Hard Thoughts About Security, Sciences, and the Humanities

846 - 9-11 From Space
Image of the 9-11 attacks from space, taken by NASA. (Available from the Wikipedia entry on the 9-11 attacks.)

In the wake of another shooting of unarmed American servicemen, the Navy (according to NBC) “plans to station armed guards at all of its reserve centers across the country.” That might be a good idea, but it falls far short of what most Americans have been calling for as an apparently common-sense reaction to attacks on servicemen and women on their bases: let them carry guns. I mean, these guys are trained to handle firearms, right? What could be more obvious than giving a gun to a soldier or marine?

Yeah, it’s not actually that obvious. And it’s not just politics that are stopping that from happening:

Negligent discharges: One subject the military really doesn’t like to talk about (Foreign Policy)

Here’s an amazing number that I had never seen before: Since the beginning of the U.S. operation in Iraq [through May 2011], more than 90 U.S. military personnel have been killed there by negligent weapons discharges.

‘Disturbing trend’ seen in negligent discharges of weapons in Afghanistan (Stars and Stripes)

In the past 18 months, troops in Afghanistan have accidentally killed themselves or others at least six times and wounded nearly two dozen more troops through unsafe weapons handling, according to Army statistics released to Stars and Stripes.


There are other reasons for not issuing weapons to on-base personnel (the logistical headache is immense, especially when considering that bases have to get locked down whenever a weapon is misplaced), but the big one is the simple one: handing out guns is liable to end up killing more folks than the terrorist could accomplish.

Terrorist attacks are scary, but in many cases the irrational reaction of people to scary things is more dangerous than the thing that they are afraid of. Fear might not be the only thing we have to fear, but it’s definitely near the top of the list. Another example: more folks probably died in car crashes they took to avoid flying after 9-11 then actually died in the 9-11 attacks.

In the months after the 2001 terror attacks, passenger miles on the main US airlines fell by between 12% and 20%, while road use jumped. The change is widely believed to have been caused by concerned passengers opting to drive rather than fly. Travelling long distances by car is more dangerous than travelling the same distance by plane. Measuring the exact effect is complex because there is no way of knowing for sure what the trends in road travel would have been had 9/11 not happened. However, Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, a German academic specialising in risk, has estimated that an extra 1,595 Americans died in car accidents in the year after the attacks – indirect victims of the tragedy.

That was just the first 12 months after the attack. If the trend continued for another few years–even at a reduced rate–it could easily be the case that the number surpassed the 9/11 death toll.

As human beings we like to pretend that we don’t put a price tag on human life, but that’s not true. We do. All the time. We just don’t actually look at it. In my systems engineering courses, for example, we learned various ways to extrapolate a price value for a human life based on indirect decisions. Simplistic example: suppose there’s a dangerous portion of a highway with no physical barrier between opposing lanes, and every year 5 people die in accidents there. Installing a concrete barrier would lower that to 4 lives, and would cost $100,000. If the barrier doesn’t get installed then, willingly or not, we’re saying that a human life is worth less than $100,000 in this case.

Of course you can’t actually derive a “real” value of human life that way, but that’s actually one of the most interesting things: if you apply this kind of analysis across a wide range of examples–from road safety to asbestos removal–you will easily see that when the threat isn’t scary (as with traffic deaths) the value of human life is very low. But when it is scary–as with asbestos–we will often as a society decide to spend millions of dollars or more per life saved.

It’s not just about money, of course. I’m only using that as an example of the fact that–even when we don’t like to admit it–we have to make these kinds of trade-offs. They are unavoidable. This is why, every time I hear someone say something, “We have to do whatever it takes to save even one life,” I have to stifle an urge to smack them. Anyone saying that is a fool or a liar. In either case, the last person that should be in charge of deciding what we’re willing to spend to save a life is the kind of person who pretends we don’t have to make the decision at all.

It’s not just about money, by the way. There are other things at stake. How many of our civil liberties and our culture of openness have we already sacrificed in the name of preventing terrorist attacks? What are we getting for those sacrifices? Not much, most estimates seem to say, but the real answer is: no one knows. No one knows ’cause we’re not even supposed to ask the question. We’re not supposed to admit that there’s a tradeoff. That there’s a cost.

This kind of emotional decision-making is double-edged disaster. We spend billions on scary things that aren’t that dangerous, and then refuse to spend smaller sums of money on things that could save large numbers of lives. I was in Hungary for the last two weeks and, in trying to explain why most of America doesn’t have effective public transportation networks–I got to explaining our culture of cars. I pointed out that, because transportation to school and sporting events and other activities is so complicated and (time) expensive, we continue to let kids start driving at 16 in large part as a way to offload the burden on their parents. My Hungarian friend–where the minimum driving age is 18 and lots of people don’t get licenses until much later (if at all)–asked if the 16-year old drivers were good drivers. Of course they are not, I said. They have very little training, very little experience, and are dangerously immature. Doesn’t that result in danger? Well, yes it does. Off the top of my head, there are about 30,000 fatalities related to driving in the US every year. Of course, a lot of those don’t have anything to do with teenage drivers (drunk driving is a pretty huge portion of it), but there’s no doubt that thousands of kids are killed or seriously injured every single year. What would it cost to save them? Who knows. Where’s the rhetoric about, “If we can save even one life…”? Nowhere. Because it’s not scary.

