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I am Bryan Caplan, economist and professor at George Mason University and advocate of free immigration and free trade. AMA!

Feb 5th 2014 by BryanCaplan • 41 Questions • 831 Points

Update: Thanks to everyone for participating. It's been a blast, but I should go now. Special thanks to Michael Tontchev for setting this up. He rules.

I am an economist at George Mason University (GMU) with a PhD from Princeton University, and I'm an advocate of both free immigration and free trade, which align most with the libertarian ideal.

I run a blog at EconLog: http://econlog.econlib.org/authorbcaplan.html#recent

I'm here to answer any questions you might have about my work, my political theory, or my two published books:

  • Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think

  • The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

A table of contents and a summary of my upcoming book - The Case Against Education - can be found here:

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/03/table_of_conten.html

Proof:

https://twitter.com/bryan_caplan/status/417732166705881090

http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/

Ask me anything!

Q:

Hi Dr. Caplan. I think that many of your EconLog entries are very insightful. If you had to pick your favorite ones (say, top 5), which ones would they be?

A:

"The Magic of Education," "Tough Luck," "The Common-Sense Case for Pacifism," "The Tiger Mother versus Cost-Benefit Analysis," and "Tell Me the Difference Between Jim Crow and Immigration Restrictions."


Q:

What would happen if we began trading with Cuba again?

A:

They'd quickly get a lot richer, and we'd get some very nice vacations. In the longer run, the chance that Communism in Cuba would collapse or collapse into mere rhetoric is high.


Q:

Dr. Caplan - what do you think of the usual way welfare economics is taught? That is, do you think that Consumer and Producer surplus calculations for various regulations and policies are legitimate tools to compare policies? Do they rely on interpersonal utility comparisons, or can they successfully aggregate benefits across people?

A:

Welfare economics is usually talk very poorly: constant equivocation between the Pareto standard and the cost-benefit (or Kaldor-Hicks) standards.

I see nothing wrong with looking at Consumer or Producer surplus, as long as you realize that this is just one of many metrics.

I have no problem with doing interpersonal welfare comparisons. I compare people's well-being every day. And if you can't compare one person's happiness to another's, why can you compare your own happiness today to your own happiness yesterday?

Many libertarians use welfare economics to try to short-circuit utilitarianism. I'd rather just criticize utilitarianism.


Q:

Hi Bryan. I listened to a lecture you gave at ISFLC last year and had a great time. I've referenced many of your essays whenever I've found myself in a political discussion with someone.

I wanted to ask you something unrelated to politics, though :)

What are some of your favorite bands?

A:

At heart I'm a 18th & 19th-century German opera guy. Wagner's my #1, Bach's my #2. But by the normal definition of "bands," I'd say Bad Religion, Tsunami Bomb, tATu, P!nk, and No Doubt. I'm also a big fan of world music, especially the Rough Guide series.


Q:

Hi Bryan,

There has been a lot of talk online recently on the merits of a Basic Income Guaranty or Negative Income Tax. I have two questions:

  1. Would you endorse something like a BIG?
  2. Why do you think the idea is so appealing to both libertarians and socialists? Should proponents in each group be worried that the idea appeals to their ideological opponents?
A:

As a replacement for the status quo, maybe. As an addition, no.

Libertarians like it because they think it will be a replacement. Socialists like it because they think it will be an addition.


Q:

Bryan, What do you think about the viability of Bitcoin as money? If Bitcoin, or some crypto-currency, gets widely adopted as money what do you see as the most important economic ramifications?

A:

It's done 10x better than I expected, but I still don't expect it to be more than a niche financial instrument. It's long been noted that people around the world continue using their national currencies even in the face of 20 or 30% inflation because national currencies are more convenient and focal. Also, I expect regulators to crack down if Bitcoin becomes much of a threat.

But hopefully I'm wrong!


Q:

Do you feel that the rise of China is beneficial to the interests of the United States?

