Archive for May, 2021

Crimes and brains

May 31, 2021

In Maryland, not long ago, a boy of 13 was riding in a car involved in a gang-related shooting. The state is one of many with the “felony murder” doctrine — any role in a felony that results in death can entail a murder charge. Maryland also authorizes judges to send children that young to adult court. The boy got 40 years in prison.

Harsh? Actually, a sentence of life-without-parole has not been uncommon in America even for juveniles under 18 — until in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that out, except in rare cases. But such youngsters are still often treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

Neuroscience has found that the human brain doesn’t develop to maturity until well into one’s twenties. Particularly laggard is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making. We’ve always known teenagers can be irresponsible, and this brain research explains it. They just don’t yet have the mental equipment — we’re not talking about simple stupidity here — to regulate their behavior in a mature adult way. Thus their greater proclivity to act in ways that break the law.

They normally grow out of it, and don’t become hardened criminals. Unless they’re put in prison for years alongside older people who are hardened criminals.

While the mentioned brain maturation is normal, another large segment of our prison population consists of people not psychologically normal, but instead mentally ill. A very different thing. The “insanity defense” in criminal trials is actually very restrictive, rarely invoked. Most people who commit crimes because they’re mentally unbalanced wind up in prison.

That’s no surprise. But I recently learned another aspect of this that I hadn’t realized. Another big part of the prison picture is brain injury. Not psychological, but physical, resulting from a knock on the head. Here again the prefrontal cortex (behind your forehead) is prominent. Damage there can also impair judgment. People who act out violently due to brain injury constitute a major segment of our prison population.

Who are the most likely sufferers? Those living where street violence is common, and where their own parents are more apt to knock them around. Receiving hits on the head damaging the brain — causing behavior that leads to prison.

And of course a great many people are incarcerated in the “war on drugs.” I’ve written before how crazy this is. You might defend it if it actually curbed drug use, but of course it does not, while the drug war itself rampages a path of destruction throughout society, destroying lives not only in prison but in a penumbra of other human impacts. Drug use should be a public health matter, not a criminal justice one. (We are, very slowly, at last moving in that direction.)

I am not a bleeding heart, blaming “society” for crime, nor believing a lack of free will relieves us of responsibility for our actions. Misdeeds merit punishment. But, in all the ways I’ve explained, we go way overboard on that. Thus America has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country on Earth. This wasn’t always true. Our incarceration rate has exploded over the last few decades.Surely not due to way more crime. It’s because our criminal justice system is way out of whack.

Too often failing to give people help instead of prison terms that wantonly destroy lives. Like when a 13 year old is sentenced to 40 years. We should instead treat with human compassion people who are drug addicts, who commit crimes because their brains aren’t fully developed, or were damaged by injury or illness. We as a society have no such excuses for the crime of how we treat them instead.

Transgender wars: revisited

May 27, 2021

My 4/29 essay, “Transgender Wars”* basically said transgendering is right and good for many people, while caution is needed when pre-teen and teen kids suddenly decide they’re trans. I criticized trans activists who brook no discussion of that; and criticized the American Humanist Association’s revoking an award to Richard Dawkins for writing that trans and non-trans people differ. Dawkins retweeted my piece. A firestorm of comments venomously attacked my essay, and Dawkins for retweeting it.

I was assailed for calling out extremist trans activists as, well, extremist. The ferocity of many comments proved it. Demonizing anyone not in lockstep with every detail of their catechism, to cast themselves as more enlightened and morally superior. Intolerant “woke” cancel culture in all its censorious Savonarolan glory.

Start with my first sentence: “Changing gender wasn’t even a thing until the 20th Century.” Many commenters deemed this factually false, discrediting all that followed. When obviously the reference was to medical procedures, not gender fluidity. Only by ridiculously assuming it meant the latter could the line be faulted. Showing these commenters are just spoiling for a fight, keen to manufacture heresies to condemn.