I put a lot of emphasis–I’ve done it in this post and we do it in many of our blogs at Difficult Run–on the kind of quantitative analysis that you get from economics (my background) or engineering (Bryan’s) or business (Walker’s) or computer science (Ro’s). Sometimes I even go out of my way to take a swipe at the humanities–especially modern art and academia. But I understand very well that these are not fundamentally quantitative questions. Neither economics, nor engineering, nor business, nor computer science can answer questions about the tradeoffs we have to make between dollars or hours or civil liberties on the one hand and lives on the other. These are fundamentally philosophical and moral questions, and we have to seek philosophical and moral answers. And, like all philosophical and moral questions, they will probably never have a clear, objective, final answer.

But seeking those answers is worth it. It’s worth it from a practical standpoint because the kind of emotionally-driven policy that arises in the absence of clear-eyed analysis is Pareto inefficient. Sorry for the econ jargon, but it’s an important term. If a situation is Pareto efficient, it means that you can’t make one person better without taking from someone else. So Pareto efficiency isn’t necessarily a good place to be. It could be very unfair, for example. If you give $10 to Tom and $90 to Sue, that’s Pareto efficient, but it’s not fair. But the one thing that Pareto efficiency gets you is no waste. If you give $10 to Tom and $10 to Sue and then light the other $80 on fire, that’s Pareto inefficient. So Pareto efficiency shouldn’t be a final goal but it should be a bare minimum. And right now, there’s no doubt that our patchwork response to security is far, far from Pareto efficiency.

Simple example of Pareto efficiency from the Wikipedia page. All the red dots are Pareto efficient because there’s no waste: you’re getting all you can out of Item 1 and Item 2. The only way to get more of Item 1 in that case is to give up some of Item 2 (or vice versa). The gray dots are Pareto inefficient. You can get more if Item 1 without sacrificing Item 2 (or vice versa). If you imagine the two items are “Safety” and “Civil Liberties” you can see that picking which of the red points is difficult, but picking *ANY* of the gray points is insanity.

Seeking the answers is also worthwhile from a philosophical standpoint. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I believe that’s because if you don’t examine your life it’s not really your life. You’re just acting out the social conditioning you’ve been raised with. You’re not an independent agent in that case. You’re just a conduit through which cause and effect flow. Once you examine your life–once you adopt certain principles and attitudes and goals based on your own deliberation and values–you start to truly live. And this is true even if you don’t actually change very many of your decisions or actions. You might take a hard look and decide that the values and goals you ended up with from your parents and society are actually fairly reasonable and keep things more or less as-is, but–even in that case–there’s been a tremendously important shift because now they are your values and your goals.

So, when I write posts expressing cynicism about modern art or academic philosophy, it’s not because I think that art or philosophy are dispensable. It’s because I think that they are indispensable, but that (1) the modern incarnations have often lost their way and become empty shells and (2) they become monstrous in the absence of a commitment to including hard data where applicable.

From my perspective, it doesn’t take a lot to remind an economist that art isn’t accounted for in the GDP figures. Physicists ignore air resistance in an awful lot of their models, but it’s not like they actually get confused and forget that it exists. Economists ignore lots of human foibles in their models for the same reason, and they are just as unlikely to somehow become confused and mistake the simplified models for the real thing. In fact, I would argue that very few people are more aware of human foibles than economists precisely because they are so routinely reminded of the incredible gap between their simple models and messy reality. Thus, we get books like Nudge or The Myth of the Rational Voter or Predictably Irrational: all investigations into how economic models of human nature fail written by economists.

On the other hand, I have routinely had to sit through painfully ignorant scientific or economic diatribes by humanities scholars who literally don’t have the first clue about what they are talking about. There’s a reason Marx is not taken seriously as an economist by economists and yet you will still find plenty of Marxists in English departments who either don’t know or don’t care to separate from his philosophical stances (which continue to be relevant and interesting) and his economic theories (which are about as relevant for modern economic policymaking as Copernicus’ model of the solar system is to getting an astronaut to the moon.)

In simple terms: I know lots of economists and engineers and scientists who are conversant with, for example, pragmatism, but I don’t know of any humanities professors who could give you a cogent explanation of, say, marginalism.

Maybe that assessment is off base. It could be.

