Posts Tagged ‘socialism’

Responsible Voting

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

It was once socially accepted that people were not responsible for acts of a wide variety if the persons engaged in them while intoxicated, even if the intoxication were quite voluntary and the engagement active. Over time that attitude has eroded. After all, a person who chooses to be intoxicated chooses to engage in increased probability that he or she will effect those acts. If a person who chose to drink passes-out on the front lawn, drives his vehicle into a pedestrian, or beats his domestic partner, few people would insist that he didn't choose to do such a thing. And, should we meet one of those few people, we rightly suspect that they cannot be trusted to use intoxicants responsibly.

In response to the campaign of Bernard (Bernie) Sanders, a great many people embraced things that they called democratic socialism. They didn't actually agree amongst themselves as to what this term meant. Many of them insisted that democratic socialism weren't socialism, which insistence did not provoke as often as it should a question as to why then its name should contain socialism. The answer simply was that Sanders had long referred to what he advocated with this term; they were stuck with socialism if they held onto Sanders. Whether they admitted that democratic socialism referred to socialism or not, all of the folk calling for something by that name sought to neutralize the dire associations of socialism with various outcomes that had been observed when regimes had been identified by that label. And all of these folk, whether or not they acknowledged that they were referring to socialism, agreed that what they called democratic socialism would indeed be democratic.

That insistence has afforded them a rhetorical ploy for dealing not only with socialistic regimes that were never democratic, but with socialistic regimes that have lost popular support, such as that in Venezuela. Absenting that support, these regimes are said not to be democratic, and hence plainly not to represent whatever might properly be called democratic socialism. But when a socialistic regime is brought to power by democratic means, in a framework of law that was effected by democratic means, and then uses that law to take unpopular actions, to insist that the regime is undemocratic begins to resemble claiming that the neighbors passed-out on the lawn, driving their cars into pedestrians, or beating their domestic partners did not choose to do such things. Oh yes they did. And anyone who insists otherwise is to be regarded as dangerous with the relevant intoxicants, including ballots.

Indeed, for most of recent history, popular opinion was not treated as particularly important in application to America by most Americans who came to call for democratic socialism. They had earlier thought it perfectly democratic when the Democratic Party, democratically elected to majority control of both Chambers of Congress and to the Presidency, effected various measures that were in fact widely unpopular with the more general population. President Obama advised the Republicans to win some elections. When they did, so that the Democrats lost first the House of Representatives and then the Senate, he and most of these folk for democratic socialism held to the idea that his democratic election to the Presidency legitimized his actions in defiance both of the votes of the Congress and of popular opinion amongst the wider population. Popular opinion in Venezuela and elsewhere has emerged as ostensibly relevant to democratic socialism exactly and only because, once again, socialism — even socialism within a framework democratically effected — has devolved as it always will if allowed to persist. There is no magic in democracy.

The state is a terrible institution, to be checked by an institutional framework that resists its growth, instead of enabled to grow by fantasies that amateurs or experts can use it expansively to bring about a more humane world.

Spurious Invocations and Socialized Medicine

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Advocates for funding or for in-kind provision of medical services through the state — some degree of socialization of medicine — frequently assert that there is a basic human right to health or to medical services. But there is invariably a bait-and-switch, because health cannot be provided as a right, basic or otherwise, universal to human beings or even held by all members of a large, naturally formed community such as a nation; and a right to medical services gauged in terms other than consequences for health would be grossly implausible and otherwise unappealing.

It should be immediately obvious that there cannot be a basic right to medical services, because a basic right exists in any context in which there is a person, even when that person is in isolation. One cannot make a claim to the services of others if there are no others, nor can one make a claim to the use of technologies that simply don't exist. That's why genuine liberalism understands that basic rights aren't claims to the services of others, but instead are claims to be free from various sorts of interference by others. Robinson Crusoe cannot see a doctor when he is alone on the island, yet can speak his mind whether he is alone or has neighbors.

Derived rights are another matter. Derived rights are founded upon basic rights, but may emerge in a social context and be informed by the available resources, including technology. And there might even be a derived right that, though only emerging in some context, were universal to some population and involved positive claims to goods or to services. To provide an argument that health or medical care were just such a right, advocates of socialized medicine would have to identify and explain a process of derivation. While some persons making the assertion that there were instead a basic right to health or to medical care are simply swept-up by emotion, doing so also short-circuits a recognition of responsibility for that identification and for its explanation.

There are advocates who speak and write of the social contract and propose to find support thereïn for socialized medicine at present levels, and perhaps at still greater levels. But what is here called the social contract is not the contract that Hobbesians or liberals once imagined to be adopted at the beginnings of civil society; rather, a set of expectations held by some members of a society is being called a contract, as if such expectations alone could somehow contractually bind everyone within that society. The need to identify and explain the derivation of an ostensible right to medical care remains unmet by the use of the misleading metaphor of a contract. (Perhaps Mr Crusoe expects Friday to begin studying medicine upon arrival, but what of it?) It might also be noted that reference of this sort to a social contract is profoundly conservative — in the original sense of conservative — because the principal informant of expectations about social outcomes is tradition. And, if such expectations did have the sort of moral force that is imputed to them by the invocation of the social contract, then practices such as the subordination of women in various societies could be defended by reference to the social contracts of those societies. Even if such defense is somehow progressive, it is utterly illiberal.

