On the Silk Road, Nick Bilton’s ‘American Kingpin,’ and the difference between being clever and being wise.

On the Silk Road, Nick Bilton’s ‘American Kingpin,’ and the difference between being clever and being wise.

There are many forms of intelligence.  A runner on our cross country team was a jittery kid with mediocre grades, but he was one of the most kinesthetically gifted people I’ve met.  He was good at construction, auto repairs, skateboarding, climbing, running, jumping …

Our society holds these skills in low regard.  We shower money and adulation onto klutzy math whizzes, whereas tactile learners are told they have “disabilities” like ADHD and are given potent psychoactive drugs to get them through each day at schools ill-designed for them.

I’m a klutzy math whiz, so maybe I shouldn’t complain.  But, if this kid had been born fifteen- or twenty-thousand years earlier, he could have been a king.  During most of human evolution, his talents would have been more valuable than my own.

I found myself thinking about the distinction between different types of intelligence while reading Nick Bilton’s American Kingpin.  The protagonist – who went by Ross Ulbricht in real life and “the Dread Pirate Roberts” online – was clever but un-wise.  And I don’t mean “un-wise” in the sense of antagonistically luring the wrath of government agents the world over – that’s ambitious, perhaps foolhardy, but it’s reasonable for an intelligent person to take risks while pushing back against oppression.  Attacking the Death Star is never as easy as it looks in movies; it’s still worth doing.

Ross_UlbrichtRoss Ulbricht was un-wise in that he dogmatically clung to his philosophical stances without regard for new evidence.  Ulbricht disliked the War on Drugs without considering that abetting the transfer of certain drugs could be as immoral as attempting to staunch their flow.  Our world is incredibly complicated, full of moral quandaries and shades of gray.  But Ulbricht treated real life like an undergraduate debate.

From Bilton’s American Kingpin:

9781591848141[A man going by the username “Variety Jones”] was a loyal servant and companion.  He had even talked about buying a helicopter company to break [Ulbricht] out of jail if he was ever caught.  “Remember that one day when you’re in the exercise yard, I’ll be the dude in the helicopter coming in low and fast, I promise,” he had written.  “With the amount of $ we’re generating, I could hire a small country to come get you.”

But even with that bond, fundamental disagreements over the direction of the site would crop up, and Variety Jones was trying desperately to steer [Ulbricht] in a new direction on a particular topic.

It wasn’t even up for debate in VJ’s mind that the Dread Pirate Roberts was as libertarian as they came and that he believed the Silk Road should be a place to buy and sell anything.  There were no rules and no regulations, and as a result there was something illegal for sale on the site for literally every letter of the alphabet.  Acid, benzos, coke, DMT, ecstasy, fizzies, GHB … but it was the letter H that had Variety Jones in a very difficult quandary.  He was fine with everything before and after that letter, but heroin – he hated it.

“I don’t even have a problem with coke,” VJ wrote to DPR, but “H, man – in prison I’ve seen guys – I wish that shit would go away.”

Variety Jones was open about the time he had spent in jail.  He told long and funny stories about people he had met behind bars and explained the ins and outs of getting around the system, including how cans of “mackerel” were the currency of choice in the British prison he had been confined to years earlier.

Instead of mackerel, many transactions in U.S. jails seem to be priced in terms of “Honey Buns,” shelf-stable sweet rolls often sold by commissaries for about a dollar each.  In class one day my co-teacher J.M. mentioned that in Richmond, Virginia, two honey buns could buy you a roll of toilet paper or a blowjob.

The guys in our class were incredulous.  “Two honeybuns for a blowjob?  That’s extortion right there.  Here it’s gonna run you one.”

“If that,” somebody added.

SONY DSC

 

But they thought the price of toilet paper sounded fair.  Apparently the guards are allowed to give out extra rolls, “but they’re not gonna give it to you unless you walk up to them with literally shit dripping down your arm.”  J.M. and I once walked by a pregnant woman in the tank pleading with a male guard to bring her an extra roll.