But the point–and this is true regardless of my perception of whether the humanites or the sciences are in deeper trouble today–is that we need an approach that embraces both and rejects fear-based decision making. We need folks to be conversant in the elementary basics of statistics and math and have an intuitive desire to base their analysis on hard data and then be willing to use that as the foundation for moral and philosophical arguments about how to set policy based on open-eyed analysis rather than emotionally-driven instinct.

Is that asking a lot? Maybe. But come on, people. How much time do we spend watching cat videos or reflexively sharing political memes that assume the other side is all composed of evil morons?

We can do better than we are doing.


Walmart as Hero: 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

Today is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina‘s destructive collision with the Gulf Coast. “The surge and battering waves smashed into levees, which collapsed, causing extensive flooding throughout the New Orleans region. Ultimately, 80 percent of New Orleans and large portions of nearby parishes became flooded, and the floodwaters did not recede for weeks. The National Guard was called in to help with evacuations. Thousands sought refuge in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome, which were overwhelmed. It was one of the largest displacements of a population since the Great Depression, according to the NOAA.” The federal government’s response became highly politicized due to its multiple day response and lack of preparation. What is often overlooked is the response from the private sector. A case in point is Walmart. Though often maligned as nothing more than a greedy corporation, the incentives and preparation of Walmart allowed it to respond quickly and effectively to the Katrina disaster. As we reflect on the lessons learned from that day 10 years ago, we should attempt to learn the right lessons. Economist Steven Horwitz provides some of those below.

Lots of Hugo Losers

843 - Sci Fi Cover
“Alien Crater” by Flickr user Serendigity. Click image to see original on Flickr.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time following the Hugos this year, including over a dozen interviews with writers and editors in the sci-fi community, and so I was up until 3am on Sunday morning looking through the results. I’ve read a lot of reactions since then–from both pro-Puppy and anti-Puppy sources–and my main take away is that there are an awful lot of losers this year and very few winners.

One of the winners is Liu Cixin, the author of this year’s Best Novel: The Three-Body Problem. There’s no doubt in my mind, as someone who read all the best novel nominees and voted in the awards, that Liu’s novel deserved to win. But how it won is probably the most important take away for me from this whole fiasco.

First, of course, a brief recap. A group of conservative / libertarian authors–originally led by Larry Correia and this year by Brad Torgersen–led an initiative called Sad Puppies 3. Their goal was, according to Torgersen, to strike back against a small social-political clique of social justice warriors who had dominated the Hugos in recent years. The Sad Puppy strategy was to nominate authors who (1) were good, (2) were ideologically diverse, and (3) wouldn’t have otherwise made the ballot. Another group–the Rabid Puppies–mirrored the Sad Puppies slate almost exactly but had a much harder edge to their rhetoric. Their leader, Theodore Beale aka “Vox Day”is a very controversial figure. His real beliefs and actions are often distorted by an unfriendly media, but the reality is that even without distortion he’s not an appealing character.

Things exploded in April when the nominations were announced and it turned out that the Sad Puppies / Rabid Puppies slate had basically swept the ballot, pushing almost all other works by all other authors off the slate. This was not intentional, in the sense that nobody–not Torgersen or Correia or Day–believed that their slate would be so successful. This meant, among other things, that The Three Body Problem was initially not on the ballot thanks to the Sad Pupppies / Rabid Puppies campaign.

At this point, the reasonable thing would have been for the Sad Puppies to state publicly that sweeping the ballot was not the intended goal of the Sad Puppies and that they would take steps (Sad Puppies 4 had already been announced) to avoid slate-sweeping next year. They did not.

At this point, the reasonable thing would have been for prominent critics of the Sad Puppies to concede that the Sad Puppies were reacting to a legitimate grievance. The insular sci-fi community is highly susceptible to favor-trading (aka “log rolling“) and the high percentage of social justice warriors in the community made an unwelcome atmosphere for conservatives or libertarians and could certainly have had an effect on the composition of the awards in recent years. They did not.

Instead, the critics of the Sad Puppies launched a truly breathtaking campaign of slander and intimidation that focused on calling the Sad Puppies campaign misogynist, racist, and homophobic. The best example of this is the Entertainment Weekly article that had to be “fixed” almost beyond recognition when Torgersen threatened a lawsuit over the obvious lies. (Original version. Current version.) As a result of these tactics, Torgersen and other Sad Puppies supporters were in absolutely no mood to concede their mistake and make concilliatory gestures. So nobody from Sad Puppies suggested that their tactic had been a mistake or made promises to alter the tactics for next year. In addition, several Sad Puppies nominees backed out of their awards when they saw how angry many in the sci-fi community were, including Marko Kloos. He pulled his novel Lines of Departure (which was really, really good and deserved to be on the slate) and as a result The Three-Body Problem was placed on the ballot instead.

