Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Noahpinion has moved to a new website!

Well folks, it's been a fun 10-year run at this little website. I'm moving on to a new platform: Substack

Here's the new Noahpinion:


Thanks for reading, and hope to see you at the new site!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Rabbit = Good Friend (or, how to take care of rabbits)

Rabbits make great friends. Unfortunately, rabbits are not as popular of a pet as they ought to be, thanks to two big misconceptions. Let's start out by busting these myths.

Myth #1: Rabbits can't be litter trained.

In fact, most rabbits are really easy to litter-train. Just put the litter box next to the hay feeder, and they will litter-train themselves! Here's my setup:

There are a few exceptions, just like with cats, but in general this isn't something you have to worry about. 

Myth #2: Rabbits aren't affectionate.

This really does depend on the rabbit. Some are extremely affectionate, and will hug and cuddle you.

Some don't like humans that much. Similar to cats, really. Quiet, clumsy, vegan cats.

Once people realize that rabbits can easily be litter trained and are often affectionate, they become much more favorable to the idea of rabbits as pets. But that still leaves the question of why you might want a rabbit, as opposed to a cat or a dog. Here are some of what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of having rabbits as pets, as compared to dogs or cats.

Advantage #1: They aren't loud.

Rabbits make almost no vocal noises, apart from very occasional extremely soft grunts. The only noises they make are A) chewing, and B) stomping (but only very occasionally). This means they're much quieter than a dog or cat. 

Advantage #2: They aren't stinky.

Rabbits themselves are clean and nice-smelling. Rabbit poop is usually odorless, unlike cat or dog poop (occasionally I'll feed my rabbits some vegetable that will make their poop smell a little bit funky for a couple minutes but this is very rare). Also, rabbit food is not stinky like cat food or dog food, and their breath never smells bad. Rabbit pee does smell (similar to cat pee), but if you use the right litter, it will absorb all the smell. The only smell your house will acquire from keeping rabbits is the smell of hay, which is the main thing rabbits eat.

Advantage #3: Their fur is very soft.

Rabbit fur is softer than dog or cat fur, and often much softer.


Disadvantage #1: They chew things.

Cats scratch stuff, and rabbits chew stuff. The main thing that's at risk is your power cords, so having rabbits requires either A) confining the rabbits in a pen or rabbit room when they're not under supervision, or B) rabbit-proofing your cords. A few rabbits are really bad and will chew baseboards and carpets; these rabbits will have to be confined to a pen most of the time. Most can be taught not to do this, though. Rabbits will also tend to chew leather furniture. 

Disadvantage #2: They only live 10-12 years.

This is a little bit shorter than a dog and considerably shorter than a cat. The very big rabbits live even shorter - maybe 7-8 years. 

Disadvantage #3: They can get constipated quickly.

Rabbits can quickly become constipated and die (we'll learn more about how to prevent/treat this later). This means you can't leave them alone for more than a day, unlike cats who can generally be left alone for a couple days. 

Disadvantage #4: They are a little expensive.

Rabbits require frequent litter changes, a variety of food, and LOTS of hay. This makes them a bit expensive. I spend a total of about $200 per month on my 2 large rabbits, not counting the cost of boarding/sitters and veterinary care.

If you want to see if rabbits are right for you, you can try volunteering at your local animal shelter or rabbit rescue. Just google "animal shelter" or "rabbit rescue". You'll get a chance to take care of rabbits and play with them a bit. That's how I ended up with pet rabbits, when before I had only had cats, dogs, and small pets like hamsters and fish. Note: You should always get a pet rabbit at a rescue or a shelter if possible

OK, so if after having read all of this you're considering a pet rabbit, here are my thoughts on how to take care of them.

WARNING: Every rabbit keeper will, in general, have different ideas about how to take care of rabbits. In fact, vigorously disagreeing over the particulars of rabbit care seems to be a favorite pastime of rabbit keepers. So be warned, there are going to be some rabbit people who angrily swear that I'm all wrong about this point or that point. And this would be true no matter what I write. There is no universal consensus on the exact right way to take care of rabbits. I'll try to highlight what the more hotly contested points are.

That having been said, without further ado:

How to Take Care of Rabbits

1. Where to keep a rabbit

Do NOT keep your rabbit in a cage. Rabbits need more space than that. There are basically three choices for where to keep a rabbit: Free roaming, in a pen, or in a rabbit room.

Wherever you keep your rabbit, you'll need a hay feeder and a litterbox next to it. For litter, I use a layer of Purina cat litter on the bottom to absorb pee, and a top layer of Carefresh Natural soft litter so the rabbits' feet are comfy. Also, rabbits like to hide in caves, so make sure that you have some place for them to hide -- a cardboard box, under a bed, etc.

Here are the three basic rabbit arrangements that I think are OK:

A) Free roaming: A free roaming rabbit just runs around your house like a cat. My rabbits are free roaming. I have a pen area with hay in it, but I never close it off -- it's just so the rabbits have some area they feel like is "their" territory. But they can go anywhere they want, just like a cat. If you do this, you must rabbit-proof your house (we'll talk more about this later). You can also put up a fence around the hay/litter area but leave it open to give the rabbit a sense of their own "territory".

Mine also love to go under my bed!

B) Pen: You can keep your rabbit in an "exercise pen":

But despite the name, this sort of pen doesn't give rabbits enough room to exercise. You have to let the rabbit(s) out for 2 or more hours per day to get proper exercise. If you have stuff that's vulnerable to chewing, such as exposed power cords, you'll need to supervise the rabbit during this time.

C) Rabbit room: If you have a spare bedroom, you can give it to your rabbit(s). You can put up a fence at the entrance so the rabbits don't have to be shut behind a closed door all the time.

2. Rabbit-proofing

Rabbits like to chew electrical cords. This is dangerous for the rabbit and for your house. One way to protect your cords is to put them behind a fenced-off area:

Another way is to put cord covers on your cords. Thick plastic ones or Kevlar ones should work.

Some rabbits also chew baseboards. If your rabbit is one of these, you can put protectors on your baseboards. These can be made of plastic, wood, or even metal.

Some rabbits chew other things, and there are many guides online to bunny-proofing your house. Some people use special sprays to make things taste bad to rabbits, but I've never used these.

