Sunday, July 26, 2009

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match...

Readers (well, one) have occasionally accused me of being anti-Catholic for my harsh words about some of the misdeeds of the Catholic Church, while ignoring the sins of the Jews. So just for the record let me state that I highly disapprove of rabbis who are part of international human-organ trafficking rings, with or without the mayors of Secaucus and Hoboken as co-conspirators. Oy, what a shande.

This story is one of those things that would sound too extreme if it occured in fiction, sort of The Sopranos mashed up with Larry Niven and, oh I don't know, Gary Shteyngart? In fact, the medical anthropologist who first uncovered this ring had trouble getting the FBI to believe her -- after all, everyone knows that all those stories of people waking up missing a kidney are urban legends.

And of course we can count on libertarians to defend the practice of commdifying human organs.

48 comments:

TGGP said...

Are you saying you think it should be illegal for a person to sell their organs?

mtraven said...

Roughly, yes, but that misses the point. This is one of those issues that the libertarian framework just can't see very well. The non-libertarian (ie, normal, non-aspie human) view is that a society where people are driven to sell off their own organs to survive is not desireable. Making it illegal to do so is treating the symptom rather than the cause, but it's something.

The boundary between unbridled commerce and body integrity is one that most people are uncomfortable with breaking. That a rabbi was involved in this just highlights the moral piquancy. Orthodox rabbis are not even remotely libertarians. Orthodox Jews have rather strict rules about body integrity (even tattoos are proscribed).

On the other hand it occurs to me that selling off slices of your time for a wage (as most people do) is not that different, ultimately, from selling slices of flesh. People have more days than they do kidneys, although neither is replaceable.

TGGP said...

On what basis do you claim that it is the libertarian perspective that fails on this issue? Couldn't a libertarian claim that on this issue it is the non-libertarian perspective that fails, offering just as much evidence for their assertion (which would be none at all).

It is not desirable to have to sell your organs. From the perspective of your body, it is not desirable to be so hot that you have to sweat profusely. Taking away the ability to sweat only makes things even worse. It cannot even be called "treating the symptom".

You are correct that selling your time & labor is like selling yourself. The doctor doing the transplant is temporarily selling their hands. You might respond that doctors are in an advantaged position, hardly being exploited. I would agree. A libertarian response is to get rid of restrictions on the supply of health service providers, a liberal one is simply to tax those with lots of money to give to those with little (like potential organ-sellers). Both solutions strike me as superior (even if they are second-best) to ones that say people should to die for lack of organs because of some taboo regarding body integrity. But hey, I'm an atheist, so I must be an idiot.

mtraven said...

It fails because it seems like it would produce a society that I don't like. What's so mysterious about that? I don't know what evidence you expect, this is a question primarily of values and policy, not facts.

Alternatively, it fails because the idea of a "voluntary transaction" is meaningless if someone is so desperate that he has to sell his organs to survive. Libertarianism is about property rights, but I expect nobody to respect property rights to the level they would sell off pieces of themselves. They should (if they are not completely cowed) take to stealing first. Libertarians hold property as sacred, but nobody normal holds property to be more sacred than body integrity.

The analogy with sweating is poor. It is quite obviously possible to make a society where nobody feels compelled to sell their organs.

I couldn't follow your third paragraph, but I certainly never claimed that atheists were idiots -- I have said that I find atheism boring, but that's hardly the same thing. In fact libertarianism and atheism are boring in vaguely similar ways, and attract the same kind of half-smart nerds.

Please don't fall into the libertarian ideological black hole; you seem to be too well-read for that. In particular, don't blithely assume that more freedom is always for the good. There are many situations where having more choices leads to worse outcomes.

TGGP said...

It seems like it would produce a society you don't like. When Iran legalized organ selling, did it become a worse society? They no longer have organ shortages, so I would say they became a better society (even if overall their society leaves much to be desired).

I have not argued against the desirability of having to sell organs. Prohibiting the selling of organs does not alleviate any problems that could lead someone to sell their organs. I would also add that I am not in great need of money, but I would be willing to sell a kidney for a high enough price.

We do not actually hold body integrity to be sacrosanct. You may freely sell your hair to a wig-maker, I think you can get paid for donating blood, we pay sperm donors and a whole lot more (because they have a fixed supply) to egg donors.

the idea of a "voluntary transaction" is meaningless if someone is so desperate that he has to sell his organs to survive.
The idea of a voluntary transaction is meaningless if someone is so desperate that they have to sell their labor/property to survive. Congratulations, you've done away with contracts.

It is possible to have enough air-conditioning that you do not need to sweat profusely. In the absence of air conditioning, taking away the ability to do so does no good.

There are game-theoretical reasons why more choices might be worse for you, but you haven't given any.

TGGP said...

Ilya Somin gives a more rigorous argument here.

mtraven said...

The guy at Volokh sounds like just another libertarian theorist spinning out abstractions that have very little to do with the real world, where the consequences of practices are not confined to simple pairwise transactions.

I liked this counterargument in the comments:

If "your" organs become "your" property, in the sense that you would be allowed to divest yourselves of them in exchange for consideration... then they're your property, and they can be -taken from you without your consent-. Fancy having to justify to creditors why your client should be allowed to declare bankruptcy without giving up a kidney? Or a cornea? Or a divorce lawyer, arguing that the wife that got the husband to stop drinking has increased the value of his liver and thus should be compensated out of the community property? Think college for your kids costs an arm and a leg NOW? Criminy, what if you can't pay for your organ after all, do they repossess it?

I would rather listen to anthropologisists in touch with the human realities, like the Berkeley prof who uncovered this ring, than some arid lawyers.

TGGP said...

The commenter actually did present an argument more substantive than anything you had. My response is that we already allow women to sell their eggs for a sizable sum, but we do not see his hypotheticals happening for eggs. People in debt may often be obligated to hand over the products of their labor but not owe labor itself, even though they can contract for their labor on the market. I don't believe any of this person's hypotheticals occur in Iran either. Ideally I don't think there should be one-size-fits-all bankruptcy law but rather that people should be able to take on any risk that they choose (which arguably could mean the end of incorporation as we know it).

You say libertarians are out of touch with human realities. Is this because they fail to predict certain things? Or is it just that they fail to assent to certain propositions? Could the same not be said of atheists again? Given the tendencies of anthropologists (or should I say cultural anthropologists, as physical anthropologists are an entirely different bag) toward anti-scientific post-modernism I wouldn't assume they're in touch with reality (including "human reality", which must simply be a subset).

mtraven said...

My response is that we already allow women to sell their eggs for a sizable sum, but we do not see his hypotheticals happening for eggs.
Why not? And (if you adopt a libertarian viewpoint) why shouldn't they happen?

Here's some real-world reportage (free reg required) from some cultural anthropologist. It's stupid to hate that field just because it uncomfortably shares a name with physical anthropology -- they study different things and have different standards. They actually talk to the people they are studying, which means they actually know something about them, whereas the libertarian lawyers you are quoting show no evidence of having studied the realityh of the phenomenon they are pontificating on.

Those we questioned directly said that they would not recommend that anyone sell a kidney. In answer to our query as to why they had themselves sold a kidney, the most common words they used were majboori (a word that arises from the root jabr, which means a state that is beyond one’s control) and ghurbat (extreme poverty). One man expressed anger at his younger, unmarried brother, who had also sold a kidney despite his advice that das saal zalil ho ja par gurda na day (even if you have to suffer humiliation for ten years, do not give your kidney). He said that he had done it for the sake of his children and added—perhaps as a salve to his conscience—that at least he had “not killed anyone.” Another vendor’s advice to others was that bhookay raho, gurda na do (stay hungry if you have to, do not give your kidney), and a female vendor compared selling a kidney to apnee nilami (auctioning herself).

...Following the nephrectomy, almost all of them reported perceptions of significant deterioration in their physical health and an inability to work as hard as before, even as they mostly failed to escape the cycle of crushing debt. Similar findings have been reported in the handful of studies undertaken on paid, unrelated “donors” in India and Iran.25 Our screening also revealed significant psychological repercussions, commonly expressed as a sense of profound hopelessness, a perception of the self as somehow halved and incomplete following the nephrectomy, and constant anxiety for the remaining kidney.

...When laborers in Punjab sell a kidney, they do so not on the strength of philosophical positions on ownership of or property rights to their bodies, or in order to exercise their freedom to make autonomous choices—the issues that form the core of international debates among ethicists, physicians, and economists. In the words of the vendors, they sell a kidney because of majboori—a word meaning lack of options, a situation over which one has no control—in order to fulfill what they see as obligations toward immediate and extended families in which they are inextricably embedded, and within systems of social and economic inequalities they can neither control nor escape.

TGGP said...

Why not? And (if you adopt a libertarian viewpoint) why shouldn't they happen?
I said what would ideally be the case under libertarian standards in my previous comment.

If there was no such thing as a physical anthropologist, it would not raise my estimation of cultural anthropologists. Astrologists study different things and have different standards of evidence, that's not a good excuse.

Margaret Meade talked to people she was studying, so that's not a high standard.

they do so not on the strength of philosophical positions on ownership of or property rights to their bodies, or in order to exercise their freedom to make autonomous choices—the issues that form the core of international debates among ethicists, physicians, and economists
Even the person who wrote that must have known how idiotic they were being. We do not predicate the right of a woman not to be raped based on whether she grounds her objection philosophically based on ownership of her body and autonomy to make decisions.

lack of options
Surely remedied by taking away an option.

mtraven said...

I'd advise not taking your intellectual attitudes from right-wing hatchet jobs. If you dismiss entire fields of intellectual endeavor because they've been linked to scary words like "postmodernism", you will miss out on a lot.

The defining virtue of anthropologists is that they go where the action is; they try to share the life of their subjects and understand it on their terms; translating it into our terms if possible. This is a difficult process, not always done well. It probably has more in common with journalism than science. But not everything worth knowing can be framed as science.

Here's your lawyer:
Organ Sales are Actually Good for Poor Donors: Given the minimal risks of organ donation, it is highly likely that kidney markets will actually benefit poor donors far more than they could conceivably harm them. The logic isn't complicated. After all, one of the main problems that poor people face is lack of money. Getting, say, $100,000 for a kidney in exchange for accepting a very small health risk is likely to leave a poor donor much better off than he was before.

