DC Smoking Ban Poll

DC Ward One Councliman Jim Graham has a little poll on his website asking “Should the DC Council act to eliminate smoking in indoor workplaces?” (On the left column, a ways down.) Apparently the anti-freedom forces at Smoke-Free DC already got the word out and they're way ahead in the poll. Will you help? Tell my councilman that DC should not violate the rights of business owners to run their establishments as they choose.

Misunderstanding Social Security

Elizabeth Anderson, of the University of Michigan and left2right, has heroically taken up the thankless task of very clearly illustrating the fact that mainstream contemporary academic American liberalism is, at its core, an essentially reactionary creed built around the conservation of the institutions of the “New Deal” and the “Great Society,” and the protection of the interests of the affiliated political rentier class. One would thus imagine that Anderson would at least understand the institutions she is trying to conserve against the forces of reform. But, no, not so much with the understanding.

Anderson argues that whatever the other faults of Social Security benefit calculators like Heritage's, “It forgets that Social Security is a form of social insurance, not a simple retirement plan. So it's comparing apples with oranges.”

Of course, readers of the Annals of Improbable Research understand that apples and oranges are eminently comparable. But more importantly, Social Security is emphatically not a form of social insurance — unless we arbitrarily stipulate that any redistributive transfer is ipso facto a form of insurance by providing people with resources that they could use to protect themselves from risk. Social Security is: a tax and a transfer. That's it. It's not insurance, not legally, not in structure, and not in fact.

The Roosevelt administration defended the constitutionality of the Social Security Act in part by arguing before the Supreme Court in Helvering v. Davis that it did not establish a social insurance program. The Court agreed, and reaffirmed this point 23 years late in Fleming v. Nestor where it determined that Social Security taxes are just taxes, and that individuals have no right to any benefit on the basis of having paid these taxes.

It is true that successive governments have maintained a deceptive program structure and system of admininstration intended to trick citizens into believing that there is a connection between their so-called “contributions” and their benefits, and that Social Security is a kind of insurance. Roosevelt fully intended for citizens to mistakenly believe that their payroll tax constituted a kind of insutance premium. He vehemently opposed paying benefits out of the general fund because that would impede the goal of deluding taxpayers. No one thinks they are entitled to some kind of cash transfer from the government simply because they have paid their taxes. And the SSA to this day continues to encourage the systematic deception of the citizens of the US.

You would imagine that a liberal would deplore a system of paternalistically motivated noble lies and would forcefully argue against this kind of deception as a transgression against democracy, which is what it is. We are angry when the government uses lies in order to circumvent the democratic process by causing citizens to misrepresent their options. Think of Bush and the WMD. We ought to be incensed when the government entrenches lies into the very structure of the welfare system.

Anderson has either been taken in by the lie, is trying to perpetuate it, or has a notion of insurance so broad that anything that cushions people against risk, such as exercising regularly, wearing a bicycle helmet, or cultivating a network of altruistic friends and family, counts as “insurance.” In any case, she ought to admit that Social Security is not an insurance program according to the law or according to ordinary usage, and she should stand up for transparency and democracy by condemning the purposefully deceptive structure and rhetoric of the American Social Security system.

Arms Races, Happiness, and other Goods

I strolled up Mass Ave to Brookings this afternoon to hear Richard Layard speak on his new book Happiness. Layard, an unreconstructed Benthamite, is worried by the fact that, once a certain threshold in absolute wealth had been crossed, people's self-reported happiness is correlated with their perception of their place in the distribution of income, i.e., by their relative wealth. Layard's worry is that there is an arms race. Each of us tries to improve our relative position. But since everyone else is trying simultaneously to improve their relative position, very few end up succeeding in moving up relative to the others.

We've all perhaps moved up in absolute wealth, but that doesn't matter so much for our happiness once we've crossed the critical threshold. All we've done is made a futile rush for a higher relative position, and ended up no happier. But we could have been spending our time doing better things.

Layard suggested that higher taxes might be worth having because it would create a disincentive to work, and this might help create a truce in the relative position arms race, freeing everyone to pursue activities that would positively promote their happiness.

Blah. Blah.

