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August 31, 2006

So You're Saying Technology...Is Good?

I find all the hubbub over "Don Boudreaux's time machine" to be rather baffling. Boudreaux is a libertarian economics professor who, tired of hearing that middle class wages are stagnating, came up with a clever thought experiment to silence the ungrateful curs. "Would you rather live in 1967 on $46,000 a year (the 2004 median), or in 2004 on $35,000 (the 1967 median)?" (all figures in 2005 dollars) Seems rather pedestrian to me -- technology good! But the right's gushing over it in the sort of lavish tone better suited to movie posters. "By far the best thought experiment of the Summer!" "If you engage in only one obtuse hypothetical this year, make it Boudreaux's!"

As it turns out, when progressives worry about wage stagnation, we're not really ready to sacrifice 40 years of technological advance to gain a couple thousand bucks. Hopefully, we'll just slink back to our 21st century habitation pods, enter our automatic garages, get in our fuel-efficient automobiles, roll up our electric windows, turn on our microchip-aided ignition, and realize it's tough to kill ourselves in a low-emission car. That'll show us.

Only...something about Boudreaux's experiment seems, I don't know, odd. It's not entirely clear why technological advance enters this picture. Indeed, it would seem that if the American worker had made more money, they'd even be able to buy more cool technology, allowing them to further enjoy 2006's fruits. So here's a counter-thought experiment. Call it Klein's Anti-Stagnation Device. Let's imagine two worlds, one in which you live in 2004 on the median salary of $46,000 a year, and the other in which you live in 2006, but median wages had kept pace with productivity post-1973 (as they did between 1947 and 1973) and you make this world's median salary: $60,000.

Which would you prefer?

That's the point. Boudreaux's argument that technology has improved our lives is indisputably true (I would rather make my lowly salary in the age of the internet than cash it in in the age of the telegram), but it's really neither here nor there so far as concerns over middle class wage stagnation go. The question isn't now or then, but now or better now.

August 31, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (50)

"Logical Interpretations"

As we enter the 723rd "major public-relations offensive to strengthen support for the Iraq War," it's good to see the media wizening up a bit to the ghastly insinuations and accusations spit out by the increasingly desperate administration. The Bushies' new tactic seems to rely on suggestions that Democrats plan to block all war appropriations, starving the troops of supplies, armor, and munitions so they lose the war, and thus retreat, faster. Happily, Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei of the Washington Post seem to have found that one a headscratcher, and asked for some clarification.

Pressed to support these allegations, the White House yesterday could cite no major Democrat who has proposed cutting off funds or suggested that withdrawing from Iraq would persuade terrorists to leave Americans alone. But White House and Republican officials said those are logical interpretations of the most common Democratic position favoring a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Ah ha! The dreaded "logical interpretations" gambit. I'm looking forward to the next press conference, when Rummy drags out a chalkboard and treats the American people to an ontological primer so we're better equipped to follow future speeches.

In any case, none of this seems like a very big deal to me. If Dems cut off the money, well, the soldiers can always take out loans...

August 31, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (32)

Supporting The Troops?

You know, just the other day I was riding around town, luxuriating in the moral superiority conferred by my "Support The Troops" magnetic bumper attachment (a sticker implies too much investment) and thinking about how much my decorative encouragement must mean to the men and women of our fighting forces. And yet, somehow, when I read that nearly 20 percent of our soldiers are being preyed on by predatory lending operations set up near bases, I wonder if I might need, I don't know, another bumper magnet.

Predatory lenders are generally a problem in poor urban areas where reputable banks don't see the sort of profit margins that justify a branch. But capitalism abhors a vacuum and folks still need loans, wire services, money orders, and all the rest, so small lenders charging insane rates flow into the gap. That's a large part of what folks like John Edwards mean when they say "it's expensive to be poor," small loans and advances that respectable banks and good credit ratings make trivial for the rich become economically dangerous and costly for the working class.

These payday loan stores are increasingly becoming a problem near military bases, too, where soldiers seeking an advance on their (paltry) paychecks or a loan to fix their car are being charged exorbitant rates. The issue grew so acute that Congress commissioned a study on the rates. The researchers found that soldiers are being charged $15-$25 for a two week, $100 loan, and annual rates of up to -- ready for this? -- 780 percent. The average borrower pays backs a total of $834 on a $339 loan, and the debt problems can grow so urgent that they lose their security clearances (assumedly under the rationale that debt renders one susceptible to bribery).