Here's Nancy Scheper-Hughes:
Economically, nearly everyone is worse off a year after selling their kidney. One reason is that almost all of them are manual laborers - stevedores, agricultural workers, etc. When they're told they can't lift heavy objects for a month after surgery, it excludes them from work. They tend to lose their niche.

And here's the article from the Hastings Center:
...Following the nephrectomy, almost all of them reported perceptions of significant deterioration in their physical health and an inability to work as hard as before, even as they mostly failed to escape the cycle of crushing debt. Similar findings have been reported in the handful of studies undertaken on paid, unrelated “donors” in India and Iran.

So here your lawyer and the anthropologists are in direct contradiction. Who are you going to trust? Well, everyone gets to make their own choice, but I tend to prefer facts to theories. In the present case, it is pretty clear to me that the anthropologists who study this phenomenon have a clue about what they are talking about, whereas your lawyer does not.

TGGP said...

The report mentioned some tables, but I didn't find them. Was I overlooking something?

I don't think being a lawyer grants insight into the issue and so didn't cite Somin based on any occupational authority.

mtraven said...

I couldn't find the tables; looks like they didn't make it into the web version.

I'm not attacking Somin for being a lawyer; but for not knowing anything about what he claims to be talking about. You were the one who started in deprecating entire fields of intellectual endevor. Now that I think about it, while all fields are a mix of good and bad work, intellectual vacuity infects a good deal of both law and economics, Somin's areas. I'd say cultural anthropology compares favorably, but YMMV.

mtraven said...

Here's someone who has a fully worked-out theory of why some markets ought to be disallowed:
Noxious Markets: Why Should Some Things Not Be For Sale?, by Debra Satz, Stanford Dept. of Philosophy.

Haven't read the whole thing, but it seems to put some flesh on the bones of the argument I've been making (via).

Michael said...

I find it difficult to understand why you believe it should be illegal for a person to sell her own bodily organs but that it should be legal for her to abort her unborn child any time up to the moment before parturition. If the right of privacy allegedly found in the Constitution's "emanations and penumbras" be held to cover the latter, should it not cover the former as well?

As for commerce, of course abortion is as much a lucrative practice as organ transplantation. The harvest of stem cells from aborted babies, if not now, is likely to become a profitable traffic, and should demand for them rise sufficiently, one can imagine a future in which women are paid to conceive just to supply them, in exactly the way some women are now paid to supply their ova.

Do you think prostitution should be legal? Should people be permitted to sell their own blood, or to agree to participate in medical experimentation for a fee? Do not these actions also fall under the same emanations and penumbras that abortion does? If not, how so? I am curious about your reasoning.

The supposed Jewish value of bodily integrity seems a non-starter to me. Is not genital mutilation a central rite of Judaism? It horrified the ancient Romans and the emperor Hadrian issued a decree prohibiting it. Yet so attached were the Jews to the practice that his decree was one of the grievances which sparked the revolt of Bar-Cochba.

mtraven said...

Well, let me clear. I think that it very definitely is a bad thing when people must resort to selling their organs in order to live (and it is hard to imagine that they would do so if not in dire financial need). Whether it should be illegal or not is another issue, one where I am less certain. Not every bad thing ought to be prohibited by law.

It occurs to me that while the right to privacy may cover the right to sell one's organs, it doesn't seem to apply to the right to purchase the organs of others. So maybe its the buy-side that should be made illegal.

I don't see a strong analogy between abortion and organ-selling. An abortion, if we leave out the issue of harm to the fetus, is no different from any other medical procedure, such as having a wart removed. There is no lasting harm to either party. Organ-selling results in permanent physical harm to the seller. Abortion, or selling ovaries, usually does not.

Do you think prostitution should be legal?

Not sure (am I allowed to say that on the internet?) In theory yes, for libertarian reasons. In practice the sex trade is almost invariably exploitative.

Should people be permitted to sell their own blood

Yes. There is no lasting harm.

or to agree to participate in medical experimentation for a fee?

Depends on the type of experiment. In fact, this is a common practice, but medical experiments are fairly tightly regulated by law, policy, and medical ethics.
Which reminds me, it's odd that nobody in this debate has yet made the point that organ-harvesting involves a gross violation of a basic principle of medical ethics, "first, do no harm".

Of course, these are the wrong questions to be asking. I'm not so much interested in prohibiting certain acts as making sure that nobody is forced into performing these acts for lack of better options. That is, I don't see anything wrong with prostitution if that happens to be someone's career choice, but it's obviously bad if that is somebody's only available choice.

I'll make you a deal. Implement a guaranteed annual income or other system so every person is guaranteed access to the basic needs of life, including food, shelter, and medical care (I realize this is a pipe dream, we can't even guarantee people who work for a living access to medical care). Then, I would say, if anybody still wants to sell off their body a piece at a time or rent it out for recreational purposes, they should be able go right ahead, because it would actually be a choice.

Michael said...

I wouldn't implement a guaranteed annual income for the simple reason that the world owes no one a living. Human beings are no different in the application of this principle than are the beasts of the field or the birds of the air. We, like they, must make do for ourselves or do without. That is implicit in our animal nature.

You write that " selling off slices of your time for a wage (as most people do) is not that different, ultimately, from selling slices of flesh." Since you object to a person selling his bodily organs, and you see selling one's services as "not that different," it then must follow that you harbor similar objections to the latter. You have characterized me as "anti-modernist," but this takes the prize for anti-modernism.

You seem to object to the very foundations of modern economies, which depend upon the division of labor, and the sale of labor or its products for money. That would appear to leave as means of sustenance acceptable to you only hunting and gathering, or subsistence farming.

I suppose this all goes back, as Mencius Moldbug has pointed out, to the more radical element of Puritanism, an expression of which was found in the couplet:

"When Adam toilèd and Eve span,
Who then was the gentleman?"

Doing away with the biblical reference as unsuited to progressive godlessness, this sentiment formed the basis for Rousseau's idealization of the "noble savage," a conceit which is still very much alive. Leftism is in many respects a sort of secular longing for Eden, and its primitive equality. Of course, there was equality among primitive hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers because they were all quite poor. Productivity under such economic arrangements is so low that they could not have been anything but poor.

The division of labor and the development of technology led inevitably to inequality, since it was in tandem with them that "diversity in the faculties of men" remarked by Madison first became evident. It does not matter whether you have an IQ of 90 or of 130 if your means of survival is scratching a furrow in the ground with a sharpened stick and planting corn in it. It does matter, on the other hand, if you seek to make a living as an architect, engineer, or physician. It is because of the diversity in the faculties of men that we have not just inequality, but civilisation itself.

Modern economies involve the interdependence of people, all the way from the humblest laborer to the most prosperous entrepreneur; and whether someone sells his work to an employer or directly to a customer, he must do or make something that other people want, and for which they are willing to pay. The recent bankruptcies of well-known large business enterprises ultimately reflects their failure to meet the demands of their customers.

If a person is so lacking in intelligence, or drive, or congeniality that the only way he can get the wherewithal to survive is by the sale of a kidney, what is that to you? You describe yourself as an atheist, and it is pretty hard to justify the brotherhood of man without acknowledging the fatherhood of God.

mtraven said...

I wouldn't implement a guaranteed annual income for the simple reason that the world owes no one a living.

Well, of course you wouldn't. But the idea was floated by such flaming communists as Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon.

You write that "selling off slices of your time for a wage (as most people do) is not that different, ultimately, from selling slices of flesh."

Oh, for pity's sake, can't I be poetical on my own blog? "Ultimately" does some work in that sentence, you know. There is a quality that both acts share, but they don't share everything.

You seem to object to the very foundations of modern economies, which depend upon the division of labor...

I do not "object" to modern economic structures in the sense that I have something better I think should replace them. I recognize that there are problems with them, that's all. As does pretty much anyone who works for a living. This conversation might be improved if you start with the assumption that I'm not an idiot and know perfectly well how modern industrial economies work.

Leftism is in many respects a sort of secular longing for Eden, and its primitive equality...Productivity under such economic arrangements is so low that they could not have been anything but poor.

Everybody has irrational longings, and political movements tend to mobilize them. The right tends to be more explictly nostalgic for some vanished golden age than the left. In the case of primitive equality, it is a mistake to label it as "Eden", since it was a real state of being that we are probably evolutionarily optimized for. If society can be modified to take this into account, that's a good thing. Obviously we aren't all going to be hunter-gatherers, but we can certainly take action to reduce economic inequality while retaining the division of labor.

If a person is so lacking in intelligence, or drive, or congeniality that the only way he can get the wherewithal to survive is by the sale of a kidney, what is that to you?

It is what it is to me, as a human being I care about the welfare of others, not all equally of course, and not consistently, but that's what normal decent people do. So what you are saying, I assume, is that you lack compassion and are proud of it.

You describe yourself as an atheist, and it is pretty hard to justify the brotherhood of man without acknowledging the fatherhood of God.

And yet I care about the poor sap who has to sell his kidney, and you don't. Looks like there is a flaw in your assumptions or reasoning somewhere.

mikes2653 said...

The reason Friedman and Nixon favored a guaranteed annual income was that they thought it would be cheaper simply to have the IRS send everyone who reported an income below some set level a check for the difference, rather than to administer a dole through the vast and costly bureaucracy that operates the welfare state. Theirs was a practical suggestion based on the assumption that the welfare state was not going away, so we might as well try to make it less costly. I do not think Friedman believed that the world owed anyone a living. As for Nixon, I don't know. He was not much of a conservative, in any event.

How is primitive equality "a state that we are probably evolutionarily optimized for"? If evolution has stopped, when did it stop? Before the advent of civilised societies with hierarchical structures? Are not the inequality of nations, and the inequalities of persons within each nation, the product of evolution? Have you forgotten that the complete title of Darwin's book was "On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life"?

As a matter of history, Darwin was stimulated into constructing his evolutionary theory by the work of Malthus on the pressure of population, behind which lay the development of an industrial proletariat and the question of its wages. Marx tellingly said of "The Origin of Species" that "it is remarkable how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, inventions, and the Malthusian struggle for existence."

