project is finished. There is no limited government. This case, while not at the Dred-Scott, Brown-vs.-Board-of-Education level, is going to be just a cut below that as a constitutional moment. The budget was just unveiled. The Obama Administration, I think it's $3.73--I don't know why I use that 3; just for humor--it's almost $4 trillion dollars; 25% or so of GDP. There are plenty of things the government can do that are considered constitutional that are disturbing. I worry a lot about it. It's an old axiom that what's alarming in Washington isn't what's done that's illegal but what's done that legal. Kind of an extraordinary thing to be at a time that the government has grown by 25% in nominal terms in the last 3 years, and we are arguing over $100 billion dollars in cuts, $3.7 to $3.6, instead of $2.7 trillion. Really extraordinary. What about the rule of law? You mentioned Mitch Daniels' shock and awe, the expansion of the state. It started with the Bush Administration, really--the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the role of the Federal Reserve. We've seen in my lifetime an unprecedented expansion of discretionary power, especially put forward by people who weren't elected, like the Chairman of the Fed. What do you feel about them? Well, 50 years ago we had 100 Senators and 435 Congressman; today we have the same. And the busy-ness of the government has increased 20-fold. Obviously, not even Congress can lengthen the number of hours in a day. They tried; they did mandate a 13-month year once. But this being said, it is an iron law that as the government expands, the rule of law contracts. It does so because Congress winds up passing laws that, instead of actually bind people and direct Federal agencies, it passes sentiments. We should have clean air, maximum feasible this or that. And off we go to the rule-making process. Riskless financial institutions. Exactly. All the rule-making that is done and recorded in the Federal Register makes the Federal Register much more urgent reading than the Congressional Record. Which is a bad sign for self-government. This is the progressive aim. The progressive aim was to concentrate more and more power in Washington, in the Executive Branch, and concentrate in the Executive Branch more and more experts--today we call them Czars. And the experts were to administer the government, top down, to prosperity and rationality. And Congress was intended to be marginalized and made into essentially a bystander. That process, the rule-making process--what I find fascinating about it is that I think for people who don't pay attention, who are not political junkies, they are kind of amazed at this. It's kind of a secret. Not a secret in the sense that it's hidden. It's just not well known. So, for example, the recent health care bill, a lot of people were paying attention to that, fortunately, but the financial reform of Dodd-Frank--both of those cases, very little of the reform was legislated. It was just left up to future negotiations, rule-making. I'll just take Dodd-Frank as an example. I just have a feeling that Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan and Citigroup are going to be a little more attentive in that process than I'm going to be. So why would you expect it to turn out to serve the public interest? Someone recently, I wish I could remember who, has written something saying that the administrative state is inherently an engine of inequality, because those who are most able to manipulate the administrative process are the wealthy, the well-connected, the intense, the compact interest groups that concentrate their attention and the legal talent they can hire on manipulate this process. Whereas, the unorganized mass of Americans are simply not involved. And they hear the sentiments--which are lovely. It's the old point about the law that governs Washington is the law that concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. That's why we have sugar quotas; 308 million Americans eat sugar; a few thousand Americans grow sugar. We have sugar quotas. Why? Concentrated benefits, dispersed costs. Probably told this story on EconTalk before, but when I mentioned my distress over that fact to a Congressional staffer, he said--and I think I used hundreds of people grow sugar--he said: Well, it's more like a dozen. Even more depressing. A few toes of families in that business making an enormous amount of money.
34:39When you think of that way--and when I think of the glass as half-empty, I get depressed; that's what irritates me and I write about it--is it really just half-full? Is it surprising how little of that takes place as opposed to, say, Argentina or maybe some other place? Well, it is little compared to Argentina. We are healthily indignant about the corruption we cause. It may be a little foolish and contradictory, but that's the way it is. Second, this is a transaction cost of democracy. There is, as Adam Smith famously and rightly said, much ruin in a nation. Get over it. Again. It ain't pretty, and it ain't tidy; but it beats the heck out of Chavez, Putin, Berlusconi, Sarkosy for that matter--all these people. In the academic world, sometimes I think about the distinction between Milton Friedman and George Stigler. George Stigler was in the get-over-it mode: it's something to study and laugh at and that's just the way it is; and Milton Friedman said: I'm going to tilt at those windmills. And he did, though--he made a difference. So the truth must lie somewhere in between. Let's talk a little bit about the economic future of the country. There's a train wreck coming. I used to naively think: We'll muddle through, we'll fix it. Now, I'm not so confident. Cynical or less naive--I don't know what the right mix is. We do have this demographic problem: We've made these promises. "They are mandatory! On Social Security and Health Care: They can't be changed!" Sure they can. And they will be. One of my pet peeves is I want to get rid of the phrase "discretionary spending." Me, too. It's all discretionary. With the possible exception of the 6% that is debt service. That we really have no choice; we have to pay that or the sky will fall. Maybe. But Social Security is at our discretion to make it mandatory or not mandatory. So, we really ought to quit using the phrase. I agree with that, but it's very difficult and unpleasant for a politician to stand up and say: We're living beyond our means. A parent can do it. A parent can say to his kids: We bought a car we can't afford, we bought a house we can't afford, we sent you to schools we can't afford, and our vacation is too long, so next year we are doing x, y, and z; and it's not as much fun as it used to be, but we don't have a choice. Maybe the Mom and Dad discuss it among themselves; maybe some of the kids complain about and really like the vacation and say you should keep that and sell the car. But it gets wrangled out. How are we going to wrangle this out, given those fundamental incentives of politics? What the family doesn't have is its own fiat currency. We have fiat currency, so the government can make more of it. That's one way to get out of it. Democracies act about difficult problems under the lash of necessity, when they really have no other choice. We're not quite there yet. The British listened to Winston Churchill without really hearing him through the 1930s. They finally got serious when Hitler got to the Channel ports. And we are not at a Channel ports moment yet. Good point. So, looking at, say, Greece, or what might be coming in Spain; and we, I think for the fourth year in a row have a deficit of over a trillion dollars--you think there is going to be a showdown over that? The price of oil is going up; cotton, corn, and very soon the price of money has to go up. And once interest rates go up, then the structural costs of this borrowing are going to be severe. I think the recovery we have today is very fragile. Housing prices are still declining. We have a structural unemployment problem brought on by the combination of inadequate K-12 education plus immigration. And we are in danger of having a permanent submerged underclass. These are all huge problems--upward social mobility, which used to be the great promise of American life, is becoming problematic. I share your forebodings about the times we are heading into. I am not quite as worried about some of those things. I worry more about the political process and its ability to cope with that and its ability to say no. We get to a point sometimes where you have to say no; you don't have a choice. When you are the world's reserve currency, it's a lot easier. We probably won't default on our debt because we can deflate our way out of it. That will handicap our ability to do some creative things down the road.
