30 December 2009

Healthcare Reform: Constitutionality

Stephen Kershnar
The Constitutionality of Health Care Reform
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 28, 2009

The recent health care reform proposal requires that every American buy federally regulated health insurance or pay a $750 fine. A debate has broken out over whether the proposal is constitutional. Senators John Ensign (R-NV), Jim DeMint (R-SC), and the attorney generals for seven states (Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington) have raised the issue of whether its various provisions are constitutional. In 1994, the Congressional Budget Office pointed out that this type of mandate would be the first time that the federal government required people to buy a good or service as a condition to lawfully live in the United States. As a result, it stretches the Constitution near its breaking point.

The Constitution permits the federal government to regulate or prohibit an activity only if it one of the powers listed in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution. One such power is set out in the Commerce Clause and it grants the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce. The bill’s proponents state that this clause permits the mandate.

The Commerce Clause states that Congress has the power to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” The power to regulate interstate commerce was intended to prevent states from passing tariffs and other protectionist measures against products made or sold by people in other states. However, in 1942 the Supreme Court in Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942) in effect rewrote this clause. The Court held that it applied to any activity that is part of a larger group of activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. In Wickard, for example, the Supreme Court looked at whether the federal government could set a quota on wheat that a farmer grew and consumed on his own property. The farmer claimed that these activities were not interstate commerce. The Roosevelt-era court held that the federal government could enforce the quota because wheat growing and consumption in general affected interstate commerce, regardless of whether the individual farmer’s wheat did so.

In a recent case, Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005), the Supreme Court considered whether the federal government could prohibit the cultivation and possession of marijuana that was authorized by California state law, used for medical purposes, and neither bought nor sold. The Supreme Court said the Commerce Clause allowed the federal government to do so because marijuana production in general substantially affects the interstate commerce in marijuana.

The issue is in part whether omitting to buy insurance is similar enough to growing and consuming wheat or marijuana. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law, argues that it is. He notes that the national economy is more closely connected to healthcare coverage than to wheat or marijuana production. For example, in 2007 health care expenditures were $2.2 trillion, $7,421 per person, and 16.2% of the economy (gross domestic product). Chemerinsky argues that the reasoning in the Wickard and Gonzales was not limited to commercial activity and hence it does not matter whether the refusal to buy healthcare insurance is a commercial activity. He points out that the marijuana growing in Gonzales was done for personal medicinal use. Chemerinsky then concludes that because the people who do not buy health insurance affect interstate commerce, the Constitution permits them to be punished or otherwise sanctioned.

Georgetown University law professor Randy Barnett and others argue that under this reasoning, every act or omission would fall under the Commerce Clause because every act or omission in general substantially affects interstate commerce. On this reasoning, for example, the government could punish people who don’t brush their teeth because dental expenditures in general affect interstate commerce. Barnett and company argue that in recent Tenth Amendment cases, U.S. v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995) and U.S. v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 198 (2000), the Supreme Court made it clear that the Commerce Clause does not permit federal interference in local non-economic activity. In particular, the Court held that the Commerce Clause did not provide the federal government with a general police power, which is the authority to make laws for public health and safety. Because the healthcare-insurance mandate is an exercise of a general police power, Barnett and company argue that it is unconstitutional. Barnett’s interpretation is more faithful to the Constitution’s language and the founders’ original intent.

President Obama makes a different argument than Chemerinsky, although his argument probably should also be interpreted as a Commerce Clause argument. When asked whether it was constitutional to mandate that every American buy health insurance or get punished, Obama responded that is appropriate in the same way that states may mandate that people buy auto insurance. Writing in the Washington Examiner, Ken Klukowski points out that this shows a disturbing lack of understanding of the Constitution. Auto-insurance mandates occur when states exercise their general police powers, that is, their authority to regulate for public health and safety. Because nothing in the Constitution or Supreme Court decisions grant the federal government an analogous power, Obama’s argument fails. Also, Klukowski points out, everyone is not required to buy auto insurance. They only have to do so if they exercise the privilege of driving on public roads.

Obama and the Democrats might try to avoid the Commerce Clause morass and instead argue that this is an instance of the federal power to tax. One problem with this is that dressing up a fine as a tax will not fool anyone. Even if it did, the argument would fail because of the political compromises that have gone into it. As Cato scholars Robert Levy and Michael Cannon point out, such a tax would not be an income tax and thus the mandate couldn’t rest on the Sixteenth Amendment. Nor, they argue, is it an excise tax because it is not based on the value of an insurance policy. It is instead a tax per person (capitation tax) and Article I Section 8 makes it clear that these taxes have to be uniformly applied among the states, which has been interpreted to mean in accordance with their population. The mandate exempts numerous groups (poor and low-income people, religious objectors, incarcerated people, etc.). Because they are not uniformly distributed across the states, this mandate is not uniformly applied and is therefore unconstitutional.

The two best arguments for the constitutionality of the healthcare bill rest on the Commerce Clause and the federal government’s authority to tax. The Commerce Clause issue is a morass because the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the clause has left it unclear whether it applies to all activities that affect interstate commerce or whether it is limited to economic activities that do so. The broader interpretation (all activities) runs head on into Tenth Amendment cases that deny that the federal government may regulate or prohibit local non-economic activity. The taxation argument is a loser because it masquerades a fine as a tax and because as a tax it would still lack required features. How the Supreme Court will treat this mandate is unclear, how it should treat it is clear.

16 December 2009

Obama #4: Debt Monster

Stephen Kershnar
Obama: The Debt-Accelerator
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 15, 2009

President Barack Obama is well on his way to being a terrible President and a Jimmy-Carter-like stain on nation. It remains to be seen whether his foreign policy will be the embarrassing mess that his economic policy is. This depends on how his decisions to continue the Iraq war and intensify the Afghanistan one turn out. Right now, it’s too early to tell.

According to the BBC, the U.S. budget deficit was $1.4 trillion this year. This is 9.9% of the economy (gross domestic product or GDP). This is the largest deficit since World War II and more than three times larger than the previous deficit record, which under President Bush was $459 billion in 2008. Not only did Obama spend like a meth user (sadly, not my metaphor), but he made it clear that he’ll continue to do so. According to a 2010 Office of Management and Budget report, the deficit will be roughly a $1 trillion per year until 2015.

The debt has also spun out of control. Public debt is the amount of money that the federal government owes to those who hold U.S. debt instruments (for example, some types of bonds). It is not a true measure of debt because the federal government also generates debt by borrowing money from its own trust funds. An example is the Social-Security Trust Fund. The gross debt is the public debt plus trust-fund obligations. According to the Office of Management and Budget, when President Bush left office in 2008,the gross debt was $10.7 trillion or 75% of GDP. It is expected to rise to 100% of GDP by the time Obama finishes his first term in 2012. This is analogous to a person who makes $50,000 a year and has $50,000 in debt. Cato Institute scholar Ted DeHaven estimates that the debt in 2010 will be equal to $81,000 per U.S. household. Our competitor and potential enemy, China, owns roughly 25% of the public debt and continues to keep us afloat.

The spending that accelerated the debt has not worked. Writing for the Heritage Foundation, Jim Robinson points out that in January 2008, the U.S. economy had 4.9% unemployment. That year, he points out, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) passed and President Bush signed a $168 billion economic stimulus package and an even more massive $700 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) designed to help the financial markets. By January 2009, he notes, the U.S. economy lost 3.5 million jobs and the unemployment rate was 7.6%. Obama and Pelosi then decided that even more spending was called for. They agreed to an even larger $787 billion dollar stimulus package and other Christmas-like bailouts. By October 2009, the economy had lost another 3.6 million jobs and the unemployment rate was roughly 10%.

Consider whether this level of spending was necessary. According to data from the National Bureau of Economic Research and analyzed by economists at New Mexico State University, from 1919-1945, the average recession was 18 months. Post World War II, the average recession was about 10 months. In the past, then, the U.S. economy has climbed out of recessions without spending the government spending us into oblivion. University of Chicago economics professor Casey Mulligan argues that it is not even clear that the economy is in worse shape today than it was as recently as 1980 to 1982.

Running up this much debt for future generations is immoral except when the money is used to purchase something that is more valuable than the debt principal plus the interest rate. Most likely, Obama and company didn’t do this.

The Democrats used some of the money to buy car companies and financial institutions for far more than private buyers wanted to pay for them. They also used some of it to lavish gifts on one of their main benefactors, public employees. According to the USA Today, from December 2007 to the present, the private sector lost 6.3% of its jobs (7.3 million jobs), but the federal government sector gained 9.8% and the state and local government gained 0.2%. During this period the federal workers got hefty raises. When newly hired workers are screened out, federal workers got an 8.7% increase over this period. 19% of them now make more than $100,000. The average federal worker makes more than $30,000 more than the average private sector worker. Defenders of federal workers respond that they are more highly skilled than those who work in the private sector and that they make less than their private-sector counterparts. Still, the differences could hardly be more stark.

The Democrats also shot up federal welfare spending. Welfare spending is means-tested aid to the poor. According to the Heritage Foundation, in his first two years in office Obama will increase federal welfare spending by one-third. When adjusted for inflation, this is two and a half times greater than any previous increase in U.S. history. We now spend 4697 billion per year. If this spending were converted into cash benefits, the money spent would raise the income of all poor families above the poverty line. Needless to say, much of it never reaches the poor.

All this spending doesn’t even take into account, the latest Democratic health care plan to expand the number of people on Medicare. According to the General Accounting Office, Medicare (specifically Medicare Hospital Insurance) is already running a deficit. If you add people to a program already running a deficit, you make the deficit worse.