I have not (you'll note) said anything at all about what I believe about the sale of organs for transplantation. I am asking you to explain why you believe what you believe. If there are flaws in anyone's assumptions or reasoning here, they are yours. I find it curious, for example, that you apparently believe abortion, and the sale of stem cells from aborted infants, is praiseworthy, but the sale of a kidney is not. You write that organ selling results in permanent physical harm to the seller, but that abortion, if we leave out the issue of harm to the foetus (a big omission!) is no more harmful than having a wart removed. This is nonsense. Even without considering the child whose life is terminated by it, abortion is a much more intrusive procedure for the woman involved, than is having a wart removed, and surely has a higher mortality rate. Have you compared, say, the five-year relative mortality rates of wart removal, abortion, and kidney donation? I don't know the facts, but it seems if you are going to make such an argument, you ought to be able to adduce them.

To say that as a human being you care about the welfare of others "because that's what normal, decent people do." That isn't much of an answer. Why do they, or should they? I suggest that most normal, decent people care about the welfare of others because their religion tells them they should.

The implication of atheism, on the other hand, is that since there is no God, everything is permitted. I suggest that atheists who act as "normal, decent people" (and I have known such atheists - I don't deny they exist) do so because they live in a society that is still strongly influenced by religion and religious morality. They are swept along by its influence in spite of themselves. In other words, their behavior is largely the product of momentum.

But, as the society around them is less and less influenced by religion, that momentum will decay. Then what? Isn't the contradiction that, the more yur atheistic beliefs come to prevail, the less foundation there is for the concerns you profess for others to be felt and acted upon?

mtraven said...

The reason Friedman and Nixon favored a guaranteed annual income...

Wrong. Here's what Freidman actually said in Capitalism and Freedom: (emphasis added)

It can be argued that private charity is insufficient ...In small communities, public pressure can suffice ... In the large impersonal communities that are increasingly coming to dominate our society, it is much more difficult for it to do so.Suppose one accepts, as I do, this line of reasoning as justifying governmental action to alleviate poverty; to set, as it were, a floor under the standard of life of every person in the community.

I have never been a great admirer of Friedman but it's interesting to learn that he was more of a realist than many of his fanboys.

How is primitive equality "a state that we are probably evolutionarily optimized for"?

The human brain evolved in an environment where accumulation of wealth was not practical, hence had far less disparities of wealth and class than later forms of society.

If evolution has stopped, when did it stop? Before the advent of civilised societies with hierarchical structures?

It hasn't. But the speed of evolutionary change is much slower than the speed of cultural change, so it hasn't come close to catching up. Cochran and Harpending's recent book makes much of the fact that there has been some evolutionary changes in the last 10,000 years that can probably be traced to the agricultural revolution. But the changes they can identify are relatively minor compared with the radical changes in how humans live now as compared to how they did before the rise of agriculture, cities, industrialization, etc.

Are not the inequality of nations, and the inequalities of persons within each nation, the product of evolution?

Some are, but that is beside the point.

I have not (you'll note) said anything at all about what I believe about the sale of organs for transplantation.

Well, why not? Why should I be doing all the ethical work here?

I am asking you to explain why you believe what you believe.

I believe I have; if you have some problem with what I said in earlier postings, feel free to critique.

I find it curious, for example, that you apparently believe abortion, and the sale of stem cells from aborted infants, is praiseworthy, but the sale of a kidney is not.

I didn't say it was "praiseworthy", so don't put words in my mouth. There are obvious differences between all of those cases.

Both organ selling and abortion pose difficult ethical questions on which there is disagreements and plausible arguments on both sides. But they don't post the same questions, and I don't see that the abortion question sheds any light on the organ selling question.

[continued]

mtraven said...

You write that organ selling results in permanent physical harm to the seller, but that abortion, if we leave out the issue of harm to the foetus (a big omission!) is no more harmful than having a wart removed. This is nonsense. Even without considering the child whose life is terminated by it, abortion is a much more intrusive procedure for the woman involved, than is having a wart removed, and surely has a higher mortality rate.

It's true enough that there is some risk from abortion, but it's not really relevant to the argument. Having a kidney removed causes guaranteed harm to the donor.

I think what bothers me (and most people) about kidney sales is the extension of market forces into the most intimate parts of a person. It's far more invasive than even prostitution. Prostitution in practice is often indistinguishable from rape. What does that make organ selling?

I do not have the time to develop this arugment in detail, but I will note that it is essentially a conservative one, one that seeks to shield people from the radically transformative and often corrupting forces of the market. See the paper on "toxic markets" that I cited above.

Have you compared, say, the five-year relative mortality rates of wart removal, abortion, and kidney donation? I don't know the facts, but it seems if you are going to make such an argument, you ought to be able to adduce them.

Again, why should I be doing all the work here? Feel free to locate and contribute some data to the discussion if you want. I've already cited a number of studies.

To say that as a human being you care about the welfare of others "because that's what normal, decent people do." That isn't much of an answer. Why do they, or should they?

They just do. That's how people are, because evolution made them that way. There are a variety of theories as to why this is and how it works, see for instance Marc Hauser's Moral Minds which surveys a lot of this territory.

These points are all related in interesting ways. People evolved to care about their immediate kin and tribe, which was probably no more than 100-200 indivduals. The rise of other human living arrangements strain these innate mechanisms. Do you care about everyone in your city, your clan, your race, your nation, or those outside these groups? None of that is evolutionarily determined, much less philosophically determined. How much should we care about Indonesians flattened by a hurricane? There is no definite answer, but we do care at least a little, because technology has made them our neighbors. Nobody knows exactly what to do about this, including me.

I suggest that most normal, decent people care about the welfare of others because their religion tells them they should.

The evidence here suggests otherwise, as I said in the last comment. You have not addressed this yet.

The idea that morality derives from religion is dopey. Are you claiming that the only reason you refrain from murder, theft, and rapine is because some priest or holy book tells you it's wrong, or because you think God is watching and will get angry is you misbehave? And why, in the absence of an innate morality, should people pay any attention at all to what religion tells them?

Michael said...

The Decalogue, including the commandments against murder, theft, adultery, coveting that which is thy neighbour's, etc., existed long before any secular law that is now in force against such behaviors.

We note that the earliest English law, under the Saxons, prescribed 'bot-fines' for the killing of a human being, to be paid to his family. These laws were intended to make up for the loss of economic value to a family occasioned by the death of one of its members, and were analogous to the payment of damages that one would still owe, for example, if he were accidentally to kill a farmer's cow or pig. They originated in the time of paganism and reflect pagan thinking about the value of human life.

The penalty of death, which is still prescribed for murder in most of the United States, and was in Europe within living memory, was only introduced into English common law after the adoption of Christianity, and reflects the Biblical principle, that "whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." So - yes - our current laws on murder, as well as many other subjects, are the products of Judæo-Christian religious morality. And one either obeys such laws because he believes them to be right (consciously or unconsciously accepting their moral source) or because he fears the consequences of violating them.

I find your interpretation of evolution as having moral consequences quite strange. Evolution is adaptation - following the strict logic of it, we are not to see any teleological character to it. Adaptation is not "progress." An evolutionist strictly so called should not believe in progress. Adaptation can often take a form that more closely resembles degeneration - consider the loss of the faculty of sight by bats or fishes that have adapted to life in conditions of darkness, or the loss of legs by the so-called 'glass snake,' which is in fact a lizard. Evolution is a value-free process. It cannot say, in these examples, whether being sightless or legless is 'good' or 'bad'. These are just adaptations to the environments in which the organisms live.

Epicurus posited a random aggegation of particles gradually congealing into matter and eventually life. His cosmology, expounded by Lucretius in De rerum natura, is really what underlies the theory of evolution. The Epicurean ethics which naturally follow upon such reasoning are rather thin gruel (the avoidance of pain, being the only good known to the senses, is the greatest good), and at best provide a code of personal conduct to their adherents. It is very difficult to find in them any benchmarks by which to construct a political or economic philosophy. I suppose some sort of utilitarianism would be as close as one could come. And it is hard to find a utilitarian argument against sales of organs for transplantaton.

Personally, the idea of selling my organs for transplantation makes me queasy. If I were an Epicurean, I'd object to it on the grounds that it would involve pain - but so, also, wouild many actions of government which you favor. Based on reports from Canada and Britain, I'm almost sure their style of national health insurance would be more painful for me and those near and dear to me than what we have now.

Since you are apparently a person with at least some money and leisure I'd guess they would be similarly painful for you, yet you want them. So your ethics are not Epicurean. I must therefore conclude they are at least unconsciously religious. I'm reminded by this discussion of the point someone made years ago about the colleges of Oxford, which he said were so completely imbued for so many centuries with the ideal of the Christian gentleman that even those who came to them, being neither (the example he gave was A.J. Ayer, I recall), behaved as if they were.

You of course do not behave that way, but there are many other sources of deracinated religiosity to be discerned amongst partisans of the modern left.

mtraven said...

"We note"? How kind of your majesty.

Morality is not about primarily about penalties but about value judgements placed on action. And I am fairly confident that killing within one's tribe was judged immoral long before Christianity came along (the biblical injunctions against murder can be traced back to Sumer, not that that's particularly relevant to the discussion).

Modern psychological research draws a picture of an innate moral sense -- much like language, everybody has the basic hardware but it is instantiated differently by different cultures. Human languages vary a lot but share some basic structures, and there are no humans (pathological cases aside) without language, and the same, more or less, is true for morality. A just-published book by Alison Gopnik reveals that very young children make moral judgements independent of instruction.

Conservatives ought to eat this stuff up because it implies that there is in fact an innate and largely unchangeable core to human nature. The idea that morality is largely a product of religious institutions implies that it is more of a human invention and can be altered easily.

Adaptation is not "progress"

I don't believe I said a word about progress, and it's kind of laughable for you to be lecturing me on evolution.

Evolution is adaptation - following the strict logic of it, we are not to see any teleological character to it.

Yet teleological processes (ie, you and me) can emerge from evolution. That's what makes it so cool.

Epicurus...is really what underlies the theory of evolution

Uh, no. With all due respect to ancient philosophers, they don't "underlie" science, which has a perfectly fine foundation without them (see the blog's current tagline). Or at least that's what I believe most days.

Since you are apparently a person with at least some money and leisure I'd guess they would be similarly painful for you, yet you want them.