I find that it's very useful to fence off areas of my house when I don't want the rabbits to go there. The easiest way to do this is to buy a few exercise pens, disassemble them into their component panels, and use those to make fences. You can screw some screw eyes into your walls, and attach the fence panels to those (and to each other) with c-clips. Ta-da, instant fences wherever you need them!

Finally, it's possible to train rabbits not to chew most things. NEVER hit or punish a rabbit. But when you see a rabbit chewing something bad, snap your fingers, say "no", and hand the rabbit a good chew instead, like a piece of cardboard. Do that a few times, and most rabbits will learn what's chewable and what isn't.

But if your rabbit just can't be trained and chews lots of inappropriate things, you'll need to keep them in a pen when you're not around to watch them. Fortunately, most rabbits are responsible enough to be free-roaming. 

3. Food and water

A rabbit's main food is hay. Rabbits should get unlimited hay; basically they should be able to graze whenever they want. Hay goes in a hay feeder:

Keep the hay feeder filled. You can fill it once a day or more if you like. NOTE: There are some pieces of hay a rabbit just won't eat for some reason, so every week or so, dump out the hay feeder and put in all new hay.

My favorite hay brand is Small Pet Select. You can order it on Amazon.

Most pet stores sell Oxbow and Kaytee hay, but I don't like these as much. Rabbits tend to like long, grassy hay pieces more than short, chopped-up pieces.

There are multiple types of hay. Timothy is the most popular, but some rabbits prefer orchard grass. There are also "dessert hays", like alfalfa and oat hay, but these should be given only in small amounts, as a treat.

The second food rabbits eat is pellets. They can technically survive without these, and too much will make a rabbit fat, but they contain helpful nutrients and such.

Don't give rabbits too much of this -- maybe just two tablespoons a day. If you run out of hay in an emergency, rabbits can survive on pellets for a couple days, but it's not good for them.

The third thing rabbits eat is greens. I give my rabbits about two handfuls a day, each. My rabbits like parsley, arugula, lettuce, kale, dandelion greens, and spinach. Some also like cilantro. If you find some leafy vegetable that you think would be good for your rabbit, check a list online to make sure it's safe. Remember to introduce any new food slowly, in small amounts, to make sure it's safe. 

The final thing rabbits eat is dessert. This mainly consists of carrots and/or fruit. Don't give them too much or they'll get fat! I give my rabbits each either half a baby carrot per day, or a few little slices of apple. You can also find various processed treats online.

Finally, rabbits need lots of water. I like to use water bowls instead of water bottles; I don't think rabbits can get enough water out of bottles. Flat-bottomed glass or ceramic bowls are good. Change the water every day or two. 

4. Toys and chews

Rabbits' favorite thing to do is chew. You have to get them lots of stuff to chew, and leave it where they can get to it. Carboard is the best chew. My rabbits love shoeboxes and thick packing boxes the most.

Sticks are another good chew. My rabbits love apple sticks and willow baskets, but there are lots of other flavors. They're really cheap, so you can get your rabbits lots of them.

In addition, there are plenty of toys and chews you can buy online. Experiment with different things, see what your bunny likes! Some like harder chews and some like softer ones.

The next thing rabbits like to do is to explore. You can buy or build them little tunnels, castles, playhouses, caves, etc. It's fun! You can then assemble them into obstacle courses or mazes to keep bunnies entertained.

The final thing rabbits like to do is dig. You can get them a dig box -- a cardboard box or cat litter box will do. You can fill that with crushed newspaper or crumpled phone book pages or hay. And you can even hide little treats for them to find! Rabbits sometimes also like to dig in a pile of blankets or towels.

5. Petting, cuddling, and playing with your rabbit

Rabbits generally love to be petted. Some rabbits like being picked up, but others don't. If your rabbit doesn't like to be picked up, sit next to them and pet them on the ground.

The best place to pet a rabbit is on the ears. Many rabbits also like being petted on their noses and backs. But don't try to pet their feet; it will freak them out!

Rabbit games are not very complex. Generally they just like to run in circles around each other. You can also play "keep away" with a chew or a treat. Some rabbits will enjoy climbing all over you. Others will play with a cat toy, and a few will even play fetch! You just have to spend time with your rabbit and try various things til you find out what they like.

6. Things that kill or hurt a rabbit (predators, health problems, and heat)

Rabbits are naturally afraid of predators, and with good reason. Hawks, foxes, weasels, dogs, raccoons, and other animals can and kill rabbits. So never let your bunnies outside except under strict supervision (in fact, some people say not to let rabbits outside at all).

Rabbits can also get a number of health problems. The most common one is gastrointestinal stasis. Unlike many animals, rabbits can't puke, so when they eat something bad, it can stick in their stomach or intestines and make it impossible for them to eat or poop. This can kill rabbits very quickly, possibly in 24 hours, so watch out! If your rabbit isn't eating or pooping, you need to take them to a vet. A vet can also give you laxatives and painkillers to keep at home, in case the vet isn't open in time.

GI stasis can come on so quickly that you shouldn't leave your rabbit home alone for more than 1 day at a time. Always get a rabbit sitter to come check on a rabbit twice a day when you're gone, or board the rabbit at a rescue!

Another common health problem is sore hocks (back feet). If you don't clean the litter often enough, rabbits can get sore feet from standing in their own pee, so clean it often! If you see red bumps on the bottom of rabbits' hind feet, take them to the vet and get some ointment.

Also, there are some hemorrhagic viruses that kill rabbits, called RHDV1 and RHDV2. There are vaccines for these, so check to make sure if the disease is in your area, and if it is, get the vaccine!

Finally, rabbits don't tolerate heat well. If temperatures get over 85°F (29°C) for more than an hour or so, they can get heatstroke. Make sure the rabbits have a shady place, and put down some tiles or a couple of little granite slabs for them to lie on to cool themselves. Air conditioning is definitely recommended if your house gets hot often.

7. Rabbits and other pets

Generally rabbits get along with cats, though they will need some time to get used to each other. Cats love to lick, and rabbits loved to be licked, so it's often a perfect partnership.

Dogs are trickier, since some dogs' hunting instincts can take over when they see a rabbit run, and they can chase and even kill a rabbit. Be very careful introducing rabbits and dogs, and use an online guide.