Many savaged my effort to explain what’s going on with transgender people. Often fiercely nitpicking the words I used — which aimed for understandability by average readers. Such semantic onslaughts too are unfortunately characteristic of “woke” intolerance. With a canonical vocabulary, those failing to ape it placing themselves beyond the pale. Like insistence on “cis-” language, arch and baffling to ordinary folks. (See my essay about “people of color” versus “colored people.” Someone who almost uttered the latter excoriated by, among others, the National Association for the Advancement of — um — Colored People.**)

I was trying to enlighten those who think wanting to change sex is merely some kind of perverted whim. Males and females differ genetically and anatomically. I said male and female brains differ too, and that “gender dysphoria” entails a mismatch between brain and body. Perhaps an oversimplification — yet a useful conceptualization. Thus I said gender dysphoria is biological, not just psychological, so cannot be resolved by talk therapy.

Trans advocate commenters pounced, vehemently rejecting this. Denying brains differ vis-a-vis sexuality, and the idea of a mismatch. Indeed disagreeing that this is a matter of biology and not just psychology. Again it seems they just want to have a fight. But how does their stance here (nonsensical to me) serve their cause? If they’re right and I’m wrong, and it’s not biological, then those who are hostile to the whole transgender thing might have a point after all. That it’s all just some weird whim of transgender people.

I’m basically libertarian, holding that everyone should be free to live as they please (barring harm to others). If a man wants to live as a woman, fine by me. But not everyone is so broadminded. It needs explaining that there’s more to it than transgender people making some off-the-wall personal choice. That’s what I tried to do. Earning attacks from transgender zealots, arguing it is all about choice. Go figure.

My chief crime was, despite strongly supporting the reality of most trans people, criticizing the insistence that anyone declaring themselves trans must be supported in physical transitioning. My point was again confirmed by commenters’ expressed absolutism. Refusing to acknowledge there’s any sort of problem involving kids suddenly coming out as trans, who may be mixed up (often simply gay, it turns out). A cautious go-slow approach by adults is not tolerated. With denial that medical interventions in such cases are frequently irreversible and can entail serious health and psychological harm. One size does not fit all.

Dawkins’s “offense” was, again, pointing to the undeniable fact that trans- and non-trans-women (or men) differ. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated the same (for most purposes). But trans extremists act as though the latter proposition somehow demands denial of the former. As if we don’t treat men and women the same (for most purposes) even while recognizing the differences. Insistence on an obviously false absolutism of non-difference makes for an ideology flouting reason. Not a good way to persuade anyone.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2021/04/29/transgender-wars-2/

** https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2020/01/11/people-of-color-versus-colored-people-call-in-the-language-police/

Are child car seats contraceptive?

May 25, 2021

The average U.S. woman birthed 2.12 children in the early ’70s but only 1.73 by 2018. And whereas car safety seats were first required only for tots under three, that has gradually risen in most places to age eight. Are these two things related?

Yes, says a scientific study reported in The Economist. Though finding no correlation regarding the births of first and second children, families did less often choose to have a third while the first two still needed safety seats. Notably, the birth rate reduction was seen only in two-parent families.

Visualize this. A single parent can easily drive with three child seats. But two adults and three safety seats in a car don’t go. Of course, you can get a bigger vehicle, like a minivan. But that’s costly, and even people who can afford such monsters may dislike them. The answer: as long as two children still need safety seats, postpone the third. Maybe forever.

This car seat effect on family size is marginal, to be sure, but it seems it’s not zero. The study’s authors reckoned that in 2017 it reduced U.S. births by 8,000. But what about children’s lives saved by requiring safety seats up to age eight? Only 57 they calculated.

But this, The Economist comments, “to put it politely,” is “a strange moral calculation.” It cites other evidence suggesting greater safety benefits for car seats even for older children. But anyhow I see no equivalence between a living child killed in a crash and one never born, whose existence is merely hypothetical. (Then again, I don’t have the refined moral sense of an anti-abortion zealot.)

And I take the whole thing with a grain of salt. It’s axiomatic that correlation needn’t imply causation. There may obviously have been other sociological and cultural reasons for the observed effects, unrelated to car seats.

Nevertheless, The Economist concludes that this story illustrates the law of unintended consequences. We think of the back seats of cars as places where children are conceived; here they may be preventing children being conceived.

The power imbalance between good and evil

May 21, 2021

I literally wrote the book on optimism. Seeing people, and the world, improving over time. But that seems to have gone into reverse.