First of all, maybe the lesson we should take from this is that people just value status, period, independent of its hedonic effects. That is, perhaps the value of status cannot be reduced to the value of happiness. Casual empiricism would seem to confirm that people behave in predictably hedonically non-maximizing ways in order to maximize status. And it seem to me that many people find it very difficult to release a privileged relative position, even if they recognize that maintaining the position is making them unhappy. (Source: VH1: Behind the Music).

Some people — pehaps many people — would, other things equal, prefer an additional unit of status over several additional units of happiness. And in arms races over relative position, some people do move up. As long as the arms race does not make you significantly less happy, then it can be worth the gamble to jump in and try to be one of the few folks who succeeds in pulling ahead.

(Suppose that you're very likely to stay in the same spot if you get in the race. And that when people pull ahead, they pull way ahead, but when people fall behind, they fall only a little bit. So even if you're more likely to fall behind than jump ahead, the upside can still look big.)

Additionally, it can very well be the case that people are generally less happy when they have a lower relative position, more happy when they have a higher position, but don't value higher position because it will make them happier. They value higher position because it is higher position, and getting higher position tends to make us happy because we value it, and we are generally made happy by getting what we value.

OK, let's shift gears. Suppose I have written a transcendently great poem. Yet it very complex, and not very accessible. That said, a fair number people take great pleasure in it. However, this pleasure is swamped by the disutility caused to people who, before reading my poem, had thought that they were potentially great poets, but now are made to despair by the realization that they will never attain the heights of my poetic accomplishment.

Have I done a good or bad thing by writing my poem? Obviously: a good thing. The poem is transcendently great! It's aesthetic value has next to nothing to do with its effect on net utility. Why care if it makes some people feel bad in comparison? Well, there is no reason to care.

To change the example slightly, suppose my poem raises the bar on poem-quality, and all my competitors rush out to write poems that will be even better than transcendently great. However, the effect of this is sheer frustration. They can never do it; I'm just that good! And here they went and wasted all that time failing to write transcendently great poems when they could have been lying in the sunshine, getting massages, or freebasing Prozac. IS THIS A PROBLEM WE NEED TO BE WORRIED ABOUT?

If the greatness of my poem creates negative externalities, they need to be negative externalities we have reason to care about if we're going to take them into account in policy making. Parfit or Scanlon, in an argument against the pure preference satisfaction theory, give the example of a person who prefers that Uranus has six moons over any other number of moons (or something like that). If it turns out that Uranus does have six moons, is that guy any better off in any sense that we have a reason to care about? Well Parfit/Scanlon don't think so, and neither do I.

Similarly, if you are a small person, and my success makes you burn with pained resentment, do we have any reason to take your pained resentment into account when evaluating the value of my success. I think not. The problem here is your unreasonable reaction, not my success.

Back to the poetry arms race. Suppose all those lesser poets are made unhappy by their persistent failure to achieve at a trancendent level despite their years of mindbending labor. Should we conclude that the arms race was a bad thing? Obviously not if it led to the creation of a lot of poety which, if not transcendently great, is still great. Maybe the lesser poets can learn to take satisfaction in the value they've created, despite their subordinate position in the pantheon of poets. But if they can't that's their problem, not a social problem. Similarly, if folks fail to make any progress in the race for relative economic position, they will have still improved everyone's absolute economic position, which is just good. They will also have produced many wonderful conveniences, objects of beauty, wonder, delight, and technical merit. They will have increased the sum of human knowledge. They will have opened up new avenues of possibility for human life.

Gentlemen, on your marks!

The "Grace of Congress" Problem

What's wrong with people owning things? Well, if people own things, then the government doesn't really control it. Apparently it is worrying if the benevolent members of the political class don't have the discretion to spend your money. I think it is impossible to defend on moral grounds that other things being equal, if the choice is between individual ownership and state control, we should choose state control.

One of the arguments in favor of individual ownership is that property rights create a shield against political predation. Yglesias, who seems to think that other things equal it's better for the political class to control resources, blithely says, “Why worry!?“:

One [remark on the issue of the relative security provided by legally binding property rights versus the discretion of the politicians] is that while I've heard much touching concern from certain privatizers about this “Grace of Congress” issue, the more typical conservatarian complaint about Social Security is that due to the ever-growing voting power of senior citizens it is, in practice, nearly impossible to cut Social Security benefits. So the whole issue strikes me as being of academic concern only.