And remember: The best friend for a rabbit is another rabbit! Your local rabbit rescue can help your rabbit find the perfect mate. It may take a long time to bond them (mine took a month!), or they may fall in love right away. The people at the rescue can help you learn how to bond rabbits.

8. Essential rabbit resources

1) BinkyBunny: A great website with tons of information, a forum where you can talk to other rabbit people, and a great online store full of tons of good stuff.

2) House Rabbit Society: Another great page with lots of info.

3) Rabbit rescues: There are rabbit rescues everywhere in the U.S. They're always willing to help teach you how to take care of rabbits, find you the perfect rabbit friend, or board your rabbits when you go out of town. Just Google to find the nearest one. My favorite Bay Area rescue is SaveABunny, in Marin County.

Well, that isn't everything there is to know about having rabbits, but it's enough to get you started! Good luck finding your perfect rabbit friend...

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Why Kevin Williamson is wrong about poverty and bad behavior

I recently wrote a post at Bloomberg Opinion arguing that "bad behavior" - drug use, violence, single parenthood, and idleness - is not the main cause of poverty in advanced nations. As evidence, I cited the country of Japan, which has extremely low rates of drug use, violence, single parenthood, and idleness, and yet which has a poverty rate almost as high as that of the U.S., and significantly higher than those of wealthy European countries. Since Japan has so little bad behavior and still has a pretty high poverty rate as advanced nations go, it must be the case that bad behavior, in aggregate, is not the major cause of poverty.

Kevin Williamson of the National Review took issue with my post. In a strongly worded rebuttal, he calls my piece "a stale slab of conventional wisdom", "sloppy thinking", "tedious writing", a "mishmash of tendentious platitudes and misunderstood truisms", and "sloppy analysis, if it counts as analysis at all." Yet despite this vitriol, Williamson fails to substantively rebut any of the points I made. In some cases, his arguments contain logical errors; in others, he simply misunderstands my argument.

Let's go through Williamson's post, and show why it fails to rebut my arguments.

1. Absolute poverty or relative poverty?

Williamson's first attempted rebuttal relies on the idea that Japanese poor people are not really poor:
 It is not obvious that Japan “has lots of poverty.”...Smith here relies on a useless measure of “relative” poverty, the share of the population earning less than half of the median income. You can see the limitations of that approach: A uniformly poor society in which 99 percent of the people live on 50 cents a day and 1 percent live on 49 cents a day would have a poverty rate of 0.00; a rich society with incomes that are rising across-the-board but are rising much more quickly for the top two-thirds would have a rising poverty rate, and some people who are not classified as being in poverty this year might be in poverty next year even though their incomes are higher, etc. It would be far better to consider poverty in absolute terms, but our progressive friends are strangely resistant to that.
Let's leave aside the question of whether poverty is best conceived of in absolute or relative terms. There are good arguments on both sides (and perhaps room for even more definitions of poverty than those two!). But it's definitely true that the average Japanese poor person enjoys a significantly higher standard of living than the average poor person in, say, Ethiopia.

But this is also true of American poverty! The kind of deprivation that conservatives like Williamson often blame on bad behavior in the United States is also relative poverty, not absolute. "Poor" Americans, including the residents of Garbutt, NY that Williamson famously blamed for their own economic difficulties, are also much richer than the average poor person in Ethiopia. So when evaluating conservative beliefs about behavior and poverty, we should look at relative poverty, because that's exactly the kind of poverty conservatives are generally talking about.

Now, if Japan were richer than the U.S., it might not be an appropriate country to compare ourselves to. If Japanese people making 50% of Japanese median income were materially better off than Americans making 50% of American median income, then Williamson's argument would have some bite. But in fact, the exact opposite is true. In purchasing power parity terms, Japan's median household income is only about 63% of Americans' median household income.

In other words, in absolute terms, someone at the Japanese relative poverty line is doing even worse than someone at the relative American poverty line. So it's not clear why Williamson thinks that insisting on an absolute standard of poverty, rather than a relative one, will advance his case.

2. What does looking at national averages tell us?

Williamson's next argument is that instead of looking at national averages of behavior (violence, drug use, etc.), we should look specifically at the behavior of the Japanese poor:
Secondly, it is not entirely clear that the Japanese are as free from the pathologies that attend poverty in many other places as Smith suggests. It is true that Japan as a whole has low rates of chronic unemployment, drug use, single motherhood, etc., but the relevant question here would be how Japanese who are poor compare on these metrics with Japanese at large. To assume that the situation with the poor can be approximately deduced from national averages is pretty sloppy analysis, if it counts as analysis at all.
Williamson is wrong about the relevant question. The relevant question is P(relative poverty | absolute bad behavior). In other words, the relevant question is: "How much does bad behavior change my chances of falling into the lower echelons of my developed country?". The percentage of Japanese people who are badly behaved is much smaller than the percentage of Americans who are badly behaved. Yet about the same fraction of people there fall into the lower echelons of that society (which, as noted above, are actually lower in absolute terms than the lower echelons of American society, at least at the 25th percentile). Thus, even if there are individual Japanese people who become poor due to bad behavior, it can't statistically be the biggest factor, as long as poverty has roughly the same causes in both countries.

Just to show how this works, let's do a simple example. Take one measure of bad behavior, e.g. violent crime. Suppose, hypothetically, that the violent crime rates per 100,000 population were:
Poor Japanese people: 2
Non-poor Japanese people: 1
Poor Americans: 20
Non-poor Americans: 10

In this hypothetical, there is a behavior gap between poor and non-poor Japanese people. In fact, the ratio of bad behavior between poor and non-poor is the same between the two countries! But as long as the causal relationship between bad behavior and poverty is the same for both countries (and I'll talk more about this assumption in point #9 below), American poverty could not be reduced much simply by telling the poor Americans to stop being violent; in fact, they'd have to lower their violent crime rate by 95% just to catch up with their poor Japanese counterparts!

Statistically, it could also be the case that Japanese poor people are about as badly behaved as poor Americans. In other words, there could be one cohort of really badly behaved Japanese people hogging the lower end of the income distribution, while everyone higher in the distribution acts like a saint. In this case, the differences in the averages of Japan and America all come from the middle and upper classes of the two countries. (This example is totally unrealistic and false, but let's run with it, just for fun). In this example, non-poor Americans are much much worse behaved than non-poor Japanese people...yet still, this bad behavior doesn't cause them to fall into poverty. In other words, even this imaginary and extremely contrived situation would support my argument instead of Williamson's!