40:25The world of journalism, one measure of your bailiwick, has changed a lot in the last 5-10 years. Do you feel that and where do you think that's going to go? Well, I do a little bit. I haven't been impacted as much as some people have. Thirty years ago, at the dinner hour in America, all television sets were tuned to ABC, CBS, NBC. That oligopoly is shattered beyond repair and that's a good thing. It's been shattered by some pretty weird people in some cases, but on balance it's just an excellent thing that the country doesn't gather around those three little campfires every evening. I don't know what the future of journalism is. I tend to think people are always going to want to hold a newspaper; but I must say--I get up at 5 every morning; I get up when something goes slap on the sidewalk in front of my house--and I do wonder how long they can keep chopping down trees in Canada, turning them into paper, covering the paper with ink, giving it to an immigrant in an SUV at 3 in the morning to get fed onto my front sidewalk. Amazing how good it is. I always ask young people when I meet them--people under 30--Do you read a newspaper? I haven't found one who reads a newspaper in 10 years. Do you have an iPad? I was given one and my son stole it. It's a pretty pleasant way to keep up with the world. I think some version of that is the way of the future. There will always be a market for people who use words; just isn't going to be the same kind of market. I don't want to stand athwart history and cry halt to creative destruction. The iPod was invented in 2001, at which point there were 80,000 Americans working in music stores. Ten years later there are 20,000 Americans working in music stores. But the other 60,000 are working somewhere else. This particular month it's hard to find a job, but there will be, when the overall economy gets healthier--it will get easier. How about you and your personal philosophy, your political philosophy? Have you changed? Do you feel you've changed in any way you are comfortable talking about over the last 5, 10, 20 years? I'm a little more libertarian than I used to be, a little less confident of government's skills or good motives than I used to be. I was somewhat radicalized by McCain-Feingold. Why? It never occurred to me that Congress, the political class, would have the audacity to pass legislation controlling the quantity, content, and timing of political speech about the political class, or that the Supreme Court would then affirm it. The Supreme Court has been backing off from that by a bit. Yeah, a little. But McCain-Feingold resensitized me to the dangers of government power. We talked a little bit about rent seeking and public choice and how people view politicians. Somebody said to me today: Well, I think Obama thinks he needs to keep the job market at the front of his mind, and that's why he's got a big budget. And my first reaction was: I don't think he has any idea what economics is about. He just thinks it's good to spend money because it helps his friends. And he certainly has a good excuse for it. I raise that as an example. I think most people, non-economists certainly, look at politicians as earnest folk trying to do their best. And I have trouble doing that. So, when I watch the State of the Union address, and I watch them jumping up and down, applauding the President saying nothing for an hour, I find it hard to take it seriously. You've seen a lot of them. I'm not asking about this particular one, because most of them are pretty darn similar. Do you look at politics as anything other than spectacle, or do you find yourself getting involved in rooting from time to time? Oh, I get involved and I root. The American project is dear to my heart. It's a great story, the American story. I'd like to see it treated with more respect than it often is. I take all this seriously. When I quit taking it seriously, I'll do something else. Who are the politicians you respect over the years? Scoop Jackson, for his prescience and steadfastness on the Cold War when his Democratic Senator and party veered to the left, he didn't. My best friend, particularly toward the end of his life, was Pat Moynihan, a very rare kind of intellectual in politics. Short list. You want to throw in a couple more? I'm very fond of Mitch McConnell, who came to Washington as a Senate aide. He's been around the Senate forever. Institution man: he knows the rules, he knows the limits of the place; he's a craftsman. Going back to the change you've mentioned in yourself, becoming more libertarian: you mentioned McCain Feingold. How much has foreign policy played a role in that? You were very early on an outspoken critic of some of the Bush Administration's activities in the war, and I think some people saw you as being traitorous to the conservative side. Now some people would say you weren't much of a conservative. My credentials were pretty good. I was a cold warrior in good standing, and Scoop Jackson is one of my political pinups. I thought the Soviet Union was dangerous right to the end; I thought Gorbachev was more dangerous than I think Ronald Reagan did. I think I was partly right about that. People forget that Gorbachev's aim was never what happened, never to see the end of the Soviet Union. He wanted to modernize Communist Party rule in the Soviet Union. If he'd succeeded, it would have been alarming. It turns out, I now understand--but he couldn't succeed. The Soviet Union died of ignorance. Not having a price system, it couldn't know what anything could cost. They came up with a manufacturing process called "value subtraction"--they produced shoes worth less than the value of the materials that went into them. I am much clearer about that now than I was at the time. But some of my conservative friends, who are clear-eyed about the limits of our government working at will in this country, tend to lose that clarity regarding this country as it tries to work its will abroad. What I find remarkable about that--besides that inconsistency, which I think I've been guilty of in the past--I find it rather striking when you read accounts of the Warner Act and ask and still ask our soldiers to do, it's not what they are trained to do and not what they are well-suited to do. Not what they enlisted to do, either. They are really good at killing people and doing it with minimal casualties to themselves. Asking them to make friends seems like a very strange mandate for them. I don't understand it. It is. But if you are going to be doing counterinsurgency with large forces, that's what you are going to wind up doing. And they persist. Interesting, they put their head down and they try to do it. They have their own culture. I find it interesting how few have said: What the heck is this about? They keep trying.
