Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Quick One on Contradictory Beliefs

Recently, I have seen a number of on line essays by left leaning writers bemoaning the "working poor" and others who cannot afford to live in cities such as San Francisco, Washington DC, New York and elsewhere, and must commute tremendous distances while earning a pittance. Don't get me wrong, it is a legitimate grievance. But there is another side, and that is what amuses me.

You see, in almost every case*, these cities have brought this grief upon themselves. With the exception of New York, which destroyed itself with rent control and other older bad schemes, every one of these cities -- and neighboring counties -- have enacted stringent "smart growth" laws. And in general those bemoaning the high cost of living are also supporters of these laws.

Which is why I am writing. Does it not occur to these people, if you enact laws limiting the number of new dwellings, that is might drive up the cost of renting? And, at least in the case of some DC suburbs, that opposing new highways in the name of "preventing congestion"** might also increase the commute time for those "smart growth" drives into the far distant suburbs? Yet they blame the problem they created on greedy landlords and the evils of capitalism and, quite amusingly, propose even more regulation and "smart growth" as the cure to the very problems smart growth is causing.

Sometimes I cannot understand how those on the left do not see the internal contradictions of their beliefs.


* A few high cost areas have other causes, or perhaps contributing causes. For example, Boulder at one time was suffering from incredibly high rents -- or even lack of rental units -- because of celebrities and other bidding up all available land. However, in that case, the issue is self-limiting, as the high rents make it impossible to staff local business, and the lack of amenities eventually drives away those who bid up the properties. In other cases, areas that are geographically limited, such as the island of Manhattan, might suffer from excessive demand driving prices, but, in almost every case, even the most geographically constrained region has some form of suburbs allowing for population overflow.

** It was one of the most bizarre arguments against the Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County, Maryland (aka The People's Republic of Montgomery County), that building highways would bring traffic, as if people just drove on highways because they were there. So, for years, massive traffic was forced across rather paltry surface roads and through neighborhoods because of a lack of any east-west highways north of the DC Beltway.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Divorce, Cross-Dressing, Crime and Drugs

Many times I have trouble convincing even conservatives that government really should be kept strictly to the functions I say are its proper role, that it should only protect against force, theft and fraud. The usual objection is something akin to "so you want to let people walk around naked?" or "so people can have sex in public?" or "so you don't mind prostitution and drugs?" and so on. Whenever I point out that those things, if society truly objects to them, are properly controlled by social pressures, and not by legal penalties, people look at me as if I were mad. but I would argue, and will try to demonstrate here, that social pressures are very powerful, more powerful than most imagine. The only reason we fail to notice them is that they are often so subtle, we don't realize they are at work.

For example, why is crime more common in one neighborhood and not another? Or why is drug use a problem one place and not another? To avoid the usual Marxist/liberal argument, we can even ask, why are neighborhoods with the same economic makeup, or the same racial makeup, often so different in terms of crime or drugs? The difference, though we cannot see it, is that some neighborhoods have accepted crime and drugs, while others still look down upon them.

Let us look ta history. Why, in the past, were there times when punishment was much more lenient, yet crime less common? Or the reverse, when punishment was more stringent, yet crime more common? Why did divorce become so much more prevalent? Why does alcoholism differ so much between various social groups? Why is the same true of drug abuse? Crime? Why do some groups marry for life while others never marry, or marry and divorce? Why does chronic unemployment so often follow cultural lines more than economic? In short, why do so many behaviors seem to be treated in some groups as if there were a law forbidding them, while in other groups they are accepted?

The difference is the social pressures faced in each group. When divorce was seen as shameful, even though legal, it was much less common. I grant, there have been other reasons for the upswing in divorce, but one significant difference was the change in society. Once we accepted divorce as an approved behavior, many of the incentives to avoid it disappeared.

The same is true of crime. Granted, longer, harsher sentences do have an effect. If nothing else, someone in jail can't be out and about committing crimes. But there were times when punishment was becoming less harsh and yet crime continued to drop. So punishment is not the whole of the story. After all, in a given county, for example, Baltimore County, punishment is relatively uniform, yet there are regions where crime is a daily occurrence, and others where it is almost never seen. What could be the cause? It is not punishment. Given that some groups have economic profiles almost identical, yet show drastic differences in crime, it cannot be money. So, what is the cause? It is the attitude of various groups toward crime.

I could go on and on, but let us start with some simple proof.

Why don't you eat with your hands? Why don't you belch and fart in public? Why do you wear clothing? No, even if it is illegal to walk around naked, you could walk around in undies and socks, so why do you wear what you do? Why don't men wear dresses? Why do some men NOW wear dresses when before none would? Why do you shave? Or not shave? Why do you bathe regularly? Why do you not pick your nose? So many things we do are controlled, invisibly, by social expectations. There are no laws, we don't think about it, but we follow these unwritten rules anyway because we know to do otherwise is to incur scorn. And that shunning by society at large exerts a tremendous pressure on us, even if we do not consciously recognize it.

As I asked before, why are there no suburban open air drug markets? Is it because no suburban kids buy drugs? None want extra money? Why, if we learned anything, Columbine showed us there are even a fair number of suburban kids willing to kill and die for no reason at all. No, the difference is that some communities will not tolerate the markets, and their lack of acceptance does convince enough to not do it. Maybe one or two are immune to pressure, but without a critical mass -- and that is what social pressure stops -- the market never forms.

I admit, social pressure has limits. There are those who don't care about how others view them. Then again, there are those who don't mind breaking the law. No system will stop all problems. After all, prostitution is illegal, as are drugs, does that stop them? So why does social pressure have to be perfect for it to be considered?

Having written on this before ("Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction", "Another Look At Exploitation", "There Are Other Solutions", "The Consequences of Bad Laws" "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Humility and Freedom", "Costs and Benefits", "An Unusual Proof") I am reluctant to tread again over the same ground, so let me just leave it at this. The law is force, the threat of injury, expropriation or death. It should only be sued to correct actions which result directly in injury, expropriation or death. Anything else needs to be addressed by persuasion, be it individual or societal. To do otherwise is to try to use the government to force one belief upon all, and that is contrary to the fundamental value we place upon liberty. The state exists to protect rights, nothing more. Anything else, then it is up to you and others to persuade others.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Weakest Pro-Trump Argument Yet

I have been reading a number of conservative news and opinion websites recently, and noticed they seem to have arrayed themselves into either explicitly pro or anti Trump, which is interesting in itself, as I have rarely seen many of these sites explicitly identifying with a candidate until after the primary season has ended. But, more interesting than that, reading these sites has also allowed me to catch up on the more popular arguments for and against Trump, as the comments to each article are full of them. And, among all those arguments, one of the pro-Trump gambits strikes me as the weakest of the lot, as I shall now explain.

A few Trump supporters seem to have recognized that Cruz has better Constitutional credentials, while Trump's history seems to indicate, if not a dedicated liberal disguised as a Republican, at least a former liberal who is now pursuing a rather confused and shifting populist platform, with a number of non-conservative elements. To counter this, the Trump supporters have devised the following argument: It does not matter that Cruz has an impressive record of fighting for Constitutional positions before the Supreme Court, that has nothing to do with the President. The Supreme Court exists to ensure the Constitutionality of laws, the President has mostly an economic role, and that is where Trump will shine.

