American attitudes toward prisons

My policy, as most of you know by now, is not to link to my pieces in The Economist week after week, unless there is a special reason, because that would be, well, tedious and annoying.

So why link to my piece in the new issue on California’s prison overcrowding?

To make two separate and unrelated points:

1) the importance of length, once again.

It always amazes me, after all these years, how short most of our pieces in The Economist are. The pieces inside the regular “sections” are called “notes” in our nomenclature. Because we have fixed (paper-issue) layouts that determine article length, most notes are either 500, 600 or 700 words. For this note, I asked for 700 words, was told to make it 600, and the final piece ended up at 520.

That’s in effect a blog entry. Most people don’t realize how much harder it is to write a short article than a large article. The folks at the New Yorker can blather on and on (“On an overcast Monday afternoon, I strode across Fifth Avenue to interview John Smith, ….”). We have to get to the point. There should be some nuance, some color, and we should cover the main bases, but all in … 500 words!

It’s friggin’ difficult. Then the readers show up in the mostly infantile comments section below the articles, invariably accusing us of utter ignorance, if not downright malice, because they know (or imagine) one little detail that was not in the 500 words.

Beyond that, of course, the brevity often hurts me, the writer. Invariably, I do research for every piece until I am satisfied that I know the subject well enough. I could easily then fill a few thousand words. So much therefore gets left on the cutting floor.

Which brings me to my second reason for linking to this week’s piece…

2) The shame, the horror of America’s prisons and Americans’ attitudes toward them

Among the things I left on the cutting floor were some of the numbers that Barry Krisberg at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency bounced around with me (mostly 2005 numbers):

  • Most people know that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, but did you know just how much higher? America locks up 732 people out of every 100,000. The G7 countries, which should be the appropriate comparison for America, lock up 96 people for 100,000. The country in the world that comes closest to America is Russia, yes Russia, where the number is 607.
  • Was there ever a country for which we have numbers that surpass America’s current incarceration rate? Yes, says Barry, and it was …. the Soviet Union during the years of Stalin’s Gulag!!!
  • America has about 5% of the world’s population but 23% of its prisoners.
  • America also has by far the highest ratio of prisoner to each kind of crime. What that tells you is that there is not more crime in America that would justify more imprisonment.

And on and on. In short, Americans love locking people up. They do not see any irony at all in claiming, often loudly when in the company of Europeans, to be “the freest country in the world” while robbing more individuals than any other country does of their freedom, their dignity, their rights. (This distorted understanding of freedom is what I have been exploring in my thread on America.)

I should add at this point that I have rehearsed the inevitable “debate” that usually ensues enough times that I can confidently predict every objection.

Allow me to give you a sample of the most typical “conservative” opinion on the matter. It is a reasoned, Republican-mainstream opinion taken from one of California’s conservative blogs.

In it, we discover the underlying assumptions that nowadays make America the exception among comparable countries:

The demand by federal judges to provide civilized health care to prisoners is

…forcing us to provide better medical care to prisoners than most law abiding citizens receive…

This is ironic because this particular argument tends to come from people who object to providing health care to those law-abiding citizens as well. And it is telling because its sets the tenor for all subsequent arguments, summarized neatly in this passage:

The only danger [prisoners] face is from each other, really bad people, that is people who have no respect for themselves, their neighbors, or for the rules, can be difficult to live with, without question, but that cannot be avoided.  Prison is for bad people, to keep bad people away from good people so that the bad people cant hurt the good ones.

And here you have it in a nutshell. The conservative and prevailing American attitude toward incarceration is based on:

  • vengeance in the Old-Testament style, not on rehabilitation, which is the assumption that prisoners must at some point be brought back into society. In effect, prisoners become outcasts, with no hope of atoning and changing and playing a productive role in society. Result: the world’s higest recidivism rate, 70% in California.
  • Refusal to see nuance: Nobody, and I mean nobody, is arguing that there are no bad people, no crazy people, no dangerous people that must genuinely be kept out of our neighborhoods. But what about the people who are in there for stealing socks, for smoking dope, for all the many misdemeanors that have increasingly been prosecuted as felonies to please the “tough-on-crime” electorate? There are many non-violent people who have simply made a mistake and end up brutalized in prison.
  • Meanness, lack of compassion. Nuff said.