These are just two examples. But in general, you won't be able to find a single function relating bad behavior to poverty that fits both the Japanese data and the American data. The math just doesn't work.

So as long as we're willing to assume that the causes of poverty are similar from country to country, then just from looking at the national averages, we can conclude that bad behavior is statistically not the main cause of poverty in rich societies.

3. What about alcohol?

In my article I focused on four dimensions of bad behavior - illegal drug use, out-of-wedlock births, violence, and idleness. Williamson suggests there is another type of bad behavior I failed to consider: alcohol.
Third, it emphatically is not the case that Japan is a society that is largely free from substance abuse. In Japan, as in the United States, the most socially significant and destructive mode of substance abuse is legal: alcohol abuse. Japan has a big problem with alcohol, and alcohol abuse is related to joblessness and poverty, although the question of causality (Are they unemployed because they drink, or do they drink because they are unemployed?) gets complicated, and some studies suggest that in Japan some kinds of destructive drinking increase with income.
It's true that alcohol is typically the drug of choice in Japan. But even here, America is worse-behaved. Several different data sources all agree that the number of alcoholic drinks consumed per person in Japan is around 7, while the number in America is around 9. France, Germany and Australia, which have lower poverty rates than the U.S., are around 12.

It's also instructive to examine the Reuters article that Williamson links to regarding alcohol in Japan. The article notes that alcoholism is a problem in the country. But its three examples of alcoholics are 1) a civil servant who remained employed after six months in the hospital, 2) the country's finance minister, who died in office, and 3) a prince. These examples illustrate how differences in institutions affect the relationship between behavior and economic outcomes. Despite alcoholism, the civil servant was still employed, the finance minister was still finance minister, and the prince was still a prince. More on this later.

But in any case, suppose Williamson has a point, and alcohol, not illegal drug use, out-of-wedlock births, violence, or idleness is the big behavior-related cause of poverty. That would imply that conservatives' emphasis on the former four types of behavior is probably misplaced, and they should focus more on encouraging temperance and taxing alcohol more highly.

4.  Why isn't Japan's system preventing more poverty?

Williamson asks, if Japan has higher employment rates and national health insurance, why is their poverty only slightly less than that in the U.S.?
Smith is correct that Japan has high work-force participation, and that it has a universal(ish) national health-insurance scheme. To which he adds: “Too many people fall through the cracks in the capitalist system because of unemployment, sickness, injury or other forms of bad luck.” This is an odd thing to write immediately after noting that Japan has 1. low unemployment and 2. a national health-care system that helps people through sickness and injury. 
Perhaps those things are not sufficient?
This is absolutely true; these things are not sufficient. But nowhere did I say they are.

National health insurance helps reduce individual bankruptcy risk and (if done right, as in Japan) control costs. Maintaining low unemployment also reduces bankruptcy risk, and the risk of losing one's skills and connections. But Japan does show that neither of these will be sufficient to attain low European levels of poverty. For that, we will need more - other forms of income transfers, and/or institutions to ensure that more of society's income flows to lower-wage workers.

5. Is poverty due to "capitalism"?

Williamson argues that to attribute poverty to "capitalism" ignores the differences between countries' systems:
“Capitalism” is a very broad term. The United States is a capitalist country, and a rich capitalist country at that. So is Japan. So is Singapore. So is Sweden. So is Switzerland. These countries have radically different health-care systems, tax codes, family lives, cultural norms, etc. Unsurprisingly, these produce different outcomes on a great many social fronts — but all of them are comprehended by “capitalism.”...To argue that the problem is “the capitalist system” is to retreat into generality and to refuse to consider the facts of the case, each on its own merits.
It is true that different advanced countries have different systems, and that labeling them "capitalism" tends to obscure more than it clarifies. In fact, I recently wrote a whole article about that topic, which Williamson should read!

But since the time of Vilfredo Pareto it has been well-known that every country has a substantial amount of market poverty - that is, poverty before taxes and transfers. Here is a graph from the Economic Policy Institute of market poverty rates vs. post-transfer poverty rates:

In other words, no matter how you set up your system, you're going to get a lot of people who will experience relative poverty without government transfers. Hence, the social safety net matters a lot.

Capitalism is not a bad thing. Capitalism, in some form, is an amazing engine of wealth creation. Capitalism of some sort, as far as we know, is absolutely necessary to maintaining high standards of living and eliminating absolute poverty.

But capitalism is not omnipotent. Drowning government in a bathtub and leaving individuals to sink or swim on their own in a free market economy will result in some people failing and being poor, no matter how well they behave. Thus, any capitalist system can be improved with a social safety net.

That was my point. I think most people got it!

6. Extreme poverty and mental illness

Williamson notes that much extreme poverty in the U.S., including chronic homelessness, is caused by mental illness:
In New York, Los Angeles, and other big cities, it is common for people to sleep on the streets even as beds in shelters go unoccupied. There are many reasons for that, but the main one almost certainly is mental illness (and substance abuse as a subset of that). That is the nearly universal opinion of the professionals who work with the urban homeless. 
There are better and worse ways to deal with mental illness in a wealthy, complex society, and we in the United States have settled on one of the worst: After the “deinstitutionalization” of the 1960s and 1970s, in which left-wing liberationist thinking combined with right-wing penny-pinching to gut the public mental hospitals, we punted the problem to the police and to the jailers, who are ill-equipped to handle it. The United States is not alone in this. Many (perhaps most) Western European countries have more effective social-welfare systems than we do, but even in Sweden, with its fairly comprehensive welfare state, mental illness is the leading cause of “work force exclusion,” as they call it.
As far as I know, this is all absolutely true. But notice that mental illness is not generally a behavioral issue - alcohol, drugs and violence can exacerbate your chances of becoming a schizophrenic, but there are tons of people with mental illness even in well-behaved countries like Japan. As Williamson notes, the most effective way of dealing with mental illness is government-funded treatment. And as Williamson notes, "right-wing penny-pinching" was indeed one reason the American government stopped providing the classic form of such treatment - compulsory institutionalization (which still exists in Japan). The question of how best to treat mental illness is an open one, but it's basically certain that the answer will be carried out by government intervention rather than by some improvement in personal responsibility - again, speaking to my thesis.