In any case, health itself cannot be delivered as a right universal to human beings nor within some smaller but still large and naturally formed community. Some people have dire medical conditions for which there is no effective treatment, so there is no right to health itself. One might acknowledge that indeed there is no right to health yet assert that there were still a right to medical care; but others have conditions that could be corrected only by diverting resources that would otherwise be used to provide medical treatment to different people; and it is incoherent to speak of rights as things that may be in conflict — indeed, the point of insisting that health or medical care were a right (as opposed to a lesser desideratum) is to make an over-riding claim. One might finally punt to an assertion that everyone simply had a right to medical care regardless of need; but, thus unlinked, there is no more reason to suppose an entitlement to some allotment of adhesive bandages and of aspirin tablets than to suppose an entitlement to an allotment of bubble gum.

The actual provision of medical goods and services under socialized medicine cannot be about rights, and so it isn't about rights; it is instead a matter of politicized collectivist calculations. Essentially, popular opinion is motivated by a naïve and incoherent utilitarianism — trying somehow to maximize an implicitly quantified sum of human well-being (with perhaps odd lexicographical properties), but making exceptions here and there driven by pity or by respect for some people and enabled by blindness to the costs to others; and officials of various sorts try to keep some share of the public happy but more generally pursue their own interests. Those who are not served under the programme or who find their access to medical care reduced or even effectively ended by socialism are waved-away as unfortunate victims of practical limitations, previous talk of rights not-withstanding.

I'm not at all a fan of collectivist calculations; typically they assume quantifications that don't hold, and otherwise they seem arbitrary in what they seek to maximize. But, if those calculations truly made sense, then one would want to consider the long run, to include the well-being of people in the future in one's aggregation; and thereïn lies the rub. Unless one assumes that humankind is fairly soon to come to an end, there are more people yet to be born than are alive to-day. If there truly were a collective aggregate to maximize, then anything done to-day that impaired economic development in the future would be counter-indicated. If people in the future were generally wealthier, then they would enjoy better medical care and almost surely better health. If we allow for considerations beyond the medical, the case for economic development is greater still. And, because it cannot allocate resources with economic efficiency, socialized medicine is ultimately a drag on economic development and thus on medical progress.

Socialized medicine doesn't deliver a basic right; it doesn't deliver a derived right; in the long run, it means that more people suffer (though suffering itself has no aggregate across persons) and that at any given age a greater share of people die. Refusing to face these points doesn't make one a nicer person; accepting the truth doesn't make one uncaring. Forcing the innocent to swallow bad medicine is not kindness.

On the Concept of Ownership

Monday, 23 May 2016

I have long and often encountered discussion that implicitly or explicitly involves notions of property or of ownership, which discussion is rendered incoherent from a failure to consider what it means for something to be property, what it means to own something.

Some confusion arises because we have come often to use the word property casually to mean an object (physical or more abstract) to which some sort of ownership may apply, without our considering whether the object is well conceptualized for purposes of considering property rights,[1] and without considering that actual ownership associated with that object might be distributed in some complicated ways amongst multiple parties.

One might, for some reason, associate a plot of land with an object imagined as beginning at the center of the Earth and extending to some sort of limits of the atmosphere (or beyond); from such an association, and then from a presumption that the whole object were property, farmers were once known to shoot at airplanes as trespassing vehicles. Yet other folk would assert that owning a plot of land as such only entitled one to control things to lesser depths and heights, in which case the rights could be associated with a smaller object, representing a sub-object as it were. One person might be thought to have the right to farm the aforementioned land, and another to extract its mineral resources so long as he didn't thereby interfere with the farming. Possibly others would claim peculiar easements, allowing them to travel through some or all of the object without thereby trespassing. There might be purported rights entitling still others to flows of resources such water, air, and electromagnetic radiation travelling through the object. In the case of sunlight (an electromagnetic radiation), the rights would typically be presumed to involve only some space above the soil, and the farmer might both have claims against her neighbors doing things that reduced her sunlight and be constrained by similar claims for her neighbors.

If we are thinking in terms of one object, and then change to thinking of an object within it, previously relevant rights of ownership may become irrelevant. If we instead think in terms of an object of which our original object is but a part, then new claims may become relevant. Two objects, neither of which is completely contained in the other, may share some third object as a part; so that any thorough consideration of ownership involving these two objects containing the third may involve rights that are literally identical and rights that are different. The minimal object relevant to describe some asserted set of property rights might not be sufficient to describe other rights none-the-less associated with that object. The minimal object in each of the previously mentioned cases (of farming, of easement, of mineral extraction, and of unobstructed resource flow) is somewhat different from the minimal object in the other cases.

A farmer who somehow forfeits her right not to have sunlight artificially obstructed may still be imagined to own the plot of land on which she grew her crops, yet she doesn't own what once she owned. Likewise, a house-holder who somehow surrenders his right to come and go from the plot on which the house sits doesn't own what once he owned. And, though it would perhaps seem very unsual, one might imagine these rights not transformed into claims for those who have prior rights to surrounding spaces, but instead coming into possession of third parties. For example, perhaps I speculate that I can buy whatever rights I need to build a skyscraper, on the assumption that I can buy a right to block the sunlight to a neighboring farm; I could purchase that latter right first, then discover that I am thwarted as to other purchases. This might work nicely for the farmer, but she no longer has a right that she once had; she no longer owns something that she once owned.

