In Climate Suits, Cities Ask Judges to Start a Primitivist Revolution

standardTo illuminate a modest living room for three hours a night for two months, you would need about a million lumen-hours of light. Now consider three inflation-adjusted numbers. One: in 1800 a subject of George III could get that much light for around £9,500. Two: in 1900 a subject of Queen Victoria could get it for around £230. Three: by 2000 it cost a subject of Elizabeth II less than £3.

What happened?

For one thing, Standard Oil happened. John D. Rockefeller was a fanatic. He kiln-dried barrel wood to save the expense of shipping trace amounts of water. He tested whether a drum needed 40 drops of sealant, or whether 39 would do. He relentlessly cut the cost of refining lamp oil. “Unlike the spermaceti candles of decades prior, sometimes wrapped in tissue paper fit for jewelry,” writes Bhu Srinivasan, “cheap tin cans filled with kerosene now allowed the common man to light his home.” These “cheap tin cans” fired the lamps of Britain. Continue reading “In Climate Suits, Cities Ask Judges to Start a Primitivist Revolution”

Love Regulation or Hate It, the National Debt Is Not Your Friend

barbariansBy the end of the reign of Trajan, in what would later be called AD 117, the impending decline of the Roman Empire could be seen by anyone who looked closely at the coins. In the days of Nero, a half-century before, more than nine parts in ten of a denarius was silver. When Trajan died the ratio was approaching eight in ten, and by the time Septimus Severus gained power in the late second century, it was scarcely more than five in ten.

The Roman state became ever more elaborate, and it incurred ever-mounting administrative, redistributive, and military expenses. Spending less was hard, as was collecting more, so the government on the whole did neither; it just debased the currency. “The inflation that would inevitably follow would tax the future to pay for the present,” writes Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies; “but the future could not protest.”

The United States is $22 trillion in debt. It is set to add another $12.4 trillion over the next ten years. That amounts to a deficit of around $1 trillion a year, or $2.5 billion a day. The country now sustains, as a matter of course, an annual deficit of a size formerly seen only during an economic slump or a major war. It is the de facto policy of the federal government to borrow 20 cents of every dollar it spends. Continue reading “Love Regulation or Hate It, the National Debt Is Not Your Friend”

The Judiciary Can Corral the Administrative State, but Only the People Themselves Can Tame It

madison
James Madison

The executive power of this nation would, James Madison wrote in Federalist 48, be “restrained” within a “narrow compass.” The judicial power could, in his view, be “described by landmarks still less uncertain.” It was against “the enterprising ambition” of the legislature, he believed, that “the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.” Unless the other departments and the people remained vigilant, Madison warned, the legislature would draw “all power into its impetuous vortex.”

This outlook was informed by the excesses of the ancient Athenian mob, which, as Madison put it in Federalist 63, decreed “to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next.” But although he still talks, on occasion, like a fanatic, the modern congressman pushes much of his power away with both hands. That power is gladly accepted by the modern bureaucrat, an upstart bent on steering the ship of state off the course set by the Founders. Continue reading “The Judiciary Can Corral the Administrative State, but Only the People Themselves Can Tame It”

Artificial Intelligence Will Benefit Us Immensely—If We Don’t Get in the Way

IRobotIdeas are becoming more expensive. Larger teams of scientists are taking longer and spending more to discover less. A common theory for these diminishing returns compares exploring the laws of nature to exploring land. Pioneers chart the most accessible areas. Later generations must grope their way across remote and forbidding terrain to find anything new; their expeditions need more preparation, more equipment, and more support. One of the many marks of increasing strain is the advancing age at which Nobel laureates reach their prize-winning breakthroughs. It appears that young scientists need more time to master the growing body of knowledge that lies between them and the frontier of a field.

Scientific discovery drives technological innovation, which in turn drives productivity growth. According to a recent study, the average researcher in the 1930s generated more productivity growth than do 20 researchers today. American spending on research and development has grown ten-fold since the 1950s. American productivity growth, meanwhile, has shrunk. Slowing productivity growth and slowing economic growth go hand in hand. Continue reading “Artificial Intelligence Will Benefit Us Immensely—If We Don’t Get in the Way”

In-N-Out Asks Supreme Court to Look at Labor Regulators’ Mistreatment of Commercial Speech

innout“It’s the only fast food chain I actually like.” That was Anthony Bourdain’s verdict on In-N-Out Burger. It is not an unusual opinion. Thanks to its clean halls, happy employees, and fresh produce, In-N-Out enjoys fanatical brand loyalty. Its new locations attract crowds and helicopters. Its drive-thru lines are measured from space. It is acclaimed far beyond its Southern California homeland.

In-N-Out is not just popular; it’s distinctive. Each location is a kind of motor oasis. The building is decked in neon lights, glossy tiles, and palm-tree listellos. The servers wear white uniforms and soda-jerk hats. The menu is little more than a hamburger, a cheeseburger, fries, and a milkshake. The look is classic. The feel is easy. The faithful are ecstatic. In-N-Out is a Norman Rockwell painting, The Endless Summer, and Saint Becket’s shrine rolled into one. Continue reading “In-N-Out Asks Supreme Court to Look at Labor Regulators’ Mistreatment of Commercial Speech”

Big Business Will (Probably) Save Us

corporateHQIn the 1960s and 1970s, as South Korea and Hong Kong liberalized, India persisted in Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of state planning and protectionism. No one deserves more blame than Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, the nation’s third prime minister.

One of Gandhi’s many sins was to limit capital investment. Most factories could not contain more than a few hundred-thousand dollars’ worth of equipment. At its height this control affected more than 800 products, including car parts, clothes, shoes, toys, and toothpaste. While China gained an economic foothold exporting cheap consumer goods, India could not even produce pencils efficiently.

By 2005 large firms employed more than half of China’s manufacturing workers, but only about ten percent of India’s. This is one reason why China’s GDP per capita was equal to India’s in the 1970s, but triple India’s by the 2000s.

In the abstract, at least, most Americans like small businesses and dislike big corporations. In Big is Beautiful: Debunking the Myth of Small Business, Robert D. Atkinson and Michael Lind argue for an attitude adjustment. Continue reading “Big Business Will (Probably) Save Us”

Wake Up, California Millennials: Rent Control is a Generational Con Game

In 2012 the IGM Forum polled some economists about rent control. Each economist was asked to agree or disagshell gameree that rent control promotes affordable housing, and to state the degree of confidence, on a scale of 1 to 10, he invested in his response. Weighted for confidence, 95 percent of the economists disagreed, four percent felt unsure, and one percent agreed. Support for rent control received one vote, with a confidence of 3.

Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, a dedicated analyst of the causes of poverty, voted “strongly disagree,” confidence 9. Richard Thaler, another Nobel Prize winner, likened rent control to geocentrism.

In 1995 California barred cities from imposing rent control on houses or new apartments. This November Californians will vote on Proposition 10, a repeal of that ban. California’s ruling party asked its executive board whether to endorse the measure. Ninety-five percent said yes. Continue reading “Wake Up, California Millennials: Rent Control is a Generational Con Game”