The power of good is considerable. Most people are better served when good prevails over evil, so work to achieve it. But the power of evil is stronger.

How so? Good is inherently self-limiting, ultimately bound by the golden rule, an iron law for people who do truly strive for goodness. The wicked are not so bound. The good have scruples and restrain themselves; the wicked do not, that’s their wickedness.

Thus the power imbalance between good and evil, recalling Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis. Humans, in mass, have indeed grown better, but it’s an ironic consequence that this means more moral restraint, and hence more vulnerability to the depredations of those without restraint.

We see this playing out all over. Some capable of anything to gain their aims, while resistance is handicapped by inhibitions on fighting fire with fire. Erdogan, Putin, Xi, Maduro, Lukashenko, Orban, Ortega, Assad. India’s Modi headed that way. El Salvador’s Bukele newly in the club. Trump tried. Myanmar’s generals willing to slaughter as many as necessary to keep power.

Willingness to kill is the top rung of the ladder that starts with flouting democratic norms, rule of law, and people’s rights. Killing is the ultimate denial of rights.

If any country ever embodied the principles of rule of law, democracy, and human rights, it was America. Don’t start in about our crimes. We’re not perfect — nothing human ever is — but we strove toward living up to those ideals, and progressed.

Until 2016. Then the power imbalance between good and evil hit. A president without restraints, compunctions, or scruples. Good did manage to prevail, but only just barely, and without finality.

America’s crisis has deep antecedents and is continuing. It was brutally exposed when Republicans blocked the Garland Supreme Court nomination, because they could. A classic instance of lack of restraint, defying democratic norms to get their way.

Behind it all lay the Obama-inspired crisis of white identity. Fears of losing demographic dominance were suddenly brought to a boil by a non-white president. Rather than Obama signaling a post-racial America, now many whites felt besieged, and that they had to make a stand. This is the elephant in the room of American political culture.

Successfully blowing through rule of law, democratic norms, and others’ rights requires the support of a critical mass of people willing to junk those principles for the sake of something that feels (to them) bigger. Such ideals once loomed large in the American imagination. But now, for many, they’re trumped by white tribalism. It’s a more primordial impulse. Democracy and rule of law are not instinctual ideas. If it’s a choice between them and white dominance, many pick the latter. They’re a minority, but a big enough one that they don’t need many additional dupes to win. Especially if unhampered by scruples.

Few of them consciously confront the reality. But white revanchism über alles is what today’s Republican party really represents. Making it an existential threat to American democracy. As seen in cultish devotion to a malign monster; propagating his big “stolen election” lie; excusing the January 6 insurrection; voting in Congress to overturn the election; and working everywhere to make voting harder. Far from being chastened by defeat, they’ve since actually gotten worse, more willing to shred democratic principles. All in service to their larger (albeit rancid and usually unspoken) tribalist cause. They’ve passed the ladder’s first rung. And their very lack of restraint confers a power advantage.

Trump finally lost because he was an incompetent fool. We may not be so lucky next time.

What’s the big deal with Wittgenstein?

May 18, 2021

I was tickled when my publisher’s catalog displayed my book opposite one by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. As if we’re on a par. Just name-drop Wittgenstein to sound intellectually pretentious. 

The title of his big book was Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. (A take-off on Spinoza.) Talk about intellectual pretentiousness. That seems a common malady for book titles in this genre. I prefer ones that actually say something. Like Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its EnemiesThat lays down a gauntlet. (Mine was The Case for Rational Optimism.) 

I also prefer a book that actually says something. What is philosophy really for? It should help us grapple with the fundamental problems of existence, human life, and society. I’ve read some Wittgenstein, finding there nothing of the sort. That’s true of much of modern academic philosophy, going down esoteric rabbit holes, with scant relevance to real human concerns. 

Wittgenstein’s main focus was language. Language and its use in human thought does raise important conceptual issues worthy of exploration. But can that help us much in figuring out how to understand the cosmos and live our lives?

Wittgenstein actually said, “The reason why philosophical problems are posed at all is owing to a misunderstanding of language.” And he dismissed past philosophizing as just verbal trickery trying to answer unanswerable questions; while our life problems have their roots in linguistic confusion. I think those assertions themselves epitomize the very thing Wittgenstein was denigrating. Our essential dilemmas are real, even if we have trouble finding the words to express and address them.

