Russ Roberts, “The Human Side of Trade”

This half-finished post from mid-2017 is a reaction to Russ Roberts’ commentary, The Human Side of Trade. Apologies for the listicle.

Roberts: “Suppose a scientist invents a pill that once you take it lets you live until 120 with no health issues whatsoever. Once you turn 120, you die a peaceful death on your birthday.”

Such a pill would fundamental change the nature of what it means to be human. Economics aside – and even if the economic impacts were all positive – the pill he describes strikes me as an awful invention.

Related reading: “Being Good Enough” by Bill McKibben –

I admit that I stopped reading Roberts’ piece after he introduced the magic pill scenario. But, trooper that I am I went back to it. Wow, it got even worse after where I left off. A few thoughts:

1. I have no more in common with Roberts than I do with people who believe that the Bible is literal truth. The man is not short on hubris.

2. A joke I heard 25+ years ago: President Gorbachev was visiting a farm one day and a peasant asked him a question, “Comrade Gorbachev, was Comrade Lenin an experimentalist or a theoretician?” Gorbachev pauses then replies to the effect of “Perhaps both.” The peasant responds definitively, “No. He was a theoretician. An experimentalist would have tested Communism on rats first.” Roberts is also a theoretician.

3. Reading pieces like Roberts’ gets me thinking that Christopher Lasch had it right.

4. Roberts writes: “In 1900 about 40% of the American work force was in agriculture. Now it’s about 2%… Having only 2% on the farm is a feature, not a bug. It’s a good thing. It’s a glorious thing.” That only 2% work in agriculture implies that 98% of the population have no concept of how to feed themselves if their lives depended upon it which, coincidentally, if there were a major disruption in the food chain it would. That does not strike me as a glorious thing.

5. One can have too much of a good thing. There is a tension between efficiency and resilience. Efficiency feels good and, so long as everything runs smoothly, it’s great. However be aware of the “The better your four-wheel drive the further you’ll be from civilization when you get stuck.” effect. If you ignore resilience in pursuit of efficiency then you set yourself up for a nasty failure.

6. Doctors, nurses, chemists, etc wouldn’t be put out of work immediately because people like myself would want nothing to do with that pill. We’d die off eventually but demand for people working in health-related professions wouldn’t immediately go to zero.

7. Is it important to deal with adversity in your life? Would the magic pill make us soft psychologically? If it did would it matter?

8. Take the pill and no health issues for 120 years but you’re dead on your 120th birthday? I suppose some people really like for their lives to be as deterministic as possible.

9. Roberts writes: “I once debated NAFTA on the south side of St Louis surrounded by autoworkers who were threatened by open trade with Mexico. A machinist, who happened to be the brother of the guy I was debating told me had already been out of work for years. “What are you going to do for me?” he asked. I didn’t tell him to find comfort from the fact that his children were going to lead better lives. I wasn’t sure what to tell him. So I asked him what he wanted. Did he want a check? He said “I want my job back.” He said he wanted his job back, but what I think he really wanted back was his pride and dignity.”

How do children of the long-term unemployed fare relative to those whose parents have steady work? I’m guessing that the stress of parents worrying about how they’re going to pay the mortgage or rent or buy food doesn’t have a positive effect on their kids. Just sayin’…

Maybe that machinist really did want his job back. The work may have been particularly satisfying to him. Maybe pride and dignity was it but don’t dismiss the particulars of the work itself.

10. I recommend Samuel Florman’s essay, Nice Work

11. Roberts writes: “Having only 2% on the farm [down from 40%] is a feature, not a bug. It’s a good thing. It’s a glorious thing. Because it allowed the creation of all the glorious things that would amaze the farmer brought into the present — the smart phones and the artificial knees and youtube videos, and cross-country travel and cars and the longer life expectancy and everything else we didn’t have in 1900 that makes life more pleasant and even more meaningful for the children and grandchildren of farmers in 1900.”

YouTube videos make life more meaningful?… Fine, I won’t argue that. Of that 38% who moved from farm to other occupations though, how many are involved with building artificial knees? More generally, what became of them? What fraction took manufacturing jobs, the kind that have been disappearing over the past few decades.

12. Also, with respect to migration from the farm and other demographic changes since 1900, I think of Robert Gordon’s paper from a few years back, Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds

13. Roberts writes: “Fracking  -  lower prices coming from innovation  –  is potentially more reliable than cheap imported energy that could go away. But that difference doesn’t change the point that the full benefits when prices fall from either change has a wider set of effects than just less expensive energy.”

Environmental impacts of continued reliance on carbon-based energy – you might want to look into those, Russ.


Thought for the Day – August 8, 2017

Paul Waldman:

It’s remarkable to consider that there was a time not too long ago when the Grand Old Party was known for being serious, sober, a little boring, but above all, responsible. They were conservative in the traditional sense: wanting to conserve what they thought was good and fearful of rapid change. You might not have agreed with them, but there were limits to the damage they could do. The devolution from that Republican Party to the one we see today took a couple of decades and had many sources, but its fullest expression was reached with the lifting up of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, this contemptible buffoon who may have been literally the single worst prominent American they could have chosen to be their standard-bearer. I mean that seriously. Can you think of a single person who might have run for president who is more ignorant, more impulsive, more vindictive and more generally dangerous than Donald Trump? And yet they rallied around him with near-unanimity, a worried shake of the head to his endless stream of atrocious statements and actions the strongest dissent most of them could muster.

Running mates


In anticipation of Clinton selecting Tim Kaine as her running mate the NY Times writes “Tim Kaine Seems Likely for Hillary Clinton’s No. 2, but Liberals Balk“.  Ya don’t say?  Actually, they do, “Clinton Faces Pressure to Pick VP Who Is Tough on Trade, Wall Street“.  So much for that.  (The Mad Biologist had something to say about this.)

Clinton also comments on Trump’s selection of Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate:

Mrs. Clinton has called Mr. Pence the “most extreme pick in a generation,” highlighting his positions against same-sex marriage and abortion rights and his support for prayer in the schools.

Labor issues?  Fiscal policy?  Trade policy?  Environmental policy?  Military adventurism?  I guess those don’t rate.

Note to Paul Krugman

Note to Paul Krugman, “We’re comin’ fer ya, motherfucker! [maniacal laughter]

From The Atlantic:

Sanders had the support of 47 percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters while Clinton had 46 percent—a narrow gap that fell within the poll’s 2.5 percent margin of error. The national survey was conducted in the days before the Vermont senator handily defeated the former secretary of state in the Wisconsin primary, and it tracks other polls in the last week that found Sanders erasing Clinton’s edge across the country. In a poll that PRRI conducted in January, Clinton had a 20-point lead.

Musical accompaniment for Krugman’s column:

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