Archive for the Category Utilitarianism


Will kidney sales be legalized?

Will the US join Iran as one of the few countries that allow kidney sales?  It’s too soon to say, but Trump deserves praise if this appointment is made and approved:

President-elect Donald Trump is weighing naming as Food and Drug Administration commissioner a staunch libertarian who has called for eliminating the agency’s mandate to determine whether new medicines are effective before approving them for sale.

“Let people start using them, at their own risk,” the candidate, Jim O’Neill, said in a 2014 speech to a biotech group.

O’Neill has also called for paying organ donors and setting up libertarian societies at sea — and has said he was surprised to discover that FDA regulators actually enjoy science and like working to fight disease.

. . .

O’Neill has proposed that the FDA only require companies to prove drugs are safe before they are sold – not that they actually work.

O’Neill has also said that organ donors should be allowed to be paid. “There are plenty of healthy spare kidneys walking around, unused,” he said in a speech at a 2009 Seasteading conference.

Of course he has not been nominated yet, and it’s not clear he’d be approved by the Senate, but certainly a hopeful sign.

PS.  Here’s a recent Econlog post on kidney sales.  Alex Tabarrok points out that New Zealand is moving part way towards financially compensating kidney donors.

HT:  Frank McCormick

A few thoughts on politics and the actual meaning of clown metaphors

Here’s something by Jim Geraghty of the National Review:

Let me offer a thought that every conservative should contemplate, even though it’s one we would rather avoid: What if the American people don’t want smaller government that spends less?

This is where we usually hear talk about how small-government conservatives need “better messaging.” Or someone will insist that there’s a broad desire for a smaller government that spends less, but those Washington insiders and establishment sold out the conservative agenda. But what if Americans have heard the arguments for smaller government, understand the arguments — or understand them as well as they’re ever going to — and have rejected them?

Does a country where the popular vote in the last six elections went for Clinton, Clinton, Gore, Bush, Obama and Obama really crave smaller government?

Polling indicates that 70 percent want a smaller deficit . . . but the only spending cut that gets anywhere near a majority support is to foreign aid — about one percent of the budget — and even that’s close to an even split. “For 18 of 19 programs tested, majorities want either to increase spending or maintain it at current levels.” People want smaller government right up until the point where it actually affects them.

The current Republican front-runner is running against entitlement reform:

Trump opposes any cuts to Social Security and Medicare — and Medicaid, for that matter. In April, at the New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit, Trump criticized his fellow Republicans for proposing reforms of the entitlement programs that are bankrupting the country: “Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that.” Medicare and Social Security alone face more than $69.1 trillion in unfunded liabilities, but Trump insists that the programs can be saved without cuts. “All these other people want to cut the hell out of it,” Trump said of Social Security. “I’m not going to cut it at all. I’m going to bring money in, and we’re going to save it.

1. It’s meaningless to talk about public opinion on “big government.”  The public doesn’t even understand what the term means.  You might think that big government means Social Security, Medicare, tariffs on Chinese goods, etc., but I assure you that this is now how Americans view the concept.  And since their views on taxes and spending are impossible to meet, in a very real sense they have no opinion.  Or you could say that their opinions could never be enacted, so politicians might just as well ignore them, and instead consider how the public would react to various options that the policymakers are actually contemplating.  That’s where public opinion matters.

2. To a libertarian like me, conservatism that discards the “small government” component represents 100% pure unadulterated evil.  But it would make life much simpler.  I could simply go with the liberal tribe, and no more lame explanations that “I’m conservative on economics and liberal on other issues.”  In my view, Trump is running on a platform of pure evil.

3.  It’s common for the policy preferences of candidates to not add up.  But I’ve never seen a gap anywhere near as large as with Trump.  His statement that he’s going to “bring money in” is almost comically at variance with his tax plan, which basically says “no one should have to pay any taxes“, or at least something pretty close to that.  Since he also favors much more government spending, his plan would bankrupt the country far faster than the plans of Bush, Rubio, etc.  So it’s a nonstarter, which means we basically don’t know anything about what a President Trump would actually do.  Probably the best way to try to figure that out would be to look at what he said before he was a candidate.  I recall he praised Hillary, and thus suspect a President Trump would be essentially an even more macho version of President Hillary Clinton. Or even Obama. Obviously I may be wrong, but whatever he does, it clearly won’t be the issues he’s campaigning on. He won’t expel the illegals (who would pick the fruits and vegetables?) or stop imports from China.