A:

YES!


Q:

Guess you should have asked "and if so, why?"!! ;)

A:

When countries produce cheap stuff to sell us, it is good for us. And rich countries are very rarely militarily aggressive, at least once they've been rich for a full generation.


Q:

rich countries are very rarely militarily aggressive

Is the US a counterexample?

A:

Not really. Most dominant powers throughout history have been far more aggressive. The U.S. today is scared to lose a few thousand soldiers. Why? Because rich people value their livess. Thankfully!


Q:

Hey Bryan. Suppose your robust, non-reductive form of moral realism turned out to be false. What do you think is next most plausible metaethical position?

A:

Mackie's view: That moral statements are genuine assertions, but they're all false because there are no moral facts.


Q:

Hi Bryan. I teach a sophomore Geography class which includes a unit on the globalization of industry and trade. I always make sure to tell my students the positives and negatives of both free trade and fair trade. Obviously free trade is responsible for fueling business in modern society and providing us with many of the luxuries we have today but our curriculum has a focus on "global citizenship" so it is difficult to make arguments for free trade from that angle.

In my quest to provide students with an even-sided argument, I would love if you could bestow some support for free trade as a means to promote international development in ways that fair trade cannot. Obviously free trade provides many jobs, but the idea of paying workers more always seems to supersede that. So if you could explain what free trade would do specifically to help developing countries, or ways in which fair trade fails to do so, I will be sure to include it in my course.

Thank you for your time!

A:

The best short argument for free trade is the parable of the Iowa car crop. http://www.walkerd.people.cofc.edu/Readings/Trade/iowacarcrop.pdf


Q:

Does the signaling model of education ever depress you while you're prepping your classes?

A:

Not at all. Students' apathy is a little depressing, but I always focus on the students who are happy to be in class.


Q:

What books have influenced you and your career?

A:

Atlas Shrugged, For a New Liberty, Economic Sophisms, The Armchair Economist, The Bell Curve, The Myth of Democratic Failure, The Nurture Assumption, and Modern Times. Mike Huemer's been a massive influence on me, but mostly his articles, especially "Moral Objectivism."


Q:

Professor Caplan, do you feel that the libertarian movement's love affair with Austrian economics is doing a disservice to the goals it fights for? That is, that since the Austrian school is viewed with derision in mainstream circles, Libertarianism's other philosophical arguments are tainted by association?

A:

Maybe. But Austrianism also inspires a lot of enthusiasm from the base, so it's hard to say. My main argument against Austrianism is that it's false, not that it's bad publicity.


Q:

You have written:

Economists' consensus estimate is that open borders would roughly double world GDP, enough to virtually eliminate global poverty (Clemens 2011).

This was huge news to me and I completely agree with your assessment:

What I can't understand is indifference to the mind-boggling potential benefits of immigration. The knowledge that we're sitting on an ocean of talent should haunt great minds day and night. They should pace around their offices telling themselves, "There's got to be a way to unlock these wasted trillions of dollars of human potential. There's just got to be a way."

My question is: Are there other libertarian policies that would result in similarly-massive benefits as open borders if implemented? If so, what are they?

A:

After open borders, the biggest policy change would be for Third World countries to fully open their doors to international investment. Work by van Reenen and many others shows that multinational corps in the 3rd World are vastly better-run than local firms. If multinationals could freely compete, they would quickly raise productivity. Back of the envelope calculate is that if all firms on earth were managed at multinational levels, global GDP would go up by 25-50%. Most of the benefit, of course, would be in the Third World.


Q:

Hi Dr. Caplan.

Will you be at the ISFLC this year?

Do you believe Bitcoin will stabilize and become a legitimate currency anytime soon? While it has the perceived value necessary of a currency, it's fluctuations prevent it from storing value, something necessary of a unit of exchange.

A:

I will be at ISFLC on Sat. On Bitcoin, see prior question.


