Barabbas as “Freedom Fighter”?

Barabbas is an interesting figure I had not given much thought to previously. When I was growing up, he was always presented as a “bad man” and a “murderer” that the crowd chose to release instead of Jesus. This was  meant to shock us and make us wonder why they would reject the perfect man for an evil person. But I wonder if this oversimplifies their choice.

Some translations describe Barabbas as a “robber”; however, there is some evidence that this is better translated as “revolutionary”, which makes sense considering he is also said to have committed murder during an “insurrection”.

It was only last Palm Sunday that the “insurrection” term jumped out at me. It seems likely that Barabbas had been sentenced to death for rebellion against Rome. Perhaps he was viewed as a freedom fighter by many of his countrymen.

At the time, many of Christ’s followers expected that he would be an earthly political ruler that would use his power to overthrow Roman rule and reestablish an independent Jewish state. Last Palm Sunday was the first time I wondered if maybe the people in the crowd that chose Barabbas were disappointed that Jesus had allowed himself to be arrested instead of fighting back. How many people in the crowd before Pilate had also been cheering Christ’s Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, expecting a revolutionary and a new powerful king? They likely wondered why he hadn’t used his miraculous powers to break his chains and vaporize the Romans.

The crowd totally missed Jesus’s message. They likely perceived Jesus as weak and Barabbas as someone who was willing to fight back. They were focused on immediate and earthly political concerns.

To me, it seems we are too often the crowd when we want to use Christianity to prop up our parochial interests, like the disturbing blending of Christianity and patriotism/nationalism happening in the US today (though it has happened in various places around the world throughout history).

We, like the crowd, miss the point: Christianity’s radically universalist message. The focus on caring for all people and the “bigger picture” of the supernatural element of existence over the present’s concerns, especially earthly power struggles.

This Christian worldview calls us to reject our earthly loyalties to our nations, political parties, and even our families. This is in tension with what I believe is a natural human tendency towards tribalism. While “tribalism” is often used as a negative term, I actually find a lot of value in it, whether it means being a patriot or taking care of one’s own family first. But Christianity makes this kind of crazy call to resist our tribal instinct.

The tension between Christianity and natural tribalism is one of the things that most attracts me to Christianity. It is not intuitive and that makes it interesting. It doesn’t seem like a religion that was created to reaffirm existing earthly power structures or human intuition.

It is impossible for humans to perfectly practice Christ’s universalist message and totally abandon our tribal loyalties. We can only hope that we live in a healthy tension with Christianity that keeps us from being fully sucked into our instinctual tribalism, which history shows can get very dark very fast.

Hardly a Choice

This is by far the easiest Presidential voting choice I have ever faced. The President has two primary functions: Foreign Policy and acting as the national figurehead (the Head of State). Trump’s poisonous persona and incompetence at both of these basic Presidential tasks override almost any potential opponent’s shortcomings.

On foreign policy, Trump has been quick to trash our traditional allies while praising our rivals. In an attempt to increase European defense spending, Trump has publicly discounted the importance of NATO. Convincing Germany to spend a few billion dollars more on arms is not worth the long-term rhetorical and diplomatic damage. 

Meanwhile, Trump has gushed about his “love-letter” relationship with the world’s worst dictator in North Korea and has praised President Xi’s as a “good man.” His administration has taken some good actions to counter China’s growing influence, but the rhetoric at the top is crucial and has been severely lacking. A recent example is Trump’s refusal to condemn China’s crackdown on pro-Democracy protestors in Hong Kong. He is quick to sell out human rights and America’s interests if he thinks he might get some praise from an authoritarian or sell more soybeans.

Perhaps even more than foreign policy, Trump utterly fails in his role as Head of State. Remember when Trump used to promise he was going to be “so Presidential” after the 2016 election? Ha. 

Once in office, Presidents should speak for the whole country and recognize the weight of their words. Instead, Trump is consistently and intentionally divisive. He is erratic and has no filter, some of the worst qualities for a role where words are one’s primary power.

In addition to the “big ones” like the Access Hollywood tape and mocking the disabled reporter, there are an overwhelming number of specific examples of terrible Trump behavior. Buried in the avalanche of misdeeds, Trump mocked Elijah Cummings for being the victim of a burglary and publicly tweeted about his niece being “scorned and mocked her entire life.” There are also examples of him just being a sad and bizarre man, like when he speculated about whether his infant daughter Ivanka would have breasts like her mother‘s, said the thing he and Ivanka most had in common was “sex,” and said “if Ivanka weren’t my daughter perhaps I’d be dating her.” 