We can still express what things are owned as if they are objects, but we must then select our objects to match our rights of use. And our discourse can become strained and unnatural if we insist on always treating the thing owned as a distinct object rather than as a right of use. For example, if Timo is exclusively entitled to inhabit a cabin in the Winter and james is likewise entitled to inhabit it in the Summer, and we must express them as owning distinct objects, then we must treat the cabin in Winter as one object and the cabin in Summer as another. Indeed, we will surely have to be far more contrived in our construction of objects to account for what the two jointly do not own of the cabin! On the other hand, we can say that each has a right to use the cabin in some way without necessarily specifying how other rights of use are distributed; the concept of the cabin is available without first settling questions of ownership.

I don't propose that we generally stop using the word property as in the ordinary sense of a piece of property, merely that we understand that this everyday use may be misleading. Nor would I suggest that we should somehow stop thinking in terms of objects when we carefully consider ownership. But we must be alert to the fact that our choice of objects with which to think is largely taxonomic and to some degree arbitrary, and we should not take results that are no more than artefacts of that taxonomy as anything more profound.

In fact, the right of use may be recognized as itself an object of an abstract sort, but the right to use a right of use is not distinct from simply that right of use, and thus cannot be dissociated from it.[1.5]


My laboring of the relationship of ownership to objects and their uses isn't quibbling nor pirouetting. People who imagine an object as such to be owned tend all too often to imagine it somehow being owned beyond any of its various possible uses. They thus imagine that it can remain the property of one person or group even as another party — most often those in control of the state — appropriate its use, and even as this second party seizes every right of use. It then also becomes absurdly thinkable that one person might retain every right of use that she had, associated with an object, yet transfer ownership to some other party. Ownership would be reduced to absolutely nothing more than something such as a formal title.

When the state regulates property, it is taking rights of use and hence ownership. This transfer is relevant to questions of compensation (as in the case of the guarantees of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution[2]), and of whether state regulation of the means of production is a form of socialism.


[1] The word object comes from the Latin ob-iacere, meaning throw-before, and referred originally to that thrown before the mind. What we now call objects are, however, mental organizations of what is thrown before us. Thus, to use a classic example, we can talk about my hand as an object, and my fist as an object; they seem to be the same object, yet only sometimes. (We may still, in good conscience, use the word objective for perceptible external reality. And extending it to include unperceived and imperceptible external reality shouldn't cause more than mild discomfort; the rightful demands of etymology are not unlimited.)

[1.5] This paragraph was added on 24 May.

[2] That Amendment (with an underscore by me) reads

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Value Doesn't Work that Way

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Many different conceptions of value are employed in different contexts, and more than one conception is employed in economics. But the notion of value that is most fundamental to economics is that of usefulness.

Usefulness isn't some attribute independent of context, nor does anything have the same usefulness to one person as it does to another. When context changes, value changes. When a thing that had value is moved, it does not carry its value with it; rather, it takes-on a new value associated with its new context. When a thing that had value moves from being the property of one person to being the property of another, its old value is not delivered to the new person; rather, it takes-on a new value associated with its new ownership.

Prices represent a somewhat different sort of value. Prices are quasi-quantified prioritizations, under which things may be exchanged. But, however prices are formed, they work only to the extent that they promote any exchanges that are useful to those potentially making the exchanges, and discourage any that are not. Ostensible prices that do not do so will be ignored in markets, and bring-about economic failure in other systems of allocation. Market values — prices established by markets — are those that conform to the priorities of the parties who choose to exchange. Market values, though different from usefulness, must be informed by usefulness, and thus must thus reflect the contexts of the things priced.

Prices are first-and-foremost rankings, and treating them as quantifications has limited heuristic value; a thing may be rationally priced at $1000 without its being 1000 times as useful as something rationally priced at $1. And, though the first thing may be rationally priced at $1000 in some context, if the context is changed radically, the thing may cease to have any usefulness, so that its price should be 0.

A great deal of the wealth in to-day's world is in the form of financial claims that have no meaning what-so-ever outside of the context of a market. If the market is eliminated, then these claims would have no usefulness and hence a rational price of 0. If the markets in which these claims might be used were somehow preserved, but the claims were seized and redistributed, then their new contexts would correspond to greatly diminished usefulness, and their rational prices would then be much smaller.

The great fallacy of popular notions that poor and middle-income people might be significantly enriched by a large-scale seizure and implicit or explicit redistribution of wealth from billionaires or from the 1% or whatever is the notion that the present prices of the seized wealth reflect an intrinsic economic property of the things seized, which property will be delivered with the things as they are transferred. Instead, the old value will evaporate, and the new value will often be 0.

This point is true even in cases in which the assets seized are not financial instruments. Imagine a community given a Lamborghini Diablo. It had more value than a Honda Fit to the millionaire who owned it; but, for the community, the Honda Fit could be more useful than a Lamborghini Diablo. The respective prices prior to redistribution were plainly poor reflections of what would be the values in the new context.

Wealth is destroyed not only when things of value are seized from the very wealthy and given to those less wealthy, but when there is any sort of large-scale redistribution; including that from the lower- and middle-income groups to the very wealthy. But further indiscriminate redistribution, as by income group, will not restore the wealth lost to past redistribution, and even in hypothetical cases in which only actual perpetrators are penalized and actual victims are compensated, there may be further loss of wealth as such.