There is a real wild card in the mix whose effects we haven’t yet seen. Economist Arthur Laffer points out that the fed has increased the money supply (monetary base for econ nerds) at the highest level in half a century. This will cause a tremendous threat of inflation. This wild card is not Obama’s doing, but it might well exacerbate the spending-related damage.

It is hard to see how it is moral to run up the credit card and leave the debt for future generations. This is much like dumping your garbage on your neighbors’ lawns and expecting them to clean up after you. All of this makes political sense, borrowed money can be used to buy votes, but not policy sense. For those who looked at Obama and company’s past carefully, none of this came as a surprise.

When Sarah Palin came out with her new book, “Going Rogue: An American Life,” came out her opponents shrieked that she was unqualified to be President. Fairly typical of the comments were those by New York Times columnist David Brooks who said, “[s]he's a joke. I mean, I just can't take her seriously. We've got serious problems in the country. Barack Obama's trying to handle war. …” That anyone who voted for Obama could rip Palin would be funny, if it weren’t so sad.

10 December 2009

Rape and Evolution VI: Clothing and the chance of rape

Dear Colleagues:

The issue arises as to whether attire affects the frequency of rape. I take no position on the issue. I am not aware of any data that directly addresses this issue.

If there is evidence for the propositions (1) and (2), then this might be thought relevant to whether at the margin clothing might have an effect on rape, although it is probably not strong enough to justify any belief on the topic.

Here are the two propositions.
(1) Many rapists are motivated in part by sex.
(2) In some cases, being scantily clad increases sexual motivation in men.

There is some support for proposition (1) (Many rapists are motivated in part by sex).

a. Most rapists do not have a preference for rape over consensual sex. See Freund et al., “Heterosocial competence of rapists and child molesters: a meta-analysis,” The Journal of Sex Research 40 (2003): 170-178; Baxter et al., “Sexual responses to consenting and forced sex in a large sample of rapists and non-rapists,” Behavior Research and Therapy 24 (1986): 513-520.

b. There are no significant differences between the arousal patterns for male rapists and other males. W. L. Marshall and A. Eccles, “Issues in clinical practice with sex offenders,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 6 (1991).

c. Male rapists responded more strongly to consensual sex scenarios than to forced sex scenarios. Baxter, “Sexual responses to consenting and forced sex in a large sample of rapists and non-rapists,” 513-520.

d. Young sexually attractive females are raped more often than older, less sexually attractive females. See data on more frequent targeting of fertile-age women.

I don’t have any empirical support for proposition (2) other than anecdotes. The plural of anecdote is not data (sadly, not my line). However, this strikes me as extremely plausible. This is in part an explanation why attractive single women choose to dress in form-fitting or revealing outfits.

If there is such an effect, and this hasn’t been shown, then my guess is that it is small. One study indicated that most rapists did not remember what their victim was wearing.

Note that (1) entails that the feminist thesis (rape is about hatred or control of women and not about sex) is false. It is an interesting question whether there is any recent data that supports the feminist position.

I am not saying that being scantily clad in any way justifies or excuses rape or that in every case, or even most cases, being so dressed will affect a person’s chance to be raped. I also take no position on whether women are required or permitted to dress in any way.

I don’t see this debate about language. Rather, it is about rape. Specifically, what relation it has to evolution and sexual motives.

Thank you for your thoughtful notes,
Steve K

02 December 2009

Obesity and Taxation

Stephen Kershnar
Learn to Love the Obese
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 1, 2009

Our society is considering a tax on fat-causing food and, perhaps, even on fat people. Daniel Engber writing in www.slate.com summarizes some of the recent movement on this issue. 80% of the states in the U.S. currently tax junk food or soda. In an interview in Men’s Health, President Obama was sympathetic to a federal soda tax. The New York Times and New England Journal of Medicine have recently called for a significant tax on soda. The former calls for a staggering $1.28 per gallon tax in New York. Other writers go further. In the New York Times, David Leonhardt writes sympathetically on the idea of discrimination against the obese. Writing in the Huffington Post, John Ridley calls for a tax on the obese.

The idea behind the soak-the-fat-people campaign is that they are imposing costs on the rest of us. According to New York Times writer Michael Pollan, the U.S. spends $147 billion to treat obesity. 30% of the increase in health-care spending over the past ten years comes from obesity and that it now amounts to roughly a tenth of all health-care spending. According to Ridley, this results in a cost of $1,250 per American household, mostly in taxes and insurance premiums. Obese people shoulder some of these costs. According to a Center for Disease Control study, in 2006 obese people spent 42% more than normal-weight people on medical costs.

Before the U.S. decides to slam fat people, it is worth noting that they already pay a significant price for their weight. Piling on taxes that are aimed directly and indirectly at them adds salt to their wounds.

Consider the economic price they pay. According to a recent paper in the Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, one study found that obese white women (64 lbs. overweight or two standard deviations) suffer a 9% decrease in wages. This is equivalent to the difference of 1.5 years or education or three years of work experience. A second study found that severely obese white women suffer a decrease in wages of 24% when compared to their normal-weight counterparts. Severely obese black women suffered a 14.6% decrease and severely obese white and black men suffered 19.6% and 3.5% respectively.

Consider the social price they pay. According to Engber, obese women are half as likely to attend college as their peers and 20% less likely to get married. Because marriage helps to eliminate poverty, this makes obese women more likely to be poor. Writing in www.slate.com, Steven Landsburg points out that ugly women tend to attract husbands who have less educational achievement and earnings potential than do other women. If ugliness correlates with obesity, and this is not clear, then even when they do get married their choices are worse. Epidemiologist Peter Muennig reports that obese persons report being badly stigmatized. He reports that when one group of formerly obese persons was asked to choose between blindness and obesity, 89% chose blindness. He notes discrimination against them is rampant. There is evidence that parents discriminate against their obese children, doctors against their obese patients, and husbands against their obese wives.

Consider the health price they pay. Engber, citing Muennig, points out the obese are up to twice as likely to die as a normal-weight person. Also, obese women are seven times more likely to suffer significant illness or death and are especially vulnerable to clinical depression.

As a society, the U.S. not only has laws banning discrimination against minorities and women, but also has laws favoring them. Affirmative action laws often result in their being given preferential treatment even when they are less qualified than their competitors. In contrast to women and minorities, fat people get little protection. Only a few cities (for example, San Francisco and Santa Cruz, CA, and Washington, D.C.) and only one state (Michigan) prohibit weight-discrimination. The American Disabilities Act doesn’t protect them because being obese is rarely a disability from a physiological cause.

One response is that being obese is a choice and that being a minority or woman is not. The problem is that genetics plays a significant role in determining someone’s weight. One study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that weight (specifically, body-mass index) is 77% heritable. This is a little misleading, however, because this measures weight relative to same-generation peers and thus includes some environmental factors. Still, it does indicate that weight is significantly heritable and the magnitude of this effect lessens the degree to which someone’s weight is under his control.

A second response is that obese people are discriminated against because consumers, daters, and spouse-seekers prefer thinner people and society should not try to counteract the preferences of a free people. There is evidence for the former claim. Economist Steven Landsburg points out that beautiful people are more likely to be found in occupations where consumer preference plays a larger role, specifically, retail sales, waitressing, etc. However, the same might be true with regard to consumers and race or gender and if consumer preference does not warrant discrimination against women and minorities than neither does it do so for fat people.

What’s more, Engber and epidemiologist Muennig argue that anti-obesity campaigns increase anti-fat bias and that this bias exacerbates the health and discrimination problems obese people face. If this is correct, then the various taxes and insurance and employment penalties will cause fat people increased discrimination, isolation, illness, and death.

On the other hand, subsidizing something produces more of it, taxing it less. If the U.S. subsidizes food production (see the many agricultural subsidies) or prevents employers and insurers from shifting the costs of fat people onto them, then it subsidizes obesity. This will produce more obesity and spread its costs.

The obese already shoulder significant burdens. Piling on seems mean-spirited. On the other hand, failing to tax them in conjunction with other policies (for example, agricultural subsidies) threatens to subsidize obesity, thereby increasing the problem. Balancing these costs and benefits is a Herculean task. A free society doesn’t concern itself with whom employers hire, what people pay for insurance, and what attitudes people have toward their neighbors. However, because we are well on our way to socialized medicine (nearly half of health spending is done by the government) and have become a country of busybodies, the Herculean task is exactly what we’ll need to do.

Rape and Evolution V: Another response to faculty and staff


Thank you for your notes. I said the previous note was my last. I lied.

I thought I’d defend this sentence.

“Whether the most effective way to stop men from acting out on these desires is to strengthen criminal penalties, educational programs that focus on making men aware of these desires and the need to control them, discouraging women from dressing in provocative ways, or other means is in part an empirical question and not one that can be answered by common sense.”

First, what this sentence says and was meant to say is that the best way to discover which ways of combating rape are most effective, or effective at all, is by empirical investigation not by common sense. From this sentence, it does not follow that changing people’s attire affects the frequency of rape. I take no position on this issue. Because I think empirical investigation is the best way to discover the best teaching methods, traffic rules, baseball strategies, and lots of other things, I didn’t think the sentence was controversial. After I wrote it, I thought that one of my philosophy department colleagues might respond by busting my chops for making such a minimal claim.

This just repeats the very helpful comments of my colleague, Leonard Jacuzzo.

