Previous Articles

  • Prudence Over Expertise May 13, 2020 by W. David Montgomery - The big news on May 12, 2020 was the apparent dissonance between President Trump and his expert on the COVID-19 epidemic, Dr. Fauci. President Trump has been encouraging the states to let economic activity resume, stating “We did the right thing…but now we have to get it back open.” Dr Fauci warned Congress about “the danger of trying to open the country prematurely” that would “risk needless suffering and death.” They are both right. A recent essay asked why it is that economists and public health experts cannot understand each other. Its very valid point was that “[u]nlike epidemiologists, who identify a biological enemy and try to defeat it without thinking much about the costs, economists live on trade-offs [and] embrace the hardheaded reality that helping one person often leaves another less well-off” Both disciplines train practitioners to think systematically, to develop mathematical models to explore how policy interventions might change the future, to rely on data when possible, and to use their expertise to recommend interventions with the potential to improve outcomes.
  • Thinking About Things: The Next New Normal April 28, 2020 by John DeQ. Briggs - Having been under house arrest for many weeks now, I have in recent days been thinking about what it might actually mean for all of us, as a practical matter, when the Governors of the various states decide to “open up” things. But I get ahead of myself. The stock market, while down by some indices more than 15% (having come back from being down plenty more than that), seems to have to a significant extent shrugged off the reality that economic activity in this country has substantially declined and in some segments disappeared. Aerial photographs of highways show few cars and no trucks. The skies are eerily silent, almost reminiscent of the time after 9-11; restaurants are closed. While some stores are open, JC Penny and other big-box department stores all seem headed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Amazon beat them up and the quarantine seems to be pushing them off the cliff. Layoffs are everywhere. A lot of the jobs will not come back any time soon. Maybe millions.
  • Could the Stock Market Be Rational? April 28, 2020 by W. David Montgomery - John Briggs observes early in this article that “the stock market seems to have shrugged off economic reality.” He puts his finger on the persistent problem of understanding what drives the stock market. Small blips on the economic horizon produce disproportionate reactions and corrections, as we saw when worries about trade wars dropped the market at the end of 2018. In this case, however, it strikes me that the market is evidencing almost unique far-sightedness and rationality in assessing the relative size of the real economic impacts of the China Virus, with a good bit of pessimism about the harm that political responses might do.
  • Revisiting Globalization April 14, 2020 by Matthew Daley - The conversation about globalization has begun anew with the onset of COVID-19 and will doubtless continue for a long time to come. The benefits of globalization for consumers have been obvious, even as elites finessed the concerns of American workers whose jobs were exported in the name of lower costs and better profits. Unions tried to hinder this export, but succeeded mainly in delaying its spread, which accelerated with the proliferation of free trade agreements (“FTA’s). (Advances in technology have probably been responsible for more job losses than globalization.) The value of FTAs to the United States became a subject of much debate with both 2016 presidential candidates pronouncing themselves in opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership, but globalization neither began with nor will end with FTAs.
  • Thinking About Things: Movies, Series, and Books March 31, 2020 by John DeQ. Briggs - Like everyone, I have been deluged with a tsunami of information about COVID-19. Each day the news delivers an endless Möbius strip of virus news, one day pretty much like the prior day but with slight differences. The cable opinion and media OpEd pieces hurling blame diatribes are the differences, and their onslaughts continue as if this were the normal response to a public health and economic catastrophe, teaching us at least two things: (1) there is no politician alive who will not seek a political advantage from a crisis, no matter how catastrophic (interesting opinion piece on that score here thanks to WDM) and (2) sadly, COVID-19 confirms what has been said for a few years now -- we have devolved into an unserious nation. We have a strong bipartisan preference for fixing responsibility and blame rather than fixing problems. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. In this country, our officials (and media siloed supporters) prefer simply to squabble while the systems begin to collapse. So, here we all are, more or less under house arrest. As a result, I have been thinking about how to pass the time and how I can make a modest positive and practical contribution…
  • The Energy Crisis and the Coronavirus Crisis March 17, 2020 by W. David Montgomery - There is a remarkable similarity between policy responses to the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s and the way responses to the Chinese coronavirus are developing. Both events were handled by Republican administrations with weak commitments to basic economic principles at their highest levels, that had to cooperate with Democratic majorities in Congress with their own ideas about how to manage markets. The oil embargo had a very small direct effect on the U.S. economy, and the direct effects of the coronavirus are not likely to be larger. The economic damage resulting from the Arab oil embargo was almost entirely self-inflicted, due to panic and poorly designed policies. Any economic damage from the coronavirus is also much more likely to arise from panic and policy errors than from the disease itself.