So, no. There isn't enough money for the dreams of the Occupation movement nor for the promises made by candidates such as Bernie Sanders, because money doesn't work that way. And there isn't enough wealth, because wealth doesn't work that way. The accountings that claim otherwise are crack-pot.

Slavery, Slavery, and the Political Left

Monday, 2 November 2015

While the word slavery gets used in many ways, its core meaning is that of a personal condition of being property of another person or of a group of persons

However, there are recurring attempts to redefine slavery, insisting that a person who reaped only subsistence from his or her labor were by definition a slave. Now, this proposed definition is really orthogonal to any proper definition.

  • On the one hand, a person only reaps subsistence when living with a minimal technological infrastructure in a world of markèd scarcity. Much of humankind for most of history lived with little or no production above surplus, regardless of whether someone else were making ownership claims against them.
  • In some cases, people have had lives of relative material comfort, and yet would have been tortured or killed by their masters had they sought different employment.

(Compounding the problem with the redefinition, people who are consuming commodities far in excess of their needs for survival like to redefine subsist to include various comforts, such as electronic entertainment.)

Perhaps most of the people who abuse the world slave in this manner do so thoughtlessly; but it ties-together with an aspect of left-wing thought to afford them a significant evasion, deceiving others and deceiving themselves. That aspect is a resistence to acknowledging a relationship between wage-rates and the amount of labor employed in an economy.

One sees this failure in present support for an increase in statutory minimum wages. What these laws really say, to put things quite simply — yet perfectly truthfully — is that if an employer or would-be employer is unwilling or unable to employ a worker at or above the statutory minimum, then the employer must fire the worker, or not hire the worker in the first place. Most advocates presume that the employer will neither fire nor refrain from hiring, as if demand for labor were perfectly inflexible.

A rather pure expression of this dissociation of wage-rates from labor employment is found in the economic model of Piero Sraffa.[1] Sraffa's work is utterly unknown to most lay-people, and unfamiliar to most economists, but to economists on the far left it is an important benchmark, exactly because it claims so much of what they want to claim. However, its persuasive success is largely a matter of subscribers failing to note or to acknowledge a great deal implicit in the model. Perhaps most remarkably, in his model, the very same amount of labor is produced and consumed with absolute disregard for the wage-rate. That is to say that workers deliver the same labor (imagined as a scalar quantity) whether they are offered literally nothing in return (not even subsistence), or all of production is given to them as wages (with the same wage-rate for each worker).

When I look at the Sraffan model, I see workers behaving as if they are slaves. When their wages provide them no more than sustenance, they are as miserable slaves; when their wages provide them less than sustenance, they are as dying slaves; when their wages provide them far more than sustenance, they are as materially comfortable slaves. What makes them seem to be slaves is that they never exercise, and thus appear not to have, any freedom of choice in where they work nor in how hard they work.

(In those states of the United States that allowed private ownership of slaves, slaves were expected to deliver some fixed quota to their owners. They were not typically offered rewards for exceeding these quotas; they were punished, sometimes horrifically, for failing to meet them. I know of no other way, in the real word, to get the sort of labor production that Sraffa describes.)

In Sraffa's model, whatever production does not go to workers, goes to the owners of the other productive resources — essentially to the capitalists.[2] If one embraces Sraffa's model or something very much like it, and if one waves-away the proper meaning of slavery and instead uses it to mean one who is paid no more than sustenance, then it is easy to insist that, in a system that most favors a distinct class of capitalists, workers would be slaves, whereäs alternatives decreasingly favorable to such capitalists move workers ever further away from slavery. And if one imagines the workers getting an ever greater share exactly as production is administrated on behalf of the worker, then the movement away from slavery is a movement towards socialism.

However, if one continues to accept a model along the lines of Sraffa, yet restores the proper meaning of slavery, then one begins to see one why it had been doubly convenient to redefine the term. Because, in imagining a world in which workers never, one way or another, exercise freedom of choice in labor regardless of how production is distributed, the left has come perilously close to suggesting that workers, under socialism, would be slaves.

The underlying truth is that labor is one of the means of production. If an economy is fully socialized, then the potential worker must be employed however and wherever the best interests of the community as a whole are served, and his or her interests count no more in this decision than do those of anyone else.

This grim principle has repeatedly been illustrated in communities that have attempted a very high degree of socialism. Sometimes the attempt has been hijacked by leaders with less that sincere interest in communal well-being, but these leaders were able to make the populace their slaves because socialism required slavery of the populace. Trotsky's observation that

The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.[3]

was true under Stalin because it or something like it would, as a practical matter, have been true under any fully realized socialism.

Meanwhile, as much as many people living in more market-oriented economies like to imagine themselves as slaves to their employers, they're fully aware that these employers cannot send agents to recapture them should they quit their jobs. To the extent that any group of persons other than ourselves exercises such ownership over us, that group is the state — the very institution usually entrusted to effect socialistic measures.

A movement towards socialism is a movement towards slavery, rather than away from it, and if one is going to bring the subject of slavery into an honest defense of socialism against all alternatives, then it is necessary somehow to make a case for slavery.


[1] The Production of Commodities by Commodities; Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory (1960).

[2] Note how advocates of higher statutory minimum wages point with outrage at those who amass great wealth while paying workers less that some proposed statutory minimum wage, as if there were a zero-sum game being played between employer and employee.