Second, even if something were an effective means to prevent rape from happening, it does not follow that it is morally required or permitted. For example, it might be that one way to reduce murder and rape is to increase the frequency of abortion. It does not follow from this claim, and this claim alone, that abortion is morally required or permitted. Here I take no position on the moral or legal status of abortion or whether abortion reduces violent crime.

Third, even if an act were an effective means to prevent a result, it does not follow that a person who omits to do it is blameworthy for the result. Here it is helpful to distinguish who is to blame for a result and what is a prudentially wise thing to do. An act might be prudentially unwise without making the agent responsible for the result. To see the distinction, imagine that a professor, Jones, runs in the middle of the night in downtown Detroit. His colleagues tell him that this is not safe. He responds that if bad guys beat him up, then they are to blame for his injuries. His colleagues would likely agree with him and still tell him that it is not a wise decision to go running in the middle of the night in Detroit. I take no position on whether changing one’s attire is prudentially wise.

In summary, the sentence does not entail that (1) attire affects the frequency of rape, (2) modest attire is morally required or permitted, or (3) victims are in any way to blame for an attack.

Thanks and I hope your semester is finishing well,
Steve K

30 November 2009

Rape and Evolution IV: A response to a different history professor

Thank you for your thoughtful note.

Here is the Thornhill and Palmer assertion. “The most convincing study of pregnancy and rape in peacetime settings (Holmes et al., 1996) involved a three-year longitudinal study of a representative sample of several thousand American women. Among victims of reproductive age (12-45), the rape-related pregnancy rate was 5% per rape, or 6 percent per victim. … [T]he figures reported by Holmes et al. probably should be corrected to about 2 percent. At this time it is not known whether false rape allegations influence this percentage.”

Thornhill and Palmer (2000), 100 citing M.H. Holmes et al., “Rape-related pregnancy: Estimates and descriptive characteristics from a national sample of women, American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 175 (1996): 320-325. Note Holmes et al. (1996) apparently state that the probability of conception following rape is 5.3% for women 12-17 and 4.7% for those ages 18-45.

You asked about the conception rates for consensual sex. It is 3.1%. A. J. Wilcox et al., “Likelihood of conception with a single act of intercourse: providing benchmark rapes for assessment of post-coital contraceptives,” Contraception 63 (2001): 211-215 cited in Fessler. Note that age differences make the comparison to rape-related frequency tricky.

You asked about the comparative rate of conception. “Moreover, analysis of conception rates reveals that the probability of conception following rape does not differ from that following consensual coitus.” Daniel Fessler, “Rape is not less frequent during the ovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle,” Sexualities, Evolution, & Gender 5.3 (2003): 127-147.

Note that the percentages need not be that high for natural selection to operate. “Natural selection can operate effectively with small reproductive advantages, as little as 1 percent.” Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (2002): 368.

You ask where Thornhill and Palmer (2000) got their data. They went to the Holmes et al. 1996 study. Where did Holmes et al. go to get their data? I don’t know the answer to this. I am assuming that the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology is a peer-reviewed journal that would have been sensitive to this issue, but this is just an assumption.

You point out that conception is not the same as the production of offspring who will themselves reproduce. This is correct, but all the conception-data was used is to show that there is evidence that some of the known effects of rape are consistent with evolutionary theory. Compare this to predictions made by the feminist theory (rape-is-not-about-sex) and the anti-evolution theory (rape is not an evolution-based adaptation or effect of such an adaptation or adaptations). Is there any evidence for these theories?

I’m curious as to whether you found Johnston-Robledo and McVicker’s arguments #1 through #7 (my numbering) to be weak.

1. If so, I’m not sure why a curiosity about one piece of data would have led you to sign a letter containing such arguments.

2. If not, I’m wondering why neither you nor anyone else has presented a plausible defense of any of these arguments.

Thanks again for the note. I hope your semester is finishing well,
Steve K

29 November 2009

Evolution and Rape III: Responding to a history professor

Here is my response that appeared in proftalk to an attempt by a history professor at Fredonia to defend the Johnston-Robledo and McVicker letter that she signed. Proftalk is a campus discussion forum for faculty and staff.


Thank you for your thoughtful note. Here is Johnston-Robledo and McVicker’s argument.

“To argue that rape is a reproductive strategy or that it is motivated by reproduction continues the illogic of the column. … Further, social science research has not determined that men have a reproductive motivation for rape despite Kershnar's reliance on limited evidence to suggest that they do. When men indicate that they are motivated to rape by sexual desire, this response does not mean that they are motivated by reproduction as opposed to power and control.”

Here is a restatement of their argument.

(P1) If rape is connected to evolution, then rapists are motivated by reproduction.
(P2) It is false that (in general) rapists are motivated by reproduction.
(C1) Hence, rape is not connected to evolution. [(P1), (P2)]

My objection was that premise (P1) is false and rests on a misunderstanding of how evolution works. I’m not sure I see how your points rehabilitate (P1). More generally, I don’t see why anyone would think that this argument is convincing.


You assert that the following statements are true.

1. Rape [often] results from a desire to control others.

2. The desire to control others is the product of evolution.

We thus agree that the evolutionary theory of rape is likely true. Note that even if the control theory (proposition 1) is true, this does not show that other specific theories (e.g., rape-is-about-sex theory) are false. The theories are compatible. So I’m not sure we disagree.


Johnston-Robledo and McVicker make the following claim.

“It is virtually impossible to argue that rape is primarily about sex and/or reproduction. Rape is, arguably, more about sexualized aggression than aggressive sex.”

I don’t see that you or Johnston-Robledo and McVicker have presented any evidence for this claim.

First, I don’t know how “impossible” is being used here.

Second, there is some evidence that rape is about sex. Here are a couple of examples. At least one researcher who interviewed rapists concluded that their actions were explained in part on the basis of their desire for sex. Also, a significant percentage of college men (60% in one study) report having used force to achieve sexual intimacy despite the female’s negative response. It is not implausible to think that this behavior is related to sexual desire.

Hence, even if one thought that rape is not primarily about sex, it is hard to see why it is “impossible” to argue for this claim.

In any case, it would be interesting to see who else signed Johnston-Robledo and McVicker’s letter. Perhaps they have other arguments against the broader or narrower evolutionary theories.

I hope you had an enjoyable Thanksgiving,
Steve K

21 November 2009

Evolution and Rape II: Night of the Living Feminists

The Objectivist
Misunderstanding Evolution
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 7, 2009

The broader evolutionary explanation of rape asserts evolution either directly or indirectly explains much of the rape-behavior we observe. There are three widely discussed theories as to how this explanation works. First, Randy Thornhill, a University of New Mexico biologist, has put forth a model that asserts that evolution has affected men’s psychology in such a way that in at least some men there is a tendency to think in ways that lead to opportunistic rape. Second, Craig Palmer, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri, argues that rape is an evolutionary by-product of other psychological adaptations that increase male reproductive success. Third, University of Michigan psychologist Barbara Smuts, McMaster University psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, and others argue that evolution has led to aggression against women that facilitates a long-term reproductive strategy. That is, rape is a biological adaptation by which males maintain control over females and it evolved because such control led to long-term reproductive success. Thus, the three models hold that evolution explains thought and behavior patterns that have in many cases led to rape because rape is connected in some way to greater reproductive success.

Note that the evolutionary theorists do not claim that rape is not bad or wrong, rapists are not blameworthy, rapists should not be punished, the environment plays no role in causing rape, etc.

All three models are consistent with the claim that rape is motivated in part by a desire for sex. The evolutionary theory is a minimal theory in that it is consistent with there being other motivations for rape (for example, control) and other causes (for example, cultural causes). In contrast, the opposing hypothesis is more extensive in that it holds that rape has nothing to do with evolutionary desires. Proponents of this view often view rape as focused solely on power or control and not at all on sex.

Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker points out just how plausible it is that rape is about sex. He points out that given that men sometimes want to have sex with women who don’t want to have sex with them and men have a tendency to resort to violence to get what they want, it would be extraordinary if some men didn’t use violence to get sex. Because these tendencies have a clear connection to genes and evolution, the broader evolutionary theory should have an obvious feel to it.

SUNY-Fredonia Professors Ingrid Johnson-Robledo and Jeanette McVicker criticize the broader evolutionary theory of rape and narrower Thornhill model. Thirty other SUNY-Fredonia faculty and staff signed on to their findings. Here are some of the reasons the pair provide against the broader and narrower theories.

1. The evolutionary explanation of behavior insults men because it reduces them to biological destiny.

2. If a desire is hard-wired into a man, this implies that he is helpless (to act on it).

3. Rape usually, if not always, leads to gratuitous injury and the injury is psychological.

4. In many cases, rapists do not inflict gratuitous injuries against their victims because they do not use or carry weapons.

5. Some rapists use objects to violate women and some use a condom. Hence, the reproductive theory of rape is refuted.

6. Rapists indicate that they are motivated by sexual desire, not reproduction. Hence, rape is not explained by its connection to reproduction over millions of years of human evolution.

7. Rape has a success rate of 5% and this is quite low.

8. 18% of rape victims are under age 11.

9. There are some rape-free societies.

Most of these are irrelevant. None is anywhere near strong enough to defeat the evolutionary theories.

Consider 1. Johnston-Robledo and McVicker claim that evolutionary explanations reduce men to “biological destiny.” It is not clear what they mean here, but they probably mean that evolutionary theories entail that if men act on genetically induced desires then they are not morally responsible for what they do. This is a mistake. From the fact that a desire is in part the result of genetic factors, it does not follow that a person has no control over whether to act on it. A man can still reason with regard to whether to act on the desire. For example, if I desire to eat my neighbor’s freshly grilled steak and this desire is part innate, it does not follow that I am compelled to eat it.

