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Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

Articles by Bryan Caplan

Redeeming Tenure

17 hours ago

Tenure is terrible.  Well, it’s awesome for those of us who have it.  The tenure system, however, is nonsense on stilts.  Economists’ rationalizations for tenure are flimsy indeed.  Just consider: Virtually all semi-prestigious professors have tenure, yet virtually no one in the for-profit sector has anything close.  I know, we can construct fanciful scenarios where this chasm makes sublime economic sense, such as: “Professors are willing to sacrifice vastly more in salary than normal humans to eliminate the last vestiges of job insecurity” plus “Giving professors enormous job security has far less effect on their productivity than it would on normal humans.”  But neither claim is remotely plausible.  Lots of non-professors intensely value job security, and lots of

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Iskander’s Challenge: What Took Hong Kong So Long?

2 days ago

Iskander, a devoted EconLog reader, sent me a fascinating question.  With his permission, I reprint his original email and a followup.
Original Email
Dear Professor Caplan,
I was reading through some old Econlog posts, and I saw one about Hong Kong (“Statist at Heart”) where you attribute rapid post war growth to the free market policies of the British. I tend to agree with this, however I do wonder about why growth was only rapid after 1950. There was next to no institutional/political change as far as I know, yet per capita output growth was not that large in the century beforehand. I can see why wages might be held down by elastic labour supply from mainland China, but not output per capita.
In many ways the British Empire acted as if it was ruled by a cabal of

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Unschooling + Math

3 days ago

One popular variant on homeschooling is called “unschooling.”  The practice varies, as practices always do.  The essence, however, is that the student does what he wants.  He studies what he wants.  He studies for as long as he wants.  If he asks you to teach him something, you teach him.  Yet if he decides to play videogames all day, the principled unschooling response is: “Let him.”
Almost every parent is horrified by the idea of unschooling.  Even most homeschoolers shake their heads.  Advocates insist, however, that unschooling works.  Psychologist Peter Gray defends the merits of unschooling with great vigor and eloquence.  According to unschoolers, the human child is naturally curious.  Given freedom, he won’t just learn basic skills; he’ll ultimately find a

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Viral Silence

4 days ago

This semester I volunteered to teach both of my classes in-person.  I’ve also given four public talks in Texas, and one at GMU.  All of these venues had mask mandates.  And in each case, I noticed an eerie pattern: Almost no one talks to each other anymore!  In the past, I had to ask classes to quiet down so I could start class.  Now I usually face dead silence.  Public lecture halls used to overflow with the chatter of the crowd.  Now you can practically hear a pin drop.
From what I’m told, I’m not alone.  When I talk to other faculty who teach in-person (rare, I admit), they too remark upon this viral silence.
What’s the explanation?  Here are my leading candidates.
1. Health fear. People avoid talking to others because they think it increases their odds of

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The Non-Linear Loophole?

8 days ago

Last month, I asked readers for a “Great Reconciliation” of three popular beliefs:
1. Risk mitigation should be directly proportional to risk severity.
2. Medically speaking, COVID is 2-5x as bad as flu.
3. Our COVID mitigation efforts should be much more than 5x our flu mitigation efforts.

The most theoretically compelling resolution I’ve encountered maintains that contra (1), our response to risk should be strongly non-linear.
On the surface, this is a plausible story.  Consider: How much money would someone have to pay you to endure a 1% chance of death today?  Suppose your answer is $100,000.  Does logic compel you, then, to accept a 100% chance of death today for 100*$100,000=$10M?
That’s plainly absurd.  Indeed, unless your loved ones prefer fat stacks to

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Reflections on My Illustration Contest

9 days ago

You might not realize from EconLog or my academic work, but I love crafting and sharing stories.  Some are true, at least as far as memory serves.  I’ve told my kids hundreds of stories over the dinner table, most revolving around absurd events of my childhood.  I’ve also written a pile of fiction, mostly for my artisanal role-playing games.  I’ve explored almost every genre that’s game-worthy: high fantasy, superheroes, crime, dystopian, absurdist comedy, conspiracy, war, westerns, and even Bollywood.   And as you might guess from my Open Borders, I am also a huge fan of the graphic novel format.  Indeed, years earlier I wrote a fictional graphic novel, Amore Infernale; you can check out the storyboards here.
Since Open Borders has done well, I’m now trying to get