The reality is that prisons contain:

  • bad people
  • average people who have done bad things but can and want to change their ways
  • and even some good people who have got caught up in a fundamentally unjust system

But in our overcrowded and barbarous prisons, they are all thrown together, so that good people become bad and bad people become worse, and society loses by turning away from justice and civility.

Back to the sample opinion. If you approach the entire topic from the point of view that those in the system are all bad, that they deserve to be brutalized and do not deserve protection in prison, then, and only then, can you conclude, as this commentator does, that

There is nothing wrong with our prisons.


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Socrates and the “town hall meetings”

Lest any of you think that I have abandoned my thread on Socrates, far from it!

Indeed, the reason that you haven’t heard much lately from me about the great and controversial and perplexing man is that I’ve decided to do a big piece on him in the Christmas issue of The Economist (large parts of which we actually produce in September).

So am I thinking about him? Every day, especially this week, as I cannot avoid, no matter how much I try, the news about these alleged “town hall meetings” on health care.

Town hall meetings?

Democracy?

America?

Oh, please. This is what the thread on Socrates has been about: Good versus bad conversation, debate that wants to find truth and climb higher versus debate that wants to win, to debase, to obscure.

PS: As I post this, I am downloading yet another lecture series by The Teaching Company on Plato, Aristotle and Socrates

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Let the post office atrophy (and change)

I’ve been meaning to offer an entirely unrelated aside regarding my mail box. Yours too, for that matter. I’d love it if the dang thing were gone, completely gone, retired into some landfill where the telex machines and vacuum-tube radios are rusting.

This will never actually happen, I realize, even though it now seems that the trend is in that direction. Which is to say: snail mail is obsolete. The volume of mail (chart, bottom right) started dropping before the recession, at about the time when most of us started having boadband internet. And I predict it will keep falling, just more slowly, when the recovery starts. Senators are contemplating cutting the loss-making Post Office’s service. I say: Make it once a week, then once a month.

I personally (as opposed to my wife and my kids!) get very close to zero mail. All our bills are electronic now, all my private and soulful communications are digital or in-person.

The only thing that comes into my mail box is:

  • junk mail, a genre in which America outdoes every other country that I am familiar with. Verdict: 👿
  • All the paper crap that America’s countless, overlapping and nasty bureaucracies churn out, such as jury-duty summons and IRS spam. Verdict: 👿
  • Tangible gifts by grandparents and fans to my son and daughter. Verdict: 😛 (But many of those things come by FedEx and UPS)
  • The occasional post card or letter from a friend who has still not sussed out that I’m OK, really OK, getting these things electronically. Verdict: 🙄

Snail mail gets soaked, lost and bent. I constantly carry important letters that were put into my mailbox in error to the neighbors. I rarely get any coming the other way: Does the carrier only make mistakes for others, or am I not getting something important? Either way, this would not happen with electronic communications.

Then let’s talk about our addresses as identifiers. How passé is that? People move (as I just have) and most of the stress in a complex country such as America is not hauling boxes but updating and untangling the dozens of databases of banks, DMVs, insurers and other authorities. Folks, this is not necessary. We use email addresses and passwords as identities online. That, and perhaps a new and improved (meaning safer) Social Security number, should be all the bureaucrats need from us.

Young people have already dropped their landline phones for mobile phones and skype, which are, well, mobile and personal. Landlines are silly. And so are mail boxes.

Rebuttal

As Solid Gold Creativity reminds us, (and thanks for pointing me to the chart), there is a certain sensual and sentimental value in the post. An old tradition, yet another of the many, is under threat.

I’m not against sensuality. Indeed, I love and need to touch some information in marked-up paper form. But that is not at risk! As I argued in the similar context of the “dying” newspapers, no old medium ever goes away when new media arrive. Instead, the old media change context.