And many of the men in jail in Bloomington – especially the ones whose actions would make you think they loved H – wish there was less heroin around.  It seeps into every corner of their lives.

heroin-622x400

“My kid wanted some cereal, okay?  A bowl of cereal for breakfast.  So I got it for him, poured the cereal, poured the milk.  I went to get him a spoon.  First spoon I picked up, it had this big burn in the bottom.  I threw it in the trash.  And the next spoon too.  I went through … every spoon I took out of that drawer was burned.  I threw them all away.  My kid ate his cereal with a fork.”

He was trying.  But he slipped again and landed back in jail.

From American Kingpin:

Morally, though, Jones told Dread, “I don’t think I could make money off importing H.  If you want to, I’ll offer all the help and advice you need, but I don’t want to profit off of it.”

. . .

Ross had never seen the effects of heroin in person it still didn’t deter him from his belief system.  “I’ve got this separation between personal and business morality,” DPR explained to VJ.  “I would be there for a friend to help him break a drug dependency, and encourage him not to start, but I would never physically bar him from it if he didn’t ask me to.”

And yet, as harmful as addiction is, you could argue that the War on Drugs is worse.  After all, the War on Drugs pushes transactions underground; makes drug concentrations so variable that it’s hard not to overdose; makes harm reduction therapies borderline illegal.

If Ulbricht had been incarcerated simply for creating the Silk Road website, I’d have a lot of sympathy for him.

But, as a devout libertarian, Ulbricht thought it was okay to murder people.  Eventually, the FBI caught a computer programmer who’d been helping with the website.  During the bust, a rogue FBI agent used that programmer’s credentials to steal a bunch of money.

How could [Ulbricht] let someone steal [$350,000] from DPR and get away with a measly beating?  The conundrum lay in the reality that violence was not something Ross was used to, though it was something he believed in when absolutely necessary.

Finally, Variety Jones rang the final death knell.  “So, you’ve had your time to think,” he said.  “You’re sitting in the big chair, and you need to make a decision.”

I would have no problem wasting this guy,” DPR replied.

And so Ulbricht paid another rogue government agent to murder the innocent programmer.  He’d go on to pay for the murders of several more people.  And felt justified all the while – in his opinion, lethal violence was acceptable when used to protect his property rights.

By the same reasoning, anyone would be justified in murdering Ulbricht when his actions caused someone else’s property to lose value.  Because his website increased the availability of guns and addictive drugs, he had crossed that line.

This is the problem with libertarianism and anarchy – without a coalition government to monopolize violence, individuals take violence into their own hands.  Bad governments are terrifying, but unhinged individuals are pretty scary, too.  Ulbricht paid for murder and felt righteous the whole time.

Despite the juvenile, unreflective protagonist, American Kingpin is a charming read.  Ulbricht was clever.  Singlehandedly, surreptitiously, he did the work of a billion-dollar start-up company.

But he was wrecked by his success.  If he was intelligent enough to build the Silk Road, he thought, wasn’t he also qualified to decide who should live or die?

On Finn Murphy’s “The Long Haul” and our dying towns

On Finn Murphy’s “The Long Haul” and our dying towns

In Jason Shiga’s Empire State, the protagonist decides he will “see America” by traveling from Oakland, CA to New York City on a bus.  Everyone derides the plan as foolish – he’ll see only the great big slab of I-80 and some gas stations – but, because he’d kept his plan secret to surprise a friend, nobody warns him until it’s too late.

Professional movers, however, take occasional breaks from the highway to navigate their trucks down treacherous suburban streets.  It’s those excursions into the world where people actually live that lets movers understand America.  Crisp descriptions of those excursions make Finn Murphy’s The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road a charming read.

