Sunday, December 30, 2012

Guns are good at killing people: Gun Control Discussion part 1

Since everyone in the pundit-o-sphere is talking about gun control, I thought I'd bring my ten-cent pistol to bear as well.  This is going to be a multi-part post.  Here's part 1.

First of all, let's all agree from the outset is that guns are excellently designed machines. And what they were designed to do is kill things effectively, at range, with minimal training and effort on the part of the wielder.  Obviously, marksmanship is a skill and to possess it requires a great deal of training and ability, but as a person who went to shooting range once and hit a bunch of stuff, I can attest to the shallowness of the "good enough to be dangerous" end of the learning curve.

This should have two consequences.  First of all, it should stop bullshit like this, in which we learn that a lot of murders are done with guns.  Well, duh.  If I wanted to kill a person, I would use the best tool available, and--as mentioned earlier--guns are pretty damn good at the whole killing thing.

There's a great meme along the lines of the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" theme that speaks to the second intended consequence of this realization:

And on one level, this is dead on.  Obviously guns don't have moral culpability in any killings for which they are used, but that's not at all to say that they don't contribute.  I've never heard anyone say that the killing of Bin Laden could have been done just as easily without any guns.  Which is just to say that we invented guns because we wanted a better way to kill people, and we did a good job.

Things like this Chinese tragedy make this kind of obvious.  A crazy person went into a school and attacked a bunch of children, stabbing 20.  However, since knives aren't as good at killing people as guns are, what they got was 20 injured children, instead of 20 dead children.  The US wasn't as lucky with our most recent mass assault tragedy, and the reason is pretty obvious: semi-automatic firearms are better at killing people than knives.

A lot of people are saying that poor mental health care is the root cause of these mass homicides, and I totally agree.  The US rates of suicide, homicide, and homelessness are all pretty deeply tied up in poor mental health care, but that sounds to me like an argument for universal health care including psychiatric care, not an argument against gun control.  

The "there are too many crazies" argument is kind of like saying that mental institutions should leave the sharp objects around and just do a better job of treating the violently insane.  No. The obvious answer (in a mental institute) is to do both, and to do the "keep the pointy things away" one first, because it is easier to do.  

I don't think the answer for the United States is nearly as obvious, but I think the fundamental framework should be kept in mind.  I'll evaluate (ridicule) policy proposals currently on the table as well as making my own suggestions in upcoming posts.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Are sinners allowed to adopt?

  1. The Catholic Church has long decried homosexual acts as sinful, and neither acknowledges nor condones homosexual marriages. 
  2. They also oppose legal marriage rights for gay couples and seem particularly vehement in their opposition to adoption. 

I just feel the need to point out that 2 by no means follows from 1.

Making claims about what is and is not sinful is standard issue; the Church has been at that for a long time, and wont be stopping any time soon.  Furthermore, it seems clear to me that it is within the rights of the Church to refuse the sacrament of marriage, or any sacrament for that matter, to anyone for failing to meet certain theologically determined criteria.  I don't find the Church's position on the sinfulness of homosexuality terribly compelling, but I'm willing to let the ongoing deliberation and prayer of the Church to sort out which of us is in the right.

However, 2 has no bearing on any of those things.  Legal rights are inherently secular, and to the extent that they are above and beyond the protections espoused by the church, seem to me to be beyond reproach.  This is especially true given the Church's theological commitment to freedom of religion: there are faiths that permit or even laud gay marriage.  If the church is committed to true religious freedom, it is imperative that other faiths be permitted to operate with the same legal capacities and protections as the Catholic Church.

All of that, however, is sideshow stuff compared to the Church's scandalous position on adoption by gays.  The Church has no massive public campaign objecting to adoption by remarried couples; to my knowledge it has no animosity at all to such adoptions.  But, from a Catholic theology perspective, such people are also publicly engaged in mortal sin.  For reasons that escape me, the Church has decided that it is more important to punish and restrict a particular class of sinners than it is to provide loving homes to orphans. I find myself disgusted by my Mother Church's insistence that it prefers keeping children in foster care and orphanages to permitting them to be loved, raised, and cared for by a sinning couple.  If any fellow Catholics have a thoughtful dissent to this sentiment, I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Debate thoughts

Romney promises that his tax reform wont raise taxes on middle class, increase the deficit, or lower taxes on the wealthy.  A promising change in policy.

I wish Obama had addressed the idea that small businesses need less taxes to hire more workers.  I'm pretty confident that businesses hire if demand is high, but if there's no demand, they wont hire more workers no matter how profitable.  Business profits are very high right now.

I wish they wouldn't talk past each other.  I actually like that Romney has been addressing points (somewhat).  Obama is really just making and expanding his economic stump speech. 

Bringing down rates while decreasing deductions is about incentive effects, not about budget effects; that's the whole point of revenue neutral reform.  So Romney's early point about businesses not having enough money to hire workers doesn't get fixed by his proposals.  I mean, I guess he can move that cost to someone else while being revenue neutral, but who? 

Romney: cuts through attrition based on the "is it worth borrowing from China for?" principle.   Borrowing money from China doesn't seem like a huge risk to me, I mean... are they going to come collect?  I'm pretty sure they only have one aircraft carrier.  That's not going to go well.

I think it's kind of unfair to hold Obama's pre-recession deficit promises against him.  Recessions cost money to fight, and they dramatically reduce tax revenue on account of no one has money to pay taxes.  Also, there are plenty of programs like unemployment that automatically grow.

Romney definitely has the best of the early energy policy exchange, albeit through conceding his early policy position.  I don't know how John Taylor would feel about discretionary rescues for failing state poverty programs.

I like that the debate is fairly respectful thus far.  That makes me not hate myself.

I hate how Romney presents interesting useful general principles without every being willing to instantiate them.  Why is Obama spending more time detailing Romney's proposals? Because Romney's proposals either violate his expressed general principles, or are super unpopular, or both.

Romney's "private plan better than medicare" argument is silly.  You can switch from medicare any time you want, so long as you can afford it.  Ditto for private plans.  They compete against one another.  Also, medicare is cheaper than private health insurance.

Appeals to authority are *really* annoying in this format, because they are completely contentless and hard to verify.

Always, Romney is avoiding details in favor of interesting but hilariously general problems.  Total lie about Dodd-Frank.  The "too big to fail" thing is all about setting up plans to put those banks through specialized bankruptcy procedures, not backstopping them.

Dealing with the cost of healthcare: all of the cheapest healthcares are socialized. Dear Mitt Romney, why are we ignoring that fact?

Every private insurance company is an unelected board that decides what they'll cover in insurance.

Why didn't Romneycare cause companies to get rid of insurance coverage?  It is the same as Obamacare.

Government is awesome at cost control. It just sets the prices and that's what they are.  It may be bad at providing equal quality on a given price point in the absence of market failures, but that's not what they're talking about.  And, for the record, healthcare is basically the definition of market failure.

Also, on every single point about healthcare, why do we never reference every single European nation--a group that has unanimously solved the universal healthcare problem in a variety of interesting ways?

Romney's preferred health care policy is that every state implement Romney care.  So Romney's preferred policy is Obamacare, but run by states?

Liberals think that supply side reforms are necessary for education and healthcare, I think.  Have to consider that more.  Not sure how I feel.

Romney seems to start every thing with agreeing with Obama, or discarding the accurate description of his prior policy positions provided by Obama.  I mean, fair enough.  