Q:

Stephen Earl Bennett and Jeffrey have critiqued your rational irrationality theory.

They claim that in order for your theory to be more than just ignorance, you assume voters must know at some level that they are wrong.

They claim that is incoherent:

...one cannot believe that a policy that one considers good on sociotropic grounds (and thus favors) is, in fact, sociotropically bad (such that one considers it to be an irrational “indulgence”).

They accuse you of projecting your own irrationality on to voters. The critique is many pages and has many other criticisms.

I find the criticism to be harsh and not very convincing.

Have you responded to them?

A:

Not that I recall. But since writing MRV, I've discovered more psychological work that makes my story even more intuitive. E.g. here: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/12/bias_assent_and.html


Q:

Big fan here! A personal question: from your experience, how to make the best of a phD? What are the most important skills developed in your phD that turn out to be essential? I'm doing a master in economics and planning for a phD.Thank you!!!

A:

Coursework is greatly overrated. Instead, focus on (a) finding research topics you're passionate about, and (b) meeting and impressing researchers who share your passion. Robin Hanson advises students to read to journals, then pick their favorite one or two topics. It's kind of like hanging out at the medical school, then marrying for love.


Q:

(Apologies for this probably not being in the core topics you want to talk about.)

You once blogged about cryonics. You bite so many bullets; I and some friends of mine were surprised that you don't bite this one.

Do you think that you are the specific atoms that currently comprise your brain? It seems to me this can't be right, because those atoms are expunged and replaced frequently through normal cell processes. It shouldn't matter if abnormal processes cause isomorphic changes. A hypothetical engineer might be able to transplant a single neuron with a tiny implantable machine that behaves the same way, and you would continue as you were. Or two neurons, or half your neurons, or all of them. One by one, if you want, and you'd never know the moment you "died".

It seems that you aren't "the atoms that currently comprise Bryan Caplan"; rather, you are "the way that atoms behave when they're Bryan Caplan-shaped".

So if it were possible to preserve that information and recreate a brain (whether made of cells as we know them, or some other strata), wouldn't that preserve you? Similar to when you're unconscious, and some of the matter in your brain changes, but you're still you when you wake up?

I think the confusing thing from your conversation with Hanson was his phrasing, "it all depends on what you choose to define as you." You don't get to choose; "you-ness" might be unintuitive, but not arbitrary.

A:

I don't think I'm specific atoms. I think I'm a continuous mental entity. I can survive gradual atomic replacement but not instant atomic replacement.

An exact replica would be just that - a replica. I'd love to meet him, but he wouldn't be me.


Q:

Dr. Caplan, in MotRV, there were parts that came across as very critical of public choice. Did I misunderstand, or is there even a dichotomy between the questions of whether voters get what they want, or politicians and regulators get what they want?

A:

I am very critical. Many public choice economists just aren't curious about public opinion. They'd rather just assume that voters want what they'd advise, then blame special interests for defying the will of the people. Not good science.


Q:

Hi Bryan.

Why did you decide to do an AMA during the Ham/Nye creationism debate when everyone's attention is on the insanity in Kentucky?

OK, that isn't my question. My question is do you see any possible path to a world with open borders? If so, what path?

A:

Probable path: As country's incomes converse, free migration will gradually cease to seem like a big deal. See the EU. Once two country's per capita GDP's are in the 2:1 zone, opening borders lead to little permanent migration but a lot of convenience. That can and has been sold to voters.

Economically, this is a big let-down, because the biggest gains come when country's incomes are highly UNequal. But late is better than never.


Q:

Do you have plans for adding to the Museum of Communism?

A:

Probably not. At this stage in my career, I could imagine writing a book on Communism. But a web museum is more of a grad student project.

If a worthy student wanted to take up the project, I'd be happy to discuss it.


Q:

Thank you for doing this AMA!