49:33Let's talk about something important: Baseball. One of your loves and one of mine. Spring is here, so all is right with the world. What is right and wrong with the game of baseball? What are you excited about and what are you unexcited about about the game of baseball? I think baseball is fundamentally very healthy right now. People are pouring through the turnstiles. Much more competitive balance than we used to have. Four 10 consecutive years, the previous World Series winner has not won the World Series. That's just short of the record--we have 4 short years, 1979-1973 when I guess you didn't have a repeat winner of the World Series. And very few New York Yankee winning of the World Series. Well, the Yankees demonstrate the declining utility of dollars in baseball. We've seen it in politics. Otherwise Meg Whitman would be Governor of California. But baseball's basic economic model predates the Internet, television, radio, airplanes, the internal combustion engine. It goes back to the middle of the 19th century when teams were loosely federated individual enterprises. Baseball has slowly been going from the articles of confederation to the constitution--that is, used to be said "the United States are," and became "the United States is." Major league baseball is now becoming one entity with 30 partners in it. The more rational economic model--I was one of four members, with Paul Volker, George Mitchell, and Rick Levin, the President of Yale who was an economist--a four-person, blue-ribbon Commission on Baseball Economics in the late 1990s. Our report became the collective owners' bargaining position in 2002, and what we did was study the roots of competitive imbalance in baseball's economics. The problem, to put it simply, was: far too much was predictable simply in terms of the number of television sets in the team's area. Because local broadcast revenues are terribly important in broadcast baseball in a way they are not in the National Football League (NFL). The NFL gets, a). the lion's share of its revenues from national tv contracts, and they share it equally. So, you can have a little team in northern Wisconsin can win the Superbowl. Baseball has had to tweak and nudge and fiddle with its economic model. But it's done so successfully. Yeah, I've never thought about it. It's actually one of the great innovations of the late 19th, early 20th century, called the League. What a great and remarkable innovation that is. Rather than just "Let's play today," you agree to abide by a set of rules. A lot of people misunderstand what baseball is, or any sport. It's one firm--it's the whole thing, and they jockey for position within; very controlled and rigid ways that differ across sports. What are the biggest changes in your lifetime that you think about, care about, and wish they were different from how they are? Well, since the second World War, the three biggest events were Jackie Robinson, free agency, and Camden Yards. Jackie Robinson brought an entire wave of talent in. A second wave came from Latin America, Dominican Republic, etc. Free agency: Not only extended to baseball players a basic American right, which is the right of the needs of a league, but the right to negotiate the terms of employment with the employer of your choice; and did not have at all the bad consequences that were predicted. And Camden Yards--we conservatives are always told you can't turn the clock back--sure we did. We went back to the old-style ball parks after those foolish ballparks built in the 1960s and 1970s as dual purpose for football and baseball. And good for neither. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis--we went back to ballparks that took advantage of the fact that baseball is the most observable of team games. Meaning? Meaning we have 9 people spread over and eye-pleasing green field, and you want to bring the fans as close as possible to the action; let them look at it. I totally agree with you, of course. I'm a Red Sox fan, and Fenway Park is, like Wrigley Field, the best way to watch a baseball game. Territory is so small. Best place right now is Pittsburgh. I haven't been there. Great place. How do you feel about the Nationals' new stadium? I think it's fine. Limits to have often you can reinvent Camden Yards. It's a perfectly serviceable, new ballpark. Yeah, that's my take. Nice place to watch a game in terms of sightlines to the field. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal today saying that talking about sports is perhaps more fun than participating. One of your remarks about free agency reminds me that one of the benefits of free agency is the possibility of teams changing their composition quickly, which generates a lot of talk radio entertainment. Maybe not much else. Fairness aspect to me seems in letting people negotiate their own contract and where they work.
56:08Most important question: the Chicago Cubs. You are a lifelong fan, right? What is your earliest Cubs memory? Early 1950s, 1951, 1952, something like that. Coming up from Champaign, Illinois by car; Hank Sauer and Andy Pafko and people like this. Wasn't until about 1954 that the Cubs got a great player--in my lifetime--Ernie Banks. Banks and then 8 other guys, and then you'd get Banks up again. So, what is your forecast for this year? Well, I think the Cubs if they have a good year, they can hold on to fourth. Cincinnati is getting better, more experience; the Cardinals have got a little more talent and the Brewers are much improved. So, thank God for the Pirates. Do you get pleasure from the season even though the Cubs finish fourth? Yeah, because I'm a baseball guy, and I still do work for major league baseball. Get the package on my direct tv, so I can come home from the Nationals and the Orioles games, and I've got season tickets at both places, and turn on the West Coast games. You mentioned that blue ribbon commission, and you've spent time with a lot of great managers, baseball players, and books you've written. How would you rate those thrills relative to the political arena? You've rubbed shoulders with a lot of different sets of people. Want to compare them? Politicians and athletes are both very competitive. That's how they get to where they are. No one floats up to the Big League or into the Senate. There are rules to the game. In a sense both games and in a sense both not games. I suppose I get more pleasure, certainly, from baseball. And who do you respect in that world? In baseball? Bud Selig. He's become a good friend of mine. He's a tremendously successful commissioner. Taken a lot of criticism. Well, he has. Comes with the territory. But since he has become Acting Commissioner I think in 1992, 20 new ballparks, revenue sharing, peaceful labor settlement the last time out, interleague play. Oh horrors! I'm not against the designated hitter (DH), but we're stuck with it. Oh, great! The players' association--it's a very highly played position, because it's usually an aging star. Therefore, it's not going away. But it's not coming to the National League, is it? No. Interesting thing, right? It's one league, but there is a little room for a little bit of creativity there. Would be possible, I think, to get rid of the DH, I think, if you expanded the number of roster spots. If you give the union 27, that would be 60 more major league places, you might get it that way. You might have to if we ever had 15 teams in each league, which we might someday do, then you'd have to have inter-league play all year round. The idea of juggling DH then becomes difficult. What about steroids? Seems a black mark for the game. The players' association would not address it. It's a collective bargaining issue. Very little he could do. Do you think it's still going on? No, I don't. Such are the rewards, psychic and economic rewards, of athletic excellence, there will always be incentives to cheat. There will always be chemists who will try and help you cheat. And there will always be an ongoing race forever between the good chemists and the bad chemists. The good chemists try and devise tests to catch the bad chemists. But, I think right now the good guys are winning.