[3] The Revolution Betrayed, ch 11 Whither the Soviet Union? § 2 The Struggle of the Bureaucracy with the Class Enemy.

The Veterans Confidence Racket

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Veterans Health Administration is a con job. I'm sure that many of those working as part of it do not recognize it as a con job. I'm sure that some of those working for it recognize that it is a con job but believe that it can be something more and better, and have been struggling towards that goal. But it is a con job and it will remain a con job so long as it has anything much like its present form.

The declared purpose of the VHA[1] is to provide health-care to military veterans. This mission appeals to those voters who see veterans as deserving reward or compensation for their military service, and it appeals to those contemplating entering such service.

In theory, the provision of this health-care could be entirely by a voucher system, allowing veterans to acquire health-care at state expense but through a market of private producers. The reason that a voucher system is not used is because of its expense.

To control costs, provision has largely been by state-run facilities. Some people imagine that costs will be kept in check because of elimination of profit, because of technical efficiencies achieved through vertical integration, and because of recruitment of superior personnel willing to work for lower salaries. But the elimination of profit means the elimination of the profit-motive, which elimination in turn inhibits the search for new and better ways of doing things. Vertical integration might be able to exploit technical efficiencies, but a greater problem of economic calculation confronts any attempt to administrate a large-scale allocation programme. And the state is simply not very good at recruiting superior people on-the-cheap.

The problem of economic calculation bites especially hard, and the VHA cannot actually get its costs down to those of private provision through the market. The VHA can, however, lower its evident pecuniary costs by reducing the quantity or the quality of the health-care that it provides. In other words, it can shift the cost to veterans, in the form of unmet promises; in the form of suffering and in the form of death. That is how the VHA can and does control costs.

When the VHA was launched, there was almost surely a sincere belief that it could deliver at a discount. However, there have since been many decades for state officials to observe that it has not; there has been ample time to recognize that it cannot. Yet instead of being forthright in explaining what it would take to provide veterans with the benefits that they were promised, and instead of preparing to meet the promises now being made to recruits, the deception continues. As failure continues to come to-light, there will be further reforms that fall short of what is actually needed to meet the promises, because fraud saves the state a considerable amount of money, and protects the mythology under which the state preserves and accumulates power more generally.


I have noted that health-care could be provided to veterans by way of a voucher system, but if one respected the sensibility and character of military veterans, and trusted the strength of voters, then a better thing to do would be simply to give veterans enough money that they could buy the same amount of health-care (in part by purchasing insurance), but to allow them to spend that money as they chose. At the margin, a bit more or less of something else may reasonably be more important to some veterans than a bit more or less of health-care.

If veterans are intelligent, economically rational, and of good character, then they will use the money appropriately. If they are stupid, irrational, or sociopathic, then they may spend the money inappropriately, and later seek a bail-out from the tax-payer in the event of an emergency, and voters might give that to them.

I leave each reader with responsibility for his or her judgment on that matter.


[1] The VHA is the best-known part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, aka the Veterans Administration, to the point that VA usually refers to the VHA, and that VHA and Veterans Heath Administration aren't much used. None-the-less, I'll employ the more precise term and abbreviation hereïn.

for generations to come

Saturday, 4 July 2015

I believe that I last wrote here about what became the Affordable Care Act — aka Obamacare — in an entry posted on 28 July 2008. I've been meaning to write about it since, but I paused to await the outcome of NIFB v Seleblius, and then again to await the outcome of King v Burwell.


To understand what really drove the Democratic Party to pass the Affordable Care Act, one may look at the experience of the Social Security Act (1935).

The programme of old-age benefits — which is what most Americans have in mind when they refer to Social Security — is one that had been failing slowly over the many decades of its existence. Population growth has slowed strikingly, and life-spans have been extended significantly, so that the number of people paying into the system has declined dramatically relative to the number of people to whom payments have been made. At the same time, in various ways the typical payment per individual has been allowed to climb. The tax used to fund it has never collected enough revenue to do so indefinitely. At times, revenues have been much greater than benefits; but, none-the-less, there has never been a moment over the last 50 years or more when the demographics did not show that, within the expected lifetime of a young person, promised benefits would exceed revenues and exhaust whatever had been saved under the revised programme.

Congress did not plan for the old-age benefits programme to fail, slowly or otherwise. Congress simply didn't take a careful look at the future. The immediate concerns of Congress were to exploit the political gains to be had from promising a pension programme, and to short-circuit political support for the ruinous Townsend Plan.[1] But this slow failure has proved to be hugely rewarding to the party most responsible for effecting the programme.

Because the programme has failed slowly, there was sufficient time for a large share of Americans to become dependent upon it. It was even, for a while, said to be the third rail of American politics — analogous to the rail delivering current to an electrically powered train, in the sense that touching it would prove fatal. As failure has recurringly loomed, Republicans (having increasingly become the party of opposition to the New Deal Coälition) struggled with how to respond to the failure of a programme with such broad support, while the Democratic Party has been able to position itself as rescuer. The slow failure of their creature has been an important part of the success of their party.

Although supporters of the programme often speak and write as if opponents would simply and abruptly withdraw benefits from all recipients, a more common suggestion has been to phase-out the present programme in favor of an overt poverty-relief programme. Thus, for example, those born after some point in time would received reduced benefits — perhaps in some cases no benefits — if they had income or wealth measured above some levels. This idea meets resistance not only from those who would lose benefits, but from those who would then find themselves on welfare.