Matt is pulling a kind of probably unconscious bait and switch here. This is all too common among conservative opponents of progress on social security. Unless there is structural reform of the social security system, such as the implementation of personal retirement accounts, either there will be VERY LARGE future tax increases or VERY LARGE future benefit cuts. The problem with Big Senior's hegemony and reactionary impulse is not that it makes benefits cuts permanently impossible by constituting an indefeasible coalition, it just pushes the decision into the future while the problem continues to mount. The further into the future we push the problem, the bigger the benefit cuts or tax increases will need to be.

Now, politicians are indeed averse to cutting benefits, due in part to the electoral muscle of Big Senior. Yet they are also averse to raising taxes, due to the electoral muscle of taxpayers. Unless we do something quite soon, the tax increases will need to be quite large. This may not be politically easy, and it is quite realistic to imagine that voters may prefer to cut benefits rather severely in order to avoid giant tax increases, at which point, politicians will cut benefits. Matt's bait and switch consists in having us imagine that voter demand over policy-bundles remains constant despite the fact that the demographic unsustainability of the system will force tough trade-offs that will alter voter demand.

Matt's argument is that senior citizens will never allow benefit cuts and so the “Grace of Congress” point is simply academic. Congress will always grace us, so why worry? Well, if Matt is right about the intrasigence of Big Senior, we're going to need a giant payroll tax increase. Indeed, those who wish to stall serious structural reform are arguing for huge tax increases by default. But the real prospect of a huge tax increase is precisely the sort of thing that will shift voter demand so as to make benefits cuts politically feasible. And so by stalling, Matt is helping to bring into being the conditions under which the Grace of Congress argument gets real teeth.

Unless there is serious structural reform, reduced benefits become increasingly likely. That's why it's simply dishonest and incoherent to confuse a politician's promise with a credible guarantee. There is no guarantee. There are no guaranteed benefits. There are promised benefits — promised by people who honor their promises when it benefits them. And, credibility of politicians aside, given the structure of the system, the promise cannot be kept.

The “conservatarian” argument is clearly not that Big Senior obstructionism regarding reform locks in a sure benefit level, but that it threatens benefits by making the problem ever more acute. At some point, the problem is so acute that the Big Senior coalition will not be political decisve regarding the issue of benefit levels. One main point of reform is to avoid the need to choose between tax increases and benefit cuts, and the political uncertainty the necessity of such choices would create.

Just Savings and Dynamic Contractualism

I don’t understand the principal of just savings.

Rawls says that parties to the OP will pick a principle of savings that satisfies maximin, that maximizes the welfare of the least-well off group. But I cannot make intelligible to myself just who the least well-off group is here in the inter-generational context. It may turn out the best off person in generation 1 is much less well off than the least well off in generation 7.

So, OK, suppose I’m a party to the OP. I don’t know which generation I’m in. So, I’ve got to assume I’m in generation 1, on the assumption that later generations are better off because of the accumulation of capital. And I am suppose to ask how much I am willing to save, on the assumption that generation 0 has saved at the same rate, and that future generations will follow the same principle. I am assumed to have my children and grandchildren in my (primary goods maximizing) welfare function in order to ensure I don’t choose to save nothing. But it seems that there’s no firm place to stand.
Continue reading “Just Savings and Dynamic Contractualism”

Social Security: The Big Lie

I wish everyone would read Paul Romer's “Preferences, Promise, and the Politics of Entitlement,” in Individual and Social Responsibility, edited by Victor Fuchs.

Romer tells the story of exactly how concerted and intentional is the deceptive rhetoric of Social Security. The ideas of SS as “insurance,” the payroll tax as “contributions,” and the “trust fund” were purposeful rhetorical ruses deployed to lock in political support for the program. The point was to create the illusion that a tax plus a regressive transfer from the young to the old (which could not have maintained political support) is instead a form of social insurance, which it manifestly is not. The illusion — the lie — has succeeded brilliant. Indeed, Romer's paper suggests that Social Security may be the best example of purposefully deceptive framing for political gain in the history of the United States. (That's the lesson I take from it, in any case.)