Murphy’s experience criss-crossing the United States has also give him a sharp perspective on our economy.  His political analysis is both more accurate and more concise than what’s been written by most academic researchers:

9780393608717_p0_v2_s192x300.jpgThe next day I picked up I-94 west and stopped for the night in Ann Arbor.  In college towns – like Chapel Hill, Boulder, Iowa City, Missoula, Austin, Madison, and Oxford, Mississippi, to name a few – all of a sudden, instead of unemployment, meth labs, and poverty, there are real jobs. As far as I can figure, the only places left in America that can boast of vibrant downtowns are college towns and high-end tourist towns.  In the rest of the country the downtowns were hollowed out when nobody was looking.  You might think it’s only your town that’s been ruined by sprawl, but it’s happened everywhere.  You’ve got the new CVS, the Walmart, the Home Depot on the fringes, while the old downtown is either empty or the buildings have a Goodwill store, an immigration law office, and an “antiques” store, meaning junk.  The chains on the outskirts provide the nine-dollar-an-hour jobs and wire the day’s receipts to Bentonville or New York every night.

I hate it personally, but we deserved what we got.  We wanted the eight-dollar sneakers and the forty-five-cent tube socks.  We didn’t consider that maybe it’d be a better bargain to pay twenty dollars for sneakers and buy them from the neighbor who owns the shoe store downtown and stocks sneakers made in Maine.

It’s too late now.  The game’s been won by companies who don’t give two shits about community character or decent jobs.  Congratufuckinglations, America!  We did the deal.  Now we’ve got an unlimited supply of cheap commodities and unhealthy food and crumbling downtowns, no sense of place, and a permanent underclass.

If a tourist poster of America were made with some verisimilitude, it would show a Subway franchise inside a convenience-store gas station with an underpaid immigrant mopping the floor and a street person at the traffic light holding a cardboard sign that reads ANYTHING HELPS.

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Most of The Long Haul is more chipper than the passage I’ve excerpted above – Murphy discusses how he chose his career, the basic principles of long-haul driving and packing other people’s belongings, the zen of hard manual labor, and what it meant to finally let go of his own anger and enjoy his time on this planet.  Both K and I loved the book.

But I wanted to share the passage above.  I’ve written previously about common misconceptions regarding “free-market capitalism” – a quick summary being that although the phrase “free-market capitalism” is used so commonly that most people sense intuitively what it means, it doesn’t actually mean anything.  To have a market, it cannot be free.  (This idea is explained succinctly in the beginning of Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism – you can read an excerpt in the essay linked above.)

As a handful of business owners and CEO destroy the social fabric of the United States, they depend upon government intervention to help them do it.  They need the government to enforce payment on certain types of contracts, but not others.  They need the government to prevent certain actions that lower others’ property values – I’ll be punished if I set fire to your building – but not others – I won’t be punished if I dump so much poison that your neighboring property becomes un-usable.

Our country’s particular set of rules & regulations have allowed a small number of people to accomplish what used to be the work of many.  Instead of a factory with 100 human workers, a foreman oversees 10 robots.  The foreman gets paid more than the prior workers, but most of their salary now goes to the factory owner.  And those 100 people who would have worked in the factory are mired in despair.  Some get service jobs.  Others take drugs.  We get the “unemployment, meth labs, and poverty” that Murphy described.

And even the relative prosperity of the main street in college towns is fragile.  In Bloomington we have several blocks with bookstores, comic shops, restaurants, bars, a public library, banks, clothing boutiques and smokeshops and the like.  But in the past few weeks, an escalating conflict between the police and people without houses has kept shoppers away from the downtown.

Herald Times front page
A recent front page from the local newspaper.

Indiana is in many ways a heartless state, so our little town is one of the few places where people in need can receive services.  Bloomington always has more poverty than you might expect for a city of just 100,000.  Of late, Bloomington is also a destination city for drug use: between the heroin cut with fentanyl and the wide variety of supposed THC analogs sold as “spice,” the ambulances have been responding to upwards of ten overdoses per day.

In jail the other day, T. told me,

“It’s getting to the point where heroin and meth are easier to find than pot.  When I got out of prison, I was three years clean, and I thought I was gonna make it … but I was walking by the Taco Bell and somebody handed me a rig, all loaded up and ready to go.”

