Why Is Eugenics Still Worth Debating???

To hear the press—and especially the conservative press—tell it, Charles Murray is an embattled conservative whose ideas can get no quarter because the liberal elite hate them. His difficulties at speaking events are a product of a campus atmosphere hostile to “free speech”. This is part of a worrying rise in anti-intellectualism on the left.

The problem with all that? Charles Murray’s ideas are garbage.


The Southern Poverty Law Center details Murray as someone who is on the intellectual fringe. The linked piece establishes that Murray relies on, in their words, tainted sources. His theory relies on “dysgenesis”, an idea that was on its last legs when my grandparents were in high school. Essentially, having children with “inferior” races will lead to a breakdown in the welfare system as the pressures created by the “regression” of the gene pool lead to too few people supporting the victims of dysgenesis. There are a bunch of problems with both the assumptions and methodology of his research, not to mention that the logical conclusion of this work is another Holocaust. Make no mistake, the foundation of Murray’s work are uncontroversially pseudo-science.

At this point Murray’s defenders like to trot out a Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Even taken out of context, Murray’s right to make these assertions is not in question. In context, these are not Voltaire’s words. A historian summarized summarized Voltaire’s position on a controversial book that way. The book faced formal censorship by the government and church culminating in a book burning and, ironically, Voltaire felt the work was unoriginal and not worth all the fuss. As near as I can tell, the Federal Government is not looking to burn to burn Murray’s work, but I admit I did not check.

Indeed, the preoccupation of the much-vaunted Enlightenment folks was with government intrusion. In the American context, we have erected a strong framework opposing Federal and State intervention against most speech; Congress may not pass a law preventing Murray from spreading his pseudo-science. There is a wrinkle when talking about public institutions of higher learning, which after all derive their authority from popular election. Courts have held (in my view, correctly) that institutions have the right to limit who has access to a platform, but must provide a public space for all views. In other words, Murray is not legally entitled to a stage, but he can go stand next to the Evangelists and hawk his outmoded “science”. Can you imagine the chaos if we were all entitled to speak at any public university we chose!

The second broad line of objection is that the best way to defeat ideas is by meeting them head on. I demur a bit to the broad point; suppression by Universities hardly serves the purpose of intellectual foment. But does giving charlatans a stage serve that goal either? Students, even those giving a more clunky objection to Murray than I, are not calling to ban critical engagement with Murray’s work. Giving people the chance to speak in a forum that limits questions, like a speech at a university, works fine if the ideas are prima facie defensible. Who, besides Murray and the literal neo-Nazi outfits who fund him, is asserting that Eugenics still deserves a careful public hearing? What, precisely, is Murray offering that one could not find in a history text?

The best way to critically engage with debunked, half a century old science is not to treat it as a cutting edge theory which deserves to have its contours fleshed out. Murray’s ideas aren’t being dismissed for lack of engagement, but because experts concluded the preponderance of the evidence came down against a generation ago. Murray’s baldly false assertion that “most” experts agree with his premise should be enough to disqualify him from University speaking engagements. It is bad enough that his science is trash, but he is flatly lying about his colleagues’ positions to worm his way onto campus. Courts have a high standard for retrying legal cases, as do academics for intellectual ones and for the same reason: these debates are time consuming. Those interested in retrying Eugenics should have to prove that the field has something new to offer. Murray’s lies reveal that he does not think he can meet that burden.

Ironically, it is those who would shoehorn Murray onto the stage who are showing the most wanton disregard for the goals of the academy. Voltaire and his cohort correctly worried that the whims of popular pressure would bring the force of the state against them. Today, conservative commentators worry that an idea that only lives in the popular imagination is not being forced into the academy.

Is this the current state of conservative intellectualism? That they give quarter to any idea, no matter how plainly indefensible, so long as it opposes the welfare state? I hope not! Conservative ideas like Burkean anti-radicalism, Hayek’s information problem, and Hicks’s marginalism temper my progressive values. I am a better, more well-rounded critic because conservatives have historically offered a vibrant response to the liberals of their time. But rather than looking critically at Murray’s ideas and acknowledging they come up short on the burden of proof, they are openly worried that Murray is not being paid to shill yesterday’s junk science. When liberals pull the tricks Murray does—pulling on outdated methodology or claiming a consensus that does not exist—I use this platform to write them a cease-and-desist letter. I do so because I am genuinely worried that poor discourse hurts our understanding of the world. Can conservatives defending Murray say the same?