When cars showed up, we did not kill horses. (Paul Saffo and I have had fun trying to verify our guess that there are more horses in America today than there were in 1850.) But we don’t take the horse to the Wal-Mart. We take the horse to the Polo Game or the ranch or the Lipizzaner stables. It’s a classy thing nowadays. The context is fun. That (ie the change from mundane uses to rewarding ones) is a positive change.

The same will happen to the post. We already have FedEx and UPS for things we care about. Well, the post office can start being as good as they are. Cut out the junk mail and perfunctory admin crap, and deliver–occasionally or at haste for a premium–only the good stuff. That would be progress.

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California as case study in dysfunction

On principle, I do not use The Hannibal Blog to advertise my articles in The Economist, but my piece in the new issue does fit into one of my running threads: ‘the freedom lover’s critique of America‘.

The piece is about “the ungovernable state”–this being California. Consider it a case study that grew out of my thoughts here.

In it, I have fun chronicling the dysfunction, and in the process touch on several themes that I’ve mentioned on this blog before, such as:

My conclusion: I endorse wholeheartedly the growing movement for a Constitutional Convention, which would throw out that ungainly tome and start from scratch to create something clean, elegant and simple.

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More on complexity in American life

One theme in my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘ is that the sheer complexity of American life makes modern serfs out of many Americans.

It is in the nature of complexity that you cannot depict or chronicle it in one simple post. So I’ve had a go at American bureaucracy, at the tax system, at the healthcare system and so on. Now I come across this piece by Jason DeParle in today’s New York Times on the general issue of benefits in America. Excerpts with my emphasis:

As millions of people seek government aid, many for the first time, they are finding it dispensed American style: through a jumble of disconnected programs that reach some and reject others… Health care, housing, food stamps and cash — each forms a separate bureaucratic world, and their dictates often collide… Aid seekers often find the rules opaque and arbitrary. And officials often struggle to make policy through a system so complex and Balkanized.

Just one individual example:

A bureaucratic bungle compounded the woes of Ms. Johnson, who lost her job as a librarian at Magnolia Bible College in Kosciusko, Miss. Religious schools are exempt from unemployment taxes, so Ms. Johnson, 60, faced the recession without jobless benefits. She applied for food stamps and was denied because she had more than $3,000 in an Individual Retirement Account, though officials said she would qualify if the savings were in a 401(k). Finding the distinction illogical, Ms. Johnson searched the Internet and learned that Congress had just changed the law. As of October 2008, savings in either kind of retirement account are no barrier to food stamps. But state and county officials held firm, and a federal official sent an e-mail message supporting their outdated view. With the help of an advocacy group, the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, she finally traced the problem to an errant Web page at the Department of Agriculture. “To get maybe $320 of food stamps took an entire month of work,” she said.

I could paraphrase that last sentence about so, so many things here in the, ahem, land of the free.

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America seen from the Netherlands

At the end of this excellent piece by Russell Shorto, an American expat in Amsterdam, a Dutch author named Geert Mak says to him:

America is the land of the free. But I think we are freer.

Now, where have we heard this before? Oh, right, it’s how I started my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘, only I chose to say the same thing about Hong Kong vis-à-vis America.

Shorto does a very thoughtful and balanced job on some of the same themes I’ve covered in this series so far, including notions about inequality and healthcare. Compare, for example, the tenor of what I’ve been saying about oppressive American bureaucracy and what this American expat tells the author:

The amazing thing is that virtually every experience [here in the Netherlands] has been more pleasant than in the U.S. There you have the bureaucracy, the endless forms, the fear of malpractice suits. Here you just go in and see your doctor. It shows that it doesn’t have to be complicated.

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Sick and unfree in America

yellow_emperor

In ancient Taoist China, a well-off family would hire a doctor, pay him as long as everybody in the family was healthy, and stop paying him as soon as somebody got sick until that person was healthy again. This, as far as I know, was the last time that a society aligned the incentives in the healthcare industry properly.

By contrast, healthcare today is upside down: You don’t pay for the thing you want (health); you pay for service when the thing that you don’t want (sickness) comes around. Hypothetically, if you had two doctors, one Taoist and one modern, and if the Taoist were good enough at his job to keep you healthy, the modern doctor would not get paid at all!