So we have two forces at play here: The first is that we pay our service members so little they're forced to enter into debt if they want a chance at middle class lifestyles. The second is that we sequester them on remote bases, where the financial options often fleece them. This must be really demoralizing for our troops. I might need more than a second bumper magnet; this might require a miniature American flag, too.

Crossposted at Crooks And Liars -- I know, I'm switching it up.

August 31, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (33)

Popularity Through Progressivism

Let's just take a moment to enjoy this rarest of all passages describing the aftermath of a major piece of legislation expected to win passage in the glorious Golden State:

Business interests, especially oil companies, were irate and said they felt abandoned by the Republican governor, who had pledged to work for a bill they could support. They accused Schwarzenegger and Democrats of cobbling together behind closed doors a haphazard bill that could create unintended economic chaos.

Ahhh. What a difference a few years makes. Remember when it was Cheney and the Big Business interests working behind closed doors to cobble together an energy bill to pad their pockets and accelerate our ecological decline? Yeah, me too..

Anyway, this a Schwarzenegger film top to bottom. Conscious of the perils running for reelection in California, he's playing up the issue area where his progressive impulses appear genuine: environmentalism. In recent weeks he's sought a compact with Tony Blair on global warming, and in recent days he's crossed California's extractive industry's to mandate a 25 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. It should be said here that California is actually rather green already, with our vehicle requirements often rendering the exhaust out my auto's tail pipe cleaner than the LA air it mingles with, and so our state, with the sixth largest economy in the world, accounts for a mere two percent of carbon emissions.

Nevertheless, this is a model for what other states can do, and if, as looks likely, it sinks the final nail into the incompetent campaign of Phil Angelides, it'll serve as a template for other governors seeking to burnish the popular aspects of their progressivism. If the federal government insists on ignoring emissions, the states needn't emulate its irresponsibility. Schwarzenegger, who I've no particular love for, deserves credit for getting this done.

Crossposted at Tapped

August 31, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (8)

August 30, 2006

More On Minds

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

I'm excited that Ramesh Ponnuru has responded to my review of The Party of Death with a long article of his own.  It goes into a few issues that I would've discussed in the review, if not for length limits.  So if you liked Monday's Goldberg-Klein intra-ethnic conflict between this blog and the National Review, sit back and enjoy today's Indian-American action!  (We were thinking of hiring George Allen for halftime entertainment, but we decided that'd be a bit too edgy.)

I argued in my review that the rights a creature has (including the right to life) depend on the nature of its mind.  Ponnuru responds that they can't depend on the immediate state of a creature's mind:

It cannot be that human beings (or any other beings) have value because they have the immediately exercisable capacity to perform mental functions (or to laugh, sing, love, or mourn). Plainly people who are asleep, under anaesthesia, or in reversible comas have value.

Since basing value on immediately exercisable capacities won't work, Ponnuru suggests that we base it on what he calls the "radical capacity" to perform mental functions -- that is, the capacity to perform these functions at some future stage of one's existence.  Since fetuses could mentally function as adults after a couple decades, they have the same right to life as adult humans. 

But we don't ever base rights on radical capacities, and for good reason.  If radical capacities were at the foundations of rights, fetuses would have the right to vote, hold property, marry, and do all sorts of other things, since they have the radical capacities for the mental qualities on which these rights depend. 

So we need some intermediate position between the immediate and radical positions.  Fortunately, there's one close at hand.  Consider the way we talk about the mental qualities of sleeping people.  When I'm asleep, you can still say that I desire John Edwards to become president, hope to get a job as a philosophy professor, and believe that today's Iranian youth will eventually democratize their country from within.  This is what philosophers call the dispositional sense in which people have mental qualities.  It's in the dispositional sense, too, that you can say I desire Edwards to become president even while I'm thinking about totally unrelated things.  We certainly aren't talking about radical capacities when we attribute beliefs to people -- I have the radical capacity to believe a whole bunch of things that you shouldn't accuse me of believing, even when I'm asleep. 

Embryos don't have dispositional beliefs, desires, or any other mental properties -- the neural hardware to support these simply hasn't shown up yet.  And that's why it's untrue to say that an embryo wants anything at all.  People who are sleeping, anesthetized, or in reversible comas can be said to have dispositional mental qualities -- we attribute desires and beliefs to them.  The very same dispositional mental qualities tracked by our ordinary mental talk -- "belief", "desire", "hope" -- are the ones that most liberals would say moral status depends on. 

