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Thomas Rekdal
Seattle
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Am I the only one perplexed by these postings? Becker I can follow and more or less agree with, but Posner mystifies me. He says that the "net benefits" favor decriminalization of the drug, but does not think it follows from this that a federal law to that effect would be a good idea. So it is a good idea to enforce federal law against the policy of two states that allow recreational use, and attempt to stop the unstoppable use of the drug? I don't get it. I also have no idea what Jack is talking about.
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Jack, I could not agree more that "the market" regularly fails to "internalize" all of the costs its "externalities" generate. My skepticism about streamlining governmental structures to deal with them is not based upon faith in any outcomes "the market" produces, but lack of faith in what we know. What we know is very little; what we can screw up is very large. The bigger the government, the bigger the mess. As Mark Twain once said, it ain't what you know that gets you in trouble; it's what you think you know that ain't so. The question you raise about the working poor and the long-term unemployed does bother me a good deal. My crystal ball is especially cloudy here, because I have no idea where technology and globalization will take us. If we really are headed to a future in which a tiny fraction of the population produce most of the goods and services, leaving the rest of us as superfluous consumers, some sort of tax-supported basic income does seem to be inevitable. Posner hinted at this in an earlier post about Bismarck's welfare state policies. I would not expect this to come about without a lot of social disruption, but I am rather complacent about that as well.
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Whether the American nation is ungovernable depends, I suppose, on what you want the government to accomplish. If your expectations include a more "equal" distribution of wealth, a more "rational" tax code, a more "efficient" regulation of the economy, and a more "scientific" approach to climate control, then, yes, the structure of American government makes it highly likely that it will produce a nation "ungovernable" in all these respects. On the other hand, if you believe that the scope of what we know is very small, and the range of unintended adverse consequences very large, an "ungovernable" nation may be exactly the ticket. The only generalization most of us could probably agree upon is that the more tasks government undertakes, the more interests will be mobilized to affect the outcome, and the more dismaying the ensuing outcome is likely to be.
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Neilehat: OK, I acknowledge my failure to recognize in Buttfet and Gates as the modern exemplars of the "Gospel of Wealth." But I am still inclined to believe that the nobility of Carnegie's intentions were defeated by technology, not the machinations of those who manipulate the tax code. (What more can you expect from the mentally deficient?)
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Jack, thanks for your elaboration. You do convince me (if I needed it) that social mobility in America stinks. I am just not sure what to do about it. I do, however, fully share your skepticism about promoting meritocracy. It seems to me that the market is doing the job well enough. I do not understand why "merit" consists in providing ever more convenient ways for inane people to communicate their inane thoughts with other inane people, but there is no doubt that those who are good at this are getting very, very rich. Upward and Onward. Neilehat puzzles me with his observation that our modern stars of philanthropy (such as Buffet and Gates) cannot begin to compare with such Gilded Age saints as Andrew Carnegie (and maybe Milton Hershey?), who gave us the seeds of so many public libraries, most of which are now mausoleums of a dead technology. Sic transit Gloria mundi. The consequences of the Gates and Buffet gifts are yet to be determined, but at least they will save a lot on estate taxes.
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Jack, I post to assert the modesty of what we know--with respect to social mobility and the effects of economic inequality. Nothing Posner has said so far moves the needle, so far as I can see. Please focus more in your responses, or tell me what you are drinking. One of us is having too much fun.
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I don't think we have the slightest idea how to stir the ambitions and develop the talents of people in the bottom fifth of the income distribution. But taxing the rich to increase the dependency of the poor seems to me to be least plausible suggestion yet. Better, perhaps, to decrease the amount of social blather encouraging the false belief that wealthy people are responsible for keeping everyone else "down." But then the First Amendment stands in the way of that. It may be worth reflecting, instead, on the fact that people living on $34,000 a year are already in the 1%, if the relevant population is the entire world, not just the U.S.
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I find it amazing that most of the commenters to this thread do not question Judge Posner's original assumption that there are "no social benefits from partisan gerrymandering." Of course there are! The social benefit is that you will make it more likely that the good guys will win. Isn't that the whole purpose of a governmental design? Ah, but the reply will be, how can you be sure that the gerrymander will favor the good guys? Well, you can't. That is the whole point of the American system. As Madison explains in the 51st number of the Federalist, "In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit." Republican government requires that all offices be directly or indirectly accountable to the people. It does not preclude gerrymanders at one level or another. On the contrary, the more "different modes of election and different principles of action" come into play, the better.
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Phillip Helbig is a man after my own heart. He focuses on one issue--the representative system that would most faithfully reflect the current state of public opinion, and finds proportional representation far, far, far better than anything else. If that is the one thing needful, of course he is right. I, on the other hand, tend to worry about other things. In particular, keeping demagogues and redistributionists out of my wallet. Old Sarum and the property qualification hold a special place in my heart, but, alas, those days are gone forever. So I shall take the single member district as my consolation prize, and if a little gerrymandering can be sprinkled on top, so much the better.
