My conversation with a leftist friend about basic economics and rent control

My conversation with a leftist friend about “Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, 4th Edition“, by Thomas Sowell.

Him: I remember why I stopped reading that book when you asked me to read it.

Me: Why did you stop reading it?

Him: Because of the chapter on rent control.

Me: Chapter 3 is the chapter on price controls. It talks about rent control.

Him: I expect an economist to present both sides of rent control. He has to present the arguments for and against rent control.

Me: There are not two sides to rent control. There is only one side to rent control. He chose that because it is a clear cut example of the problems caused by price controls. Economists universally condemn rent control, across the ideological spectrum.

Him: No they don’t.

Me: The chair of the Department of Economics at Harvard University, Greg Mankiw, reports in his economics textbook that 93% of professional economists agree that rent control reduces housing supply and housing quality. It is the most agreed upon position among economists across the ideological spectrum, number one in his list of facts on which professional economists agree. And obviously they have reasons for agreeing on that, specifically the experience of trying rent control policies in different times and places. It has always failed.

Him: Somebody must like rent control, because they have it in New York city.

Me: Politicians and low-information voters support rent control. It makes politicians feel good, and it gets them elected, too – if the voters are economically illiterate enough, as they are in New York city.

Him: But what about global warming then? Isn’t the consensus against you there?

Me: There has been no global warming in the last 17 years, according to the New York Times. They were reporting on findings by the UN IPCC in 2013.

Him: The UN never said that. The New York Times never wrote that.

Me: Yes, they did. And I have the sources I can send them to you.

Him: I’ll bet you do. (walks away in a huff)

This is the relevant quote from the Greg Mankiw post from his survey of economists that appears in his textbook:

  1. A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available. (93%)
  2. Tariffs and import quotas usually reduce general economic welfare. (93%)
  3. Flexible and floating exchange rates offer an effective international monetary arrangement. (90%)
  4. Fiscal policy (e.g., tax cut and/or government expenditure increase) has a significant stimulative impact on a less than fully employed economy. (90%)
  5. The United States should not restrict employers from outsourcing work to foreign countries. (90%)
  6. The United States should eliminate agricultural subsidies. (85%)
  7. Local and state governments should eliminate subsidies to professional sports franchises. (85%)
  8. If the federal budget is to be balanced, it should be done over the business cycle rather than yearly. (85%)
  9. The gap between Social Security funds and expenditures will become unsustainably large within the next fifty years if current policies remain unchanged. (85%)
  10. Cash payments increase the welfare of recipients to a greater degree than do transfers-in-kind of equal cash value. (84%)
  11. A large federal budget deficit has an adverse effect on the economy. (83%)
  12. A minimum wage increases unemployment among young and unskilled workers. (79%)
  13. The government should restructure the welfare system along the lines of a “negative income tax.” (79%)
  14. Effluent taxes and marketable pollution permits represent a better approach to pollution control than imposition of pollution ceilings. (78%)

And this is the relevant quote from the New York Times article, dated September 2013:

The global warming crowd has a problem. For all of its warnings, and despite a steady escalation of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, the planet’s average surface temperature has remained pretty much the same for the last 15 years.

As you might guess, skeptics of warming were in full attack mode as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gathered in Sweden this week to approve its latest findings about our warming planet. The skeptics argue that this recent plateau illustrates what they always knew — that complex global climate models have no predictive capability and that, therefore, there is no proof of global warming, human-caused or not.

The author of the NYT article (a leftist) goes on to attempt to explain he is not concerned by the 17 year period of no significant warming, but the point is that the 17 year (not 15 year) period of no significant warming is A FACT acknowledged by the UN IPCC that has to be explained by those who believe in catastrophic man-made global warming. The IPCC may not like the temperature measurements, but those facts are not in doubt. The global warming crowd might make predictions about the future, but they made predictions about the past before, and we now know for a fact that those predictions (polar ice caps melting, Himalayans melting, significant global warming, etc.) were FALSE. They have been falsified by evidence, and that’s not in doubt.

Economic illiteracy is the problem

When people on the left voted for Barack Obama in 2012, they did not know based on evidence that they could keep their doctors and keep their health plans and that insurance premiums would drop $2500. They did not know it because the economic studies contradicted Obama’s words. They even believed Obama when he said that the Benghazi incident was caused by a Youtube video. Obama-supporters had a sincere belief in the words of his passionate speeches. They were impressed by the visuals of him talking to large crowds of young people. They believed him because they had feelings about him. And voting for him made them have good feelings about themselves. They felt that they were going to achieve good things by voting for this good man. They meant well, but they did not know. They did not have evidence.

Before the 2012 election, people on the right pointed to evidence from studies (like this one) showing that Obama was lying, but his supporters were apparently not interested in economic studies. They want to preserve the feelings of being good people. They want to preserve the belief that you can embrace policies that sound good, and that words that sound good will necessarily lead to good results for people who are at a disadvantage. I don’t question the motives of people on the left – they mean well. But meaning well doesn’t produce good results without knowledge of economics. In economics, policies that sound appealing to well-meaning liberals (rent control, tariffs, protectionism, minimum wage, trillion-dollar deficits) actually produce bad results for poor people. And we know this for a fact from our experience across different times and places.

If we can get people to accept the authority of our observations of policy experimentation in different times and places over and above their feelings and intuitions, then we can save this country.

3 thoughts on “My conversation with a leftist friend about basic economics and rent control”

  1. I’m guessing your friend doesn’t have a degree in economics? But he manages to throw out a whole book written by a well-respected economist because he, in his infinite wisdom, doesn’t believe it or doesn’t like it. How totally typical of the liberals. Facts and evidence are less important to them than feelings and intuition. Results matter less to them than intentions. What planet are these people from? And how are we going to get them to join the real world?

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    1. Thomas Sowell did his BA in economics at Harvard University, his masters at Columbia University and his PhD at the University of Chicago. But he just dismissed him, and dismissed the article by the chair of economics at Harvard University! I can’t win!

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      1. The funny thing is that these people are the first to appeal to authority when the “experts” are on their side. In the abortion debate, they appeal to the current law as justification (as if being legal makes it okay). In the case of evolution or global warming, they talk about the consensus of scientists. But if you point out information from well-respected experts that disagrees with their views, they totally dismiss it.

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