And yet the Sad Puppy / Rabid Puppy tactics obviously were a mistake. First, as I said, there’s the immense problem with The Three-Body Problem not even making the ballot. Sure, taste is subjective, but this book was really, really good. More importantly, however, it’s a book that was originally published in China in 2008. You want real intellectual diversity? Well there you go: a book that is literally off the American socio-political map. Additionally, the Sad Puppies again and again defended many of their choices (like Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars) by referring to the author rather than the work. Best novel is an award for best novel. It’s not some kind of lifetime achievement award. So the repeated references to Anderson’s contribution to the genre (he’s written over 100 books) were not only irrelevant, but a real give-away that the Sad Puppies 3 slate had basically no serious thought behind it. It was just a haphazard collection of books a few of the Sad Puppies folks had happened to read last year, without sufficient regard for quality of the individual works.

As a result, the anti-puppies movement was able to easily cast the Sad and Rabid Puppies as invaders who had come to ruin the Hugos. Their hysterical accusations that the Puppies were Nazi’s were silly, but their accusation that the Puppies were ruining the awards had real validity. Sad Puppy opponents insisted that the only solution was for fandom to rise up in righteous wrath and repudiate the incursion by voting “No Award” above any and all Sad / Rabid Puppy nominations. This surge was quite strong. Nobody knew how strong until the votes were announced this past weekend, but–according to some preliminary analysis at Chaos Horizon–the breakdown of the record-breaking 6,000 voters went as follows:

  • Core Rabid Puppies: 550-525
  • Core Sad Puppies: 500-400
  • Absolute No Awarders: 2500
  • Primarily No Awarders But Considered a Puppy Pick: 1000
  • That sums up to 4600 hundred voters. We had 5950, so I thin the remaining 1400 or so were the true “Neutrals” or the “voted some Puppies but not all.”

My take away, thus far, is pretty simple. The Puppies absolutely have a legitimate grievance, and the vile slander that came out vindicates them. Furthermore, the “No Award” campaign clearly crossed a line from a legitimate attempt to punish the bad tactics of the Puppies to a witch hunt when, for example, it No Awarded the Editor categories. Chaos Horizon again:

I’m stunned at the 2500 No Awarders in the Editor categories; there were some mainstream, decent editors on that list. If 2500 people were voting No Award on that, that’s out of principle.

A lot of those editors had no affiliation with Sad Puppies and may not have given permission to be on the Sad Puppy slate (or even been aware of it). Punishing them is going too far.

On the other hand, the Sad Puppy tactic was a terrible tactic and their refusal to acknowledge this and/or pledge not to repeat it justified a lot of the negative counter-reaction. They also, in my own opinion, picked some really terrible works that didn’t deserve to be nominated on strictly apolitical, aesthetic grounds. (I will include my votes at the end of this post.)

But there was one more thing in the Chaos Horizon data that really, really stuck out to me:

What the Best Novel category would have looked like with No Puppy votes:
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie
The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu
Lock In, John Scalzi
City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

Other initial Best Novel analysis: Goblin Emperor lost the Best Novel to Three-Body Problem by 200 votes. Since there seem to have been at least 500 Rabid Puppy voters who followed VD’s suggestion to vote Liu first, this means Liu won because of the Rabid Puppies. Take that as you will. [emphasis added]

So, as I said at the outset, the fate of the eventual winner speaks volumes about this entire sordid fiasco. First, the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies kept Liu off the ballot. But in the end, it was their votes that put him over the top. That lineup also speaks volumes, I think, about the Sad Puppy’s original accusation. There’s really no way that Ancillary Sword should have won this year. I don’t think it even should have been nominated. It’s mediocre. But it’s also far and away the most politically palatable book and its presence at the top is a strong indication to me of exactly what the Puppies are complaining: politics ahead of quality.

In short, we’ve got two fairly extreme factions (the Sad / Rabid Puppies and the SJWs) who are basically wrecking the Hugos for everyone at this point. If either of these groups had had it their way, The Three-Body Problem would not have come out on top. I am very pleased with the best novel winner this year, but neither of the factions gets credit for this happy outcome.

Next Year: Sad Puppies 4

I support the stated goals of Sad Puppies, and I hope they run the campaign again next year, but only on the following conditions:

  1. Pick better books. Some of the picks were great. Others were… really not.
  2. Pick the books for the right reasons: because the work is good, not because the author is important / wrote a lot / etc.
  3. Make the pre-nomination process more transparent.
  4. Do not ask for or notify any authors that their works will be included. This puts the authors in a terrible position and is not a standard practice.
  5. In every category, nominate either 1-2 works or 8+ works. Doing this prevents the accusation of slate-voting and will also make it very unlikely that the Puppies will sweep any categories.
  6. Tell people that this is the plan, and do so earlier.

