The Power of Ideas

Lee Kuan Yew offers some novel thoughts.  As reported in today’s WSJ, he credits the sociologists with having a causal effect on shifting the United States towards the left.

“Still, Mr. Lee worries about the breakdown of civil society in the U.S.—individual rights (not paired with individual responsibility) run amok—and about a growing culture of entitlements. Sociologists, he says, have convinced Americans that failure isn’t their fault but the fault of the economic system. Once charity became an entitlement, he observes, the stigma of living on charity disappeared. As a result, entitlement costs outpace government resources, resulting in huge debts for future generations. In the meantime, America’s political leaders kick the can down the road to win elections.”

For those seeking some deeper insights from the WSJ today, I suggest reading this piece about the costs and benefits of universal preschool investment.   The unsigned piece highlights the key open empirical questions in this important policy literature.  Note the emphasis on “heterogeneous treatment effects”.      For a diverse population, which interventions are most cost effective?   Given that we can’t clone people, who can we pair you with to be your control group?  Without a control group, how can we infer whether a specific treatment (such as Head Start) improved your quality of life?

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

28 thoughts on “The Power of Ideas”

  1. Sociologists have convinced us of this? Good thing that 4:1 ratio between applicants and openings is just a myth.

  2. “Sociologists, he says, have convinced Americans that failure isn’t their fault but the fault of the economic system.”

    I can covert this into it’s mirror image: “Apologists for the status quo pretend that all have equal opportunity and that failure is only caused by the lack of effort or ability in an individual.”

    In what sense is the “insight” in the first sentence novel? It’s boilerplate free market fundamentalism and a classic example of the fallacy of the excluded middle.

    1. Exactly right. Sociologists have in fact proved, with actual evidence, that the power/capital advantages are consistently leveraged by those with capital (all forms) over those without. This, as opposed to those with blind faith in the theory of the free market who, with no evidence then invent facts about their fellow men. Their motives one can only speculate on.

  3. “For those seeking some deeper insights from the WSJ today . . .”

    We come to RBC to escape the so-called insights of the master class, not to have them regurgitated upon us.

    1. “For those seeking some deeper insights from the WSJ today . . .”

      I had a real tough time telling whether that line was supposed to be sarcastic or not.

  4. The only putatively unsustainable entitlement in the USA is to public health care – Social Security is as near as dammit in actuarial balance, and cash benefits to the needy are too stingy to create any long-term problem. It’s therefore worth looking at what Mr. Lee did on health care when he was running Singapore as enlightened despot rather than his unoriginal 90-year-old grumbles today. Sure enough, Singapore has a very efficient dual public/private health system with an interesting compulsory savings twist, iron price controls, and top results. Singapore has the lowest infant mortality and highest life expectancy in the world.

    1. This. Why doesn’t somebody put James Wimberley on retainer (substantial) to give us a lot more of his erudite writing, so we can get by with less regurgitation of propaganda from the Fox Empire?

      1. I appreciate the thought and will take under advisement the implied request for more unremunerated posts.

  5. Lee Kuan Yew is offering nothing new, the WSJ is a terrible newspaper and you don’t seem to use critical thought at all before posting here, Matt. But I suppose that is to be expected as your paycheck may depend on you not understanding all this, depending on where you are on the tenure track.

    1. I detected some arch sarcasm in the post. Perhaps the stuff about control groups in the second part gives it away, since the first assertion about what sociologists have done lacks that exactly. No America-2 where the sociologists kept their mouths shut.

      i.e. the first part was evidence free bloviating.

      1. Sadly, Mobius, I think your sarcasm detector was operating correctly, but your target acquisition radar wasn’t aimed properly. I think the sarcasm was directed at the sociologists doing the “government-funded” work cited by President Obama.

        Needless to say, sociologists don’t get to do a lot of large-sample-size experiments with control groups. Real life just doesn’t work that way. But that shouldn’t discourage us from mocking them, should it? Far easier to poke fun at them than to make serious criticisms and suggestions.

  6. Can you can provide a test, and control groups, that show that success is guaranteed if, and only if, you work hard? I’ll start with the counter point, Paris Hilton.

  7. Not every child who would be eligible for Head Start actually attends Head Start: there are only so many classrooms and openings and it’s a big country with an inordinate amount of children living in poverty (close to a quarter of all our children, in marked contrast to say, Finland, where the percentage of children living in poverty is in the low single digits. Guess they must have a surfeit of sociologists skewing their thinking over there in Finland, how else to explain their low poverty rates?).