Younger people, looking at a future tax burden, and perhaps doubtful that the next major reforms will prove sufficient to maintain the programme through their own retirements, are most often open to suggestions of reform. But, as time passes and they age, they find themselves having paid much of the tax that they might earlier have hoped to avoid, so that the principal pecuniary result of a phasing-out would be either to deny them benefits or to place them on welfare. Additionally, as they age, so do their parents, who go from being perhaps middle-aged to being elderly.

A sense may often be retained that they would have been better-off had the programme been phased-out when they were younger,[2] and that those now young would be better-off if the programme were phased-out now. There is, thus, something of the flavor of a sub-optimal Cournot-Nash equilibrium to it all. A lot of people would admit that the programme ought not to have been instituted; but, since it was, and since they would personally be hurt by an attempt to end the programme, they will not assist in an unwinding, and may even actively oppose an unwinding.

And, so, they are increasingly inclined to support the Democratic Party, which continues to promise to do whatever is necessary to keep the programme going.


The Affordable Care Act was intended to creäte another slowly failing programme with a large number of people dependent upon it. There was no illusion on the part of most of those who voted for the Act that this programme would be the one exception in the history of large state programmes. They might not know the core reason that such programmes perform so badly, but they've had plenty of observations of failures. As with the Social Security old-age benefits, each time that failure loomed for Obamacare, the Democratic Party could position themselves as rescuers of the programme and thus of the people dependent upon it in order to receive medical treatment. And the Republican Party would again be forced to choose between protecting their brand and protecting their jobs. The public might perhaps conclude that they would have been better-off had the programme not been brought into existence in the first place, but they'd see themselves now being made still worse-off in any unwinding, however an unwinding might benefit later cohorts.

Indeed, when the President acted to preserve the programme by ignoring the plain wording of the law, a large part of the defense of his action was that a substantial number of people had become dependent upon the programme. Even a great many people who had been insured, at lower cost, previous to the programme could have suddenly found themselves uninsured, and the programme was defended on the basis of a dependency that it had induced amongst those people. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, though returned to power largely because of voter discontent with the programme, has been widely criticized for not agreeing upon some view as to how health care ought to be allocated, and then presenting that view to the public. Many Republicans essentially propose adopting a position they are just stuck with Obamacare, since the Supreme Court has twice now refused to stop it.

However, Obamacare is not a slowly failing programme; it is a rapidly failing programme.

In my entry of 28 July 2008, I explained that the programme was effectively to tax the insurance policies of the healthy in order to subsidize the unhealthy; and that, in the absence of compulsion, the healthy would not insure, causing premia to spiral upward.

In order to make passage of the law politically palatable, the compulsion was relatively weak. The annual penalty for failure to buy insurance is well less than the cost of insurance, and the IRS is forbidden to attempt to collect the penalty (if not paid voluntarily) except by reducing the annual tax refunds of those against whom it is charged. I suspect that the Democratic leadership had some awareness that this penalty structure was going to be inadequate, but were thinking of this weak compulsion as the camel's nose — they planned to get the rest of the beast into the tent in some later session, with higher penalties and more freedom of action for the IRS. They didn't understand that they'd lose control of one chamber in the very next election.

So, indeed, many of the relatively healthy chose not to buy insurance, despite repeated extensions of the buying period. And, as a consequence, premia are going to rise by more than 10%. This increase makes insurance a bad buy for an even larger group of people, who will choose not to buy insurance next year. That will cause a further rise in premia. And so forth. Premia should be expected to increase by more than 10% every year, until the programme implodes as affordable insurance moves out of reach for a huge share of people. (With annual increases of more than 10%, premia would more than double over just eight years, but I do not expect the programme to survive to a doubling of premia!)

There was talk of how, if King v Burwell were decided against the President, Obamacare would go into a death spiral. In fact it was already in a death spiral. King v Burwell could have accelerated that sharply; if the spiral were faster, then the health-care system would have been less distorted by Obamacare, and the unwinding would thus be injurious to fewer people.

The sooner that it were admitted that Obamacare were in a death spiral, the sooner that a drum might be beaten for toughening penalties upon those who refuse to buy insurance. (Or for kicking the insurance companies to the curb, and establishing a more explicitly socialistic system.) But the President is not a man to admit to mistakes, nor do supporters want to admit to yet more deep problems in a programme that has already had many embarassments, as such an admission would increase skepticism. Further, the elected Republicans are unlikely to alienate their base by acting to pull Obamacare out of a death spiral any time soon, though most of them might do so from expediency were Obamacare to last-out a decade.


[1] The Townsend Plan, advanced by Francis Everett Townsend beginning in 1933, was that each person in the United States over the age of 60 years were to be given a monthly pension of $200, conditional upon a requirement that the entire $200 be spent within a month. The theory was that this spending would result in an increase in economic activity that would, in turn, effectively pay for the pensions.

I won't endorse simply claiming that, since the CPI is now about 30 times that in 1933, $200 then would be equivalent to about $6 000 to-day. (Comparisons of so-called price levels becomes increasingly problematic as time-spans become longer.) None-the-less, one should see that a $200 monthly pension would have been rather breath-taking.