This leads to Wittgenstein’s own central concern — the correspondence between reality and language. He theorized language being formulated to correspond to actual “states of affairs” like a map corresponds to a landscape. But Wittgenstein finally decided that’s impossible; we’re prisoners of our language. There is no “meta language” that could transcend that. After all, in what except language could we even talk about this problem? He ultimately saw no way of firmly connecting language to the external world.

Meantime, Wittgenstein regarded most philosophical arguments as really resolving into disputes over the meaning of words. “Is abortion murder?” depends on exactly what meanings we attach to those operative words. But meaning is itself an elusive concept. He famously cited the word “game,” which he said can have a multitude of different meanings. 

To which I say: so what? Yes, words can have different meanings, and languages aren’t always logical. Simply because they evolve organically, through use, rather than being constructed in laboratory conditions. We know that. Again — so what? It doesn’t stop language fulfilling its purpose. Saying “game the system” versus “play a game” versus “hunting game” versus “I’m game for that” does not render the word somehow problematical on some deep level. We understand what each phrase means. Thus language does its job.

That does include the job of mapping the world. True, language does that imperfectly. So, for that matter, do our senses, at the initial task of gathering information about reality even before we put it into words. But for all the philosophical gnashing of teeth over how we cannot apprehend reality at some ultimate level of realness, nevertheless we actually do pretty darn well at it — or else we couldn’t survive for ten minutes in our unforgiving environment.

So I don’t see what was such a big deal about Wittgenstein. To me the Tractatus seems fundamentally trivial. But I’m actually not alone in that view. 

Wittgenstein himself, in a posthumously published book, called the whole thing circular and devoid of meaning. And while the Tractatus ended by saying, “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence,” now Wittgenstein said such matters are all that’s worth thinking about. 

“2034: A Novel of the Next World War”

May 15, 2021

It starts with an incident in the South China Sea — in this much remarked 2021 novel by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis (head of the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts). 

China has been assertively invoking an ancient map, with a “nine-dash line” encompassing this entire vast Pacific region, a claim flagrantly contrary to international law. It encroaches on the legitimate territoriality of several other nations. And grabbing some tiny islands there, China has been heavily militarizing them. 

In pointed denial of China’s claims, the U.S. has long been sending “freedom of navigation” ship patrols through these international waters. One such, in 2034, encounters a seeming Chinese fishing boat on fire. This leads to boarding, detaining the crew at gunpoint, and removing a mysterious piece of advanced technology.

By what right would we do such a thing? I was baffled — not for the first time in this book.

Chinese naval vessels quickly arrive. Of the three American ships, two are sunk, the other nearly. It seems all their computer and communications systems were hacked and disabled (never really explained). The incident set up to send us a message: get out of the South China Sea.

Now we dispatch a huge armada, including two carrier groups. Baffling me again. This seemed insane without first figuring out how to counter the cyber-hack that did for the earlier squadron. And our grand armada too is duly sent to the bottom.

Then China swiftly surrounds Taiwan and invades. Not much we can do now to stop them. So instead we nuke a Chinese city. Then they nuke two U.S. cities. And then . . . .

Does this make sense?

There is a villain: the U.S. National Security Advisor, called a “hawk.” Wrong bird. I’d say loon.

Our South China Sea patrols do irk the Chinese. Yet they ultimately do nothing to counter the “facts on the ground” (or water) of China’s tightening grip. So why risk creating an incident there? If China actually has the decisive cyber capability described, why not go straight for Taiwan? That’s the real game.

A quick tutorial for my readers on Mars: Taiwan is an island near China. The anti-communists retreated there after Mao conquered the mainland in 1949. Taiwan became de facto independent and, eventually, a thriving democracy. But China insists Taiwan is a part of it (“One China”), and that everybody pay lip service to this fiction. And that it must be made reality at some point. 

In fact this has become a nationalistic obsession for what has become a nation of truculent nationalists. It’s fed by China’s dictator Xi Jinping, seemingly vowing that Taiwan “reunification” will be the capstone of his reign. He is now 67. (Xi is never mentioned in the book.)