"trickle down government" is one of Mitt's "clever" phrases.  Emphasis on "", Mitt's, and phrases.

I'd like to just have Obama say "I will return to Clinton era policies: policies that coincided with the most prosperous time in our nation in recent years.  In what way is that radical or dangerous?"

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

About belief

Just a quick one from a conversation I had today.  When we're talking about persuasion, we're really talking about two very different tasks.

Sometimes we argue about how to do things, and normally in that discussion the relevant information is about the world and how it works.  The way we convince people in that context is by showing them evidence about the way the world works--facts, studies, that sort of thing.

The other thing we argue about is what we should care about. These sorts of arguments about first order beliefs--which we just take as given in the former class of argument--aren't at all amenable to facts, studies, and figures.  Persuasion on these points is essentially an act of conversion and is effected mostly through personal relationships if at all.

Now, first order beliefs are held with varying strengths, and sometimes things that should be higher order beliefs--empirically testable ideas about how the world works--are treated as first order.  But, I'd say that's more or less the structure of things.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Who do you side with?

I thought this was an interesting attempt at getting people to look at their politicians by the issues.  The choices were nice in that they gave additional options for a little more nuance, but the policy questions were high enough level that you could still pretty obviously pick the party-signalling choice, which probably isn't super useful for making people think twice about their preferred candidate.  Also, who the hell is Jill Stein?

Here's the quiz:

Here're my results:

ACA Ruling (part 1 - The One Man Majority)

The Supreme Court ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is, well, complicated.  One of its most interesting features is that the "majority opinion", or the opinion holding legal weight, is  held in its entirety only by one man--Chief Justice John Roberts.  In this post we'll focus exclusively on his opinion, which is as follows:

1. The Anti-Injunction Act does not impede the States' ability to bring suit against the ACA
2. The Individual Mandate cannot be upheld under the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause
3. The Individual Mandate, being functionally identical to a tax and enforced under the Tax Code, is within the taxing powers of congress and therefore Constitutional
4. The Federal government unduly coerces the states in its conditioning all medicaid funding on the ACA's expansion of medicaid, only new funding may be so conditioned

Basically the only thing the entire court agrees on is (1).  The Anti-Injunction Act is a law saying that people can't sue to avoid a tax until they've actually paid the damn thing.  Roberts says that congress explicitly said that the penalty associated with the Individual Mandate is not a tax, and therefore the Anti-Injunction Act doesn't apply. (This gets a little weird later on, when the Individual Mandate is determined to be a tax, but the takeaway is just that congress has the power to say what things are and aren't taxes for the purposes of the law, but not for the purposes of the constitution.  That actually makes a lot of sense, since otherwise the Feds could do anything, call it a tax, and have it be constitutional.)

Roberts joins the conservative dissent in stating (2) that the Individual Mandate is unsupported by the Commerce Clause because it regulates inactivity, rather than activity.  Frankly, I think this distinction is weird and stupid, but I'll put off arguments until after I've gone through the dissenting opinions.

Roberts, along with the liberal dissent, points out (3) that because the Individual Mandate is exercised through the IRS,  is governed by the laws governing taxation, is levied at least in part to provide revenue, and is not punitive (it never exceeds the value of purchasing insurance, and is usually substantially less), it is a form of tax for constitutional purposes, and, as such, is constitutional under the taxation powers of congress.

Finally, in agreement with a large block of both liberal and conservatives (though some Justices still dissent), Roberts rules (4).  I don't fully understand this argument, but it seems like the basic claim is that federal-state programs have to be looked at as contracts between the federal government and state government.  The medicaid expansion greatly exceeds the scope of changes the states could have reasonably expected when signing on to the program, therefore their original contracts must remain valid regardless of whether they decide to expand their programs to the new medicaid levels.  That's the theoretical justification, which I find weak.  The practical justification is much stronger.  Basically, the amount of money involved in medicaid amounts to 10% or more of most states' budgets.  Giving up that funding would be fiscal suicide for most states.  Therefore, the states have no real choice but to accept the changes to medicaid.  The Justice rightly points out that a similar tactic could be used to coerce the states to enact basically any law, even those that the federal government has no right to enact, which would pretty much defeat the purpose of Federalism.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Higgs Boson

I don't understand anything about how the Higgs Boson stuff works, what we're going to do with the new knowledge, or really anything about physics.  But! here's a cool thing to take away:  Science made a prediction with theory, well before we even had the capability to test that theory.  We then built the capability, and tested the prediction.  It was verified.

That simple story, and ones like it, are at the root of human achievement.  It's good to be human.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Optimal intellectual property protection (part 2)

In which the state of current copyright law is discussed, a meager calculation is effected shewing the exercise of said law necessary to compensate rights-holders for their losses, and the stage is set for act 3.

The major U.S. laws currently in place to handle copyright infringement on the internet are: The United States Copyright Law, and the DMCA.  Under the former, the maximum penalty for an infringer is $150,000 dollars per copyrighted work.  An unknowing infringer--somewhat not protected by fair use provisions, but not willfully breaking the law--suffers a minimum penalty of $200 dollars per copyrighted work.  Recent rulings have indicated that the granularity of a work is on the song (as opposed to album) level.  Now, judging from iTunes, the market value of a song is about $0.99.  That's quite a mark-up.  Real world awards have reached truly astronomical levels, but let's look at a recent case, in which a judge knocked down a $675,000 dollar fine to $67,500 for willful infringement for 30 songs.  That's $2,250 a song, down from an initial $22,500 a song.

Just working with the music numbers for a moment, things look a little like this:

In 2007, the RIAA report estimates sales losses of 3.7 billion dollars with their (quite reasonable) download substitution estimator.  I'm ignoring their physical piracy numbers because they don't apply to the intarwebs points I want to make.  To make up for this they'd have to levy the minimum fine on 18,500,000 (by the RIAA estimates, 0.3% of 6 billion yearly illegal downloads), the maximum fine on 24,667, or the judge determined "reasonable" $2250 fine on 1,644,445 instances of illegal downloads.  Even the largest of these would be a tiny percentage of enforcement.  Of course, the RIAA only managed to file 20,000 lawsuits (primarily ending in settlement) by 2008 when they mostly stopped doing that on account of it being hilariously unpopular.  It seems like the settlements were generally between the "reasonable" and minimum fine levels, so the RIAA clearly wasn't going to recoup costs through these lawsuits.  Since they gave up that tactic, they have focused on the DMCA, and on producing bigger, badder, scarier versions of it. 

At issue in the DMCA and its would-be successors is the burden of enforcing copyright laws.  Basically, the DMCA explicitly prohibits circumvention of copyright protections regardless of whether such circumventions are used to violate copyright, enacts the mechanism of "takedown notices" which limit the liability of compliant online service providers (OSPs) in exchange for rapid response to notification of infringement by copyright holders, and permits subpoenas of OSPs for user identity information.  Copyright holders feel that these provisions are insufficient, and have proposed a variety of legislation holding hosting sights responsible for infringing content posted by users.  Obviously, this imposes substantial costs, risks, and responsibilities on social networks and community content sites.

All this sets things up quite nicely for part 3: actual cost-benefit analysis!
Potential costs: money of social network sites, money of taxpayers, money of RIAA and member organizations.
Potential benefits: greater compensation of copyright holders, deterrence of copyright violation.