I doubt it. I work for a living and thus am vulnerable to losing my job and thus my insurance, and having further insurance denied for pre-existing conditions or any other reason. I'm vulnerable to recission and the other abuses of insurance companies. There are thousands of cases of people who thought they were insured and ended up driven into bankruptcy. So for anybody who is not independently wealthy, some form of nationally guaranteed health insurance will be a win.

And if I was independently wealthy, I would still support it for a variety of reasons that I won't get into here, both ethical and practical (not that ethics is impractical ... (or altruistic and selfish)

So your ethics are not Epicurean. I must therefore conclude they are at least unconsciously religious.

Of course, those are not the only choices.

Michael said...

I am not a follower of Epicureanism and therefore do not accept that life is a result of completely random and purposeless occurrences, which is the foundation of the theory of evolution as it is at present expounded by its advocates. I am quite familiar enough with the theory to explain its features (especially when you are apparently unaware of them) without believing in it. If you can say that you and I are teleological results, then you don't believe in the theory of evolution as it is at present received, any more than I do.

You may believe that present forms of life developed gradually without denying that their development is teleological in character - i.e., acknowledging that there is purpose in the process. However, that puts you at odds with Darwin himself and with his latter-day exegetes. You are closer then to Teilhard de Chardin, or perhaps that of the Corpus Hermeticum, tract V:26-7 - "... no man says that a statue or an image is made without a carver of a painter, and was this workmanship made without a workman? O great blindness, o great impiety, o great ignorance. Never... canst thou deprive the wotkmanship of the workman...."

If man has an innate moral sense, how did it get there? Is it the product of a sequence of random and purposeless events, or of something else? Do not deprive the workmanship of its workman.

Sir Karl Popper made the point that almost no concept of modern cosmology is without its antecedent in the philosophy of the pre-Socratics. Moreover, philosophy certainly underlies science to the extent that logic and epistemology are branches of philosophy. And without logic and epistemology, what is left of science? A rag-bag of miscellaneous and unconnected facts- indeed, absent them, unconnectable facts - comparable to the mediæval books of secrets falsely ascribed to St. Albertus Magnus.

Marxism (and I have read enough of your writing to believe you are, like so many religiously deracinated Jews, some kind of Marxist) is a substitute for traditional religion, complete with theology and metaphysics (dialectical materialism), and, in the old Soviet Union, its college of cardinals (the Politburo), its theologians and periti (e.g., Moshe Litvakov), its pope (the general secretary of the Communist party), etc. Of course every religion needs its creation-myth, and that is what evolution became in the hands of Marxists like Steven Jay Gould - stripping it of the content that was obvious to Darwin and his contemporaries (like his cousin Sir Francis Galton) that it was all about 'the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life.'

mtraven said...

If you can say that you and I are teleological results, then you don't believe in the theory of evolution as it is at present received, any more than I do.

You don't know what you are talking about and I would advise you to shut up about scientific matters before you embarass yourself further.

It is obvious to all that organisms can have purpose in some sense (ie, the wolf intends to catch the deer, the deer intends to escape). No materialist denies that purpose exists, they just deny that it was put there by some higher, prior, supernatural purpose. Evolution (and cybernetics) showed how purposive systems could arise from non-purposive antecedents; that is a large part of the reason they are interesting.

If man has an innate moral sense, how did it get there?

The same way anything else innate got there.

Sir Karl Popper made the point that almost no concept of modern cosmology is without its antecedent in the philosophy of the pre-Socratics.

While I generally admire the pre-Socratics, they did not have modern mathematics or quantum physics so they are "antecedents" to modern cosmology in only a very vague and uninteresting sense. Or, let's put it this way -- philosophy has been in the business of asking the wrong questions for thousands of years, which is why the presocratics can still seem fresh today -- the same questions arise, and there are still no answers. We still can't step in the same river twice. Science, in contrast, is in the business of asking questions that can be answered, and are amenable to evidence-based reasoning. Science makes progress over time; philosophy does not seem to, on the whole.

I am not a Marxist and I agree that Marxism in practice has many similarities to religion. I am temperamentally not a joiner or true believer of any kind. I mentioned recently that as a teen I belonged to a socialist-zionist youth group. They were fairly hardcore Marxists (affiliated with one of the more left-wing of Israel's political parties), but it didn't take. That post is mostly about the blogger known as Spengler, who was also part of this group, but went on from there to spend ten years with Lyndon Larouche and is now some sort of Orthodox Jewish fanatic. Now, that guy is a true believer, someone who really really really wants and needs a rigid ideological framework to deal with the world. But that's not me.

Scientific materialism (naturalism is a better term) owes almost nothing to Marx. The few scientists who are Marxists and try to integrate Marx with their science (like Leowontin and Gould) are way out of the mainstream and have little influence. Leowontin's theories have some interesting overlap with other anti-reductionist approaches to biology, like Haeckle and d'Arcy Thompson, and they have a common ancestry in German idealism and Platonism. I admit to a slight fondness for such stuff, but it has been largely a scientific failure, completely rolled in biology by the reductionistic and mechanistic approaches. The young subfield of evo-devo may succeed in reintegrating these divergent approaches.

Michael said...

"Evidence-based reasoning" must follow a logical pattern, and logic derives not from evidence but from à priori postulates. Logic is a branch of philosophy. How can philosophy have been "asking the wrong questions for thousands of years" when it is only by the use of philosophy that any questions whatsoever can be asked, and answers systematically obtained?

The reason there appears to be progress in the natural sciences is that man is a tool-making creature, and science is historically an outgrowth of technology (rather than the other way around - only very recently has scientific theory preceded technical practice, perhaps from the time of Clerk Maxwell). It is in the character of tools to become more sophisticated and capable as time passes, and they are refined by the experience of their users.

I note in passing that much modern and purportedly scientific cosmology is so far removed from the technical roots of useful science that it is just as speculative as any of the pre-Socratics. Consider, for example, 'string theory.'

It is true that most aspects of human nature have not "progressed" - nor is there any reason to expect that they can. That is why ethical questions can still be addressed in the same way that, for example, Aristotle did. It is a mistake to suppose that the model of technical progress applies to other aspects of human endeavor.

There does seem to be such a thing as cultural evolution. How else did it come about that the natural sciences that you so prize, as well as the greatest achievements of art, architecture, music, and literature, are mainly the work product of "DWEMs" (dead white European males) and were not that of, say, inhabitants of the Congo, the Amazon basin, or the aboriginal Australians?

There, amongst those primitive peoples, the primitive equality that you admire was the norm. They accomplished nothing significant or lasting. It was in Europe, where the intelligent and driven were rewarded with wealth and rank (hence social inequality) that modern civilisation - Western civilisation - originated and flourished. The direction of cultural evolution in fact points towards inequality and hierarchical order.

Despite the lip-service modern Euro-American society pays to egalitarianism, it is mostly a window-dressing behind which there is a widening gulf between the competent who make up its elite and the bungled-and-botched of its underclass. As members of the university-educated elites tend to marry amongst themselves, and since (as has been acknowledged since the time of Terman), IQ is largely a product of heredity, that gulf will grow wider as time passes. "Favoured races" will be preserved, both among nations and within them, whether or not ideology wishes to acknowledge the fact.

You may not admit to being a Marxist, but you are a socialist of some sort. Pre-Marxist socialism, such as that of Comte, is purely historical, and post-Marxist socialisms are all derivatives of Marxism. You do differ from the old-fashioned commies, it seems to me, by being less interested in the 'means of production' than in the 'means of reproduction" (or at least preventing it) - but I suppose this approach, characteristic of the Frankfurt school at least since Marcuse's "Eros and Civilisation," is a matter of the left's efforts "à reculer pour mieux sauter."

To come back to the subject of procuring organs for transplantation, there are two paradigms for the allocation of such scarce resources. One is that of market economies (the auction) and the other, that of command economies (the queue, for ordinary folk; the politically-favored, of course, jump to its front). You obviously don't like the market solution, so that leaves the alternative - either waiting your turn (perhaps dying before you get it), or dancing attendance upon some bureaucrat in order to beg his assistance.

mtraven said...

I notice you didn't respond to any of the points I made that might actually form the basis for an interesting discussion (the nature of teleology under materialism; the undercurrent of platonism in 19th century biology) and instead are picking nits and diving off into your own tedious racist obsessions. Oh well.

I don't mean to dismiss philosophy entirely, but statments like this: it is only by the use of philosophy that any questions whatsoever can be asked, and answers systematically obtained? get my goat. Philosophy has no system, it did not invent logic and inference, let alone questions, and does not own the patent on them. Philosophy can at times be illuminating, but since it has no method and no quality checks it is relatively rare.

The reason there appears to be progress in the natural sciences is that man is a tool-making creature...It is in the character of tools to become more sophisticated and capable as time passes, and they are refined by the experience of their users.

That's part of the story to be sure, but hardly the whole thing. All cultures make tools, but few of them develop science (a point you ought to appreciate given your ethnocentric cheerleading).

I note in passing that much modern and purportedly scientific cosmology is so far removed from the technical roots of useful science that it is just as speculative as any of the pre-Socratics. Consider, for example, 'string theory.'

Useful has nothing to do with it. String theory is considered dubious within the scientific community because it does not make testable predictions, so it cannot be verified or falsified. But there is plenty of cosmology that can be and is.

Your knowledge of socialism seems about on par with your knowledge of science.

You may not admit to being a Marxist, but you are a socialist of some sort.

Of some sort, I suppose, but then so is every single person who wants some services provided by the government. And since few people are prepared to do without government provision of defense, policing, fire protection, transport, and education, that makes almost every person in the country a socialist.

Me, I'm in favor of a stronger government role in research, regulation of markets, and provision of basic needs including health care. I'm not in general in favor of government owning the means of production. If that makes me a socialist, whatever. I think you will find that that word is becoming less and less scary as people realize it applies to things that they favor, such as Social Security and Medicare.