America is (more or less) pledged to defend Taiwan’s independence, notwithstanding the “strategic ambiguity” of the “One China” formulation. Our ability to deter China militarily regarding Taiwan is the key test of America’s place in the world order going forward. The Number One global flash point. 

Xi’s China is ramping up its military capabilities targeting Taiwan. In the novel, our countering capability evaporates overnight. In the actual world, there seems to be a growing imbalance, in China’s favor. I was very concerned that if Xi was really set on grabbing Taiwan, the time to move was between last November and January, when America’s government was non-functional, unlikely to muster much of a response. 

Territoriality is a human mind glitch, a vestige from an evolutionary past when defending a scrap of ground might really matter. In today’s different world, control of territory doesn’t delineate a nation’s destiny. (Adam Smith made that clear in 1776.) China would actually be far better off telling Taiwan: “You want to be independent? Fine; two Chinas are better than one. Let’s be friends and do business.” (In fact, they do a lot of business, notably in computer chips, Taiwan being a vital supplier.) Is this naive? No, rational. The alternative is trying to conquer recalcitrant Taiwanese by force, probably starting a long-term costly and bloody conflict, and disrupting that chip industry China so depends on. While making itself — this nation so prideful — a hated international criminal.

In the novel, China gets Taiwan. But look at the cost. Bully for you, China.

And if America can’t save Taiwan from China’s aggression, then what is achieved by nuking a Chinese city? Putting us on a path to global destruction? The mindless insanity of it all makes this seem like a comic book, not serious future hypothesizing. Indeed, the book doesn’t even bother to explain how such fateful decisions were reached. Maybe because no explanation would have seemed plausible.

Characters pontificate about comeuppance for America’s longtime misplaced global arrogance, blah blah blah. I have little patience for this and am frankly surprised that someone like Stavridis seemingly does. The world is much more complicated than such platitudes imply. And it’s particularly ludicrous maligning America in that way — next to China!

The problem is mainly this book being a novel — following the standard formula for a geopolitical “thriller,” tracing developments through characters. I guess the idea is to make the story “come alive.” But these characters one doesn’t really care about — not with cities being nuked and such. While those cataclysmic events are treated so perfunctorily they have no verisimilitude. The characters react to them, but the world’s other 8 billion people seem nonexistent. There’s virtually no description of the destruction! Without that, how can you write about cities nuked? Just leaving it to our imagination? 

I’d have preferred a straightforward history from a post-2034 perspective. That too would have been fiction, of course, but fiction of a different kind. It would have attempted to put the events in context. This novel failed to seriously do that. 

About those meal delivery service fees

May 13, 2021

Not long ago, my local paper editorialized about supposedly exorbitant fees charged by meal delivery services. With many people still using this option, its economics remains a lively topic. Here’s the letter to the editor I wrote: 

Your editorials endorse “protecting” restaurants by “clamping down” on third-party meal delivery fees which can range up to 30%. You call it “gouging.”

On a $17 meal, 30% would be five bucks. To have someone drive to a restaurant, pick it up, drive it to a home, and deliver it? Sounds like a bargain to me. 

I actually believe free market economics is a good thing. You mention at least three companies delivering meals. Are their profits exorbitant? In fact competition among them has been keeping fees down to where they’re earning little if anything! That’s the beauty of competition in a free market, giving consumers the lion’s share of the benefits from any economic activity. 

And nobody forces anyone to use these services. If they weren’t providing value commensurate with their fees, they’d get no takers. 

Meantime you also favor a $15 minimum hourly wage. How many meals can be delivered in an hour? Could drivers be paid $15 if the fee for delivering a modestly priced meal is capped at 15%, as you advocate? More likely these companies could not operate at all. A loss to them, as well as to their drivers, to restaurants, and to foodies. 

Government should step back and leave this issue to be sorted out by people’s own choices in a free market. 

My optimism reality check

May 10, 2021

When I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2008, that case was powerful. My innate optimism intensified by observed reality. The big global story seemed to be progress toward greater human flourishing. Writers like Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen, explained it. I was proud of my own contribution, making the case across the whole waterfront of human concerns.

