Friday, 2 December 2016

An Object Lesson in Critical Thinking

     We are awash in a sea of ignorant nonsense and insidious propaganda, thanks in no small part to social media and the ease with which we can share any attention-grabbing meme that crosses our path. Pedantic spoilsports like me can try patiently to debunk them, one by one, but in the long run the most important defence will always be the critical thinking capacity of the audience. We need to learn how to read intelligently, so we won't be as easily taken in by ridiculous claims. To that end, I'd like to walk you through a particularly silly chain letter that's come across my feed at least a dozen times over the last few years. I want to show one approach to recognizing its nonsense by drawing on really very basic background knowledge and applying it.

     Here's the specimen:

     I'll type in the text directly, so people googling for it can find it here.

GOOD LUCK EVERYONE !!! This year December has 5 Mondays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This Happens once every 823 years. This is called money bags. So share it and money will arrive within 4 days. Based on Chinese Feng Shui. The one who does not share, will be without money. Share within 11 minutes of reading. Can't hurt so I did it. JUST FOR FUN.

(Not gonna type in the Facebook URL. If you really want to reward the purveyors of such nonsense, type it in yourself.)

     So, there are a few questions that are good to keep in mind while considering, well, anything anyone tries to tell you, ever.

(1) Who is telling me this and why?
(2) How do they know what they're telling me?
(3) Is it logically consistent with itself?
(4) Is it consistent with other things I know?

     These questions aren't the only or best ones to ask, but they are helpful. So let's try to apply them to the meme.

(1) Who is telling me this and why?
     This is actually a pretty difficult question with memes in general, because the person who shared it with you is rarely the original author, although by sharing it you can assume they're at least endorsing the contents to some extent. But this one in particular is especially tricky, because it is explicitly self-referential. It talks about what will happen if you share it and what will happen if you don't, and specifies how long it will take for the money to arrive and how quickly you must send it out. It even explicitly says "Can't hurt so I did it". Did what? Forwarded the meme you just received? But then the "I" here doesn't refer to the original author, but the most recent forwarder.
     So who is actually making these claims, that there this is based on Chinese Feng Shui or that it only happens every 823 years or that I'll receive money if I share it? Maybe the owner of the Facebook page referred to at the bottom, but probably not even them, given how many such pages repurpose and resend this kind of thing.
     There's no obvious way to track down the original author, but we can consider a couple of likely motives, based on the content.
     Maybe they believe it, and want to send good luck to everyone?
     Maybe they want to compile a list of suckers who respond to chain letters?
     Maybe, as they say, they really are doing it "JUST FOR FUN"? (Personally, I fail to see the fun in it, but I am, after all, a pedantic spoilsport.)

(2) How do they know what they're telling me?
     This is only an issue if you think they believe it and want to send good luck to everyone. As far as the your friend who shared it is concerned, they "know" it only because they received a chain letter telling them all this stuff; in other words, they are in exactly the same epistemic position you are, since you've received the same chain letter. So how do you know this letter is true? You don't, and neither did the person who forwarded it to you, so you cannot rely on your friend's testimony.
     But the problem gets worse as you look deeper. How did the original author know any of this stuff? They're claiming that you'll receive money within four days, if you send it out within 11 minutes. They couldn't know this by experimentation and observation of how long it takes people to reply and which ones ended up rich or penniless, because that data could only have been obtained after they sent out the chain letter, and that would make this a different letter from the first one they sent out. I suppose we could imagine some powerful wizard or psychohistorian, learned in the arcane rules that govern mystical runes of luck magic, might derive a text from some formula and confidently predict that this particular text will produce these effects. If you think that's plausible, then maybe you might want to forward that chain letter promptly, but I think it's reasonable to expect a little more evidence before just inventing such a bizarre claim and assuming it to be true.

(3) Is it logically consistent with itself?
     All by itself, it's not obviously self-contradictory, except for the bit where it says, "Can't hurt so I did it." But it also says "The one who does not share, will be without money." And it promises that if you do share, you'll receive money, so clearly it is claiming to have some kind of power to benefit or harm people, depending on whether or not they share it. So which is it? Can it hurt, or not?
     Alternatively, the "Can't hurt" may only refer to how it can't hurt if you comply within 11 minutes, but it can mess you up bad if you ignore it. So it's not necessarily self-contradictory. But it doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence.