4.  The support for Trump is partly due to the tendency of GOP leaders in Congress to cave on spending issues.  They are viewed as “pussies”.  Trump avoids that problem by promising to be a big spender.  Seriously, where does his support come from?  It comes from those who want to turn the GOP into a European populist party—big government plus xenophobia and macho behavior.  Sarah Palin (who once nearly came to be one heartbeat from the Presidency) says Trump won’t “pussyfoot” around.  But we have a two party system, which is why I continue to predict failure for the GOP in 2016. The Dems can rally around utilitarianism, and politely disagree on whether to follow the Clinton or Sanders versions, whereas the GOP can’t even agree on core values.  Eventually this will sort itself out; in a two party system the two parties always take turns over the longer run.  But the “against utilitarianism” party has a really difficult time right now, especially given that many of its brightest members are approximately right wing utilitarians (at least on economics.)  Geraghty may think that Americans have turned away from small government, but a sizable bloc of the GOP most certainly has not.  A GOP that got rid of the small government faction would have little ability to attract talented people like Greg Mankiw.  (He’s already implied that Trump has a quasi-fascist approach to politics, and I’d guess that’s a pretty serious negative in Mankiw’s eyes.) Recall the recent election where Le Pen came in second in the first round of voting, and lost the general election 75% to 25%.  It wouldn’t be that bad here (Le Pen had to run against the moderate right) but they’d have a hard time getting to 50%.  It’s OK to have a party that’s toxic to intellectuals, and gets 20% to 30% of the vote . . . in Europe. That’s a pretty successful party in a multi-party democracy.  But in the US two party system that won’t work.  The GOP has a lot of work ahead of it.

5.  Someone will have to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in 2017.  I suspect that Paul Ryan will become the de facto leader of the GOP at that time.  It will be interesting to see what he tries to do with the remnants of the party (which might well still control the House.)

6.  You could argue that Ted Cruz is a small government version of Trump, and also a very skilled debater.  If in the end Cruz is not able to beat Trump, it wouldn’t necessarily mean GOP voters like big government, but it would at least suggest the issue is not very high on their radar screen.

7.  Just to be clear, I do not believe that the mainstream candidates (Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Christie, etc.) would bring smaller government to America.

PS.  Of course I was joking when I said Trump proposes to eliminate taxes.  But Trump also likes to clown around; indeed I’ve argued he’s running as a clown.  Here’s the actual plan:

1. If you are single and earn less than $25,000, or married and jointly earn less than $50,000, you will not owe any income tax. That removes nearly 75 million households – over 50% – from the income tax rolls. They get a new one page form to send the IRS saying, “I win,” those who would otherwise owe income taxes will save an average of nearly $1,000 each.

The loss of revenue will be “offset” by massively lower taxes on the upper middle class and wealthy.  And a massive tax cut for corporations.  And more entitlement spending.  With Trump, we’ll all “win”, even the hedge fund guys.  A nation of winners.  Hey, what could go wrong?

Anyone who doesn’t see that Trump is a clown is not paying attention.  Read “I win” 100 times in a row, until it sinks in as to what his game is.  Yes, he’s quite smart when he takes the clown costume off, but so are many circus clowns.  If I wanted to call him dumb, I would not use the clown metaphor.

PPS.  I was completely wrong about Trump’s prospects a few months back (and Paul Krugman was right), so no one should take my views on politics at all seriously.

Who cares?

The main problem in America is a lack of utilitarian thinking.  I was reminded of that recently when reading an excellent piece in on the War on Drug Using Americans.

Most recently, these fears of drugs and the connection to minorities came up during what law enforcement officials characterized as a crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s. Lawmakers, judges, and police in particular linked crack to violence in minority communities. The connection was part of the rationale for making it 100 times easier to get a mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine over powder cocaine, even though the two drugs are pharmacologically identical. As a result, minority groups have received considerably harsher prison sentences for illegal drugs. (In 2010, the ratio between crack’s sentence and cocaine’s was reduced from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.)

That’s right, America has patently racist laws that are aimed at locking up African Americans, and almost no one seems to care.  Even worse, people don’t even seem to understand what’s going on.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read something like the following (from an article discussing the fact that heroin addiction is spreading from the black to the white community, and originally in the NYT):

So officers like Eric Adams, a white former undercover narcotics detective in Laconia, are finding new ways to respond. He is deployed full time now by the Police Department to reach out to people who have overdosed and help them get treatment.

“The way I look at addiction now is completely different,” Mr. Adams said. “I can’t tell you what changed inside of me, but these are people and they have a purpose in life and we can’t as law enforcement look at them any other way. They are committing crimes to feed their addiction, plain and simple. They need help.”