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Don’t Pickpocket Your Students

10 days ago

Imagine you’re a professor somewhere.  You hear rumors of the creation of a new Office of Student Property Security.  “Whatever,” you think.
Yet before long, you’re summoned to a brand-new mandatory training session run by certified officers of Student Property Security.  At this session (in-person back in the old days; now Zoom of course), they give you a tortoise-paced 90-minute Powerpoint presentation on the student property crisis and the appropriate faculty response.  And the whole spiel can be readily summarized in a single commandment: “Don’t pickpocket your students.”
To me, such a training session would be insulting, pointless, and unhinged.
Why insulting?  Because I would never consider pickpocketing my students in a million years.  I don’t need a

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The Wrong Pieces on the Chessboard

11 days ago

Inspired by a few recent posts, several friends have asked me if I’ve finally “woken up” to the great political threat of wokism.  In particular, they’re hoping that I’m ready to at least back the American right as the clear lesser of two evils.
I fear my response is: It’s complicated.
From a global point of view, I continue to see the American left and right as moral approximates.  No doubt one is even worse than the other, but they’re both so vicious that I see little reason to precisely weigh their sins.  While I disagree with the left on a larger number of issues, the American right is not merely wrong but sadistic on the single most important policy issue on Earth: immigration.  If your idea of freedom is gleefully denying the vast majority of humanity the

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The Freedom to Do What Sounds Wrong

16 days ago

Friends of freedom routinely defend the right to do wrong.  “If you’re only free to do good things, what freedom do you really have?”  Yet on reflection, this sorely underrates the value of freedom.  Yes, the freedom to do bad things is important.  Much more important, though, is the freedom to do good things that sound bad.
Why is this so important?  Because Social Desirability Bias is ubiquitous; that’s why.   Long psych story short: When the truth sounds bad, human beings deceive and self-deceive.  This deceit in turn routinely rationalizes bad policies.  Example: Convenience and fun are often better than health and safety.  That’s what your actions declare whenever you drive to a restaurant instead of hunkering down in your home.  But almost no one wants to

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Reflections on Texas

17 days ago

My trip to Texas was a lifetime highlight for me.  Some thoughts:
1. I hadn’t flown since March.  I passed through the following airports: Dulles, Dallas, Amarillo, Austin, and Charlotte.  All of them were half-deserted, except for Charlotte, which was inexplicably packed.  Even in Charlotte, however, the level of fear was low.  Travelers lined up in pre-COVID fashion unless you made a point of distancing.
2. My trip took me on a horizontally-flipped-J route from Amarillo to San Antonio, then up to Austin.  Everywhere I went was visibly less shut-down than northern Virginia.  Horrified?  Consider this: Given an area’s health stats, you should hope their level of caution to be low!  Why?  Because it reveals favorable trade-offs. While Texas is hardly winning the

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Nudge: Welfare State Edition

27 days ago

Simplistic summary of a long debate on paternalism:

Hard Paternalist: Government should force weak human beings to do what’s in their own best interest.
Knee-Jerk Libertarian: No, that’s totalitarian.
Soft Paternalist: Government should nudge weak human beings to do what’s in their own best interest.
Thoughtful Libertarian: You define “nudges” so elastically that you still end up being pretty totalitarian.

Rizzo and Whitman’s Escaping Paternalism exemplifies the Thoughtful Libertarian position; indeed, as I’ve already said, they’ve probably written the best book on paternalism.  Only after the Book Club ended, though, did the following compromise position occur to me: Instead of using all means at its disposal to nudge people to do what’s in their own best

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My Texas Tour

29 days ago

Next week, I’m touring Texas with my sons.  I’m speaking for Texas Tech’s Free Market Institute in Lubbock on October 5, and at San Angelo State’s Free Market Institute on October 6.
Both events are in-person, and the Texas Tech event is, amazingly, open to the public!  (Though you do have to register).  If you come, please say hi.  And you can livestream from anywhere on Earth.
My route takes me on a swath from Amarillo, the Palo Duro Canyon, Lubbock, San Angelo, Texas German country, San Antonio, and Austin.  Email me if you’d like to meet up, and maybe we can make something happen.
[embedded content]

