• A. Alexander Minsky

    I never quite understood the line from Yeats that Munger references. I agree that the worst are “full of passionate intensity” but I don’t see how the best could “lack all conviction”.

    • Peter from Oz

      Wasn’t Yeats saying that the problem was that the best had lost hope and therefore are not challenging the worst? The clue is the earlier line: ”The centre cannot hold”

      • A. Alexander Minsky

        You make an interesting observation. Nonetheless, I’m not sure that one can equate the loss of hope with the “lack of conviction”. During the days of the USSR, to give but one example, many a dissident was deficient in the hope department, while simultaneously possessing fierce and unshakable convictions.

        • Sean II

          Q: “How do you spot the informant in a secret gathering of Soviet dissidents?”

          A: “It’s the one who talks of winning.”

        • Peter from Oz

          Good point. Loss of hope may not lead to the loss of conviction in all circumstances, but I think for poor old Yeats he thought that it had.

  • Sean II

    That Taliban joke was so good it makes me jealous. Perfectly delivered too.

    That said, a word of caution: you and Dave quickly dismiss concerns about the way a basic income might be spent at the lower margin of society as “paternalism”.

    It’s not a nice sounding word, I grant you, but invoking it doesn’t really answer the objection.

    Part of the problem here is that both left and right have unconvincing theories about where poverty comes from. Leftists say poor people get that way being victimized and exploited by capitalism and its vile sidekicks – racism, sexism, etc. Old school conservatives say poverty comes from voluntary moral failings on the part of the poor. Libertarians and neocons say poor people are simply those who haven’t had sufficient access to markets.

    Each of these causes implies a different solution. Left: tear down capitalism. Old right: stop coddling. New right: get even more capitalism.

    Problem: there’s an option everyone overlooked. What if the poor mostly get that way through behavioral differences that are NOT the same things as moral failings at all?

    Consider just one aspect of this: future orientation, or time preference. We can see plain as day that people differ in this respect. And we can easily see that low future orientation is correlated with poverty.

    The question is why? Which came first? Really the better question is: can future orientation be raised among people who presently lack it?

    Leftists, libertarians, and conservatives all seem to think it can, each in their different ways.

    What if they’re wrong? What if low future orientation is a highly heritable trait, which cannot be chased away no matter if we destroy capitalism, apply tough love, or expand markets?

    If that’s true – if low future orientation is largely fixed in the people who suffer it – then UBI would be a terrible idea. It would fail the poor. It would lead to quick to spasms of spending, followed by long stretches of brokenness, with many people losing half the incomes value to interest as they borrow against the next check to make up for their haste with the last one.

    None of this, mind you, through any fault of their own. You can’t blame a person for something that’s 50% inherited and 40% chance.

    Something you say at the end offers a clue to your thinking on this point. You mention people who through “no fault of their own” find themselves unable to work.

    • A. Alexander Minsky

      I was just perusing a comment thread over at the Mises Institute (Mises.org) on the minimum wage. To the degree that site is representative of libertarianism, it is safe to say that there are many self described libertarians/anarcho-capitalists who view poverty more as the result of moral failing than lack of access to markets. And neoconservatives seem to explain overseas poverty, and lack of freedom, as the result of lack of access to U.S. bombs and military intervention.

      • Sean II

        Well, I can easily believe that. Maybe I should have said the right (here understood to include both conservatives and libertarians) is a spectrum where the main choices are “poverty is caused by moral failing” and “poverty is caused by bad incentives, lack of access to markets”.

        Of course the weird part is: these things are incompatible enough they should not share a spectrum together.

        Which is it: are welfare moms just rationally responding to the calculus of [welfare check + free time – best available low wage job less cost of child care = not work], in which case they are morally innocent, or…are they people who can and should “choose life” (i.e. job, career, marriage, dental insurance, fixed-interest mortgage payments, fucking big television, etc.) even though – as Munger notes – the incentives around them reward anything but that.

        It’s a question the right has never really faced. They just sort of slid away from one explanation and toward another, but – as you note – not everybody made the trip, and if you give most righties a couple beers you find the moral failing story never really left their mind.

        Callback: this reminds me of the madjunct debate, in which a whole bunch of libertarians suddenly forget everything they usually believe about incentives, in order to argue that adjuncts are victims of their own bad choices – i.e. that we should reasonably expect 23 year olds to ignore the incentives created by a mountain of free money and an entire society telling them “you go and get that PhD, more education is always better.”, then blame them for being pissed off when the dead end they entered becomes apparent at 33.

        (Note: there is one possible reason why we might blame adjuncts for their plight while not blaming welfare moms for theirs, but involves the forbidden topic of IQ, and the even more taboo idea that different kinds of humans need different kinds of morality.)

        But the important part for present purposes is: the adjunct debate shows there is often an old-school conservative hiding in even bleeding heart libertarian souls.

        • A. Alexander Minsky

          I sometimes wonder why folks identify as libertarians when their primary goal seems to be that of verbally castigating folks who receive stigmatized forms of public assistance. It would seem that the Republican Party has already cornered that market. And hanging out in GOP circles can provide access to jobs, cool parties, and pretty women. Libertarian Party circles are usually deficient when it comes to that trinity.

          • Sean II

            Especially the last. If there was a party actively campaigning for a regime modeled on a Handmaid’s Tale, its rallies would have a higher percentage of women than the typical libertarian gathering.

            On another note, your comment raises an interesting question: how much of the distinction between libertarians and conservatives is just a superficial difference in tone and phraseology?

            As it happens, there is a perfect example close at hand. Consider:

            Once you boil it down, Munger’s “state is a bad polygamist” theory is little different from the welfare wars rhetoric so long beloved by paleo-cons. Both present the same policy critique: the idea that welfare incentives poor women to churn babies while avoiding husbands and jobs.

            The big difference is: Munger’s version sounds nicer. He puts the emphasis on the state, not the moms. So he comes off as a nice eccentric, whereas Rick Santorum if he tried to make the same argument would only succeed in sounding like a mean dick.

            But at some point it ought to matter that it really is the same argument.