Do you believe that philosophy plays an important role in economics? For instance, you have promoted Michael Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority. Do the ethical arguments put forward by Huemer have any bearing on your work in or your views regarding economics?

A:

Every economist who gives policy advise is implicitly relying on philosophy. Unfortunately, most economists want to rely on philosophy without really reflecting on it, so they're usually just crude utilitarians (with a heavy bias toward the status quo and democratic fundamentalism).

For my own part, I start with a strong presumption of liberty, but admit that we should override this presumption when the benefits of violating liberty heavily outweigh the costs. (See http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/08/how_far_does_th.html) So economics ends up being a vital servant of political philosophy, but nothing more.


Q:

What RPG games would you recommend to someone without any previous exposure to RPG games? What's the best group dynamic for a beginner to start?

A:

I've tempted to say Pandemonium. It's very rules light, and has a great mechanic - past lives - for getting people to truly role-play.

I'm also of course a fan of my True20 House Rules. I can teach the rules to newbies in 10 minutes, yet they have high re-play value. http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/True20_House_Rules.pdf


Q:

Hello Dr. Caplan, I'm a fan of your work, my question is the following:

How do you reconcile anarcho-capitalism with the fact that successful market outcomes are almost always proceeded by a successful government enforcement of property rights?

In other words, how can markets emerge in the real world absent of a defined power structure?

A:

Black markets clearly show that markets can and do emerge without (and in defiance of) government.

But why does successful government enforcement come first? Largely because government is a monopoly. Whether it does a good or a bad job, it still bans competition. So the only places that have solid property rights have government-enforced rights.

Also see this: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2005/12/anarchocapitali.html


Q:

Vivek posted on your blog that he would agree to debate you on immigration. Is this debate going to happen?

A:

News to me.


Q:

With the drought in Southern California is it possible the state is over populated? Meaning we have to halt immigration into the south west?

A:

No. Just raise the price of water!


Q:

Hey Mr. Caplan,

Do you think Israel should open their borders?

Thanks, Jack

A:

Yes. But I wouldn't strongly object if they excluded people with violent criminal records or denied new-comers the vote. (Same goes for countries other than Israel, too).


Q:

You know what they say.

"Diversity is good, diversity is a strength, diversity is what makes the middle east so peaceful!"

A:

The Middle East really could use a lot more diversity. One religion gives you totalitarianism. Two gives you civil strife. A hundred gives you peace. (With apologies to Voltaire).


Q:

What advice would you give to parents, especially new ones?

A:

For new parents: Ferberize your baby! Don't turn yourself into a zombie for two years because you won't let your baby cry for ten minutes. Also, safety-proof your home to the point where you don't have to watch your baby constantly.

General advice: Relax and ignore peer pressure.


Q:

What arguments would you give against cynically manipulating the political system rather than trying to reform or undermine it?

A:

In many cases, I think cynical manipulation is moral and wise. If you're filling out your income tax, I'd advise you to just game the system to pay as little as possible.

But when cynical manipulation involves treating other people unjustly, I advise against it. The argument? Nothing better than "You shouldn't act unjustly, this is unjust, so don't do it."


Q:

Do you have a written version of the arguments from your Rethinking the Night Watchman State lecture?


Q:

I see you enjoy the book "The Myth of Democratic Failure".Why was it so influential to you?

A:

Before I read it, I was largely an orthodox Public Choice guy. Wittman convinced me that orthodox Public Choice greatly overstated its claims - and led me to search out a lot of relevant empirics, too.


Q:

Relating to Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, what is your view on peer effects?

What have you changed your mind about recently?

A:

Peer effects are probably over-rated, too. Sacerdote's Korean adoption study found, for example, that average income in adoptee's childhood zip code had little effect on their outcomes, too.

Most recently, I've changed my mind about the probable consequences of fully legalizing IQ tests. I used to think the law was a huge barrier to strong pent-up demand. Now I think the law is mostly a paper tiger. Few firms want to hire on IQ, despite its demonstrable advantages. Even countries where IQ tests are fully legal barely use them for hiring.