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COMMENTS (34 to date)
Richard writes:

Russ, excellent, fascinating interview. George Will may have been the GOP's unique academic in the early 70s, but today he stands in the tradition of intellectual conservatism once occupied by his mentor William F. Buckley -- a tradition too marginalized these days and too often drowned out by shrill gotcha partisanship for my taste.

I was puzzled, however, about why, during your thoughtful discussion of baseball, you didn't ask Will about his views on the heavy public subsidies to baseball stadia construction around the country. Businesses in DC each pay thousands of dollars annually in taxes to amortize construction costs for the Nationals stadium. And one is hard pressed to conclude that Will's iconic Camden Yards would exist but for the stadium mania that infested Maryland politicians for a number of years.

Krishnan writes:

Great interview, chat ... but I have a question/comment

At one point, George Will said something to effect of terrible K-12 education AND IMMIGRATION - and the context of that mention of immigration was about how thing were getting worse ...

Russ did not challenge George. Does George Will consider immigration to be a problem? I am sure given the thousands of articles he has written (and books) what he believes about immigration is well known ... I guess I was startled by his adding immigration to the terrible K-12 education

gappy3000 writes:

I disagree with about 70% of Will's columns. He's not a venomous, partisan writer in the mold of Krugman of Krauthammer, but his opinions are sometimes arbitrary and seemingly contradictory: he's overall a free trader, but against immigration, for example. I would have liked a substantive discussion about the economic assumptions behind his opinion, rather than the melliflous "tell me about yourself" and the elegiac notes on Baseball.

By the way, praising Mohynian and Bill Buckley as champions of intelligent conservatism in America is really, *really* trite. And wrong.

James writes:

Good interview. Though I disagree with Will's opinions on many matters, I have always respected his erudition.

At one point, Will comments on the "bifurcation of the liberal mind" when they are at the same time critical of corruption in government while supporting expansion of government in the form of social services.

As a progressive liberal, I'd like to point out this is an inaccurate representation of the liberal position. One can at once feel the police perform an overall positive and constructive societal role while also condemning police corruption and advocating actions that reduce its prevalence. The view that elimination of the police all together is a viable solution to police corruption seems criminally naive to the liberal (and one may argue, the rational) mindset.

From the liberal view, the bifurcation is on the part of conservatism in its assumption that by removing the regulators, those they regulate will suddenly find a conscience where before they had none, that by eliminating public services corruption within the private sector will disappear, or that somehow human nature and its proclivity toward self interest only has negative consequences when found in the commonwealth.

Our incredulity at this assertion is fueled by our very history, where the most egregious affronts on the common good were perpetrated by the very private entities we are urged to embrace in lieu of the commons.

PrometheeFeu writes:

Russ,

I am disappointed by how little you challenged your guest on immigration destroying jobs. Yes, you did mention that you did not entirely agree with him but you were very non-specific and without prior knowledge of your opinion on the topic I would never have known that you disagreed with the idea of immigration destroying jobs. This is one of the big mistakes that is made consistently on the right (on par with "China is stealing our jobs" on the left) and it causes a large amount of grief and suffering to many people. This was an opportunity to push back on this terrible fallacy and you passed on it. It's not that you should have suddenly turned this into a full-blown debate on immigration, but it definitely warranted a little back and forth.

Krishnan writes:

Russ was too stricken with George Will, it seemed to me. To not challenge Will on the issue of immigration destroying jobs was a big mistake. At least, ask him what he meant. It is "Conservatives" like Will who will ensure that the left will use it as a wedge issue to hang on to power in 2012 and make it all but impossible to reverse the fiscal insanity we are under.

I am very disappointed.

Steve writes:

I very much appreciated the observation that lobbyist based rent seeking naturally follows from granting more power to the government. It is ironic that this follows from liberal agenda.

I think a common response, though, would be to question whether, in the case of a weaker government, those lobbying resources would be redirected in a good way relative to our local perspectives, as well as simply being more productive "economically."

Some liberals fear that private industries, as a group, operate at a level which is insensitive to individual people, and often destructive to our human interests. This is also true of governments, but assuming all organizations can be damaging, the best we can do is to set the institutions against each other in order to check the damage any one could do. For example, even within the government itself, it is clearly inefficient to have three branches in competition with each other. But it seems to be somewhat successful. If that structure is made irrelevant compared to the power of corporate interests and market forces to govern our lives we have lost an important achievement. There is no founding charter or political philosophy underpinning the competition and tactics used in private enterprise. Over-drastic reduction of government could resemble a regression to a feudal-like social contract.

Don't you think that some legislated limits upon the allocation of resources can be a potential check upon the emergence of the most rapacious competitive tactics? I think the disagreement is really regarding amount. As with a previous comment, a police force is a restriction but most people agree that it is a necessary evil. The problem is when an inside system develops wherein the players have made truce with each other. That is, when the police and the crooks make deals, or when the politically powerful are intimately connected with the privately powerful. In the latter case, it may not be helpful to simply get rid of political power. Instead we need an alternative incentive structure.

I think there is a liberal tendency to naively place too much trust that the government is a benevolent set of entities, but there is a conservative tendency to place too must trust that the market is a benevolent set of entities.

Mike Munger writes:

When I was running for Gov in NC in 2008, George Will was kind enough to interview me for a Newsweek article (link)

He wanted to know if I was really a Duke prof, and if I was really running for Gov as a Lib'n.

When I said yes, he said, "But, why? You can't win!"

I pointed out that I thought he, being a Cub fan, would understand. GW said, "Heh," for him a gale of laughter.

Then, for gappy3000: you should ask for your money back, dude. Clearly this was not a good product for you. But I doubt that many people would prefer a discussion of underlying economic assuptions to a talk about the holy game, especially this close to Opening Day. If it's just more pain you need, maybe you can just make papercuts on your fingers, and then put your hand in salt water.

David B. Collum writes:

"Never in the history of the world has there been a situation so bad that the government can’t make it worse."