Of course, that's only if you forget that the goal of IP law is to incentivize the development of intellectual property.  So, we'll be taking a look at the incentive maximizing level of IP protection as well.  All that to come.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Macroeconomic quicky

Recessions and depressions occur when total spending--and therefore total income--is reduced.  This reduction of total spending is brought on by an increase in demand for money, either to hold as savings or to use to pay down debt.  Once you have your head around this, the Federal Reserve remedies for depressions and recessions--lower interest rates and higher inflation--become kind of obvious: they're both just ways to increase the supply of money, and reduce the demand for it.  It also becomes obvious that government austerity exacerbates the problem; it's just one more player contributing to the reduced spending and resulting reduced income.

Obviously, there are a bunch of wrinkles in this story, but sometimes it helps to just look at the simple fundamentals of a situation.  Those fundamentals indicate we should have more government spending, higher inflation, and lower interest rates.  Since interest rates are already at 0, we've only got two options left.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Let's have a little chat about Republicans

Once upon a time, Republicans were conservatives, and followed to a significant extent the primary dictate of conservatism:
conservatism - a political or theological orientation advocating the preservation of the best in society and opposing radical changes.
It seems clear that with Republicans routinely promoting the elimination or dramatic restructuring of things like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, that fundamental position has been abandoned.  But, I don't think it is right to say that modern Republicans are entirely unprincipled, or that they are merely advocating the interests of their wealthy donors (though they are certainly pursuing policies that primarily favor the wealthy).  Rather, I think the best way to view Republican ideology is through the lens of psychology.

Republicans understand the direction of human psychology, and the sorts of motivations that impact people's behavior.  It's true that higher marginal tax rates make people less excited about making more money; I've experienced that first hand.  Likewise, it's true that the leap from something for nothing to a-little-more-something for a-lot-more-work is significant.  If you stop your thinking there, then it is obvious that things like unemployment benefits and high marginal tax rates are ridiculous, silly, and probably counterproductive.

The trouble, of course, is that you can't stop there: you have to measure the size of the effect.  Basically everyone in Republican-land is assuming very-large, even dominating, effects from these psychological factors.  Thus things like "the confidence fairy", "regulatory uncertainty","bond market vigilantes", a preoccupation with "moral hazard" and the like.  Sadly, in most cases the empirical evidence seems to indicate that these psychological effects, though often real, are quite small.  The far side of the Laffer Curve--the hypothetical curve depicting the point at which increases in tax rate actually reduce tax revenues through disincentive effects--is estimated to be around a 70% tax rate.  Likewise, unemployment benefits increase unemployment rates much less than one might naively expect, especially in severe recessions like the one we are in.  As for the confidence fairy, bond market vigilantes, and regulatory uncertainty--they just don't seem to apply to our current situation.

Basically, Republicans show an interest in and a sense of human psychology which is intuitive, substantially correct, and praiseworthy.  Liberals are all too often guilty of ignoring the human, social, and psychological aspects of situations.  However, when it comes to accurately describing the way the world works, you'd be much better off dropping the psychological variables from your equations than the mechanical ones.  Or, best of all, keeping them all in and looking at what the econometrics data is actually telling you.  Doing that tends to show that optimal economic policy is much more closely aligned to Keynesian policies than Austrian ones.  Just goes to show that even if your intuitions are broadly right, it is still important to look at the data.

A little post-script:
It does seem that Republicans tend to forget their psychology when it comes to looking at regulating business.  Much, if not all, of the recent bank legislation is about avoiding the "moral hazard" created by federal guarantees on bank deposits, and for some reason that isn't subject to the same psychological rational as unemployment benefits.  Hard to see why, really, except for a sort of team "give the rich what they want" mentality.  That's a bit annoying.

Also, it's worth pointing out that a lot of people think that the financial collapse was brought on by Republican banking deregulation, and the conservatism as defined earlier would have been the exact impulse--that the rules of the past were laid down with wisdom and shouldn't be so easily cast aside--that protected us from that silliness.  In a proper conservative-liberal dichotomy, the liberals should have been pushing for the deregulation, and the conservatives should have been saying "hey man, we made those rules for a reason".

In my mind, both of these failures of Republicans to follow either their "human nature" or "conservative" ideologies is strong evidence of regulatory capture; the business interests have at least partially conquered the Republican party and put them to use on the behalf of banking against the best interests of society.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Optimal intellectual property protection (part 1)

You often see stuff from the MPAA and RIAA about how piracy is destroying all artists' livelihoods always forever.  The natural solution to this problem is to somehow end piracy through legislative penalties.  So what does that look like?  Let's look at some horribly skewed and biased numbers!

Apparently, there's a man named Stephen Siwek who is happy to produce research showing the devastating effects of copyright infringement.  He isn't very creative about names though; one might even think he plagiarized himself.  But don't take my word for it, look at the names of his two "studies":

For the RIAA:   The True Cost of Sound Recording Piracy to the U.S. Economy
For the MPAA:  The True Cost of Copyright Industry Piracy to the U.S. Economy

It's a little tricky, because the Sound Recording Industry is a subset of the Copyright industry, and, actually, so is the Software Industry, which I won't discuss here.  Both these studies have some important characteristics though.

  • They assume substantial full price substitution rates.   In fairness, I read through the "Sound Recording" report, and found that its estimated substitution rate is 60.7% for physical piracy and 20% for digital piracy.  The 60.7% is absurdly high based on my brief survey of the literature, but the digital piracy number is actually on the low end.  The most recent research (admittedly using a sample of U. Penn undergrads... not exactly a representative demographic in any way) puts it (and physical piracy, incidentally) at between 15% and 30%.  Of course, some researchers show no effect on physical sales and slight positive effects for online and concert sales (that's on an international sample, but its methods are a little harder to follow and its credentials aren't as towering).  The "Copyright Industry" report only says "less than one", a value it claims is "conservative" on the grounds that some internal industry "estimates" claim that it is exactly one.  Furthermore, each lost purchase is imagined to have replaced one at full price and new.  
  • They calculate losses in the global market. So piracy in China is lumped right in and used to justify stronger copyright enforcement in the U.S.  I mean, maybe fair enough for treaties, but in general? 
  • They show "total economic output lost".  This goes beyond lost sales to include the hypothetical economic impacts up and down the supply chain of the copyright industry. 
  • They neglect the obvious economic benefits to consumers of receiving goods for free. This seems particularly relevant given their lost sales model of substantial purchase substitution, and their insistence on evaluating macroeconomic effects.  Every dollar not spent on frivolous entertainment is available to be spent elsewhere, in some other industry (or in the same one, for that matter).  Effectively, they are assuming that people choose between purchasing music and "pirating while putting the money they save under a rock".
  • They rely substantially on confidential and industry provided data.  Well of course they do; how else could you produce credible looking studies without any means of verification?  Well, I guess they aren't that credible looking.
  • They include both physical and digital piracy.  Bootlegs, bit-torrent, mix-tape? All the same.
Anyway, the number Siwek comes up with for the cost of worldwide, savings-burying, any format, substantial pirated-copy-to-lost-new-sale substitution, all-copyright-industry piracy is:  

58 billion dollars.

So, that's a lot of money, I guess.  By contrast, if a naive but mathematically capable person tried to estimate the cost of pre-screening all copyrighted content on youtube alone through manual human curation they'd come up with something between $441,029,692 and $36,829,468,840 per year. Ahem:

37 billion dollars.