Let us just get the biggest counter argument out of the way first, since it is so obvious, and so destructive of this argument, it makes all others moot. That is, of course, that the President nominates Supreme Court justices, making his opinion of the Constitution, as well as both his legal knowledge and personal knowledge of various judges, quite relevant. In fact, since Supreme Court justices serve -- effectively -- for life, it might make the President more important than anyone other than the justices themselves, since his actions will have an effect for a number of administrations to come.

But, for now, let us ignore that totally devastating argument, and look at this claim in detail.

First, if a President cannot have any real impact on the Constitutionality of government, then why was FDR so a major force for change, while, say, Cleveland managed to hold back the populist/reform tide for some time? Clearly, by setting an agenda, proposing laws, vetoing laws and so on -- even exercising his "economic" powers, such as when Nixon took us off the gold standard -- the president can have a profound impact on the government,t he size of government and the Constitutionality of government.

Actually, the Nixon one points out another issue. Sometimes laws may be enacted, or regulations promulgated, which are difficult to bring to the Supreme Court. After all someone needs standing, and to have a case, for the Court to review. So, when the Federal Reserve was created, for example, the banks largely favored it, and were really the only ones with standing to bring a case. The deposit holders may have opposed it, but they had no standing to sue. Thus, the Supreme Court is not always a reliable means of controlling government, as not all issues of government can be reduced to a criminal or civil court case. How, for example, would you sue to reduce the size of the welfare state? It can't be done. All who might possibly have standing are recipients, and likely not opposed. And even if they were, they really cannot sue to get less, as getting too much is not harm and thus will not support a case. So how could the Court become involved?

And finally, the idea that the president needs to negotiate deals and advance trade is a liberal or mercantilist idea, not a conservative one. Conservatives believe government, of any branch, should just get out of the way. All we need is our nation to remove barriers to trade, business can then find markets. If other nations obstruct trade, so be it, we will find others. We do not want or need the government playing favorites and cutting deals and so on. And, in the end, that is what most trade agreements entail, favoring some companies over others in foreign trade. No, better to just open our doors and let other nations decide about their own. Eventually they will see the benefit of free trade -- or maybe not -- either way, it won't matter that much to us. And it is much better than having a wheeler-dealer president deciding who will and will not have a place in the foreign markets.

In short, for a short statement, this argument is packed full of nonsense.


OK. I will grant a number of conservatives believe in government negotiated trade agreements, though I am not sure why. Generally, reciprocal agreements removing barriers are mostly harmless, so not an issue, but also there is little to renegotiate there. The ones which assign quotas and so on, those are harmful ones, favoring the companies which have the patronage to get such quotas and are the mercantilist fantasies I am denouncing, and also seem to be the treaties upon which Trump is concentrating. And, yes, there are a number of still mercantilist types in the Republican party, mostly calling themselves "paleocons" and ignoring 400 years of history and economic knowledge, but their existence does not change the fact that mercantilism does not work, is not consistent with small government or equal treatment under the law and is, to my mind, contrary to the principles of almost all other conservatives.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Thought on Conspiracy Theories

My son is fond of history, and so, being of his generation, that means he watches a lot of Youtube videos about historical topics. And it is a quite uneven lot. Some are dull, prosaic presentations, kind of like what the History Channel used to do before they decided ratings really did matter. Others, well, let's just say they tend to be a bit more colorful.

Last night, he asked me about one story he saw. In its, someone claimed genetic tests had been done on the bone fragments found outside Hitler's Berlin bunker and claimed they did not match Hitler's expected genetic profile. My son was eager to find out what I thought, mostly because he knows I am pretty good at letting the air out of the more nonsensical claims, and, for better or worse, he thinks I am pretty amusing when I mock these more loopy versions of history.

Unfortunately, this time I am afraid I was a bit more dull and to the point. All I had to point out was one simple fact. If these studies had been done, and were done by someone even vaguely reputable, don't you think it would have been news across the world? (I also pointed out that, even if the bones were someone else, there were plenty of eye witnesses to Hitler's demise and incineration, people questioned by Allied interrogators very motivated to establish the truth. Not to mention that the Russian's had a pretty strong ring around Berlin at the time an Hitler's appearance was pretty well known. If Himmler could not escape in disguise through much looser Allied lines, what chance did Hilter have?)

Fortunately, my son did get a bit more entertainment mileage out of me, as I realized the likely response my claim would meet at the hands of a dedicated conspiracy theorist. The news media, being in on the cover up, would have ignored the evidence. To prevent embarrassing the government, or maybe because some government helped Hitler hide, or for whatever reason, maybe they would conceal the truth. (It is a perennial favorite claim of conspiracy theorists that the media is in on it, whatever it may be.)

So I pointed out that, even if some news agencies were covering up something, what could inspire every single reporter to do so? Imagine, you are a reporter, you could become famous and fabulously rich overnight by revealing not just a shocking truth, a truth which is important enough on its own to make you famous, but also reveal a conspiracy of silence and all that implies. Would not one reporter take that risk given the incredible rewards?

Which made me realize one other shortcoming of every conspiracy theory. They all rely upon a bizarre contradiction. They allege that everyone involved with the conspiracy will continue to lie, to their nation, the news, their family and friends, absolutely everyone, that they will conceal or destroy evidence, fabricate other evidence, lie under oath, frame innocents, even kill people, all to advance the conspiracy. And yet, these incredible masters of deception, people without an honest bone in their bodies, will be scrupulously loyal to the conspiracy to such a degree not a hint will leak out. And they rely not on the existence of one, or a handful of such people, but that every single member of the conspiracy will be this interesting honest liar, this dishonest man of honor. Someone who will lie, cheat and steal, but not break his word.

Let's face it, it is absurd enough just to imagine a conspiracy of many people will remain hidden, that not one member will have second thoughts, or disagree with the group's decisions, or simply make a mistake, and reveal something important. But to imagine that these people are simultaneously masters of deception, willing to commit every crime imaginable, and yet will remain loyal to this degree? That is absurd.

Look, we have mob informants. We have KGB and CIA turncoats. We have learned the secrets of the Freemasons and every other secret society. Why, the Sicilian Vespers was revealed to some people even before it happened. In short, in any group eventually someone will find some reason to turn on the others and let the secret slip. Maybe anger at the group, or a desire for fame or money, maybe because their opinions change, or they have change of heart about the reasons they joined, whatever. People are not static.

So, does it make any sense to imagine 9/11 could have been an "inside job" and yet no one ever let it slip? Or that Kennedy was assassinated by some large organized conspiracy and not one member has had a reason to leak the truth? I am sorry, but human nature simply does not match the world envisioned by conspiracy theories.

I was a little more animated and amusing when telling this to my son, but the point was pretty much the same. Which surprised me a little, as it seems an 11 year old boy can grasp these simple facts, yet many supposedly mature adults spend much of their lives studiously ignoring them.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Unrealistic Expectations

As I wrote in "Government Programs" and "Brief Thought on Government Subsidies", I belong to a number of mailing lists on internet governance, and sometimes the topics are of interest. One that struck me as particularly interesting was a discussion of the idea of divorcing the internet from national law, that is creating some super-national body to draft and apply laws to the internet. It was quite popular with the list members -- the cynical bit of me would say maybe because they expected to be the ones doing the drafting -- but a moment's thought made me doubt that it would work, if states would even agree to it.

