Saturday, October 27, 2012

Taxes as Theft Given Legitimacy Through Ritual

If some person or group of people takes your property (including money) by force or threat of force, we call such an action theft. If I approached you and told you that unless you gave me your money that I would kidnap you and lock you away in a building I owned, and that if you resisted, I would kill you, I would be guilty of theft if you gave in, kidnapping if you did not, and murder if you resisted. Would it be better if I hired someone to do it for me? Of course not. I would be just as guilty, with conspiracy added to it.

Now suppose I got a large number of people together and engaged in the same action? What would you call that? A gang, if we were poor; a mafia if we were wealthy. Would we be less guilty of theft? Of course not. Having more people involved in your crime doesn't make it less of a crime. Laws against gang activity and organized crime suggest we think it worse when more people are involved.

I could go through this same thing with murder. Whether it's one or many involved in the murder, it's still murder. However, as I have observed here and here, our governments perform rituals that allow them to commit certain kinds of murder when they engage in capital punishment. One could certainly make the argument that our governments perform rituals that allow them to commit certain kinds of theft when they tax. This suggests that taxes are without question theft -- if we agree to the above definitions of theft -- but that through our governments make such theft legitimate for our governments to engage in. Calling theft by some other name, such as "tax," doesn't change the fundamental nature of the transaction.

The real question with taxes, then, is the same question with capital punishment: is the ritual we engage in legitimate? Should it do what we make it do?

The real question isn't whether or not taxes are theft. Taxes are theft. The question is whether or not we believe the rituals we undergo to make it legitimate are, themselves, legitimate.

I think when we do away with capital punishment, we will be a more moral people. Immoral actions are not made moral through ritual. I do not think that is a legitimate role for rituals to perform. I think we become more moral when we reject that role of ritual. I think, too, we will be a more moral people when we reject the legitimacy of the ritual that allows governmental organizations to legitimate theft.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Pessimists, Optimists, and the Hopeful

Tielhard de Chardin begins The Future of Man with an observation that there are two groups of people, those who do not believe the world changes and those who do. He identifies the first group as pessimistic and the latter as optimistic. One could easily identify the former as conservative, the latter as progressive.

The problem with the first group is, as F. A. Hayek observed in Why I Am Not a Conservative, that the conservative mindset rejects change, period. No matter what the society is like, the conservative wants to conserve it. And this is assuming the person believes anything can, in fact, change. There is a kind of deep conservative who does not believe anything can in fact change. People have always been the same (rotten), society has always  been the same (rotten), and there is nothing anyone can do about it. This is clearly the pessimistic world view.

The problem with the progressive, on the other hand, is that embracing change because it's change means that no matter what you have, it should change -- even if what you have is good. There is an eternal optimism that, if we just change, the change will be better. Out of this comes a belief that people have no identities at all (they always change), that societies have no identities at all (they always change), and therefore there are no rules/laws to be discovered. Humans and their societies are infinitely maleable if everything is always changing. We just have to change, and everything will be fine. This is clearly the optimistic world view.

But what if, like Hayek, you reject both? Or, to be more accurate, you accept both? Processes change in relation to what they already are. Yes, everything flows, but everything flows within the river beds in which they have been flowing. The flow has to be redirected in light of the current flows. This is what we learn from the constructal law. This is also known as the tragic world view. Humans have a basic nature, but one that is capable of change and growth. There are social laws, but those laws create degrees of freedom that allow society to change and grow. All change must take place from the position of where you are already and must be done with a recognition that there are other elements of society with which the changed element must necessarily interact. And you cannot predict how that changed element will interact with all the other elements of society, meaning you have to introduce the change slowly and be ready to withdraw it if it turns out to be more detrimental than good. This means there has to be a high degree of freedom in introducing elements -- it should be voluntary. Only in such a way can a society evolve in a healthy manner. Change must take place in light of tradition, and one must be aware that not all change is for the good, and that even good change can have negative consequences for some over time. This is the tragic world view. It is embraced by neither pessimists nor optimists, but those who embody both -- it is the world view of hope.

There are clear social consequences for each. The pessimist will rarely act, as nothing can change anyway. The optimist will always act, certain that all the world needs is change. The hopeful will act with caution, understanding that good intentions are not good enough, that good outcomes are a vital element to moral action, and that even the best outcomes are always going to have negative outcomes. However, the hopeful/tragic world view also recognizes that good can come out of the bad. That unintended consequences can be positive as well as negative. Spontaneous orders, for example, are an unintended consequences of the interactions of large groups of people. Yes, there can certainly be perverse orders -- but positive orders are also a real possibility. But what we cannot do is deny such orders emerge, nor can we rearrage them as we please (how does one organize an unintended consequence, anyway?). And this is why I am neither a pessimist/conservative nor an optimist/progressive, but rather am a hopeful/classical liberal.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Obama's Embarrassing Big Bird Ad

VOICEOVER: “Bernie Madoff. Ken Lay. Dennis Kozlowski. Criminals. Gluttons of greed. And the evil genius who towered over them? One man has the guts to speak his name.”