Murray’s speech rights are not under siege. As far as I know, there is no credible threat to his right to propound these ideas. What is under siege is his lucrative deception that his ideas are scientifically debatable; they are not.

And so, we should not debate them.


A Venezuelan Inflation Addendum

Sometimes the news dovetails with my blog.

Yesterday, I responded a Benjamin Studebaker piece where he argued, in my view, unpersuasively that the left can organize to overcome some fundamental problems in Europe’s periphery. While much of my response dealt with inflation, for the sake of length, I emphasized the havoc a “Grexit” would cause for government programs. Regrettably, I had to give short shrift to the effect inflation has on labor.

Enter Venezuela! Yesterday, enormous protests erupted against the embattled Maduro government. Under Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, the government began pursuing the kind of communist policies that were, frankly, a throwback in the 1970s. The effects of the price controls and crackdowns have been at turns humorous and horrific. Humorous: The country ran out of toilet paper a few times. Horrific: Caracas has the highest murder rate in the world as gangs try to secure food to sell on the black market. Driving all this is acceleration inflation, which is making everyone poorer. Even if you want to hose the investment class, rapid inflation is deeply anti-labor.


To get some idea why Venezuela’s policies are accidentally anti-labor, one must only look to their minimum wage. In 2016, the Maduro government raised the minimum wage 322%; in US terms, that would take the wage from $7.50 to $23.35. During that same time, however, the price of goods went up by 800%. That means that $7.50 in goods would then cost $58. People making the minimum wage in Venezuela could only buy 40% of what they could at the start of the year even after the wage hikes. That’s equivalent to slashing the minimum wage to $2.90 in the US.

The Maduro government has taken the position that it is because of, “economic war and mafia attacks”. Even if you are inclined to swallow these half truths uncritically, you must wonder why the Maduro government has failed so spectacularly at trade (mismanagement of public companies) and the mafia is thriving (nothing feeds a black market like price controls). And let’s not pull the punch: The government is exaggerating much of the narrative to dodge responsibility.

While my post yesterday focused on the problems inflation causes for government financing and the argument I was responding to looked exclusively at its effects on the investor class, the lesson here is that inflation erodes labor’s standing pretty dramatically. I looked at the minimum wage because that is an unambiguous statistic, but in many ways it is missing the point. Estimating real wages during dramatic inflation is difficult because it is a moving target. We can safely say those who were working above the minimum have almost certainly not seen a raise for awhile and the erosion of the value of their labor is even greater than the government’s actions on the minimum wage.

This isn’t a question of class warfare. Its a question of not cutting off you nose to spite your face.

As in Everything, Trade-Offs in Europe

Benjamin Studebaker has published a piece that is an object lessen in wishful thinking. He posits, in short, that if the left in Europe commits to strategically reforming the EU’s institutions then we can solve the problem in Greece. It lays the blame at the steps of core banks without critically engaging with the fundamental economics that drove the periphery to those banks. It is not so much that he’s wrong that those core banks played a role, but rather that his effort refuses to engage with the steep trade offs imposed by economic realities.

Too Neat a Tale

Consider first his analysis of the vicious cycle of debt Europe finds itself in:

It’s clear that the EU, as constructed, is not working for the countries in the periphery—places like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. In the 2000’s, these countries became export dumps for the core countries, particularly Germany. German companies used the periphery export markets to get rich, and German banks lent money to the periphery economies to enable them to pay for German goods. This produced a sick feedback loop in which Germany lent money to the periphery so that the periphery could continue to buy German goods so that German companies could continue to generate profit which they then put into the German banks and which the German banks then loaned to the periphery so that it could buy more goods so that German companies could make more profit and so on and so forth.


While I agree there is truth to this story, it is a little too neat. German banks did not lend money to a passive Greek government. Greece fought to enter that lending market and, lest we forget, cooked the books to get access to both the money and a lower interest rate. An account that picks up with German companies benefiting enormously from having a competitive advantage that Greek officials successfully hid from them obscures that Greece removed the safeguards that would have protected their markets. Be careful of telling too neat a tale in the core’s favor, though; the core adhered to the letter, but not the spirit, of those safeguards and I suspect wishful (though, not predatory) thinking was under that. Regardless, that the core bought their dishonest accounting is not equivalent in culpability to the original lie.