My review criticizes Ponnuru for basing the right to life on biological humanity.  In his article, Ponnuru thinks I've mischaracterized his position: "Sinhababu’s argument would be valid if I indeed treated biological humanity as a necessary condition for a right to life. Instead, I treat it as a sufficient condition."  But then why is Ponnuru attacking the liberal view this way on page 86 of his book?: "By treating human organisms and "persons" as separate, though mostly overlapping, categories, it assumes that a distinction can be made between a person and the body that person merely "inhabits"."  Ponnuru goes on to argue that making this distinction will commit liberals to a bad theory of how the mind and body relate. But it seems that his position, as expressed in his article, depends on a distinction that he rejects in the book.  If "human organisms" and "persons" are not separate but overlapping categories, how can biological humanity be anything but a necessary and sufficient condition for personhood? 

Ponnuru spends some time at the end of his article criticizing my suggestion that given the continuously variable nature of mental qualities, it's right to set birth as the point where the right to life begins.  This is an issue on which I expect disagreement, and it's not unreasonable to think fetuses have some kind of right to life at the beginning of the third trimester when pain perception begins.   (Personally, I think that fetal anesthesia should be required at that point for abortions, though the fact that the fetus is still probably below many animals' mental capacities makes it incorrect to attribute a right to life beyond that of  animals.)    A big part of the reason that many people think the right to life begins earlier, I'd say, is because they're simply confused about the nature of the fetus' mind, and fall into the ancient human temptation to posit minds where there aren't any.  For this, as always, science and philosophy provide the cure. 

Ponnuru says that "the right to vote isn’t as basic a human right as the right not to be deliberately killed."  If by "basic" he means "significant", he's correct.  But this doesn't mean that we should start treating humans as having a right to life even when it's clear that they don't have minds of any sort -- and when the sacrifices that this would impose on women are very large. 

August 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (78)

In Defense of Tofu

Ah, the vegetarian paradox.  It's an odd state of affairs.  Being the guy who snacks on soy, my fellow bread breakers seem routinely fearful that I'll mention the horrific conditions at the overcrowded feedlot their burger came from.  Oddly, little interests me less than talking food politics over, you know, food.  And yet, I get no end of flack for the tofu on my plate.  You'd think I were cutting into a heaping pile of fly-infested cow shit for all the raised eyebrows and snide asides I get.  A few things:

  • I like tofu.  Really, I do.  I didn't order it as an implicit rebuke for your burger, or a way of karmically balancing our bill.  I just like tofu.  It soaks up flavor, is low in fat (so I don't get food comas), and is invariably cheaper.  Generous as The American Prospect is, that matters.
  • I really like cooking tofu.  Much more so than meat.  It's clean to handle, doesn't require I scrub my hands in scalding water, and ensures that my inattention and inexperience won't make either of us sick.  And, again, it's cheaper, even more so for home use than restaurant consumption.  Plus, I make it really, really well.  If you're judging my cooking, my comparative advantage almost certainly lies in my skill with soy.  I'd be a fool not to display it.
  • What's up with the gender politics over dinner?  I don't get my masculinity from my plate, I get it by driving my enemies before me, and hearing the lamentations of their women.  Do girls get a lot of shit for eating vegetarian?  Or is it just us Y chromosomes who people look at like we're slapping on lilac aftershave?
  • I'm not judging you.  If you think I am, you probably just feel bad about eating meat, and should better reconcile yourself to your culinary choices.  The percentage of items on my plate that survived through photosynthesis really has no bearing on the morality of steak.
  • Everyone, no matter what they eat, should read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

August 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (132)

That's Why I Always Got The Gun

I love this post by Jordon Barab.