If they don’t do this–and it looks like they won’t–then I’m going back to my default position: A pox on both your houses. Damn the SJWs for making this award about politics or identity instead of quality and also for their intolerant witch hunt tactics when confronting anyone who disagrees with them. And damn the Puppies for their disregard for the traditions of the Hugo award and their stubborn refusal to be good neighbors.

My Votes

I’m including my votes for the literary categories: Novel, Novelette, and Short Story. I ran out of time and couldn’t finish all the novellas, so I didn’t vote in that category. My approach was to vote based strictly on quality. I couldn’t always remember who was or was not a Puppy nominee, and I didn’t care. Based on my approach and voting pattern, I would fit as a “neutral” in the Chaos Horizon analysis.

Also: I’m kind of a strict voter. I used “No Award” more than once when I felt that the work just didn’t deserve a Hugo. This is my first year voting, but I’ve read a lot of past Hugo winners (novel and shorter length) and there have definitely been several that I feel are blemishes on the award. So I had an attitude going in that if the book wasn’t one I could be proud of as a sci-fi fan, I would no award it, but only for that reason. Politics had nothing to do with it for me.

I noted which stories were nominated by the Sad or Rabid Puppies (had to look that up), and I also bolded the actual winner.

Best Novel

1. Skin Game (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
2. Three-Body Problem
3. No Award
4. Goblin Emperor
5. Ancilliary Sword
6. The Dark Between the Stars (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)

After reading The Three Body-Problem, I was sure it would get my #1 vote. But then I reread Skin Game (to have them all read at more or less the same time), and it really is one of Jim Butcher’s finest. I would have been really happy either way.

I think Goblin Emperor is very, very close to being Hugo-worthy, but it wasn’t quite there. I wouldn’t have been upset by that one winning. Ancilliary Sword was just mediocre in my mind. And I really, really didn’t like The Dark Between the Stars at all.

The Sad and Rabid Puppies both nominated Marko Kloos’ Lines of Departure and–since it made the ballot before he withdrew it–I read it. I thought it was great, and would have put it right after The Three-Body Problem.

Best Novelette

1. The Day the World Turned Upside Down 
2. The Journeyman: In the Stone House (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
3. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
4. The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
5. No Award
6. Championship B’tok (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)

I can’t overstate how much I loved “The Day the World Turned Upside Down.” I’m quite happy that it won. The rest were pretty good to OK. Except “Championship B’tok.” I am very confused as to how that got nominated. It felt like it could have been part of a decent novel, but it didn’t seem to function as a stand-alone story at all.  It was as though someone literally just grabbed a few random chapters out of the middle of a book and packaged them as a stand-alone story.

Best Short Story

1. Totaled (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
2. Turncoat (Rabid Puppy)
3. The Parliament of Beasts and Birds (Rabid Puppy)
4. A Single Samurai (Sad Puppy)
5. On A Spiritual Plain (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
6. No Award

“Totaled” had a lot of hype going into the Hugos, and it lived up to the hype. The author is also not remotely politically conservative and is, oh yeah, a woman. The fact that the No Award crew took her story out is an example of their defense of the Hugos turning into a witch hunt. It’s really quite indefensible that they No Awarded her story.

Additional Reading and Final Thoughts

I’m kind of running out of steam on this topic, to be honest. When you don’t really feel like there are any good guys to root for, you just want to walk away. But–if you would like to know more!–here are some current articles / blog posts. I’m sure there will be a lot more coming, but I think this gives you a sense of the spectrum:

The Breitbart piece is pretty hard to read because of how one-sided and kind of delusional it is. It’s rather hard to claim victory when your group nominates a bunch of works to win an award and you win 0 awards, but Yiannopoulos sure gives it the ole college try. I’ve seen a lot of this kind of thing from the Puppies, and–as a sympathetic outsider–nobody’s buying it. The Wired piece is, by mainstream standards, relatively fair. It definitely has a bias, however, and frequently passes along as gospel truth fairly tenuous allegations against the Sad Puppies or, in this instance, flat out omits relevant facts to spin a particular narrative:

Consider: A woman named Adria Richards Twitter-shames two white dudes for cracking off-color jokes at PyCon, a tech developer conference (and then is fired and fields murder threats).

What Wired doesn’t tell you is that the two white dudes were fired first. Wired also gives you the impression that only liberal women faced death / rape threats from social conservatives. That is false: conservative women often face identical harassment from liberals. The sad reality is that threatening to kill or rape women over the Internet is a politically neutral activity engaged in by both the left and right. During the Hugo controversy, for example, relatively moderate social justice warriors had to call on their own supporters to stop issuing death threats at the Sad Puppies (men and women) more than once.