I bring this up only as a little thought exercise to illustrate something important: Healthcare is not like other industries. If the product is muesli or ball bearings, it makes sense to talk about competitive markets and such. But if you’re dealing with an industry that is fundamentally upside down, you have to be careful about using trite concepts of economics.

Another way that healthcare is different: If there were large numbers of, for example, children in society that could not get muesli or ball bearings, we could live with it. After all, they can get corn flakes instead, and walk instead of using wheels. The “market failure” would not equate to a shameful indignity. By contrast, if children (and adults, for that matter) cannot get access to healthcare, it is a shameful indignity.

(Disclaimer: As with everything on The Hannibal Blog, the opinions in this post are mine and mine alone, and may or may not overlap with the views of my magazine, The Economist.)

Healthcare and freedom

I bring up healthcare only reluctantly in my ongoing ‘Freedom Lover’s Critique of America’. I’m not qualified to talk about it and it’s not my beat at The Economist. But I decided that it belongs into this series because America’s healthcare system is so different from those in all comparable countries, and because it has such a direct bearing on freedom.

That the system is dysfunctional is well known. I won’t rehearse the familiar list of failings (many uninsured; many underinsured, et cetera). Let me just point to a few features for the subsequent discussion:

  1. American healthcare is typically American in that is it bureaucratic and adversarial. The effect on patients is alienating and dehumanizing. At the precise moment when they are most vulnerable and dejected, they are expected to go to war against their insurance company on the 1-800 numbers and phone trees to contest pieces of paper they don’t understand. But they have to, because their insurance company will contest almost every single claim–for this is built into the system!
  2. American healthcare is also typically American in being uneccessarily complex, as America’s tax system is. I’m not talking about the medical side–that is complex everywhere, because our bodies are–but about the administrative side.

Does this limit the freedom of individual Americans? Yes, and let me just give one concrete example. A free society is one in which people feel free to move and to change jobs, among other things. But a great many Americans are afraid to change or quit jobs, because their healthcare coverage is tied to an employer. So healthcare can become yet another of the shackles that makes serfs out of many Americans.

More generally, the system’s dysfunction limits freedom because it robs so many Americans of dignity. And dignity is a prerequisite for freedom. Thomas Jefferson could write “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” only because he lived in a relatively innocent age, the Enlightenment. A more mature constitution of liberty, such as West Germany’s after the Holocaust, begins with

Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar–The dignity of each human being is untouchable.

So yes, healthcare belongs into any debate about whether a country can claim to be free or not. Now let’s figure out what sort of problem healthcare poses, in general and in America.

What kind of problem is healthcare?

When the ancient Chinese paid Taoist doctors to keep them healthy, healthcare was a cost of living, comparable to food and shelter. When we turned it around and paid doctors for managing our sickness, healthcare became an insurance problem.

And there are two traditions of modern insurance:

1) Lloyd’s of London

In 1688, rich toffs started hanging out in Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in London, near where the ships came in and maritime gossip spread. They began betting on which ships would make it to port with their cargo and which might sink. They called it ‘insurance’. It was really a higher form of gambling, with huge profits when the bets went well and huge losses when they went bad. This is the origin of the Anglo-Saxon view of insurance: as a profit-business.

2) Swiss mountain valleys

In Switzerland, going back to I-don’t-know-when, villagers got together to share risk. You might say they “collectivized” it, but don’t think that they were socialists. They were freely volunteering to pool their individual risks because they noticed something that we now call

the Law of Large Numbers

Say that a Swiss village had 1,000 houses. The villagers knew from historical record that, on average, one house would burn down every year. That house’s family would be devastated. Let’s put their loss at SF1,000 to make the math simple. The other families would suffer no loss at all, but they could not tolerate the indignity of letting one family suffer and lived in fear that they might themselves be next.

So they agreed, in free assembly, to pony up SF1 each for a SF1,000 fund. The SF1,000 then went to the one family whose house burnt down to make it whole.

What had they done? They had exchanged a

large but uncertain loss

for a

small but certain one.