  • Thinking About Things: The Rise of Law and Decline of Politics March 3, 2020 by John DeQ. Briggs - I have recently finished reading an extraordinary book by Jonathan Sumption: Trials of The State and the Decline of Politics. It is one of those rare books that is as trenchant as it is short (it is about 125 pages). The book, published late last year in Great Britain, is essentially a publication of five separate lectures broadcast on BBC Radio 4 during the Summer of 2019. Sumption is a British judge and historian who served as a Justice on the UK Supreme Court from 2012 the 2018 and is only one of five people to be promoted directly from the bar to the highest court. According to one of the blurbs on the dust jacket of the paperback copy, his shaggy white hair covers “the biggest brain in Britain.” But there is nothing intimidating about the book, which is written with unusual simplicity and clarity. And while much of the focus of the book is on law and politics as they evolved in the United Kingdom, the book has considerable explicit and implicit relevance to law and politics today in the United States. The book presents in five chapters: (1) Law’s Expanding Empire; (2) In Praise of Politics; (3)…
  • What is NASA Doing? February 18, 2020 by Guest Author - President Trump’s request in his February 2020 State of the Union Address for funding “to ensure the next man and the first woman to the Moon will be American astronauts” points out the place of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) within the American ideological landscape. It reminds us — regardless of political perspective — that NASA is thoroughly an American project. It underscores the organization’s embodiment of basic aspirations of the American people and essential aspects of the American Creed, including the belief in the inherent power of the individual to go beyond himself, the understanding that the destiny of the American people includes responsibility to disseminate its capital ideals and overcome technological and scientific challenges, and the notion that exploration and discovery are commensurate with the fundamental human values promulgated in the foundational documents of the United States.
  • Who Do You Believe About Climate Change February 4, 2020 by W. David Montgomery - Who do you believe about climate change? An autistic teenager made into an oracle by the media, or a tenured professor driven into a different field of research by political investigations and conformist publishers? The comparison of Greta Thunberg and Roger Pielke is enlightening about what is true in climate science and how the climate thought-police control public expression. Thunberg, now 17, burst on the scene with a carefully staged emotional appeal to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2018. In a later speech at the Climate Action Summit, she said “How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction.”
  • Thinking About Things: Highlights of the Downward Spiral in American Education January 21, 2020 by John DeQ. Briggs - It is difficult for me to think about education in America these days without thinking about how much has changed and how much seems to have been lost. I was recently asked to submit some reflections to my alma mater, Harvard College, on the occasion of my upcoming 55th Reunion. What is set forth below is both an excerpt from and an expansion of those ruminations. There is more to say in a further effort down the road. What I said in my essay was that I had neither the will nor the energy to put down on paper all the many things that have so defiled the American educational system. But the main points I mentioned implicated the watering down of the curricula, the absence of any common knowledge base among recent graduates of all colleges, the coddling and closing of the American mind (which begins and is sustained on college campuses such as Harvard), the insidious growth of cancellation history and historical revisionism, and the scandalous ways in which influential parents pry their children into brand-name schools. These and many other aspects of higher education all bode very poorly for the future success of current undergraduates and for…