The Townsend Plan was supported by a very large number of people, and was especially popular amongst those over or approaching the age of 60 years, and amongst those economically responsible for the support of older people.

[2] This sense will be especially acute amongst those who understand that the Social Security old-age benefits crowd-out investment-savings for retirement. With reduced investment, the economy grows at a diminished rate.

To Leave a Beautiful Corpse

Sunday, 17 February 2013

When a charismatic leader dies aburptly while still in power, his or her supporters quickly begin building a mythology of what would have been accomplished had he or she lived. That is why, for example, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was and largely is so highly regarded; in the minds of his admirers, he would have accomplished wonderful things in the last five years of a two-term Presidential Administration, regardless of what one otherwise makes of its first thousand days.

The mythological episode of such leadership is treated as having the same standing for purposes of comparison as does historical fact. When an opponent tries to construct an argument founded on logic and general fact against policies associated with that leader, supporters treat the mythology as if it is a disproof by counter-example. What's really happening then is that Faith is being mistaken for empirical data.

Even before the dire physical ailments of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías became apparent, his base of supporters had discernibly eroded as the consequences of substituting administration for markets became harder not to see in the specific experience of Venezuela and as, yet again, a socialist regime increasingly moved to forceably silence critics rather than to meet their criticism in open debate. But, if Chávez were to die, then those concerns would be played-down; and, no matter what happened in Venezuela after his death, a mythology would be constructed about how Chávez would, after all, have brought-about a Golden Age for Venezuela, for large parts of Latin America, perhaps for the Third World more generally. In effect, the Hugo Chávez Who Would Have Lived would be treated as-if an empirical disproof of any argument against sorts of socialism that would come to be associated with Chávez.

The world would be better-off without belief in that mythological Chávez. For the long-run sake of the world, I've been hoping that Chávez would bounce-back, retake the helm, and continue to run Venezuela into the ground. (I'd agree that having Venezuela run into the ground even once would be awful, but having it and other nations run into the ground repeatedly by a string of imitators seems worse. And, if Chávez were to die, one imagines that his successors would run Venezuela into the ground anyway.)

Well, it seems that Chávez is not going to bounce-back; perhaps he's going to die. But, if so, he's taking a rather long time about it. And, at least, pretty much anything short of suddenly dying undermines the effectiveness of mythologizing. That's not how it would work if this mythologizing were rational — the Leader Who Would Have Been would have moved across the stage every bit as heroically if not for senile dementia or if not for a crippling stroke as he or she would have if not for an assassin's bullet. But the matter is in the first place very much one of irrational fantasizing. Making matters worse for mythologizers of Chávez, his lieutenants, jockeying for as much power as they might have in any case, insist that Chávez is still calling the important shots; his departure would thus be less sharply defined.

Even if Chávez bounces-back rather completely, we'll still get some mythologizing — just as there will be a mythology of what President Obama Would Have Done had he had an deferential majority in Congress for eight years — but the world may be spared the sort of mythology that would have developed had Chávez died on the operating table on 11 December.

Losing Their Religion

Monday, 8 August 2011

By some time in the mid-'90s, much of the New Deal coälition — the main-stream of America's political left and the base of its Democratic Party — had largely ceased to believe.

It was hard to see its positive programmes as successes. Keynesianism as it was then understood in America had led to stagflation in the '70s. Programmes intended to lift people from poverty had instead creäted a permanent under-class, of disintegrated families. Nearly everyone was beginning to understand that Social Security was a pyramid scheme of some sort. And the increasing intrusions of the state that were intrinsic to these programmes put the lie to any claim that the center left had much concern for individual liberty.

The main-stream of the media had increasingly aligned itself with the left, and had grossly over-played its hand, which brought disrepute upon both.

Meanwhile, a cluster of ideologies known jointly as conservative were drawing upon various sorts of economic and moral arguments (largely cribbed from libertarians) for reduced state control of the economy, some of which arguments were quite difficult to meet.

Then the Soviet Bloc collapsed. Most Americans on the left had abhorred various aspects of those states, but had also seen those states as concrete proof of the practical viability of extensive state control of national economies. And, even as the left tried to turn hopefully to the Swedish model, the political system in Sweden began to unwind that model. Uncertainty developed over whether much if any degree of state intervention were sustainable over the long run.

It wasn't that most or all of the left converted to a rival position. They didn't become conservatives; they didn't become libertarians. They still wanted to believe in the New Deal, in the New Frontier (rather imperfectly remembered!), in the Great Society; they just really didn't. (Some would haul-out the Call to tell themselves other-wise, attempting to build conviction with a chant.) Many of them did switch their foci from supporting extensive state intervention on behalf of human welfare to supporting extensive state intervention on behalf of environmental protection; this allowed them to keep pushing for the same institution (the state) to be directed against many of the same enemies, but now the talk was of life-boat scenarios, rather than of promoting general affluence.

But, in 2008, the American political left again believed.

The ground-work for that resurgent belief had been laid by Republicans, especially by those in Congress from 2001 to 2006, and by the Presidential Administration of George Walker Bush. They had promoted dramatic deficit spending, greatly expanded the intrusions of the state into the every-day lives of Americans, and taken the United States into two wars, each of which they grossly mismanaged. They had also partnered with Congressional Democrats in what amounted to an extensive corrupting of financial markets, which led to a collapse while Republicans held the White House and had majorities in both Houses of Congress. And since the Republicans had styled themselves as conservatives and believers in market economics while doing these things, it was easy for the left to see this wave of disasters as a refutation both of conservatism and of reliance upon unregulated markets. That, however, is still essentially negative — less a certainty of the left that they were right than that their opponents were wrong.