Henry Morganthau Jr., 1939

You guys make me feel like a simpleton. I like listening to George Will for the same reason I used to like listening to William F. Buckley: the erudition (as stated above). I just love listening to how they (and Russ, for that matter) convert ideas into verbal prose. That's not easy to do. And as a guy who writes papers for a living, 4000 columns and and all those books leaves me in awe. (Buckley said he took about 160 hrs to rough out a first draft of a book. Wow.)

In another podcast posted this week, Chris Martenson interview Robert McFarlane. It wasn't particularly meaty and it certainly drew the wrath of those non-neocons. But, as Aristotle supposedly said, you can entertain an idea without endorsing it. I don't need to agree with an interview to be entertained by it.

Krishnan writes:

Re: Munger -> Re: gappy3000. Yes, we all get our money's worth, thanks for that reminder.

It IS important to note that early in the podcast, there WAS discussion about the country/economic issues and so Russ NOT asking George Will about his comments on K-12 and immigration was very disappointing.

Yes, I know - I do not have to listen if I do not have to. Thanks for that reminder.

[duplicate comment not posted--Econlib Ed.]

Richard W. Fulmer writes:

James and Steve,
You state the liberal/progressive position – that government is needed as a counterbalance to big business - very well. I disagree, though, that libertarians and conservatives place too much faith in the good intentions of businessmen. After all, it was Adam Smith himself who warned that businessmen seldom meet, even for fun and entertainment, when the conversation does not turn to some kind of conspiracy against the public.

We place our faith neither in businessmen nor in regulators, but in consumers. We believe that self-interested customers will far more effectively punish dishonest businessmen who produce shoddy products at exorbitant costs than will equally self-interested government officials.

Liberals fear the power of corporate monopolies; libertarians and conservatives fear the power of overweening governments. Whose fear is the more rational? Corporate monopolies have never existed except through government coercion. Corporations can compel no one to buy their products, governments can. Corporations cannot imprison dissenters, governments can. Corporations cannot send armies to attack their competitors, governments can. A CEO’s errors can destroy a company, a president’s errors can destroy a nation.

Steve writes:

re: Richard. I would agree that consumers themselves are the primary means of insuring the interests of consumers. That same distributed character can be a problem too, we don't act as a bloc. Consumers are better at (thoughtlessly) "punishing" businessmen for product problems then production problems, though there are means, e.g. boycott. But the second requires consideration and long term thinking. Capitalism is a good way to select for the most efficient business, not the most beneficial business.

As to your point about the distinction between corporations and governments, it seems like the words themselves are restricting your thinking. "Corporations" can and have done all the things you claim they can't. For a clear historical example: Hudson Bay Company. In abstraction there is no essential difference between the organizations we call companies and those we call governments. They are on the same continuum of self-serving collectives of people, they operate in nearly identical ways. The US government is a very large business with many monopolies that you, I presume, happen to be a member of. As one of the composite parts, you have means of influencing its character directly, albeit very slightly, and you have many explicit descriptions of its function. You have no means of directly influencing, understanding, or contributing to other most other organizations. A government has traditionally primarily concerned itself with a single geographical location, but that is not exclusive to governments nor without exception. Don't get caught up in the words of "government" vs "corporation." Think about how and why they exist and what your relationship is to them.

here is an peripherally related podcast: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2011/3139205.htm

Richard Walch writes:

The article Will referenced at 33:00 must be this one by Matthew Spaulding in the National Review: http://nrd.nationalreview.com/article/?q=NTNkMjM0ZTAwMDQ4MmRmYmUwODc0YjRmMTlhNGEyNGM=


James writes:

@Richard

The rational self interest of the consumer is a canard. I work in neuroscience and am not unfamiliar with game theory. I assure you, individual agents do not always act in their own self interest. This is particularly true when the harm is abstracted.

For example, if posed with a direct question "Should oil companies be allowed to dump millions of barrels of oil into the ocean indiscriminately?" you will receive a virtually unanimous "No. Absolutely not." However, those same individuals will purchase gas and products from the corner BP station simply due to convenience. There is a distinct disconnect between what one rationally knows to be correct action and the action that one takes when the harm is not proximal.

Another poignant example relates to tort law. The greater the number of people who die or are harmed by a company's actions, the less per person penalty the company pays. Counterintuitive as it seems. individuals do not possess the proper cognitive facilities to grasp harm on a great scale. This isn't to say they don't rationally grasp the difference in severity, for if asked the question "What is the greater bad, the poisoning of one person or the poisoning of 4,000 people?" they will invariably reply 4,000.

There are many other cognitive "gaps" in human understanding that cause a disconnect of rational judgements from practical application and behavior. The key is that we do understand, on a higher level, these harms. The ballot box and codified regulations are the rational expression of this knowledge and enable societies to overcome the cognitive biases that produce irrational behavior on the microeconomic scale.

Another problem in the unerring faith of the consumer's rational self interest is the assumption that a consumer is capable of tracking the labyrinthine interconnectedness of a business supply chain. If I were a very hyper aware consumer with no other desire than to play my part in placing economic pressure on those responsible for the BP disaster, I would have an enormous task on my hands. BP was partnered with Halliburton (drill design), two other minor petroleum companies (total 40% ownership), and several suppliers. Their products result in not only fuel, but various raw chemicals, textiles, plastics, and many others.

A person could spend months and possibly years simply compiling a list of what products to purchase or not to purchase. And that's one incident...or that person can exert pressure on her representatives to strengthen regulatory law and increase penalties for such infractions that would not only effect BP, but all corporations participating in the same economies.

> A CEO’s errors can destroy a company, a president’s errors can destroy a nation.

The Gulf Coast would like to have a word with you. :)

I'm merely speaking of human nature and how the right-libertarian ideal of the economic agent always acting in their own rational self-interest is simply not supported by what we know of human psychology.

It's true that corporations and business will leverage government power toward their own devices if not kept in check, but the conclusion that if no government existed the incentive for those in control of vast resources to manipulate society (through force, coercion, or corruption) would suddenly disappear is (in my humble opinion) naive at best. For example, the East India Company was certainly in bed with Britain. But they were a force in their own right, with their own private armies and international interests.

To assert that if only the British government had been weaker or non-existent HEIC would have dissolved or become impotent seems the height of folly. It would seem much more likely that they would have used their power to essentially supersede the government's power when necessary as they did in India.