7. Would more antipoverty programs reduce poverty in America?

Williamson writes:
[T]he big changes that progressives generally propose for the United States — a national health-care system like Japan’s, an enlarged welfare state more like Sweden’s — do not seem to have been entirely effective in the places where they have been tried. And there is good reason to believe that Swedish or Swiss practice cannot simply be imported into Eastern Kentucky or Baltimore and replicated locally. That does not mean that there is nothing to learn from Japanese or European practice — perfection is not our criterion — but it does complicate the conversation. We have, in fact, spent a tremendous amount of money on anti-poverty and economic-development programs, and much of that has not delivered anything like the promised return.
Well, it is the case that the U.S. spends less on social welfare than most European countries:

But it's also true that Canada and Australia have lower poverty rates than we do, despite lower rates of welfare spending (at least according to this measure). Williamson is almost certainly right that the U.S. has different challenges than these other countries. That may mean we need to spend more in order to achieve the same effect. But before we go claiming that government social spending won't work for the U.S., we should at least try spending as much as the UK or Germany (or Japan!). 

As for Williamson's statement that "We have, in fact, spent a tremendous amount of money on anti-poverty and economic-development programs, and much of that has not delivered anything like the promised return", that may or may not be the case, but much of it has delivered the promised return. Just looking at recent examples, we see that government transfers have been entirely responsible for the fall in the child poverty rate since the early 1990s:

Also, thanks to policies begun by George W. Bush and continued by Barack Obama, homelessness in the U.S. has fallen substantially:

These approaches are working. Tell me again why we shouldn't double down on things that work, especially if we can afford to do so?

8. Sentimentality and poverty reduction

Williamson, whose work I cited in my original post as an example of a conservative blaming poverty on bad behavior, writes:
In my own reporting on poverty in the United States, I have tried to present the facts as unsparingly as I can. Perhaps Noah Smith thinks that I do this in order to savor the exquisite delights of moral condemnation. But the intended purpose is to scour away the crust of sentimentality that poverty has acquired in order that we may deal with the actual facts of the case in a way that is productive and that does not end up deepening the very problems we hope to mitigate. (emphasis mine)
Here are some quotes from the Williamson article I cited:
Yes, young men of Garbutt — get off your asses and go find a job... 
[N]obody did this to them. They failed themselves...There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America... 
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.
 And in the article Williamson himself cites, he wrote:
Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death...
If this represents "scouring away the crust of sentimentality", what does poverty reporting look like with the crust of sentimentality still on??

9. What an actually good conservative critique of my article would look like

It's true that an 800-word comparison of two countries can't make a watertight case that bad behavior is not the biggest cause of poverty. It would definitely be possible for a conservative to read my article and then poke holes in my arguments. I don't think Kevin Williamson has done this. But if he did, I think it would look something like this:

"The U.S. and Japan don't have comparable economic systems, so comparing their behavior and their poverty rates is inappropriate. America is a meritocracy where you can climb high if you work hard and act right. Therefore if you're poor in America, it must mean that you chose to sabotage yourself. But Japan's combination of lifetime employment, an inefficient corporate system that doesn't reward effort and achievement, sexism, and permanent social stigma for failure means that poverty there is usually caused by bad luck."

In other words, different countries, even different developed countries, might have fundamentally different reasons for allowing people to fall into poverty.

This is a real possibility. If this is true, it would mean that Japan has lots of room to reduce poverty by making their system more like America's, so that their well-behaved, hard-working poor people can escape poverty by the sweat of their brows. And it would mean that America is already doing about as well as it can do in terms of institutional set-up, and that the best it can do is to urge its poor people to try harder and be more moral.

Of course, I could also marshal plenty of data against that case - for instance, the aforementioned success of U.S. government transfers in reducing child poverty and homelessness in recent decades. Or the big decreases in American violence and drug use since 1990 that haven't been accompanied by decreases in market poverty. But at least I would need more than just the example of Japan!

(In fact, this is the counterargument that I was prepared for, since people often respond to Japan-based arguments by saying "Japan is just different". But Williamson didn't use it.)

So even though my article does not completely settle the question of the root causes of poverty (and indeed, no article will), Kevin Williamson's attempted rebuttal does not hit the mark. For a good follow-up to my article, see this post by Scott Sumner. And thanks to Sumner for the photo at the top of this post.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Middle Eastern Thirty Years War?

I know sweeping historical analogies are silly, but I've always been partial to the analogy between the Middle East's recent decades of war and the Thirty Years War of early modern Europe. So let's run with that and see where it takes us.

The Thirty Years' War

In the early 1600s, most of Europe was involved in a gigantic war (which really lasted more than 30 years if you count other associated wars). A good history is C.V. Wedgwood's creatively named classic, The Thirty Years War.

Most people think of the war as a Protestant-vs-Catholic fight -- an extension and climax of the Wars of Religion that had been going on in Europe since the Reformation a century earlier. And religion was a big fault line between the two sides, and a big motivator for both people and regimes to keep fighting. But Wedgwood believes that the war was primarily a proxy contest between France and Spain for control of Europe. "There was enmity between France and Spain" is an often-repeated line throughout the book.

Spain, at that time, was under the control of the Habsburg family, Europe's most famous set of blue-blooded aristocratic schemers. Europe was still in transition between the old feudal form of political organization and the modern nation-state system, and the Habsburgs definitely represented the former -- besides Spain, they had tons of possessions in Germany, Belgium, and elsewhere, in addition to the Spanish Empire in South and Central America. The Habsburgs wanted to control Germany, which was the richest and most densely populated part of Europe, but which at that time was divided into a ton of tiny little micro-states loosely under the control of the increasingly irrelevant and rickety Holy Roman Empire:

The Habsburgs had maintained loose domination of Germany by constantly winning the elections for Holy Roman Emperor, but when some Protestant states rebelled against the emperor, they decided it was time to conquer Germany for real. They had massive resource wealth (silver and gold) from the New World, and they had the feared Spanish fighters, so they seemed to have a pretty good shot.