Belief returned with Barack Hussein Obama. That was why he, and not one of the other Democratic candidates, got the Presidential nomination; that was why he scared the Hell out of so many with firm precepts in opposition to those of the left. Obama conveyed himself in a manner that people associate with intelligence, with alertness, with education, and with good judgment. And, while as a candidate he was deliberately vague about much of what he would seek as President, he postured as if it would be those things to which all reasonable people agreed. His ambiguity allowed people of various ideologies to see in him what they wanted to see in him (thus making him electable), but it was easiest of all to see him as resuming the project of the New Deal coälition, especially as he described what seemed just that when he was more forth-coming. For such a man to act as if he believed made it again possible for them to believe.

The belief of the left didn't subsequently develop more to sustain it beyond this cult of personality. And belief on the left in Barack Hussein Obama has been dying. Where policy has been at his discretion, he has often not done what he promised them and the nation that he would do. Where the left has seen a need to fight or an opportunity to crush their opponents, he has often seemed in the eyes of the left to fold. And often they must choose between admitting that their policies are simply mistaken, or asserting that the Administration didn't, after all, effect those policies. (For example, that it wasn't sufficiently aggressive.)

So we are sliding back towards a state-of-affairs where the left does not believe. It does not seem plausible to me that Obama's reputation could be rescued except perhaps by his premature death, and the experience with Obama has, for the time being, inoculated people against the effects of a similar personality.

I cannot help but wish, vainly, that those on the left would do better this time than to dig-in and wait for their belief to be restored.

On the Meaning of Socialism

Monday, 7 March 2011

In a previous entry, I discussed the meaning — or lack of meaning — of the word capitalism. With an eye towards future entries, I want to write now about the word socialism.

The OED (and the New SOED) provide the original definition of socialism:

A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all.
It's pretty straight-forward: collective, communal ownership of the means of production, and administration for the collective benefit. But there's at least three points to be raised here. First, and most important, is that different conceptions of the community are possible. The community in question might be the whole world; it might be every human being within a particular jurisdiction; it might be a particular religious community; or it might be members of some sort of ethnic group. Second, the definition here does not intrinsically entail comprehensive communal ownership; that is to say that it doesn't declare that all means of production must be communally owned for a system to be socialistic. Third, those who indeed advocate a comprehensive communal ownership of the means of production often fail to note that labor is an important means of production, so that such ownership would mean that an individual must work when, where, and how the community or its representatives told him or her to work.

Merriam-Webster gives us set of definitions, each somewhat different from that original definition:

1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done
The first three M-W definitions here (1, 2a, and 2b) all ignore the issue of for whose benefit the means of production are employed. Definition 1 is additionally broader than the original, in that it includes state ownership as possiby different from collective ownership. Definitions 2a and 2b are each otherwise narrower, as one precludes any private property, and the other insists upon state ownership. The final definition is introduced because Marxism, an important school of thought, made peculiar use of the term. Jointly, this set of definitions illustrate how a word can lose usefulness when popular use is uncritically accepted.

My 1975 copy of the AHD defines socialism as

1. A social system in which the producers possess both political power and the means of producing and distributing goods. 2. The theory or practice of those who support such a social system. 3. In Marxist-Leninist theory, the building, under dictatorship of the proletariat, of the material base for communism.
In the case of the first definition, one might begin by asking why the system should be called socialism; there is no mention of society or of community here, except in-so-far as this is a social order (as would be many in which producers would not have ownership or political power). Even if we regard the relevant community as that of the producers, the definition says nothing of them owning qua community; all property could be private, so long as the producers had means of production and distribution! Frankly, the author was so swept-up in his or her theory of socialism (recall the definition of capitalism that appears in the same edition) that he or she lost sight of its essential structure. (And perhaps the author was too enraptured to note that different folk would have different ideas about whom one should take to be a producer.) The second definition is purely derivative of the first. The third definition pushes-aside Marxism more generally in favor of Marxist-Leninism in particular, but is roughly a reïteration of the same notion, for about the same reason.

The 1993 version of the AHD defines it thus

1.a. A social system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are owned collectively and political power is exercised by the whole community. b. The theory or practice of those who support such a social system. 2. The building of the material base for communism under the dictatorship of the proletariat in Marxist-Leninist theory.
The first definition here has nearly restored the original sense: collective, communal ownership of the means of production, and administration for the collective benefit. (The three points that I raised in response remain germane.) But now there's an insistence that political power is exercised by the whole community. This is a response to the great embarrassment of decidedly undemocratic regimes claiming to represent the community in the administration of the means of production. (The reference to political power in the earlier edition was probably an ineffectual attempt to deal with that embarrassment.) The second definition is again purely derivative of the first. The third that from the earlier edition, with a non-substantive reördering of words.

All right now. When someone else has introduced the word socialism into the discourse, I've tried to respond to it based upon how that someone else is or at least seems to be using it, Or I've explicitly asked what he or she means by it; but when I've introduced or will introduce the word socialism into the discourse, what I've meant is

collective, communal ownership of the means of production and administration for the collective benefit
And I do plan to be writing again about socialism, very soon.