He may not be able to tell “what changed inside” of him, but I can guess.  Heroin addicts went from being villains to victims, as soon as they started looking like the friends of our narcotics detectives.

So why aren’t people up in arms over this?  It’s not like people don’t care about racial injustice, we’ve seen lots of protests about police brutality.  I think it’s because victims of police brutality really do seem like victims, whereas those incarcerated for drug crimes, even when the punishment is clearly racially biased, don’t seem like sympathetic victims.  In the 1960s, campuses were in an uproar over the Vietnam war. In 1972 the protests pretty much ended, not because the war was over, but because college students were no longer being drafted.  Today, college students are more likely to protest inappropriate Halloween costumes that the unjust incarceration of hundreds of thousands of African-American drug users.

Alex Tabarrok points to another great example.  There is a government policy reform that could save 5,000 to 10,000 lives each year, and greatly reduce suffering, and save the government $12 billion/year.  There’s no downside. Who could be opposed to paying organ donors? Almost everyone.  As far as I know both parties are opposed to the sort of sensible policy reform that could save as many American lives as were lost in Iraq plus Afghanistan over a decade, and do so every single year.

Next year the media will try to trick you into thinking that the two major parties are discussing the great issues facing America.  Don’t be fooled; neither party is addressing the big issues.  There are some differences between the two parties, but not on the most important issues.  In my view there are really only two groups; those promoting utilitarianism, and those promoting pain and suffering under the guise of some sort of phony ethical values.  The rest is all a distraction.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Getting to Switzerland

Matt Yglesias has a good post on Denmark.  He points out that Denmark has far higher taxes than the US, especially on the middle class.  He also points out that Denmark has much more efficient provision of public services.

Consider health care, which is almost 18% of US GDP, and more like 10% in Western Europe.  Now suppose the US moved to complete socialized medicine, without dramatically cutting the pay of doctors and nurses. Assume we also adopted the other aspects of the Danish social welfare model. Denmark’s government currently spends about 57% of GDP.  If the US tried to deliver the same services, without reducing costs from the current level, it would cost at least 65% of GDP.  It’s not possible to raise that much money without dramatically reducing total GDP—making us much poorer.

Matt points to some other examples of waste, such as the fact that transportation projects in America are far more expensive than in Denmark (or in the rest of Europe, for that matter).  So it might require even more than 65% of GDP. Democrats don’t tend to talk about this problem, because part of it is caused by their constituencies. And we know that when push comes to shove, they care more about public employees than social welfare programs (recall the education voucher debate.)

And of course Denmark is actually more capitalist than America, a point that Yglesias overlooked.

The fact that Bernie Sanders is being fundamentally dishonest about the nature of Scandinavian “socialism” does not mean that we shouldn’t try to emulate Danish policies.  I do view their system as superior to the US, because it’s more capitalist and more utilitarian.  But that’s a low bar—why not aim higher?

Matt shows a list of the happiest countries in the world, where Denmark comes in third.  It’s kind of a bizarre list (the US is at 15, squeezed between Mexico and Brazil.) But suppose you actually believe this stuff.  It’s worth noting that the US scores higher than every single large European country (over 40 million people); higher than Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain, Poland, Ukraine, Russia.  That suggests to me that the US policy regime is superior to the European policy regime.  Or any other large country regime, except . . . Mexico??

And let’s go one step further.  The very highest country in the happiness rankings is Switzerland.  Soon after Matt provides this ranking, he asks:

3) How did Denmark get to be so awesome?

Taxes. Denmark does it with really high taxes.

Taxes certainly explain the social benefits Matt discusses, but what about the happiness ranking?  Since the Swiss are much richer than the Danes and also seem happier, why not emulate Switzerland?  The Swiss have the smallest government in Western Europe (as a share of GDP), indeed even smaller than in the US.  So let’s shrink our government to be more like the Swiss.

When I mention this proposal to progressives they invariably say:

“Switzerland is a small homogenous country, its model is not applicable to the US.”

I then ask; so which model should the US copy?  And they respond:

“Denmark” or “Sweden”

I usually spend the next 10 minutes rolling on the floor laughing, before pointing out that at least Switzerland has four different languages.  They also have more immigrants than other European countries.

I wish we could have an honest debate.  The Dems could say, “We want to be more like Denmark.”  The GOP could say, “We want to be more like Switzerland.”  Then show American voters the taxes paid by the middle class in both countries, and the public services provided in both countries, and let them decide.