And that's just youtube! Imagine all the streaming sites and content lockers...  Plus, the comparison is unfair because youtube doesn't host software or videogames--both major contributors to that headline number.  If you chop out Software and Videogames from the 58 billion total estimate you are left with 19.256 billion dollars of loss per year (approximately, since they don't actually break this out by industry I have to do some funny stuff--basically I multiply the total loss by the percentage of direct loss in the music and media industries: 33.2%)

Now, those numbers are quite silly.  Also, they naively ignore the existence of Google's Content ID system, which basically does this automatically in software.  One might imagine it is substantially cheaper than any of the estimates of human manual labor curation.  The point (for tonight) is merely that anyone with a bit of time and some trumped up numbers can make pseudo-reasonable apocalyptic claims about the cost of enforcing or not enforcing copyright.  Next post, a closer look at the genuine economics and law of the situation.

Contrarian Confessions

I've noticed that as I anticipate my move to San Francisco my views have been skewing more conservative / conservative apologist than usual.  It's not that I'm becoming Republican; that would be ridiculous.  Rather, I seem to be unconsciously prepping my internal devil's advocate in anticipation of being immersed in a much more liberal environment.  I fully realize that this is conclusive evidence that I am a broken and perverse creature.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Why do we disagree? contd.

The recent debate over the student loan rate hikes is a great example of the ways in which fundamental policy agreements can be obscured by other issues.  In this case, Republicans and Democrats agree that student loan rates should not double this year.  If these were the good old Bush Years that would be the end of it because, as Cheney allegedly said, "deficits don't matter", but nowadays everything but tax cuts for the rich have to be paid for.  Which leads us to the confusing state in which the Democrats have blocked the Republican bill preventing the rate hikes, and Republicans have reciprocated.  Democrats like to pay for things with tax increases on the wealthy, and Republicans like to pay for things with "dynamic scoring" and/or imposing further financial burdens on the poor and middle class.

Problematically, this issue has been spun by both sides as evidence that the other wants to impose rate hikes on students.  The general public has a natural bias towards not giving a shit about accounting unless the political classes are really insistent that it matters, so politicians preferentially phrase disputes as policy disagreements.  But a disturbing number of bills fail due to the same fundamental disagreement over how much money the government should spend, and where it should come from.

From my perspective, this is doing it ass-backwards.  You figure out what you want to do, then you figure out what it should cost, then you figure out whether it is worth doing, then you figure out how to pay for it.

The Republican strategy is to pick how much they want to spend, and then eliminate social programs until they get far enough below that spending number to give some tax cuts to the rich.  The Democratic strategy is to pick policies and pay-fors in an ad-hoc manner, which would be fine except that you lose sight of the greater context that way and you have to have two debates for each policy, one for policy and one for pay-for.  A better strategy would be to work out a bunch of things you want to do each year, prioritize them, and pay for all the ones you can afford. But that would require a fair amount of consensus about a) priorities and b) how much can be afforded, and we have neither.  Please can we get a parliamentary system?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Notre Dame is suing the government on the HHS mandate... and that's fine by me

The Catholic Church's displeasure with the HHS contraceptive mandate is common knowledge, so it is no surprise that the University of Notre Dame--"where the Catholic Church does its thinking"--is filing a lawsuit opposing it.  Regular readers of this blog might be expecting me to get huffy at this point and start arguing about how wrong the whole thing is, but, readers, prepare to be surprised.  I am totally okay with the lawsuit, and the reason is simple: the lawsuit is against the finalized January rule, which includes none of the compromises I think make the HHS mandate acceptable.  The compromise rules are still in the "open to public comment" phase through June, and, as Jenkins stated in his email to ND:
Although I do not question the good intentions and sincerity of all involved in these discussions, progress has not been encouraging and an announcement seeking comments on how to structure any accommodation (HHS Advanced Notification of Proposed Rule Making on preventative services policy, March 16, 2012) provides little in the way of a specific, substantive proposal or a definite timeline for resolution.   Moreover, the process laid out in this announcement will last months, making it impossible for us to plan for and implement any changes to our health plans by the government-mandated deadlines
Okay, so I do take issue with the notion that there's little in the way of a specific substantive proposal in the March 16th public comment document.  I've read it, and it is tediously specific.  It isn't the full exemption I suspect the University is gunning for, but I think it represents a morally valid compromise because it incorporates all the stuff I've talked about in my billion other posts on the subject.  Since the University only has a year to comply, and there's no sure reason to believe that the accommodations will be finalized by that time, it is in the best interests of the University and of religious freedom writ large to sue and at least obtain a stay until accommodations can be implemented.

Also, I think that the lawsuit could clear up some interesting muddles in the area of religious freedom.  I rather suspect that in this case the right of people to privacy regarding their sex lives will trump the rights of religious organizations to force their agenda on non-conforming individuals if this makes it to a high court.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Government: what's it for?

A quick one, for the record.  Here's what I think government is for:
  1. organizing broadly beneficial collective action that doesn't arise from commerce 
  2. preventing people from harming one another (including things like breach of contract, infringement on civil rights, &c)
So basically, to convince me that legislation is applicable, you have to show that either a) people are harming each other or b) the market is failing to provide something of broad societal utility.  Also, the legislation has to help.  Is there anything else government is for?  Are my criterion too permissive?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Who are the prominent liberal crazies?

I've noticed recently that many of my conservative friends spend a lot of time disavowing beliefs commonly associated with the extremes of their party--creationism, Obama birthplace conspiracies, and the gold standard being particularly common examples.  I've noticed, however, that though these ideas are pretty clearly wrong if you care to look at "facts" or "the world" or "logic" they tend to enjoy support from fairly prominent Republicans.  Sarah Palin is a creationist. Ron Paul is all about the gold standard, and despite the release and vetting of every form of birth certificate known to man, Obama's birthplace is still treated as suspect by many Republican lawmakers.

In the interest of balance, I was trying to figure out what the extremist ideas on the liberal side of the spectrum were, and who was giving them voice.  But I can't find anything even close to comparable.  Is this my bias, or are Dem's just more grounded in reality?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Delightfully Wonky

I thought I was going to have to do it myself, but this slide-deck from the White House puts together the graphical evidence about economic performance under Obama quite nicely.  Highly recommended for people who want to get a sense of context for the economy.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

HHS contraceptive mandate debate: summarized

I just got asked for a summary of the HHS contraceptive mandate debate.  I've written quite a bit on the topic previously, but since the situation (and my understanding of it) evolved over time, I thought it would be worthwhile to pull together my previous posts and some final commentary.  It's worth noting that while the Obama Administration and USCCB seem committed to their final stances, the rules are open for public comment through June, and will only be finalized in August.

The mandate

As part of the Affordable Care Act, all health insurance plans are required to cover preventative care without co-pay, but the definition of such care was left to the executive branch.  On the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences, the Obama Administration included birth control--in particular female birth control, like the pill--in preventative care.  This means that all insurers must cover contraceptives without co-pay. The full text of the most up-to-date proposal for the mandate can be found here:

The objection

Catholic institutions objected on the grounds that contraception is against the teachings of the Catholic Church.  They felt it a breach of religious freedom that they were required to pay for products the primary use of which they considered to be immoral.  As the Obama Administration has responded to this objection the complaints have changed.  The most recent statements by the USCCB can be found here:

The response

The administration, gradually, made the following adjustments/clarifications to address the conscientious objections:
  1. The mandate only applies to non-Church organizations, such as Hospitals, Charities, and Schools.  Parishes and other institutions who primarily hire and serve Catholics (or people of other objecting faiths) are exempt.
  2. Insurance organizations must not charge the insuring institution for additional contraceptive coverage.
  3. For self-insured institutions (most large catholic organizations), the cost of the contraceptive coverage would be born in full by an external entity, rather than by the institution itself.
  4. (A clarification) The cost of insurance plans with full contraceptive coverage is actually lower than the cost of insurance plans without full contraceptive coverage.