As for your attempt to get back to the subject of markets for human organ transplants, you should note that your little analysis of market vs. bureaucratic allocation had nothing specific in it about organs. If organs were a commodity like any other, your analysis might apply, but the point is, they aren't. The market does a really good job of allocating certain kinds of resources. It has done a truly phenomenal job, for instance, in bringing the prices of disk drives down and their performance way up. But human organs (and health care more generally) are not the same sort of commodities. I don't have time to get into a detailed argument for why this is so, but see the earlier comments. I will note that I find my position on this to be a conservative one, where I find myself upholding somewhat old-fashioned values against the onslaughts of modern science and economics. Here, for example, is a conservative bioethicist who I have argued with in the past, but who agrees with me on this issue. What does that prove? Not much, but it points out how ridiculous it is for "conservative" and "free market" to cohabit the same political party -- the market is the antithesis of a conservative force. Of course, what really binds these two seemingly-incompatible value systems together is that they both favor the privileged over the non-privileged.

Michael said...

Tedious racist obsessions? A real 'racist' is one who hates other people because of the color of their skin. I find this a crude and unuseful approach to life. Unfortunately, the word racist has come to be used so broadly that it means only someone who says things that are offensive to left-wingers, and that is the sense in which you use it of me.

Darwin's use of the word race, as in "favoured races," was of course not the common one. It refers to the fittest, who survive and succeed in the struggle for life. We can observe hierarchy and order amongst all creatures. Birds, for example, set up 'pecking orders,' and this is an aspect of the way in which the dominant assure the survival of their genes at the expense of the weak, who do not. This principle operates in human populations as well - the persons you refer to as "privileged" are so because they are successful and dominant, and are playing out the destiny of their genes - as also are those who are weak and unsuccessful. As you profess to be an evolutionist it is hard to understand why you object to this particular natural process amongst humans.

I am not a conservative - a conservative is merely yesterday's liberal. I am a reactionary. As for free markets, from a reactionary point of view I believe it is less important that markets be completely free than that property be private, and that the protection of private property be (as Madison believed it should be) the foremost duty of the state. Markets are a consequence of private property, and they can only function on a basis of moral principles of honesty and fidelity. It is an unfortunate aspect of markets that they do not by themselves reward honesty and fidelity, at least in the short term. Those virtues must be supplied from without.

This is the reason why, as Andrei Navrozov observed about Russia, eighty years of bolshevism did not create 'new socialist man' but rather a nation of proficient thieves. Having successfully destroyed the moral framework necessary to the successful functioning of markets, when bolshevism finally collapsed, it left a vacuum into which, when a market economy was reintroduced, the society quickly degenerated into a kleptocracy.

Philosophy "did not invent logic"? Logic is a branch of philosophy, and has been from the start. The same is true of epistemology. Persons calling themselves philosophers have taken off on many absurd digressions, but "abusus non tollit usum" and you cannot deny that the deductive and inductive reasoning which makes the sciences you so prize possible is philosophical in origin.

Of course all cultures make tools but few develop sciences. I pointed this out with respect to Western civilisation some posts ago. And why did tool-making proceed to science in Western civilisation but not in the Congo, the Amazon basin, or aboriginal Australia? Did it not have something to do with the flourishing of philosophy in ancient Greece - something not parallelled in the Congo, etc.?

mtraven said...

I label you a racist because every damn conversation you are in eventually comes back to the issue of supposedly favored and disfavored peoples, no matter what topic it starts with. You are obsessed.

One needs to be careful applying notions from animal dominance hierarchies to human politics. Dominance hierarches are more about preventing aggression than determing who gets to breed, although being dominant usually does increase an animal's inclusive fitness. But such pecking orders are dynamic and constantly shifting around as dominant individuals get challenged. Franz de Waal's book Chimpanzee Politics is a good depiction of the complex interactions that some of our animal relatives are capable of.

It's certainly the case that human politics is grounded in this kind of animal behavior, much as human language is grounded in animal communication but obviously is qualitatively different. And human politics has its turbulence and revolutions just as animal politics does.

So you cannot argue from the existence of animal dominance that human dominance should take any particular form. Aside from the problematic nature of trying to derive ought from is. You (and Moldbug) seem to dream of a stable hierarchy where everybody knows his place, and everyone is peaceful thereby. Neither animal nor human societies work that way.

Now, perhaps it would be desirable for them to do so. After all, turbulence and revolution cause genuine suffering, often more than whatever ills they are in response to. So if we could structure societies to achieve greater stability, what would we do?

There seem to be two approaches to acheiving this goal. Yours and Moldbug's is to make the dominance of the upper classes so total and crushing that the underlings can't even dream of rebellion. Moldbug's idea of an all-powerful alien overlord, or a human overlord with the technology to disable all weaponry, is sort of the reductio ad absurdum of this view. The other approach is to lessen the differential between classes, so that the lower classes are more content with their lot, or can dream about their children ascending into the upper ranks. This s roughly the distinction between the authoritarian right and the more egalitarian and nurturant left.

Michael said...

My belief is, as J.A. Froude observed, that "men are made by nature unequal. It is vain, therefore, to treat them as if they were equal."

I look at this inequality primarily on an individual level, not a 'racial' one as that word is commonly understood - though I believe (as has everyone who has studied it, from Galton to Terman to Murray) that it has a strong genetic component.

I believe persons of talent should be encouraged to achieve their best, regardless of race or other non-behavioral characteristics, rather than being punitively taxed and otherwise 'cut down to size' by Procrustean measures designed to equalize them with their inferiors.

It is the left in this case which is authoritarian. not the right. Of course Obamaism is a mild form of the affliction, as compared (for example) to Jacobinism or Bolshevism, but the difference is only one of degree, and not of kind. The objective of them all is that the nail that sticks up should be pounded down, and the tall stalk mowed level with the surrounding field.

Whatever may have been the reasons for them in the past, in today's highly productive and wealthy American society, poverty and degradation are mainly behavioral in origin. The left's program is to uplift people whose unsatisfactory behavior has condemned them to low status, at the expense of persons who have achieved or maintained higher status through more productive hehavior. It is a policy both of moral inversion and revolt against the order of nature.

If we wish to have a stable and prosperous society we should worry less about elevating people who lack character or intelligence, and do not deserve to be lifted up. for they will never be other than what they are; and more about rewarding those who exhibit acumen and virtue, for they are the ones who will depart this life leaving the world better than they came into it.

mtraven said...

My belief is, as J.A. Froude observed, that "men are made by nature unequal. It is vain, therefore, to treat them as if they were equal."

Equal how?

Obviously people have differing levels of abilities and other characteristics. If you mean it is vain to treat everyone as if they have (ie) the same ability to do mathematics, then yes. However, nothing about human biodiversity suggests that people should not be treated as equals before the law. "Equality" means nothing by itself. The word did not appear in my last comment so you are (as usual) arguing with the shadows in your own head. Reading back in this thread it is clear that it is you who is obsessed with equality, not me.

I believe persons of talent should be encouraged to achieve their best, regardless of race or other non-behavioral characteristics, rather than being punitively taxed and otherwise 'cut down to size' by Procrustean measures designed to equalize them with their inferiors.

There seems to be a buried supposition in here that "talent" and "wealth" and "superiority" are all the same thing, which is laughably not the case.

The US has an extraordinarily high wealth inequality compared to all other industrialized countries. There is no proposal anywhere on the table that would cut the rich down to size.

My god, I'm getting bored with refuting the same stupid talking points repeated endlessly. Maybe you could take the trouble to respond to what I actually wrote rather than parroting the same stale bullshit over and over and over.

Whatever may have been the reasons for them in the past, in today's highly productive and wealthy American society, poverty and degradation are mainly behavioral in origin.

More bullshit of course, without the slightest evidence to support it. For instance, millions of people are driven to bankruptcy by unexpected health care costs. I suppose getting sick or being shafted by an insurance company is a sign of their lack of virtue, in the conservative worldview.

If we wish to have a stable and prosperous society we should worry less about elevating people who lack character or intelligence, and do not deserve to be lifted up. for they will never be other than what they are; and more about rewarding those who exhibit acumen and virtue, for they are the ones who will depart this life leaving the world better than they came into it.

If the people with acumen and virtue can't manage to handle a moderately progressive income tax maybe they aren't all that sharp and virtuous to begin with.

I can only conclude from your obsessions that you feel that you have a very insecure hold on your superior station in life.

Michael said...

You say that the word "equality" did not appear in your penultimate comment, but you did write the words "the more egalitarian and nurturant left." Between "egalitarian" and "equality" there is a fairly obvious connection, an egalitarian in politics being one who believes it a proper objective of government to bring about social and economic quality. Your attempt to parse so finely suggests weakness on this point.

Further, your attempt to personalize the argument by suggesting that I personally feel I have an insecure hold on my socially and economically superior status, rather than addressing my propositions, introduces an ad hominem element into the discussion which is a further sign of weakness on the part of your argument.

I doubt that Mr Obama, for all his left-wing dogmatism, will employ Zimbabwean style violence in depriving me of my life, property, or even social status. The fact is, though, that even if one is travelling first class on the Titanic, it is still the Titanic. To the extent that I have personal interests in the matter under discussion, that is their nature. This is my country. I have no place to which to flee - my family, on both sides, have been American citizens since the Revolution. If it goes under, I go with it.

I find it highly indicative of your attitudes that you could make reference to Weimar in another post on this blog without devoting any consideration to the main reason behind the tumults that characterized politics in the Weimar republic, which was also the reason it was unable to withstand them - namely, the hyperinflation and subsequent collapse of its currency, brought on by the monetization of its unsustainable debt. That debt, of course, was imposed on it by the victorious allies under the Treaty of Versailles. This country's unsustainable debt has been imposed on it by its own government.

The principal source of bankruptcies, home foreclosures, and other comparable distress in the United States is not the vagaries of privately-provided health insurance, but rather the economic instability that has been brought on by the policies of the U.S. government. Central banking has not, for example, been driven by its proper objective of maintaining a stable currency, but by the desire to prevent even mild downturns in the business cycle by easing the money supply. Then when it is belately recognized that the hand on the tiller has over-steered, an equally extreme correction is made in the opposite direction. Swings of 350 to 400 basis points in the discount rate do not suggest that sober hands are on the wheel. In the mean time, Congress has created - again, for egalitarian ends, so that everyone who wanted one could buy a house, with little or no down-payment - quangoes like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which came to control a substantial majority of the secondary mortage market, and set the standard that private mortgage lenders had to meet or beat. The result, between this and the fluctuation of monetary policy, has been the ballooning, then the burst, of the housing bubble. Now, in order to deal with these consequences, Mr Obama and his Congress have incurred more government debt than has been incurred under all previous administrations combined. Does this give rise to feelings of insecurity? You bet!

