Thoughts and Impressions

Month: November 2009

Do Artists Really Fear Islamic Violence?

Well perhaps “artists” is too strong a word.  But check out this factoid on the now-in-theaters 2012, which I am struggling not to see:

He blew up the Empire State Building and the White House in Independence Day, sent a giant monster careering through the heart of Manhattan in Godzilla and destroyed the famous Hollywood sign in The Day After Tomorrow. But it seems there are places even Roland Emmerich will not go – the German film-maker has revealed he abandoned plans to obliterate Islam‘s holiest site on the big screen for fear of attracting a fatwa.

Or was this just a calculation based on profits?  2012 does not seem to have been made with any other considerations in mind.

New Series: Reviewed Briefly

I’ve decided to inaugurate another series: “Reviewed Briefly”, in which I will try to present some brief thoughts on books that I have finished reading recently.  I may put up a few reviews of books that I read a bit longer ago to get the series rolling.  Caveat lector: some of the books may be fiction, and the reviews may include spoilers!

LHC Update II

Some fun but probably crazy theories by theorists Nielsen and Ninomiya suggest that the universe doesn’t want us to prove the existence of Higgs particles.


Richard Kenway, who holds Higgs’ former position at the University of Edinburgh, says that the 78-year-old emeritus professor remains quietly confident that the LHC will discover the Higgs boson when it is eventually running at full strength. For his part, Kenway says the LHC’s delays are to be expected given the size and intricacy of the $9 billion experiment. And he says if he ever needs further proof that the Higgs boson is not abhorrent to nature, he need only spend time with his friend and mentor. “If nature truly did not want us to discover the Higgs, a cosmic ray would have zapped the embryo that became Peter, preventing its development into a physicist,” he says.

Ah yes, but what if the universe wants us to prove Nielsen and Ninomiya’s theories that the universe doesn’t want us to prove the existence of Higgs particles?  Then Higgs would need to be born to invent the idea, and the LHC would need to fail in order to prove that the theory couldn’t be proven!  Can I have my Nobel prize in subatomic particle theory now?  No?  I’ll settle for a peace prize.

The Berlin Wall Today

Volokh had a couple of posts up commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – here, here, and here for example.

I am too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the idea of the wall, as I learned about it later, made quite an impression on me.  The Communists had voluntarily constructed a physical testament to their citizens’ fevered desire to escape.  And once that wall came down, the beneficent West welcomed the refugees with open arms.  But because I am too young to remember the Berlin Wall, another wall looms larger in my mind.

Today, a sickening parody of the past is unfolding.  A new wall goes up along our border, and the United States is building it.  It builds it not to keep its own rich well-fed citizens trapped inside, but to keep the poor and desperate out.  The Berlin Wall made a sick sort of sense.  The Communists needed to prevent the human material of their social experiments from escaping.  But the wall today is an aimless and demented cruelty, a jeering testament to our nation’s willingness to sacrifice its own prosperity, if only it can make our neighbors a little poorer.  It denies both the citizens inside our borders and those without the best operation of the capitalist system that was once the hope of desperate East Berliners.

Once we demanded that the Soviets tear down their wall.  Today we insist that our neighbors help us seal off our border.  So today, I look forward to the twentieth anniversary of the fall of a different wall, and a time when we will have seen it for the travesty that it is.

Will You Go to Jail If You Don’t Have Insurance?

Jack Balkin says that the answer is no.

Balkin is correct that, technically, anyone who does not buy insurance under the new set of laws will only have to pay a tax (or as I prefer to think of it, a fine).  Only if they refuse to pay the fine will they then, eventually, be sent to jail as a tax evader.  Fair enough.  But the general point still remains.  If you do not comply with this new law – you will be sent to jail.  Being sent to jail for refusing to pay the fine is only morally different if the fine has some particular justification.

Balkin argues that the fine (or as he prefers to think of it, tax) is justified by free-rider problems:

If lots of people (and especially young and mostly healthy people) don’t buy health insurance, the cost of insurance goes up for everyone, and it is passed on to others in the form of higher premiums. In addition, people who don’t buy health insurance tend to wait until their health problems are severe and then use emergency services; they may contract communicable diseases (which they may pass on to others) or they may become disabled. All of these costs get passed along to others–in the form of higher premiums and higher costs for hospitals and insurers–or they have to be absorbed by federal and state governments through programs for the poor or the disabled.

So if you don’t buy health insurance, you are increasing costs for other people. The federal government is taxing you to recoup some of those costs. An analogy would be taxes on alcohol or tobacco, although these taxes are usually worked into the retail price of the goods so that people don’t even have the opportunity to refuse to pay them. Another example would be taxes on an enterprise that is creating additional costs to the environment through pollution; the government taxes you if you don’t purchase and install anti-pollution equipment.

Balkin skips more than a few steps with this analysis.  In significant part, health care free riding is only possible because there are laws that legalize free riding.  For example, the laws requiring hospitals to treat all emergency room visitors, regardless of their capacity/intent to pay, are an invitation for free riding.  The costs of treating any of these patients who do not pay will be passed on to all of the hospital’s paying patients.  If we really wanted to eliminate this free rider problem, we would just make people pay for their emergency room visits – or we would at least not require hospitals to receive people without insurance.

The current health care reform is not a brilliant scheme to end free riding.  In large part, it is an attempt to write more free riding into law.  It requires insurance companies to transfer health care costs from sick to healthy patients.  It enacts massive subsidies that transfer costs from the poor to the wealthy.  These transfers are very much like actual free riding, and they would not occur in an efficient insurance market that had no free riding.

Balkin shrugs and says that “tax policy does this all the time”.  And so it does.  And opponents of these subsidies are right to remind the rest of the electorate that their participation is not voluntary, but enacted through threat of imprisonment.  Health care reform is commonly assumed to be in everyone’s benefit, but this is of course not the case.  The threat of jail time lies behind every government “charity”.

Libertarian Paternalism and Choice

Is it worth noting that one cannot simply “opt out” of Thaler and Sunstein’s endorsed retirement programs (see endnote 15, chapter 6 of Nudge)? If employers wish not to participate in auto-enrollment, then they are exposed to costly legal liability and must expend costly effort filling out forms to attenuate this liability. If employees wish not to participate in retirement plans like a 401k, they are exposed to a tax penalty. So, even as the authors might prefer to see things, this intervention does indeed reduce the decision space of market actors.

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Nudge and the Subjectivity of Ends

I wanted to expand on one of the criticisms of Nudge that I made below.  Namely, I criticize Thaler and Sunstein’s inability to dispense with the fundamental fact of subjective human preferences.

The authors refer to their preferred program as “libertarian paternalism”.  I suspect this term is insincere, (perhaps merely an attempt to woo libertarians into more state-friendly territory?) since Thaler, for example, seems quite willing to endorse clearly non-libertarian paternalism.  But for argument’s sake I’ll use their nomenclature.  After all, the authors’ inability to stand by their professed principles is not a rebuttal of those principles per se (though it does undermine their pat dismissal of slippery-slope arguments).

Facially, libertarian paternalism attempts to account for subjective preferences in its definition.  Paternalism, Thaler and Sunstein say, “tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves” (page 5).  This neat trick hangs subjective consumer preferences as the goal-point of all rigid government interventions.  But it gets us nowhere.

Any of the chapters could be used to demonstrate the inability of libertarian paternalism to choose a “correct” direction in which to point consumers.  But the discussion of retirement planning (Chapter 6 – “Save More Tomorrow”) struck me as the most obviously futile.

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