The lesson to be taken from such unholy alliances between powerful business interests and government should be a heightened suspicion of excessive entanglement of the two and not an elimination of government and embracing of unchecked corporatism. Unfortunately, as George Will himself made clear in the interview, the neocons, conservatives, and right-libertarian elements of our culture fight for more unchecked corporate involvement in politics and not less. Hastening the very entanglements and abuse of government power they profess to oppose.

To come full circle back to the police analogy, what more rational self-interest can an individual have than to not have crime and violence on their own streets? And yet, history has shown that removal of a police force does not improve but worsens criminal activity. The people have acted in their own rational self interest by recognizing their inadequacy to properly handle crime on a case by case individual level.

True, when the police become the criminals it's a sorry state of affairs. However, this does not indicate that crime would be lessoned if only the criminals were allowed complete freedom or that individuals are more capable of controlling crime by themselves than a well regulated and moderately uncorrupted police force.

Russ Roberts writes:

James,

The idea that self-interested consumers can police misbehavior through their choices better than self-interested regulators through direct regulation does not require perfect rationality. Of course people make cognitive errors. The question is whether they can judge their self-interest more effectively than others can under the constraints and incentives those others face.

There is a separate issue of when an individual's self-interest can lead to costs that are borne by others.

You might enjoy this earlier podcast with Vernon Smith on rationality in economics.

Steve writes:

I read that Matthew Spaulding, linked, article. It is entirely a straw man argument. Nearly the whole thing consists of a description of some paraphrased opposing viewpoint. There is a brief appeal to make a positivist claim at the very end, but none in made in the article itself. Other than an autobiographical piece about perception, it is nearly empty of content.

When someone states the "aim" or "intent" or even the essence of an opposing view, as George Will also does, you should be incredulous.

Richard W. Fulmer writes:

Steve,
From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson_Bay_Company: "The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay was incorporated on May 2, 1670, with a royal charter from King Charles II. The charter granted the company a monopoly over the Indian Trade, especially the fur trade, in the region watered by all rivers and streams flowing into Hudson Bay in northern Canada."

James,
I do not suggest eliminating either the police or the government. I ask only that they, as the only legal wielders of force in a nation, remain neutral. When they become the creatures of special interests, they grant those interests coercive and arbitrary rule over others.

Perhaps consumers do not always make the right choices or coordinate their efforts, yet somehow they make their voices heard. New Coke is dead; Coke Classic lives on. By contrast (to paraphrase Kevin D. Williamson), when the government does stupid, it does immortally stupid.

AHBritton writes:

Richard W. Fulmer,

"Corporations can compel no one to buy their products, governments can. Corporations cannot imprison dissenters, governments can. Corporations cannot send armies to attack their competitors, governments can. A CEO’s errors can destroy a company, a president’s errors can destroy a nation."

The Hawaiian Pineapple Company, owned by the Dole Fruit Company, played a large part in overthrowing a government by armed force and imprisoning its leader.

The same has happened elsewhere such as with the United Fruit Company in Honduras, etc. In addition many countries that the US decides must have a new government and either directly or indirectly sees to their overthrow result not from some intrinsic national interest US citizen's have in these countries. Instead it comes about because another country decides to nationalize an industry, or some other "anti-business" action and the multinational corporations effected by these actions throw their influence around until politicians start calling them a "menace."

I agree that especially this last scenario involves governmental institutions, but I am curious if you really think absent a government overthrowing a government, etc. that corporations would suddenly lose interest in this desire?

I am curious why you would think that absent a state, private interests would not be able to amass guns and other means of coercion to carry out any form of imprisonment, forced labor, or generalized coercion they wish?

Sal Rossignolo writes:

Russ, fantastic 'get' with George Will. I've read, watched and listened to him for more than twenty years yet was greatly enlightened by your interview, great job.
I wanted to critique your podcast with Tyler Cowen on the Great Stagnation. I'm afraid that I was lost on some of the terminology, whereas your podcasts have been kept more in layman's terms in the past. I hold no university degree but have read extensively the work of Rothbard, Mises,Hayek, Sowell, and Freidman. Sometimes, I suppose, that when two professors are in a chat that they may lose track of the audience they're trying to reach, and I make this comment only because I've heard you ask for clarification on comments from other people you've interviewed when you thought they might not be understood by some of your listeners.
I am an avid listener and I eagerly await your cast weekly and have been greatly enriched by your work.
In closing I'd like to ask if you ever interviewed Murray Rothbard or Milton Friedman, and since they are no longer with us, would you consider interviewing one of Rothbard's disciples Walter Block?
Regards
Sal Rossignolo

Seth writes:

Nice conversation.

I especially enjoyed the segment on legislation. I would like to hear more about what Will meant about legislating against appetites as the reason why drug laws don't work and moral laws do. I don't think I agree. I wonder how much Sowell has read on the subject from Sowell and Williams.

Nice to hear that Will will be visiting KC. I spent my early years in the KC school district. My parents sacrificed to move us out in the years before Judge Clark took over as the district's focus began shifting away from education. Real life example of voting with feet. Good move on my parents' part.

Few people know that the City of Kansas City has three main school districts. Two of the the three aren't as well known because they (are allowed to) do their job.

Everyone will tell Will to visit Jack's Stack (I once saw Bernanke there). Great place. But also give OK Joe's a try. Gates is great too.

AHBritton writes:

Russ and Richard,

I don't think either of you addressed one of the main arguments James presented. Namely the fact that their are "choices" that a vast majority feel are very destructive and would not "choose" them. But do to the fact that people tend to only consider outcomes which our proximal to their choices and are unwilling or unable to put in the energy on a mass scale in order to investigate every day to day choice in order to avoid inadvertently "choosing" these unwanted outcomes, they instead give voice to these choices through the democratic process. The democratic process being much better suited to the discussion of negative outcomes (externalities) not born out by the market.

Richard,

Regarding the history of markets and governments it is difficult to separate, as markets and governments have been a nearly ubiquitous presence in all life and the lines between the two, as well as who serves who's interest, etc. Is often muddled.