    As a result there has always been a “control group” with which to compare the children who have graduated from Head Start, and there has been a fair amount of research analyzing the differing experiences of the two groups. If I remember correctly, the academic boost conferred by participation in Head Start fades away by mid-elementary school but the quality of life in adult years among Head Start alumni is demonstrably higher.

    And what everyone else said.

  8. I rather like the idea of living in a society where charity is eliminated, and replaced by an entitlement to a basic minimal (yet decent) income – a monthly check sent to every citizen by the Federal government. There’s no reason for that to make “entitlement costs outpace government resources”, as we can simply tax the money back from the better-off. And I see nothing good in stigmatizing those who can’t care for themselves by making them beg for charity.

    Need I mention, this was Richard Nixon’s proposal? These days, nary a left-liberal can be found to advocate it…

    1. As a matter of fact, the negative income tax (which is what I assume you’re referring to) wasn’t Nixon’s proposal, although some of the economists who favored it were associated with Nixon.

      And the reason you can’t find a “left/liberal” figure who would go with that today is (among other things) that anyone that far left on social policy has long since been driven out of public life by billions of dollars of right-wing propaganda.

  9. “I do not think this word means what you think it means.”

    The word I am referring to is, of course, “left”. It is worth considering that in practically any other developed country, our president would be considered a moderate conservative, and so would be a good chunk of the Democratic party. Note that Obama’s economic and social policy preferences are not all that different from Angela Merkel’s and that his defense and foreign policy is considerably to her right.

    More to the point, our sorry excuse for a social safety net that Lee hyperbolically describes as a “growing culture of entitlements” is left-of-center in roughly the same sense that Bismarck was a socialist. No self-respecting actual socialist would consider the substandard “entitlements” that we offer our poor as adequate. It is worth recalling that the “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [oneself] and of [one’s] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond [one’s] control” is not an “entitlement”. It’s a human right, for heavens sake.

    Obviously, I am not surprised that a man such as Lee who has a hard-on for corporal punishment (pardon the French, but this is something I feel strongly about [1]) loves himself a good authoritarian state and finds human rights cumbersome. This also means that I am not sure what value either the book or the article has, except perhaps as a cautionary tale.

    [1] I remember and despise Lee from my days as an active member of Amnesty International; I’m not sure what the WSJ’s excuse is to provide him with a platform that is little more than an unreflected parroting [2] of his views.
    [2] The article masquerades as a book review, but is really little more than a list of excerpts combined with an admiring hagiography (“Asia’s ranking philosopher-king” — really?) of a questionable individual; even blatant cases of censorship are brushed aside. To be a book review, it lacks something essential: reflection on the actual content. Copy-and-paste does not a review make.

    1. I’m not sure what the WSJ’s excuse is to provide him with a platform..

      IIRC, the WSJ Asia edition ran into problems with Lee some years ago, didn’t it? I think it was actually barred from Singapore for a while for criticizing him.

      1. I’m guessing “some years ago” was prior to the Murdoch takeover, back when the WSJ practiced serious journalism.

  10. I don’t want our local police begging people – cold-calling on the phone – for wounded officer rehab money. I don’t want Veteran aid groups out begging. I want our government to pay for what our society needs.

    1. So what are you saying here, Richard? That you want a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people?” What an antiquated idea. Didn’t you know the primary purposes of our government are “to defend us against foreigners and to promote an unfettered free market in everything?”

  11. First rule: think for a few minutes before making a post, especially if your Matthew Kahn.
    Second rule: ignore Brett Bellmore.

  12. That Head Start study, it doesn’t say what (presumably) Kahn, the WSJ, and Mallard Fillmore thinks it says. Read the actual report, especially page 150 and on where they outline the study’s limitations, namely that it didn’t measure long term or sleeper effects. It then points to actual research that do attempt to measure those outcomes, and it’s mostly positive.

  13. In America, politicians kick the can down the road to win elections.

    In Singapore, politicians kick opposition leaders down the road to win elections.

    1. Now, now. You’re thinking of China. Singapore is much more… civilised and Mr Lee preferred to sue, intimidate and bribe opposition leaders down the road to win elections.

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