But that didn't work out, and one big reason was the Habsburgs' chief rival in Europe: France. France was Catholic, but had no desire for pan-Catholic solidarity with the Habsburgs. When the war broke out, France was in the process of becoming an absolute monarchy, and -- especially after subduing the Protestant Huguenot rebellion -- looked increasingly like an effective centralized state. Under the effective control of the famous Cardinal Richelieu (villain of the Three Musketeers!), encouraged first Denmark and then Sweden to enter the war against the Habsburgs, as well as supporting various Protestant leaders. In the end, the Habsburgs were unable to conquer most of Germany, and their holdings in the south part eventually turned into the Austrian Empire.

Spain finally got pissed enough to attack France directly, but -- to many people's surprise -- France gave them the boot. France's counterattack also failed, but by then Habsburg power in Europe was broken forever. The idea that a noble house with distributed feudal possessions could dominate the region was over, and absolute monarchies and modern nation-states started their long climb to preeminence. In fact, the Peace of Westphalia, the series of treaties that officially ended the Thirty Years War, is often cited as the blueprint for the modern concept of state sovereignty.

The Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

In the modern Middle East, a royal family with ample flows of natural resource wealth (the House of Saud) is engaged in a long proxy conflict with a autocratic, centralized rival state (Iran). Here's a slightly out-of-date map, from back when the Islamic State still had territory:

Religion is involved, as Iran is Shia and the Saudis are Sunni; both sides have sought at various times to whip up religious fervor as a weapon against the other. But most observers think the conflict is as much about which regime controls the Middle East as it is about religion.

The conflict has its roots in an ancient Arab-Persian rivalry, but it really began after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini was hostile to all of the Middle Eastern monarchies, and wanted to replace them with Islamic Republics. In response, Saudi Arabia backed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980; the king of Saudi Arabia actually wrote to Hussein and told him to "crush these stupid Iranians". The Iran-Iraq War killed around 800,000 people, and Saudi Arabia and Iran nearly came to blows at least once during that conflict.

The Saudi-Iranian conflict quickly became entangled with religion. Sunni and Shia Muslims had coexisted more-or-less peacefully for a long time, but Saudi Arabia and Iran have both been eager to destroy that comity in order to motivate their citizens and proxies. In 1987 Khomeini said that "these vile and ungodly Wahhabis are like daggers which have always pierced the heart of the Muslims from the back”, and called the Saudis “a band of heretics". In that same year, Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security clashed at the Hajj in Mecca, leaving over 400 people dead. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia increasingly sponsored and supported Sunni radicalism around the world, partly as a bulwark against Iranian influence. The Saudis also repressed Shia within their borders, and there are accusations that the regime supports anti-Shia sentiment abroad as well.

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry was effectively put on hold during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, but it never quite went away. Iran and the Saudis backed rival factions in the Afghani Civil War in the late 90s, and Iran almost went to war with the Saudi-supported Taliban. In Lebanon in the 2000s, the Saudis backed efforts against Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and Lebanon has continued to be a locus of proxy conflict. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Saudis supported the U.S. presence while the Iranians backed Shia militias.

But the rivalry really kicked into high gear after the Arab Spring in 2011. A Shia uprising in Bahrain was crushed by Saudi soldiers, and the Sunni Bahraini royals accused Iran of stirring up the unrest. The Saudis supported some of the rebels in Syria, while Iran vigorously supported the government and even sent troops to help. Now, Saudi Arabia is fighting a war against the Shia Houthi movement in Yemen, which many claim is backed by Iran.

This conflict has now been going on for 40 years. By my rough guesstimate, the various wars related to the conflict have now cost about 2 million lives. That is a lot less than the Thirty Years War, in both absolute numbers and percent of population, but the carnage is still significant.

Parallels and Differences

The House of Saud is a bit reminiscent of the Habsburgs -- a hidebound, sprawling royal family supported by natural resource wealth (oil, vs. gold and silver from the Spanish colonies). That would put Iran in the role of France, its autocratic/bureaucratic rival. Like France, Iran has made use of various proxies -- Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, the Houthis, etc. And like France, Iran has generally chosen the more effective proxies -- Assad has crushed the rebels (with Russian help), Hezbollah dominates its Lebanese rivals, and the Houthis have proven far better fighters than Saudi's Yemeni proxies, and have even scored wins against Saudi Arabia's own military.

But there are at least two big differences between Iran now and France in the 1600s. First, whereas France crossed the religious divide and employed Protestant proxies, Iran's proxies are mostly either Shia or quasi-Shia sects like the Syrian Alawites. Thus, there seems to be the possibility that the Saudi-Iranian conflict will stay religious in character, as opposed to the Thirty Years War, where the religious aspect eventually took a back seat to the intra-Catholic conflict between France and Spain.

Second, Iran has a lot of oil too. While this might appear like an advantage, it can lead to the dreaded Resource Curse (which arguably helped sink Spain in the Thirty Years War, when its shipments of silver were interrupted and it went bankrupt several times due to the habit of relying on steady flows of free money). Oil wealth could actually inhibit Iran from becoming an effective modern bureaucratic state. It seems possible that both the Saudis and the Iranians will be able to fuel their conflict with oil money for years to come, without being forced to cultivate more effective economic institutions. While France came out of the Thirty Years War looking stronger than ever, Iran might not be so lucky.

Meanwhile, the Saudis differ from the Habsburgs in one important way -- they exist in the modern, Westphalian world of nation-states. Thus, they cannot hope to gain influence by taking personal possession of territory, as the Habsburgs could. Instead, their hope for long-term influence probably depends on continued use of proxies in places like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. And the Saudis will probably try to motivate and bind those proxies with religious ties.

In other words, while the Thirty Years War signaled a shift from religion to nationalism as the organizing principle of Europe, the Saudi-Iranian conflict might not be able to repeat the trick for the Middle East -- instead, it might leave the region more polarized between Sunni and Shia.

Another big difference between the wars is the importance of outside powers. The Thirty Years War really had only one relevant outside superpower, the Ottoman Empire, which offered limited help to some anti-Habsburg forces. But the modern Middle East has seen major interference from both the United States and Russia. The U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, helped smash ISIS, supported autonomy for the Kurds, has provided financial and military support for the Saudis, and has occasionally threatened war with Iran. Meanwhile, Russian intervention proved decisive in Syria. Middle Eastern oil is so important to China's economy that China could conceivably become involved in the region as well.

