Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Interesting Things to Watch

Howdy, y'all. I just figured I should direct your attention to two conversations that have caught my interest recently, and which may be interesting to some of you as well.

Over at the Austro-Athenian Empire blog, Dr. Long has posted a discussion of the proper definition of "socialism," entitled "POOTMOP Redux!" (after an older post, "Pootmop!," in which he discussed private ownership of the means of production -- p.o.o.t.m.o.p.). If you want some background on the post, read Kevin Carson's initial contribution to the discussion, "Socialism: A Perfectly Good Word Rehabilitated," and Stephen Kinsella's response, "The New Libertarianism: Anti-Capitalistic and Socialist." I should point out for the time-starved, however, that Dr. Long's post is probably just fine on its own.

I've posted a fair amount in the comments section of the post, and Neverfox of Instead of a Blog has jumped in as well. Of interest as well may be Dr. Chartier's thoughtful contribution on the LiberaLaw blog, "Socialism Revisited," as well as Brainpolice's commentary on the Polycentric Order blog, "Anarchist and Socialist Semantics and Historicity (Or, Why Does Stephan Kinsella Act As If Individualist Anarchism Never Existed? Redux)."


The other interesting conversation going on at the moment is a new chapter in the debate over state involvement in marriage, this time with a post on the ThinkMarkets blog by Dr. Rizzo, "What Should Be The State’s Role In Marriage?." The time scale for this discussion is a bit longer than that for the previous one. For me, it started with an overconfident post on this blog last year, now-amusingly entitled, "Open and Shut: Should Same-Sex Marriage Be Legal?" In it, I argued that the state should get out of marriage entirely in order to avoid a choice between discrimination and offending religious groups who I took to have some legitimate claim to the institution of "marriage." (That post, incidentally, marked the one and only time that this blog has ever been linked to on The Huffington Post. Go figure.)

A few months later, Dr. Koppl posted his own discussion of the issue over at the ThinkMarkets blog, "Ideas Have Consequences," in which he argued that gay marriage should be legalized. In the comments section of that post, we had what I found to be an incredibly productive conversation in which he convinced me that the religious groups in question really did not have the kind of claim to the institution of marriage that I had attributed to them, and that having a legal understanding of "marriage" was quite valuable. I accordingly posted a follow-up on this blog in which I conceded the argument to Dr. Koppl, entitled, "Roger Koppl Is Right About Gay Marriage."

Dr. Rizzo's point intriguingly takes up the banner for the sort of position I initially defended, arguing that the government ought to get out of defining marriage altogether. In the comments section, I tried to draw attention to the conversation that had already taken place on the blog earlier this year, and eventually Dr. Koppl himself arrived on the scene to defend his position again. Gene Callahan of Crash Landing, the (now willfully abandoned!) Morality Debate, chance meetings at AIER, etc., has also joined in the discussion. This should be good!

Friday, June 19, 2009

On Basic Structures and Starting Points

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls writes (7):
The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different social positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances. In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over others. These are especially deep inequalities. Not only are they pervasive, but they affect men’s initial chances in life; yet they cannot possibly be justified by an appeal to the notions of merit or desert. It is these inequalities, presumably inevitable in the basic structure of any society, to which the principles of social justice must in the first instance apply.

He elaborates (82):
The primary subject of justice, as I have emphasized, is the basic structure of society. The reason for this is that its effects are so profound and pervasive, and present from birth. This structure favors some starting points over others in the division of the benefits from social cooperation. It is these inequalities which the two principles are to regulate. Once these principles are satisfied, other inequalities are allowed to arise from men’s voluntary actions in accordance with the principle of free association. Thus the relevant social positions are, so to speak, the starting places properly generalized and aggregated.

In this post, I want to jot down some thoughts on why I find this a concerning aspect of Rawls’ approach. My concern arises from Rawls’ supposition that basic structures “contain” social positions, and thus the array of social positions in a society are the result of the choice of basic structures in that society. But the basic structure of society does not itself directly produce the distribution of starting places. In each instance where a person is born into a particular starting place, it is the consequence of some people having a child. It is somewhat difficult for me to imagine why we would think that the basic structure of a typical society could directly cause a baby to be born. Perhaps we could coherently say this if we lived in a mechanistic totalitarian society in which children were in an important sense a product of social planning, but this seems like an odd way to think about the way children are born in our society.

