• Uncategorized

    Who is More Generous, Continued

    But why do the poor give more (relative to their income), my sister asks.  I don’t really have enough background in the subject to give a definitive answer, but I’m willing to engage in a little bit of uninformed speculation!

    First, the data for the McClatchy chart seems to have come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) here, specifically, this set of tables.  I’m not sure which rows McClatchy uses to indicate giving, but I’m guessing it is “Cash contributions” and not “Gifts of goods and services”.  BLS defines “cash contributions” thusly:

    Cash contributions includes cash contributed to persons or organizations outside the consumer unit, including alimony and child support payments; care of students away from home; and contributions to religious, educational, charitable, or political organizations.

    I would love to see a breakdown of this statistic’s components.  Unfortunately, BLS doesn’t give one in the file I link above (but shout out if you have one!).

    Here is the take-home point.  Economic theory assumes that people have decreasing marginal utility in their consumption – and yes, economists include “charitable givings” somewhere in that “consumption” – just as BLS does!  The “utility” you get from giving to charity is the general good feeling you have about yourself – for living up to your personal codes of humanitarianism and validating your innate sense of your humanity – or perhaps the expected reward that may follow your demonstration of altruism.  But for each contribution you make, the utility of the next contribution is diminished.  You’ve already stroked your ego by giving once – the emotional pay-off of a second donation cannot be as great.  The cost, however, will be just as high.

    Contributions to religious organizations (which I suspect, but can’t know for sure, make up a substantial percentage of BLS’s “cash contributions”) give us a great example.  Many people belong to churches, and they donate or pay membership dues to those churches.  But how many richer people join a second church just because they can afford it?  Few, I would imagine.  What would be the point?  Involvement in a second church community would mostly just eat into your time with the first one.  And I’ve never heard anyone say that going to heaven becomes more likely with multiple church memberships.  This part of the utility of church dues – going to heaven – has a steeply decreasing marginal utility: you only go to heaven once (and as the first church will be happy to tell you, the second church is not going to get you there)!

    Thus all charitable giving.  The marginial utility of giving decreases more quickly than greater wealth decreases the opportunity costs of further giving.

  • Worth Reading

    Worth Reading: Why I am Not a Conservative

    by Hayek

    In this essay – apparently tacked on to some editions of The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek explains why he is not a conservative – and why he does not love conservatism.  Conservatism, says Hayek, is not an ideology, but an attitude.  As such, it has some practical value but no inherent validity.  Hayek prefers an ideology – of freedom, whatever it is called.

    The essay is available here.

  • Uncategorized

    Obama Retaining Bush War on Terror Powers

    Jack Goldsmith’s article in TNR on the Obama’s pursuit of War on Terror powers spurred a lot of talk last week, including a positive comment from Volokh’s Jonathan Adler.  Goldsmith argues that on a wide array of War on Terror powers – including military tribunals, detentions, surveillance, targeted killings, and interrogations – Obama administration policy has been either functionally identical or at least possibly (but not verifiably to the public) identical to the policy of the late-term Bush administration.

    Goldsmith also argues that certain aesthetic or procedural changes in the way the Obama administration has pursued these policies legitimate them in a way that the Bush administration did not.  By coordinating its efforts with Congress and appearing to restrain its use of these powers (but not actually restraining them), Obama is granting these powers democratic legitimacy:

    The Obama strategy can also be seen, more charitably, as a prudent attempt to legitimate and thus strengthen the extraordinary powers that the president must exercise in the long war against Islamist terrorists. The president simply cannot exercise these powers over an indefinite period unless Congress and the courts support him. And they will not support him unless they think he is exercising his powers responsibly, under law, with real constraints, to address a real threat. The Obama strategy can thus be seen as an attempt to make the core Bush approach to terrorism politically and legally more palatable, and thus sustainable.

    But how much credit should Obama get for cooperating with Congress?  Certainly, Democrats in the legislature will be willing to laud Obama’s completely cosmetic restraints as “real change”.  Republicans, meanwhile, will be happy to support the actually retained anti-terror infrastructure, though unwilling to validate the aesthetic touch-up as inherently meaningful.  So Obama’s non-change of course is a relatively painless political move.

    But would the same have been the case for the Bush administration?  Or is it more likely that whatever concessions the Bush administration made to Democrats in Congress would simply have become the new baseline for complaints about the executive’s “imperial authority”?  Inevitably, the Bush administration would have been backed into a position from which it would not have been willing to make further concessions.  Nor is it clear that Congress wanted to carefully enumerate specific executive powers, rather than make vague grants of authority like AUMF, whose meaning it could interpret as their constituents demanded.

