Richard Dawkins – The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design

Richard Dawkins – The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design

Possibly the best book ever written on evolution, for the delivery as much as the content. Dawkins uses compelling, relatable examples, grounded partly in his own experiments, to show how elaborate designs can emerge without a designer. He does it bit by bit, working with the reader to tease out insights, revealing more as he goes until everything ties together. Dawkins can sometimes be a bit strident, but he is a master educator. His illustrations of biomorphs and his explanation of how something as complex as the human eye can arise without an intelligent designer are two of the standout discussions in the book. Highly, highly recommended.

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The Populist Approach to Problem-Solving

From Kindle location 6077 of Peter Boettke’s 2018 book F. A. Hayek: Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy:

There is a fundamental contradiction in the populist critique of the establishment, both left and right, which is that government is failing them, but it is failing as it grows larger in scale and scope of activities. Yet, precisely because it is failing, it must grow in scale and scope to address the failure.

This Week in Ridiculous Regulations

The Game of Thrones finale aired last night, though the show’s less-plausible Washington spinoff appears set to continue indefinitely, and with a rather larger budget. In related trivia, dragons appear in twenty-five Federal Register documents so far this year, or more than one per week. The number of new regulations this year will also likely top one thousand next week. Meanwhile, rulemaking agencies issued new regulations ranging from nursery industry guides to package delivery signatures.

On to the data:

  • Last week, 55 new final regulations were published in the Federal Register, after 58 the previous week.
  • That’s the equivalent of a new regulation every three hours and three minutes.
  • Federal agencies have issued 980 final regulations in 2019. At that pace, there will be 2,553 new final regulations. Last year’s total was 3,367 regulations.
  • Last week, agencies published 494 notices, for a total of 8,112 in 2019. At that pace, there will be 21,125 new notices this year. Last year’s total was 22,205.
  • Last week, 1,925 new pages were added to the Federal Register, after 1,081 pages the previous week.
  • The 2019 Federal Register totals 22,692 pages. It is on pace for 59,094 pages. The 2018 total was 68,082 pages. The all-time record adjusted page count (which subtracts skips, jumps, and blank pages) is 96,994, set in 2016.
  • Rules are called “economically significant” if they have costs of $100 million or more in a given year. One such rule has been published this year. Six such rules were published in 2018.
  • The running compliance cost tally for 2019’s economically significant regulations currently ranges from $139.1 million to $175.8 million. The 2018 total ranges from $220.1 million to $2.54 billion, depending on discount rates and other assumptions.
  • Agencies have published 28 final rules meeting the broader definition of “significant” so far this year. 2018’s total was 108 significant final rules.
  • So far in 2019, 177 new rules affect small businesses; 11 of them are classified as significant. 2018’s totals were 660 rules affecting small businesses, with 29 of them significant.

Highlights from last week’s new final regulations:

For more data, see Ten Thousand Commandments and follow @10KC and @RegoftheDay on Twitter.

On the Radio: Metal Tariffs and NAFTA/USMCA

I’ll appear on the Jim Bohannon Show tonight at 10:00 ET to talk about President Trump’s decision to ease steel and aluminum tariffs against Canada and Mexico, and how it will impact the NAFTA/USMCA trade agreement.

Trump Mostly Removes Steel, Aluminum Tariffs against Mexico, Canada: Barriers Still Higher than in 2017

The Trump administration is mostly lifting its steel aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico, effective 48 hours from today’s announcement. But metal tariffs will remain higher than they were just 14 months ago. They have raised consumer prices for carshousing, and washing machines, while preventing passage of President Trump’s signature revised NAFTA/USMCA trade agreement. Even now, passage is not guaranteed.

Retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico also remain in place as of this writing (Update: Canada and Mexico are removing them, per The Wall Street Journal). The metal tariffs, enacted on national security grounds, will remain in place against Europe and Japan, which are both U.S. allies.​

Canadian and Mexican companies will also face a new compliance burden. They will have to monitor and report their steel and aluminum sources to ensure they are not re-exporting too much metal from China.

The tariffs were overkill as a negotiating tactic for the NAFTA/USMCA agreement, which would have little impact on trade. It will slightly raise car prices, slightly lower dairy prices, and have a few anti-China provisions of likely dubious effectiveness—and that’s about it.

Over these small potatoes, GM, and Ford are each reporting billion-dollar losses related to tariffs. Farmers, a core key part of Trump’s support base, are being hit just as hard, with the administration floating tens of billions of dollars of wealth transfers to shift the blow onto other demographics. The steel industry has benefitted some, but only at steel-using industries’ direct expense, and an estimated cost of $900,000 per job saved.

All this was avoidable. If anything, Mexico and Canada may have been willing to go through with USMCA formalities as a gesture of goodwill towards the U.S. president, who views it as an important political victory despite the low stakes. Instead, Trump’s tariff strategy turned an easy process into a combative, protracted negotiation for no good reason, while trade barriers remain higher than in 2017.

Good news today, but keep it in context.