(4) Is it consistent with other things I know?
     Here's where we'll differ; we know different things. But this chain letter is inconsistent with some things that pretty much everybody knows, although it takes a bit of analysis to see this.
     First, a quick look at the calendar will show that, in fact, December 2016 only has four Sundays and four Mondays. The chain letter is simply wrong about "this year", but perhaps it was written for a different year and is just still in circulation. (I googled for the phrase "Saturday, December 1" and quickly learned that there was such a Saturday in 2012.)
     Second, it stands to reason that for a 31 day month like December to have five Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, December 1 must fall on a Saturday. There are only seven days of the week to choose from, so unless there's some complicated math involved, you'd expect a "money bags" December every seven years or so, not every 823 years. But maybe leap years mess it up somehow?
     So let's think about that a bit. There are 7 possible regular years, one starting on each day of the week. And then another 7 for leap years, for a total possible 14 unique calendars. Since a leap year comes every four years, it would take 28 years to cycle through all 7 available leap years, and then that same cycle would repeat exactly, during which time there would be several regular years that also had a "money bags" December.
     Yet the chain letter tells us it happens only once every 823 years? That's just not consistent with what every school kid knows about the Gregorian calendar. Unless I've done my math wrong, it just seems plain flat out wrong, and quite ridiculously so.

     There's more, of course. "Based on Chinese Feng Shui." Really? I am no expert on Feng Shui, but I've got some exposure to Chinese culture, and as I understand it, Feng Shui is a set of principles for arranging furniture and architecture and the like in harmonious ways. Some talk about it as channelling good luck energy, but others say it's just about aesthetics and ergonomics. In any event, I don't see how it relates to calendars, and what's more, the traditional Chinese calendar is lunar, and doesn't involve 31-day months called "December" at all. I suppose it's possible some Feng Shui specialist applied their theory to our western Gregorian calendar and came up with this "money bags stuff", but it seems more likely to me that some nitwit who knows even less about it than I do decided to lend false authority to their ridiculous chain letter by referencing Mysterious Secrets of the Inscrutable Orient.

     I know the chain letter says "JUST FOR FUN", and I hate to be a spoilsport, but this is getting to be pretty serious. There's a lot of really, really stupid and dangerous stuff circulating right now, and people are making dangerous decisions based on it. Good, independent critical thinking habits must be practiced and cultivated until they become natural and instinctive. Conversely, every time you uncritically click "Share" on something like this, you're actually practicing and reinforcing bad habits of gullibility, and you're encouraging other people to do the same.


Wednesday, 16 November 2016

More Anti-vax Illiteracy

Here's another piece of nonsense to take apart, a dire warning of the horrible contents of the flu vaccine.

     For the sake of the search engines, the image lists "Thimerosal (mercury), hydrocortisone, cetyltrimethylammonium bromide, polysorbate 20, polysorbate 80, baculovirus, and cellular DNA, beta propiolactone, gelatin, sodium deoxycholate, canine kidney cell proten and DNA, Triton C-100, egg protein, gentamicin sulfate, formaldehyde, neomycin, and more..."

     Before I get to that list of supposedly terrifying ingredients, I just want to address the last line: "If you wouldn't consume it, why inject it?" Because seriously, that's an incredibly stupid argument. There's a whole lot of medicines that are meant to be swallowed, and a whole lot of medicines that are meant to be injected, because they work in various different ways. Some things need to go directly into the blood stream, because your stomach acids and digestive enzymes will destroy them before they can get where they're supposed to go. (And some things, like flu vaccines, aren't even meant to be injected into the bloodstream directly; they're injected intramuscularly, because your immune system is well-adapted to responding to bad stuff that gets just under your skin through a splinter or other injury.)
     There are things you should eat that you shouldn't inject, and things you should inject that you shouldn't eat. This is just a ridiculous argument, and should make you question the wisdom of the author of the whole thing.

     The main argument isn't much better: it boils down to "You don't know what these chemicals are, so you'd better not consume them in anyway!" Which sounds sensible, except that unless you're a biochemist you probably don't know the names of more than two or three of the thousands of chemical compounds that make up even the healthiest food you eat.
     That's not to say that all of these chemicals are perfectly safe. They're not. But every chemical, even water, can be poisonous if the dosage is high enough. And if the dose is small enough, almost every chemical is harmless. (For a relatively few very very dangerous chemicals, a small enough dose means none at all, but that's not the case for the items on the list of ingredients above. They're included in the flu vaccine for very good reasons, and in tiny enough quantities that you're still probably better off getting the shot and being protected from the virus.)

     Anyway, the meme assumes you probably won't look up most of these chemicals, and will just assume they must be really bad. So let's look at each of them.