MITT ROMNEY: “Big Bird.” “Big Bird.” “Big Bird.”

BIG BIRD: “It’s me. Big Bird.”

VOICEOVER: Big. “Yellow. A menace to our economy. Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street.”

MITT ROMNEY: “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS.”

VOICEOVER: “Mitt Romney. Taking on our enemies, no matter where they nest.”

I haven't spent any time at all on this blog discussing the current Presidential election. If I thought it mattered, I might. However, I was utterly amazed by the above ad. And I was not amazed in a good way.

My criticisms of this ad have nothing to do with my opposition to Obama. I equally oppose Romney. I am viewing this ad purely from the perspective of an expert in rhetoric.

I had heard about this ad before I saw it for the first time on Saturday Night Live. In fact, though I knew of the ad's existence, I still thought for a moment it was an SNL spoof of the ad. But it was not. It was in fact the actual ad. I could not believe the incredibly bad judgment by the people who designed the ad, the people who approved the ad, and Obama himself (who does say at the beginning "I approve this message") to release this thing.

I would first like to note that the ad trivializes the scandals highlighted at the beginning of the commercial by equating them with Sesame Street.

Second, there is a false equivalence. Wanting to cut spending on PBS literally has nothing to do with illegal activities by a handful of people who worked on Wall Street. I won't go into the issues surrounding regulations, etc., as that has nothing to do with this analysis. I am viewing the commercial entirely from the perspective of effectiveness. The fact that pretty much any idiot on earth could see that there is a false equivalence undermines the effectiveness of the ad.

Third, there is a bit of a postmodern juxtaposition followed by a bait-and-switch. After listing all of the people involved in scandals on Wall Street, the ad says "And the evil genius who towered over them?" and then cuts first to a window with a vague Big Bird shadow, then to Mitt Romney. The cuts are so fast, and the shadow so clear, the implication is that Romney is in fact the "evil genius who towered over them." For a moment you are shocked by the accusation that Romney was somehow involved -- but then, you get the bait-and-switch, with the ad focusing on Big Bird.

In the end, the ad is a complete disaster. Ranging from the trivialization of crimes to the creation of false equivalents, this has to be the worst political commercial of all time, from the perspective of effectiveness for the candidate.

I am sure someone in the Obama campaign thought they would trivialize Romney with this ad. But all they really did was trivialize themselves. If this is all they have to offer as a reason to vote for Obama after 4 years, he doesn't deserve to be reelected. Maybe he doesn't even want to be.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Better Than Rational

Cosmides and Tooby explain how humans are better than rational.
natural selection's invisible hand created the structure of the human mind, and the interaction of these minds is what generates the invisible hand of economics.
the human mind is not worse than rational (e.g., because of processing constraints)-but may often be better than rational. On evolutionarily recurrent computational tasks, such as object recognition, grammar acquisition, or speech comprehension, the human mind greatly outperforms the best artificial problem-solving systems that decades of research have produced, and it solves large classes of problems that even now no human engineered system can solve at all.
For the problem domains they are designed to operate on,specialized problem-solving methods perform in a manner that is better than rational; that is, they can arrive at successful outcomes that canonical general-purpose rational methods can at best not arrive at as efficiently, and more commonly cannot arrive at all. Such evolutionary considerations suggest that traditional normative and descriptive approaches to rationality need to be reexamined.
It matters a great deal that economists are, more often than not (though they are improving some, thanks to the efforts of people like Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith) using a version of "rationality" that is, quite frankly, extremely irrational. Our instincts matter. And the ways in which those instincts get expressed in different ways in different cultures matter. HT: Roger Koppl

Monday, October 01, 2012

Traffic, Economics, and Constructal Law

There are a large number of different kinds of self-organizing processes, from chemical to biological to neurological to social. As we learn from the constructal law, these processes are fundamentally flows. And the flows create patterns. And the patterns affect the flow.

In each of these kinds of self-organizing processes, we see coordination of behavior. From this emerges patterns. In social systems, incentives matter. To understand the behaviors of a system, understand the incentives involved.

Traffic is a self-organizing process. A variety of orders emerge in traffic, ranging from steady flow to utter standstills. Traffic jams are a kind of order which emerges -- though most people would certainly classify it as an unwanted, even a "perverse" order. But how do traffic jams emerge?

Let us leave aside for a moment accidents, which will certainly slow traffic. They are hardly the only source. How many times have you been in heavy traffic and wondered what on earth was causing the slowdown, only to find traffic suddenly open up so that you are driving along as a more reasonable rate of speed -- only there appeared to be no reason for either the slowdown or the speedup?

The main cause of such slowdowns is the fact that when we are driving, benefits are concentrated while costs are dispersed. Worse, costs are dispersed behind us, where it won't affect us.