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Self-Help Is Like a Vaccine

September 30, 2020

AEI’s Andrew Biggs has a totally reasonable piece arguing that Americans’ unhealthy lifestyles are a major cause of America’s high COVID mortality rate:
Americans entered the Covid pandemic in much poorer health than citizens of other developed countries. For instance, over 27,000 U.S Covid deaths list diabetes as a comorbidity, accounting for 16% of total Covid-related fatalities. But what if instead of having the highest diabetes rate among rich countries the U.S. had the same rate as Australia, with less than half the U.S. level? The same holds for obesity, listed as a comorbidity in 4% of Covid cases. Forty percent of Americans are obese, the highest in the developed world and over twice the OECD average. U.S. death rates from heart disease are also higher than

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Orwellian Othering

September 29, 2020

I recently characterized “diversity and inclusion” as a deeply Orwellian movement – doublethink all the way:
Out of all the major political movements on Earth, none is more Orwellian than “social justice.” No other movement is so dedicated to achieving the opposite of what its slogans proclaim – or so aggressive in the warping of language.
For example:
1. The diversity and inclusion movement is nominally devoted to fervent “anti-racism.”  In practice, however, they are the only prominent openly racist movement I have encountered during my life in the United States.  Nowadays they routinely mock and dismiss critics for the color of their skin – then accuse those they mock and dismiss of “white fragility.”
Recently, I noticed yet another fine mess of diversity and

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Business vs. Government: A Few Contrarian Thoughts

September 28, 2020

A few months ago, Mike Huemer published a pithy defense of business in general, and big corporations in particular.  Some highlights:
Now, I have had personal experience with individuals, corporations, and government. All three are, of course, sometimes unsatisfactory. But my experience with large corporations is way better than my experience with either individuals or government — better from the standpoint of my ending up feeling satisfied, or being made better off by interacting with them.
Thus:
Customers of big corporations are often unreasonable and disagreeable, and the company puts up with it and bends over backwards to make the customers happy. Example: I buy a product at a big chain store, take it home, cut off the packaging, then decide, for no particular

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When Was This Written?

September 24, 2020

Western civilization is being forced step by step into a state of civil war by the rising assaults of a revolutionary movement known as [redacted].
This movement centers in the universities and spreads outward into every institution of today’s society.  It spreads in two ways: by indoctrination of those who are open to indoctrination, and by terrorization of those who are not.
Many observers are bewildered by the fact that the violence and terror have appeared suddenly in the midst of a scenario – written by liberals – calling for a new society based on gentleness, tolerance and the humanitarian concern of everyone for everyone else’s needs.  The violence, the obscenity, the unabashed totalitarianism have burst like a storm upon the calm of an afternoon tea party.

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The Illogic of Collective Guilt

September 23, 2020

A while back, I ran the following set of Twitter polls on collective guilt.  Here’s what people think at the most abstract level.

How often are people collectively guilty?
— Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) August 24, 2020

Overall, I was surprised by how few people said, “Never.”  I expected more like 70-80%, especially when phrased so baldly.  What really puzzled me, though, were people’s views about the sources of collective guilt.  People are about as willing to accept national collective guilt as they are to accept collective guilt itself.

How often are people collectively guilty for the actions of their nation?
— Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) August 24, 2020

They’re slightly more skeptical of familial guilt, even though people have astronomically more influence

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The Missing Right-Wing Firms: A Beckerian Puzzle

September 22, 2020

I teach the economics of discrimination every chance I get.  Why?  Because the analytical framework, launched by the great Gary Becker in 1957, mightily illuminates so many questions that we care so much about.  When you see that almost all garbage collectors are male, for example, what should you conclude?  Perhaps women and men are equally able and interested in collecting garbage, but employers in the industry dislike women.  Perhaps male garbage collectors don’t like working alongside women.  Or perhaps customers don’t want women to touch their trashcans.  Alternately, perhaps men are better at collecting garbage than women.  (Statistically!)  Or maybe women dislike this line of work more than men.  (Again, statistically!)
One of these stories might be the

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Drissel on the Normative Core