Thimerosal, also known as thiomersol and Merthiolate, is used to kill bacteria and fungus that might get into the vaccine. This is really important, because accidentally injecting live Staphylococcus bacteria into your arm can kill you. So a small amount of thimerosal used to be added to vaccines to prevent that. Yeah, there's mercury in it, but it's in a relatively inert form, and in any event is in such tiny quantities as not to pose a realistic danger. In any event, they've phased it out in favour of other equally scary disinfectants, because people were so scared of mercury.

Hydrocortisone is what they call cortisol when it's used as a medicine, and is on the WHO's list of the most important medicines needed in a basic health system. What's cortisol? It's a hormone which is naturally produced in the human body by the adrenal gland. So don't think that by avoiding the flu vaccine, you're able to avoid this chemical because there's already some in you right now!

Cetyl trymethylammonium bromide is a surfactant used in isolating nanoparticles, like for instance virus components. My guess is it's used in making the vaccine, and isn't actually an ingredient in the final product, but even if any remains, it's again in such a tiny quantity as to be essentially harmless.

Polysorbate 20 and Polysorbate 80 are also surfactants, widely used in many food and cosmetic products. So yeah, you would consume it, because you probably already do.

Baculoviruses do not infect mammals, which is why they're useful in research. I don't know what role they play in flu vaccines, but it seems to me likely whoever created this meme just included anything scary-sounding that might have been used at any point during the development of a vaccine. By the way, you are a mammal.

Cellular DNA? Like, how is this even scary? There are no foods we eat that don't contain DNA!

Beta-propiolactone has been used to sterilize vaccines, but appears to have been phased out for this use. It's mainly used now in the synthesis of other compounds.

Gelatin. Uh, yeah, that's something I'd consume, actually. Gelatin is the protein that makes Jell-o gel, and is used in lots of other delicious edibles. Didn't know it was in vaccines, but I am not in the least bit concerned to learn that it might be.

Sodium deoxycholate is a product of intestinal bacteria. I don't know exactly why it would be used in making vaccines (probably they have a reason, and don't just toss it in for fun), and I probably wouldn't go out of my way to deliberately consume it myself, but I figure if my body can't deal with it, I'm already dead.

Canine kidney cell protein and DNA. Oh. More DNA. Not sure how exactly this got into a vaccine, but okay. Possibly they use cultured dog kidney cells to grow the flu virus particles they use to make the vaccine. In any event, kidneys of various animals are commonly used in cooking various dishes which are cheerfully eaten by people who don't get sick as a result. Might sound gross, but so is anything biological if you look closely enough. Fear not.

Triton X-100: Another surfactant. My guess is that it helps the vaccine get through cell membranes to where it can trigger the immune response against the influenza virus.

Egg protein: Egg protein? Egg protein?! Look, I get that some people are allergic to eggs, and some people just don't like omelets, but seriously, you took the time to list "egg protein" as a scary ingredient that "you wouldn't consume" and a reason not to get vaccinated? This single item should be more than enough to convince any reader that the author of this meme is too breathtakingly ignorant of basic facts of human existence to be taken seriously.

Gentamicin sulfate: Gentamicin is an antibiotic, or if you don't know what that means, it's a chemical that is poisonous to some kinds of bacteria. As I mentioned with the first entry for thimerosal, it's pretty important to ensure that there aren't any infectious bacteria in your vaccines.

Formaldehyde: This is a pretty nasty chemical, I'll admit. You've probably heard of it in the context of dead animals or body parts being preserved in jars of it. But here's the thing: it's a really simple molecule, CH2O. It's what you get when an oxygen atom replaces two of the hydrogen atoms in a molecule of methane. And so, it's everywhere. Astronomers have detected it in clouds of interstellar gas. It's not good for you, but it's also a byproduct of some of your own bodily functions, and your body has ways to metabolize it in ordinary quantities. Obviously you wouldn't want to drink a glass of it, but the microscopically tiny amount in a flu vaccine is less than the amount you'd get eating an apple.

Neomycin: Another antibiotic. In researching this post, I read that it is used topically (rubbed onto the skin) rather than injected, because it's really bad for your kidneys. But it is still used as a preservative in vaccines, probably because the dose is so small. Also, because vaccines are injected intramuscularly instead of into a vein, they stay in the muscle tissue for a while and diffuse out slowly, so the neomycin may be largely broken down before it even gets to the kidneys.