Unfortunately, the Dems don’t actually want us to be anything like Denmark, nor does the GOP want us to be anything like Switzerland.  Hence the debate over “big government” is all a sham.

HT:  TravisV

Lazy people, nice people, crazy people, happy people.

Here’s a question.  When we describe people using the adjectives in the title of this post, are we describing the way they are, or they way they behave?  We have deeply ambivalent views in this area, which on close examination are probably incoherent.  Much of our social interaction is based on shared myths, which shrivel under the bright light of scientific scrutiny.  Even the language we use is subtly inconsistent with the scientific method.  For instance, consider one of society’s monsters, say a Hitler, Mao, or Osama.  Suppose someone says “I know how he felt when he committed his crimes.”  Most people would take that as condoning the crimes, even though from a scientific perspective there’s no logical connection between knowing why a person acted a certain way, and condoning their behavior.

I was reading a book about genetic engineering called “Babies by Design,” and was struck when Ronald Green claimed:

Research shows that obesity is consistently attributed to laziness and a lack of self-discipline.

In reality, the truth may be just the opposite.  Studies of identical twins reared together or apart indicate that much obesity may be caused by hereditary factors.  In technical terms, the heritability of obesity, the percentage of observed variation among people that is attributed to genes, is very high, somewhere between 50 and 80 percent.

[Before continuing, a disclaimer so that I am not misunderstood.  I have good genes for being thin.  If I didn’t I assume I’d be fat, as I don’t have much self-control.  So the following should not be viewed as criticism of fat people.]

Do you see the problem with Green’s assertion?  He asks us to believe that just because obesity is 80% genetic, it can’t also be 80% due to laziness.  But why?  What are those two hypotheses viewed as mutually exclusive?  Is it because genetic characteristics are viewed as “not one’s fault,” whereas laziness is viewed as a character flaw?  But why shouldn’t character flaws be genetic?

A new study has found a “kindness gene.”  It seems that some people are born kind and some are born “bad to the bone.”

People with a certain gene trait are known to be more kind and caring than people without it, and strangers can quickly tell the difference, according to US research published on Monday.

The variation is linked to the body’s receptor gene of oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone” because it often manifests during sex and promotes bonding, empathy and other social behaviors.

Scientists at Oregon State University devised an experiment in which 23 couples, whose genotypes were known to researchers but not observers, were filmed.

One member of the couple was asked to tell the other about a time of suffering in his or her life. Observers were asked to watch the listener for 20 seconds, with the sound turned off.

In most cases, the observers were able to tell which of the listeners had the “kindness gene” and which ones did not, said the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences edition of November 14.

Should we no longer praise people for being kind?  No, we should praise them, but if we were to use Green’s logic then meanness would no longer be viewed as the person’s fault, because we’ve discovered that it’s genetic.

And happiness is also genetic, according to an article in The Economist:

Serotonin is involved in mood regulation. Serotonin transporters are crucial to this job. The serotonin-transporter gene comes in two functional variants””long and short. The long one produces more transporter-protein molecules than the short one. People have two versions (known as alleles) of each gene, one from each parent. So some have two short alleles, some have two long ones, and the rest have one of each.

The adolescents in Dr De Neve’s study were asked to grade themselves from very satisfied to very dissatisfied. Dr De Neve found that those with one long allele were 8% more likely than those with none to describe themselves as very satisfied; those with two long alleles were 17% more likely.

That’s already pretty disturbing, but then consider the following:

Which is interesting. Where the story could become controversial is when the ethnic origins of the volunteers are taken into account. All were Americans, but they were asked to classify themselves by race as well. On average, the Asian Americans in the sample had 0.69 long genes, the black Americans had 1.47 and the white Americans had 1.12.

That result sits comfortably with other studies showing that, on average, Asian countries report lower levels of happiness than their GDP per head would suggest. African countries, however, are all over the place, happinesswise. But that is not surprising, either. Africa is the most genetically diverse continent, because that is where humanity evolved (Asians, Europeans, Aboriginal Australians and Amerindians are all descended from a few adventurers who left Africa about 60,000 years ago). Black Americans, mostly the descendants of slaves carried away from a few places in west Africa, cannot possibly be representative of the whole continent.

Note how the alleged racial gaps in happiness are inversely correlated with average income in America.  Proof God is a utilitarian?

Seriously, if society insists on continuing to probe ever more deeply into human genetics, I think we need a whole new language for discussing ethical issues.  My suggestion is that scientists give up on all the comforting notions of “just deserts.”  Yes, proof that X% of behavior in genetic still allows for 100-x% to be environment.  But environment is also not the villain’s fault.