The extent to which the basic structure of our society impacts the array of starting places is the extent to which it has some influence on the range of opportunities that prospective parents are able to offer their children, in those cases where these people actually do choose to have children. Approaching things with this mindset, we can see that any society will “contain” an infinite number of potential starting points, and in certain relatively rare circumstances, a child will actually be born into a particular starting point. But these starting points will be the product not only of the principles governing the basic structure of society, but also (and undoubtedly more importantly) the incredible confluence of events that led up to the possibility of a particular child being born into a particular set of social circumstances, almost all of which are only tangentially related to the basic structure of society. And significantly, the way that we characterize a starting place will be significantly conditioned by the kind of parenting the individual in question will receive. I would at least be hesitant to think of the quality of one’s parents’ personal contributions to one’s childhood as being entirely the product of the basic structure of society (I would actually be a bit hesitant to make these claims about pretty much any of the social interactions that help to shape a child’s life, but for our purposes it will not be necessary to raise this challenge). If it’s true that the distribution of starting points is at least partly determined by the way that people choose to treat their children, then Rawls’ claim that the basic structure of society “contains various social positions” (where the relevant social positions are “starting places”) seems a little worrisome.

But Rawls might counter that even if the basic structure of society does not solely determine the array of starting points into which people will be born, it still has some impact on the range of opportunities that will be available to individuals whose parents decided to have them. And this, he could say, may be cause for some concern. Intuitively, this seems fair enough. I think it’s entirely reasonable, for example, to think that we may want to consider the idea that we have some duty (as individuals, social groups, communities, or whatever) to ensure that people have certain opportunities provided to them if we can help it (I don’t intend to engage this question here, but I certainly wouldn’t want to rule this out). Rawls might say that we ought to help poor families to provide education, food, or clothing for their children. He might say that we ought to help children from less fortunate backgrounds get into college or enter the workforce. Though these suggestions might be problematic for one reason or another, they don’t seem totally unreasonable on their face.

But this isn’t what Rawls wants to argue: he wants to suggest that by allowing a certain array of starting points to come into existence, the basic structure of society might itself be seen to be unjust, and would thus need to be replaced with another basic structure. This, I think, is where Rawls might be running into real trouble.

Here’s what I have in mind: Individuals who are born into particular starting points are the products of particular reproductive events. These events are the products of long histories of social changes and reproductive events which produced the circumstances in which these events occurred. Altering the basic structure of society would bring it about that a different set of reproductive events would occur, and so a different set of starting points would come about, but into these starting points would be born a totally different set of people. This is a problem because Rawls’ view is built on a scenario where the members of society are supposed to try to agree on the basic structure of society -- a mutually beneficial system of cooperation. But if we assume that living is not itself a bad thing (I have heard this disputed, but whatever), then it seems clear that the most beneficial choice of basic structures for any individual would be whatever structure brought that individual into existence. No one would really have any grounds to complain about their starting place because it would be a necessary precondition for them existing in the first place. Altering the array of starting points in society might be justified, but not on the basis that it would somehow benefit the people whose “undesirable” starting points would be eliminated. And if we’re not trying to benefit these people, then it’s sort of difficult to see how we’re still talking about a contractarian view that’s focused on starting points.

(To be honest, I’m sort of unsure about this conclusion. In this case, when I say that it’s difficult for me to see how this could be accommodated, I am not saying that rhetorically; I don’t know how it works. If anyone can explain to me how Rawls’ approach could accommodate the fact that no one will benefit from the choice of any basic structure besides the one that causes them to come into existence, that would be sweet.)

So hopefully, this post has served to establish two points on which I am confused: a) the basic structure of society doesn’t itself produce the distribution of starting places, and b) messing with the basic structure in order to alter the distribution of starting points in fundamental ways would bring about an entirely different population, which would most certainly not benefit the people whose starting points are being eliminated, and would therefore seem not be an appropriate goal of a contractarian view like Rawls’. As should be clear from the above, none of this should be taken to be “damning criticism” of Rawls; I am just hesitant about the way that Rawls is proceeding, and I think he might have made a big mistake. Even so, these do seem like the sorts of things that would need to be addressed.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

200 Posts!

Jeez...I can't believe that there are two hundred posts on this frikkin' thing. I guess I don't really have much to say about this, but I figured it should get some kind of acknowledgment. Thanks so much to all of the incredibly interesting and intelligent people who read my ramblings and occasionally leave me comments. It's been really awesome getting to meet and talk with you guys, and I hope you've gotten something out of following this blog!

I should probably take this opportunity to briefly discuss the future of this blog. As you all undoubtedly know, I'm going to be starting graduate school in August at the University of Arizona. I fully expect that as a graduate student, it will come to be nothing short of irresponsible for me to spend my time typing up blog posts instead of concentrating on my coursework. I'll therefore be suspending all updates to this site for the foreseeable future, starting when I leave for school. Until then, I'll continue to update in my usual sporadic way. So...uh...I'm not sure what you're supposed to do with that information, except to remember it so you can't say you weren't warned when I suddenly vanish off the face of the Earth for several years of intense studiousness!