Biden is not at all my ideal candidate. Although I left the GOP in 2018, I still have several right-leaning policy views. I would prefer a candidate that will push back hard on China and be skeptical of low-skilled immigration. Republicans spend a lot of time and energy warning about the “radical left” and there are some genuine concerns there. Perhaps if they take the threat so seriously, the Republican Party will nominate a serious candidate next time? I would certainly appreciate having to think about my choice again…

How I Learned the Basics of Bayes

I am not at all a mathematician, but more and more I have seen discussions of Bayesian reasoning in finance and from people promoting “rational thinking.” Bayes is a systematic way to adjust one’s existing view by incorporating new evidence.

I had a very high-level understanding of the idea of Bayes’ rule, but when I saw the actual formula, my eyes glazed over. I had trouble connecting the theoretical idea to the math.

If you’re interested in learning the basics of Bayes relatively quickly, the below resources were super helpful for me. Reviewing them in this specific order was key for me when trying to connect the theory to the formula.

Understanding the Theory

1. Clearer Thinking’s Interpreting Evidence Interactive: This interactive mini-course is great for understanding the theory of Bayesian reasoning and the intuition behind it. You probably already think this way to some degree without realizing it.

2. Bayesian Reasoning Explained Visually: This video has several good use cases of the theory and I really like the visual representation of the probabilities and logic.

Understanding the Formula

3. Introduction to Conditional Probability: Conditional probability is one of those things I studied in college and am now very rusty on. To understand the actual formula for Bayes’ Theorem, you will need to understand conditional probability. The “Venn Diagram”-style illustrations of probability helped me a lot.

4. The Actual Formula: This video connects Conditional probability to Bayes’ Theorem and illustrates that it works with a simple example. Connecting Conditional probability to the theorem made the concept “stick” in my mind.

5. More Complex Example: Finally, this video applies the formula to a more complex example.

I am still a rookie when it comes to these topics, but these resources helped me form a solid understanding of the basics of this powerful way of thinking. I hope they help you too!

We Should Give States Money ASAP

State budgets will face severe stress as lockdowns constrict economic activity and tax revenues dry up. During the Great Recession, this drove massive state and local job losses that contributed to the economy’s negative spiral (state and local employees far outnumber the federal workforce). To prevent this, the Federal government should make large grants to the states proportional to population.

Recently some Republican politicians have expressed strong opposition to “bailouts” for state and local governments during the COVID-19 crisis, arguing that the states in need were irresponsible before the crisis. This may be true in some cases, but I expect almost all states will face substantial fiscal pressure by the end of 2020. 

The Federal government should be the primary means by which we fund stimulus and stopgap measures during recessions. It has several advantages over the states, including (i) the ability to borrow at much lower interest rates, (ii) an enormous borrowing capacity, and, most importantly, (iii) the ability to self-fund its deficits as needed. Conversely, most state and local governments must balance their budgets, which may be fine during normal or boom times, but is extremely difficult during recessions, when tax revenue plummets and more people access unemployment insurance, food stamps, etc.

While the Federal government is the best way to fund anti-recession efforts, leaving the decision of what to do with the money up to the states is probably the best way to ensure broad political support. States with large public workforces could use the money to minimize layoffs, while other states may want to send the money directly to their residents or invest in infrastructure.

The money should be allocated on a per capita basis. While populous states would receive more cash in total, the lower cost of living in less populous states makes each dollar go further.

While Federal grants to states will be crucial to fight this crisis, the U.S. should also make this a permanent policy. A state and local budget crunch will happen in every recession and unnecessarily exacerbate economic pain.

Despite some initial rhetoric against “bailouts”, I am optimistic about this policy. So far it seems that having a Republican president in office has quieted most of the party’s debt doomsayers. Likewise, since their states generally have the most need, hopefully Democrats will resist the temptation to make the grants overly prescriptive, such as requiring the money be spent a certain way. Both parties are motivated – we should pass this while we can.

We’re Thinking About Social Security the Wrong Way

Today there were several articles warning about Social Security’s inevitable insolvency. While at first glance the “trust fund” appears to be approaching a crisis, I believe we are thinking about this the wrong way.

