October 27, 2004

Steven Landsburg Is Not In The Gamma Quadrant

I don't like Steven Landsburg, Slate's economics columnist, at all.* But Kevin Drum is not fair to him when he describes his rationale for endorsing Bush as "galactically incomprehensible."

Landsburg writes:

Duke thinks it's imperative to protect white jobs from black competition. Edwards thinks it's imperative to protect American jobs from foreign competition. There's not a dime's worth of moral difference there.

Now, it's not true that there's no moral difference here--Duke hates black people, and his preferred policies go beyond protecting jobs; while Edwards may just think that, as an official of the U.S. government, he has an obligation to look to U.S. citizens' interests first. So there may be a difference in motivation, and there's certainly a difference in legitimate governmental action (it's wrong for a government to treat to some of its citizens; a government can hardly help treating citizens and non-citizens unequally). So I think Landsburg is overstating the case.

But I think that what Landsburg is thinking is that protectionist measures hurt overseas workers, by forcing them into utterly crappy jobs rather than the really crappy jobs that outsourcing produces. (Or perhaps not-so-crappy jobs, in the case of white-collar outsourcing.) And that this is a drastic overall decrease in utility, which in Landsburg's opinion outweighs the other differences between the candidates.

This interesting exchange between Tyler Cowen and Brad DeLong is at least somewhat related.

I'm not sure I buy any of Landsburg's premises here, and (as you may have guessed) I don't buy the conclusion. But it's not galactically incomprehensible.

*Because of this, which is just awful, and this and this, which assume that any action that leads to someone's being worse off than they might otherwise be amounts to a tax on that person, and this.

Posted by Matt Weiner at October 27, 2004 12:47 PM

I agree with your charitable interpretation of Landsberg's endorsement.

The endorsement itself was scurrilous. The analogy isn't nearly strong enough to entitle Landsberg to liken Edwards to a former Klansman in print. Duke's mission in life is to hurt blacks. Edwards doesn't hate overseas workers. His mission is to protect American jobs. If that makes overseas workers worse off, it will be an unintended consequence.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein at October 28, 2004 11:15 AM

DeLong himself doesn't like Landsburg's endorsement much. And I agree about the scurrility of the endorsement; even Landsburg ought to be able to see what you point out.

I might think that his scurrilous endorsement was caused by his holding the comprehensible view about trade that I mention, but that's causal, not reasonable.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at October 30, 2004 12:38 PM

I'm glad to hear that DeLong is uncomfortable with Landsburg. I figured he would be. Unlike Landsburg, DeLong cares deeply about the welfare of third world workers. Personally, I think he's too optimistic about globalization, but I respect his scholarship and his commitment to broad-based utilitarian ideals.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein at November 3, 2004 09:48 AM

Yeah, there are at least two posts I could make following from this:
(1) What are Landsburg's habits of argument, and can we discern a consistent moral scheme beneath them? (For instance, the looting article and the article about executing hackers together indicate to me that he places almost no value on civic order. Which is dumb, dumb, dumb.)
(2) Why do I have some qualms about globalization, even if I accept that sweatshop jobs are better than the other jobs currently available to people in developing countries?

(2) is probably more interesting. Don't know if either will get written.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at November 4, 2004 10:04 AM