Unfortunately the paper is not exactly online, but you can probably make your way through it using the Amazon “Search Inside” function (link above).

Endogeneity and Justice

For various reasons I have gotten pretty involved in the literature on endogenous preference change. My first push came from reading Rawls. As I see it, the key difference between Rawlsian contractarianism and Buchanan/Gauthier rational choice contractarianism is not just that Rawls posits a sense of justice, a capacity enabling agents to be motivated by considerations that nicely allow for the choice of non-Nash, Pareto-improving strategies (Gauthier’s “constrained maximization” gets you this, as does McClennan’s closely related “resolute choice”) but that Rawls has something of an account of endogenous preference change that accounts for the convergence of the right and the good and thus the stability of social ordered according to the principles of “justice as fairness.”

The trouble with theories of endogenous preference change is that they seem the ruination of neo-classical theories of efficiency. The usual Pareto or Kaldor-Hicks (or Marshallian, if you like),criteria for efficiency work only by holding preferences fixed or exogenous. We evaluate the desirability in changes by tracking their relation to people’s preferences. If a change makes someone better off and no one worse off, in terms of preference satisfaction, then it is worth doing. But if a change can modify individuals’ preference-profiles themselves, then our efficiency criterion becomes a moving target, and one becomes quickly mired in paradox.
Continue reading “Endogeneity and Justice”

simulated persona = "Ayn Rand"

Tim's link to Andrej Bauer's primer on Objectivism reminded me that the cartoon Rand of our zeitgest dreams was never put to better use than by the astounding artificially intelligent replicated personas of Forum 2000. Here AI Andrej discusses the axiom of identity with AI Ayn. Also try here, and here.

That Reason's so-called Rand-O-Rama failed to acknowledge Forum 2000 shows the editorial staff to be so overoccupied with working obscure song lyrics into the titles of blog posts, outsider art, waxing lyrical about New Jersey, and generally kpeping nihilism fresh, that they neglected to touch on the ubiquity of Rand's spirit in the bygone heyday of the information superhighway.

Happy Rand Day!

Today is Ayn Rand's 100th birthday. Bryan Caplan, who is smarter than you are, defends Rand's legacy at the EconLog. I especially like this bit:

Yes, many of her philosophical arguments are question-begging. Shocking… unless you've read the work of Descartes, Locke, Kant, or Mill. They all make plenty of embarrassingly bad arguments. If you don't want to dismiss their whole subject matter, you've got to judge philosophers based on their best work and/or the novel questions they raise. And by that standard, Rand more than holds her own.

Right on. Bryan mentions that he wouldn't be a professor if it wasn't for Rand. I certainly wouldn't have studied philosophy (and wouldn't be working at Cato) if Rand hadn't convinced me that philosophy really matters. But more than that, Rand more than anyone I can think of, makes philosophy seem downright romantic. John Galt's the bomb not just because he solves the problem of energy scarcity, or engineers the collapse of a parasitic corporate welfare state, but because he's a philosopher!

I think Tyler's right about what you really learn from Rand, even if you've given up on most of her particular arguments:

The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism — the greatest force for human good ever achieved — rely on the driving human desire to be excellent. I don't know of any better celebration of that combination of forces.

Rand teaches a deep-seated reverence for innovation and discovery, and a heightened sensitivity to the dark motives that often underlie appeals to the commonweal. After reading Rand, you cannot live in a capitalist order and fail to appreciate the great glorious gift of innovation driven by the self-interested pursuit of excellence and wealth. And you cannot live in DC, the town of ten thousand Mouches, and fail to see daily how the fuel of resentment, parasitic avarice, and powerlust blazes in the rhetoric of shared sacrifice and fires the black engines of the state.


Meta-atheism, Death by Accident, and the Mysteries of Religious Experience

For some time I have been persuaded by Georges Rey's account of meta-atheism. (Georges was one of my teachers at Maryland.) His claim is that many people who say they believe in God don't really. It's not that people are lying about what they really believe. It's just that we're often wrong about our own beliefs. (Our own beliefs are just another thing to have beliefs about, and we can get it wrong about our own beliefs just like we can get it wrong about anything else.)