Consider 2. Johnston-Robledo and McVicker argue that if, as evolutionary theory asserts, a man’s desire (or propensity) is hard-wired into him then he is helpless to act on it. This is a mistake for the reason mentioned above. How could a large flock of faculty and staff make such an obvious error?

Consider 3. Johnston-Robledo and McVicker claim that contrary to the evolutionary theory, rape usually, if not always, leads to gratuitous injuries because it leads to psychological injuries. The proponent of an evolutionary theory of rape would predict that rapists would in general avoid injuring their victims in ways that would prevent them from conceiving and bearing a child. Gratuitous is thus understood in terms of physical injuries that are not needed to carry out the rape or a direct result of it. Psychological harm is irrelevant to the theories because it is a direct result of the rape. The evidence here is striking. According to Center for Policy Research members Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, only 5% of rape victims are severely physically injured. Remember the data are being used here to explain how a behavior came about, not whether it is bad, wrong, or harmful.

Consider 4. Johnston-Robledo and McVicker claim that in many cases, rapists do not inflict gratuitous harm because they do not use or carry weapons that would inflict severe injury. Leave aside whether this claim is consistent with the previous one. On their account, attackers who can generate enough force to invade a woman’s body can’t generate enough force to pile on additional severe physical injury (for example, by repeatedly striking them). What?

Consider 5. Johnston-Robledo and McVicker argue that because some rapists use objects to violate women and sometimes they use a condom, rape has nothing to do with reproduction or evolution. First, as Steven Pinker points out, this is true of only a minority of rapes and so it is consistent with the evolutionary theory that most rapes involve reproduction-related acts. Second, Pinker points out, some voluntary sex involves objects and condom use. It doesn’t follow that voluntary sex is unrelated to sex, reproduction, and evolution. If this is true for voluntary sex, then it is true for coerced sex.

Consider 6. Johnston-Robledo and McVicker claim that rapists indicate that they are motivated by sexual desire and not reproduction and that both motivations would apply if evolutionary theory were true. The two assume that evolution never increases reproductive fitness by producing a desire to have sex unconnected to a desire to reproduce. This misunderstands evolution. If a desire leads to increased reproductive success then evolution selects for it, regardless if the organism intends to reproduce. This is true of sexual desire.

Consider 7. The two professors claim that if rape has a 5% rate of conception, this is too low to affect evolution. Again they are wrong. If over millions of years an adaptation increases reproductive success by 5%, this will likely have evolutionary effects.

Consider 8. Johnston-Robledo and McVicker observe that many rapists target girls who are not yet fertile and they claim this weighs against the evolutionary explanation. First, if Thornhill is right, then the majority of rape-victims are fertile. At most the pair’s observation shows that some rapes will have little reproductive success, perhaps because the desire is not sufficiently focused. This is a long way off from showing that over millions of years of evolution on the African plains rape was a losing reproductive strategy. On the first model, it might be that the desire is not a sharply focused one. On the third model, raping pre-fertile girls might be a way of controlling them when they do become fertile. The evolutionary models are thus consistent with this observation.

Consider 9. Johnston-Robledo and McVicker assert that there are rape-free cultures and that this is not what the evolutionary model predicts. They likely have in mind claims by researchers like University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Peggy Sanday who report that 47% of societies are rape-free. But as University of New Mexico anthropologist Melissa Emery Thompson points out, the studies that were not focused on sexual issues, varied substantially in length, and often rested on rape-reports. Because rape is frequently hidden from researchers, especially ones not focused on sexual matters, and because rape is often not reported, the support for there being such rape-free societies is weak. Even if it weren’t weak, many genetically-linked behaviors (for example, homosexuality and aggression) are not expressed in all people and all places. In some cases, this is because environmental factors block the expression of some genes.

We’ve considered the professors’ nine objections. Seven were irrelevant and several involved obvious mistakes. The last two are relevant, but are not strong criticisms of either the broader or narrower theories. There are serious criticisms of both, but such criticisms involve a reexamination of Thornhill’s and other scholars’ data and a discussion of the different types of rape (for example, stranger versus acquaintance rape). None of this showed up in Johnston-Robledo and McVicker’s objections. They simply didn’t do their homework. Mindless adherence to feminist ideology is a poor substitute for rigorous scientific thought.

04 November 2009

Academia: Women, Babies, and Advancement

The Objectivist
Academia and Sex Differences
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 2, 2009

On average, men and women differ in their preferences with regard to work and family and this leads to workplace differences. An interesting issue is whether the academic workplace should be changed to better accommodate women’s preferences.

In some high-end fields, women have less success at the top of the career ladder. Consider, for example, law and business. Joanne Lipman writing in The New York Times reports that in 2008, women made up almost half of the associate lawyers (those who work for law firms), but only 18.3% of the partners (those who own the firms). Similarly, she reports, only 15 women run Fortune 500 companies.

The same pattern occurs in academia. There women with children or who are likely to have children do worse than their peers. Consider the following research by Mary Ann Mason, Dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California at Berkeley. Women with babies are 28% less likely than women without babies to enter a tenure-track position. A person is on the tenure track when she is on track to have a permanent full-time position in a college or university or has such a position. Married women are 21% less likely than single women to enter a tenure-track position. Women faculty are 27% less likely than men to become an associate professor (mid-level professor) and 20% less likely than men to become a full professor (senior-level professor) within 16 years. A high percentage of mothers end up in second-tier academic positions (specifically, lecturers, part-timers, and adjuncts).

Mason and Marc Goulden (a research analyst at Berkeley) point out that the academia presents family-related problems for women. They point out the following. Only a third of women without children who take a fast-track university job ever become a mother. Tenured women are more than twice as likely as tenured men to be single 12 years out from the Ph.D. If married, tenure-track women faculty are 50% more likely than men to divorce (and twice as likely to divorce as women in second-tier positions).

It is not entirely clear what is going on here. There is no general hindrance to parenting. Mason points out that men who have early babies (babies had less than five years after Ph.D. completion) do better than all other groups, including single men and women.

The problem might be one of spousal selection or timing. Mason and Goulden point out that most women academics are married to people with advanced degrees and most academic men are not. If this results in men being more likely to have a stay-at-home spouse, and I suspect it does, then the differences in academic success might in part reflect this difference. The problem might also be one of timing, specifically having early versus late babies. Mason points out that women with late babies (babies that are not early) do as well as women without children.

The difference in academic success is accompanied by, and probably caused in part by, differences in productivity. Consider Mason’s findings on postdoctorates (Ph.D.s whose job is to do research in a professor’s lab). Married men with children put in 15% more time as a post-doctorate than married women with children and married men without children put in 29% more. Married women with children are 25% less likely to present at a conference in the last year than married men with children and 17% less likely than married men without children. There is some evidence, albeit weak evidence, that this pattern holds for publications. Philosophers Miriam Solomon and John Clarke report that in philosophy, women receive 25-33% of the Ph.D.s, have 21% of the philosophy positions and yet publish only 12.4% of the articles. Note these figures come from different but overlapping periods.

Women professors with children are not lazier than their counterparts. Rather, they put their efforts elsewhere. For example, Mason found that women with children do roughly 16 more hours in housework and caregiving than do men with children and 24 hours more than do men without children.

Proposed explanations for these differences in academic success have included discrimination and genetics. An important factor is probably different preferences. Women attach less weight to their careers and more to family. This can be seen in that male Ph.D.s are more likely to want to be professors at research positions than are women Ph.D.s (32% more likely for University of California Ph.D.s). The latter are also much more likely to shift their career goals away from academia. When they shift their career goals, women are more likely than men to cite as reasons children and spouses. Mason provides an example of this line of thinking is the following quote from a doctoral student, “I feel unwilling to sacrifice a healthy family life and satisfying personal life to succeed in academics, and thus industrial options have become more appealing.”

Women’s preferences are not wrong, bad, or irrational, just different. Professor Michael Argyle of Oxford University points out that marriage is one of the strongest factors to correlate with happiness and the correlation is stronger for women than men. In The Blank Slate, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker points out that on average mothers are more attached to their children than are fathers and that this is true in societies all over the world and in our mammal lineage. He notes that on average women are more attentive to their babies’ well-being and place a higher value on spending time with their children. In contrast, Pinker notes, men’s self-esteem is more closely tied to their status, salary, and wealth. He also points out these factors play a larger role in men’s attractiveness as a sexual and marriage partner than it does for women.

One response by some universities such as the prestigious University of California at Berkeley is to excuse parents with substantial caregiving duties for children from having to teach some of their classes. A second response has been to give these parents an extra year or two to earn tenure. Other universities have adopted similar policies. It is not clear, however, whether these policies are justified by either fairness or efficiency.

These policies transfer costs from one person to another. If at a state university, professor Jones get excused from teaching some of her classes, one of three things happens: other professors have to teach her classes, students are offered less classes (or larger classes), or taxpayers have to pay someone to teach a class when they have already paid someone to teach it. By analogy, imagine the Sunshine taxicab business has salaried drivers. If women drivers with babies get excused from their shifts, then consumers pay more money, Sunshine loses money, or other drivers have to work extra shifts. This cost transfer might be good policy, but it is not a requirement of fairness or justice. Furthermore, if the headwind is against people who have early babies and don’t have stay-at-home spouses, then this is arguably a cost of one’s choices.