Q:

Is there still a viable argument for the minimum wage? To the best of my understand, Card and Kreuger has been thoroughly refuted by Neumark and Wascher; in fact, practically every one of the major papers that purports to show a zero or small positive effect of a higher min. wage has been replicated and refued by Neumark and Wascher.

There is the work by Dube, Lester, and Reich. What do you think of that? I have heard it is relatively poor and easily refued.

What do you think of the allegations of publication bias favoring "interesting" and consequently anti-status quo, pro-minimum wage papers?

A:

It's tempting to think that pro-minimum wage work is shoddy and anti--minimum wage work is awesome. But in my experience, the correlation between quality and answer is low. Opponents of the minimum wage should focus more on the sheer implausibility of the view that raising the minimum wage doesn't hurt employment. See here:

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2013/03/the_vice_of_sel.html


Q:

Do you have an idea what portion of economists are friendly towards immigration? (even if not total open borders) whats a good source for it? And who's the anti George Borjas? (besides you)

A:

The vast majority of economists favor liberalization of immigration. See e.g. MRV for some numbers. Michael Clemens is the anti Borjas: http://www.cgdev.org/expert/michael-clemens


Q:

Doctor Caplan! I'm a huge fan of you and your work. I find your writings and lectures to be incredibly thought-provoking, especially your lectures on immigration and education. I was also looking forward to your appearance on Intelligence Squared, but was incredibly disappointed that it devolved into a 3-on-1 debate.

Anyway, my question for you is this: Of the many issues brought up against immigration, you have given convincing counterarguments indicating that they, if not wrong, can at least be more humanely addressed than simply closing the border. One argument I hear often, but have not (to date) heard your thoughts on, is that immigrants commit more crime and thus should be kept out to keep crime from spiraling out of control. Is this true, and if it is, is there a more humane way to address it than simply keeping people out?

Thanks very much Dr. Caplan!

PS: Any idea when your book on (or should I say against) education will be out?

A:

Standard social science is that immigrants have LOWER crime rates than natives. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2007/07/mea_culpa_how_i.html There are some concerns about 2nd-generation Hispanic crime, but even that is only modestly above the native rate (by 20-40% or so).

If immigrants did have high crime rates, some cheaper/more humane remedies would include:

  1. Bonding. You have to post some money to immigrate, to ensure that you can compensate any victims if you happen to commit a crime.

  2. Profiling. Letting in only women and men over 30.

  3. Vouching. Only letting in people if someone here will vouch for their good character (and make themselves liable for your bad behavior, if any).


Q:

Are patents and copyrights (a.k.a state granted monopoly) the main cause of wealth inequality?

A:

No way. Intellectual property is only a few % of GDP.


Q:

Given that we do not live in a pure service economy, do you think the conclusions from "Distributive Justice in A Pure Service Economy" are applicable to distributive justice in our world? Many moral theories can lead to gruesome conclusions in fantastical settings, is that a good reason to reject them?

A:

Not exactly "applicable." But definitely illustrative. The point of the hypothetical is to show that the taxation=slavery view is more plausible than most people want to admit.


Q:

One more if you have the time:

You've leveled criticisms against left-libertarian positions in the past (e.g. those of Rod Long). Are there any areas in which you'd agree with them against more mainstream libertarianisms (or more specifically, mainstream market anarchisms)?

A:

Sure. Immigration, war, and Columbus for starters.


Q:

I'd love to hear a bit about your approach to teaching graduate econ. In particular, I'm interested in your thoughts on the proper role of math in econ grad programs.

Big fan of your work in general, keep it up.

A:

My first rule: I only teach math I plan to test. Otherwise, students suffer for no reason.

Overall, I try to expose grad students to standard mainstream stuff, give them some perspective on why it's overrated, then move to the research frontier.