Thanks again for reading.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I Don't Get the Whole "Peak Oil" Thing...

So here's a fancy story:

There's a commodity that exists in limited supplies on the Earth; let's call it awesomite. Awesomite can currently be harvested and brought to market for $5/oz, and at that price we can satisfy all the demand from people who are willing to pay that much. Eventually, some of the supplies of awesomite run out, and it becomes more difficult to meet the market's demand. We can get more awesomite for $7/oz than we can for $5/oz in this now-somewhat-depleted world, since that price would allow us to buy a sweet line of awesomite-carrying trucks which would help us reach sources of awesomite that simply couldn't be harvested without them. And at this higher price, some people decide to stop using awesomite; we can meet all the remaining demand for awesomite at $7/oz. Eventually, we start to deplete the supplies of awesomite even further, and so it becomes increasingly difficult to meet demand at $7/oz. For $10/oz, though, we can definitely get at some of the hardest to reach sources of awesomite, since we could buy a totally rad array of processing equipment that would enable us to get the valuable commodity out of ore that would otherwise be too impure to use. And at $10/oz, way fewer people want to use awesomite, so we can balance things again.

This entire time, we've known about a substitute for awesomite: spiffium. With current harvesting methods, we can get spiffium for $9/oz, but even at that price we can't produce all that much -- the technology is very limited. When awesomite cost $5/oz, people were only really using spiffium for specialized applications; it simply didn't make sense to use it when you could just use the much cheaper awesomite instead. The same was pretty much true at $7/oz. But when awesomite prices hit $10/oz, the spiffium producers went into high gear. They quickly found that they had maxed out the amount of spiffium they could produce, and suddenly people were willing to pay $10/oz for whatever they could put out. Accordingly, a lot of people started to invest in some excellent new methods to produce spiffium.

See, there was always a whole lot of spiffium that could be harvested, but no one ever really cared to figure out how. Developing any one of those new methods would be expensive and may never turn up anything. And besides, the price of awesomite was just so low; the investment would only have been worthwhile if it produced a radical breakthrough that totally revolutionized spiffium production, and that was a pretty big risk to take. But at $10/oz, things looked a lot better for spiffium producers. As awesomite supplies continued to dwindle, its market price continued to climb and awesomite producers continued to use even more remote and awesomite-poor resources to satisfy the market's demand for their products. But at these high prices, spiffium producers could justify radically expanding their own production and investing in all new methods to get spiffium to the marketplace.

As time went on, the spiffium producers had a series of breakthroughs which fundamentally changed the way that spiffium was produced. They could now get way more spiffium out of the ground than they ever could before with cool new pressurized water harvesting systems and computerized geological data processing programs that spiffium company engineers created once the investment dollars started flowing in. And they could do it at lower and lower prices. Soon the price for spiffium started to drop below the price of awesomite, and now it was only the specialized applications that used awesomite; any application that could use both commodities would be hard-pressed to justify using anything but the much cheaper spiffium.


As might be rather obvious, I intended the above story to be an allegory for the growing concern about oil supplies. Oil -- the equivalent of awesomite in our story -- is really cheap right now, and has been for a long time. If you believe some people, it's too cheap! Why? Because at current prices, oil is preventing "needed" investment in alternative sources of energy -- a real-world version of spiffium. And the reason we need to be investing in alternatives is because we're going to run out of oil, and this would be terrible.

But as we saw in the story, when we started running out of awesomite, the price rose and we started using sources of awesomite that would have been uneconomical at lower prices. And eventually, prices rose high enough that it was clearly worthwhile to start investing in alternatives. The price mechanism automatically sent signals to the relevant actors that told them what they should do!

So I really fail to see what is the big deal about "peak oil" and dwindling oil resource supplies. As we start to actually run low on oil, suppliers will be hard pressed to meet market demand with their current resources. Prices will rise, people will cut back, and currently uneconomical oil resources will come into production. When prices rise high enough, alternative fuels will begin to make sense, and we will start to see a transition away from oil in applications where substitutes can be utilized efficiently. It will be just like how people slowly stopped using awesomite and switched to spiffium in our story.