    Goldsmith himself claims that the Bush administration provoked suspicion by openly defending its expansion of executive powers and that Obama lowered tensions by (disingenuously) claiming to have curtailed those powers.  If Bush’s openly adopted policies seemed more sinister than Obama’s disingenuous but nearly identical ones, then we must at least consider that Democrats simply view Republican exercise of wartime powers as inherently sinister.  The Bush administration probably could not have made the same concessions that Obama’s had without encouraging demands for even more concessions.

    As a side note, let me say that I am not completely sure how I ought to feel about the War on Terror powers in question.  As long as our country’s actual policies are shrouded in secrecy, it seems to me that we ought to be skeptical.  How many people have been tortured and how?  How many people are in foreign prisons, and how long will they remain there?  What number of innocents are killed in targeted killings?  I am uncomfortable taking a position on secret and unmeasurable war powers, so I desire, at a minimum, less secrecy.  If issues like torture are debated only in the abstract, someone must end up paying too high a cost in reality.

  • Uncategorized

    The Inner Ring – What CS Lewis Thinks

    I’m going to write a little bit about CS Lewis’s “The Inner Ring”, but, before I do, I wanted to write a post summarizing what I think are the central parts of Lewis’s argument.  Of course, the speech is not long, so feel free to read the original!

    Lewis argues that the desire to break into exclusive cliques – or “inner rings” – is a driving feature of the human psyche:

    I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.

    This urge is not merely dominant, but utterly controlling:

    Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing-the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.”

    Pursuing the Inner Ring is bad for at least two reasons.  First, it undermines your moral principles and makes you a scoundrel:

    Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still-just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig-the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”-and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure-something “we always do.”

    And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world…. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

    Second, (and more tragically?), you will find no true satisfaction inside what you thought was the inner ring.  Its charm is exclusivity, a charm that dies with your inclusion:

    As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.

    This is surely very clear when you come to think of it. If you want to be made free of a certain circle for some wholesome reason-if, say, you want to join a musical society because you really like music-then there is a possibility of satisfaction. You may find yourself playing in a quartet and you may enjoy it. But if all you want is to be in the know, your pleasure will be short lived. The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic.

    Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.

    So how should you live?  Lewis does not reject the importance of friendship.  He admits that “it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together.”  But true friendship must be an organic byproduct of natural affections, not an artificial construct absent them:

    And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.

    Thus, Lewis’s “The Inner Ring”, as best I can condense it.  Tomorrow or sometime next week, I’ll try to have my own thoughts up.

  • Health Care

    Buried Treasure Health Care Profits

    Matthew Yglesias gives a pretty standard defense of a public health care plan:

    A public option that strives to achieve public goals—quality care at an affordable price—will challenge private industry to do a better job. Then competition between plans will drive improvements in quality and efficiency. Without a public option, the risk is that private plans will compete by trying to screen out sick patients. That’s a viable root to private sector profits, but it does nothing to improve quality or control costs.

    Yglesias treats “quality and efficiency” and “screening out sick patients” as mutually exclusive routes to profit.  But they are not.  The free market is not simply satisfied with one source of profit to the neglect of others.  Firms will try to cut both kinds of costs – the costs of treating the sick and the costs of treatment in general. They make more money that way.

    A public plan does not solve the dilemma of paying for sick policy holders.  If the private market prices them out into the public plan, the public plan will be forced to pay for its higher average patient costs through premiums or subsidies.  When the public plan raises premiums, the healthy will flee to cheaper private plans, perpetuating the cycle.  When it subsidizes the treatment of the sick, it does not “control” costs (in fact, a subsidy incentivizes more consumption of health care, increasing overall costs), it justs forcibly redistributes them.

    If there is truly no competition in the health care market (a possible explanation for “buried treasure” health care profits – all we have to do is start digging), the most likely culprit is the maze of state regulations that segment the national market and shackle insurers with mandates.  The actual solution to this problem is to break down state barriers and reduce the number of regulations and mandates – but this answer does not lead to a redistributive system, so progressives will ignore it.

  • Health Care

    Public Plan Poll

    David Kopel of Volokh points to this troubling poll in the National Journal:

    Left-leaning (18 votes) Right-leaning (12 votes)
    Excluding it would be a deal-breaker: 72.2%
    I want it, but inclusion is not essential: 27.8%
    I oppose it, but exclusion is not essential: 0%
    Including it would be a deal-breaker: 0%
    Excluding it would be a deal-breaker: 8.3%
    I want it, but inclusion is not essential: 0%
    I oppose it, but exclusion is not essential: 25%
    Including it would be a deal-breaker: 58.3%
    Unsure (volunteered): 8.3%

    Only 58.3% of conservative bloggers consider a public plan to be a “deal-breaker”?  I’m a little bit unclear what that phrase is supposed to mean, but I assume it indicates a proposal so noxious that conservatives would simply refuse to cooperate with its passage.