This weekend, I had a thought which is a version of Georges's point (6) in favor of meta-atheism. Here's point (6):

(6) Betrayal by Reactions and Behavior People's reactions and behavior (e.g. grief, mourning) do not seem seriously affected by their supposed “belief” in a Hereafter. Imagine a young “believing” couple. He is dying from a painful disease. Would she really rejoice at the prospect of his going to heaven, and of joining him herself when she dies, as though he'd just gone off for a great –eternal!- cure in a luxurious resort in Miami? I betcha she'd grieve and mourn “the loss” like anyone else. (Note that most all religious music and rituals surrounding death are deeply sad -seldom, if ever, joyous).

In a related vein, if people really believe in the efficacy of prayer, they should be willing to have the National Institute of Health do a controlled study of the effects of prayer, just as they would if they believed that soy beans cured cancer. (And why does no one expect prayer to cure wooden legs?)

Let it not be said that Georges is an ideal diplomat to the theistic community. Nevertheless, I believe his observations are sound.

In a fit of Beckerite rational choice reasoning, I decided that theists ought to have higher rates of death by accident. If I believe that heaven is infinite bliss, then I should be quite eager to join my maker. Suicide is a disqualification for paradise, but dying in a car accident isn't. So, one should expect that theists who believe in perpetual Miami would take more risks than those who do not so believe, and that thus, death-by-accident ought to be higher among believer than non-believers.

My guess is that there is no difference in rates of death-by-accident among believers and non-believers. If my guess is correct, then there's another reason to believe that many people don't really believe in God, even though they think they do. Or, at least, there's a reason for rational choice economists to believe meta-atheism.

All this was stimulated by a Ross Douthat post that touches on Orwell's attitude toward a character in a Graham Greene novel. Orwell:

Scobie is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women . . .


If he really felt that adultery is a mortal sin, he would stop committing it. This is astonishingly obtuse, and something that could only be written by the most bloodless and Puritanical of Christians — or by a devout atheist like Orwell. For him, I suspect (and perhaps for Hitchens?), the always-upright Christian is fairly comprehensible: he has his dogmas and he lives by them, with the same lack of nuance, backsliding, and self-doubt that Orwell brought to his staunch unbelief. Whereas understanding the tormented Christian, the questing agnostic, the atheist who takes a gamble on God and the Catholic who commits suicide — the stock-in-trade of Greene's great novels, in other words — requires an imaginative leap into religious experience that an atheistic critic is often ill-equipped to make.

The Orwell's astonishing bit of obtuseness (“obtusity”?) is the core of Georges' point (6) and my little Beckerite addendum. Is Georges obtuse on this point? Am I? Well, let's concede the possibility of weakness of will. Discount rates won't help here because no matter how sharply you discount infinite bliss, it's still infinite. But if I truly believe the hype about my celestial reward, or my infernal punishment, how can I fail so utterly to align my actions with my incentives. Ross's point makes it sound like it is obtuse to question the coherence of a character who truly and hosetly loves life, but flings himself from a rooftop anyway.

I submit that meta-atheism is the key to understanding the “nuance, backsliding, and self-doubt” that Ross sets out as central to the religious experience. Many of us believe that we believe because the social and psychological benefits of appearing to be a believer seem to us greater than the costs, and the most compelling way to appear a believer, but to avoid the behavioral costs of actual belief, is to earnestly but falsely believe that one believes.

Our “faith” is shaken when we find we cannot stop cheating on our wife, or whatever our transgression may be, because, on some level, we know that if we really believed what we believe we believed, cheating on our wife would be psychologically impossible — like peeling the skin off your screaming baby out of sheer boredom. Yet the general value of our self-deception is so high that we cast about looking to preserve it. If our religion is a good one, well-adapted to survive in the forbidding habitat of a human psyche, it will tell us that we are fundamentally and irremediably broken, flawed, and unsuited to virtue. And THAT explains why we can be so abjectly and arbitrarily irrational. So grateful are we for the explanation of the possibility of our misbehavior, and thus the possibility of retaining the deep benefits of religious conviction and a religious form of life, we redouble our faith in our faith, and our religion tightens it's embrace on us we tighten our embrace on it.