And the last piece is from John Scalzi, one of the most prominent SJWs in the sci-fi community. Some of what he says is dead on accurate “They [the Sad Puppies] gloated about the slates getting on the ballot, and the upset that this caused other people. That’s a jerk maneuver.” Yup. I talked to some very prominent writers who didn’t care about politics but hated the Sad Puppies for their tactics and attitude. But then a lot is spin, including his denial that there is any legitimacy to the Sad Puppy complaints about socio-political collusion within the sci-fi community that is quite plain for any unbiased observer. So, as a not-quite-as-sympathetic observer, no one is buying that either.

Well. I hope this is the last thing I write about this for quite some time.


The Costs of Health Insurance Coverage

There’s an oft-expressed view that getting all those people covered could actually save the health system money. The argument goes something like this: Once people have insurance, they’ll go to the doctor instead of an expensive emergency room. Or: Prevention costs far less than a serious illness down the road.

…This argument for the cost savings from universal health coverage makes some intuitive sense, but it’s wrong. There’s strong evidence from a variety of sources that people who have health insurance spend more on medical care than people who don’t. It also turns out that almost all preventive health care costs more than it saves.

So begins an informative New York Times article by Margot Sanger-Katz. She points out that the actuaries in 2014 “estimated that health spending that year jumped by 5.5 percent, a bigger rise than the country had experienced in five years. That’s actually not a huge increase by historical standards…But it still marks the end of an era of record-low spending growth in the system.” There were three main reasons for this increase:

  1. Aging of the population and the sickness that comes with age.
  2. “[T]he improving economy, which will enable more people to afford medical care — or the time off from work it might take to attend to their health needs.”
  3. Obamacare’s expansive coverage.

It’s the third point that Sanger-Katz spends the article explaining:

There’s evidence about the link between insurance status and health spending from many sources. A famous randomized study of health insurance, started in the 1970s by the RAND Corporation, was designed to answer this exact question. It found that the less expensive you made it for people to obtain medical care, the more of it they used. That follows the pattern for nearly every other good in the economy, including food, clothing and electronics. The cheaper they are for people, the more they are likely to buy.

That finding was echoed recently by researchers who conducted another randomized controlled trial — this one of uninsured low-income people in Oregon. Low-income Oregonians who wanted to sign up for the state’s Medicaid program were placed in a lottery. Only some got the insurance, but the researchers tracked both groups. In the first year, they found that the lottery entrants who were given Medicaid spent more on health care than those who remained uninsured.

This is virtually what Nathaniel laid out over two years ago in his comparison of health insurance to a hypothetical food insurance. This is because the situation is, as noted above, basic economics:

One of the reasons for the political popularity of price controls in general is that part of their costs are concealed…Price controls are therefore particularly appealing to those who do not think beyond stage one…Artificially lower prices, created by government order rather than by supply and demand, encourage more use of goods or services, while discouraging the production of those same goods and services. Increased consumption and reduced production means a shortage…Quality deterioration often accompanies reduced production…Quality declines because the incentives to maintaining quality are lessened by price control. Sellers in general maintain the quality of their products or services for fear of losing customers otherwise. But, when price controls create a…shortage-fear of losing customers is no longer a strong incentive.

The Long-Term Effects of the Minimum Wage

Here at Difficult Run, we just can’t get enough of the minimum wage. Yet, that seems to be because there is so much good stuff to post about it. The Economist, for example, has a recent article that looks at three different studies regarding the long-term effects of the minimum wage:

  • In the first Isaac Sorkin of the University of Michigan argues that firms may well substitute machines for people in response to minimum wages, but slowly…Mr Sorkin crunches the numbers, using a model of the American restaurant industry in which companies choose between employees and machines. He investigates the effect of a permanent (ie, inflation-linked) increase in the minimum wage and shows that the tiny short-run effects on employment normally seen are fully consistent with a long-run response over 100 times larger. The lack of evidence for a big impact on employment in the short term does not rule out a much larger long-term effect.

  • In a second paper, written with Daniel Aaronson of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Eric French of University College London, Mr Sorkin goes further, offering empirical evidence that higher minimum wages nudge firms away from people and towards machines. The authors look at the type of restaurants that close down and start up after a minimum-wage rise. An increase in the minimum wage seems to push some restaurants out of business. The eateries that replace them are more likely to be chains, which are more reliant on machines (and therefore offer fewer jobs) than the independent outlets they replace. This effect has not been picked up before because the restaurants which continue to operate do not change their employment levels, so the jobs total does not shift much in the short run.

  • The third cautionary paper is from Jonathan Meer of Texas A&M University and Jeremy West of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…Their results suggest that a 10% increase in the minimum wage, made permanent by linking it to inflation, could cut job growth by 0.3 percentage points a year. Over a long period, this could amount to a very large difference indeed, though the authors stress that such long-run extrapolations are difficult given the limited experience of such permanent changes. Worryingly, the effects on jobs growth they see are concentrated among people under 25, and those without a degree. These are vulnerable groups who risk being locked out of the labour force for good.