They were able to do this thanks to the Law of Large Numbers, which says that an unpredictable risk becomes highly predictable when it is pooled with large numbers of similar, but unrelated, risks.

Caveats

The Law does not work if the individual risks are correlated. The Great Fire of London in 1666 (below) happened because all of London’s thatched houses stood so close together that they were in fact one big house from the point of view of a flame.

350px-great_fire_london

The Law also does not work if adverse selection spoils the risk pool. For instance, say that some of the Swiss villagers had opted out of the pool because they had stone houses. Only those families with highly flammable houses would have entered the pool, but that would mean that the 1-in-a-1,000 ratio no longer applied (it would be much higher).

The Law also does not work if moral hazard changes the way people behave once they get insurance. If some villagers get the idea that, since they are now “covered”, they might as well set their houses afire, the system breaks down.

Finally, the Law works best for risks that are high in frequency, low in devastation. Fire is a good example. It does not work well for risks that are low in frequency, high in devastation. An extinction-causing meteor is a good example. (Who would charge whom what premium for what risk?)

Back to healthcare

And where does healthcare fit in?

  • First, it is very high in frequency (everybody gets injured or sick sooner or later) and low in devastation (usually only that one life is at risk). For most illnesses–diabetes, heart disease, etc–actuaries know exactly what percentage of the population as a whole will get sick in a given year.
  • Moral hazard is not a problem, because–loonies and rock stars excepted–people do not intentionally ruin their health just because they are insured.
  • Adverse selection is a problem, because risk, and the perception of it, changes over a lifetime. The young feel immortal and would opt out to save the buck (Swiss Franc) for a beer, leaving only the geezers to pay up.

Conclusions

Healthcare seems to be altogether unsuitable for a Lloyd’s of London (Anglo-Saxon, profit-driven) insurance culture, and perfectly suited for a Swiss-mountain-valley (risk sharing) insurance culture.

The prerequisite is that everybody in the pool must participate to avoid adverse selection.This, however, would require a mandate for the majority to coerce a few unwilling individuals, and that is something that (real) liberals do not like. But many liberals (and the Swiss are freedom lovers!) make this sacrifice because they understand that it is necessary: Dignity mandates that we look after the sick even if they have opted out of participating, so some people would become free riders.

There are two simple ways to get everybody into one risk pool subject to the Law of Large Numbers:

  1. Tax everybody a little bit (the equivalent of the SF1 per village family) to cover the proportion of people being sick every year, or
  2. make people buy their own insurance, rather as we require car insurance for drivers.

The first leads to a British or Canadian-style single-payer system. (Important: Notice that the government need only manage the funding of the care, not the care itself.) Since everybody is covered, there need be no paperwork for patients. I still remember when I was visiting Britain as a teenager with a soccer team and woke up unable to move my neck one day. I dragged myself to the street, got a taxi to a hospital, and, although I was not British, got fantastic care without signing a single piece of paper.

The second leads to a system of competing insurance carriers. This is fine, although there is one problem: What if you pay premiums to one insurer while you’re young, but then you switch to another insurer when you’re old? That would be adverse selection again (for the second insurer). But in a competitive system, patients would move in both directions, and might cancel one another out. Even so, there is slightly more paperwork for patients, since the care provider needs to reclaim the money from any of several insurers.

Notice that, either way, the economic burden is the same: Every citizen pays, whether through taxes or premiums, the same amount to participate in the risk pool.

America

And now, the American way: A bit of everything, mixed together and stirred. If you’re a veteran, you participate in huge risk pool. If you’re old (Medicaid) or poor (Medicaid), you participate in other risk pools. If you buy your own insurance, you can carry your coverage around, but you are paying much higher premiums because the insurer assumes adverse selection. If you’re employed, your company arranges coverage, but only as long as you work for it. If you are none of the above, you have no coverage and go to the emergency room when you’re sick, thus leaving the provider to hike everybody else’s costs to compensate for you.

Paper, paper, paper. No law of large numbers for society as a whole. Fragmentation. Confrontation between patient and insurer. Nightmare.