Now, this shouldn't necessarily be taken as an indictment of social funding of alternative energy research; that's an entirely different issue with a whole separate range of considerations. But what I do think this discussion supports is the idea that people should take a few deep breaths and stop getting so worked up about peak oil. It will be okay.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

How Climate Change Policy May Cause Economic Disruption

A little while ago, I wrote a post discussing why I didn't think that a tax on emissions of greenhouse gases would result in an overall decrease in buying power spread across the economy. In that post, I focused on how a policy might work out if it were slowly phased in; my intention was to set aside the possibility of certain problems that a climate policy may expect to face in order to focus only on a particular set of concerns about overall buying power in the light of increasing the cost of emissions. In this post, I want to address some of the issues I set aside in that earlier post. Particularly, I wanted to focus on the possibility that by implementing a new climate change policy, we could disrupt the existing economic order in a very significant way, and that this might be expected to produce some very worrisome impacts. (Again, this post will talk about carbon taxes; if the translation to cap-and-trade schemes is confusing, I can explain.)

So here's the deal. As I explained in the previous post, a good carbon tax is built on the idea that we make carbon-emissions-intensive goods more expensive with a tax. The proceeds are used to finance a tax cut elsewhere which has the effect of making non-emissions-intensive goods relatively less expensive by increasing consumers' buying power (stated in terms of nominal dollars). This would tend to have the effect of increasing the demand for non-emissions-intensive goods at pre-tax prices, and lowering demand for emissions-intensive goods at prices reflecting the pre-tax price and the carbon tax.

In the previous post, I discussed an example involving two consumers (Cynthia and Xavier) who were part of an economy including rocks (which do not take carbon emissions to produce) and rubber balls (which do take carbon emissions to produce). Before the tax, both rocks and rubber balls cost $5. After the tax, rubber balls cost $6 and the price of rocks is unchanged. The proceeds of the tax on the rubber balls, I said, was used to finance a tax cut so that the consumers each ended up having more buying power than they would have had otherwise (in dollar terms).

If such a policy were enacted, we would imagine that people would shift their consumption choices in the direction of rocks and away from rubber balls. If we held market prices fixed for the moment, we would expect people to demand more rocks and less rubber balls. This could create an incentive for suppliers to decrease the prices of rubber balls in order to avoid building up excessive inventories, and to increase the prices of rocks in order to avoid creating a shortage. Alternatively, it could create an incentive to decrease the production of rocks and to increase the production of rubber balls. In practice, it would more than likely be a combination of both.

So here's the problem: In our modern economy, there is a lot of capital invested in the production of emissions-intensive goods. In our example economy, we might imagine that many rubber balls are produced using a sophisticated ball-making machine. And it may be that at the new lower demand, some of the companies that invested in these ball-making machines would need to sell them or might even go out of business. The people who made the ball-making machines would see demand for their products drop, and perhaps they would be put out of work. The ripples would move outward.

Of course, on the flip side, the rock producers would experience some seriously good times, at least at first. Once the drop in rubber ball demand put some people out of work and decreased the salaries of others, it's conceivable that the decrease in those individuals' consumption would balance out the increase in demand for rocks created by the carbon tax, or even outweigh it.

It should be clear that the more drastic a tax is imposed, and the more quickly it is implemented, the more significant the impacts on the structure of the economy. In our example, we might imagine that the tax was imposed only with a five year warning. In the scenario, it seems rather likely that the impacts would be substantially less severe. Producers would have time to plan for the tax, and they would be far less likely to make investments that would turn out to be really awful. Or alternatively, we could imagine that the tax was relatively small, and so the shift in demand might be rather small.

But with a quickly implemented or severe tax (or both), it seems rather clear that the impacts would be very noticeable. A number of otherwise sound investments would be converted into misallocations of resources, and these would need to be liquidated. It seems important that we acknowledge this possibility when we think about our climate policy options. Of course, nothing said here shows that we should reject climate taxes; I just think this is a side of the picture that needs to be seen.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Does the "Vintage Sedan" Commit Us In "The Envelope"?

In his book, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, Peter Unger seeks to show that by allowing people to suffer and die in the third world, we are failing in our moral duties. He offers an intriguing thought experiment, which has been called the case of the "Vintage Sedan":
Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg.

Unger suggests that in such a scenario, it is natural for people to feel a strong commitment towards the idea that we would act monstrously by abandoning the hitchhiker. As many of the readers of this blog are libertarians who likely have stronger intuitions about the importance of self-determination than does Unger, it may be helpful to recast the illustration in order to make the danger to the hitchhiker more severe, or the cost to the owner of the vintage sedan less significant. The relevant point here is that most of us feel rather strongly that if the hitchhiker were in some real danger and if our actions could make the difference as to whether or not that danger were averted, we would have a moral duty to act to avert the danger even if doing so would require that we incur some costs ourselves.

Unger then offers an illustration that is referred to as "The Envelope":
In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon.