The efficiency claim is harder to assess. The concern here is whether the policies have positive or negative effects on people other than the professors. Such policies might encourage some of the best and brightest women to go into academia. This is desirable. There might also be eugenics-type reasons that are relevant. On the other hand, if students and others benefit from more productive professors, then there is reason to be weary of these policies. Also, this policy provides an incentive against stay-at-home parenting and if this is bad policy, and I don’t know that it is, this is a reason to avoid it. The effects are speculative and in any case hard to balance against each other. In addition, it is not clear that there is one right answer for every academic sector.

In any case, the issue is an interesting one and one the academic world will have to consider.

21 October 2009

Evolution and Rape

The Objectivist
Rape and Evolution
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 19, 2009

The way in which we think is the result of how our brains are wired. Evolution tells us that the way in which our brains are wired is in part the result of the way in which wiring patterns affected reproductive success over millions of years of our history. Evolution provides an insightful look into this history. It can be troubling in that it suggests that many of our violent and ugly desires are at least in part genetic. Perhaps the best example of this is rape.

Men and women often use different reproductive strategies. In animals like human beings where offspring depend on their parents for years, females must invest significant time and bodily resources in order to reproduce and raise their offspring. In contrast, men can father many more offspring with much less time and bodily resources. This gives them an incentive to have as many mates as possible. This is not true for females. The male reproductive strategy explains why males more strongly desire casual no-string-attached sex than do females. On this account, then, the male reproductive strategy was hard wired into their brains through their genes. This same account also explains why males desire rape-sex when females do not.

In A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig T. Palmer defend the notion that rape is a behavioral pattern that evolved because it was genetically advantageous. Their argument rests on several types of evidence. It should be noted that their arguments are highly controversial.

First, Thornhill and Palmer argue that the theory fits cleanly with the presence of rape in our closest relatives and across human cultures. They note that male rape of females is found in our closest relatives (chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans). They claim that it is also found in every human society. In addition, they note, it is widespread in the animal kingdom. Mammals, birds, and insects all engage in coerced copulation. Whenever you see a behavioral pattern that is found in our closest relatives and in all human societies, there is good reason to believe that it is either an evolutionary adaptation or a by-product of one.

Second, Thornhill and Palmer note that the theory explains how victims are chosen. Rape victims are overwhelmingly in their peak reproductive years (13-35, mean age 24). This is what one would expect of a behavior that is favored because it led to increased reproduction. This age distribution differs from other violent crimes. It also is not what one would have expected if rape victims were picked for their physical vulnerability. Thornhill and Palmer also assert that rape is a relatively effective way of producing conception. They claim that roughly 5% of rape victims become pregnant.

Third, Thornhill and Palmer point out that the notion that rape is an evolutionary adaptation explains the way in which rape is often carried out. In particular, it explains why rapists usually do not cause gratuitous injury to victims. That is, they rarely inflict a serious or fatal injury that would preclude conception or birth. Thornhill and Palmer note that it explains why it is more likely that a rape victim will more likely suffer a vaginal rape, rather than an oral or anal one, if she is in her fertile years than if she is not. Again, all of this fits with the notion that rape was encoded because of its contribution to reproductive success.

Fourth, the researchers point out that the desire for rape appears to be fairly widespread in males. They note that studies indicate that many normal men (for example, college students and community volunteers) are significantly sexually aroused by depictions of coercive sex, including ones that involve physical aggression. Again, this is what we would expect if rape where an evolutionary adaptation because it would allow for opportunistic reproduction.

This theory has striking implications. Feminist writer Susan Brownmiller and numerous other feminist writers have claimed that rape is not motivated by sexual desire, but by hostility toward women or by a desire to control them. This theory does not fit the data. In particular, the theory is unable to explain why such desires have led to a targeting of victims and means of victimizing them that is so closely tied to reproduction. It fits poorly with the observation that rapists favor women in their reproductive years and statistically in time in which they are at their peak attractiveness. It fits uneasily with the similar pattern of rape in human beings and their closest ape relatives. The theory runs aground on studies that indicate that most rapists cite sexual desire as a cause of their actions.

The theological view that human beings are created by God in his own image also fits poorly with this data. After all, it is hard to imagine why God would want his most prized creation to walk around with such evil and destructive desires. Even if God wanted to make it hard for humans to be moral by tempting them, it is hard to believe that he couldn’t have picked a less cruel way of doing so.

The theory also has implications for what to expect of men, especially young men in their peak sexually competitive years. It tells us that we can expect a significant number of them to have rape-thoughts and -desires. This likely includes the seemingly kind-hearted college-aged male who is your son, grandson, nephew, son-in-law, etc. Whether the most effective way to stop men from acting out on these desires is to strengthen criminal penalties, educational programs that focus on making men aware of these desires and the need to control them, discouraging women from dressing in provocative ways, or other means is in part an empirical question and not one that can be answered by common sense. For example, the penalties for rape are already quite strong (in the U.S. in 1992, the average rapist was sentenced to 11.8 years and served 5.4 years).

In any case, there is a dark side to man and one that is hard-wired into him.

07 October 2009

Torture: Self-Defense Argument

The Objectivist
Interrogational Torture: Justified Self-Defense
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 5, 2009

The Abu Ghraib scandal will likely prevent the U.S. from using interrogational torture in the future, even as the U.S. withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan. The scandal surrounded a Baghdad Correctional Facility (also known as the Abu Ghraib prison), where there was haphazard and cruel treatment of prisoners by soldiers in the 320th Military Police Battalion. The New York Times reported that the investigation uncovered evidence that the soldiers did the following to detainees: forcibly sodomized one, poured phosphoric acid on others, tied ropes to detainees’ genitalia and then pulled them across the floor, jumped on a detainee’s leg (one already damaged through gunfire) with such force that it would not heal properly, beat them, urinated on them, etc. The U.S. found at least one case of homicide. There were also allegations of rape (including a fourteen year old Iraqi girl) and other cases of homicide. It was estimated by Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the Abu Ghraib prison commander, that 90% of the detainees were innocent.

Eleven soldiers were convicted for these abuses and did prison time. In addition, seventeen soldiers and officers were removed from duty. Karpinski was demoted, in effect ending her military career. The American Civil Liberties Union leaked a 2004 FBI memo which indicated that President Bush explicitly authorized the use of extraordinary interrogation tactics by U.S. military personnel. The authorized tactics included sleep deprivation, hooding, loud music, stress positions, and the use of dogs.

Despite the Abu Ghraib mess, the U.S. probably should use interrogational torture. To see the argument for it, consider the following case from MIT professor Judith Jarvis Thomson. A trolley’s brakes don’t work and it is speeding down the tracks where it will run over five workers. The trolley driver, Edward, can turn the trolley onto a side track so that it runs over only one worker. Most people think that it is okay to Edward to do this because it saves four lives. This intuition gets stronger if the one worker disabled the brakes in order to kill the five.

A similar thing is true in cases in which a terrorist is part of an attack on civilians. Consider a case in which a terrorist has helped plant a bomb or initiated an imminent attack and refuses to disclose where the attack will occur. In both cases, by endangering innocents the attackers have forfeited some of their rights and may thus be harmed in the effort to blunt the attack. In the terrorist case, he may be harmed as a way to defend the innocent from his attack.

There are a series of objections. One objection is that even though the terrorists deserve to be tortured, the U.S. shouldn’t do this because the U.S. degrades itself in so doing. This appears to be the objection of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and other Senators who oppose such torture. However, it is less degrading to waterboard a terrorist who is part of an ongoing attack than to sit by and watch him and his buddies blow up innocent people.

Here is another way to consider the degradation issue. A number of recent economic studies indicate that the death penalty saves lives by deterring future murders. If this is correct and if the death penalty does not degrade us, then torture doesn’t do so. After all, most people would prefer torture to execution and the former more directly prevents killings. Similarly, it is hard to see why waterboarding someone for two days is more degrading than locking a young man in a cage for the rest of his life as is done when the state imposes a life sentence. It is certainly less degrading than shooting people with 50 caliber machine guns so that they explode into a pink mist and this is what happens when surgical attempts to stop terrorism fail.

A second objection is that torture doesn’t work. However, there are cases where interrogational torture does appear to have worked. One 1995 case involved Philippine authorities who tortured a terrorist into disclosing a plot to blow up eleven commercial airliners that were carrying roughly four thousand passengers. A 1994 case occurred when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Israel tortured the driver of the car used in the kidnapping to find where the soldier was being held. In a 2004 Central Intelligence Agency study, the director reports that interrogational torture (labeled “extraordinary interrogation tactics) provided extremely valuable information, including critical threat information. This likely referred in part to the repeated waterboarding of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, a top al Qaeda planner, logistical expert, and architect of the 9/11 attack that killed nearly three thousand people. His information led to a number of arrests, including terrorists who planned to smuggle explosives into the U.S. and a sleeper operative in New York. Now there is the question whether torture, when done by professionals, often yields useful information and there is simply not enough information to answer it.

A third objection is that even if torture does not wrong anyone and is effective, it still has overall bad effects. It is claimed that interrogational torture strengthens our terrorist enemies by giving the U.S. a terrible image in the Muslim world, alienates allies, creates an environment where other countries will engage in horrendous torture, etc. The cost-benefit analysis is not clear. The U.S. also strengthens terrorist groups, alienates allies, etc. when it uses overwhelming military force to pursue enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and occupies the first two. It is the threat of such terrorism that causes such actions and it might be that diminishing of this threat through interrogational torture would decrease the need for such pursuit and occupation. In any case, the cost-benefit analysis is unclear and so both the objection and response are so speculative as to warrant little weight.