Thus, while the Thirty Years War ended with the consolidation and increased independence of European proto-nation-states, a similar process in the modern Middle East might be harder to achieve, thanks to the influence and domination of outside superpowers.

Still, it does seem like the Saudi-Iranian conflict might lead to big and lasting changes in the Middle East, and some of those changes might not be too dissimilar from the aftermath of the Thirty Years War. The depredations of ISIS and other extremist groups -- almost as savage as the atrocities in 1600s Europe -- might convince Middle Easterners that fundamentalist sectarian warfare is not a source of power and unity, but a one-way road that leads nowhere good. Already, the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic in Iran has eroded, as young people come to resent the constant conflict, social repression, and lack of economic development.

Second, the wars might end up leading to increased nationalism. If pan-Shia and pan-Sunni solidarity are seen as leading to endless conflict, young Middle Easterners may instead decide to think of themselves as Syrians, Iraqis, or Yemenis. Granted, this future looks fairly remote right now, but the rise of nationalism in Europe took centuries.

Third, the constant warfare might simply create a weariness with war and conflict, especially when paired with the big drops in fertility rates across the region. After the smoke clears from the wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere, the Middle East might enter an era of enlightenment, much as Europe did. Science, literature, and institution-building might replace violence as sources of mass inspiration. As oil becomes less important to the global economy, Middle Eastern states will have the chance to shrug off the Resource Curse and diversify their economies to more productive, inclusive industries.

Though the Thirty Years War was insanely savage and destructive, some good things did come out of it in the end. I hope that the same is true of the Middle East's current era of wars.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Examining an MMT model in detail

What is MMT, the heterodox economic theory that has captivated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, made its way into the Green New Deal discussion, and inspired dozens of thinkpieces and critiques? What does it say? How can we tell if it's a good theory or a bad one?

These are incredibly important questions. Thanks to Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal, MMT has very quickly gone from an obscure heterodox idea to one of the most potentially influential and important theories in all of economics. 

Formal Models vs. Guru-Based Theories

These days, most economic theories are collections of mathematical models. If you want to know what the theory says, you can parse out the models and see for yourself. You don't have to go ask Mike Woodford what New Keynesian theory says. You don't have to go ask Ed Prescott what RBC theory says. You can go read a New Keynesian model or a Real Business Cycle model and figure it out on your own.

MMT is different. There are many wordy explainers and videos that will explain some of the concepts behind MMT, or tell you some of MMT's policy recommendations. But that's different than having a formal model of the economy. In a criticism of MMT, Thomas Palley writes:
The critical economic policy question is what does the power to money finance deficit spending mean for government’s ability to promote full employment with price stability? This question can only be answered by placing that power within a theoretical model and exploring its implications...Proponents of MMT have a professional obligation to provide [a simple mathematical] model to help understand and assess the logic and originality of their claims. Yet, [MMT proponents Eric Tymoigne and L. Randall Wray] again fail to produce a model...If MMT-ers did produce a model, I am convinced the issues would become transparent, but readers would also see there is “no there there”.
Now, a lot of people like to criticize mathematical models in economics. And they do have their drawbacks. Economists can sometimes become so entranced by the precision of math that they ignore the need to connect that math with the real world. And the difficulty of hacking through math can lead economists to make the models too simple.

Furthermore, Palley is being a bit too strict in demanding math; formal models can be stated in English or in graphs, rather than in equations.

But formal models have important advantages. For one thing, a good formal model can be compared with quantitative data, to see whether it works or whether it fails. Formal models can make testable predictions.

A second advantage of formal models is that you can figure them out for yourself, without having to ask any gurus. If you have to run to the gurus to ask them what the theory says any time you think you've found a flaw, it becomes almost impossible to skeptics or outsiders to evaluate the theory objectively.

This latter issue comes up a lot when dealing with MMT. In a recent post, Brad DeLong expresses his frustration with the theory's apparent slipperiness:
"Functional finance" is a doctrine originated and set out by Abba Lerner...When I said that "functional finance" is at the core of MMT, I got immediately smacked down by one of the gurus...Perhaps the key to the eagerness of [L. Randall] Wray to dismiss me (and James Montier) for saying that MMT is Lerner+ is sociological. Perhaps MMT is not model-based ("IS-LM with a near-vertical IS curve") and not idea-based ("Functional Finance") so that it can be guru-based. (emphasis mine)
It wasn't just DeLong and Montier who conflated MMT with Functional Finance. Aryun Jayadev and J.W. Mason did something similar in their attempted write-up of MMT, leading Josh Barro to do the same thing in his own criticism of MMT. Mason, Jayadev, and Barro criticized MMT on the grounds that raising taxes to control inflation - something you have to do in Functional Finance, and which some MMT advocates agree is necessary - is politically very difficult.

But in response to these critiques, Mason, Jayadev, Barro, Montier, and DeLong were told: No, MMT's approach to fiscal policy is not just Functional Finance. It is very very different. On Twitter, MMT insider Rohan Grey declared that MMT has other tools besides fiscal policy for fighting inflation. On his blog, MMT insider L. Randall Wray said that MMT's main tool for maintaining price stability is the federal Job Guarantee:
Yes, MMT does have another tool to maintain price stability. It is the JG approach to full employment. It has always been a core element of MMT. We have never relied the simplistic version of Functional Finance that was presented by Mason. It would take about five minutes of actual research to demonstrate this.
Now that's a perfectly fine rebuttal. People get theories wrong all the time. It's perfectly possible that Mason, Jayadev, Barro, Montier, and DeLong were all very wrong to conflate MMT with Functional Finance, and that five minutes of actual research would have demonstrated this.

But which five minutes? If you want to know how MMT's price stabilization policy differs from Functional Finance, where do you look? Do you trust Wray's blog? Or Grey's tweets? Or an online explainer? Or a video explainer? Or in one of the many papers written by MMT proponents? Which one?

Because MMT doesn't often include formal models, the question of how MMT thinks inflation works is very difficult to answer for yourself. The same is true of a number of other questions, such as how MMT's Job Guarantee would create full employment with price stability. You have to go ask the MMT People themselves.

But "few formal models" doesn't mean "no formal models". Occasionally, MMT people do write down a formal description of how they think the economy works (or might work). One example is "Monopoly Money: The State as a Price Setter", by Pavlina R. Tcherneva.