And why did Greek officials do this? Studebaker’s account and diagram elides that as well, but it was to expand government spending. I support a robust safety net, so make no mistake: this is not a morality play about how gutting services is justice for the Greek people. But a more careful accounting of the Greek crisis shows that Greek officials were the primary architects of a system they initially benefited from. It also reveals that Greece faces a fundamental tradeoff that a Grexit cannot alleviate, though we’ll see there is a surprising, political case for Grexit. But first, the obvious question:

Why The Euro?

All countries face a pretty simple tradeoff, captured by something called the Phillip’s curve. The Phillip’s curve says that the more countries try to tamp down on inflation, the more unemployment will rise. This makes an intuitive sort of sense, though there is no completely uncontroversial explanation for the finer points of the relationship. Governments which spend more will drive up prices by competing with consumers for goods, but the stimulus will employ people and vice versa. While the quality of the tradeoff is pretty much universal, the quantity tends to change over time and between countries. The difference between the Drachma era and the Euro era is striking:


Joining the Euro’s integrated market lowered the barriers to international debt finance; more people had an easier time bidding on Greek debt. More bidders means a lower price and, in turn, a lower price on debt means lower inflation. This was further compounded by the fact that core banks believed that Greek debt was safer than it was. That same lie suggested that the trade imbalance should not have ballooned the way it did, and the economic history here is that at first it didn’t. It wasn’t until it became clear that Greece cooked the books that their current account collapsed:


There are two stylized fact here:

  1. The benefit of the Drachma is that it protects against deep current account imbalances. The downside is that it makes financing the government much more expensive.
  2. The benefit of the Euro is that it offers cheap financing for government programs, but that debt often returns as GDP-sapping imports.

Again, I’m not placing government debt at the center of this story as a morality play. I’m doing so because government spending and social programs are key to understanding Greek finances and motivations as well as German exporting. The Greek government could have unilaterally reduced imports by cutting social programs; they implicitly did the opposite by entering the European market and increasing their debt load. And this deeply undercuts Studebaker’s thesis.

Before I address that, there is one other thing I need to address that does not fit neatly into this narrative.

Absolution for Whom?

There is a proposal, casually thrown out, that also needs addressed:

Federal institutions can wipe out the debt of the periphery and create new European regulations to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.

Yeah, no, they cannot. From the data here (PDF), European banking equity is about 180 Billion Euros. Greek debt alone is 350 Billion Euros. Doing this by fiat would would bankrupt the banking system and throw Europe back 800 years. It is not an option.

Buying out the debt, just writing off the enormous political undertaking that would be, would have deep, second-order problems. A quick estimate suggests peripheral debt represents about 29% of the GDP of the EU. (Spain and Italy are the bigger problem in nominal terms, but Greece has a much more beleaguered economy because GDP and population are much lower.) For perspective here, government spending in Britain is 40% of the UK’s GDP. If we allow this take 6 years and all countries make a contribution proportional to their GDP, this program would require a tax hike of 12% added to the current tax bill provided there are no negative effects from the tax. Accomplishing this in a single year would require a 75% increase in the tax rate, clearly unfeasible. To keep taxes below 5% for the UK will require at least 15 years and 2% requires more than 36.

Large scale debt forgiveness programs, be they by decree or payment are simply enormous undertakings.

Constrained Goals

With this all in mind, we turn our attention to the political coalition Studebaker proposes. It is a fairy tale as it requires both the core and periphery to shoot themselves in the foot.

Grexit would, admittedly, help Greece maintain austerity but as a pitch for the left to rally around it comes up wanting. The case for it is cynical: if the core is unlikely to reduce the austerity burden, the best way to make austerity less bitter is to dump the Euro. (Under the Drachma, 2% inflation, like we’re seeing now, corresponded to a third the unemployment rate. Some transition costs may apply.) But it requires giving up the goal of expansive services which, frankly, I do not see the left agreeing to that. Contrast Studebaker:

The European Union in its current form is much better for the core countries than for the periphery. It’s especially good for Germany, and it’s especially good for rich Germans. They need the periphery to be in the EU so that it can continue to serve as Germany’s export market. But this is not sustainable–it imposes too much suffering on the poor and working people of the periphery. These people are right to reject this exploitation, and by rejecting it they will put a tremendous amount of pressure on Germany and on the rest of the core to find a political and institutional solution which alleviates their grievances.