Some links to articles on the subject

My thoughts

Since no Catholic institution will have to pay for contraceptive coverage (free from insurers, and free from insurance managers for self-insured institutions), there is no violation of conscience.  Since US law recognizes rights of reproductive freedom and privacy, allowing institutions to inspect employees' sexual practices in the provisioning of healthcare (for instance to cover the pill for ovarian cyst treatment but not contraception) is arguably a violation of employee rights.  And since I conceive religious freedom as essentially individual rather than institutional and no individual is coerced by this law, I can find no valid religious-freedom argument against it.  The case is further undermined by the governments subsidy of health insurance: taking the government's subsidy means taking the strings attached too.  I do think that it might be reasonable to fine non-compliant institutions the exact amount of government subsidy as another means of exemption, but even that butts up against employee rights in an uncomfortable way.

My previous thoughts (in chronological order)

These kind of shift around as the situation and my view of it shifts, but the in series they follow all the important points of argument, and the comments often include useful insights or counter-arguments.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why do we disagree?

This question matters.  It determines the scope of debate and helps us understand differing viewpoints.  It is also answered with confusion or misinformation with hilarious frequency.  I'll touch on how to think about these disagreements and briefly highlight some examples of confusion in the tax and voter ID debates.  Anyway, why do we disagree?

In politics, it seems to come down to a few things:
  1. Differing, empirically testable, ideas about the world (facts)
  2. Differing, empirically testable, ideas about how the world works (models)
  3. Differing ideas about the proper values and goals of society 
  4. Differing ideas about the proper powers of government
or, if you like:
  1. What is the world like?
  2. What can we do about it?
  3. What should we do about it?
  4. How shouldn't we do it?
None of that is terribly controversial, but I think that people often confuse the origins of their disagreement.  

I often, for instance, hear conservatives saying that the government shouldn't raise taxes on the rich, but depending on who you talk to, the answer to why varies a lot.  For some it is "because they are job creators", but for others it is "because it isn't fair".  These world views have the same conclusion, but different implications.  We can, to some extent, test the proposition that raising taxes will mean less job creation.  If a person genuinely believes this to be the primary reason not to raise taxes on the rich, then empirical arguments are the most appropriate forum of discussion.  For the "it isn't fair" person, the proper arguments are philosophical--diminishing marginal utility, &c.  Of course, people often convolve many different types of reasons, or simply hold positions as an aspect of group identity, but the basic point still stands.

Now, I don't think it is impossible to convince people to change their positions in 3 & 4 type disagreements, but it's substantially harder.  It is, however, possible to give people better access to facts, and in many cases that changes the nature of the discussion for the better.

Presenting evidence of the extremely low incidence of voter ID fraud, for instance, seems to have shifted the debate from "we need to curb rampant voter ID fraud" to "it is right and proper for voters to show ID in order to vote".  In other words, the debate has shifted from an empirical one to an ideological one.  From my perspective, that is good, because ideological questions are the only valid questions to ask voters in my idealized constitutional anarchy model of government.   Voters are, in fact, quite bad at discerning which facts and models best reflect the real world.  But, they are excellent at determining what they think are good goals to focus on as a society, and what they think are categorically unacceptable ways of achieving those goals.

I'll have more on practical applications of this idea, and ways in which it might help move the debate forward in a later post.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Church & State

It seems like freedom of religion has been roiling about a bit more than usual in the national consciousness, so I thought I'd take a poke at what I think is important in this idea and what it means for good governance.  Basically, this is about a natural tension between the desire for people of faith to exercise their political will in accordance with their personal beliefs, and the need for government to permit, value and tolerate the beliefs of those outside the majority-faith.

Now, this is a real contradiction.  People of faith should certainly be allowed to vote for policies in keeping with their beliefs, but those who don't share those beliefs shouldn't be prevented from practicing appropriately because of those policies.  Tricky widget.

The tools that we bring to this challenge on behalf of people of faith are freedom of speech (& expression, & religion, & to assemble peaceably) and the idea of conscientious objection.  But, in a nod to diversity, we constrain these freedoms in both scope and context.  These constraints are the subject of much bickering--as they should be--so I kind of want to lay out the ones that I see and what I think of them.

1.  People of faith cannot justify impeding the safety or freedom of others by citing religious practice. 
 This principle allows limiting or outlawing animal sacrifice, curbing faith sanctioned abuse and murder, and applying the fire code to religious buildings. Creationists can't squash the teaching of evolutionary fact (though boy do they love to try).

2. Conscientious objection is legal only when it is demonstrably non-opportunistic, and only exempts the objector from direct participation in the objectionable act.
This is clearly the case in wartime, where pacifists a) still pay taxes that support the war effort and b) often end up as medics or otherwise indirectly involved participants in the conflict.

3. Public institutions, offices, and officers acting in their official capacities are severely constrained in their ability to proselytize, endorse particular religions, or adopt explicitly sectarian practices.  This seems primarily to be true of un-elected officials.
We're not always super successful at applying this rule, but it is certainly a general principal at work in our country.

Basically, I think that what's going on here is that we as a society recognize that the rights of others constrain our own rights, and observe a moral distinction between personal life and public service.

Some interesting general distinctions arise:

1. That the practice of faith can be properly limited to the personal, or limited to the community of the faithful.

2. That the right of the faithful to object is limited to the eschewing of direct action contrary to faith and the peaceful--read here as non-disruptive, as opposed to non-violent--protest of such actions (and of course the right to vote according to belief).

3. That the faith rights of individuals do not extend to the public institutions in which they serve, and the official capacities in which they act.  When acting on behalf of the public, they must respect the constitutional constraints of church and faith.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Some sustainability science of interest

I saw this article which does a nice job of summing up some of the thoughts and concerns regarding the impact of ecological damage.  I don't know why exactly this topic interests me, other than that it seems to be a part of politics where I'm right of left and left of right and don't have much in the way of company in the discourse. Still, I'll keep posting informational articles until I get bored or form some substantial opinions that can stand on their own in the company of the evidence.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Just for the record, there are some economists just as skeptical about local foods as I am.

There you go.  I'm not a crazy person.  May still be wrong, but officially not crazy.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Terms of Art and Points of Agreement in Sustainability

Right, so first of all, I'd like to declare victory on the "local" aspect of this environmental argument (which was the whole point of these pots... the rest of the sustainability stuff just appeared as a side effect).  The ongoing comment-blog debate has basically shifted entirely away from issues of local and small-scale farming.  I've noticed some points of confusion arising from terms of art, and some points of broad agreement, so I want to highlight the latter and clarify the former in this post.

Where the sustainafreaks and I are in agreement:

1. Companies need to pay the real costs of the damage done by their pollution.  I come at this from a broadly economic (more on that later) rather than ecological perspective, but the conclusion is the same.  If you are going to pollute or otherwise harm people, the cost of that externality (economic term-of-art) should be included into your operating costs.  That would go a long way to leveling the playing field between "green" industry and traditional industry.