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Terry, what you are defending is a version of proportional representation, which, as I suggested in an earlier comment, is a better way to "maximize the utility" of voter preferences (to borrow Posner's terms) than single-member districts. But the chief virtue of PR is also its chief drawback. If you think the country suffers from political paralysis now, just wait until every nuance of the left-right spectrum is reflected in the House of Representatives. Eventually, some constellation of interests must govern. I think this is more likely to happen in a winner-take-all single member district system. But even that is no guarantee, as you can see from the daily news.
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NexLex is surely right on the constitutional point about expanding the House of Representatives. There is nothing in the Constitution to prohibit the Congress from doing this by ordinary legislation. But there is surely a practical limit on the size of a legislative assembly we should create. The larger the body, the more power gravitates to those who control its agenda. I would be opposed to further expansion on that ground alone.
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Ethnic gerrymandering will either expand or contract their representation depending on the size of that population and its distribution throughout the state. Concentrating a large ethnic population in as few districts as possible will minimize their representation. On the other hand, concentrating a small ethnic population will expand their influence by guarantying them at least some representation. The same is true of partisan gerrymandering. Having a computer design districts will not eliminate these consequences; it merely makes it more likely that no one crafted them. The only way to "maximize the utility" of voter preferences in the sense that Judge Posner has in mind would be to adopt some system of proportional representation. But the advantages of that system over single-member districts is not obvious enough to make the effort worthwhile, particularly if the change is to come about through five members of the U.S. Supreme Court rather than a constitutional amendment.
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Whether or not technological automation will lead to any of the consequences Judge Posner suggests are possible, I find it difficult to work myself into a mood of pessimism over the prospect. We will be able to produce more goods and services with less work, reduce consumption, inflict less damage on the planet, and enable gobs of free time for the ordinary individual? This sounds to me a lot like the communist utopia outlined by Karl Marx in a familiar passage from "The German Ideology": "For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic and must remain so if he does not wish to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic." If we can have all of this through technology rather than the communist revolution, I say bring it on!
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Jim Kirby: Where is the Nietzschean well advised to turn today? I am a mediocrity seeking alternatives, so the same advice may not apply. Still, I am looking for options.
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As one who still yearns for the Old Time Religion, as defended by Terry Bennett, I am more than sympathetic to his claim that economic inequality is much more a problem in morality than positive economics. The undertone of moral outrage in Jack's comments seems to me only to confirm this. Jack's contention, as I understand it, is not that it would be a good idea to rob Peter to pay Paul, but rather that Peter has exploited his initial advantages too much in acquiring the wealth he has. Corrective justice is not the same as theft. Try though I will, I cannot entirely account for the wealth gap between me and the 1% on Jack's basis. My own lack of imagination and industry, unfortunately, play too prominent a role to indulge the consolation. In so far as this is true, is the wealth gap really unfair, or even unfortunate? It might be, if the attributes that make one man more successful than another are entirely arbitrary from a moral point of view. If it is entirely a matter of genes and moral luck, perhaps it is more important to find ways of blunting the sources of social conflict than to sort out the bases of moral desert. This is how I read the efforts of Posner and others to design tax policies that skirt the moral issues in favor of Bismarckian welfare solutions that might blunt the resentments of the unproductive without damaging the industry of the industrious. An ideal tax policy would make it somewhat unclear as to who is exploiting whom. Through ambiguity lies the path to social harmony. Frankly, I find this ambition noble. I am just not convinced it will work.
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So we are back to Bismark. The best argument for redistributing more income from the rich to the poor is not, after all, that it would make society more just, but that it would keep the lower orders more quiet. Not so many unions, radical parties, and Occupy demonstrations to interfere with economic efficiency. The ever shrinking segment of our population able to find interesting and remunerative work will be too distracted by the fascinating challenges they face to notice the increasing portion of their income syphoned off by the unproductive. The latter, freed from economic necessity and the stigma of being economically superfluous (if that is possible), will devote themselves to ever more creative and harmless ways to escape boredom. Will this arrangement really work? I do not know, but it may not be such a bad bargain, if it does, and I am more and more inclined to believe it is the direction in which we are moving.
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I could not agree more with Terry Bennett's comment that our problem is primarily cultural. (I would prefer to call it moral, but that is a minor quibble.) Something fundamental shifted in the 1930s, not merely here but in most of the democratic world. We no longer hold public debt or individual expectations of public support in the same disdain. I am inclined to think that the change is irreversible. We can all think of measures that might stave off disaster--Judge Posner has suggested them from time to time, means-testing being the most obvious--but none of them are politically feasible. The most likely outcome is some sort of inter-generational warfare. How long can people under 40 remain content with a working life dedicated to the support of old people? I have no idea.