We can see a real world example of this in that favorite super-national body, the United Nations, or in the various international courts and war crimes tribunals. Admittedly the latter seem to accomplish more than the former, despite being much smaller and less costly, but both provide us with some examples of what problems a super-national internet legal body would have.

The UN, as we all know, often devolves into an impotent debating society, as its enforcement power is largely tied to the armies of a few large members -- especially the US -- as is the majority of its funding. If those large members oppose an action, nothing generally happens, or, at most, a resolution is passed which has no teeth. In addition, the veto ability of many members make certain actions simply unthinkable. Beyond that, the "one nation, one vote" nature means certain nations -- e.g. Israel -- will always get the short end of the stick, as perennial rivals outnumber them, and they lack sufficient champions to balance out the sheer number of such rivals and those currying favor with them.

We can see the the same situation, and the reverse in various super-national courts. So long as they are doing what is desired by a number of sufficiently strong nations, they function well and have strong enforcement powers. If they desire to arrest someone with sufficiently strong national protection, odds are good the opposite will happen, and no trial will be held. They are largely at the mercy of the larger nations.

So, how would this experience suggest a super-national internet would fail?

First, and most obviously, it would only be as effective as the member nations allow. Despite the theoretical belief that the internet is "non-geographic" the truth is, the users are tied to geography as are the component parts. As we have seen with China and its blocking or censoring of various internet services, a nation unhappy with this super-national body could, effectively, create a national network, cut off from the super-national web, or, at least, control access and apply its own laws in addition to those of the super-national body.

Second, it would only have the investigative and arrest powers the nations chose to give it. If it decides to make something criminal that a given nation opposes, it would have no way to force that nation to comply. Likewise, if a given nation wants to criminalize something, nothing would prevent it from piling laws on top of those set up by the super-national internet body.

Third, if it truly went out on a limb, it would find that it would end up bowing to the larger members.  As I said, its enforcement powers, and probably funding, would rely on the contribution of money, men and legal authority of some large nations, if they withdrew it would become a small, regional oddity. Thus, it would end up being required to bow down before several large nations. And, in the end, as they would possibly differ on what was right, it would inevitably upset one or more, which would, over time, spell its demise. In short, no matter how it worked, even if it tried to be as neutral and inoffensive as possible, it would end up failing.

How? Let us look at a few situations.

For example, how would it handle internet gambling? Most European nations, in fact most nations period, are not opposed to gambling. On the other hand, the US has a pretty confused stand on gambling (see "Hypocritical Government" and "Nonsensical Regulation"), and often starts to take steps to prohibit it. So, what if the US went through a puritanical phase and tried to ban internet gambling? How would this body deal with that? Either decision would be likely to cause a walkout, either of the single largest source of revenues, or of a block of many, many smaller nations -- though many are still wealthy.

Or what about control of content? Many nations have some content they want to control. China is the most obvious, but they are not alone. Recall the US stand on exporting "war munitions" such as encryption protocols. Or the UKs Official Secrets Act. All of these are nation-specific and enforcing them would likely upset other members. So what does the body do? Allow one and deny the others and you are going to be charged with favoritism. Allow all and the internet will be fairly hemmed in with controls. Allow none and the nations are likely to withdraw. So, how can this be handled?

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Whatever is done, there will be nations opposed, and with an easy solutions available -- returning to national control -- I doubt many would hesitate. And so, in the end, like most super-national bodies, I think any sort of internet legal body would fail for a number of relatively obvious reasons.

The fact that so many who try to draw up internet governance policy fail to see this tells me a lot about out policy wonks around the world. Mostly that they have unrealistic beliefs about the effectiveness of super-national bodies, and too little understanding of national governments and their policies.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Government Programs

I belong to a number of mailing lists. One that is particularly interesting is dedicated to "internet governance", which mostly means policy wonks, and would be policy wonks, speculating about the form of the next set of internet related laws in various countries, or from various super-national groups. It is interesting reading most of the time. Obviously, as you can tell from my post "Brief Thought on Government Subsidies", I disagree with the premise behind most of the discussions, but it is still fascinating to see people, some of whom play a role in developing these policies, discussing what is the current state of political thought about the internet.

One perennial issue, as you can tell from my earlier post, is the question of "universal access". Obviously, one of the many issues about which I have strong opinions, and opinions contrary to most of those posting to this list. (Though not all, at least a few eastern European members have been touting the low connection costs in Poland and Bulgaria achieved through a lack of regulation. Though others then pointed out the "low participation" in the internet for those countries.) And, of course, for the most part, when universal access comes up -- as it is just the international policy wonk version of Gore's "digital divide" -- the solution is inevitably some sort of subsidy, especially when the question is access for rural areas or developing nations.

There are any number of problems with such subsidies, and clearly, a minimalist, free market type such as myself can name dozens, but allow me, for the moment, to just mention a few predecessors, to help make an important point.

In 1898, to help subsidize the Spanish American War, Congress assessed a free on telephone lines. It was allowed to lapse for a while between the rebellion in the Philippines ending and the beginning of World War One, it lapsed again in 1924, but was renewed in 1932 to help fund programs to stop the Depression and since then it has been a part of the US telephone landscape, at least until, at long last, it was partially (though not fully) repealed in 2006. In other words, a tax for the Spanish-American War (or if you want to be generous, to fight World War One or to end the Depression) lasted until 2006, and continues, in a reduced form, still.

The Rural Electrification Act was enacted in 1936 to bring electricity to the, then, unelectrified countryside. Guess what? It still exists. Supposedly "rural" electric companies, in fully electrified areas, are still receiving subsidized loans under this plan. Now, I admit, there may be some very remote areas still insufficiently electrified, but, for the most part, they are not the focus of this program. Instead, it is a source of cheap finance for those who can technically qualify no matter how remote they may be from the original intent.

I could go on, listing mohair buying programs, strategic helium reserves and so on. And each, in its time, was addressing a valid concern. Now, I still think these concerns could probably have been addresses in a more market friendly way, with less intervention, but at least, at the time, there was a justification for the program.

But not now.

And that is the problem. A program, once created, takes on a life of its own. It develops a group of people who earn their living from it. Government workers, beneficiaries, people who provide services to beneficiaries and so on. They have a strong interest in keeping it going, while budget cutters usually ignore these programs, as they are, individually, small expenditures. And thus, these programs tend to continue forever, even long after the justification is gone.

Which is what scares me about universal internet access. Imagine that justification going on forever. Imagine how much it could cost to make sure the most remote part of the world has access equal to the most cutting edge service anywhere. And imagine it continuing forever.

That is a frightening prospect.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Contra "Trickle Down"

This won't be a long post, as I plan on writing a much more elaborate discussion later, but for now, having been annoyed by some comments on a ludicrous article about the "4th Industrial Revolution"  -- which I shall also criticize in another essay, though a brief rebuttal can be found at "Against the Neo-Luddites and Anti-Automation Rhetoric" -- I am angry enough I have to write a brief rebuttal of the whole "trickle down" idea, especially since so many think rebutting it proves the free market is a flop.

First, let us make it clear, no one supporting the free market invented the concept of "trickle down economics", the term was invented as a means of mocking "Reaganomics" -- itself another term of derision -- so the idea that "wealth trickles down from the rich to the poor" was not a cornerstone of free market thought under Reagan and Thatcher, but rather a mocking, simplistic, and essentially wrong summary created by those without any understanding of, or faith in, the free market.