Michael said...

(continued, due to limits on the lengths of single posts):

The U.S. income tax may be characterized as "moderately progressive" only from the standpoint of rates, and even then is so only if one does not consider state and local income taxes in addition to it. When they are added in, the total rate burden surpasses that of many countries overseas. And the incidence of these income taxes is not at all moderately progressive, when we consider that 50% of the population pays essentially no federal income tax, while the top 1% pays something like 37%. The income taxes of some states have an even more skewed incidence; California, for example, collects 50% of its income tax revenue from fewer than 150,000 taxpayers.

Quite apart from the purported fairness or unfairness of a tax that is incident upon such a small number of payers, 'soaking the rich' is not a particularly stable or reliable source of revenue. Right now, states and localities that depend on such revenues (like California) are the ones experiencing the worst revenue shortfalls, while those that do not (e.g., Texas) have not had to contend with such crises. The main reason is that top-bracket taxpayers experience much more fluctuation in their incomes, which are connected to the profitability of business and the prices of investment securities, than do middle-class folk whose incomes consist mainly of salaries. It is also an easy matter for a high-income taxpayer to change his residence to a less exorbitant tax jurisdiction. The results of recent months should give pause to anyone who believes that using income taxation for purposes of egalitarian social engineering will not have unintended and adverse consequences.

The relatively greater wealth disparity in the United States as compared to the social democracies of Europe is not a consequence of the greater poverty of our poor, but of the greater wealth of our rich. To a post of yours dated April 28th of this year, I appended the following comment, which was then without response from you:

'Here's an interesting quotation from Reihan Salam, writing in The Spectator (London), 8 Nov. 2008:

' "In the United States, those in the poorest 10 per cent earn 39 per cent of the median income. In Finland and Sweden, the poorest 10 per cent earn 38 percent of the median income of the United States. That is, the American poor are earning about as much as the poor in two of Europe's most egalitarian societies. American inequality is an artefact of the extreme fortunes made by people at the top rather than the extreme poverty of those at the bottom. Of course, Finns and Swedes benefit from excellent public services. But those public services are financed by regressive consumption taxes, mainly VAT. So poor Finns and Swedes are paying for what they get."

'In other words, the relatively high taxes on incomes in those socialistic countries have served only to destroy high incomes, without raising the share of income earned by the poor at all - while social welfare benefits are delivered at the cost of high ad valorem taxes levied on the staples of life, which fall hardest on those with the lowest incomes.'

At least when Marx proposed a graduated income tax in 'The Communist Manifesto' he did so with the overt and honest intention of destroying or at least hampering private capital, which is indeed (as the European social democracies show) what it accomplishes, without obvious benefit to anyone else except their governing bureaucracies. You, on the other hand, dissemble about this intention.

Finally your trust in government to provide a better system of health care than that provided currently through private insurance ought to be measured against the standard of health care that government already provides. In four words - Walter Reed Army hospital. It does not inspire such confidence in me. Government health care is likely to turn out like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the public educational system in Washington, D.C. - you know, all those triumphs of Federal policy.

Michael said...

First para. of my next to last comment, penultimate sentence, should have read: "... an egalitarian in politics being one who believes it is a proper objective of government to bring about social and economic equality," rather than "...quality."

mtraven said...

Yes, I used "egalitarian", and missed it because I was searching for "equal". My apologies. Of course the point of that passage was not to advocate for equality but to point out contrasting approaches of two ideologies to solving an actual problem, a point that seems to have gone entirely past you despite the fact that it was a direct answer to your invocation of animal dominance hierarchies.

I don't know what argument you think we are having that does not involve "personalization". I thought your whole purpose here was to show up my hollowness and hypocrisy, or something like that. You certainly aren't interested in having an actual argument, which would involve sticking to the point and responding to what I say. There was an actual debatable proposition early on in this thread ("Markets in human organs are a bad thing and should be banned") but as usual you've diverted it into your personal obsessions, about which there is not a hope of having a productive discussion.

Your kvetching about national debt would be more convincing if I believed you were doing the same during the huge run-ups of debt during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Whatever the wisdom of Obama's stimulus, it is at least justified by a reasonable purpose, whereas the Republican accumulation of debt was for the sole purpose of convincing people that they could continue to have a huge military without paying for it.

The U.S. income tax may be characterized as "moderately progressive" only from the standpoint of rates...

If there's another sensible way to characterize the progressiveness of a tax regime, I'm unaware of it. The argument (which I think you've used before) that the amount paid by the top 1% is significant is simply ridiculous, because it just reflects a monumentally unequal distribution of income.

Re healthcare, presumably you know that a government-run healthcare system like that of the UK is not even on the table here. You may not know that studies have found that government run hospitals can have strikingly superior performance over private ones. And presumably you know that the US spends twice as much as other industrialized countries, all of whom have some form of universal socialized healthcare, for worse results? Is the US government somehow uniquely incompetent?

Argh, now you've got me debating health care, as if this thread was not divergent enough. How about we agree to disagree on that as on so many other things and stick to the subject at hand?

Michael said...

You make your hollowness and hypocrisy quite manifest when you can write straight-facedly that "nothing about human biodiversity suggests that people should not be treated as equals before the law," while in the same discussion defending a graduated or progressive income tax. I suspect you also defend "affirmative action." A flat tax would amount to treating people as equals before the law. Taxing them differently, depending upon their incomes, is not so treating them. Admitting people to public universities, or hiring them as civil servants, on the basis of their scores on a standard examination, would be consistent with treating them as equals before the law. "Affirmative action" is not so treating them. The left doesn't really believe in equal treatment under law, it believes in different treatment to achieve an equal, or at least a less unequal, result. And what, pray tell, does human biodiversity suggest about that?

Application of the word "unsustainable" about the current indebtedness of the United States government is hardly an idiosyncrasy on my part. According to the Wall Street Journal, 26 Aug. 2009, p. A14, the CBO predicts that goverment debt held by the public, which was 40.8% of GDP in 2008, will rise to 67.8% by 2019, and keep rising after that. The CBO, which operates under the aegis of the Democrat-controlled Congress, called that "unsustainable." If the CBO ever used such a term to describe government's debt burden under Reagan or Bush, I don't know. It is using it now, and I agree with it.

I don't recall that I was ever very favorable to Bush's spending in any comments I've made in this forum. I recall making the points that I voted for Buchanan, not Bush, and that the war in Iraq was a mistake. I was quite critical of TARP, and still am. The major failure of Bush's first six years was that he did not veto a single appropriations bill for fear of offending the Republican congressional leadership.

As for Reagan, it should be borne in mind that he had to contend with a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives throughout both his terms, and all appropriations bills must originate in the House. What he could do to control the Democrats' sacred cow, domestic spending, was quite limited. He was lucky to get what he did for the military, which - you cannot deny - kept economic and diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union that was at least part of what precipitated its fall. No doubt that was the accomplishment you really cannot forgive.

In general the problem with Republicans when they come to power in government is that the effect is largely like that of changing the crew of a locomotive. The new engineer may choke up on the throttle a little, and the new fireman may shovel coal into the firebox less vigorously, but the train is still headed down the roadbed laid under FDR and Lyndon Johnson, to the destination identified by Friedrich von Hayek, lo these many years ago. This is why "conservative" and Republican electoral politics has the rather hopeless character it does. As a reactionary, my recommendation is to tear up the tracks. Government should not have a destination. It ought to be about means rather than ends. That is what our founders believed, and I agree with them.

Michael said...

Further, as to whether human organs are or are not commodities - you have not yet outlined your reasons why they should not be. If you want me to engage you on this point, perhaps you ought to present them.

You begged off on this some time ago by saying that you "did not have time to develop this arugment [sic] in detail." So we have proceeded to discuss other issues for which you do apparently have time. That's not my fault. Instead it suggests that you don't have a coherent "arugment."

I'm really not sure whether transplantable human organs are in some abstract or ideal sense commodities, or are not; but certainly medical procedures generally are provided in economic transactions like any other product or service, and have a long history as such. Organ transplantation is a category of medical treatment, and the transplantable organs involved are ancillary to the treatments in the same way as drugs or prostheses are to other categories of medical treatment. In other words, they are just as much medicine's "stock in trade" as any other aspect of medicine. So let's be candid about what they really are in practice. And thus, once more, we come back to the two paradigms for distributing scarce resources - the auction or the queue. Which ought it to be - and why?

I agree that the selling of one's kidney or some such thing is likely to be an act of desperation, just as selling one's blood, or for that matter prostitution generally are. The issue of equality or egalitarianism comes into play in how we view the degraded person who comes to such a pass. Is that person a passive victim of a society somehow "unfair" to him, or is he someone who has made his own bed and now must sleep in it?

Even transactions that are in some respect exploitive of parties engaged in them involve volition on their parts. The desperate would-be organ seller, like the derelict who sells his blood to a for-pay blood bank, or the prostitute who rents her body to some sleazy and comparably desperate john, didn't start out where they have ended up. They got there on their own.

mtraven said...

The notion that progressive income taxes are some sort of violation of equal protection is ridiculous. Good luck taking that one to the Supreme Court, or anywhere else. I have mixed feeling about affirmative action and am not going to get into yet another complex issue here. But I can't resist posting this, which touches upon the subject, especially this passage: ...a particular strain of royal succession: those who inherit their position and and whose achievement is attributable to their mommies and daddies and yet ludicrously purport to be Stern Advocates for (and Beacons of) Meritocracy and become righteous opponents of "unfair" affirmative action on the ground that only merit should determine advancement.

I most certainly can deny that Reagan's military buildup had much to do with the collapse of the USSR. I know that's a favorite myth of the right but it is not well supported by history. Oh crap, you've got me talking about yet another entirely unrelated issue.

Your willingness to excuse the Republicans from their actions is pathetic. The fact is that they are no more a party of small government than the Democrats. They have zero interest in shrinking the government; their only goal is to direct the treasury into the pockets of their supporters, and ensuring that it intrudes into people's private lives.

Further, as to whether human organs are or are not commodities - you have not yet outlined your reasons why they should not be. If you want me to engage you on this point, perhaps you ought to present them.

There was a good deal of discussion of this earlier in the thread.