2. Again, from a purely economic perspective, we shouldn't be subsidizing farms (or, really, much of anything at all except basic research and some other things prone to market failures).  If this incidentally furthers ecological aims, that's a bonus.

Terms of art:

The big thing that I wanted to mention in this is that when I say "reduced quality of life" I'm borrowing a term of art from economics.  The fact that I think of this phrase primarily in the economic way probably says something about how far down the rabbit whole I've gone in my reading, but there it is.  As a side note, while some people would happily abandon many modern amenities, I'd say that they aren't the majority case. I can tell by how people keep voluntarily buying all this extra stuff they "don't need".  Everyone has a list like the one in the comments about what bits of modern life they like and want to keep, but the point is that these lists don't overlap, and the people who don't want certain modern amenities can (and do) decline to purchase them.  The fact that we keep making these things indicates that for many people they are standard of living enhancing even in the common sense.

As a side note, I also use the word "externality" a lot, which is basically a cost of production born by society rather than the producer.  Pollution is the canonical example of this sort of thing, and basically every branch of economics thinks that such things should be forced into the cost of production and passed on as added prices.

And because I can't help myself...

Places where we hilariously disagree, or are miscommunicating (limited in scope to sustainability):

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Degeneration of debate on the HHS contraceptive mandate

Okay, so I never thought there was much principled debate going on, at least in the public sphere, but at some point I did reach the conclusion that the religious institutions had one meaningful objection--that self-insured Catholic institutions would be directly purchasing contraceptives contrary to conscience.  However, the Obama administration recently announced that self-insured employers wouldn't have to pay for contraceptives.  Instead, the managers of those plans, or separate insurers, would provide contraceptive access at no cost.  This clearly addresses the last viable concern.  In a reasoning world, objections would now cease, but of course they haven't.  I'm lucky enough to be at Notre Dame, which has a good law school and is hugely Catholic, so I get exposed to what one would imagine is the pinnacle of public debate on the issue.  And it is just SO unimpressive right now.  Look at some choice quotes from a recent forum (poached from an Observer article):

“The religious freedom of … communities like Notre Dame is not just the freedom to avoid being coerced into doing evil … [but] to bear witness of the truth of the faith and to act with integrity and to act coherently in accord with their Catholic character as they understand it,”

This is pretty clearly an admission that Catholic institutions don't have a leg to stand on anymore.  If you're not being coerced to do bad things the religious objection is done and over.

“Sometimes a democracy like ours, with ideals like ours, accommodates religious freedom even when it doesn’t have to,” Garnett said. “In this case, it seems to me, the better policy … would be to provide a broader religious freedom exemption to the preventative services mandate.”

And, indeed, there is a direct concession here that the Government has done all it has to do, but they want mega-special-extra-above-and-beyond-treatment because it's really important to allow religious institutions to impose their beliefs on their non-religious employees.  That's how America should work! Ridiculous.

“The conviction of those currently in power that contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs constitute essential preventive services that enhance the health of women … in the administration’s mind … trumps any right that religious employers might have to refuse to pay for such essential services,” she said.

So, as a matter of law, it's probably true that the rights of women to reproductive freedom are greater than the rights of religious institutions to not buy contraceptives, but the administration has decided not to test that boundary.  Instead, they set up a system where religious employers don't have to pay for contraceptives AND women still get free access to them.  This is a delightfully misleading statement.

“To have that narrow exemption codified in our regulatory apparatus, it’s like leaving a loaded gun around for a kid to pick up,

I just think this is an adorable metaphor.  In what conceivable way are those scenarios equivalent?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not sold on the Local Food movement: take two

My college roommate--an ecologist--just took a swing at my local food skepticism post.  I think he missed in all the same ways that my other ecophile buddies do, but his comment gave me a great sampling of the typical arguments I hear.  I'm going to address each of them in the hopes that future ecophiles might be able to help me understand their position better, or come to the realization that their position is untenable and surrender to my superior arguments.  You can read his original comments here; I'm just going to summarize what I see as the key claims and arguments and then address them systematically.

My ClaimsCommon Ecophile claims
Sustainability should be about efficiencySustainability isn't just about efficiency
Even if externalities were priced in and subsidies were eliminated, industrial agriculture would benefit from economies of scale and be cheaper than "local" food.Industrial agriculture is cheaper because its real costs are hidden (subsides and externalities)
Sustainability is only a real concern for resources that we must use continuously, but that we use faster than we make.  Creating a viable alternative, finding a way to slow consumption, and/or finding a way to speed production are the only ways to address real sustainability problems.We should stop using X now so we don't catastrophically run out of X later.
Organic food has not been shown to be any healthier or more nutritious than regular food.Organic is healthier and more nutritious
I see no reason to believe that waste per unit product is higher for industrial agriculture, nor have I seen any numbers to show it.  Please educate me if such arguments/numbers exist.Industrial agriculture produces more waste than local agriculture.

My Conclusions:
Sustainability efforts should be focused on pricing in externalities and improving resource usage efficiency.  The health/nutrition stuff doesn't really have science on its side.  I also think that we benefit enormously from global food markets, since regional disease and bad weather events would be catastrophic if there weren't willing food exporters distributed around the world.  It's one of the best tools we have for avoiding global food shortages.  Increased diversity would be another good defense from this, but we don't need to go local to do it, and I'm not sure going local would help.

My Arguments:
Piles of arguments below the fold.  Before you read them you should know that I approach ecological issues in an entirely human-centric manner.  I don't think we should destroy pretty places or be mean to animals just because we can.  But, I don't care about pretty places or rare animal species or being nice to caged chickens or anything like that except in so far as it benefits human beings to do so.  I think saving the algae is way more important than saving the whales and I'd flatten every mountain in Africa if it meant we could feed all the Africans.  I am glad we forced smallpox into extinction and would happily support mass extinctions of many other organisms that are inconvenient to human beings (eg. malaria, HIV).

Monday, March 19, 2012

In which I bullshit about some things I'm skeptical about in the local food movement

I'm not nearly as well informed on environmental and sustainability issues as I am, for instance, on macroeconomic ones, largely because I know a lot of people who are very well informed on those issues and I can just ask them questions when I'm curious.  Recently, though, I've been finding myself in disagreement with my favorite ecophiles (yes, I did just make that up) on the local food movement.

Basically, I think that local food advocates--especially the organic local small farm variety--are ignoring economies of scale.  The reason organic local food is expensive is that it's made inefficiently.  Some of the stuff that makes local organic farming inefficient also makes its products healthier and more delicious, like eschewing piles'o'antibiotics and using real soil and actual animal food for your plants and animals.  But, there are real economies of scale, both in terms of price negotiations for production inputs like seed and equipment, and also in leveraging advantages from high capital cost - high efficiency machine like automatic milkers, irrigation systems, &c.  The higher-prices-due-to-negotiating-position thing might not make much difference in terms of impact, but any yield increasing efficiency basically means that it takes fewer inputs to make the same amount of output.  Since a big part of sustainability is not using too much stuff to make things, it seems like inefficiency is anathema, or at least at cross purposes, to sustainability.  So why do we sustainability freaks want to do things inefficiently?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why the current level of debt not mattering matters

Last post, I went to some lengths to deflate some of the distortions in the popular "If the U.S. budget was like a household budget" meme.  The point of that was to try to put the discussion into a more useful context, and to point out that none of the bad things we'd expect if our debt was actually too high are happening.  However, some friends pointed out that none of that is any reason not to reduce the debt.  Presumably some good stuff will happen if we do since being in debt is "bad".  That would be fine, except that deficit reduction is anathema to many important policies that can and should be implemented under the current circumstances.