Having said that, can we now stop trying to prove the free market fails by rebutting the "trickle down" theory? It would be akin to disproving the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and saying you proved the validity of atheism. Rebutting caricatures created by critics does not prove the original theory is wrong, it mere proves that the way critics describe a given theory is often invalid.

Now, having said all that, let me point out why, though it is not "trickle down", the idea that wealth being created at any level of the economy benefits everyone is a valid theory.

Well, first of all, simply because the economy is not a zero-sum game. ("Zero Sum Games", "The Basics", "Competition", "Another Look At Exploitation", "Two Sided Processes and Claims of 'Unfair' Outcomes", "Greed Versus Evil") Anytime there is new wealth created, the whole economy grows. The goods become cheaper, new jobs are created, people at all layers find new opportunities. I grant, at some points, change causes problems for individuals, the auto made life hard for cart makers and hose breeders and farriers, but in the long run, overall, it increases the wealth of all.

Some will ask how, so allow me to offer two demonstrations, one about how "rich man's toys" drive the economy to the benefit of all, and one of how accumulated wealth benefits even those without any significant wealth.

Let us look at the toys of rich men. At one time, automobiles were such a toy. So was most travel, period. I am not talking air travel or cruises, though those too were also one the province of the rich, but even just simple travel was limited to the rich, or at most the upper middle class. Especially in the more remote past when travel took a lot of time, during which you could not earn, and had to pay exorbitant prices for everything along the way, while providing your own transport and protection. Then again, medicine was once a province of the wealthy. And so was the theater. Oh, in the Elizabethan era that one changed, but changed largely due to free enterprise as did all of these things. In fact, maybe the theater offers a good, simple example.

Theater was largely the province of the rich, with plays staged at court, or at special events, sometimes being commissioned by groups of well to do, such as inns of law or various societies. But it was not the province of the middle or lower classes.

However, as theater became more popular, and profitable, more people entered the market. The money gained from the rich made it possible for these men to rent or buy fixed venues, where they could then perform for the masses, trading the wealth of a few expensive performances for the greater wealth to be had by playing for a pittance, but a pittance multiplied by a multitude of viewers. And, in the end, it worked. The owners of the London popular theaters made the bulk of their wealth not from court, but from the masses.

Or, let us move forward and look at automobiles. As I said, once a toy of rich men. The auto was terribly expensive back when only a few were made, mostly by hand. And, at that time, there was no incentive to make them any other way, as even some sort of mass production would still be too costly to sell to the public.

But by selling a very expensive good, a fair amount of money was made, and it was invested in making production cheaper, in coming up with designs that were easier to make and so on. And cars went from toys of the rich to toys of the upper middle class. Granted, they were hardly universal among the middle class, and many had to save up for one, but more were being sold all the time, and at the same time, price was declining. Eventually, declining enough that mass production did make sense, and the car exploded across the landscape as a common possession of most classes of society. All because there was money in making a "rich man's toy".

The same was true of televisions, radios, computers, VCRs, and so on. And earlier of watches, of books, of multiple sets of clothing or shoes, of houses, and so on, and so on. Things become cheaper over time because the money invested makes it worthwhile to see how to make things more cheaply. As they take less labor and fewer resources, they become more widespread. (This is why I so despise those who panic about automation and think it will impoverish us and make us unemployed, despite the centuries of evidence to the contrary.)

In short, the desires of the rich, and the work of the middle and lower class laborers, managers, foremen, engineers and inventors who provide for those needs, end up, in the long run, bringing those same goods to the masses.

Now, for our second point. Some will argue that the wealthy, by accumulating wealth, make the rest of us poorer. That "trickle down" fails, and that money never goes anywhere. I rebutted this before (see "The Benefits of Inequalities of Wealth", "A Great Quote", "More Thoughts on Wage Disparities", "The Other 99%", "The Oh So Useful Middle Class", "The Problem of Established Perspectives" and "Denying Reality"), but let us go through this again.

First, and most simply, the rich spend money. It is one reason most people want to be rich. Even among the most frugal rich, they still spend more than poor people. And where do they spend this? In shops that, even if they are owned by other rich people, are staffed and managed by middle class and poor people, and selling goods made by the same. So, if the wealth accumulated by the rich allows them another yacht, they do not get it by waving magic money in the air, they buy it from middle class dealers, who buy it from middle class and poor workers who make boats. And more than that, the crew of that new yacht, the boat yard workers who maintain it, the oil workers who provide it with fuel, the wood workers and chemical workers who provide parts and paint for it, all of them are poor or middle class too. Over time, that yacht spreads around quite a bit of wealth.

But there are still some who think the rich don't buy things, but just hoard money. Well, even then they still help. You see, banks lend money, and create jobs. And if they don't use a bank, then they invest it, and that also creates jobs. Now, some will say that only helps the rich, but that is nonsense. How many rich employees are out there? No even if a rich man borrows the money (though why he would need to if he were rich, I do not understand), he still employs middle class and poor people. Thus even money not spent still helps out those with less wealth.

In fact, great fortunes help the poor and middle class even more than the wealthy. As I pointed out above, the rich don't need to borrow, they have money. To start a new business, they can self finance. But the poor and middle class, when they have a new idea, or simply see an opportunity of some sort, they need to borrow. And without the great accumulated fortunes of the rich, that would be much more difficult. It is that great mass of available capital that creates opportunities for the lower classes to join the upper classes, as well as employ more lower and middle class individuals along the way.

All of which does not even consider the people directly employed by the wealthy in whatever venture made them rich initially. But that seems too obvious to need mention.

This is running on longer than I had anticipated, so I think I am going to end it here. As I said, I will do a much more comprehensive examination of this topic later, looking at how wealth actually helps, how it is not a zero sum game, and the harm redistribution does (see "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution", "The Price of Equality", "Spread the Wealth Around", "An Examination of the Economics and Sociology of Government Spending", "The Sado-Masochist Society, or, Would Primitive Communism Work?" and "Government by Emotion"). But for now, I think I said enough to get across my basic point.

ADDENDUM 2016/04/10:  I was reading my description of Elizabethan theater, and I realized someone could raise a few valid objections. For example, there was always some amount of popular theater, such as passion plays and the like. However, for the most part, secular theater was the province of the well to do. In addition, some will point out that the popularization of the theater, in part, arose because of the explosion of educated middle class individuals in the Elizabethan era, which is also true. Thus, it may not make a perfect example of my argument. On the other hand, the middle class gained education largely because of the shifting of wealth to the upper middle class, which allowed for the creation of the popular theater, to the benefit of the lower classes, making this something of an example of how the enriching of one group can benefit the whole of society. In addition, though I did not discuss it, the growth of wealth among the middle class, and especially the upper end of the middle class, actually helped spread education among classes which were not so enriched. For example, the demand for books among the middle class caused books to become much cheaper and more common, making it possible for even the poorest to afford what had once been a luxury of the rich. And there are countless other examples. So, I suppose, though the theater is not a perfect fit, there are enough alternate examples I really need not worry about one somewhat poor example.