A fourth objection is that interrogational torture is illegal and hence should be avoided as part of our respect for the rule of law. There are two statutes that might be thought to apply to U.S interrogators operating overseas: the War Crimes Act and the Torture Convention. Because it is likely that the relevant war-crimes statutes (Geneva and Hague) don’t apply to terrorists, the War Crimes Act probably is irrelevant. It is unclear whether the Torture Convention prohibits carefully calibrated interrogational torture. If it does, the U.S. should consider withdrawing from it and changing U.S. law so that it allows overseas interrogational torture to occur. Perhaps this would be subject to certain safeguards. Such safeguards might include permitting such techniques only when done by highly trained and specialized CIA agents and only when they receive written authorization from the President or, perhaps, cabinet head.

Interrogational torture is a type of defense. It appears to have worked in at least some cases. It is no more degrading than the death penalty and life imprisonment and less degrading than wartime killing. When used correctly, interrogational torture is disturbing but not obviously wrong.

23 September 2009

Metaphysics: Personhood

The Objectivist
Problems with Persons
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 21, 2009

An interesting feature of the intellectual world is how little we understand about persons. This creates problems in deciding what policies to adopt in the context of life and death. The three dominant theories of a person assert that a person is an organism, a physical object, or a soul. All three are inadequate.

The notion that a person is an organism fits nicely into what we know about biology. Because we think that human beings are animals and that animals are organisms, it follows that human beings are organisms. An organism is just a living being. A fairly standard account of life is put forth by Paul Davison. On his account, a being is living or alive if it is composed of cells, metabolizes nutrients, grows, reproduces, responds to stimuli, regulates its internal environment, etc. This theory fits cleanly with the notion that human beings are merely animals whose distinctive features resulted from natural selection.

The problem with this theory is that it generates absurd results. For example, a proponent of the persons-are-organisms theory has to assert that at death an individual ceases to exist. On this theory, because a person is a living organism and because a corpse is not living, a person is distinct from his corpse. Philosopher Fred Feldman points out the ridiculous results that follow from this. For example, the individual we see sitting in an open coffin is not the one who was a great husband and father, stormed the beaches of Normandy, cheated on his taxes, etc. In addition, if a person died while wearing a tuxedo, then someone must have removed him and replaced him with the corpse, all without undoing the buttons. This theory claims that it is not just that the person changes when he dies, but rather that he ceases to exist and a new thing (the corpse) takes his place.

Worse, on this account, persons can survive brain replacement. Imagine that a surgeon replaces George W. Bush’s brain with that of Barack Obama and vice versa. Intuitively, it seems that Bush is now located in Obama’s body and vice versa. Bush would think himself located in Obama’s body and find himself waking up next to Michelle. Yet this is not true on the persons-are-organisms theory. On this theory, the same organism is located in Bush’s body and hence the brain transplant does not change where Bush is located. After all, a living organism can survive the replacement of an organ. For example, people survive kidney, heart, and liver replacements.

The notion that a person is a physical object, probably a brain, fares no better. We often think that persons begin to exist when they are conceived. In other words, we were once zygotes. A zygote is an organism that comes into being at conception and exists through implantation in the uterine wall. Because zygotes do not have brains, this theory entails that people were never zygotes. This is bizarre. We pretty clearly do think that we existed before we were born, in part as a zygote.

Both the organism and brain theory have a problem with identical twins. Identical (monozygotic) twins occur when a single fertilized egg splits to form two individuals. On the persons-are-physical-objects theory, the person has not yet come into existence between the zygote doesn’t yet have a brain. On the organism theory, other problems result. If we ask which of the two twins contains the life found in the fertilized egg, we are unable to give a satisfactory answer. The twins are distinct from each other and one and the same organism can’t be identical to two distinct ones. This is analogous to how a country that splits in two can’t be identical to both of the resulting countries. If, instead, a person is a body rather than a brain, then it is again mysterious as to which twin got the original body and which got a new one.

The soul theory is even worse off than the other two. A soul is an immaterial (non-physical) object that is conscious. There is no evidence that persons can exist when they are dead or lack a brain. First, there is not a single scientific study that has located such an otherworldly ghostlike object. Second, there are no confirmed instances of persons switching bodies or existing without a body. If persons were souls that merely resided in bodies, such things are possible and we might expect to observe them. Third, there are many well-documented correlations between the ways in which people think and what is going on in their brains. The simplest explanation of this is that thinking occurs in the brain, rather than in some ghostlike soul. For example, when people get drunk or take LSD, their thought patterns change. When particular parts of a person’s brain are damaged, they sometimes lose very specific abilities. For example, brain damage can make a person unable to recognize faces, speak, or form long-term memories. It is hard to see why this would be the case if thinking did not occur in the brain.

Soul theory becomes even less plausible when we consider what happens in the case of twins. The proponent of persons-are-souls theory must claim that the soul that the zygote had went to only one of the twins or went out of existence. It is absurd to think that one twin got the old soul and one a new one when they are identically placed with regard to the original fertilized egg. It is equally absurd to assert that both twins got new souls. After all, what happened to the old one?

The issue of the nature of persons is at the forefront of some of the most heated political issues of our time. Consider stem-cell research. Whether this research is wrong depends on whether scientists do something incorrect when they destroy zygotes. In deciding whether this is wrong, we need to know whether zygotes are persons. The same is true with regard to abortion.

A different but related issue arises with regard to the comatose. For example, consider Terri Schiavo. Terri Schiavo was a woman, or perhaps merely a body, who was in a coma probably as a result of bulimia. Her husband wanted to cut off nutrition and allow the body to die. Parts of Schiavo’s brain had disintegrated to the point where she would never regain consciousness. Whether there was a legitimate interest in keeping her body alive depended in part on whether Schiavo ceased to exist. It is difficult to answer such questions without an adequate understanding of persons, let alone a consensus on the issue. Yet this is precisely where we are.

09 September 2009

Christianity: Does the Jesus doctrine withstand scrutiny?

The Objectivist
The Oddity of Christianity
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 8, 2009

In the contest between religion and atheism and between religions, one reason to reject a particular religion is if it contains a doctrine that does not make sense or is not supported by evidence. Christianity contains just such a doctrine.

Consider the Christian view of Jesus. Christians view that Jesus as both divine and human. On the Christian view, Jesus was born to a virgin, Mary. Because of his death and resurrection, human beings can achieve salvation and enjoy eternal life in heaven. Jesus also performed a number of miracles including turning water into wine, feeding a crowd of five thousand using only fives loaves of bread and two fish, walking on water, resurrecting a man (Lazarus) who had been dead for four days, giving sight to a blind man, etc. Note these claims differ from the historical claims about him, for example, he was a Galilean Jew who preached to a small band of followers and was killed by Romans.

Some of these doctrines make no sense. The notion that God is both fully divine (god-like) and fully human (and hence not god-like) entails that he both has and lacks a property. This is impossible. By analogy, a shape cannot be both square and not square at the same time.

This problem gets compounded in those who believe in the Trinity. This doctrine holds that God the father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three different persons who are unified in a single substance. A person cannot be composed of three component persons because there would be too many subjects of consciousness or lives. This is why, for example, a living cow cannot be composed of three smaller cows. Nor can the three persons be mere features of a greater person. Persons are objects; they are not features or attributes of other things. By analogy, a person might have certain parts (for example, a left arm and a right leg), but these are not features of him (as are, for example, his enjoyment of dirty jokes or skill at poker).

The notion that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus atoned for the Mankind’s sin also makes no sense. This is because it does not satisfy the demands of justice for one person to suffer for what someone else did. Consider a case where a vicious thug, Al, batters and then kills a woman, Betty. When it comes time to incarcerate or execute him, Al’s mother volunteers to be incarcerated or killed on his behalf. Justice is not in any way satisfied if this is done to her. The same is true if you think that Al owes Betty or her family a debt of honor.

On a side note, the same problem arises with the idea of original sin. The idea is that particular human beings are somehow blameworthy or deserve bad things because of what Adam and, perhaps also, Eve did. This has similar problems to atonement via another’s sacrifice. The problems multiply if you combine the doctrines of atonement and original sin, as do some Christians.

There is little to no evidence for the claim that Jesus’s mother was a virgin when she conceived him. On a side note, many Christians hold that Jesus has siblings, so Mary did reproduce with her husband on other occasions. There is also little to no evidence of Jesus’s miracles. We lack the testimony of a number of independent and impartial observers of these events. Nor do we have any other sort of evidence for them. In the roughly 2,000 years since Jesus’s time, there have been no new messiahs for whom there is better evidence of their divinity.

One objection to the concerns about contradiction and evidentiary support is that people should be allowed to believe what they want. This is true and no one is suggesting that people who have false, contradictory, or unsupported beliefs should have a Louisville Slugger taken to their head. The issue is not whether people should be made to renounce their beliefs, it is whether their beliefs are rational.

A second objection is that religious beliefs make people happier. Specifically, they help people in times of great suffering (for example, consider the role of religion in soothing grieving widows) and lead to great altruism (for example, consider Mother Theresa). This is true, but it is not clear these benefits outweigh religion’s costs. By allowing in contradictory and unsupported beliefs, religion undermines clear thinking. It also contributes to an incredible amount of religious and inter-ethnic violence. This likely involves the death of hundreds of thousands. Even if religion does have net benefits, and this is not obvious, we are still trading off truth for happiness. This might be worthwhile, but in any case it is worth acknowledging.