The truth is there is no trust fund. Social Security does not collect payroll taxes and invest it. The program’s assets, liabilities, surpluses, and deficits are an accounting fiction.

Social Security “invests” payroll tax contributions in U.S. government bonds. Essentially they are used to finance government spending. The famous Clinton-era surplus was mostly driven by Social Security taxes exceeding expenses.

Because Social Security is a government agency that lends its surplus tax intake to the Federal Government (by buying government bonds), we should view its tax receipts like any other tax and its expenses like any other expense. It is just another federal agency.

To support this point, we can consider alternatives to the current system:

  • Privatization: What if we sold the bonds in the “trust fund” and gave people the cash to invest themselves? This would inject an enormous amount of new money into the economy and would drive substantial asset inflation. When Social Security taxes are used to buy government bonds, the money is removed from circulation. Privatization would reintroduce all that money to the markets at once and would be similar to giving every person in America $X to invest without an offsetting tax.
  • Privatization with Government Bonds Only: What if we gave people the money but only allowed them to invest in government bonds? Retirees would still depend on the Federal Government to pay interest and repay principal for their retirement income, bringing us back to square 1.
  • National Pension Fund: With ~$1.5 trillion, Japan’s national pension fund is the largest collection of retirement savings in the world. The fund invests in many categories of assets globally. What if America adopted a similar system? Immediately we face the same issue as “Privatization” above, which is that such a change would introduce enormous amounts of new money into the economy. Additionally, the Federal Government taking ownership stakes in different companies by buying their shares is a partial nationalization of private industry. Not only would this be a major wealth transfer to rich investors who own the assets being purchased, but it would also be socialistic in that the government would begin to partially own the means of production.

So where does this leave us? Well, I would argue the current system is not that bad. Rather than a “trust fund,” we should think of Social Security as a promise that we will take care of the elderly in the present, with the understanding that our children will take care of us. Younger people today are somewhat unlucky in that we will need to support the very large Baby Boomer generation, which is a heavier burden than they had to bear (in 1970 there were ~5.4 working age people per person >65; today it is estimated at ~3.8 and in 2030 it is estimated to be 2.8). Every generation has to deal with unique challenges though (war, economic turmoil, disease, etc.). The Baby Boomers had their fair share and we should not feel too sorry for ourselves.

A related point to consider is that, in general, society as a whole cannot “save” for the future in a monetary sense. Even if we accumulate trillions of dollars in the “trust fund”, it will not matter if our economy cannot provide the doctors, homes, food, caregivers, etc. that the future’s elderly will need. This is part of a broader point that people are far too focused on the government’s finances and not nearly concerned enough with real resources. Indeed we may need to run budget deficits today to train doctors to care for retirees in the future.

  • Consider if the government ran annual surpluses and built up an enormous cash pile but everyone stopped having children. No matter how much money the government or even individuals save, they still depend on society to be able to exchange their currency (or even gold or crypto for those who think they are “outside the system”) into the goods and services they need.
  • One caveat to the “society cannot save” concept is that Social Security taxes do limit consumption by the people paying them, thus potentially freeing resources for the elderly in the present or preserving longer-term/one-time consumable resources for future generations. 
  • For example, if there were no payroll taxes, a young, working couple might use the excess funds to hire someone to clean their apartment regularly. By imposing the payroll tax, we transfer that purchasing power from the working couple to a retiree who might use it to hire someone to provide occasional in-home care. Multiply this by millions of people and there is a lot more elderly care and a lot less home cleaning. Over the long-term and in the aggregate, the market will attract more people into retiree care than home cleaning because we redistributed the economic incentives.

If Social Security is one big accounting gimmick, why do we have it in the first place? I believe the idea that workers are saving their own money with the government and they are simply getting their own money back when they retire was more palatable to redistribution-skeptical Americans in the 1930s (and indeed today) than the fact that we are ultimately dependent on each other.

Today both sides of the political spectrum use “insolvency” scaremongering to achieve their political aims. Democrats advocate for higher payroll taxes while Republicans push for benefit cuts (at least before Trump). Both of these policies may be appropriate in certain circumstances, but these decisions should be viewed in the context of the larger federal budget (or ideally in the context of our real national resources), rather than as a standalone program that can “run out of money.” 