To Be Fair

I must admit, in many ways, we last post ("More AGW Proof") was a bit unfair. After all, true scientific theories of climate change are rather complex things, and at times there can be regional or seasonal cooling even with overall warming. Just as the last ice age saw a brief warming and melt followed by a cooling and refreezing, probably when the great melt water reservoir covering Canada broke through to the open sea. So, obvious one cold winter or warm summer is not a sign of anything, and certainly not enough on its own to prove or disprove.

Still, I stand by my post because it points out another problem, the fact that popularizers, the new media, politicians and the rest jump on every warm summer, every mild winter, every bad storm, every drought, every flood, any anomaly whatsoever to tell us it is proof of global warming, and, implicitly, that that warming is both man-made and catastrophic -- conclusions in  no way justified by what amounts to a bit of unusual weather. And so, whenever I can, I point out unusually cold days and lard them down with mocking comments to highlight how foolish the pop science crowd is in assuming "the warmest summer on record"* proves that global warming is definite, is man made and is catastrophic. And that is why I posted the posts I have**.

I am well aware a cold day or late snow proves nothing. In fact, I am even willing to accept there is something of a general warming trend. Then again, we are coming out of the Little Ice Age (the one the "hockey stick" seems to fail to recognize, just like it ignores the medieval warm period), so I am certain we may be warming, in a general way. And yes, to a very small degree CO2 does insulate the planet, though I think less than most models predict, and with feedback actually lessening rather than exaggerating the effect***. But this is all a matter for research and debate, which is not helped by politicians claiming the debate is closed, scientists hiding evidence or rejecting uncomfortable articles (as was proved in ClimateGate), with many governments directing funding to a single side of the issue, or calling any who doubt that warming is man made and catastrophic "climate change deniers". No one is denying climate change, we see it from day to night, from summer to winter and, in a number of cycles we poorly understand, from year to year and century to century. What we are asking is, how can models which cannot even be made to match past experience be accepted as proof of the future?

That is not denial, asking questions, that is science.


* As this is based, not on the normal measurements, but rather on some proxies which many are calling into question, even this assertion is suspect. But even if we grant it, one warm summer, even the "warmest on record" which means in the past 100 or so years out of a history of billions, does not prove anything, not on its own.

** See "Global Warming Watch Again", "Global Warming Watch" and "Odds and Ends". Or, for more serious discussion, see "Dismissive Skeptics", "My Irritation with Supposed Skeptics", "Incorrect Reasoning", "Inquisition to Galileo - 97% of Scientists Support Geocentric Theory of the Universe", "A Bit of Support From the Skeptics", "A Brief Thought on Skepticism", "Why "Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst" is Bad Policy", "Some Global Warming Links", "Debunking "Debunking Global Cooling"", "Very Quick and Simple Logic", "Skeptics? Really? I Beg to Differ" and "More About the Hockey Stick Graph".

*** I would argue the increased plant growth and CO2 consumption, increase absorption by warm oceans, deposition by shellfish, multiplying because of increase sea plant life, and so on would actually act as a buffer, and mean CO2 effects -- mild as science suggests they are -- would be a trailing, not leading indicator, and one felt much less strongly than sunspot cycles, ocean currents, local geographic factors and so on. Not to mention that there is a cap to what CO2 can accomplish, which is why most AGW models emphasize high number multipliers and feedback cycles, otherwise it is hard to get a catastrophe out of CO2 alone, or even CO2 and water vapor. Venus may be the model they use, but Venus, much closer to the sun, lacking many atmospheric elements found on Earth while possessing others, with a crushing atmospheric pressure, is very different from  Earth and may not be the best model upon which to rely.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

More AGW Proof

Ever notice whenever we have a warm summer, or a mild winter, the AGW proponents tell us it is proof? Yet, snow in April, somehow that is not a counterargument? In fact, they will argue that somehow global warming is causing these longer, colder winters too? Sorry, but if everything proves AGW, there is something wrong with the theory. If winter is mild, it proves AGW. If winter is harsh, it proves AGW. If summer is hot, AGW. Summer is mild, AGW. What exactly WOULD disprove their theory?

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Homosexuality, Truthers, Soviet Psychiatry and Madness -- Revisiting an Old Argument

I know one of my least popular arguments -- probably even moreso than my arguments for decriminalizing drugs and prostitution, even less popular than my argument for privatizing roads -- is my contention that our current view of mental illness is entirely mistaken. However, I believe it is one of the best examples of a place where our efforts to help others end up doing harm, and thus serves as a good example of so many other bad ideas. Because of that, though I despair of convincing anyone who is not at least a little sympathetic to my views already, I feel the need to keep making this argument, even if few --or none -- of my readers are likely to agree.

To put it simply, my view is that mental illness is not biological, despite current views. Oh, it is biological in the sense that all our thoughts obviously contain a biological element, taking place inside a physical brain. And it is biological in the sense that a few cases dubbed mental illness are actually the result of dementia or brain damage of some sort, or -- thanks to the oddities of government funding -- actually mild mental retardation shuffled into the mental health system to take advantage of available funds1. But beyond those outliers, and the sense in which all thoughts are biological, I deny mental illness is in any conventional sense as illness. Rather, I would argue what we dub mental illness are simply a host of unacceptable behaviors we find ourselves unable to understand. Be it simply unacceptable actions -- such as teen drug users who often get shunted into the mental health system, or the one time practice of doing the same for excessive promiscuity -- or beliefs and behaviors just a bit too far outside of the mainstream, or perhaps it is an example of poor or lacking socialization -- such as an inability to control one's emotions -- or, in some cases, simply a tendency to act on a personal set of connotations, which is unintelligible to an outsider, but perfectly consistent to the individual acting. In short, mental illness is nothing but a blanket term for behaviors which are unintelligible or unacceptable, behaviors we have tried to treat as illnesses, grouping and classifying, but, in the end, not come close to curing because, simply put, they are not a disease2,3.

Some of those are a bit hard to understand, and some may give a mistaken impression of what I believe. For example, when I speak of personal connotations, I do not mean to imply the entirety of mental illness is linguistic, to fall into the errors of General Semantics. Some may well be in that area, people who misinterpret words and react oddly because of it. After all, we have everyday examples of this, people who take certain descriptions badly, groups which charge racism when someone says "niggardly" and so on. So it exists, and some of the behaviors do resemble mental illness, but clearly, that is not the whole of the problem.

As I said above, I think mental illness suffers from a problem I described when discussing "hyperactivity" or "ADD/ADHD", people are taking a symptom, or behavior, and making that description into an ailment. In the realm of more conventional ailments, the same is true of "cancer". There will never be a cure for cancer (see "The Mythical Cure for Cancer") because cancer, the uncontrolled growth of cells, is a symptom, one with multiple causes. It is akin to looking for a cure for fever or cough. Cancer is a symptom, not an illness.

And the same is true, even more so, with "mental illness". Mental illness is not an illness, it is a group of many, many behaviors, the definition of which changes over time -- as we shall see -- and some of which may be deemed normal by some and aberrant by others -- lumped together into a set of supposed ailments. I would contend, that because it is so broad, and the supposed ailments themselves both so broadly defined, and so arbitrary, that even experts often cannot agree on which specific ailment described which behaviors. Thus, I believe, mental illness as such, cannot be ascribed to a single cause, or even groups of causes, as General Semantics tried to do, but rather must be seen as a cultural construct, describing all behaviors, regardless of cause, which fall outside of the socially acceptable. Or, to be precise -- as we do not find all criminals insane4 -- all those behaviors falling outside social acceptability, which the majority of us cannot explain with some understandable motive.