I'm really not sure whether transplantable human organs are in some abstract or ideal sense commodities

Seems like the wrong question. Like anything else, they are commodities if there exists sellers, buyers, and an absence of government regulation. That says nothing about whether they should be.

... but certainly medical procedures generally are provided in economic transactions like any other product or service, and have a long history as such

Don't be stupid. An organ sale is not merely a medical procedure, it is a medical HARM to the donor. It is thus a violatiion of the Hippocratic oath, if nothing else.

I agree that the selling of one's kidney or some such thing is likely to be an act of desperation, just as selling one's blood, or for that matter prostitution generally are.

Oh well good, we can agree on something.

I am of the opinion that it is in the power of society, in wealthy countries at least, to eliminate economic desperation. I believe I raised the notion of a negative income tax. So, I'll say it again. If we manage to guarantee people the basics necessities of life, and they still feel like they want to sell their organs, then by all means, they should go ahead. In that case, it would be a voluntary (if stupid) economic transaction.

I know, I know, if people are poor and desperate it is their own damn fault. They should have had the foresight to be born into wealth.

Michael said...

The basic social and economic entity is not the individual but the family. The ability of an individual to participate successfully in a family is as much a socially constructive behavior, and ought to be as economically rewarding, as (say) the obtaining of an academic degree.

Let us compare the examples of American citizens of Chinese and of African origin. Much is made of slavery and Jim Crow in explaining the subsequent poorer-than-average economic performance of African-Americans. Similarly, the first people of Chinese extraction to arrive in North America, the coolies who were imported to work on railroad construction, were barely more than slaves, and faced racial discrimination equal in virulence to that faced by blacks. Yet, when we compare the economic status of Americans of Chinese ancestry to that of Americans of African ancestry, there is a vast gap - academically, economically, socially. How can this be explained?

A substantial part of the explanation is that Chinese culture traditionally favors strong patriarchal families, and successful families have successful children. By contrast, the dysfunction of the black family has been well known since Moynihan reported on it forty years ago, and it has only gotten worse since that time. Finally, of course, there is the genetic element. As Greg Mankiw observes, "smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring." (gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2009/08/least-surprising-correlation-of-all.html). If you want to call Prof. Mankiw a racist, go right ahead. Name-calling is not a substitute for argumentation.

The reason why graduated taxation of incomes passes a Constitutional challenge on any grounds - including equal protection - is that the Sixteenth Amendment authorizes it, all other Constitutional provisions notwithstanding. It nonetheless amounts to unequal treatment to arrive at a less unequal result. Leftists at least used to be candid enough to admit this, just as they were about affirmative action. Affirmative action is and will continue to be subject to challenge because, as ought to be obvious, it has no comparable Constitutional standing.

Certainly the sale of one's kidney does oneself harm. So do recreational use of narcotics or that common consequence of engaging in prostitution, contracting a venereal disease. I'm not a libertarian, and I have no objection in principle to the state outlawing all these things. Certainly, fewer people would be public charges if the trade in heroin and cocaine could be suppressed. Certainly there would be less genital herpes, syphilis, AIDS, etc., if laws against prostitution, adultery, fornication, and sodomy could be vigorously enforced. The person who sells his kidney hurts no one but himself, while the dope addict not only does that but typically destroys his relationships with everyone near him, not infrequently scarring others permanently; the carrier of venereal disease not only suffers its deleterious effects, but infects others. Thus it could be argued that recreational drug use, prostitution, and other vices are worthier of condemnation on utilitarian grounds than the sale of one's own organs for transplantation.

The question in all these cases is whether it is practical to make such behavior unlawful, or whether it causes more problems to do so than not. It is thus we make a distinction between crime, which it is worth the state's effort to prosecute, and vice, which the law is better off neither to outlaw nor to protect, leaving it instead for civil society to discourage through moral suasion.

Your challenge, as it seems to me, is to say why the sale of a transplantable organ, which harms only the donor, should be forbidden - when you have said above you are "not sure" about prostitution, and you have elsewhere held that people have a right to commit sodomy. There's some inconsistency in this, isn't there?

mtraven said...

The basic social and economic entity is not the individual but the family...

Even if this were true I fail to see what it has to do with anything.

Your comparision of Chinese coolie labor to African slaves is specious. In the latter case, they had to pass through a period of a couple of hundred years of forcible breaking of family ties, a process which did not occur with Chinese immigrants. And again, I fail to see what this has to do with anything.

The Mankiw emission that you cite has already been amply refuted, it is statistically ignorant and sociologically ignorant. And yet again, irrelevant to the topic under discussion.

But of course, you can't resist injecting some racism into the discussion no matter what the topic is.

The reason why graduated taxation of incomes passes a Constitutional challenge on any grounds - including equal protection - is that the Sixteenth Amendment authorizes it...

That amendment says absolutely nothing about graduated rates, so what in the world are you talking about?

Your challenge, as it seems to me, is to say why the sale of a transplantable organ, which harms only the donor, should be forbidden - when you have said above you are "not sure" about prostitution, and you have elsewhere held that people have a right to commit sodomy. There's some inconsistency in this, isn't there?

What does sodomy have to do with anything? It is not a commercial transaction (unless it is also prostitution) and there is nothing wrong with it. The reason organ-selling and prostitution should be outlawed is that they are inherently exploitative transactions. The abuses of prostituton may perhaps be ameliorated by legalization and regulation as it is in Nevada and Amsterdam, but I don't really know that much about the issue. It is hard to see a similar amelioration for organ selling.

As to what constitutes exploitation, I'll have to defer to Potter Stewart's definition of pornography -- I know it when I see it. Or if you want something more theoretical, see the paper on "toxic markets" cited above.

Michael said...

My points about the successful family were in direct response to your quotation beginning "a particular strain of royal succession..."

It should be obvious to anyone with functional senses and mentation that success runs in families for reasons both cultural and genetic, just as failure runs in others, and that this is the reason why socioeconomic stratification is observable in all societies since the dawn of civilisation. It is an organic development of civil society, semper, ubique, et ab omnibus, and for the state to try to prevent it is both futile and counterproductive.

In Anglo-American law, it is axomatic that whatever is not specifically prohibited is permitted. The Sixteenth Amendment grants Congress unrestricted power to "lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived." It does not need to mention graduated rates in order to permit them. It would have needed to mention them only if there had been an intention to prohibit them. That graduated income taxes amount to unequal treatment of persons to arrive at a less unequal result is not in any event a Constitutional question, but simply a matter of fact. As I previously noted, the left at least used to be quite overt and unapologetic about its motivations for supporting such taxation. Why you seem to want to deny them is puzzling.

It is true that prostitution, recreational narcotics use, and organ-selling involve commercial transactions, while sodomy (and fornication and adultery) may not. But all of these acts involve harm or the substantial risk of harm to those who engage in them. Sodomy has, as needless to say, proven a very effective vector for an incurable venereal disease that is commonplace amongst its devotés. You DO live in San Francisco, don't you? How could it have escaped you?

If, in any event, the objection to the legal sale of organs is that the seller will suffer harm, and you wish the law to prevent that harm, the same reasoning may as well apply to the other acts - whether they are commercial transactions or not. Indeed, as I've previously pointed out, the sale of one's own organs can possibly result in harm to only one party - the seller. The sexual acts mentioned, all of which have a long history of spreading disease, have much more widespread potential for harm.

Therefore, if prohibiting harm to self or to others, even though it should result from consensual acts, is a legitimate function of law, from the utilitarian standpoint there is a stronger case for outlawing these various acts of sexual promiscuity than there is for outlawing organ-selling.

mtraven said...

It should be obvious to anyone with functional senses and mentation that success runs in families for reasons...for the state to try to prevent it is both futile and counterproductive.

On the contrary, breaking up stale patterns of dominance in favor of more meritocratic arrangements is exactly what the state should be doing. If the scions of the rich are so genetically superior, they will get into Harvard and do well for themselves even if they have to compete with non-legacy admissions.

I can't begin to describe how pathetic I find the whinging of the privileged classes at the thought that they might have to loosen their grip a little bit. If you are so damn superior, deal with reality.

That graduated income taxes amount to unequal treatment of persons to arrive at a less unequal result is not in any event a Constitutional question, but simply a matter of fact.

It's not. The function that maps income to tax can be anything: a horizontal line (a head tax), a linear sloping line (a flat tax) or a curve (a progressive tax). There's nothing magically more equitable about a flat tax than any other tax regime. If you measure tax impact in disutilty to the payer, than a progressive tax makes the impact more equitable.

The argument against organ selling is not based on harm per se. If people want to voluntarily engage in risky activities like unprotected sex or hang-gliding, it is (mostly) their business. The argument is based on on the existence of social and economic relationships that impose harm on people who would not choose it voluntarily. I've already made this fairly clear if you would bother to read and understand what has already been said.

Michael said...

In one passage you write that it ought to be the function of the state to interfere in the distribution of wealth and in another you deny that so doing is a practice of unequal treatment to produce a less-unequal result. The contradiction is obvious. If you style yourself an egalitarian you are one that wishes the state to exert its power in making the unequal more equal, which entails treating them differently.

Harvard is of course a private school and has legacy admissions because they are of some value to it in raising funds. If they did not generate advantage for Harvard they'd not exist there. As for state universities, I suppose the quickest way for them to improve their reputations would be to admit selectively on the basis of a strictly objective standard of academic merit. They don't, obviously, the reasons being political rather than as straightforwardly and harmlessly economic as those for a private school's legacy admissions.

The arguments against graduated or progressive taxes are more than just those against unequal treatment, needless to say. You haven't said a thing in rebuttal of Reihan Salam's observation that the poor in the egalitarian social democracies have not ended up with any greater percentage of the median income than they do in the U.S. Furthermore, you haven't touched on the question of the unreliability as a revenue source of a tax that is incident upon a very small segment of the population. I should expect that as a Californian you ought to be aware of this problem. Finally, as even the liberal former Democratic senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley, recently acknowledged in discussing the Reagan-era tax reform of 1986 in an editorial in the New York Times, a flatter tax both yields better revenues and strengthens the economy as a whole.

No one is forcing a would-be kidney seller to undertake such a transaction. No one forces a prostitute to sell her favors, either. There's certainly far less compulsion in either of those transactions than there is, for example, in my purchase of automobile insurance, which my state requires by law of an automobile owner. Does your objection to involuntary transactions extend to such a law? If not, why not?