I’ve followed up with my blog. Naturally, bad things have commanded attention, but I’ve tried to highlight good news, countering pessimists and cynics. However, looking back, I must acknowledge that my positive outlook too often proved misplaced. In a spirit of humility, I present a catalog of instances:

Egypt: a very democratic coup” (July 4, 2013). Ouch. Mubarak’s overthrow led to an election producing a Muslim Brotherhood government. It was an undemocratic disaster. I welcomed the coup that ousted it, seeing it as hopefully presaging a “do-over” putting Egypt on a sounder democratic path. I should have been more cynical about coup leader Al-Sisi, who became a more repressive autocrat than Mubarak. 

Democracy wins in Thailand” (July 14, 2011). Well, it did. For a while. Then here too the army ousted the elected government, and has settled in to stay. 

Modi for India” (December 27, 2013). Here I did have misgivings, over Modi’s rotten history on Hindu-Muslim relations. But he seemed to instead stress economic liberalization, which India desperately needed. He has initiated some good reforms. But that’s overshadowed by running a Hindu nationalist regime, enflaming intercommunal antagonisms — and following what has become the standard authoritarian playbook, giving India’s democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Plus now he’s much to blame for India’s Covid disaster.

Great news: Sri Lanka blows off authoritarianism” (January 15, 2015). I was delighted by the unexpected election ouster of another autocratic regime, under the Rajapaksa clan. Unfortunately the new government proved feckless. And guess what? The latest vote produced a Rajapaksa landslide. 

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil” (May 10, 2018). Similar story. The longtime ruling party was so corrupt and awful that extensive election rigging didn’t stave off defeat. But the successor government seems a mess. The tale is still unfolding, but the old lot’s reprise would be no surprise. 

Good news from Kenya” (September 2, 2017). Its highest court overturned President Kenyatta’s dodgy election victory. But guess what? He prevailed anyway in a second go.* In the wings: William Ruto, an even stinkier candidate.

Myanmar — On April 5, 2012, I wrote, with tentative hopes, about President Thein Sein’s democratization moves, after decades of military rule. On October 15, 2012, came my gushing paean to Aung San Suu Kyi. Who subsequently destroyed her heroic aura by making herself complicit in the Rohingya pogrom. And now the army has come back — with a blood-soaked vengeance. 

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story” (October 12, 2019). This new prime minister seemed a dream of an African leader, doing so much right. Even got a Nobel Prize. But hardly was the ink dry (so to speak) on my tribute when things went to to hell, the regime prosecuting an internecine war with appalling human rights abuses. 

All this begins to look like a pattern. And then:

America. Just after the 2008 election, I wrote in my book that “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and good will. . . . So we are becoming far more united than divided.” Ouch again. I did not foresee how Obama’s presidency would produce not just a racist backlash, but an intensification of racial disaffection by whites seeing their loss of caste more real. Which led to Trump — an optimist’s ultimate nightmare — America’s collapse as the avatar of Enlightenment values.

Thankfully we’ve reversed that — by a hair’s breadth — and how fully remains to be seen. A Trump return (could America go that insane?) would fit the pattern of cautionary tales I’ve related above.

Before he took office, I wrote (November 16, 2016) that power does not make bad men better. That, at least, proved prescient. And that is also a through-line in my recaps here. Lord Acton’s famous quote was “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You can actually leave off the last five words. Power corrupts. A proposition whose importance grows the more I observe the world. Not only does power not make bad men better; it can turn good men bad. 

But I keep saying that progress does not go in a straight line. For a time, liberal democratic values were on a roll; now, they’re in a bad patch. And China looms as a huge and growing anti-democratic center of gravity. Nevertheless, where the world will be in half a century is hard to foresee. It’s been documented that people are, on average, becoming smarter. I have to hope tolerance for repressive rule will wane. And while the political realm does have much to do with human flourishing, it is far from the whole story. All across the planet, lives continue to improve in countless other very important ways.

Finally — while I’m eating humble pie — on March 9, 2020 I posted:

Coronavirus/Covid 19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

*In 2020, Malawi’s courts similarly ruled the president’s re-election illegitimate; and there, the decision seems to be sticking. So far.

Covid and the social contract

May 6, 2021

Covid will eventually be, more or less, history. Life will renormalize, more or less. But something big has changed in government’s role in people’s economic lives.

