Brian Gongol Show | Cheerfully Intense | February 23, 2020

Brian Gongol

Podcast: Updated weekly in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning. Subscribe on Stitcher, Spreaker, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or iHeartRadio

Segment 1: The opening essay

California's governor has some strange ideas about housing

California's governor has some strange ideas about housing. Gavin Newsom tweets: "Doctors should be able to write prescriptions for housing the same way they do for insulin or antibiotics."

This sentiment would make a lot more sense if prescriptions could be filled by municipal zoning authorities. Is housing a universal need? Absolutely. Is it a human right? Not in the proper sense of the phrase: A human right is something that a person possesses by nature of birth, of which others can deprive her or him by force -- like the right to speak freely, or the right to practice a religious faith. In a well-governed society, others may not prohibit you from exercising your human rights.

Universal needs -- like health care or housing -- are different: Everyone needs them, but someone has to produce them. Houses and prescription drugs do not themselves automatically exist merely because you exist -- which is what separates them from the intrinsic human rights. Mis-labeling a "universal need" as a "human right" leads directly to the kind of wild claim that Governor Newsom makes in supposing that housing can simply be "prescribed" out of thin air. Even on a desert island with no economy to be found, you would still have certain human rights -- like the right not to be hit over the head by your neighbor because he didn't like the color of your hair. You would still need a doctor -- but the "right" is to be left alone and not made a victim of violence, and that can be satisfied without regard to the local GDP. A need -- say, to get stitches after being hit over the head -- can exist without the resources to fulfill it being present.

If a shortage of housing exists, it is because of some kind of a market failure -- and identifying the cause of that failure is essential. Why does San Francisco have a housing shortage? In large part because of local zoning challenges. That's a solvable problem -- but it's not solvable by conjuring up out of thin air a "prescription" for an apartment.

Yet there's a very popular idea out there that if we simply re-label these universal needs as "human rights", then we will have them in abundance. Senator Bernie Sanders, for instance, names health care, clean drinking water, housing, "a great education", and high-speed Internet access all as human rights -- right on his website. These things are mostly universal needs (you might quibble over the necessity of high-speed Internet access, but we'll acknowledge it's hard to get by anymore without it), but calling them human rights muddies the waters.

And that's especially irresponsible to do when we're seeing real human-rights injustices on a massive scale happening in our world today. A million or more people are being held in camps in western China because of their ethnic and religious identities. Half a million children or more are at imminent risk of violence and exposure after being pushed out of their homes in Syria. Freedom House says more than a third of the world's people live in conditions that are "not free".

Drawing a distinction between basic human rights and universal needs gives us the clarity to address the real answers to our problems. It doesn't explicitly cost a government anything to stop infringing on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. That right is only under threat from those who expressly wish to block it as a matter of exercising power.

But, as universal as the need might be, there might be a shortage of affordable housing in a city because it has zoning laws that are too restrictive. Or perhaps there's not enough housing because there aren't enough construction workers to be found. Or perhaps it's because growth outpaced the local government's ability to roll out adequate infrastructure in a timely way. These are all resource-related problems, but whether it's restrictive zoning in San Francisco or rent controls in New York City or a shortage of housing during an oil boom in North Dakota, calling them matters of "human rights" won't get the job done.

Teddy Roosevelt offered a great principle for civic and political life: "[W]e must face the facts as they are. We must neither surrender ourselves to foolish optimism, nor succumb to a timid and ignoble pessimism." In fact, to be realistic like that is ultimately an act of optimism: If we can see what's wrong and identify the cause and honestly express what we see, then we can get on with the business of making it right. That's not going to happen in a world where people think that the problem is a failure to write prescriptions for housing or to call high-speed Internet access a human right.

The moral of the story: The people who call a problem what it is not are nearly as pessimistic as those who deny that the problem exists.

Segment 2: This surprised me

Health Influenza has killed more than 100 American kids this season

Don't just let the number roll past you. This is an immeasurable tragedy, and it's happened 105 times over. Maybe we can't stop every one of those tragedies, but the public at large plays a role. You play a role. Get the flu shot. A crucial point from the CNN story: "Schaffner also said everyone should get vaccinated, especially since the flu can strike a perfectly healthy individual and cause severe illness. At least half of the children who die from the flu were otherwise healthy, he said."

The moral of the story:

Segment 3: Looking ahead to the coming week

Business and Finance Charlie Munger: "I think there are lots of troubles coming"

If you won't listen to Charlie Munger, then you need to show your work and give overwhelming evidence that you're right. He's seen too much and thought too hard about it to make big mistakes. Emphatically one of the wisest people in America today, most especially on financial matters.

The moral of the story:

Segment 4: Quote of the Week

"I do not believe that history is writ clear and unchallengeable. It doesn't just happen. History is made by people: its movement depends on small currents as well as great tides, on ideas, perceptions, will and courage..." - Margaret Thatcher

The moral of the story:


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