In my view the right way to handle all this is to ignore the question of whether anything is really a person’s fault, and consider the related question of whether certain behavior is changed by external incentives (including telling them that it is their fault.)  I don’t have any problem with obese or unhappy people, but I don’t like mean people.  So as long as there is evidence that mean people can be deterred from meanness by sanctions, I’ll continue to give them a hard time.  And no amount of genetic research will change my behavior in that regard.

However I do think all this research supports utilitarian ethics.  We utilitarians are sometimes criticized for caring equally about the happiness of the deserving and the undeserving.  This genetic research suggests that much of the variation in personality is genetic, and hence “not the person’s fault.”  The optimal policy (and I’m not proposing this) would be for an omniscient government to tax mean people $X dollars for each unit of mean behavior, and then rebate the entire amount of revenue in lump sums to everyone with a mean gene in their body.

Or in Christian terms we could say “love thine enemy, but also punch them in the nose every time they misbehave.”  Does that seem contradictory?  Then you are confusing behavior with character.

Because of genetic research our view of humanity and ethics in the year 2111 will be totally different from today, just as our current views are totally different from 100 years ago (when “progressives” often favored eugenics.)

What do I fear most?  Busybodies like this:

People who have two copies of the G allele are generally judged as more empathetic, trusting and loving.

Those with AG or AA genotypes tend to say they feel less positive overall, and feel less parental sensitivity. Previous research has shown they also may have a higher risk of autism.

.   .   .

However, no gene trait can entirely predict a person’s behavior, and more research is needed to find out how the variant affects the underlying biology of behavior.

“These are people who just may need to be coaxed out of their shells a little,” said senior author Sarina Rodrigues Saturn, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University whose previous research established the genetic link to empathetic behavior.

“It may not be that we need to fix people who exhibit less social traits, but that we recognize they are overcoming a genetically influenced trait and that they may need more understanding and encouragement.”

Keep your %&#@$*& hands off my anti-social traits.  Remember what Greta Garbo said.

And then there is mental illness.  Here’s Reason magazine explaining that crazy is as crazy does:

Metzl is not interested in such distinctions. “Schizophrenia is shaped by social, political, and, ultimately institutional factors in addition to chemical or biological ones,” he writes. “Too often, we assume that medical and cultural explanations of illness are distinct entities, or engage in frustratingly pointless debates about whether certain mental illnesses are either socially constructed or real.” He says “this polarizing dichotomy serves no one, and makes it harder to see how mental illness is always already both.”

It is hard to imagine someone making a similar speech about cancer or diabetes. “Unlike the conditions treated in most other branches of medicine,” observes Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, in a June New York Review of Books essay, “there are no objective signs or tests for mental illness””no lab data or MRI findings””and the boundaries between normal and abnormal are often unclear. That makes it possible to expand diagnostic boundaries or even create new diagnoses, in ways that would be impossible, say, in a field like cardiology.” In other words, mental illnesses are whatever psychiatrists say they are. If someone is diagnosed with depression or schizophrenia based on the currently accepted behavioral markers, assuming the criteria are correctly applied, it does not make sense to say he does not really have depression or schizophrenia, since there is no test to disconfirm the diagnosis. And if the criteria change so that they no longer apply to him, his disease disappears or becomes something else; it has no independent existence.

Music to my post-modern ears.

When I read “A Beautiful Mind” there was one aspect of John Nash’s behavior that I found strange.  Every so often he was involuntarily committed to an insane asylum.  Because he hated it there, he soon began to “act sane” so that they’d have to let him out.  And they did.  I don’t recall any of the book reviews noticing this, but doesn’t it seem a bit odd that someone who is mentally ill can act sane, given that acting crazy seems to be the only way to diagnose most mental illnesses?

I’m not saying Nash wasn’t “actually crazy.”  I’m saying that like all our other behavioral traits mental illness probably isn’t what we think it is.  I look forward to the day when all human vices are relabeled “mental illness.”  Then we can clear the decks and start over with the real question: Which behaviors can be changed through incentives and which cannot?  It’s all about economics.

PS. In comments Woupiestek provided the following:

You post reminds me of “drapetomania”:

Learn this from the British quiz QI. It comes up after 3 minutes in this fragment:

And around 7 minutes they start replicating this post.  Truth is stranger than fiction.  And why can’t America have TV shows like that?

Update: ChrisA points out that Bryan Caplan did discuss the John Nash case.