When you look at the national debate, the competing visions are basically stimulus & infrastructure programs on the "liberal" side and severe spending cuts on the "conservative" side.  Ignoring for the moment the fact that "conservatives" are preaching spending cuts as essential for deficit reduction while simultaneously promising to increase the deficit even more by lowering taxes on the rich, let us simply consider these arguments as "economic stimulus" versus "deficit reduction".

If the key priority is deficit reduction, then certain policies suggest themselves very strongly: reducing investment in our most expensive programs, curtailing aid to state and local governments, raising taxes, freezing federal payrolls, and maybe even liquidating obsolete or unnecessary government assets.  If the key priority is stimulus, then increasing investment in infrastructure, expanding or maintaining social safety net programs, and providing additional aid to state and local governments all seem pretty important.

I pointed out last time that none of the bad things we'd expect based on high debt are happening.  By contrast, tons of bad things we'd expect from a bad economy are happening: high unemployment, wasted resources, stagnant wages, and slow growth.

All the stimulus priorities cost money, so "deficit-hawks" are likely to object to them, and if we have bought into the idea that the deficit is indeed at dangerously high levels, it is much harder to override those objections.  Even if we did see evidence that our debt was dangerously high, we might conceivably want to pursue stimulative policies, but that would be a debate worth having.  The current debate is not worth having, and it is completely distorting our national priorities away from a genuine need towards an imaginary one.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Debunking the "US Budget is like a Family Budget" Nonsense

Because I'm fed up with hearing this crap from even my smart informed friends, I am doing you all the favor of collecting the relevant facts, figures, and context and systematically addressing the common objections.  Please don't make me do it again.

(Mini-Summary For Lazy Readers:
On its face, the Family Budget metaphor ignores assets and misrepresents the US debt situation to make it seem more severe than it already is.  Furthermore, countries that borrow in their own currencies (not the euro states, not most "3rd world" nations because no one trusts their money) need never default because they can print any amount of money they like to service their debt.   And, none of the things we might see if we were actually in "too much" debt are even close to happening.)

The annoying meme that is being passed around looks something like this if you use the CBOs numbers for 2011:

Family Budget
Annual Income:$23,025
Annual Spending:$35,981
New Credit Card Debt:$13,628
Total Credit Card Debt:$147,900

Looks pretty ugly, right? But then why are there all these articles and op-eds about the debt thing being overblown?  Well, probably the first thing to look at is the "Total Credit Card Debt" thing.  It turns out that that can be split into "Debt Held by the Public" (money the government owes other people) and "Debt Held by Agencies and Trusts" (money the government owes itself), so maybe the budget should look like this:

Family Budget
Annual Income:$23,025
Annual Spending:$35,981
New Credit Card Debt:$13,628
Total Credit Card Debt:$101,300
Money Dad Owes Mom:$46,580

That 46k doesn't seem to be a real issue so long as Mom and Dad are on good terms, and thankfully, our government agencies can't divorce the treasury.  Say Mom paid Dad's way through lawschool; but hes only a legal clerk now.  This kind of stuff happens all the time in families and few think of it as part of their debt burden.

Now, absent from the Family Budget is the rather important aspect of "assets".  This isn't by accident... the credit card debt framing makes it seem like all the money was spent frivolously, that the interest rates are high, and that nothing of value is retained by the Family.  Of course none of this accurately reflects reality, and in no place is this more egregious than in the case of foreign debt.  It turns out that one of the assets that are left out of this budget is the foreign stuff we own. We own almost as much foreign debt as we owe:

And we're actually making more money on our foreign investments than it costs us to service the money we owe them:

So where does that leave our family again?  Well according to FRED, we owe 4,660 billion dollars to foreign investors, or in the parlance of our family: $46,600.  Since our income from foreign investments exceeds our payments to foreign investors and our total foreign debt is similar in size to our total foreign holdings, I think it's fair to say that debt is a wash.  Let's look at our family now:

Family Budget
Annual Income:$23,025
Annual Spending:$35,981
New Credit Card Debt:$13,628
Total Credit Card Debt:$54,700 ( $101,300-$46,600 ) 
Money Dad Owes Mom:$46,580

Well, that looks like a tough year (all that new debt), but pretty manageable in the long run so long as we can get spending under control, and that's just what we can do playing by the silly rules of the metaphor.

And those rules are very very silly.  US Government debt isn't like household or business debt for a few very important reasons.  First and foremost, the government happens to own a device called a "printing press" which is miraculously capable of printing any sum of money at virtually no cost.  Secondly, the government is capable (at least in theory) of giving itself a raise through increased taxation, and its revenue stream is much more secure than a regular family on account of it is very difficult to be fire the government, and if you did its debt would disappear anyway.  Finally, all that remaining debt ($54,700) is borrowed from US tax payers and will be payed off by US tax payers, so there's no money actually being lost to the US (though of course the US government would be better off without the debt, but that's very different from the nation of the US).  It might be more appropriate to say that the entirety of the debt in this family budget is owed between members of the family.

If that's true, though, then why would any level of debt be bad, and what signs could we see that we've really gotten to the bad level of debt?  Well, if you borrow in a currency you can't print, and primarily from other countries (like Greece) then your situation IS actually like the family budget, and you might be in trouble.  But, what if you are like the U.S.? What bad things could a large debt do to us?
  1. It might increase borrowing costs or reduce access to credit by some other means (such as no one being willing to lend you money at any interest rate at all).
  2. In the government case, it might "crowd out" business investment (by soaking up all the loan-able funds or by driving up interest rates for businesses and private citizens
  3. It might transfer large amounts of wealth from our economy to some other nation's central bank.
  4. It might transfer large amounts of money from some American Taxpayers to other American Taxpayers in a systematically destabilizing way (like maybe we give all the poor people's money to very rich people and impose huge hardships)
  5. It might force us to engage in money printing at a scale which produces dramatic inflation
How does that stack up against our actual situation?
  1. It is currently cheaper in real terms to borrow money to pay for things than to pay for things out of current tax revenue. (because the real interest rate on government loans is negative... you can buy a bridge for 100 inflation adjusted dollars now and charge tax payers 100 dollars for it, or you can build it for 100 inflation adjusted dollars on credit and pay back your creditor with 99 inflation adjust dollars later)
  2. Banks have massive excess reserves available for loaning and borrowing costs are historically low... no crowding out
  3. Our government spends the vast majority of its money on buying things in america, and our net foreign debt is close to zero, so none of this money is leaving our economy.
  4. Hard to say on this one.  Our current tax code is mildly progressive (rich people pay a little more than poor people), and bonds are owned primarily by rich people, so it is likely that the wealth transfer caused by debt will be largely from rich people to rich people, but if the tax code got mixed up maybe something systematic and bad could happen.  Doesn't look like a big problem so far though.
  5. Inflation is. you know, average...
US Inflation Rates

Monday, February 13, 2012

What should a liberal arts education provide?

So my broad understanding is that there are two important components to education.  On the one hand, education is vocational: that is you learn skills relevant to a profession.  On the other hand, education is liberal: that is you learn skills relevant to life as a free person.  It seems to me that we've lost sight of the second goal, that the current liberal education is a historical artifact that has lost its most useful characteristics and kept its outdated ones, and that our educational institutions owe it to us to have a rethink along the lines I describe.