A third objection to this is to assert that belief in these aspects of Jesus rest on faith and hence need not be coherent or supported by evidence. However, we are not impressed by unsupported belief in other areas. Consider a scenario in which you are drinking at a bar and a fellow bar patron tells you that he believes that the Aryan man should reign should reign supreme over the other races. When you ask him why, he says that he doesn’t have an argument or other evidence for this view, he just believes it on faith (that is, in the absence of adequate evidence). You would think him irrational. Your view should not change if we substitute beliefs about Jesus for beliefs about Aryan supremacy. The structure of his beliefs in the two cases is the same.

In addition, if our beliefs about Jesus are contradictory, then it is hard to say what is wrong with holding other contradictory beliefs, particularly in the context of religion. However, religious people have little tolerance for other contradictions in religion. For example, if you believe that God is all-good, this is often thought to rule out the notion that God is also a cruel mean-spirited child-molester. Similarly, if God is all-knowing, this presumably rules out the notion that he doesn’t know his multiplication tables.

If our beliefs about Jesus are not supported by evidence, then we should be willing to tolerate other beliefs not supported by evidence. However, in other areas of our life, we have little use for beliefs not supported by evidence. For example, a scientist who consistently drew scientific conclusions unsupported by evidence would be drummed out of his field. A judge would be unimpressed by a prosecutor who sought to convict and punish a defendant when he lacked evidence that made it likely that the defendant did the crime.

None of this would matter except that religion, including Christianity, plays an enormous role in shaping our world. In the United States, religious reasoning is used to justify wealth redistribution, slow down medical research, block abortion-clinics, condemn gay sexuality, oppose evolution, and criminalize a wide range of activities in which a person harms no one but himself (for example, pornography, gambling, and drugs). Internationally, religion contributes to countless acts of violence and destruction. Examples include the torrent of violence in Sudan and ever-present repression in the Middle East. To the extent that that contradictory or evidence-free reasoning leads to such injustice, death, and destruction, it matters and is damaging.

26 August 2009

Healthcare Reform: The Public Option

The Objectivist
Public Option: Higher Cost, Lower Quality
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 24, 2009

The Democrats in Congress and the Whitehouse are pushing a public option. It is a centerpiece of the Affordable Health Choices Act. The public option is a Medicare-like, government-run health insurance program.

The White House has signaled that they might be willing to pass a healthcare-reform bill without a public option. This caused many Democrats to get their panties in a twist. As reported in Medical News Today, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) asserted that the public option is “a must.” Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) stated that “without a public option, I don’t see how we will bring real change to a system that has made good health care a privilege for those who can afford it.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, “There is strong support in the House for a public option.” Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) threatened that without a public option, the legislation could lose up to 100 Democratic votes in the House.

Concerns about cost and quality of care supposedly motivate the attempt to reform healthcare. The U.S. spends more on health care than any other nation. According to the New York Times, this amounts to more than $7,500 per person and roughly $15,000 per household. Using 2004 figures, this is 92.7% more than any other G7 country (France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Japan, and Canada). The U.S. also spends a higher percentage of the economy than all but one other member of the United Nations (in 2007 this was $2.26 trillion or 16% of Gross Domestic Product). These costs wreck havoc on personal finances. One study by David Himmelstein of Harvard University found that medical expenditures caused 60% of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S.

U.S. healthcare gets bad grades. A 2008 report by the Commonwealth Fund found that despite all this spending, the quality of health care in the U.S. was worse than 19 other developed industrial countries with which it was compared. The World Health Organization also ranked the U.S. 37th in overall performance and 72nd in overall health level in comparison to the 191 member organizations it included in its study.

The public option will not fix either problem. Consider cost. A public option is designed to cover many of the uninsured. The U.S. Census Bureau asserts that there are 47 million people who are uninsured at some point in the year. Economist Katherine Baicker and others point out that people who are insured generate more healthcare spending than uninsured individuals. Hence, insuring the 47 million would increase total healthcare costs. If our concern is to lower overall spending, the public option is a loser.

It might be argued that public option would reduce costs (or more specifically, reduce the increase in medical costs) by providing more competition. Some proponents argue that the government can provide services more cheaply. They often cite Medicaid, Medicare, and Veteran’s Health Administration as evidence for their claim. This is wishful thinking.

Medicaid charges less because it pays a fraction of what Medicare, private-insurance companies, and out-of-pocket consumers pay. The latter groups end up subsidizing Medicaid. Merely encouraging more subsidization will not reduce total costs, merely shift them around.

Medicare (or a Medicare-like program) will not reduce costs. First, Medicare is a mess. The program involves 140 million Americans paying 2.9% of their income to pay for healthcare for 42 million mostly elderly Americans. It costs roughly $400 billion a year and is running a massive deficit ($179 billion in 2007). It will go broke roughly 8 years from now. In its shaky status, Medicare resembles Social Security. The latter is another Ponzi scheme that will start running deficits as early as this year. It works via a 12.4.% tax on working Americans (in part via their employers) that is also transferred to the elderly, disabled, and others.

Second, as Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post points out, if Medicare (or a similar program) offered insurance that competed against private plans, it would have to start doing a number of costly things. It would have to collect premiums, market its programs, maintain a reserve, and manage payouts in way that lowers costs and increases quality. There is no reason to believe that it would do so more efficiently than the private sector. Public sector employees get roughly 44% more in compensation (wages and benefits) than do private sector employees and are usually much harder to fire. Government waste and mismanagement is legendary. Government-protected businesses like Amtrak and the Post Office are forever running deficits and needing protection against competition. History simply provides no reason to think that a government-run insurance company would be more efficient.

Even if the government could run an insurance system more efficiently, massive taxes would be necessary to support the public option. Under the current House plan the public option would be available for individuals making up to 400% of the poverty level (or up to $43,320). The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the latest version of Affordable Health Choices Act at will cost $597 billion over ten years and reduce the number of uninsured by 20 million. This surely underestimates the cost.

Consider the estimate of 47 million uninsured people. Somewhere around 9 million of the uninsured (19%) make more than $75,000 a year and hence choose not to purchase health insurance. Let us subtract them from the number of uninsured, thereby reducing the number to 38 million. If we insured all 38 million, the total cost would be would be $285 billion per year ($7,500/person x 38 million people). If we also screen out immigrants and those currently eligible for employer-sponsored insurance or current government programs, this still leaves 12 million uninsured. Covering them would cost $90 billion per year ($7,500/person x 12 million people). In addition, the public option would suck millions of people out of the private sector because for many employers it would be cheaper for the employer to pay the tax (8%) for not insuring its workers than to pay for private insurance.

The current House plan leaves 27 million uninsured. The program would quickly expand to cover many of these people. To see this, merely consider how Social Security and Medicaid (and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program or S-Chip) were expanded. If President Obama and Congress provide amnesty for the 12-20 million illegal aliens, and they’ll try, even more people will need to be covered. None of this is affordable, especially when we consider that Obama has already run up huge deficits and that Medicare and Social Security will soon be in the red.

There is even less reason to think that the government will increase the quality of healthcare. Is there an area where government-provided services are better and cheaper than the private sector? Like the medical system, the public-school system provides a poor product. The U.S. spends more on education (in per pupil terms) and gets middling to bad results. In the inner cities, the schools are horrible despite being awash in money. The burden here is on the proponents of the public option to establish that the government would provide higher-quality medical services. They can’t carry this burden because there is no area where the government has done so, at least when its costs are competitive with the private sector.

Several states, specifically Maine, Massachusetts, and Tennessee, introduced programs to cover the uninsured. An article in the Wall Street Journal on Maine’s program pointed out that in 2003 Maine attempted to cover all of its uninsured citizens. Its proponents claimed that it would be paid for by savings in the healthcare system. Instead, the program is operating a deficit and had to be supported by a tax on private health insurance. Despite substantial tax subsidies, the Maine’s program produced only a small reduction in the uninsured. Massachusetts’s program did reduce the uninsured. However in doing so, it likely caused healthcare costs to rise faster there than in the rest of the nation. Also, predictably, the cost to Massachusetts taxpayers skyrocketed. Tennessee’s program is another failure. Proponents of the public option might claim that the federal government will do so much better than state governments. Yeah right.

The case for the public option is that it will decrease costs or will increase quality. Neither is plausible. The public option would increase medical costs, jack up taxes, and produce inferior healthcare. Anyone who votes for it should be thrown out of office.

12 August 2009

Environmentalism: Cash for Clunkers

The Objectivist
Cash for Clunkers: Kindergarten Legislators
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 10, 2009

The Cash for Clunkers program (Car Allowance Rebate System) is incredibly stupid. It is economically inefficient and an incredibly wasteful way to help the environment, if it helps it at all. The program speaks volumes that our President and Congress would spit out such a childlike program.

The Cash for Clunkers program initially set aside $1 billion for U.S. residents to trade in less fuel efficient vehicles for new, more fuel efficient ones. Congress and President Obama then later spent another $2 billion to keep the program going. Purchasers were given either $3,500 or $4,500 depending on the trade-in. The program was designed to stimulate the economy by boosting auto production and sales and help the environment by replacing gas-guzzlers. After the first week of the program, the Department of Transportation asserted that 250,000 vehicles were sold under this program in less than a week. In addition, the clunkers were less fuel efficient (average 15.8 miles per gallon) compared with the newly purchased vehicles (average 25.4 mpg), thereby producing a 61% increase in fuel efficiency. Oddly, the car experts at Edmunds.com noted that a Ford SUV was the most widely purchased new vehicle.