September 21, 2020

I received the following email from Bill Drissel about my “Public Choice: The Normative Core.”  Reprinted with his permission.
Dr. Caplan
The data you seek for your “normative core” is readily available in one arena: public transportation.  I follow the Anti-Planner, Randal O’Toole.  The planned benefit is number of riders.  The planned cost is usually available in dollars(of a given vintage).  The subsequent cost-overruns and consequent ridership are also available.  So every cost/benefit ratio could easily be adjusted by a “normative core adjustment”.
For example, if extensive research shows that, for public transportation, actual costs / planned costs average 2.1 and actual ridership / planned ridership average 0.40, then the normative core adjustment factor for

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It’s Complicated: Grasping the Syllogism

September 17, 2020

A few weeks ago, I presented the following syllogism:

Issue X is complicated.
Perspective Y’s position on X is not complicated.
Therefore, Perspective Y is wrong about X.

Almost all of the comments were critical.  Some notable examples:
Dan:
As someone who used to live in San Francisco and was involved in YIMBY activism, this argument was used frustratingly often by NIMBYs: “The housing crisis is complicated and you can’t simplify it to econ 101, therefore just building more won’t help”. The NIMBYs, after criticizing YIMBYism for being econ 101, then never made an econ 102 argument.
The problem with this argument is that you can make yourself sound wise about anything by claiming that it’s complicated and simple solutions won’t work.
Salem:
How about:
Trade is

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The Great Reconciliation?

September 16, 2020

What is the best way to reconcile the results for these three polls?

How good is the following heuristic?
The resources you spend mitigating a problem should be directly proportional to its overall severity.
— Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) August 18, 2020

Medically speaking, how bad is coronavirus compared to flu?
— Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) August 17, 2020

How much time, inconvenience, and resources should we spend fighting coronavirus compared to flu?
— Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) August 17, 2020

I’m tempted to just say “cognitive dissonance.”  The effort heuristic makes great sense, and the medical estimate seems about right.  But that in turn implies that past and current coronavirus efforts (public and private) are grossly excessive.  Indeed, do we

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Public Choice: The Normative Core

September 15, 2020

The economic analysis of politics goes by many names: political economy, rational choice theory, formal political theory, social choice, economics of governance, endogenous policy theory, and public choice.  Each of these labels picks out a subtly different intellectual tradition.  Each tradition expands our understanding of the world.  My favorite, though, remains public choice.
As a GMU professor, you may attribute this to home-team favoritism.  Yet before I was a professor at GMU, I was a student at UC Berkeley and Princeton, and neither school fostered the love of public choice… to say the least.  The main reason I prefer public choice, rather, is for its normative core.  All economists who study politics do cost-benefit analysis, but the public choice approach

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Loyalty Oaths Compared: An Orwellian Exercise

September 14, 2020

A key tenet of American’s civic religion is that the McCarthy-era persecution of Communists and Communist sympathizers was both paranoid and immoral.  Academics are especially strident in their commitment to this tenet.  And since they are academics, they’re especially dismayed by academia‘s persecution of Communists and Communist sympathizers.  The most infamous form of this persecution: the loyalty oaths many universities imposed on their employees.  Sign the oath, or lose your job.
What exactly did these loyalty oaths say?  Here’s UC Berkeley’s Loyalty Oath of 1950.
Constitutional Oath (Constitution of the State of California, Article 20, Section 3)
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and

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Escaping Paternalism Book Club Round-up

September 10, 2020

RELATED
CONTENT By Maria Pia Paganelli
Put Away the Puppets

A Book Review of Escaping Paternalism: Rationality, Behavioral Economics, and Public Policy, by Mario J. Rizzo and Glen Whitman.1

Are you saving enough for retirement? How do you know? How can I tell? What if there is a benchmark against which to compare your savings? If you meet it, all is well. But what if you do not? Should you? And if you should, but you do not, why don’t you? Maybe someone should make sure you meet that benchmark, since you are unable to do it on your own, even tho…

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Implicit and Structural Witchery