Who is immigration for?

When a town hall questioner stated that Bernie Sanders supports open borders, Sanders responded:

“If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it. So that is not my position.

There is a tension between this and Sanders’ rhetoric of “human rights.”

With this answer, Sanders seems to prioritize Americans or at least American residents. For example, if healthcare is a “human right” as Sanders believes, do we not have a responsibility to provide it to everyone? Should we send our dollars and doctors abroad to provide care – or at the very least allow people to come and receive free care?

When crafting immigration policy, we have to consider our motivations. Do we design our rules for the benefit of America and its citizens, or is it primarily designed to benefit immigrants? Does Sanders oppose open borders because it would hurt Americans or because it would be so disruptive that we would help fewer people in the long run?

If immigration should focus on charity, how do we choose the beneficiaries? Many argue we must care for those who come to our borders seeking asylum. This is admirable, but why do we prioritize those who happen to be able to get here because they are able, economically-advantaged (relative to their peers who could not pay their way, or positioned favorably geographically (land access versus being separated by an ocean)?

The truth is that immigration policy is an imperfect balance of noble competing interests – and this is before we even get to the messy question of how we enforce our laws once we decide our goals! There are plenty of policies to debate in future posts, but we should encourage humility in the discussion – you can’t just boil it down to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” or “our country is full.”

The Weird, Multi-talented, Totally Unqualified South Carolinian Running to be my Congressman… and Why I am Voting for Him


There’s no way to spin it. Eliot Rabin is weird. His campaign’s Facebook page features videos of him demonstrating his “nice baritone” in his kitchen, “fixing a damn fixture” in his Upper East Side women’s clothing shop, and dancing at the African American Day Parade dressed in whatever this is.

New York’s 12th is a blue district. – the incumbent, Carolyn Maloney, won with 83% of the vote in the last election. No legitimate Republican challengers want to run here. And so we get Eliot.

I’m sure he’s a great guy. After all, he’s from my home state of South Carolina. Charleston no less! He went to the Citadel and served in the U.S. military.  His eyebrows are inspirational. His motto is “Tolerance is the key, Civility is the lock.” I don’t know what that means, but I want to like it. But alas he is not governing quality. His policy positions are shallow and often non-existent. He’s a little off his rocker.

So why will I vote for him on November 6th? Political debate in this district, and this city more broadly, is dead. All but one Congressional district is Democratic. The City Council is 47 Democrats to 4 Republicans. There is no contest. If incumbents comfortably demolish their opponents every election cycle, they are incentivized to simply not rock the boat. It’s part of the reason our city’s public transit is in tatters and our tax dollars are frittered away on pet projects and overpaid bureaucrats. This is not unique to the city or to Democratic areas. My home state of South Carolina also suffers from a single-party stranglehold that’s produced rampant corruption, starved schools, and apocalyptic roads.

My vote will be a mix between a cry for help and an invitation. Those of us interested in a more vigorous discourse can encourage more qualified potential candidates to run by voting even for unqualified candidates.  If Eliot garners even 35% of the vote, perhaps someone with new ideas, an interesting message, and some funding will give it a shot the next election cycle.

Eliot’s campaign website calls us to “…send Eliot Rabin to Congress to be New York City’s ‘American for Everyone in America’ on November 6, 2018! Ya mon!”

Well Eliot, I don’t want you in Congress, but here’s to hoping you win as close to 49.999% of the vote as possible.

Employee-ownership is a misguided policy

Proposals for worker ownership of firms have gained steam across the global left, from Bernie Sanders’ long-time advocacy to Jeremy Corbyn’s promotion of it in the Labour party’s latest manifesto. Although fitting with the broader left-wing theme of workers taking control of the means of production, such proposals are misguided.

Wages should not be determined by the success of the particular firm at which someone is employed. Instead they should be driven by the overall market’s supply and demand for the services being provided. In this way, labor is like any other business input. How bizarre would it be for a tire manufacturer to pay its rubber supplier based on how well the tires sell?

While the idea of workers sharing in their employer’s upside sounds good, these proposals expose employees to downside risk as well. Someone stocking the shelves at a struggling Sears store should not be paid substantially less than someone performing the same role at the more successful Target.

Likewise, some industries are inherently more profitable than others. An accountant at a high-margin pharmaceutical firm should not necessarily make more than someone performing the same role at a lower-profit manufacturer.