Consider the economic effects. First, Edmunds.com points out that in any given month 60,000-70,000 clunker-like-deals happen without any government program in place. Because the program was to last for 4 months (July 1st to November 1st), 240,000 such trade-ins would have occurred anyway. The superfluous nature of this program can be seen in that, as Edmunds.com reported, 100,000 buyers put their purchases on hold waiting for the program to begin. Using a low-end estimate that 150,000 such trade-ins would have occurred anyway, and this surely underestimates the number, the government spent $1 billion to cause an additional 100,000 cars to be traded in. That is, the government spent $10,000 per additional car sale. It could have used to this same amount of money to give Kias to 90-100,000 people. Clearly, this would have better for the American people.

Second, the program required that dealers destroy the power train components (engine and parts by which power is sent to the axles). This is unbelievably wasteful. Consider the following variant on an example from 19th Century economist Frederic Bastiat and more recently from the Cato Institute’s Richard Rahn and journalist Adam Maji. Town thugs decide they want to promote economic growth by creating business for people in the window business. They smash other people’s windows, thereby creating more business for window-makers and –installers. This diverts money from where it would otherwise have been spent (for example, new houses and clothes) to windows. This makes the people poorer because it diverts money from more preferred to less preferred goods. Nothing in this example changes if the thugs use government money to pay people to smash their own windows. The destruction of cars with significant economic value makes us poorer just as would the destruction of windows.

Third, the program is a money loser. The average American car travels 12,000 miles per year. The increase in fuel efficiency means that because of the trade-in the owner will buy 287 less gallons of gas per year, thereby saving him $861 per year (287 gallons x $3 per gallon). Even if the program on average gets owners to trade in their car two years early, the government will be spending at least $3,500 to save roughly $1,700. This is idiotic.

Consider next the effects on the environment. Assume that there is a problem with global warming from CO2 emissions.

First, the 61% increase in fuel efficiency does not mean that we will burn that much less gas. This will occur only if drivers with more efficient cars won’t drive more. However, Declan McCullagh from CBSNews.com and others argue that with more efficient cars people drive more. This also is in line with common sense. You’re less likely to drive to see a friend in another state if you are driving a large gas-guzzling truck than if you are driving a Prius. If this is correct, then the trade-ins will produce less saving in gas than the mpg difference suggests.

Second, it takes a significant amount of energy to build a new car. It takes an average of 6.7 tons of CO2 to build a new car. Assuming you save around 2.8 tons of CO2 per year by burning less fuel (287 gallons x 19.4 lbs. CO2/gallon). Hence, if on average the program only gets people to trade in their car two years early, the program actually increases CO2 and is thus bad for the environment.

The government disagrees and estimates the program will save 365,000 metric tons of CO2. Even if this is correct, and I doubt it, this is a tiny sum. It is .05% of how much China increases its CO2 emissions each year. It is .006% of the total U.S. CO2 output. That is, it is a drop in an ocean of emissions.

Third, even if the program does save CO2, the estimate by Nina Rastogi of www.slate.com is that it will cost the government$175.53 per ton of CO2. This is incredibly wasteful in that a ton of CO2 currently sells for $17.50 on the European Climate Exchange. Note Rastogi is using data from William Chameides, dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment.

Why would Congress and the President adopt a program which is bad for the economy and probably bad for the environment? One reason is that the program is very popular. How could it not be? If a program gave me $4,500 of other people’s money to do what I was going to do anyway, I would like that program too. A cash-for-furniture program and cash-for-clothes program would be popular for the same reason. A second reason these guys adopted the program is that the government is promoting its own business and that of a benefactor, the United Auto Workers. The government owns 61% of GM and the UAW owns 18% of it and the latter also owns 55% of Chrysler. They are helping themselves out using taxpayer-funded inducements. A third reason is that with the government now borrowing $1 out of every $2 that it spends ($1.8 trillion out of $3.9 trillion), all spending discipline has been lost. When the bill comes due, the current Congressional delegation will be long gone.

The Cash-for-Clunkers program provides clear evidence that the President and Congress have a childlike view of the world.

29 July 2009

Healthcare Reform: Rationing

The Objectivist
Rationing Healthcare
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 27, 2009

President Obama and Democrats in Congress are trying to reform health care. They claim doing so will drive down costs and increase quality.

Their concern over costs is a powerful one. They note that the United States spends more on health care than any other nation ($7,439 in 2007). Using 2004 figures, this is 92.7% more than any other G7 country (France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Japan, and Canada). The U.S. also spends a higher percentage of the economy (Gross Domestic Product or GDP) than all but one other member of the United Nations (in 2007 this was $2.26 trillion or 16% of GDP).

These costs wreck havoc on personal finances. One study by David Himmelstein of Harvard University found that medical expenditures caused 60% of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S. Prescription drugs are also more expensive than in almost any other country. Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University notes that there are still other troubles. He notes that the cost of health insurance is skyrocketing. It has doubled in the past decade, rising more than four times faster than wages. He also notes that in eight years Medicare will be in the red.

Despite all this spending, on some accounts, the U.S. healthcare gets bad grades. A 2008 report by the Commonwealth Fund found that despite all this money, the quality of health care in the U.S. was worse than 19 other developed industrial countries with which it was compared. The World Health Organization also ranked the U.S. 37th in overall performance and 72nd in overall health level in comparison to the 191 member organizations it included in its study. The U.S. does worse than other wealthy nations when it comes to life expectancy and infant mortality, although it is not clear whether this is the result of differences in the health-care systems.

The President and Congress have proposed a number of reforms. They propose to expand Medicaid (medical services for the poor), a credit to subsidize the purchase of medical insurance, a public health-insurance option to compete against the private ones, a new tax on individuals who don’t purchase insurance (2.5%) and on employers who don’t provide it (8%), a cap on out-of-pocket spending, and increased use of the collection and use of health-information technology. These reforms (specifically the Affordable Health Choices Act and companion measures) are estimated to cost anywhere from $600 billion to $1.6 trillion. For a government that already faces a staggering $1.85 trillion deficit (13% of the GDP), massive deficit next year (10% of GDP), and reeling economy, the new spending and taxes pose a real threat.

One interesting argument for these proposals is by Peter Singer. He argues that these reforms will involve intelligent rationing rather than the haphazard rationing that occurs today. Singer argues that health care is a scarce resource and like all resources it is rationed. In the U.S., he argues this is done by price. That is, you get what you or your employer can afford to pay for. He argues that in the public sector, specifically Medicare, Medicaid, and hospital emergency rooms, rationing is done by long waits, high copayment requirements, and low payments to doctors and hospitals, which discourage some of them from serving public patients. Singer argues that this haphazard way of rationing is too expensive and lowers the overall quality of health care by concentrating too much spending on less important cases.

Government rationing involves the government refusing to pay for inefficient treatments. Singer notes that last year in Great Britain for example, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) set a limit of $49,000 on the cost of extending life for a year. This prevents it from spending money on drugs that cost too much. He uses the example of Sutent, a drug that extends life for those with advanced kidney cancer for six months and costs $54,000.

Singer argues that the government already is engaged in trading off lives for other values and that this is no different. For example, he notes, in the U.S. the Department of Transportation does not recommend safety measures that cost more than $5.8 million per life. Similarly, the Consumer Product Safety Commission uses a $5 million per life figure in deciding what consumer protections to require. Others argue that because there a multiple good things in life and we can’t escape the need to make trade-offs. Life is one of those good things. For example, lowering the speed limit to 50 mph or keeping the blood-alcohol content level to the (current) 0.08% might save lives, but it does so at the expense of pleasure, liberty, and wealth. For example, the speed limit would increase driving time and decrease the efficient movement of goods. The alcohol-content law increases incarceration and police intrusion.

Singer argues that rationing need not prevent someone from spending their own money on inefficient treatment. Some countries (for example, Australia) permit people to purchase private insurance to supplement public plans.

One problem with government rationing is that some countries do not allow for private options. A single-payer system requires all healthcare to be paid for by the government and does not allow a private option. Under such a system, for most people, government rationing would be the final word on who lives, dies, or gets what treatment. Thus, the system could deny lifesaving surgery to the elderly or surgery to those who suffer from an array of health problems. The idea of government bureaucrats or our crass Congress making these life-and-death decisions is troubling. Singer would likely respond that such rationing occurs anyway and at least this way it would be done in a rational manner.

A second problem with government rationing is that in general the government tends to make things worse. It seems clear that if the government produced and distributed food, computers, and cars, prices would go up and quality would go down. It is not clear why we should think that healthcare is different. Singer might respond here by citing the international comparisons mentioned above.

He might also argue that healthcare is a different sort of good and hence less appropriate for market forces. Following Princeton economist Paul Krugman, he might note two differences between healthcare and consumer goods. First, unlike consumer goods, healthcare involves extreme costs (for example, bypass surgery is very expensive) and must be done via insurance. Second, unlike consumer goods, healthcare purchases do not allow for experience or comparison shopping (for example, it is not clear how one compares doctors). I find the Krugman responses unconvincing, but many would disagree.

A third problem with government rationing is that there is a strong concern about liberty. The government already pays just less than half of all healthcare costs. Once it begins to pay a much larger figure, the costs can be used to justify a wide range of restrictions. The government might restrict what people eat, drink, and smoke, how often they drive, what recreational activities they engage in, etc. It might also involve the government collecting sensitive information on all of us in order to drive down costs. Singer would likely respond that if we are worried about liberty, then we should act to protect it rather than letting concerns about liberty bleed over into other areas.

I’m skeptical of government healthcare. Still, it is an interesting issue how government rationing stacks up against market rationing and whether the current hybrid system (roughly 50% government and 50% private) is serving us well.