     Look. Medicines aren't magic healing potions. They're complicated mixtures of different chemicals, carefully included to perform all the functions necessary to produce the desired therapeutic effect. They get into your system and press buttons and flip switches and adjust dials and tinker with various settings to try to fix whatever it is that's wrong with you. Most of the time, if you're healthy, you don't want to tinker with any of these settings, so as a general rule the stuff you'll find in any medicine is probably not very good for you. That's to be expected.
     But pharmacologists include these ingredients for a reason, and while they're not perfect, they know more about what they're doing than ignorant meme-makers who want you to be scared of eating eggs. Vaccines are one of the most successful healthcare innovations ever developed. They're why so few people die of infectious disease anymore.
     You may have legitimate doubts about how important it is to have this or that vaccination, based on the risks of actual infection and so on, and you might reasonably decide against the flu shot. (I think that's a mistake, because influenza has killed millions in the past and is not much less dangerous today, and also I think you have a moral responsibility to help with herd immunity so you don't infect more vulnerable people when you decide to brave your way through a minor inconvenience.)
     But do not let this kind of inane nonsense scare you out of taking good, safe medicine that does much more good than harm. Make an informed rational choice, and if you don't know what Cetyl trymethylammonium bromide is, admit that you are not informed about it instead of just blindly assuming your family doctor is trying to poison you with it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

On Speaking Up and Being a Jerk

     In my last year of high school, I was taking a social studies quiz when the teacher happened to leave the room. Across the classroom from me, a fellow got up and stole over to the teacher’s desk, and copied down the answers from the answer key left right there in the open. Disgusted, I rolled my eyes and kept working on the test, as several other students followed the first guy’s lead, and got up to copy the answers. Pathetic, I thought, because the questions were not actually very hard. In fact, I was pretty sure I knew all of them. But none of my business if those guys wanted to cheat, right?
     As it happened, the next time the class met, the teacher had got wind of what had happened, and angrily lectured the entire class, singling out each of us who had got 100%, which in fact I had, though I had done so honestly. (I do not remember for certain if the first guy was ever singled out, though I vaguely recall thinking he had not. I later heard a rumour that he himself had told the teacher on the other students, but I have no way of knowing if this is true.)
     I was young and naive and had not yet sorted out in my head the moral question of snitching, so I kept my mouth shut, as furious as I was about the insult to my integrity and my intelligence. It was bad enough to be accused of cheating, but if I had cheated, I would not have been so foolish as to copy all of the answers; I’d have deliberately missed one, just to allay suspicion. (Indeed, had I been craftier, even not cheating but knowing that others were, I should have deliberately missed one question anyway. And now, thinking back on it, it seems plausible to me that’s exactly what the first cheater did, deliberately missing a question and then turning in everyone else.)
     Of course, the teacher had no way to prove who had cheated and who hadn’t, and the ridiculous omertá of the student body ensured he’d get no help from us, so he just canceled the entire test. 

     I have thought back on this many times, rehearsing in my head what I should have said when the teacher levelled his accusatory gaze at me. I have imagined a dozen different ways I could have redeemed my honour with and without directly naming names. But I now realize that my real should-have-spoken-up moment was when that first cheater started. I should have called him out at that moment, and warned him that he should not rely on the rest of us keeping quiet to protect him from cheating us.
     But I didn’t. I didn’t want to look like the jerk. And so I let him, and the others, get away with it. Very much at my own expense. It still makes me angry when I think of that. 

     The lessons I learned, and have to keep learning, are that there's a big difference between looking like the jerk and being the jerk. And that it's very, very important to speak up earlier, rather than later, when someone else is being a jerk. Too often, we keep quiet just to keep the peace, to be "polite", or because we figure something is just not our problem. 

     I often feel like a mansplaining jerk, piping up with "Well, actually..." when some harmfully wrong post comes across my feed. But I feel obliged to do it, because when these things go unanswered, it's like a tacit endorsement that they're okay. And there's a lot of harmfully wrong nonsense circulating around now, becoming the common wisdom because gosh, everyone says so. 
    I don't pipe up because I want to be taken as an authority, correcting falsehoods and dispensing The Truth. I try to get the facts right as best I can, but I know I can be mistaken, and I try to accept it graciously when someone corrects me. No, the reason I try to speak up is much smaller than that. I don't care if people are convinced by what I say; I just want them to know it's okay to disagree. I know it's scary to be the first to speak up when no one else is. 