Examining an MMT Model (or, "Pavlina Tcherneva and the EMPL of Doom")

"Monopoly Money: The State as a Price Setter" explains the idea of how a Job Guarantee would work. The formal model begins on p.130 (page 7 of the PDF).

Here is the model's "conceptual framework":

The government demands that people pay taxes in dollars, which you can only get by working for the government. So people work for the government because that's the only way they can pay their taxes.

Now let's look at exactly how people work for the government and pay their taxes:

Already I can see one potential problem with this model, which is that everyone in the entire economy dies.

Note the part that I've marked with a red arrow. This economy produces only one service, which is firefighting. But you can't eat firefighting. So if that's literally the only thing anyone does in this economy, everyone will starve to death.

LOL OK, so that's probably too harsh. Maybe the people in this economy are doing other stuff on the side that's not in the model - farming, manufacturing, etc. After all, Tcherneva does mention that T could be "a property tax", and the model doesn't include property. So let's assume there's other stuff outside the model too, so that people don't starve, or freeze, etc.

But that still leaves the question of why the government needs firefighting services in the first place. What if there aren't any fires? If the government hires more firefighters than it needs to actually fight fires, then it's just wasting resources - making people labor in useless toil, taking them away from subsistence farming, or whatever. The more useless firefighters it hires, the poorer each person is. (In the limit, if every person has to spend all their time and effort doing unproductive work for the government, they actually do starve to death!)

Anyway, let's go on. 

So the government can hire 1 firefighter for $10 or 10 firefighters for $1 each, etc. (cents apparently don't exist in this world, so you can't hire 4 firefighters for $2.50 each, which is weird but OK).

Another question arises: Why is anyone willing to work as a firefighter in this model? According to Tcherneva, they need dollars to pay their taxes. But who pays the taxes? Tcherneva specifies that the tax bill "for the entire community" is $10. But how is this tax bill paid? Does the entire community file taxes jointly?

Suppose the government chooses to hire only one firefighter - call her Susan. She gets $10 for firefighting, and everyone else gets $0. Does the government tax Susan $10 and tax everyone else $0? Apparently so. Because Susan has $10 and everyone else has $0, so the only way the government can get its $10 is to tax Susan $10.

So why does Susan go fight fires in the first place? Firefighting takes work. If instead she decides to be one of the 9 people who don't work as firefighters, she can relax and watch Netflix, or farm food, or go do whatever it is that people in this model do when they're not firefighting. Someone else will get the dollars, someone else will pay the taxes. Because if you don't work as a firefighter your tax bill is zero, because you don't have any dollars to tax!

So taxation in this model doesn't make a lot of sense, because the model doesn't explain who actually pays the taxes. Without knowing that, it's hard to know why people would accept the government's prices for their firefighting services.

But OK, there must be some reason they work. Maybe the government makes people work at the price it offers. In this case, people are effectively doing slave labor for the government.

That sounds bad...right? It sounds a bit like colonialism, when European governments would send their armies to Africa or Latin America or India and make the locals labor for their overseas masters. 

At this point you may be saying "Noah, you jerk, why are you slandering the MMT people by equating their ideas with colonialism? That's not fair!" But I have a good reason for drawing this comparison: Tcherneva makes it herself, earlier in the paper! European colonialism in Africa is explicitly held up as a successful example of a "tax-driven currency":

On p.135 (page 12 of the PDF), Tcherneva explicitly states that the case where the government sets prices for firefighters "is the African example." So yes, it's explicit that in the model where the government sets prices, it also sets quantities - i.e., it forces people to work. 

I don't want to editorialize too much here, but "the African example" seems bad. Forced labor, potentially to the point of genocide, does not sound like the kind of "job guarantee" I would want. 

Does Tcherneva offer any alternative? Yes. In her "case 2b" on p.134 (page 11 of the PDF), she relaxes the assumption of forced labor, and allows the price (and therefore also the quantity) of workers to be set by the market. She also allows for the possibility that labor unions might organize to reduce the amount of labor they do in exchange for their tax dollars:

In this model, the government can't determine how much labor it gets or how much each laborer gets paid; it can only determine the total number of dollars it pays for labor. In fact, as Tcherneva suggests, labor unions might even allow workers to get all the government's dollars for a very small amount of labor - good for workers, but bad news if there really is a fire!

Anyway, this new model sounds much less horrifying, but it still doesn't answer the fundamental questions of "why do we need all these firefighters" or "who exactly pays the taxes". But at least it does allow for the possibility that either market forces or organized labor could minimize the amount of potentially-useless labor people were compelled to perform for the government in exchange for the money they need to pay their taxes. Colonial Africa, but with labor unions.

(Tcherneva also develops some further cases, including one where the government purchases park benches and another in which desired net saving is nonzero. But none of these cases answer the basic questions either. But don't take my word for it; check the paper.)

Anyway, this formal model is very useful, because it allows careful, precise, explicit analysis of MMT ideas. It allows us to identify potential problems with the theory, such as the question of whether a job guarantee would represent unproductive toil, and whether that's something we would want as a society. 

Further Questions for MMT

There is much I do not yet understand about MMT, that I would like to understand. 

For example, suppose the government implements a job guarantee and sets deficits, credit policies, etc. at the appropriate level to ensure price stability, but we still have more inequality of income and wealth than we would like? What policies should then be used to reduce inequality, without interfering with the goals of price stability and full employment?

Also, I would like to know how to test MMT empirically. What concrete predictions - about macroeconomic aggregates or other quantities - does MMT make that would allow us to determine whether it describes the economy better than, say, Old Keynesian IS-LM models, or New Keynesian models with financial frictions?

Also, how does MMT model productivity in the economy? It seems like hiring a bunch of firefighters in the absence of fires would negatively impact productivity and reduce living standards. Does MMT assume that productivity is exogenous, does it assume that productivity reductions will always be of secondary concern relative to the importance of full employment, or does it have some other way of dealing with potential hits to productivity?

I'm not confident in my ability to answer these and other important questions by reading L. Randall Wray blog posts, or long online explainers, or wordy MMT papers. I want to be able to read a concrete, formal, well-specified model like the Tcherneva model above, and answer these questions myself. And the rest of the non-MMT econ deserves this as well.