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I will leave the empirical consequences of the minimum wage to economists. They never seem to reach any definitive conclusions and I am not convinced that they find other than what they were seeking to confirm what they already believe. The moral aspects of this dispute are more interesting to me, and Terry Bennett has framed the question in exactly the right way. Insofar as the minimum wage requires employers to pay more for the labor they hire than its economic value to them, it is a discriminatory tax. Why should business owners who exploit, but did not create, the problem of underpaid workers be required to pay the costs of complying with someone else's ideals of social justice? Judge Posner makes the interesting suggestion that a modestly higher minimum wage may induce more people to seek productive work (thus reducing our tax burden) and induce more employers to invest in their employees (thus making them more productive). Well, maybe. But this is surely a highly inefficient and unfair way to go about it. Employers who have not already thought of this strategy probably cannot be coerced into it. Should we reduce homelessness by requiring existing homeowners to take them in without charge? After all, few homeowners will go broke as result of the imposition, and they may have an uplifting influence on the characters of their new residents. Are these considerations sufficient to outweigh the unfairness of singling out just one segment of the population for the imposition? Why does not the same logic apply to the minimum wage dispute?
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In this post Judge Posner continues the pursuit of one of the more interesting themes he has opened up, one that is very reminiscent of some ideas that the psychologist Richard Herrnstein was developing near his death. If IQ is one of the principal drivers of economic success (as seems likely), and IQ is largely heritable (which also seems to be the case), with the remaining portion of IQ contributed by family structures more or less guaranteed by assortative mating (also plausible), are we not drifting toward a social hierarchy which, unlike the French aristocracy of the 18th century, is based upon real merit? But this would be a "natural aristocracy" very different from the one hoped for by Jefferson. Rather than arising from talents in every class, developed by education, it would be more like the social class satirized by Michael Young in "The Rise of the Meritocracy," or demonized by Alistair Huxley in "Brave New World." As one of the "deltas," I am not sure what to make of this prediction. Like any aristocracy, I would expect this new one, if it develops, to seek to preserve its advantages in various legal and institutional ways. Unlike Posner, I do not see how the tax code could be manipulated to mitigate this, or whence the incentive to attempt it could arise.
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Amending the law is one thing, "coercing" those who have the power to amend it is another. So long as the House of Representatives is acting within the scope of its constitutional powers, the fact that other institutions of government may find the exercise of that leverage "coercive" hardly demonstrates its unconstitutionality. As for "the spirit of the Constitution," if this phrase means something, it must surely reflect an intention not to enable one faction to fasten an unpopular policy on an unwilling nation. Regardless of its wisdom, the House GOP is certainly attempting to live within that "spirit."
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Judge Posner is probably right that long-range spending forecasts (or, for that matter, any forecasts) are largely exercises in futility. Still, the basic problem has been clear enough for some time. As every Congressional Budget Office prognostication has confirmed, we have promised way, way more to seniors than we can possibly deliver. If one believes in "government by reflection and choice," as one of the Federalist authors put it, there may still be time to do something about this. I don't. We will go broke. Death, as they say, is nature's way of telling you to slow down.
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So it has come to this. We will not drown our children in the Tiber, as the Romans did, we will merely discourage childbirth by depriving children of early childhood education and nutrition, so that they may grow up to be social misfits and criminals. This will allow greater scope for "equally valid interests," such as buying Porsches and travel. I have never thought of myself as a Roman Catholic, but maybe they have a point.
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This is Judge Posner's most persuasive post in many weeks. While I would enthusiastically vote for all of the recommendations he offers in the tiny concluding paragraph, I am even more pessimistic than he about their effects. What is desperately needed is a social economy founded upon a great diversity of crafts and practices which all contribute in some small way to the common good. Mastery of each craft should be open to different levels of talent, but would require a life-time of effort to master. The effort to master them would give meaning to one's life, an acceptable standard of living, and require the exercise of qualities of character that nearly all would acknowledge to be virtues. Yet how do we move to such a society from one founded upon technologies which "creatively destroy" each other every two or three years? This is a problem that has been recognized at least since Marx, but no one can solve. Only crackpots and tyrants have even made the attempt.
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With all due respect, I think both Becker and Posner are dealing with trivialities. Not a word from either on PRISM, the NSA surveillance scheme, the legal implications of Snowden's actions, the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the undermining of state initiatives through the standing rules outlined in Hollingsworth v. Perry, or the political and legal implications of the DOMA decision. Yes, as a federal judge, I am sure Judge Posner is under certain restrictions upon what he can and cannot saw about contemporary decisions. But are these restrictions not dependent upon a context in which the Supreme Court rarely and reluctantly reaches constitutional questions? Why should we not have the benefit of Posner's thought in a world where all sorts of political agendas are openly on display?
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In the fantasy spirit of nominating federal tax deductions that ought to go, I suggest we get rid of any deductions for state and local taxes. Why should the taxpayers of one state subsidize the profligate governments of any others?
Toggle Commented Jun 17, 2013 on Tax Reform—Posner at The Becker-Posner Blog
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