     But it's scarier when no one speaks up at all.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Strategic Voting and the Lesser Evil

     I just spent an hour or two toiling over a blog post about voting for the lesser evil, always with the feeling that I was somehow repeating myself, and of course, I was. I'd already written this piece last year.
     But I still want to say something about the impending U.S. election. I've been hearing a lot from people who say they cannot bring themselves to vote for either major candidate, and who intend to either stay home, write in someone who's not on the ballot, or vote for one of the third party candidates. Pragmatically, I don't think any of these are good choices.

     Staying home and not voting at all is defensible only if you're truly indifferent as to the outcome. As I argued in the link above, declining to vote is not choosing "none of the above", but "any of the above", and if there's even one candidate you think is ever so slightly better than the others, you should vote for them. Or, if there's one candidate who's significantly worse, then you should vote for the candidate with the best chance of defeating them. But you cannot wash your hands of responsibility for who wins by declining to vote.

     Writing in a candidate who's not on the ballot is, I suppose, a way to register one's displeasure with the official candidates, but having worked several elections (albeit in Canada, not the U.S.), I can tell you that the people staying up late to count the ballots by hand are a poor audience for such a gesture. And the candidate who eventually does win is unlikely ever to know of, let alone be moved by your symbolic rebuke. In pragmatic terms, this is equivalent to not voting at all.

     And this leaves us with the third party candidates. The U.S. is essentially a two-party system, which usually makes the choice relatively straightforward: choose the candidate you prefer, and whoever gets the most votes is logically the one preferred by a majority of voters. But in Canada, we have a parliamentary system in which there are usually at least three major parties realistically vying for seats. (At present, there are MPs from the Liberals, the Conservatives, the NDP, the Greens, the Bloc Québécois, and an independent.) This means that we Canadians don't always get to just choose our favorite; sometimes, if there's a candidate we really detest, we may need to vote for whichever candidate has the best chance of defeating them, even if that means not voting for our first choice. We call this "strategic voting".
     Strategic voting is kind of controversial because it unfortunately reinforces the disadvantage faced by less established parties. You can only win an election if enough people vote for you, but if nobody will vote for you until they are confident someone else will, you're stuck. So it's very difficult to break into the game until you've already broken into it.
     I am not fond of strategic voting, which is why I'd like to see Canada adopt a preferential ballot system; I'd like to be able to rank the candidates in my order of preference. But I'm also a realist; I recognize that the very nature of democracy is compromise. None of us gets everything we want, but the democratic process is a way of ensuring that most of us get some of what we want without having to kill each other.
     And so on occasion I have voted strategically, settling for my second choice in order to defeat the party I thought most needed to be defeated. I felt a bit icky about it, but as they say, freedom isn't free. Sometimes you do need to make sacrifices and compromises in order to preserve what's important. By holding out for all of what you want, you risk losing everything, and while there is a glamourous romanticism of that kind of all-or-nothing bravado, it's worth noting that such fanaticism is often exactly what we detest in the other party's supporters. People can be passionately, uncompromisingly, devotedly wrong. Being reasonable starts with recognizing that.

     Whoever is elected President will have to struggle every day with difficult choices between imperfect alternatives. Do I implement this program, knowing that it will put some people out of business, or do I refuse to, knowing that it will leave some people unemployed? Do I authorize this military intervention, knowing innocent civilians may be killed, or do I refuse, knowing that innocent civilians are being killed? Why would anyone expect the decision of whom to entrust with these decisions to leave your hands any cleaner?

Sunday, 7 August 2016

An Invisible Inequality

     Yesterday I wrote and posted an essay about why the economics of bulk discounts provides some justification for progressive income tax rates, and a friend asked about how this seems to be the very opposite of the traditional justification cited, namely that it's less of a burden for a rich person to pay a 10% tax than it is for a poor person to pay 10%. The traditional argument is that a dollar is worth less to a rich person than to a poor person, and so we should prefer our government to take more of its tax dollars out of the pockets of rich people than the poor. So how can my argument, which is that marginal dollars are worth more to the rich, be consistent with this?
     It is confusing, to be sure, so confusing that I felt it necessary to write a whole new blog post to answer it, instead of simply replying to the original comment.

     The source of the confusion, though, is this: Although we naturally treat money and wealth as essentially interchangeable (because, hey, that's what money is for: to exchange for wealth), they are fundamentally different things. Money is ultimately a fiction, or to put it less subversively, a convention. It stands for value, but isn't itself intrinsically valuable; when you get a dollar in exchange for something, what you're really accepting is a promise to be able to exchange that dollar for something else of value later on. And that something of value, whatever it is, is what actual wealth is all about. To put it another way, money is potential wealth, not actual wealth.