Give them a read.

Unlivable Philosophy

In the course of reading philosophy, I sometimes find myself objecting to philosophical ideas not on the grounds that the ideas are demonstrably false (although they very well may be) but rather that, even if they were true, we simply couldn’t live as if they were true. I have been thinking about this principle, and for a while it has struck me as somewhat ad hoc and itself illogical. Whether or not someone can live a principle is irrelevant to whether or not the principle is actually true. For example, I think Christianity is true, but sooner or later, we reach a point where we simply cannot live exactly as Christ did during his earthly life and commanded us also to live.

I think I finally hit on why this principle would reasonably apply to, say, determinism or radical skepticism and not, for example, religious principles or the categorical imperative. The difference is not only that the principles are, eventually, unlivable but that no one even wants to live them. We praise Jesus’ teachings and the categorical imperative even if we know we can’t follow them completely, but nobody wants to live like rape or murder are the unavoidable consequences of either divine predestination or mechanical interactions. Nobody even wants to try and live their daily life in a radically skeptical way, doubting that any knowledge is attainable. Christians want to be like Christ, and Buddhists want to be like the Buddha, but even Hume doesn’t want to be Hume:

Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? … I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Pretty women and fun games make good diversion

I tie this observation into reason by noting that, if human reason can discover truths that no human can possibly live let alone want to live, reason must be either useless or suspect. Since reason leads us to truths that are antithetical to our continued existence, we must either profess truths that would destroy human existence if lived truly, or we must hide these truths and profess statements that are not true but convenient for continued existence. The former would ensure there are no humans, let alone philosophers, after a few generations, and the latter should be anathema to anyone who considers himself or herself a philosopher.

I by no means present these thoughts as air tight. They came to my mind while driving down the interstate and listening to a CD lecture on ethics. But I think we should walk through why we reject some claims out of hand but not others. Why am I ok, at least upon cursory inspection, with Christian ethics or the categorical imperative, but I instinctively reject determinism and radical skepticism? Is it simple prejudice, or is reason at play? Or both? Are we prejudiced against certain ideas because we subconsciously know the dangers to reason these ideas present?

On Being Pacifist

I’ve never identified as a pacifist. However, I think this is due to my view of pacifism being tainted by the American expression of it. As economist Bryan Caplan explains,

I’m a pacifist, but I’ve never been intellectually impressed with the U.S. peace movement.  The sound argument against war, in my view, combines (a) the common-sense moral view that, “You shouldn’t kill innocent people unless you know with high certainty that the long-run benefits heavily outweigh the short-run costs” with (b) the empirical fact that predictions about war’s long-run benefits are extremely inaccurate.  U.S. peace activists’ typical arguments against war are both too weak and too strong: Too weak because they focus on the badness of particular leaders and regimes rather than the murderous essence of modern war, too strong because they make overconfident, overblown predictions about the long-run effects of wars they oppose.  Worse still, U.S. peace activists have a ghastly tendency to side with despicable totalitarians and bloodthirsty nationalists.

Even more frustrating is the fact that “Democrats’ war policies were very similar so those of their Republican predecessors, but the antiwar movement…durably dissolved once the Democrats gained power.” All one has to look at is the data (drawn from a recent book by political scientist Michael Heaney and sociologist Fabio Rojas) on antiwar protest size, media coverage, and partisan breakdown:

The sad fact is “Democrats energized the antiwar movement, then dropped it as soon as their side regained power.  “We observe demobilization not in response to a policy victory, but in response to a party victory.”  Why?  Because Democrats’ real target was not war, but Republicans…Though they’re too polite to come out and say it, Heaney and Rojas’ book shows that the good cause of peace was not merely ineptly defended, but insincerely defended.  While the peace movement no doubt includes some honest-to-goodness pacifists, they’re honorable outliers.  The peace movement was not about peace.”

Middle-Class Income: Still Not Stagnating

Last month, I posted a few links on why today’s middle-class salary may actually be better than we often think. Harvard professor and president emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research Martin Feldstein adds more food-for-thought on the subject:

…[I]t is frequently said that the average household income has risen only slightly, or not at all, for the past few decades. Some US Census figures seem to support that conclusion. But more accurate government statistics imply that the real incomes of those at the middle of the income distribution have increased about 50% since 1980. And a more appropriate adjustment for changes in the cost of living implies a substantially greater gain.

The US Census Bureau estimates the money income that households receive from all sources and identifies the income level that divides the top and bottom halves of the distribution. This is the median household income. To compare median household incomes over time, the authorities divide these annual dollar values by the consumer price index to create annual real median household incomes. The resulting numbers imply that the cumulative increase from 1984 through 2013 was less than 10%, equivalent to less than 0.3% per year.