For example, if we find we are in a turnoff lane and we don't want to turn off, most of us will try to switch lanes, even if it means causing others to hit the brakes. In heavy-enough traffic, one person hitting the brakes will result in others hitting their brakes. This results in a chain-reaction slowdown that may only dissipate after a half mile or more. And this is assuming that nobody changes lanes, keeping the slowdown in one lane. Naturally, there will be those who want to continue going at the rate of speed they are going at and will therefore switch lanes. They gain, but at the expense of another lane slowing down. Thus there can be a chain reaction both down and across lanes. And all because people are responding to what will benefit us without considering the costs to others. And, like I said, those others are behind us, so we are typically left unaware of what we have done. And since we don't know any of those people, we probably don't care all that much, anyway. Further, any cost we may incur on ourselves is going to be much less than the benefit we gain by switching lanes.

Thus, the incentives overall are for us to switch lanes to our benefit. However, if none of us did so, traffic jams would be very rare. One does not see too many traffic jams on carpool lanes precisely because one cannot switch lanes on them -- they are one lane, and they are difficult to get on and off of. As a result, traffic moves much faster.

All of this is merely an analysis of what happens. Knowing this, I am not going to stop switching lanes, because since nobody else is going to stop doing so, I'm not going to make any difference on things other than to slow myself down getting to where I am going. And even if most people did stop switching lanes except when absolutely necessary to enter or exit, there would be a number of free riders taking advantage of everyone else following the rule, thus causing traffic to slow for the rule-followers. And since enforcement of any lane-switching rule would actually slow traffic more (not to mention be rather arbitrary, as it would only be enforced if an officer is around, and then the officer would have to read your mind to understand your intention in switching lanes, which is impossible, making the law impossible to enforce) from stops and from drivers changing their mind if they think they see a police officer, legislation would only make things worse. Other than trying to design roads that take human behavior and constructal law into conscious consideration, there is not much one can do.

And even with such conscious design, there will still be people making mistakes, slow drivers, fast drivers, etc. According to constructal law, differences in flow speed cause structures to emerge. People driving slower than the flow of traffic or faster than the flow of traffic, causing people to switch lanes and hit their brakes. But again, there is nothing that can be done about differences in speed. There simply cannot be a law stating that people have to drive exactly 60 miles per hour, no faster, no slower. People do have to enter and exit, etc. -- aside from the practical problems of enforcement. And if there is a traffic slowdown, are you going to ticket everyone?

Traffic acts as a good way of understanding incentive structures. There is no way of getting around the fact that benefits are concentrated on you while the costs are distributed onto a large number of drivers, most of whom are behind you. Certainly one could just deal with the fact that you made a mistake about what lane you should be in and exit and turn around or re-enter traffic further down. But how many people are realistically going to do that to the benefit of unknown strangers? If you haven't done so, you're one of those people who wouldn't. That's because the cost would be concentrated on you, while the benefits would be distributed to unknown strangers.

Politics works the same way as traffic. Benefits are concentrated, while costs are distributed. If the government gave me $300 million, that would benefit me greatly. But it would only cost $1 per person in the United States. It's not a big deal for you to give up a dollar, but it's a very big deal for me to receive $300 million. And this is the argument we repeatedly hear from politicians arguing for their pet projects, subsidies, etc. "Why, this program only costs ten million dollars." And when you break it down per taxpayer, it's not that much. But ten million here, ten million there, and soon you're talking about real money. This particular driver not switching lanes isn't going to make much of a difference on traffic, though his switching lanes may benefit him. One would have to get everyone to change their behaviors to get a change in traffic behavior. And that would mean a structural change in incentives.

While political sytems act like traffic, economic systems act the opposite of traffic. In a free market economy, costs are concentrated and benefits are dispersed. Any business owner who makes a mistake loses their business, but successful businesses distribute their benefits out to customers with the increase in goods or services, including increases in quality, etc. from competition. A free market would be like a traffic system in which somehow drivers who did things that would slow traffic were removed from traffic and made to start over again, thus making the flow of traffic improve for everyone else. How quickly would people learn what they needed to do to keep traffic flowing well? Yet, because of the incentive structure of free market economies, this is precisely what happens in the economy.

Of course, many prefer the traffic/political model because the concentrated benefits are easy to see, while the distributed costs are difficult to see in these models. On the contrary, in economic processes the distributed benefits are difficult to see, while the concentrated costs are easy to see. It is easy to see the benefits of the government stepping in to rescue General Motors; it is difficult to see the distributed benefits of letting it die off. It takes considerable amount of understanding of economics to understand the latter, so we should not be surprised people don't see it that easily. Like the lane-switching driver, the benefits are immediate and clear; the costs lay far behind among the unknown many. Worse, even if you do understand this, there's not a lot of incentive to do anything other than to continue to switch lanes to your own, concentrated, benefit.