And if Obama goes on to do just the “politically feasible” thing–which, in America, is to add more “options” and complexity–it will get worse.

The way to bring freedom and dignity to America is to get rid of employer-sponsored insurance and to have either  one single government-run insurance pool or mandatory individual insurance for one privately-run insurance pool. Nothing else works.

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Complexity in the American drawer

Remote controls

This is only tangentially related to my ongoing ‘Freedom Lover’s Critique of America‘; but tangent does mean touching in Latin, so this does touch the topic:

I am staying in a very American sort of place: The owner has gone out of his way to provide “conveniences”, and in America that usually involves screens–nowadays of the flat-panel variety. They must be in every room, so that you don’t ever have to miss out. Other devices must be connected to the screens so that you need not compromise on your entertainment options. You must, you see, have choice. (More on the paradoxical effect of choice on freedom here.)

And so I opened a drawer. It turned out to be the mother lode of complexity metaphors in American life. All you need to enter this American paradise was contained therein. I thought of the number of remote controls, then the number of buttons, then the number of permutations. But I’m not that good at math.

I savored the irony, then closed the drawer and opened a book.

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Frenemies: Freedom and equality

756px-eugene_delacroix_-_la_liberte_guidant_le_peuple

Marianne, above, did not flash her boobs to all those corpses for nothing. She did it for the trinity (as in the tricolore she carries) of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Let’s leave fraternity, which is a rather mushy notion, to one side. That leaves liberty and equality. Do those two belong together?

I knew I would have to address this issue sooner or later in my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘. But the fascinating debate in the comments below this post brought it to the fore. Fortunately, that comment thread neatly summarizes the entire spectrum, across the world and history, of views on the subject. As I see it, the three options are:

  • You can’t have freedom without equality.
  • You can’t have freedom with equality.
  • It’s complicated.

The Classical Liberal view

Broadly, classical liberals (as properly defined) are passionately in favor of equal opportunity and just as passionately against enforced equal outcomes, exactly as “Hizzoner” paraphrased Friedrich von Hayek here.

Which is to say: If you (ie, the government) predetermine that everybody will be the same (think the same, dress the same, drive the same car, live in the same house…) then nobody in your society can be free, if ‘free’ means being able to be yourself, ie different than others. Why create, why achieve, why risk, if the fruits of your effort and ingenuity will be confiscated (“redistributed”) in the name of equality?

I personally glimpsed the extreme form of just such a dystopia when I peaked into East Germany months before it crumbled (although I didn’t know that it would crumble, of course). They were all driving, or on the waiting list for, the same damn Trabi. And while I was ogling their Trabis, many East Germans were already flooding into the West German embassy in Hungary, trying to escape and eventually forcing their leaders to let the Berlin Wall crumble.

That same example, East Germany, also showed what Hayek correctly predicted would happen in reality in an ‘egalitarian’ society. As Orwell might put it: Some were more equal than others. The difference was that the ‘more equal’ ones didn’t use wealth to assert their supremacy but more nefarious means–party connections, or what the Chinese call guanxi. The resulting horror was captured intimately on screen here.

And so, to those of us, like me, who were devotees of Ayn Rand, the answer was clear. Equality is the enemy of individualism, and thus of freedom.

How it got complicated for Liberals

Even at the time, however, there were some contradictions that gnawed at me. Even in the ‘free world’, we were often invoking equality. For instance, democracy, which we (perhaps wrongly) associated with freedom seemed to be based on the equality of one citizen = one vote, even as capitalism seemed to be based on the opposite, ie unequal outcomes.

Then there was the bit about equal opportunity, which we were all supposed to be for. Well, this was messy, because, inconveniently, we were biological organisms and as such insisted on looking after our offspring. Anybody who ‘makes it’ devotes his entire life, and all his resources, to ensuring that his offspring get a head start. And who can blame him?

So if ‘we’ (the government) really wanted to preserve equal opportunity, we would have to get heavy-handed and stop ‘him’ from looking after his kids. We would have to stop him not just from sending his kids to better schools and doctors, but from reading his kids all those bedtime stories, paying for all those piano lessons and SAT prep courses, building all those Lego houses with them–ie, from doing all those things that give kids ‘unequal’ opportunity. In short, we would have to take his freedom away! Obviously, a non-starter.