Given the ownership stake would likely be paid in lieu of higher cash wages, workers would also be heavily overexposed to the performance of their own firm. Workers should instead receive cash that they can invest in a diversified portfolio or other investments they find valuable, such as further education.

There are instances where employee-ownership or variable bonuses make sense (e.g. sales or executive management), but employers should decide the most effective motivational structure for their employees.

Worker-ownership proposals would also drive higher-quality employees to successful firms. Struggling firms would not be able to attract the talent needed to turn their performance around.

There are better ways to improve the economic well-being of workers, including perhaps unionization to negotiate better wages (in the same way a large supplier can negotiate better pricing). Employee-ownership is an attractive campaign slogan, but it’s not the right policy.

Why I changed my mind on low-skilled immigration

For most of my politically aware life I have held vaguely center right / libertarian views on immigration. I supported the free movement of labor across national borders in the same way I would free trade. I still think open immigration probably maximizes wealth globally; however, such a policy inadequately distributes that wealth.

For moral or practical reasons (I would argue both), a nation has a responsibility to guarantee all of its citizens a basic standard of living. This discussion also assumes that the American government should prioritize American well-being over general human prosperity (a topic for another time).

It is usually more desirable for individuals to receive a basic standard of living through work rather than welfare. Work provides a routine and place in society. It also offsets the cost to society to support these individuals. In oversimplified terms, I like to think of it as (Cost to Provide a Basic Standard of Living – Value of the Individual’s Labor = Net Cost to Society to Support). Finding productive outlets for as many people as possible can minimize this cost.

When discussing employment as a means to support individuals, private sector employment is preferable to public sector employment. This is because the value creation is validated through a profit-motivated party (the hiring business) and therefore the employment is unlikely to be a net negative to society (as some public sector jobs could be, such as excessive bureaucracy).

Note: Public sector employment can be more desirable for accomplishing other objectives, such as national defense, education, health, policing, etc.

Reducing low-skilled immigration should result in higher wages, which would effectively “redistribute” resources to people who may otherwise require welfare. These higher wages will likely also increase the prices of certain goods and services; however, these will generally be consumed by those with enough disposable income to dine out, have their homes cleaned, etc.

A substantial number of these jobs cannot be off-shored, including cleaning, landscaping, construction, retail, restaurants, etc. Most of this work will still need to be done, even at higher wages. Higher pay may drive long-term automation, but this is likely inevitable and it is more desirable for low-skilled Americans to benefit in the meantime.

Exceptions may be required for industries that cannot survive at higher wage levels, most notably agriculture. Temporary work visas present a potential solution, allowing migrant workers to supply cheap labor to industries that would otherwise be forced to shut down.

“Charitable” immigration policy (e.g. providing asylum for refugees) should be viewed separately from “economic” immigration policy, which should be primarily motivated by maximizing the wellbeing of American society.

Concern over immigrants “taking our jobs” is usually mocked, but wage pressure from an enormous external labor supply is a real concern, especially for those who are economically vulnerable.

Some of the counterarguments I would anticipate are:

“Don’t these jobs represent work that Americans just will not do?”

The vast majority of people will take almost any job if it pays enough. Many positions simply do not pay enough to attract American workers because low-skilled immigration provides a nearly unlimited source of labor willing to work at low wages. I am uncomfortable with the idea that working class Americans should face wage pressures so middle and upper class consumers can have cheaper home renovations.

Likewise, a smaller supply of workers will likely require employers to improve work conditions to support retention.

Why not just raise the minimum wage?

Raising the minimum wage without restricting the labor supply would raise prices while still requiring Americans to compete for the positions, driving wages down and not maximizing the distribution of income to Americans.

Will this policy harm certain industries (for example: construction)?

It almost certainly will, but it’s worth the cost for a more desirable distribution of income.

Why not provide adequate education so Americans don’t need to do low-skilled work?

I want to make clear that I think low-skilled labor is a perfectly fine way to earn a living, but I do think higher-skilled labor is preferable simply for the greater economic benefits it provides to the worker.

We should absolutely invest in education; however, I would be willing to guess a certain number of people in society will always be best suited for relatively low-skilled work. I could be wrong on this, but in the meantime we need to be thinking about the best policies for our current situation.