Maybe kidney-selling or prostitution are behaviors some people engage in out of desperation, but many others equally desperate do not. No economic transaction is ever completely balanced in the degree of urgency one party may feel to sell or to buy as compared to that felt by the other to buy or to sell. If all unequal transactions were to be prohibited nothing would ever take place.

In any event - in the case of a kidney transplant, which party is the more desperate? The seller, who needs the money for whatever purpose he has in mind - or the buyer, who needs it in order not to die?

So, we come back to the question of self-harm. We have all sorts of laws against various activities that might result in it. One may not, in many jurisdictions, ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet. In almost all, one may not ride in a car without buckling one's seat belt. And so on. What I would like to know is what your calculus is in supporting laws prohibiting some potentially self-harming activities and opposing laws that would forbid others. There seems to be a lack of consistent principle.

mtraven said...

If you can't be bothered to try to understand what I write then I can't be bothered to go back-and-forth on particular points. I'll answer the ones that have some degree of interestingness and pertinentance.

Finally, as even the liberal former Democratic senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley, recently acknowledged in discussing the Reagan-era tax reform of 1986 in an editorial in the New York Times, a flatter tax both yields better revenues and strengthens the economy as a whole.

I assume you are referring to this, which does not mention flatness at all. Or is there another piece you are referring to?

No one is forcing a would-be kidney seller to undertake such a transaction. No one forces a prostitute to sell her favors, either. There's certainly far less compulsion in either of those transactions than there is, for example, in my purchase of automobile insurance, which my state requires by law of an automobile owner. Does your objection to involuntary transactions extend to such a law? If not, why not?

Don't be stupid, please. I did not object to "involuntary transactions"; I objected to social and economic relationships that are inherently and obviously exploitative. If you don't like that line of thought, fine, argue with that, not with something you imagine I said.

Maybe kidney-selling or prostitution are behaviors some people engage in out of desperation, but many others equally desperate do not.

Maybe you have some evidence to indicate the existence of people who sell their kidneys for reasons other than desperation? Unless you do, I'll listen to the people who actually know something about it.

And I already made a proposal that would ensure that people selling kidneys would not be acting out of desperation. Consider it a thought experiment at least. If someone had access to the basics of life for themselves and their family, would they still be willing to part with a kidney, say for enough money to buy better food or a flat-screen TV? If so, and assuming they were well-informed about the risks and otherwise not defrauded, let them go ahead.

No economic transaction is ever completely balanced in the degree of urgency one party may feel to sell or to buy as compared to that felt by the other to buy or to sell. If all unequal transactions were to be prohibited nothing would ever take place. In any event - in the case of a kidney transplant, which party is the more desperate? The seller, who needs the money for whatever purpose he has in mind - or the buyer, who needs it in order not to die?

The would-be buyer may be desperate, but he is not in danger of being exploited by sellers. At least, not on this planet.

So, we come back to the question of self-harm.

No, we don't.

Michael said...

I am referring to the Bradley piece to which you link.

I wrote that "Bradley... acknowledged... a flatter tax both yields better revenues and strengthens the economy as a whole."

Bradley wrote that the 1986 bill "lowered the top tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent, eliminated $30 billion annually in loopholes and resulted in the wealthy contributing a higher percentage of income-tax revenues than they had before the reform."

The 1986 tax was a flatter tax than the one it replaced because it reduced the top bracket from 50% to 28% and eliminated loopholes. What part of that statement of fact do you fail to comprehend? Furthermore, it resulted in the wealthy paying a higher percentage of income-tax revenues than they had before the reform. Indeed, total income tax revenues rose after the reform, as the relevant IRS statistical abstracts will demonstrate. GDP grew at a rate outpacing inflation during the Reagan terms, hence the effect of the reform was to all appearances that of strengthening the economy as a whole

It was not only loophole elimination that contributed to the revenue increase, it was the reduction of the top marginal rate. The law of diminishing returns applies to taxation just as it does to the setting of any sort of price. At 50% that rate was well beyond the point of diminishing returns. At 28% it was closer to the revenue-maximizing point.

Pointing this out is not, by the way, "whinging" (I assume you mean either whingeing or whining). Neither is my earlier observation that graduated income taxes and affirmative action amount to unequal treatment to attain a less unequal result. I made the latter observation only because you were prating about "equal treatment under law," your asserted belief in which does not seem congruent with either.

You wrote: "Maybe you have evidence to indicate the existence of people who sell their kidneys for reasons other than desperation?"

As a matter of fact I have no evidence about the existence of people who sell their kidneys for any reason, because under a 1984 law, it is illegal in the United States for a live donor to accept "valuable consideration" in return for an organ. Such transactions do not take place in the United States, or at least there is no documentable source to which we might refer about persons who might have engaged in them. This law has been blamed for the short supply of kidneys available for those that need them. This to one side, any claim about the motivation of putative kidney-sellers is pure speculation on your part.

If not by purchase, how is the present shortage of transplantable organs to be eased? Perhaps you like the Chinese solution better, namely executing criminals to provide them. Perhaps persons applying for the dole ought to be required to volunteer, in return for the support given them by the taxpayer. Maybe supplying organs for transplantation is their best and highest use, since so many of them appear to be useless for anything else.

mtraven said...

The 1986 tax was a flatter tax than the one it replaced ... it resulted in the wealthy paying a higher percentage of income-tax revenues than they had before the reform.

Hm, seems to be a bit of a contradiction there.

You have things backwards (big surprise). The 1986 tax code resulted in effective rates that were actually mildly more progressive than what it replaced.

GDP grew at a rate outpacing inflation during the Reagan terms, hence the effect of the reform was to all appearances that of strengthening the economy as a whole

Right, because nothing else was going on at the time, such as massive run up of debt.

Also, GDP growth during that period was nothing special. I took the trouble of making a graph.

... I have no evidence about the existence of people who sell their kidneys for any reason, because under a 1984 law, it is illegal in the United States for a live donor to accept "valuable consideration" in return for an organ.

The world does not consist of only the United States, there are countries where organ selling is tolerated, and I already cited (repeatedly) articles that describe the results.

If not by purchase, how is the present shortage of transplantable organs to be eased?

Where did the idea come from that any rich asshole who gets sick is entitled to someone else's kidney?

Actually there are some proposed solutions to this, such as networks of paired organ donations. What this effectively does is turn kidneys into a nonconvertable currency -- you can buy one, but the price is another kidney (from a spouse or relative typically).

Here's another idea (which I just thought of, although I can't believe I'm the first) -- have organ insurance pool. You sign up for this, and the rules are that if you get sick you are entitled to someone else's kidney in your group, assuming a match is available. The donwside of course is that if someone else gets sick they have a right to demand a kidney from you.

Perhaps persons applying for the dole ought to be required to volunteer, in return for the support given them by the taxpayer.

Thinking like that is exactly the reason it's important to create a bright line against organ sales in the first place.

Personally, I think that large swathes of the upper classes are fairly useless, if not downright harmful in some cases (ie, 99.9% of the finance "industry"). They consume vast quantities of resources that could support people who are actually creative and productive. I'm sure better uses can be found for them.

Michael said...

Odd that you should now say the reduction of the top marginal bracket from 50% to 28% resulted in a "moderately more progressive tax" when earlier you denied that progressivity could be viewed from any other standpoint than rate. Indeed it the tax became moderately more progressive in INCIDENCE after the reform, despite the reduction in rate. The elimination of so-called loopholes did not account for the entire amount of increase in revenue. The dynamic effect of the rate change did.

It's a mistake to view tax rate changes from a static point of view, because they always bring about a different set of incentives. Reduction of the tax on capital gains, for example, created less disincentive to realize them, and since capital gains can only be taxed after they have been realized, the reduction in rate brought in more revenues from this source. Elasticity is manifested with respect to taxes just as it is with respect to prices.

I agree that we could do without many of the present nomenklatura that run things, like Chris Dodd or Charles Rangel. The problem with an egalitarian ideology is that while it cannot prevent the emergence of an elite, the elite that emerges under it does not exhibit the traditional aristocratic virtues, particularly those of honor and stewardship. The elite products of egalitarian ideology are, in other words, Snopeses rather than Sartorises. At present such people co-exist with the remnant of an older and better elite who could more properly be described as "honestiores" in the ancient Roman sense. It is only the latter class I value.

As for the 'financial industry,' I hope you won't forget the folks that ran Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, those failed government experiments in rigging the mortage market for purposes of social engineering. They and the management of the Federal Reserve system are primarily responsible for the current economic circumstance.

In any event the uselessness of the criminal and welfare-parasite lumpen element from my point of view is probably in yours a useful quality, since they both terrorize and sap the productive parts of society, while at the same time providing reliable votes for left-wing politicians.

You might be interested to know how Cass Sunstein, one of Obama's "czar" appointees, proposes to deal with the transplantable organ shortage. At present, when one applies for a driving license, most states provide a box on the form that the applicant may tick if he is willing to be an organ donor. It is, in other words, an opt-in process to which one must give explicit consent. Sunstein would change this to an "implicit consent" procedure. To be fair to him, he would allow people to tick a box whereby they might opt out - if they happened to notice it. But the phrase "implicit consent" is uncomfortably close to the "implied consent" the holder of a driving license gives to blood alcohol testing, from which there is no opting-out. Like so many government programs, what begins as voluntary may soon become compulsory, and those who are injured in auto accidents could well end up falling into the hands of some ghoulish triage procedure that will conclude their best and highest use is as sources of harvestable organs. How do you like them apples?

mtraven said...

There is obviously a difference between the nominal rates and the effective rates, and either or both can be progressive. Why is it interesting to nitpick on this issue?

...the elite that emerges under it does not exhibit the traditional aristocratic virtues, particularly those of honor and stewardship.

Ah yes, The Aristocrats!

You might be interested to know how Cass Sunstein, one of Obama's "czar" appointees, proposes to deal with the transplantable organ shortage... those who are injured in auto accidents could well end up falling into the hands of some ghoulish triage procedure that will conclude their best and highest use is as sources of harvestable organs. How do you like them apples?

Good God, you can't be seriously arguing this Glenn Beck-level horseshit. I thought you were smarter than that. Perhaps this is supposed to be a feeble attempt at humor?