G. said,

“It’s really hard to avoid it now.  It’s spread to places you really wouldn’t expect.  Like I remember ten years ago, the whole middle class crowd was doing the usual, some pot, some psychedelics, you know.  But now people from those circles, they’re shooting meth, they’re using H.”

T. said,

“You talk to somebody, they’re like, yeah, I got it all, what you need, what you need.  But you ask for pot, they’re like, naw, I don’t know where to get that.”

J. said,

“Okay, okay, these overdoses, you know?  Trust me, I’m a real spice-head, I smoke a lot of that shit, and these overdoses, they’re all just people, they don’t know how to handle it.  You can’t just jump in, you know, and smoke like I smoke.”

I asked him, “If pot were legal, would you smoke it.”

“Hell yeah I’d smoke pot.”

“No no, sorry, I mean, if pot were legal, would you smoke spice?”

The guys all laughed.  “Nobody would touch that shit.”

And yet.  In our town, now, people with all their belongings line main street.  The hospital spends some thirty thousand dollars a day sending the ambulance there for overdoses.  The cops hold their roll call several times a day in the public park where unhoused people used to sleep.  Occasionally a dozen or so people will be hauled into jail: they lose all their possessions.

And people who had been spending money at the little shops feel afraid to go downtown.  The places are all losing money … and when the money goes, compassion starts fading too.

It doesn’t take much for even a college town to become the post-apocalyptic husk that Murphy has seen spread all over our country.  Which is sad, especially since it wouldn’t take that much to help people – our most dire need is a guaranteed basic income, probably coupled to a public works program.  Instead we’ve settled for rampant inequality.  But harms that start elsewhere won’t stay elsewhere.

*******

post-script: in the time between when this essay was written & when it was posted, the crowds of unhoused people have disappeared from Bloomington’s main street.  And, two blocks away, the 280-bed county jail has had over 320 people locked inside for weeks.  Somehow, this doesn’t seem like a long-term solution.

On changing a life.

On changing a life.

Back in the 1990s, a buddy of mine was locked up repeatedly for possession of heroin in California.  The drug itself is illegal, and apparently my buddy was making some poor choices while under the influence.  You know, little mistakes, things like turning & running backward to flip off a cop while he fled, only to flip over the hood of a police car coming from the other direction.  Liberating quarters from coin-op laundromats.  Moving meth to fund his habit.

As a condition of probationary release, he was sentenced to rehab.  Required to participate in AA meetings.  He’d show up sullen, at least for a while, then start showing up stoned, then quit altogether as his addiction took hold.  Nobody can force you to get sober, he told me.  You can be forced not to use – if you’re locked up without it, then you’ll kick.  But that’s not the same as being sober.  You can’t be clean – not really – until you have a choice.

Unfortunately, that first moment of choice often comes at an awful time in people’s lives.  Incarceration is traumatic; so is release.  From Susan Burton and Cari Lynn’s Becoming Ms. Burton:

burtonThere’s also no logical reason why federal prisons offer halfway houses to those newly released, but state prisons provide nothing.  Four thousand newly released women arrive in Los Angeles County every year to nothing.  No re-entry programs, no counseling, no services, no assistance.  You have no house key, no credit card, no checkbook, no driver’s license, no Social Security card, no identification of any sort because anything you were carrying when you were arrested has been destroyed by the state.  You’re just one woman in the crowd of mostly black and brown faces, one number in the recidivism stats that are decidedly not in your favor.

Like vultures, the pimps circle, eyeing you, assessing you.  The drug dealers circle.  You know them from the old neighborhood, and they call you by name, offering their brand of a welcome home party.  You have little incentive to say no.  Ego tells you you’re gonna make it by any means necessary.  Ego tells you you’re a grown woman.  But you’re scared.  How do you calm yourself?  How do you connect with something healthy and hopeful when you’re surrounded by Skid Row?  When you haven’t been allowed to make a decision in five, ten, twenty years?  When all you want to do is wash prison off you, but you can’t, because it’s in you.  It’s seeped into your psyche and into your soul.