Unger's intuition is that if we believe that we should help the hitchhiker in Vintage Sedan, then we should surely send the $100 in The Envelope, where the costs to us are so much smaller and where we would be averting so much more regrettable outcomes.


For a long time, I haven't known what to do with this argument. In another post, I agreed with the sort of intuition that Unger offers about Vintage Sedan, writing:
...the reason that we endorsed a broadly liberal approach to ethical reasoning in the first place was that we want to take proper account of the value of individuals. Wouldn't it seem odd if on one hand we were saying that individuals must be respected because their lives are important and valuable, and on the other hand we were saying that there's nothing wrong when people act as though others are irrelevant and worthless? I think so.

But I offered a vague defense against the sort of move Unger takes in extending the intuition produced in Vintage Sedan to The Envelope:
But in saying that, I don't mean to create the suggestion that we are "sacrificial animals" (to use the phrasing of the ever-abrasive Objectivists), required by morality to subordinate ourselves to others whenever they can coherently make the case that their needs and wants are "more important" than ours. An important part of what makes our lives valuable and worth respecting is that we can live them for ourselves. Another way to think of this is to say that even though we may have a peripheral or relatively unimportant interest in any particular activity we may be engaging in over the course of a normal day, we have an important or even basic interest in being able to plan and execute our lives according to our own plans, without having to think of ourselves as being at the beck and call of anyone who finds herself in a bind at any particular moment.

I continued that:
...because it's important to us that we be able to live our own lives, we have no duty to devote ourselves to empowering others. That's not to say that it is not virtuous to do so, or that we should not focus on the richness that helping others can bring to our lives. I only seek to suggest that if someone chooses to pursue his own dreams, living his life primarily for himself except where impelled by emergency to come to the aid of his fellow people, it wouldn't be fair for us to say that he has failed morally or behaved in an evil manner.

But to be honest, I haven't been totally satisfied with this argument. That is, I don't think it's wrong; I just feel like there's something missing. It seems to me that we don't have a duty to send the $100 in The Envelope, and it's not just because we don't have a duty to devote ourselves to solving world hunger. It seems to me that there's something importantly different between Vintage Sedan and The Envelope that could support a moral distinction between them.


For the longest time, though, I couldn't think of what the distinction might actually be; they just seemed totally different. Now, obviously there are differences between Vintage Sedan and The Envelope where Unger is going to get to laugh sinisterly if you retreat to them. These include appeals to the distance or anonymity of the people in The Envelope -- these are the sorts of things that don't seem like they can support the distinction we intuitively want to make. And it's going to be especially ugly if we try to go down the road that leads to, "Well the hitchhiker's suffering here is worse than that of the thirty people who will die for lack of basic necessities."

But now I'm toying with another sort of distinction, which I think may have at least some merit. In Vintage Sedan, it seems that the hitchhiker has found himself in an emergency situation. Something has happened to him that threatens the expectations that he very reasonably had about his future. If he is not taken to the hospital, he will need to make drastic adjustments in the way he thinks about his life and his future. In The Envelope, on the other hand, the people to be helped are "in trouble" simply as a result of the sort of lives they lead. To the extent that they are not in any particularly unusual circumstances given the sort of lives to which they are accustomed and acculturated, their fates will (at least as far as we know in the example) fall more or less within the range of the expectations that they could reasonably be expected to have. Surely we would want to acknowledge that these individuals find themselves in a rather regrettable lifestyle (given global standards), and that perhaps it would be nice if they had different and better opportunities available to them. But it seems to me that this is a very real and very significant difference between the people we are to help in The Envelope and the hitchhiker's situation in Vintage Sedan.


Now, Unger's point is that because we think that we should help the hitchhiker in Vintage Sedan, we are committed to sending the $100 in The Envelope. If, however, the difference I have outlined between Vintage Sedan and The Envelope really is significant, then Unger will be incorrect; our position in Vintage Sedan does not commit us to a particular stance on The Envelope. But it could still be true that this difference does not justify our failure to send the $100 in The Envelope -- it could be that Unger's conclusion is correct even if his argument is not.

So, then, what do we think about the idea that we have a moral duty to provide assistance to people who find themselves -- through no fault of their own -- in living situations which are (by current global standards) very dire? I'm not sure what I think. It seems to me that our obligation towards them is certainly not quite the same as the obligation we feel in Vintage Sedan, but saying much more would likely open me up to charges of begging the question -- that is, unless I were to here try to construct a theoretical defense of one conclusion or another, which isn't going to happen. I think this is an issue that requires a lot more thought, and that it would be premature of me to arrive at any definitive conclusion here. I guess I'll leave it at tentatively rejecting Unger's argument, then. I think I'm happy with that.
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