September 9, 2020

You’re back in Salem during the 1690s.  After an exhaustive hunt for witches, the Lord High Witch Hunter files a bombshell report: Despite his best efforts, he’s failed to find any witches in Salem.  Don’t imagine, though, that the fight against witchery is over.  During his investigation, the Lord High Witch Hunter uncovered an enormous volume of “implicit witchery” and “structural witchery.”  For example, residents of Salem occasionally skip church, or lose interest during the sermon.  That’s implicit witchery, pure and simple.  Even worse, some leading merchants happily trade with Catholics and pagans.  That’s structural witchery at the highest levels of society.
If you’re part of this society, you’d better not laugh.  That’s implicit witchery, too.  For anyone

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The Risks of Friendship: A Socratic Dialogue

September 8, 2020

The scene: Ancient Athens.  Glaucon is standing in the Parthenon, wearing a face mask.  Socrates enters with his face fully visible.
Socrates: Greetings, Glaucon!  How fare you during this awful plague?
Glaucon: [jumps 5 feet]  What the hell are you doing?  Are you trying to kill me?
Socrates: No, why would you think so?

Glaucon: We’re indoors and you’re not wearing your mask!
Socrates: I’m 20 feet away from you.  And the Parthenon is cavernous.
Glaucon: You should be wearing a mask.
Socrates: Very well. [dons mask]  Feel safe enough to talk now?
Glaucon: [unconvincingly] Sure.
Socrates: I suggest we go outside to continue the conversation with greater ease.
[One minute later, outside the Parthenon; Socrates and Glaucon are 25 feet apart.]
Socrates: I must

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Escaping Paternalism Book Club: Rizzo and Whitman’s Final Response

September 3, 2020

This is the final response by Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman, authors of Escaping Paternalism, for my Book Club on their treatise.  Don’t forget to review the book on Amazon!
We want to thank Bryan one more time for hosting this book club, which has been entertaining and enlightening for both of us.  Although the discussion has naturally gravitated toward points of disagreement, in truth we and Bryan are largely on the same page.  It’s worth enumerating some of our many points of agreement, most of which relate to the policy application of behavioral findings:
The policy readiness of behavioral research has been greatly oversold. Much less is known about the “standard biases” than we have been led to believe.
The importance of incentives and learning has particularly

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Personal Immunity and Herd Immunity

September 2, 2020

When I first heard friends getting excited about T-cell immunity to COVID-19, I was non-plussed.
“This means the disease is less contagious than we thought!,” they said.
And I replied, “You’re double-counting!  I If some people are immune, that will already be reflected in existing estimates of R0.”
As it turns out, however, my friends were right for the wrong reason.  While immunity doesn’t matter for initial estimates of R0, it is crucial for estimating the path of R0.  This in turn is crucial for ascertaining when the pandemic will end.  David Friedman explains everything with admirable clarity:
Suppose, for simplicity, that half the population consists of people vulnerable to the disease and half, for behavioral or biological reasons, invulnerable. Observing

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A Portrait of My School

September 1, 2020

If I created my own school, what would it be like?  Picture something like this:
1. The school has two goals: to (a) prepare students for independent adult life, and (b) give them a fun childhood.
2. Pursuant to 1(a), all students do at least 90 minutes of math every day.  Most high-status jobs require good math skills, and that’s unlikely to change.  So even if you don’t enjoy math, I insist on it.
3. Pursuant to 1(b), this is a traditional face-to-face school, where kids talk and play together.  Without masks.  Since I envision a very small school (5-15 students total) I deem the risk acceptable.
4. I admit only highly-motivated high school students, and extremely highly-motivated younger students.  My pedagogical approach only works well for kids who are eager

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Should I Start a School?

August 31, 2020

When fellow professors discover that I homeschool my children, their most common reaction is: “How do you get any work done?”  Hand to God, I’ve never found it hard.  I started homeschooling my older sons back in 2015 when they were 12.  They were already more mature than most adults will ever be, so Caplan Family School ran like clockwork.  Since the pandemic, I’ve added my younger kids to my student body.  While I don’t have Caplan Family School 2.0 running like clockwork yet, we’re well on our way.  All kids have a schedule – and the schedule includes specific time slots for feedback from me.  The rest of the time, my kids are supposed to work independently and let me do my regular work.  Compliance, though imperfect, is high.
My system works so well that I’ve

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