August 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (2)


Occasionally, you see arguments over whether the conservative movement sees smaller government as an end or a mean, that is, whether they support the privatization of public services only when it results in cheaper and more efficient outcomes or whether they'll allow greater expense and inefficiency in order to satisfy an ideological distaste for government. Over at the IRS, we're seeing evidence for the latter:

Unless Congress steps in to stop it, the IRS is set to begin implementing a wildly inefficient plan to outsource the collection of past-due taxes from those who owe $25,000 or less. IRS employees could collect these taxes for about three cents on the dollar, comparable to other federal programs' collection costs. But Congress has not allowed the IRS, which is eliminating some of its most efficient enforcement staff, to hire the personnel it would need to do the job. Instead, the agency has signed contracts with private debt collectors allowing them to keep about 23% of every taxpayer dollar they retrieve. Employing these firms is almost eight times more expensive than relying on the IRS, but, according to IRS Commissioner Mark Everson, it fits in with the Bush administration's efforts to reduce the size of government.
Over 10 years, the companies hired are projected to collect overdue taxes totaling $1.4 billion, $330 million of which the companies keep as fees. According to the IRS' own estimates, over those same 10 years, the agency could collect $87 billion in unpaid taxes at a cost of just under $300 million — if allowed to hire sufficient personnel. In total, utilizing the private sector instead of augmenting IRS personnel would leave in the hands of delinquent taxpayers more than $85 billion owed to the federal government.

This is really a rather important test case: I've no particular investment in whether IRS employees or outside firms conduct tax enforcement. I would, however, like to save money and collect taxes. Similarly, I'd happily support a health care system expanding private options and offering vouchers for private insurance if I'd seen any evidence that such a structure would offer cheaper or better care. The problem is, there are too many examples of conservatives outsourcing government functions simply because they loathe government, and seeking ways to rationalize or justify the added expense and inconvenience because they're unwilling to deviate from the ultimate goal of a reduced public sector. The changes underway at the IRS are merely one example.

Pay close attention, also, to the news that Congress simply won't appropriate the funds to fully staff the IRS. We're seeing this at the Patent Office, the FDA, and a variety of other government agencies as well. The right refuses to allocate the necessary money for them to function properly, and then points to the inevitable mistakes or inconveniences of an understaffed, underfunded department as proof that their duties should be handed over to the private sector.

August 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (19)

Smoking: Getting Worse

A new study shows that the amount of nicotine in cigarettes has increased by a full 10 percent in the last six years, making the damn things easier to get hooked on, harder to quit, and more destructive to your body. And for some brands, that understates the increase. Kool cigarettes, a top brand for African-American smokers, has boosted their nicotine by a full 20 percent. And light brands, by the way, show no significant difference in nicotine.

Quick rant: Like most nonsmokers, I've no interest in berating my friends for lighting up, even though I find the sight wrenching. As someone who follows health care data, a stunning percentage of the studies that flit across my screen show enhanced harm from smoking. The damn things literally kill you, accelerating an almost unimaginable number of terminal illnesses to a degree we'd not known even a decade ago. The data is so chilling that I'd be genuinely unable to seriously date a smoker. Folks can do what they want -- the libertarians are right about that -- but it's terrible to watch.

August 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (30)

Why The EITC Works

This'll be a little wonky, but I'll try and make it short. Every once in awhile, you hear conservatives argue that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) can't lift folks out of poverty because it's not counted in the Federal Poverty Rate. Tim Worstall, thinking he had a "gotcha," made this argument in the comments to the "Apples and Manatees" thread:

Please Ezra, learn something about the statistics you are commenting upon. The calculation of the Federal Poverty Rate (that 12.6% that everyone is commenting upon at present) cannot be affected in any way whatsoever by the expansion or even the abolition of the EITC. Because the EITC is not included in the calculation of the Federal Poverty Rate.

Condescension will getcha everywhere, Tim. This argument, made routinely by conservatives seeking to ascribe welfare reform panacea status, is ridiculous. The EITC is a refundable tax credit that's calculated as a percentage of your income. In other words, it makes your job pay more. Which makes low wage jobs more attractive economic prospects. Which spurs more people to take them. Which lowers the poverty rate (surely conservatives agree compensated labor lifts folks out of poverty).

The reason Clinton's expansion of the EITC mattered for the poverty rate, in other words, is that it compelled folks whose available employment options were below their reservation wage to take the job anyway, secure in the knowledge that their EITC credit would make up the difference. Sure enough, research shows that the EITC did indeed boost labor participation, particularly among single mothers. And while the EITC isn't factored into the poverty rate, the salary from the job they took is -- which lowers the poverty rate. But hey, don't take it from me: Ronald Reagan famously called the EITC the "the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress." Speaking of which, it's about time we pumped that sucker up again.

August 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (24)