The triumph of biology

And then I saw a documentary. I tuned in somewhere during the middle and never saw the title, so I can’t be sure it is this one, but it might be. It was based at least in part on Sir Michael Marmot’s Whitehall Study from Britain. Here is how I remember it:

Stress: It is not the same as pressure, which we all feel from time to time. Instead, it comes from ranking low in a hierarchy and lacking power over your own time, your own self (=not being free). You who are at the bottom are at the whim of others. You suffer. And not ‘just’ psychologically, but biologically. You tend to get fat in your mid-section, and your heart, blood vessels and brain change visibly, with entire neurological circuits shriveling up. Meanwhile, the brains and hearts of top dogs expand and thrive.

The most poignant moment came when they cut from our species, Homo sapiens, to monkeys. The researchers observed packs of primates, and sure enough: a monkey at the bottom of the hierarchy got fat in his mid section, had hardened arteries and heart walls and a a shriveled brain.

Equally poignant: One group of monkeys, led by particularly aggressive alpha males, played in a trash dump and was decimated by an epidemic. Another group, more female and egalitarian, moved in and absorbed the survivors of the first group. The egalitarian culture prevailed. And voilà, the health of the surviving monkeys from the first group recovered and improved! They were slim, their hearts and arteries pumped, their brains fired on all neurons.

Let’s take this one more step toward generalization: You recall that I criticized Ayn Rand for getting individualism wrong (which took me many years to figure out). Well, I now know how she got it wrong. She did not allow or understand how inviduals, when forming groups, pick up signals from one another that change who and what they are.

Watch this amazing TED talk by Bonnie Bassler as a mind-blowing illustration of what I mean. It is not about humans per se, but about bacteria. That’s right. Stupid, single-cellular strings of DNA and surrounding gunk. The trick to understanding bacteria (→all biological critters?) is to grasp how they chemically detect the presence of other bacteria, and then suddenly change their own chemistry. Upshot: No bacterium is an island.

The case of America

Let’s now look at America. Without getting into the academic weeds, there is a proxy for social equality called the Gini Coefficient. If the coefficient is 0, everybody has exactly the same; if it is 1, one person has everything, and everybody else has nothing. So countries fall somewhere in the middle between 0 and 1. Now look at this world map:

800px-gini_coefficient_world_human_development_report_2007-2008

The first thing you will notice is that the darkest blues and purples–ie, the greatest inequality–tend to be in poor countries, even in nominally “Communist” ones such as China. That’s because poor countries tend to be corrupt and feudal, with a few lords and many serfs. It is hard to consider these countries “free”.

But the second thing is more interesting. If you look at just the “developed” countries (let’s say those belonging to the OECD), you notice that one country stands out.

All the rich countries are in shades of yellow or green, meaning that they are fairly egalitarian societies. Only America is blue. America, in short, is the least egalitarian of all the developed countries.

And so? I’m not sure. The old Hayekian in me would chalk this up as a possible sign of more freedom in America than elsewhere. The new bacteriologist and epidemiologist in me wants to ring the alarm bell. This is not healthy! Sure, the Americans on top of the pecking order might show up at Party Conventions every four years and proclaim that ours is the freest country in the world. But many other Americans are simultaneously dying from their serfdom, whether they are aware of it or not.

For the time being, let’s consider freedom and equality neither friends nor enemies, but frenemies.

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Tax day thoughts on complexity in American life

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April 15. Tax day. All over America today, people are amusing themselves with “tea parties“. And that is great fun, to be sure. Part of our creation myth is that the country started with a tax revolt, as we rugged individualists stood up to those imperial tyrants. So let’s put on our costumes and play.

But let’s then talk seriously about taxation as part of our ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘. To do that intelligently, I feel I must remove one important distraction upfront:

I don’t believe we are overtaxed in America. I believe that some of us could pay even more. But the amount or rate of American taxation is not the problem.