All I wanted was to ease the fear, ease the self-loathing, ease the hopelessness.  It seemed the only thing in the world I was certain of was how to escape by taking drugs, by self-medicating.  Three days: that’s the average time for someone to relapse after getting out of prison.  I knew nothing about statistics, but I knew that, in a drug high, I could escape into silence.

It takes a lot for an addict to get sober.  I don’t fault the people who want to get clean but keep slipping.  Still, this much is clear: you can’t change your life until you choose to.

#

I started teaching in the local jail because I felt ashamed.  I am a citizen of the United States, and the horrors of mass incarceration are inflicted on behalf of all citizens.  I personally owe an apology to those who’ve been yanked away from their lives unfairly … and to those children whose parents were taken away … and to those parents whose children were taken away … and to those who lost their neighbors … and to those whose loved ones were harmed by the violence begat by entire community’s loss of trust in the police, which required inhabitants to take justice into their own hands … and …

Given that some 2.5 million people in the U.S. are currently incarcerated … with another 5 million on probation or parole, a tiny slip away from being shipped away again … and which surely means tens of millions more whose lives have been sundered by the loss of a loved one … many of them innocent children … there is no way I could give a personal apology to everyone who deserves one.  I’m sorry, as a citizen of the United States, that your mother was yanked away on my behalf.

But I can go in and teach.  Last year, I spent about five hours each week inside the most miserable place in town.  Even now, after one of my classes was canceled, I spend close to three hours a week in there.  And I hate being in jail.  Everyone does.  It’s loud, bleak, malodorous, filled with stale air and flickering fluorescent light.  Full of angry people who won’t make eye contact when you talk, but will stand at the front of their cells and stare.  If you don’t see a dude, he might bang the glass and shout – I jump.

The elevator has buttons.  The buttons do nothing.

There is waiting.  Lots of waiting.

But the time I spend with the men in class (only men – the administration has declared all female inmates to be manipulative, irresistible seductresses and will not let male volunteers work with them, for the volunteers’ protection) is great.  They love our poetry class.  Despite the fact that many of these men stopped out of school and never looked at poetry on the outside, they are astute readers.

Several of the men in our classes grew to love writing as well.  Monster House Press has put together a literary magazine featuring some of their work, available here.

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Each week, we met with mid-level offenders in a classroom, and with recovering addicts inside the New Leaf New Life dormitory.  This latter was an incredibly grim space.  Twelve men lived inside this dormitory full-time; there were two steel tables with uncomfortable round seats attached for their meals in the “living area”; there were bunk beds in the “sleeping area”; they had a toilet and shower, the only portion of the room not under constant camera surveillance.  The concrete walls were painted gray, and the only window was a small, wire-reinforced pane in the door: this window looked out to the booking desk on the ground floor of the jail.

So: no exterior windows, no glimpse of sunlight, no fresh air, twelve grown men crammed together for months in a space smaller than the living room of my own (small) home.  A wall was shared with the drunk tank – sometimes somebody would be kicking & shit everywhere.  Sometimes a schizophrenic would sing ceaselessly for days.  Sometimes an angry inmate would rhythmically kick the steel door, every three seconds another KLOOOM reverberating through our skulls.

New Leaf had been granted this space by the jail because no one else wanted to be in there.

And yet that is where we held our best classes.  Even though the space was wretched, the men chose to be in there.  Volunteers – like J-M & me, and a dude who held AA classes, and a local linguist, and others – came in to offer some “enrichment.”  The men also created their own programming: one of the twelve conducted a meditation session each morning.  After our class had been going for a while, the men started reading poetry out loud to each other.  They were suffering, but they learned to suffer together.  In that small, crappy space, dudes riddled with Aryan Brotherhood tattoos befriended black men.  A dude forgave the informant who’d put him there.  Together, these men weathered the deaths of their parents, girlfriends, wives – mass incarceration has ravaged our country.  In the devastated communities left behind, people die all the time.