I will point out however that East India was only a monopoly as it concerned England. For some reason (possibly high cost and risk?) nations of the period generally chartered these kinds of trading "monopolies," but only monopolies as seen from the English people, not fir trade in general. In addition East India was not "forced" to use aggression, imprisonment, etc. when dealing in the indies, nor did they come to dominate an area purely by virtue of their charter.

I want to thank James for putting into words many concepts I have been struggling to articulate.

Richard W. Fulmer writes:

AHBritton,
Let me try to paraphrase your point about consumer choices using a concrete example: When I turn on the light switch, I am thinking only of my immediate needs and not of the pollution produced by the coal-fueled power plant generating the electricity. I get the benefit of the light while someone else, living near the power plant, has to "pay" the cost of breathing dirtier air.

In such a case, a government regulatory agency might require the power plant to reduce its emissions. That raises the utility's costs which it passes on to me, shifting the costs of dealing with pollution to power users.

I have no issue with such government intervention. However, I suggest that government best serves the public in such cases when it limits itself to setting the goals (e.g., setting acceptable emissions limits) rather than the means (e.g., requiring the installation of scrubbers). There are many problems with means setting, including:
1. Technology changes rapidly. What is the best way to reduce emissions today will not be the best method tomorrow.
2. Companies with a stake in dictated means will lobby government to keep the current regulations in place and not allow the use of newer, more effective technologies.
3. Companies will lobby government to get their "solutions" written into law. This corrupts the process and is unlikely to result in optimal solutions.

As to your point about the East India Company, I believe that this helps makes my argument. Power over others is a fearful thing, and must be carefully controlled to limit its abuse. It seems to me that power is less likely to be abused if the legal use of force is restricted to a government that remains impartial and does not lend its power to one faction or another. I believe that many of the tragedies in American history occurred because people were able to subvert government’s coercive power to advance their own ideas and interests through force.

Slavery could not have survived without government’s sanction and support; slave owners were empowered by law to draft private citizens to hunt down and recapture runaways. The federal government repeatedly violated treaties with Native Americans when those treaties conflicted with the interests of white settlers. Private companies in the late 1800s and early 1900s were able to prevent their workers from organizing only with the complicity, and sometimes active involvement, of both local police and the military. Before the Civil Rights Acts, whites were routinely accorded preferential treatment by state and local laws.

More often than not, government largess is bestowed upon those in control of the two things elected officials value most: money and votes.

Emerson White writes:

Parents can say that we need to cut back because you cannot vote your parents out and vote in a new pair of them that is marginally less responsible. It has lead to a race to the bottom between politicians.

Bradley Calder writes:

If possible, could you interview Billy Beane and or do a podcast on sabermetrics?

Lauren writes:

Hi, Bradley.

We do have two podcasts on the subject to which you might enjoy listening:

Michael Lewis on the Hidden Economics of Baseball and Football
and
The Economics of Moneyball with Skip Sauer

Frank Howland writes:

A correction: Mitch Daniels is the governor of Indiana, not Minnesota.

Also, I am sorry to say that Daniels is not a paragon of libertarian governance who is immune to the pressures of rent-seekers. He has pushed a plan whereby the State of Indiana will agree to buy natural gas for 30 years from a private company running a coal gasification plant in a contract which may well cost the State hundreds of millions of dollars. (Ironically this plan may fail because the company may not be able to get eminent domain powers to build a needed pipeline.) Furthermore Daniels has presided over a major shift in power from local to state government, shifting funding of schools from the property tax to sales tax and taking control of school budgets from local school boards. This has the effect of weakening competition between school districts, competition which is one way to get schools to improve their product.

Frank Howland writes:

Russ said:
"Somebody said to me today: Well, I think Obama thinks he needs to keep the job market at the front of his mind, and that's why he's got a big budget. And my first reaction was: I don't think he has any idea what economics is about. He just thinks it's good to spend money because it helps his friends."

It sounds like you are pushing a story where Obama's main aim is to give benefits to his friends, presumably because he will get benefits from them in the future. Isn't it also possible that Obama wants to get reelected? There is pretty good evidence that the state of the economy is very important for one's reelection chances, so your interlocutor's argument makes a lot of sense, as do the GOP's attempts to quash any kind of spending programs which would (temporarily) increase economic activity in 2012. Do you have any evidence that Obama regards benefits to unspecified friends as being more important than reelection? Does your theory apply to all Presidents? I bet George Will would disagree--he seems to like some politicians.

On another note, am I missing something about the recent history of McCain/Feingold? I thought Citizens United gutted much of the law--the press certainly portrayed it that way--but it could be that they and I are wrong.

It seems you and Will are remarkably unconcerned by the prospects of corporations spending as much as they want on campaigns at the same time that unions, a countervailing force, are being destroyed. Do you think that the big spenders under Citizens United will not be rent-seekers? I'd be interested in counter arguments.

Bryan Mackinnon writes:

Was there ever a golden age in America?

It appears to me that the people such as Mr. Will who wish for returning to limited government and an 18th century view of the Constitution are longing for a golden age that never was. That golden age was one of segregation, world wars, genocide, and hard labor to make ends meet. And there never has been conscencous on what the Constitution really meant.

But it was an enjoyable discussion and I respect the views of Mr. Will even if I often don't agree with them.

AHBritton writes:

Richard W. Fulmer (Russ - The last paragraph is somewhat directed at you),

Thanks for the reply.

I agree with almost everything you stated. The one thing I might quibble with is partially dependent on what you mean by "government."

Are loose, small, African tribes who enslaved each other at times a "government?"

I also see no logical reason (and without looking into it beyond my previous examples) why a "private" institution wouldn't be able to enslave someone on their own without government assistance.

Semantically if you decide to call any such coercive element a form of "government" despotic or otherwise then obviously this would be impossible merely by definition.

I think you might agree with me as well about a point that seems often lost on some.

Discussion of "first principals," "ideals," and individual's natural tendencies to more or less government is no doubt important. I do think this type of argument over dominates discussions of people who actually favor some sort of mixed economy/government, with neither state nor private interests only represented.

In this situation I feel all too often people do not discuss where the boundaries should lie, but instead focus on either demonizing government, or the private sector.