Any adult who was alive in the US during these three decades realizes that this number grossly understates the gains of the typical household. One indication that something is wrong with this figure is that the government also estimates that real hourly compensation of employees in the non-farm business sector rose 39% from 1985 to 2015.

The official Census estimate suffers from three important problems. For starters, it fails to recognize the changing composition of the population; the household of today is quite different from the household of 30 years ago. Moreover, the Census Bureau’s estimate of income is too narrow, given that middle-income families have received increasing government transfers while benefiting from lower income-tax rates. Finally, the price index used by the Census Bureau fails to capture the important contributions of new products and product improvements to Americans’ standard of living.

Worth a read.

Economic Lessons From Ancient Greece

Stanford’s Josiah Ober has a recent article in Foreign Affairs based on his new Princeton-published book The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece that should interest those concerned about economic matters:

Greek states competed fiercely with one another, and with their imperial neighbors, notably Persia. Wars were frequent and bloody. But in the midst of conflict came new forms of social cooperation and a sustained era of rapid economic growth.

The total population of Greek speakers rose from some 330,000 persons in 1000 BCE to 8-10 million by the fourth century BCE. In the same period, average per capita consumption appears to have roughly doubled across the Greek world, and it probably tripled in Athens, the most advanced and among the most democratic of the city-states. The aggregate growth rate was low compared to high-performing modern states, but the rate was blistering compared to other pre-modern civilizations…Trade in commodities (including slaves), manufactured goods, and luxury goods boomed within the Greek world and between the Greeks and their neighbors. Among the remarkable features of the ancient economy of democratic Athens was the relatively low level of income inequality. Athens was home to many foreign “guest workers” and Athenians employed large numbers of slaves. But even taking slaves and foreigners into account, the distribution of Athenian income was much less unequal than in most premodern societies. Athenian wages for non-skilled laborers were high—comparable to the wages being paid in the most advanced economy of early modern Europe, Holland during its seventeenth century Golden Age…As…economists have long pointed out, there is a strong correlation between relatively low inequality and robust and sustained economic growth. 

The mounting evidence for the remarkably strong performance of the ancient Greek economy helps to explain what is sometimes called the “Greek Miracle”—the cultural explosion of Greek literature, visual and performing arts, and science that laid the foundations for Rome, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment.

…So what made the impressive growth of the ancient Greek economy possible? The basic answer is good institutions. Greek city-states were governed by a range of regimes, but, by the fourth century BCE, the typical Greek city-state was, by world historical standards, very democratic. In Athens, and hundreds of other Greek states, most native adult males were participatory citizens, who set policy in citizen councils and assemblies, judged legal cases as jurors on people’s courts, and were elected or chosen by lot to serve as public officials.

See the full article for a good read.

The Family: Bridging Individuals and Communities

I’m a fan of the Cato Institute’s ongoing essay series Cato Unbound. Their most recent edition is on a topic of major interest to me: family and politics. The essays are based on political scientist Lauren K. Hall’s book Family and the Politics of Moderation: Private Life, Public Goods, and the Rebirth of Social Individualism. Hall writes,

…[T]he family challenges our most fundamental values and makes the creation of a consistent political theory essentially impossible. Those who emphasize the unlimited freedom of the individual come quickly up against the iron wall of genetics, early childhood development, and family experiences. We are not free to choose our families and our early familial experiences play a foundational role in the kind of person we eventually become. Individualists like Ayn Rand emphasize rationality and free choice only to be stymied by emotional and accidental bonds. The family is also one of the only places in the world where the creed “to each according to his need” not only works, but is indispensable. The family also challenges individualist arguments for personal responsibility and self-sufficiency since it relies in large part on the reality of human need and dependence. It is no accident that John Galt is an orphan.

On the other side of the spectrum, families are the root of inequality. This comes about both through the family’s role in education, habituation, and socialization, and through its intimate connection with property rights. The family’s multigenerational bonds challenge the demands of immediate collective decision-making and bind us to rules, habits, and ways of life that reject rationalist and egalitarian reforms. The family is the originator of unequal opportunity. The family also challenges egalitarianism due to its generally hierarchical form, which relies on the natural authority of parents over children for familial action. The reality of pregnancy, birth, and nursing places further stress on a strict egalitarian division of labor. Finally, families represent a divisive internal pull against collective identities. Families represent the private sphere in all its complexity of private and intimate bonds. The collective egalitarian cry that the private is really political is inevitably complicated by intimate groups that profoundly affect social structures but that also stubbornly refuse collectivization. The recognition that the family prevents radical egalitarian goals has led to (so far unsuccessful) calls to collectivize and control the family, from Marx and Engels to contemporary liberal feminists like Judith Moller Okin.

Economist Steve Horwitz provides additional insights from the works and theories of F.A. Hayek, based on his own forthcoming book Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions. Two more responses to Hall’s essay are in the process (one of which should appear later today).

Take a few minutes to read on this important topic.