To try to explain the idea of mistaken connotation, as that seems the hardest to grasp, and the one for which my examples provide the least help, I used to offer a thought experiment. For the next hour or day, bear this in mind, and behave as it is absolutely true: Anyone who uses a word starting in "T" is threatening to harm you, while anyone using a word starting with "W" is expressing their love. It is absurd, and something no one would ever believe, but if you were to act as if it were true, your behavior would certainly mimic the mood swings of a number of disorders. And it is my contention that, to some degree, that is at the root of some behaviors. Oh, nothing so absurd, I grant, but we have seen it in real life. The guy in the bar who takes offense at an innocent description because he attaches an extra meaning to one of the words. The person who finds extra significance in something you said because of your choice of words. Even the effort politicians and advertisers put into picking just which words to use. Every day, we accept that connotations, the hidden extra baggage we attach to words, are very real and powerful. Well, if someone were to have come to attach the wrong connotations, to see in words meanings the rest of us did not share, would not the result look a lot like all those bizarre behaviors popularly described as "schizophrenic". I do not want to overstate this, I think such connotations are relatively rare, or arise many times not on their own, but as a consequence of mistaken beliefs5, but it still is a component of mental illness as I see it, and an important one, as it helps explain some of the most inexplicable behaviors. But, to be perfectly clear, I do not think it is the whole explanation, or even the central one; General Semantics was quite wrong in finding linguistic causes to be at the root of most mental disorders.

For the vast majority of what we dub mental disorders, I would instead blame either beliefs well outside the mainstream, or else a lack or absence of socialization -- including socialization to norms not accepted by society at large. For example, in some cultures it would be perfectly acceptable to imagine spirits were speaking to one constantly, it might even be seen as a sign of favor, in ours, imagining you are in constant contact with spirits is seen as an ailment. Unless, that it is, you find a role where it is contextually acceptable, such as working as a medium, where people might still call you "odd'< but would not try to have you institutionalized. Which actually makes a good demonstration of my point. Behaviors are contextual, and what is and is not madness is entirely dependent on societal norms and the context of the behavior. Mourning your spouse the day after he dies is perfectly acceptable; after a year it is acceptable though some may think it excessive; being in mourning a decade after will often be dubbed "depression" and many will claim it has a biological origin. On the other hand, in some societies, or contexts, it would pass unnoticed, since what is and is not appropriate is entirely a social construct, which is a big part of why I doubt mental illness is biological, but rather is a way we try to explain away inappropriate behavior we do not understand6.

Perhaps some of my examples will help to clarify this a bit more.

First, let us look at Truthers, those individuals who believe the events of September 11, 2001 were part of some conspiracy. Now, most of them cannot agree on exactly who was conspiring, or why, or even how, but they all agree something happened and it was not what we were told.

Obviously, when most people hear the theories of one of these Truthers, their reaction is "he's crazy", but not, I must note, "let's put him in an institution". We recognize that, while what someone believe may be far outside the mainstream, and that their belief in such things may even make them hold some irrational beliefs, even act irrationally -- sending FOIA requests to the government, watching Loose Change more than once, etc -- there is a difference between "crazy" and "mentally ill".

But that is where the problem lies. Why is someone just crazy if he thinks the CIA killed Kennedy? Or that Bush blew up the levees in New Orleans? But he is mentally ill if he thinks his roommate is poisoning him? Or Martians are reading his thoughts? Each beliefs has as little or as much proof as the other, each leads to paranoid beliefs, each inspires irrational thoughts and behaviors, yet some we accept as sane -- if outliers -- while others are supposedly suffering some organic disorder. Or, to draw another example, if one were to say "all people are good and helpful" we would call them naive, but not mad. Yet if someone claimed the opposite, that all people were evil and hostile, we would try to medicate them. Or, even more peculiar, if the person saying that others were evil were to do it, as, say, part of a philosophy underlying some self-help program, or lesson in how to win in business, we would accept it as sound, if pessimistic, thought, while in others the very same thought would be a sign of a physical disorder?

That is why I have so much trouble with definitions of mental illness as biological. In many cases, mental illness is nothing more than a more extreme, or less acceptable, expression of a perfectly ordinary --or at least acceptable -- human emotion or belief. We accept some people are happy, some somber, but if the somber individual says being sad is a problem, suddenly it goes from being just another predisposition or understandable mood, and we decide it has a physical origin. Similarly, we accept misfortune can make one despondent, but, if they remain so for longer than society thinks normal, suddenly that sadness is biological in origin. It strikes me as a peculiar way to view the world.

Another example makes this even more plain, as it is an example of a medical miracle. In a period of a few decades, without any medical intervention or medication, without therapy or treatment, we cured millions of the mentally ill. And how we did it shows how troublesome our view of mental illness is.

Recall, in the relatively recent past, homosexuality was either itself a mental illness, or at least so aberrant that it was a sign of an underlying malady. Not so today. Why not? Has human biology changed? Has homosexuality disappeared? Nothing of the kind, what was once madness is no longer because of nothing more than a societal change. As we came to accept homosexuality as acceptable behavior, we magically cured millions of a presumably biological disorder. We made an ailment go away. What previously could only be cured by electro-convulsion, insulin shock, laceration of the frontal lobes, medication or other intervention was magically cured by a change to society. In short, madness was not biological at all, it was merely a social convention. What was claimed to be defined with scientific precision was instantly eliminated by a change in social norms.

Which brings me to the former Soviet Union. It has long been told how the Soviet leadership would use mental institutions as surrogate prisons, claiming those who rejected the Soviet system were mentally ill and locking them away. And, perhaps, in some cases, it was used in an opportunistic way. Then again, there are younger family members in our system have exaggerated how out of touch an elderly aunt or grandfather or other relative is to get early control of an inheritance, so the ability to abuse a system is no indication it is not taken seriously7.

No, I would argue the Soviet system was used, at least by some, as intended. After all, society accepted the Soviet system as the ideal, as the best possible alternative, and to reject it was clearly a sign of a problem. In short, while some may have used it opportunistically, and some may have just gone along, there were doubtless those true believers who saw opposition as a sign of real imbalance, and thus, were using the system as it was meant to be. As we use it. To try to reform those who could not understand their role in society or the benefits society provided. In short, they were curing the mad just as we try to do. I will admit, early on, especially, this was probably less common than later in the life of the Soviet Union, during the Stalin era it was much more likely to find opportunists than true believers, but I doubt even then everyone in the system was corrupt and deceitful. Instead, because we in the west shared the view of the "insane" rather than the society calling them such, we could not see why they were acting, and dubbed it dishonest, but looked at from the inside, doubtless some were acting in what they imagined was good faith8.

Or, to offer another example, why do so many Communist lands bother with reeducation camps? Why not just go the Nazi route and imprison them and work them to death? Why care what they think? Because, to the true believer -- and Communism produces more than we like to believe -- they really are mistaken. They are not enemies or traitors, they are lunatics, maybe just misinformed, and need to be shown the way. You don't bother with reeducation unless you really believe, and I would argue the same is true of Soviet psychiatric institutions. They already had plenty of prisons, even a whole gulag system, for criminals and political rivals. Why bother with institutionalization? Because, at least for some, rejecting the system really was a sign of madness.