The flaw here is that the problem is not “exploitation” in any straightforward sense of the word. Even ignoring the considerable problem of existing debt, the fundamental trade off between financing government services and Greek employment is not, ultimately, a question of German banking. While I have demonstrated that the institution of the Euro has a profound impact on the slope of that trade off, none of the options Studebaker puts on the table overcomes it—nor could they. The periphery, by construction, can only have their cake and eat it too if the core agrees to a catastrophe. Again, Studebaker:

At the same time, by supporting federalism and integration, the left in the core can help develop and prepare the ground for the kind of solutions which can genuinely help the periphery. If the left in the core aids and abets the right, then the response to exits and exit demands from the periphery will simply be disintegration. The left must keep the core countries firmly committed to the European project so that they will not just accept the exit of the periphery and it must build support in the core for the Europe of the future. If the right in the core chooses to support exit and the left chooses to support institutional improvements, the center will have to ally with the left to prevent disintegration. The center must be forced to choose between an end to the euro and the common market and the creation of a new European economic compact in which the center makes concessions to workers and the poor in exchange for continued openness within Europe.

Here again, the economic details of his proposal are at odds with his goals. Asking the core to bear the incredible economic cost of paying down peripheral debt (I presume he would agree bankrupting Europe is not an option?), strikes me as a political non-starter. Germany has a growth rate of 1.2% per year; the steep increases in taxes I estimated above would wipe out any benefits of keeping the Common Market here. This is definitely a case where an honest accounting of the plan by the left should drive the center into the open arms of the populist right. Given the strict choice between the proposal to wipe the debt or let the EU disintegrate, you would be hard pressed to convince me to wipe the debt. We’re talking a major decrease in national wealth to pay for what was, essentially, fraud. Note, this is not an appeal to “mere politics”, but an account of how a majority of informed voters would be expected to reject this. With that in mind:

This will only work if the exit threat in the periphery is genuine. Germany called SYRIZA’s bluff–SYRIZA wasn’t really willing to ditch the Euro and leave the union. It wasn’t willing to reintroduce the drachma and expose rich Greeks to the inflation that would come along with that. The political movements in the periphery must do more than talk about exit, they must be willing to carry it out if necessary. In this way we can partner the integrationist and protectionist lefts together–by pairing a genuine threat of exit in the periphery with a strong push for federalism in the core, we can split the neoliberals off from the right nationalists in the core countries and force them into making concessions. What the left needs is a good cop, bad cop routine, where the British, French, Dutch, and German leftists are the good cops and the Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese leftists are the bad cops.

Insofar as “neoliberal” is a real thing (and it isn’t), I seem to be one. And if there is one thing I have noticed when neoliberals are invoked, it is because “we” have raised the issue that there is some sort of constraint—usually economic. But if “we” really understood the politics or facts or weren’t so blinkered by our corporate allegiances, “we” would support a truer form of progressivism. But I submit that in light of the evidence, SYRIZA let the bluff be called because they were not prepared for a post-Euro Greece. The status quo is not good, but giving up the Euro means giving up on any chance to finance social services for a generation. I would have advised that ship has sailed, but holding out for a better deal with more services as debt stabilizes in Greece is a defensible course for the left.

The Power of Wishful Thinking

This is a mode I see regrettably often on the left. Studebaker has a very clear set of goals here: the ascendance of the left, expansive social services, and an integrated core in Europe. There is nothing wrong with having a set of goals unmoored from what is possible; incidentally, I share this trinity. Despite being a curmudgeon about proof, I support left wing policy goals and economic integration. But too often, I see a set of goals proposed and the argument that a suitable political coalition can erase the trade offs. But, that is profoundly out of touch with reality.

What I find wanting in Studebaker’s analysis, both here and elsewhere, is the gratuitous hand-waving. Even without my detailing of the Phillip’s curve above, his proposal is, at its heart, to create government agencies that get what he wants. (“We need stronger European institutions that can step in and prevent any European state from exploiting any other”.) I understand quite intimately the challenge of blogging is that fleshing out those ideas to a high standard is difficult, but there is a galling hubris in presuming one can make debt equal to nearly a third of the EU’s GDP disappear by giving more power to the EU Parliament. Is the EU going to abolish double entry accounting? The proposal to just waive all that debt is, without hyperbole, not wholly different. The idea that the government might be able to change the Phillip’s curve dramatically is less of a sin only by comparison. Changes at the Central Banks are among the few that can, and even then within a pretty narrow range of options.

The basic lesson of economics is that in everything are trade offs. Government financing only works if interest rates are low; inflating away debt is a terrible way to ensure continuity of government services in a country that is struggling to make ends meet. But, with low interest rates, comes high unemployment precisely because you have to hack back at services to achieve it. This isn’t a failure by SYRZIA and core parties to organize. It’s basic opportunity cost.