     Now, let's look at the traditional argument for progressive income tax my friend was talking about. You can see that it is really about wealth, because it works just as well if we substitute, say, bread for money. For someone with a loaf of bread to give up half a loaf is much more of a burden than for someone with ten loaves to give up five loaves, because of the condition they're in afterwards. The first person will be pretty hungry with only half a loaf to eat, while the guy with five loaves will suffer only for a lack of variety.
     The argument still works pretty well if we talk about dollars instead of bread, because on an every day scale, we tend to think of prices as constant: 1 dollar buys one loaf, 5 dollars buys five loaves. And so on a practical level, this has been a pretty good argument for why progressive income tax is fairer than a flat tax. The error of equating money with wealth here does not create any immediate confusion, and so it goes unnoticed. But it is still an error, and it leads us into trouble when we move too far beyond the everyday scale, to consider the workings of the economy as a whole, which is what we have to do when we talk about tax policy.

     Remember what I said about money being a fiction? That becomes clearer when you look at the bigger picture. Money is a placeholder for credit/debt, a hydraulic fluid for trade. You trade your labour for food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, etc., but money lets you do it indirectly. So what's really happening in an economy is people making stuff (wealth) and trading it with each other. The wonderful thing about the free market is that, by allowing people to make their own decisions about what to buy and sell based on the prices that emerge from voluntary negotiations, we can collectively come up with extremely efficient allocations of resources, much more efficient than we could produce with some super-smart person deciding and directing everyone's efforts. If there isn't enough of some good being produced, the price will rise, and more people will start producing it. If there's too much, the price will drop.
     In theory,  you don't need money for a free market. In a barter economy, people would still be able to see that there's lots of demand for this and very little demand for that, and so people who chose to make something valuable would accumulate more wealth than those who didn't. Money just speeds up the process and makes it much easier to see where the demand lies. But it does something else, too: it introduces some dangerous distortions to the process.

     Thought experiment time. Imagine you have two identical workers, equally skilled and equally productive, and both commanding the same hourly rate for their work. The only difference is that one has worked very little this year, and the other has already earned a hundred thousand dollars. You need to hire one for an hour's work, and since you'll pay the same rate and get the same result whichever one you choose, you should be indifferent as to whom you hire. And that's sensible. Except remember my previous post on the economy of scale and bulk discounts. If you happen to hire the guy who's already earned a lot of money, you won't be paying any more, but he'll be getting a lot more buying power out of the dollars you give him. So, from a society-wide view, all of us collectively will be allocating more chocolate bars, more piano lessons, more whatever, to the already-rich guy than we would be if you gave the same money for the same work to the other guy.  In other words, they may be getting the same amount of money, but the richer worker will receive more wealth.
     Think about that for a moment. I mean, there's only so much wealth to go around at any given time, and as a society, we do want to make sure it's used efficiently. That's why we have a free market system, because it generally encourages people to invest resources in things that create more wealth rather than less. But here, in the thought experiment, the two workers are exactly equal in the amount of wealth they produce for the money they are paid, and yet they receive unequal distributions of wealth when they go to spend that money. That's inefficient, and it's an inefficiency that results entirely from our mistakenly equating money with wealth.

     Now, you as an employer cannot be expected to distinguish between the two workers here, and it's not your responsibility to decide what's best for society; you just need someone to do the work, and you'll pay whatever you are willing to pay whoever is willing to accept that price. You're in no position to figure out what real wealth that pay will buy for each of your prospective job applicants. And yet society does have a legitimate concern here; we want an efficient allocation of resources.
     A properly calibrated progressive income tax, however, can fix this. If we impose a tax that keeps the buying power of each earned dollar constant, then the dollars earned by rich and poor alike will be a more accurate reflection of the wealth that the market should allocate them for whatever it is they contribute.

     In other words, I'm proposing that free market capitalism can be made more efficient at producing wealth if we use taxes to correct for the distortions that money introduces into the system.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Bulk Discounts and Progressive Income Tax

     I've written before in defence of the idea of progressive income tax, and I'll probably be writing more on it in the future. Today I want to advance an argument based on the buying power of money, and how it changes in a non-linear way with the total amount of money you have. In particular, I'm going to make the counterintuitive claim that the millionth dollar you earn is, in a very real way, worth more than the first dollar you earn.
     I realize that sounds crazy. After all, one of the fundamental features of money is that its units are complete fungible: one dollar is exactly equal to every other dollar. If I borrow a twenty from you today, and pay you back with two tens tomorrow, it simply makes no sense to say I didn't pay you back the same dollars; dollars have no independent identity. (Note that I'm talking about the twenty as money, not as a distinct artifact. You can distinguish one twenty dollar bill from another, but you cannot distinguish the dollars they represent.) But bear with me here.
     And I also realize that my claim will sound odd because it seems to be the exact opposite of another argument frequently used to justify progressive income tax, the idea that to a poor person, a 10% tax might be an unbearable burden while it would be scarcely noticeable to a millionaire. A single dollar is more valuable to a person with little money than it is to a millionaire, not less. So what gives?