For thousands of years it had very little. That really began to change with Bismarckian Germany’s pension scheme, to save the elderly from penury. It expanded greatly in the Depression, developing a broader “social safety net.”

This sparked some pushback from people seeing beneficiaries as coddled moochers — an aggravating factor being racial. On the other hand, there’s been the rise of “social justice” rhetoric targeting inequality.

Two points. First, inequality is not per se a bad thing; some people being rich is not a problem as long as everyone has enough to live decently. And secondly, “social justice” is a mistaken framing. The word justice entails concepts of deservingness. A polemical can of worms, with some, as noted, deeming safety net beneficiaries undeserving. Better to talk not of “justice” but simple humaneness. Helping people for no other reason than they’re fellow human beings. 

Meantime, inequality is blamed on capitalism. Another mistake. While capitalism does produce disparate results, with some people getting rich, it’s wrong to see their wealth as “taken” from the rest. Steve Jobs got very rich by creating products which delighted customers and improved lives. Thus not a zero-sum game but win-win. That’s not universally the case, yet by and large those who earn riches do so by creating value benefiting others. Wealth is not evil.

And capitalism does not cause poverty. In fact, over the past century, average real dollar worldwide incomes increased something like sixfold. Not thanks to socialism; but masses of people being productively employed in a capitalist system, to make their own contributions to societal wealth, and enabling them to buy the resulting products. Capitalism’s critics never offer an alternative system to achieve that.

However, there are concerns that advancing technology will destroy a lot of jobs. This goes back to the Luddites. In every generation, what has actually happened is technology’s efficiency gains freeing up people to be productive in new and different ways, thus enlarging the overall pie. And despite predictions that Covid would accelerate automation, there’s actually zero evidence so far. But can this go on forever?

Good question, with artificial intelligence ultimately likely to replace human work like never before. A growing population segment already lacks the capability for productive employment. Largely due to what is really the key inequality in modern societies: educational inequality. And even if that could be remedied, it’s still doubtful there’ll be enough productive work for everyone. Perhaps if we can at last produce all we need with little human labor, we should just relax and enjoy it. The question then becomes how to distribute the fruits.

All of which brings us back to the governmental response to Covid’s economic fallout. Previously, social safety net programs tended to be massively encrusted with bureaucracy, means testing, other eligibility requirements, and so forth. Much of that out the window with governments now focused instead on just getting money into people’s hands. Arguably this has gone too far, with a lot of babies thrown out with bath water. But it represents a big paradigm shift in our view of the social safety net — in the direction of a universal basic income. Unemployment benefits have even exceeded what some people earned from jobs, which used to be a caricature lobbed by welfare state critics. Yet most Americans now seem okay with it, shrugging off such concerns. 

A recent David Brooks column reflects this: “Ten years ago, I would have been aghast at this leftward shift. But like everybody else, I’ve seen inequality widen, the social fabric decay, the racial wealth gap increase. Americans are rightly convinced that the country is broken and fear it is in decline. Like a lot of people, I’ve moved left on what I think of the role of government and income redistribution issues. We surely need to invest a lot more in infrastructure and children.”*

So far at least, actual wealth redistribution is limited. President Biden is proposing tax rises only for the richest, and for corporations. But most of the new spending is being financed by borrowing. Cheap to do with interest rates at rock bottom. And our society is, on the whole, plenty rich enough to do what we’re doing. But how long can we do it this way? There have to be limits, though we don’t know where they lie, and hitting them could be a rude shock. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers says the lack of fiscal discipline in all this spending is totally unprecedented. In the longer term, we have to face up to paying the bills. (Which Brooks too worries about.)

We could instead inflate away the debt, shrinking the value of the dollar, so the rich would pay through devaluation of their assets. But that would be economic havoc; better to just tax them. But again, it shouldn’t be on some social justice theory, as a punitive equalizer, as if their wealth is undeserved. Rather, it should be a re-envisioning of the human responsibilities of members of society toward one another.

That could be Covid’s most lasting legacy.

*Brooks mirrored my own thinking; similarly pushed leftward; partly by how utterly vile American “conservativism” has managed to make itself.