In actuality I think both sides (if they wish for a mixed economy/government) should debate what could be done to make the system more efficient, where intervention is needed and where it should be avoided, what systems might improve governmental incentives, etc.

Even though Russ is not an anarcho-capitalist, I would not be able to tell if he didn't state that he wasn't because I have rarely if ever heard him discuss in-depth the nature of the proper role of government, why it is proper in these instances, and where this boundary should lie. Instead it is purely an attack on all forms of collective decision making, which is fine, but if he feels that way then I have no reason why he should not simply bite the bullet and go all out anarchist.

chitown_nick writes:

With respect to the thread being carried out by James, Russ, AH Britton, and Richard about the proper role of government in regulation, I have a few comments:

Richard wrote: "I have no issue with such government intervention. However, I suggest that government best serves the public in such cases when it limits itself to setting the goals"

This is the sentiment I agree with most. Dealing with many issues regarding industrial players in this country, it is very clear to me how easily things can be obscured from the consuming public - not necessarily through any malicious intent either. Natural supply chains already make that possible.

In the electricity example - the example brought up coal emissions from the power plant. Extend the environmental impacts to the train engines bringing in the coal; the materials manufacturing parts making the turbines, transformers, boilers, etc. for the plant; even the refrigerants used to maintain the HVAC in the offices and control room. There is no reasonable method that consumers can affect each of these potential environmental impacts through purchasing choice. Industry regulation is the one force that seems best suited for this effort, relating to both the electric plant considered here, and all other facilities engaged in enterprises with similar consequences.

Given the above statement, I fully agree that end goals are infinitely preferable to means requirements (for example a carbon tax would be preferable to renewable energy mandates for reaching the same end goal). I am conflicted, however, about one other topic that came up in the conversation with George Will, namely the administrative state.

In the administrative state, power is given by Congress to entities such as the EPA to govern emissions, for example. While it may be preferable for Congress not to cede this authority, is it realistic to expect comprehensive coverage (to the extent possible by any organization, of course) of emissions limits by Congress, or is it more realistic for the same by a group tasked solely with that aim?

The former may be preferable, but logistical reality may leave us with the latter for a good many issues. Which ones? That is a good question for debate.

Richard W. Fulmer writes:

AHBritton,
Good, thought-provoking questions!

For the purposes of discussion, let’s go with Wikipedia’s definition of government (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government):
“[T]he particular group of people, the administrative bureaucracy, who control a (nation-)state at a given time, and the manner in which their governing organizations are structured.”

While this definition neutral and does not specify what government should be or do, it does exclude tribes, individuals, or private institutions whether or not they employ coercion.

There is no question that private individuals and institutions use force without government aegis. For proof one need only cite the existence of murder, rape, kidnapping, and theft. I believe that government should enact and enforce laws prohibiting such actions. Toward this end, government should have a monopoly on the use of force. However government’s monopoly power should not be available for hire, otherwise, rather than preventing and punishing crime, government participates in it.

I believe government should enforce “negative rights” – those rights requiring only that people not initiate the use of force. Government should protect life, liberty, property, free speech, and freedom of religion from thugs both foreign and domestic and otherwise leave us to dispose of our lives and property as we see fit.

When government enforces “positive rights” to such things as houses, food, medical care, and education; it requires others to provide these goods and services without compensation. This raises important moral questions. After all, one of the abolitionists’ most powerful arguments against slavery was that it denied people the fruits of their own labor. Government enforcement of positive rights also creates the practical problems George Will mentioned: (1) people try to use government power to plunder others, (2) the people best at this “plunder-by-proxy” are the rich and powerful, and (3) people’s efforts are directed away from productive activities and toward rent-seeking.

Richard W. Fulmer writes:

chitown_nick
Basically you’re trying to balance efficiency against accountability. If our congressmen pass a bill mandating good and outlawing bad, leaving it to the EPA to fill in the blanks, then they have given themselves plausible deniability if the EPA oversteps its bounds and angers the public.

I want our elected officials to have to make the hard choices and to be accountable for them. They should not have the option of punting their decisions to nameless, unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats.

I’m also willing to give up a little efficiency in order to protect individual rights. The country's founders made the same choice when they divided power between three branches of government. By shifting legislative power from Congress to the executive branch (the EPA in this case), we lose this built-in protection.

chitown_nick writes:

Richard
I'll give that scenario credit as a good means for accountability. I'm imagining the government functioning that way with respect to sulfur emissions from the coal plant as an example.

First, there would need to be enough emphasis from Congress itself, or from the public in general asking action of the Congress to place the issue of sulfur emissions at a high enough priority to come to the floor (ahead of Judicial appointees, treaties, non-binding resolutions, general appropriations, etc.)

Second, the Congress would need sufficient knowledge on the subject to make a decision as to what is a prudent level of emissions to allow, and how to structure the program. If done at the national level, these standards would apply regardless of local conditions, or would provide funding and mandates for state programs to operate (as is often the case currently).

Measures would also be privy to parliamentary rules for each change made - filibusters, anonymous holds, veto, etc. This would increase accountability for the end result, although in a muted sense, because each member of Congress has thousands of votes, and the importance of any one on overall electability is definitely muted.

I would imagine this scenario would result in more net inertia in the system, so less change, and over time less regulation than is currently the case. It may also be true that Congressional focus would create more champions of these issues in the Congress and either similar or more regulation than is currently seen, but with increased confidence from the public that the changers are accountable. Difficult to say.

I'd hazard a guess that Congress would likely create a funding pool for states to implement national goals as they see fit, with Federal goals as the requirement for receiving funding, something similar to federal highway dollars used as an incentive for drinking age laws. I suppose this makes implementation no harder than in the current system, makes the standards more uniform across the board, and makes the program initiate at the Congressional level rather than at the Executive level. Little logistical difference, but the power to make future changes lies with the Congress. I could see that as a plus that is likely worth the risk of the future unknowns to how the regulations would change.

Richard W. Fulmer writes:

Here's a link to a podcast in which British economist, Mark Pennington, argues that individuals have far less control over government than they have over the market:
http://www.cato.org/multimedia/daily-podcast/robust-political-economy

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