     Neither of these two points is actually inconsistent with the argument I'll be making here. Yes, one dollar is exactly interchangeable with every other dollar. And yes, one dollar is a much more significant sum to someone with few dollar than it is to someone with many. But my claim is that the buying power per dollar increases the more dollars you have.

     Consider the idea of the volume discount. Say you can buy a chocolate bar for a dollar at the convenience store. If you're just buying one at a time, the price is the same for the rich person as it is for the poor person, and yes, $1 = $1. But if you go to a supermarket, you can probably buy a family-pak of 8 for $6, and if you go to a wholesale club, you can get two dozen for $12. When you buy in bulk, your per-unit price drops, and reciprocally, the number of chocolate bars per dollar spent goes up.
     This doesn't only hold for chocolate bars. It applies to almost all commodities, and even most services, thanks to economies of scale. And even for unique items like rare antiques or works of art or real estate, it is usually cheaper to obtain them if you have a lot of money than if you have just barely enough, because of financing costs; service charges are often waived on bank accounts if you keep above a certain minimum balance.
     Note that whatever the good or service in question, the price of a volume discounted item is always measured in dollars. Carrots become individually less valuable in dollars, the more of them you have, and so do chickens and cell phones and gallons of gasoline. They may do so at different rates, so if you're trading chickens for trucks, you might have to offer more chickens for the second truck than you did for the first. But dollars, as purely a unit of exchange with no intrinsic value, aren't subject to economies of scale and volume discounts, because they're what those volume discounted are measured in.

     So what does this mean for progressive income tax? What I want to suggest here is that in principle, it should be possible to come up with a good estimate of just how much more each marginal dollar of income can buy, and then to set a progressive income tax rate such that the after tax buying power of every dollar earned is equal.

     For example (and I’m just making these numbers up for illustration purposes), suppose one chocolate bar costs $1, 10 chocolate bars cost $9, 100 chocolate bars cost $75, and 1000 chocolate bars cost $500. That means that the average price for a chocolate bar is $1 if you buy one, 90 cents if you buy 10, 75 cents if you buy 100, and 50 cents if you buy a thousand. So, we would set the progressive tax brackets at 10% for income over $8, 25% for income over $74, and 50% for income above $499. Each additional dollar you earn, on this model, is approximately equivalent to one more chocolate bar you can buy.

     Now, in the real world, there are hundreds and hundreds of different things you might need to buy with your income, and the volume discounts for each come in at wildly different rates, so accurately measuring how much your overall buying power increases with income would be fiendishly difficult. I’m certainly not prepared to do the math here, but I hope I have shown that the actual, practical power of a dollar is not a constant; it depends on how many other dollars you have available to use with it, and the more dollars you have, the more powerful each of those dollars is. In practical terms, individual dollars are worth more en masse than they are alone, and I argue that this justifies taxing them at progressively higher rates as income rises. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Call it cowardice

     I don’t know if it’s the worst thing you can call someone, but it’s still pretty darned inflammatory to call someone a racist. It’s so bad that racist comments are typically prefaced with “I’m not racist, but…”
     Nobody wants to think of themselves as a racist, and so we come up with all sorts of denial and coping strategies, to allow ourselves to pretend that really, we don’t see race, we don’t care what colour someone is, we don’t have a prejudiced bone in our body. And all those little things we do that someone who doesn’t know us might mistake for racist behaviours are really just misunderstood.
     This isn’t completely a bad thing. I mean, overall, I think it’s probably better that everyone recognizes racism as bad in principle, than for people still to be openly adhering to and advocating explicitly racist doctrines. So in a way, it’s progress, I suppose. But it does make it extremely difficult to address one’s own prejudices, if one consistently denies that they exist.