All of which shows how much of a social construct madness can be. And argues against any biological origin.

Perhaps one final argument might help. It is hypothetical, but hopefully it will at least let you see how mental illness is tied to social norms, and not biology.

Imagine if you will, an isolated society, maybe a distant island, founded by thoroughgoing atheists, atheists who won't even accept the possibility of religion. Imagine it isolating itself for a few generations, going its own way and developing its own customs and traditions and norms of behavior. Basically, a society much like ours, but with every trace of religion removed. No churches, no prayers, no Christmas or Easter, no "God bless you" when you sneeze, not even goodbye since it is a religious contraction, every hint of anything religious stripped from it, but otherwise much like our own society.

Now, let us imagine they open their doors to the world once more, and foreigners begin to settle in this island. Not many, as if they settled as a large group, any oddities might just be dismissed as "foreign ways". No, let us imagine a single foreigner, renting a home on the island, trying to fit in. And let us look at how he would be viewed by these strangers.

Well, first of all he makes frequent reference to some imaginary being, one he seems to think really exists. He is full of phrases like "God willing" or "I pray it will..." And these don't just seem to be verbal oddities, he really seems to believe in this imaginary entity, so much so he sometimes even speaks to it, telling it his wishes and imaging it can make them come true. Not just that, but he has a lengthy list of rules he must live by, fearing that were he to violate them, this imaginary being might do him harm, though, he also believes, if he does follow them, he will enjoy the being's favor.

I could go on, but you get the picture. The difference between religion and madness is all matter of numbers, or maybe acceptance by society. Militant atheists would use this to argue all religion is nonsense, but I would make a different point. What we accept as ordinary, could easily be madness in a different context. Likewise, were certain beliefs we would dub insane held by enough people, they would probably pass without comment. In short, as I have been arguing over and over, what is mad and what is not is an entirely social matter. It is not biology, it is not organic, it is the outcome of social processes, and those who choose behaviors, or are socialized in such a way, as to violate those social norms, when we cannot find another explanation -- greed, foreign customs, religious minority, strange parents, what have you -- we call them mad.

Which is why I am so strenuous in my objections. I will grant, in cases these mistaken beliefs, improper socialization and the rest can lead to very troubling behaviors, can even make individuals impossible to control. Then again, the same is true of a number of acceptable beliefs. Anyone who had a teenager who wandered off to join the anti-globalization riots knows madness is not required to have a troublesome, uncontrollable family member. I do not mean to minimize how bad behavioral issues can be, I just want to point out that what we dub mental illness is hardly the sole source of such problems.

And that is what troubles me. Because someone hold beliefs too far outside the mainstream, or behaves in a peculiar manner, it troubles me that we believe we have the right, even the obligation, to deprive them of their rights. I know, it is limited to certain specific cases, there are all sorts of reviews, but it still troubles me. Would preventative detention because you were suspected to be planning a crime be acceptable if there were just enough reviews? If it were limited to certain crimes? Of course not. And that is what bothers me about the way we deprive individuals of rights because we dub them mentally ill. I know those doing so mean well, but we also know that cliche about the road to hell. And in this case, I am afraid that may be the most appropriate description.


1. My ex-wife worked in a state mental hospital for a time and the majority of patients seemed to fall into two categories, the mentally retarded sent there because no other money was available and someone managed to convince a social worker they had a "behavioral disorder" and prisoners awaiting trial who were trying to avoid going to jail. They were not the whole of the population, but were definitely the majority.

2. Some will ask why drugs "work" on mental illness if it is not biological. I would respond in two ways. First, it depends on your definition of work. Strong sedatives definitely make violent individuals more tractable, but is that truly a "cure"? In many cases the supposed cures simply amount to reducing the trouble the most difficult patients cause, which could be accomplished by keeping them drunk or doped on opiates, so it is hard to say other drugs "cure" them. In the second case, many drugs "work" in the same way getting drunk "cures" sadness. Patients with mood problems enjoy a brief elevation from psychiatric drugs which mimic stimulants or sedatives, but would probably do as well with more traditional drugs which do the same -- in fact, the tendency to "self-medicate" with drugs and alcohol shows this is true -- so again, it is silly to call a cure the ability to use drugs to make people feel happy for a brief time. (This is not a full answer, obviously, but does explain a number of cases. Anyone who doubts the second explanation needs to explain why so many "mood stabilizing" drugs are both abused by those to whom they are prescribed and sold on the black market. If they did not produce some sort of euphoric effect, that would not happen. Thus, it seems they do little more than what traditional "bad" illegal drugs do. Just legally.)

3. I am ignoring here what was once called malingering, that is play acting and faking. However, I am fairly sure, to some degree play acting is a part of many mental disorders. Not that they are necessarily faking, rather, I would suggest in some cases individuals begin by adopting a persona, or playing at a role, and, over time, find it so comforting they have trouble living without it, or even recognize it is an act any longer. I recall when I was in college one summer, taking some extra classes, I had a break of several hours between classes, and to fill it a friend and I played rummy, hours and hours, eventually racking up running scores of several tens of thousands of points. However, after playing so much rummy, for several weeks, I also recall how I began to always think in threes. When I saw couples or pairs of things, I would begin to ask where the third one was. It convinced me how easily the mind can be trained to patterns, even unintentionally. And it convinced me that it is quite possible for play acting to become pretty real to the actor, provided they do it long enough.

4. I always found it odd that insanity was an argument against imprisonment, as I imagined the inability to tell right from wrong would argue that that person should be locked away for a longer time. Or, as my mother used to say "I would think you would have to be insane to commit any murder." All of which is a round about way of saying, the line between simply criminal and criminally insane seems a terribly artificial one. Someone who is a cold blooded assassin for hire seems to have more trouble telling right from wrong than a man who thinks he is talking to God, at least to my mind, but the former is often held to be sane, while the latter is not. It strikes me as a bit odd.

5. As I am going to discuss Truthers later, look at the odd meanings they ascribe to the word "pull" because of WTC 7. And think about how they often parse discussions and find hidden meanings in certain words. It is not exactly the same as what I am describing, but definitely shows how such mistaken personal connotations could arise.

6. Some may ask where is the harm in trying to help people fit in. Even if it is just a social construct, why is it bad to try to make people happier? To help them adjust to society? And if it were simply people trying to help, I would not object so strenuously. My problem is that we empower unelected individuals to deprive these individuals of various rights. They can lose their right to contract, control of their property, the right to refuse medication, even their freedom, based on medical opinion. That is why I find our present view of mental health not just erroneous but a danger.

7. Not to mention that there have been those who suggested using our commitment system to extend jail terms for rapists and others, which seems little different from the opportunistic use of which we accuse the Soviets. Fortunately, this does not seem to enjoy much widespread support in the US.

8. I am not denying the state used this system for its own advantage, doubtless there were opportunists. However, I am certain, especially after a number of generations had been raised with Soviet beliefs, that there were many who saw an outright rejection of the Soviet system as a sign of madness. (If you doubt this, I have a story from my college Russian professor. He told how, as a child, their local hero was one of the dogs which guarded the border. He told how many times they were told the dog had kept out those seeking to enter the Soviet Union. And he believed it as a child. The fence that kept the Soviet people in was reinvented as a means of keeping others out. And it was accepted unquestioningly, at least by children. And some probably never did question it. If that is true, how hard would it be to find someone who believed anti-Soviet feelings were signs of madness?)