Wikipedia has some historical background on this that seems relevant to my rant.  For those of you who hate clicking links or fear Wikipedia, the liberal education (the education for free people, as opposed to for slaves), was basically verbal reasoning enshrined in the Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, and (eventually, once we got to the middle ages) mathematical reasoning enshrined in the Quadrivium of Geometry, Mathematics, Music, and Astronomy.  It's worth mentioning that the Quadrivium is probably better understood as Statics, Number Theory, Ratios, and Mechanics, but they used useful proxies for the names instead.  Whatever.  It seems that between the Trivium and the Quadrivium we have basically all the tools necessary to explore the depth and breadth of human achievement.  That makes sense, since that's basically the point of having a liberal arts education - to give you the tools to understand and contribute to discourse in the free world.

Now, it seems to me that while the tools described in the Quadrivium enjoy broad support and advocacy in education, they are the least useful, and indeed increasingly antiquated, tools.  The Trivium, by contrast, seems to be all the more vital today as in the past, and is given considerably less attention.  We basically fail to explore these ideas in depth or with formal rigor at any point in the liberal education - saving perhaps brief flirtations in philosophy, theology, or literature.

The modern world is increasingly (to its great credit) a quantitative one, but those quantities are large and their relationships complex and stochastic, wherein the past what numbers we encountered were limited in scope and mechanically related.  To engage with these new kinds of numeric data, one needs a strong understanding of probability and statistics.  To reason at all, one needs Logic.  To speak precisely (a precondition for any useful debate) one needs Grammar.  To speak well, one needs Rhetoric.  Perhaps, along with Statistics, we should consider something like Aesthetics: a discipline dedicated to effectively and convincing displaying things (in this case quantitative data).

It seems very much to be the case that learning how to recognize and generate well reasoned arguments--precise in language, and effective in style--and to support or analyze such arguments with ready knowledge of the proper treatment and presentation of statistical/numerical data is a key skill to avoid being deceived and to defend one's beliefs in the modern world.  How is it that our institutions of liberal education have so uniformly failed to acknowledge these needs and address them?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

And just one more thing (still contraceptives)

The key question about whether Catholics are harmed by the contraceptive mandate is whether they are being asked to do something immoral.  I don't think they are.  The key questions about whether religious freedom is harmed by the contraceptive mandate are:
1. Is the mandate objectionable to some on the grounds of faith?
2. Is there a legitimate federal interest in overriding these objections (as in prohibitions on human sacrifice or (perhaps less legitimately) polygamy)?

It's clear that the answer to 1 is yes, but it's not clear that the answer to 2 is no.  The federal government heavily subsidizes employer provided healthcare, so one might reasonably think that if you take the subsidies you have to take the strings that come with them.  Furthermore, it seems possible that there's a legitimate federal interest in reducing healthcare costs, and perhaps even a right to reproductive freedom to be protected.  More below the fold.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Clarifications on contraception

The contraceptive arguments in the comments have been sort of muddied by terminology, and I think it's worth clearing some of it up in a new post.

Whose religious freedom is most validly conceived as being at risk?
The employer's.  If this impinged on the conscience of the employees, then Catholics would be obliged not to work for secular employers providing the objectionable coverage.  I have never heard anyone make that claim for the entirely natural reason that it is a crazy claim.  Furthermore, the mandate is upon employers, not employees.  It seems clear that that is the natural scope of the argument.

What sort of harm might be done to the employer?
Let's enumerate the ways in which the employer certainly will not be harmed (any of these harms would clearly be a severe violation of religious freedom):

  1. They will not be obligated to purchase contraceptives. (They are obligated to provide employees with compensation usable for the purchase of contraceptives, which is not the same thing.)
  2. They will not be obligated to provide contraceptives.
  3. They will not be obligated to use contraceptives. (for completeness sake. It's hard to imagine a Catholic institution with a systematic need to use contraceptives professionally)
Here is a sort of harm that would not be introduced by the mandate, but might conceivably be an existing harm:
  1. The funds of a Catholic institution might be used by a third party to purchase an objectionable service (true before and after the changes thanks to the broad utility of money and the inability of non-church Catholic institutions to to fire people for sinning)
I addressed the above in my last post and in the comments.  But since then I've had some conversations that brought up additional concerns.  Here are some conditions under which others have convinced me there might be potential for new harm:
  1. The Catholic institution might be forced to enter into a contract for an objectionable service 
  2. The Catholic institution might compensate a sinning employee more than his otherwise identical but non-sinning counterpart. This would be objectionable from both a direct standpoint, and also from the standpoint of systematically encouraging sinful acts.
I don't think either of these harms occur, but I do think it's worth considering the conditions that prevent these harms from occurring.

The first important clarification that needs to be made is the nature of the relationship between the employer, the health insurance, and the employee.  The employer provides the employee with a compensation package.  This compensation package includes direct monetary compensation, but also includes a variety of other things like access to a company car or other equipment, travel budgets, journal subscriptions, and health insurance.  Health insurance is a contract between an insurance company and the insured, in which the insured purchase access to a wide variety of services at the amortized cost of the likelihood of all service use over time over all people insured by the company.  The employer serves two important roles in this kind of compensation: as a negotiator, and as a source of funds.  The employer is in a much better negotiation position than an individual is, so it can get better prices, and it can make sure that the policy stays up to date by paying the cost of the service directly to the insurer instead of giving it to the employee as money and hoping that the employee remembers to pay the insurer.  

The point of all this is that the insurance company doesn't provide the employer with any services at all. The contract is between the insurer and the insured (quite explicitly, you have to sign a form and everything, it's your name on the policy &c).  This means that potential harm 1, about the Catholic institution being required to enter into a contract for objectionable services, is avoided. 

Potential harm 2 is a little trickier in this context, because it rests on some subtle distinctions.  The important one is the distinction between an item's value and cost.  The cost of the employer providing health insurance is the same for two equivalently risky people (and maybe for all people if the employer is a good enough negotiator).  That is the compensation provided by the employer.  The value of that compensation is subjective with respect to the employee.  A perfectly healthy employee might receive literally zero value from the employer health-insurance compensation, but that employee was none-the-less identically compensated.  A diabetic, a habitual drunk, a cancer patient, a recreational boxer or part-time thug might derive greater value from their health insurance compensation than the perfectly healthy employee, but they are likewise identically compensated.  If the value of compensation is the moral issue then Catholic employers already systematically over-compensated the habitually violent over the peaceful and healthy.  But it seems wrongheaded to claim that that's the case, so I think that we can safely put potential harm 2 aside.  The compensation of all employees remains the same, regardless of sinning status, but the value of the compensation varies systematically with respect to the sinfulness of the employee.  This is already the case (consider sexually transmitted diseases for instance) and so no new harm is done.  The already existing harm of the institution providing more value to more sinful employees seems to me to be of the same kind as the other pre-existing harm, and could only be remedied by the same mechanism (allowing Catholic institutions to fire people for sinning).

Incidentally, as I've mentioned before in comments, I think this whole issue is moot because the purchase of contraceptives is not in and of itself sinful.  The only sinful thing about contraceptives is using them to prevent pregnancy, an act for which culpability cannot be transferred.  More fundamentally, I don't think that it's possible to sin without doing something sinful.  Religious institutions are obligated to avoid doing sinful things, and to condemn sinful actions, and so long as they are allowed to do so no freedom is violated.