     But you know what? I’m not even going to bother with that right now, except to assert that pretty much all of us have unconscious, maybe even hardwired, presumptions or biases that make some degree of unintentionally racist behavior almost impossible to avoid. This can be measured with cleverly designed testing protocols: see Project Implicit, the results of which show a pretty consistent bias (manifesting as increased processing time to overcome that bias in simple cognitive tasks). I have wondered if the basis of that bias might even be something as tragically simple as contrast; is it just easier for our visual cortex to process and recognize an image as a human face if the eyebrows are darker than the skin? Or are we acculturated to see black as evil and white as good?
     I don’t know, and at this point it really doesn’t matter. The fact is that for some reason, most people of all races have some tendency to see a black person as more threatening than a white person, all other factors being equal. Ideally we wouldn’t, but for some kind of neural flaw or cognitive illusion or learned preference.

     So my point is this: I’m not going to blame a police officer for feeling more afraid when dealing with a black man. Fear has a mind of its own, and doesn’t pay much attention to our rational thoughts. When you’re scared, you’re scared, even if you know you shouldn’t be. Maybe your reasons for being scared are ideologically racist, maybe they’re unavoidable parts of how our brains are wired, maybe they’re reasonable responses to your personal history and experiences. I don’t know why you might be afraid, and I don’t really care. What matters is how you deal with your fear, and you can deny being a racist all you want and we can argue forever about whether or not you’re really deep down a racist, but regardless of why you’re afraid, there is a word we give to people who surrender to fear, and that word is “coward”.
     A coward isn’t necessarily someone who runs away from danger. It’s someone who panics, who is unable or unwilling to act wisely and responsibly in spite of their fear. It’s someone who shoots first, instead of calmly evaluating the reality of the threat. As Frank Herbert memorably put it in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer”. Fear makes you act stupidly.

     Now, I’m not a cop. Apart from a couple of minor fisticuffs in grade school, I’ve never been in a situation where I had reason to think someone was imminently trying to harm me, much less kill me (unless you count that scuffle with colon cancer). So you might well point out that I don’t know what it’s like, and true, I don’t. But what would you be trying to argue with such a point? That fear is powerful, and it’s right to surrender to it? Or just that the level of fear is so great that it cannot reasonably be withstood?
     Look, cops have a dangerous job, I’ll grant that. I mean, that’s actually kind of the whole point: we need our police officers to have exceptional courage, because we need them to remain calm and rational, even when they’re scared and thinking they might be killed in the next few seconds. We need people who will confront potentially dangerous situations and turn them into safe situations. That’s a lot to ask, I know, but if you aren’t able to stay on top of your fear, you really ought not to be in this line of work. A coward with a gun is dangerous and unpredictable, and cowards get people killed: themselves, their colleagues, innocent bystanders.
     I don’t blame the cop who shot Philando Castile the other day for being scared. There’s no arguing with fear. But I do blame him for letting that fear call the shots, because by surrendering to his fear, he not only killed one innocent person, he also contributed to the atmosphere of resentment, distrust and fear in which a sniper in Dallas shot eleven cops, killing five of them. I’m not blaming him for those shootings, for which only the shooter was responsible, but dammit, a cop’s job is to make society safer for everyone, not just for himself in the immediate circumstance regardless of what it means for everyone else.

     There’s another problem with cowardice, a more systemic one, and that is that cowards (being governed by fear) naturally assume that’s what drives everyone else. And so they tend to approach conflicts as contests of fear: they think whoever’s the most scared loses, so they try to pretend that they’re not afraid at all, while they strive to be as terrifying as possible to their enemies. I mean, it’s a natural strategy with a long evolutionary history; even insects do it. But it’s inherently unstable, and degenerates into destructive arms races; every escalation must be met by a greater escalation. And every challenge, every failure to defer to the authority of might-makes-right must be made an example, for fear of showing any sign of “weakness”. And the only place that can end is with everyone being terrified all the time. But that’s fine, I suppose, so long as everyone else is more afraid?

     That’s not what we want from law enforcement. We’re supposed to be less afraid when we have effective police services. Something has gone terribly wrong when they think they must scare people to do their jobs or to stay alive.
     Don’t get me wrong. I think personal and institutional racism in law enforcement is a huge problem. But we can argue until the cows (or chickens) come home about that, because “I’m not racist” is so resilient a belief, and we’ll probably never convince the people who need to be convinced. And in any event, it may turn out to be impossible to fully eradicate the irrational tendency to be more afraid of a black face than a white one. 
     So in the meantime, maybe we should also pay attention to the sheer cowardice driving so many of these shootings, to recognize that part of a police officer’s job is to face dangers so the rest of us can be safer. It’s okay and natural to be afraid, even irrationally (including racistly) afraid. But if you’re so afraid that you cannot do your job without putting other people’s live at greater risk, then what good are you doing anyone?