And so long as the left is unwilling to admit they have to give things up to reach some of their goals, they will struggle to build potent coalitions with those who take governance seriously.

Unwarranted Hysterics

A general view of damaged buildings in Jouret al-Shayah, Homs

In the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to shell an installation in Syria, someone viewing my Facebook feed with no wider context would be forgiven for concluding that the world was ending. Indeed, noted alarmist Glenn Greenwald said,

But U.S. war fever waits for nothing. Once the tidal wave of American war frenzy is unleashed, questioning the casus belli is impermissible. Wanting conclusive evidence before bombing commences is vilified as sympathy with and support for the foreign villain (the same way that asking for evidence of claims against Russia instantly converts one into a “Kremlin agent” or “stooge”).

War fever? Several days later the US has stood by its stated intention not to escalate. While it is fair to note that I have the mighty perch of hindsight, I can look down from it because I did not rush to deluge the internet with purple prose about how this was some sort of overture of war. Greenwald’s piece has other problems; it uncritically repeats Assad’s account of what happened—so much for objectivity!—and misrepresents Canada’s position on the bombing—likely a function of rushing to press. While Greenwald could have raised serious concerns in a serious manner, he was more interested in scoring points against his favorite boogeyman.

Common Dreams echoed many people by suggesting that this was a “wag the dog” moment:

Now, as many foreign governments, U.S. lawmakers, and the corporate media are lining up in support of the bombing campaign, observers say it appears like a ‘Wag the Dog’ moment for Trump, distracting the opposition while conveniently flipping the script about Russia. In a column on Friday, The Nation’s Greg Grandin pointed out that with the one assault, the president successfully splintered the Democratic resistance, won the praise of the media, and changed the story of his friendly relations with the Kremlin.

This extraordinary narrative is ultimately supported by…nothing. While Trump does seem to have briefly changed the narrative, the idea that a swift and timely response to the use of chemical weapons was deployed months after the Russia scandal started taking out members of his cabinet is pure conjecture. While I won’t deny that there was a gross rush to fawn over the President, the moment was fleeting and met with backlash.

Linda Stasi at The New York Daily News posited that this was to help Trump’s approval rating.

If President Trump actually cared more about the Syrian genocide than his own popularity, he would never have tried to ban Syria’s suffering “beautiful babies” and their families—twice—from entering this country. Which he did, and it was horrific. If President Trump genuinely cared more for the suffering Syrians being starved and tortured in unbelievably Dark Ages refugee camps than his own approval ratings, he would have acted sooner to help stop the ongoing genocide, which has claimed nearly half a million people — including tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims. Which he didn’t and it was horrific.

I don’t especially want to slow down those pointing out the President’s rank hypocrisy; the “Muslim ban” is very much at odds with his rationale here. (Though, this grossly flattens the situation in refugee camps, while often bad, down to Assad’s torture complexes, easily worse.) That said, this is far from conclusive. It might just be, as Ezra Klein at Vox suggests, that the president has an impulsive strategy. That doesn’t warrant praise, but it’s not a cynical scheme either. Which is worse? pft! They’re both pretty bad.

Even with hindsight, though, left-wing publications are sounding the alarm about a “rally around the flag” effect. Slate ran a headline, “Donald Trump’s approval ratings are up because he bombed a foreign country”. By how much? Well, they declined to print that, instead linking to data that shows, with some even deeper digging, that since the end of March he’s gained 3 points. There are a number of possible reasons for that, not the least of which is statistical uncertainty; the two findings are almost statistically equal. FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate polling, as of writing, has him up half a percentage since the bombing. If that’s even real, you can expect perhaps a little more as more polls roll in. Far from uncritically rallying around the flag, what the CBS data shows is that there is a gap between people who support this particular policy and people who support the administration as a whole. But, when did “data” ever stop Slate from publishing a liberal narrative?

This is not to say there aren’t fair, savvy critiques of the President and his actions, including embedded in the pieces I skewered above. I share the left wing reservations about what the endgame in Syria even looks like, concerns about Trump’s governance, and outrage at his hypocrisy on this issue. But there is a terrible irony that warnings about jingoism have become a dogma all their own. Watching Stop the War prioritize their dogmatic position by speaking over Syrian commentators has been as painful as it is emblematic. Again, if you have a good reason to criticize the actions the President is taking, this is piece is not aimed at you.

But too many commentators have been fitting the facts to their narrative and not the other way around.