Alice Rivlin, 1931-2019

Some economists do more than teach classes and write books. Alice Rivlin, who passed away this week, was proof. She was the first director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), from 1975 to 1983, serving under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. She helped develop many of the standards used for estimating how much legislation would cost if enacted. More importantly, she developed a reputation for keeping politicking out of the bill scoring.

Over in the executive branch, Rivlin was deputy director and then director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under President Bill Clinton. Though Rivlin worked mostly on fiscal issues, part of the OMB’s job is providing cost estimates for proposed regulations. Rivlin was in the OMB when Clinton issued the famous Executive Order 12866 on reforming the rulemaking process, and she played a significant role implementing it. Among other things, E.O. 12866 specifies the definition of a “significant” regulation and contains disclosure and cost estimate standards still in use today—at least when agencies bother to obey them.

Major accomplishments in budget and regulatory policy were apparently not enough, so Rivlin next took on monetary policy. She left the OMB in 1996 to become Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve, the number two position under then-chair Alan Greenspan, which she held until 1999.

Rivlin is perhaps best known for her work at the local level in the District of Columbia. The District was in a massive financial mess during the Marion Barry years, and Mayor Barry’s personal problems were not helping matters. Recommendations from a Rivlin-chaired task force resulted in the federal government stripping the mayor of most authority and establishing a committee to tend to the district’s finances. Rivlin eventually chaired that committee as well until it disbanded in 2001.

Milton Friedman observed that economists who go to work in government often suffer a decline in the quality and independence of their work; part of the price of influence is not telling the boss when he’s wrong, or at least not in public. Rivlin was an exception to that rule, successfully irking powerful politicians throughout her time in government. The CBO, for example, was initially created as a counter to President Nixon’s OMB.

Though Rivlin was a Democrat, she scored President Carter’s energy proposals honestly. For obvious reasons, this upset both the President and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who needed legislation to campaign on. As a deficit hawk, Rivlin had two parties deserving criticism. When Rivlin was on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue working at OMB, President Reagan publicly expressed his displeasure when Rivlin called shenanigans on his deficit spending.

Rivlin also left a footprint in the think tank world, working at the Brookings Institution between government appointments. Her book “Systematic Thinking for Social Action” is one of Brookings’ best-selling books, and remains an influential text in public administration courses. She also taught courses at Georgetown, George Mason, and Harvard.

Rivlin’s 1993 book “Reviving the American Dream: The Economy, the States, and the Federal Government” makes the case for increased federalism, which is a rare stance among career Washingtonians. It is also somewhat ironic, given Rivlin’s role in a partial federal takeover of the D.C. local government. But her long experience with federal budget dysfunction gives her plenty of ammunition for arguing for devolving many federal tasks to the state level—and D.C.’s troubles were something of an outlier case. In Rivlin’s system, the federal government would focus more on foreign policy, with the states taking on education, health care, poor relief, transportation, and other tasks that are currently mostly federally administered. The federal government would establish some uniform standards for states to follow, but would be more of a supervisor than an actual policy actor.

Though Rivlin mostly retired from government work after Clinton’s second term ended, she served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission in 2010 that looked for ways to reduce the national debt. She continued to warn about the dangers of perpetual deficit spending for the rest of her life.

Rivlin also worked in a time, place, and occupation that were all far more difficult for women than today. Intentionally or not, she set some major precedents. It says a lot about Rivlin that despite her era’s social norms, strong personalities on both sides of the aisle respected her. She was a stickler for keeping politics out of her budget and cost estimates. This sometimes involved making very powerful people very upset, and she did it anyway. Her reputation for fairness was well-earned, even if some of her praises were sung through clenched teeth.

While CBO and OMB’s modeling techniques are not always very accurate, on Rivlin’s watch such shortcomings usually had more to do with the nature of forecasting than with poll results or an upcoming election.

Few economists can claim as many accomplishments in as many policy areas as Rivlin. She held important roles in the executive branch and the legislative branch, in the federal government and overseeing a local government, plus the Federal Reserve, and still found time to make scholarly and popular contributions to federalism, administrative structure, and debt reduction efforts. She also had the good sense to be a thorn in the side to both parties, even as she was a member of one of them—something that is sadly missing in Washington today.

John Maynard Keynes – The Economic Consequences of the Peace

John Maynard Keynes – The Economic Consequences of the Peace

Keynes was part of the British delegation in the post-World War I Versailles negotiations. He resigned in protest, and this 1919 book is his public statement of why. He correctly foresaw that the treaty’s harsh terms would lead to a second World War by inflaming German resentment and slowing civilian rebuilding.

Keynes had malleable views, and changed personae many times through the years; this Keynes of 1919 was different from the Keynes of 1930’s Treatise on Money or 1936’s General Theory. But in this book Keynes shows a sharp moral clarity, mirrored by a clarity in thought and, relatedly, prose that differentiates Economic Consequences of the Peace from many of his other works.

This book would also pair well with Ludwig von Mises’ 1927 book Liberalism, which similarly foresaw a second war that would be worse than the first. Mises argued that interventionist policies, besides fostering social tensions and instability, would economically weaken the Allied countries, making it more difficult for them to counter nationalist or communist threats. For all their differences, Keynes and Mises stood on common ground in wanting peace, and even a little bit on how to maintain it.