What, then, is the problem? Make no mistake that there is a problem. America’s tax system is a scandal. It is incompatible with freedom.

The problem is complexity, and its effect, opacity.

Today I heard the IRS commissioner say on NPR that America’s tax code is four times as long as War and Peace. 5.5 million words, apparently. The wordcount, however, is a very abstract and bad way of grasping the complexity of the system. We don’t read the code.

The complexity begins hurting, and enslaving, us as we live–that is, as we participate in our society and economy, have children, work and save, and so forth. Young Americans probably don’t know what the fuss is about. That’s because they are not yet participating fully in society. Some adult Americans–probably the spouses of the one “doing the taxes” in any given household–might also feign surprise. That is because they have chosen not to inquire into this scandal. But they are fooling themselves.

The only legal American way to keep things simple in matters of tax paperwork and hassle is not to live. That’s the only way. Don’t work, save, have children, move, and so forth. (Above all, never ever contemplate hiring a nanny!) So I think we can agree that a country that torments its citizens just for trying to make their dreams come true (might I say, for “pursuing their happiness”?) is not … free!

Short meditation on complexity and simplicity

Regular readers of The Hannibal Blog already know how important simplicity is to me, in all things aesthetic, creative, or administrative. Simplicity to me accompanies freedom. I feel free when I am free of clutter.

But I also recognize that nature is full of complexity. and that complexity can be beautiful. However, it comes in three very different kinds:

  1. Natural. Our bodies, for example, are extremely complex. The two nervous systems, the immune system, each organ, each cell, each organelle within each cell–all these are beautifully and mysteriously complex. However, this complexity has evolved, and comes with a “user interface” that remains extremely simple. We do not compute how to attack a virus in our body or how to inhale, we just do it. The complexity is hidden.
  2. Manmade, but following the path of nature: Our cars, for example, are constantly getting more complex. I might have been able to fix a Model T, but I can’t begin to comprehend the 20-odd computers that together represent my Prius. However, just as our bodies hide their complexity from us with a simple user interface, my Prius hides its complexity, so that driving (and bluetoothing, GPSing, etc) is simpler than it was in a Model T. Such complexity is actually sophistication. It works for us, and thus is humane.
  3. Manmade, and going against the path of nature. This is the bad one. This is where our bureaucracies reside. They get inexorably more complex, as surely as entropy increases anywhere in nature, but away from sophistication and toward oppression. They are inhumane. Our tax system is the best (meaning worst) example.

Symptoms of denial

So they arrive, the W2s, W4s, W8s, the 10this and 10thats, the Schedules A, B, C, D, E, F, the worksheets and other papers, and above all, those truly weird, out-of-nowhere, can’t-even-indentify, forms of the sort that we just got and now have the pleasure of disputing and investigating.

People respond in one of three ways.

  1. Take deep breaths, fire up TurboTax and just do it. Those of us who are youngish tend to do it, because we are the do-it-yourself generation, or don’t trust that a tax preparer would do it as meticulously as we will, or actually want to understand (gasp) our affairs.
  2. Get an accountant, forward all that dreadful crap to him, sign whatever he produces, and push the whole thing out of our consciousness.
  3. Break down and give up completely, not filing at all.

In my opinion, 3 is the worst, 2 is the second-worst, and 1 is merely bad. Why? Because all those in Number 2 are fooling themselves. They are accepting that they cannot, and never will, understand their own relationship to government. They are acquiescing in a subtle form of serfdom.

Summary

We can say, speaking for adult Americans who participate fully in life, society and economy, that:

Nobody truly understands why they pay what they pay

The tax system, in short, has become a black box.

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Black boxes are profoundly and inherently illiberal. Propaganda about “lands of the free” is empty when you’re shouting it over black boxes. (And there are other black boxes in American life, to which I will get.)

Finally, recall my two comparisons to Hong Kong: 1) There, my tax return was two pages, counting the bilingual translation, and I understood exactly what it contained. 2) This despite Hong Kong not being a democracy. How intriguing. As it turns out, it is our peculiar American brand of democracy that has caused this mess.

Of that, and of the possible ways out of this mess, more in posts to come.

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