    Here’s a quote from a conservative who is “opposed” but doesn’t consider it a deal-breaker:

    “Public insurance can be available for those who want/need it, but it should in no way take away choices from individuals for private insurance.” D.S. Hube, The Colossus Of Rhodey

    A public plan is socialized medicine by inches.  It is probably impossible to guarantee both that public insurance be available and that it not interfere with private choice “in any way”.  Either the public plan will be allowed to go bankrupt if it runs out of money (and won’t be available), or it will be subsidized and price out the private market (limiting choice).  As Kopel explains:

    “The government insurance program would inevitably benefit from taxpayer subsidies, making it less expensive, in the short run, than independent plans. Over time, the independent plans would be driven out of business, and even before then, many employers would force their employees into the government program. As private competition is eliminated, the imposition of Canadian-style rationing becomes feasible.” David Kopel, The Volokh Conspiracy

    I’m not sure that conservatives understand what they are up against.  They need to be opposed to this, and united in their opposition, if they want to have any chance of stopping the redistributive state’s next advance.

  • Uncategorized

    Which Income Group is the Most Generous?

    Via Andrew Sullivan, this McClatchy graph:

    The chart’s title pretty clearly indicates the intended answer to Andrew’s question (which class is most charitable?): the poor.

    I might, however, have included the somewhat relevant figure of actual average amount given to charity by each income group (calculated as average income times giving as percent of income):


    Each richer income group appears to give more to charity than the next poorer group.  The rich give the most to charity, and the poor give the least.

    If someone truly cares about charitable giving, they ought to desire that as many people as possible should move into the “less generous” groups.  Fetishizing the poor as the “most generous” group is a rather banal demonstration of the too-human tendency to confuse intentions with results – when results are clearly the desired metric.

  • Quote

    Quote: Isaiah Berlin

    From Two Concepts of Liberty:

    I am the possessor of reason and will; I conceive ends and I desire to pursue them; but [when] I am prevented from attaining them I no longer feel master of the situation. I may be prevented by the laws of nature, or by accidents, or the activities of men, or the effect, often undesigned, of human institutions. These forces may be too much for me. What am I to do to avoid being crushed by them?  I must liberate myself from desires that I know I cannot realise. I wish to be master of my kingdom, but my frontiers are long and insecure, therefore I contract them in order to reduce or eliminate the vulnerable area. I begin by desiring happiness, or power, or knowledge, or the attainment of some specific object. But I cannot command them. I choose to avoid defeat and waste, and therefore decide to strive for nothing that I cannot be sure to obtain. I determine myself not to desire what is unattainable.


    In a world where a man seeking happiness or justice or freedom (in whatever sense) can do little, because he finds too many avenues of action blocked to him, the temptation to withdraw into himself may become irresistible. It may have been so in Greece, where the Stoic ideal cannot be wholly unconnected with the fall of the independent democracies before centralized Macedonian autocracy. It was so in Rome, for analogous reasons, after the end of the Republic. It arose in Germany in the seventeenth century, during the period of the deepest national degradation of the German States that followed the Thirty Years War, when the character of public life, particularly in the small principalities, forced those who prized the dignity of human life, not for the first or last time, into a kind of inner emigration. The doctrine that maintains that what I cannot have I must teach myself not to desire, that a desire eliminated, or successfully resisted, is as good as a desire satisfied, is a sublime, but, it seems to me, unmistakable, form of the doctrine of sour grapes: what I cannot be sure of, I cannot truly want.

  • Quote

    Quote: Robert Nozick

    From the Preface of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, with elisions.

    Many persons will reject our conclusions instantly, knowing they don’t want to believe anything so apparently callous toward the needs and suffering of others.  I know that reaction; it was mine when I first began to consider such views.  With reluctance, I found myself becoming convinced….  I run the risk of offending doubly: for the position expounded, and for the fact that I produce reasons to support this position.

    My earlier reluctance is not present in this volume, because it has disappeared.  Over time, I have grown accustomed to the views and their consequences….

    It is thought to be an objection to other views merely to point out that they conflict with the view which readers wish anyway to accept.  But a view which differs from the readers’ cannot argue for itself merely by pointing out that the received view conflicts with it!  Instead it will have to subject the received view to the greatest intellectual testing and strain, via counterarguments, scrutiny of its presuppositions, and presentation of a range of possible situations where even its proponents are uncomfortable with its consequences.

  • Worth Reading

    Worth Reading: Human Dignity

    by Leon Kass

    I heard this piece delivered by Kass as a speech at one of Georgetown’s Tocqueville Forum events.  In the piece, Kass, former Chairmen of Pres. George W Bush’s Council on Bioethics, offers a sketch of his ethical worldview: one founded in the concept of “human dignity”.

    The piece is available here.