Friday, April 1, 2016

Importing Drugs

While listening to Trump supporters, I heard a familiar argument, one that is often put forth by supposed "free market" proponents as a solution to the "health care crisis", one that was touted even before ObamaCare by certain individuals, and one that, despite its sound, is a terrible idea. That is the idea that we can solve the high cost of prescription medicine by allowing us to import drugs.

Before you think I am going to argue about safety and quality control and the rest, rest assured, that is not my intention. Likely we could easily set up import laws such that imports would come from vendors with established quality and so on, so I won't bother with these straw men. No, instead I want to point out another, much more significant problem with importing drugs, one based on the reason out of country drugs are so much cheaper, and then offer two answers to the high cost of medication -- one a very short term remedy, and one a much more long term one.

The problem with importing drugs is, in effect, it will extend foreign price controls to US drugs. You see, the reason foreign drugs cost so much less is, quite simply, foreign lands impose price controls. (Well, there is a small boost from two other causes, as I shall discuss below.) Some do it explicitly, actually most do it explicitly, but a few do it implicitly, letting companies know the price they would want, with all the implicit threats a government recommendation entails. Either way, the cost of foreign drugs is low because of price controls*.

So, I am sure many are asking, why should I care? Why not impose price controls?

To which I ask, do you like having new drugs? You see, the costs of research, of development, of testing and all that, that is basically paid by drug profits. Without sufficient profits, there are no new drugs. And right now, with many nations imposing, often draconian, price controls, the cost of development is basically paid by the US consumer. It is not fair, I grant, but "fair" is often a meaningless term. And, fair or not, the answer is not to end that one lifeline, as doing so will simply end all drug development. That is not good for anyone.

A few may be asking, "but why are drugs so expensive? A single pill can cost $10 or more!" And yes, I agree prices are quite absurdly high, but with good reason. In the US, the FDA imposes quite extensive testing regimes, and also can deny a drug for reasons which, while seemingly well defined, can be interpreted pretty arbitrarily. After all, who is to say that "rationally" the benefit outweighs the harm? There is no rational measure of this, and so any prohibition can be supported. And make no mistake, as I argued before (cf "Gun Control, The FDA and Regulating the Law Abiding", "Food Paranoia", "Nonsensical Regulation", ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Free Market and Federalist Confusion", "Fear Driven Enterprises", "Salt, Transfats, DDT, Bad Science and Even Worse Law", "A Passing Thought on Transfats" and "The Problem With Regulation") the incentives are all toward denying rather than approving. Which means, when you buy a pill, you are not just paying for that pill, but for the hundred other medications the company developed and the FDA denied.

Well, not just FDA costs. If I am honest, the US has one other heavy burden, that being the liability lawyers. Ever since the era of lenient liability laws dawned, and explicit waivers ceased carrying any weight, the drug companies also have to assume any drug, even the most beneficial, will carry with it a certain amount of liability cost. No matter who they warn, nor how well, they will still be sued, and, in some venues, they will lose. And so you are also paying off those legal costs, since "the company" is not a person and cannot really pay. (See "The Foolishness of Corporate Taxes" for a related discussion.)

Which brings me to my recommendations. Three ways we can reduce the costs of drugs. (Actually, there are four, but I doubt drug companies would agree to stop selling overseas until foreign lands end price controls, shifting some of the burden of research costs to other lands. So I will stick with the three that are remotely possible.)

First, liability reform would do a lot to reduce the costs in the short term. I doubt it would be as beneficial as some think, as I believe costs are driven up more by the regulatory burden and other factors, but it is pretty clear, if drug makers did not have to assume every drug would be found defective in at least some courts, they would not need to charge as much in expectation of legal costs. Of course, tort reform would be beneficial in a number of areas (See "The Virute of Novelty and the Value of Tradition", "Still More on Liability Law", "Liability Law and Cost-Benefit Analysis", "Victim as Judge", "The "Right To Sue" As Our Only Right", "Skewed Perspective , or, How Big Government Becomes Inevitable", ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe", "Better Safe Than Sorry Revisited", "You've Come a Long Way, Baby!","Consumer Protection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "Guns and Drugs","Contracts and Freedom" and "In Praise of Contracts"), so it would definitely be a course to pursue, but in terms of drugs, I don't think it is the most beneficial.

The second suggestion would be to reduce the burden the FDA places on companies, maybe to start by accepting in house tests rather than requiring many be performed again. I know, some may imagine this would allow companies to smuggle dangerous drugs onto the market, but a company that sold dangerous drugs would probably suffer a pretty serious blow to its reputation, costing it more than it would gain. (Well, in a free market it would. In our regulated market, it is arguable, so see the next point.) This would definitely reduce the cost of drugs, allow more to come to market, and generally benefit us all.

But the best solution, the one that would have the biggest benefit, and inevitably the most controversial, is to eliminate the FDA entirely and allow open entry and competition. As it stands now, the barriers to entry** make the drug market an effective cartel, which means, inevitably, higher prices, little concern for the consumer, and little care about reputation. Ending the cartel and allowing free entry and unregulated competition would end that and bring a lot of benefit. I know many argue it is a pipe dream and people would go back to selling "snake oil", but I disagree. We are in a much different climate, with better informed consumers***, and the 19th century ills would be very unlikely to appear in this age.

As I said, I doubt these will be enacted any time soon, too many depend on liability for a living, and they have a lot of political clout, while many others think liability laws and regulation make us safe. (See "Who Is Safer?", "Worker Safety" and "Oven Mitts and Safety Regulation") Still, if we truly want to reduce the costs of medical care, and specifically of medicine, we need to enact these measures.


* In a few cases, low costs are because of -- in part or in whole -- government subsidies. But I seriously doubt, if we allow wholesale overseas drug buying, they would continue to subsidize the US consumer, so I doubt we need to consider those cases when thinking about this issue.

** This would be a truly tricky things to do, as some barriers are part of our war on drugs, as handling a lot of chemicals is restricted by the government. So, to allow truly free competition, we would need to seriously modify how we viewed that topic as well. (See "The Problem of Established Perspectives", "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est", "Guns and Drugs", "Nonsensical Regulation" and "The Free Market Solution")

*** On the other hand, there are people buying snake oil now, be it unneeded vitamin supplements, HGH "boosters" or what have you, and present laws do nothing to stop that. Either because it is legal, or because people who want something don't care much about laws and regulations. Which helps to make my case, actually, as the ills regulation supposedly cure still persist, leaving us with only the costs of regulation.



To see my discussion of medical costs in general, read "High Cost of Medical Care","Government Efficiency", "Medical Reform, An Overview", "The Absurdity of Mandatory Insurance", "Clarification of my Argument for a Free Market in Medicine", "Preexisting Conditions", "Misunderstanding Profits", "Government Quackery", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "The Devil is in the Definitions (And Assumptions)", "Bad Economics Part 10", "Bad Economics Part 18", "Cutting "Costs"", "A Different Look at "Health Care Reform"", "Reviving Nonsense in the White House", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Again?" and "Collective Ventures Versus Government" .