Hell, mass incarceration caught up with my wife and me, too.  Last November, my wife’s mother was murdered.  It’s unlikely the killer would’ve done it if he hadn’t been so severely distanced from his friends and family, locked up for a decade for a pair of low-level, non-violent drug crimes.  He sold crappy amounts of cocaine; ten years of his life were yanked away; now my mother-in-law is dead.

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To publicize the Monster House Press magazine with the men’s poetry, we made a video using the text of a poem from the collection, Max E.’s “San Diego 1985: I Felt Your Presence in the Absence of Time.”

 

poems+from+the+jail+dorm+cover

I love this poem for its depiction of epiphany.  It’s hard work to change your life, but before that work can even begin, you have to want to change.  As much as I hate the way we treat “criminals” in this country, many men have told me that they’re glad they were jolted from their routines – their lives were on a bad course and jail shook them awake, making them realize that they needed to change.

Surrounded by angry angels, this poem’s narrator realizes he’s made a mistake.

Given a reprieve from fate, that is when the hard work begins.  Here’s another excerpt from Becoming Ms. Burton:

Drugs are insidious.  A social ill for some folks, a criminal ill for others.

Jail had done nothing to stop my addiction.  Education, hard work, dedication, a support system, and knowing there were opportunities for me and that my life had value: these were what had made all the difference.  For the past twenty years of my sobriety, I deployed each of these facets, every day.

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Few people find the right path on their first attempt.  Collectively, nobody in the U.S. can claim to be on the right track.  We’re wrecking the environment, we’re wrecking lives … some of us try to tread lightly, but the world is still being wrecked on our behalf.  We all share the blame.

We, too, need to be jolted into change.

On fairness (and how we treat the utility monster).

On fairness (and how we treat the utility monster).

Life isn’t fair.

Why would it be?  It’s not as though the universe is a fair place.  Some stars get to chug along for years, placidly spewing forth radiation in a fiery inferno of nuclear fission… other stars explode, collapse, or die.

fittestAnd then, among the living?  There’s “survival of the fittest,” which may or may not be fair, exactly, but “survival of the fittest” doesn’t even apply most of the time.  This form of natural selection only works when there’s a large population of individuals bearing a new mutation.  If a new gene is beneficial, the carriers probably survive a little longer or raise a few extra children, and over many generations the gene spreads through the population.

That’s the ideal.  More often, mutations arise in one individual at a time.  Even if a mutation is very beneficial, like a squirrel gene that helps the little critter find and cache 20% more food for winter, there’s a good chance that with one chomp of a roving wolf’s jaws the beneficial mutation disappears.  Evolution relies on a hefty dollop of dumb luck before “survival of the fittest” kicks in.

And yet, most humans are interested in fairness.  Despite being born into a blatantly unfair universe, we strive for better.

defend_equality_poster_croppedBut it’s hard, not least because we have no examples showing us what fairness is.  Moral philosophers… and economists… and warlords, kings, peasants, and voters… have bickered for ages.  Would “fair” mean providing everyone with equal wealth?  Or equal opportunity?  Or equal treatment?

It’s quite clear that we’re not born equal.  We carry different genes.  Our mothers ate differently during pregnancy.  Would it be “fair” to recognize those inherent differences and provide more to those with the “best” genes, that they might flourish?  Or to provide more to those with the least biological advantages, that outcomes could be more equal?

Worse… it’s not clear, when we talk about making the world fair, who even counts.  Should we strive for fairness within our own families?  Our towns?  Our countries?  For all people who speak our language?  Or across the whole planet?

Not even species boundaries are definite things.  Biologists have no foolproof test for whether two creatures belong to the same species – you can’t be quite certain based on appearances, or genetic sequences, or the possibility of producing fertile offspring.  The latter (producing fertile offspring) is often taught in high school biology classes, but there are many instances of animals that biologists declare to be separate species mating and producing fertile offspring.

littleneck_clams_usda96c1862Sometimes you can be pretty confident.  If I walked into a room and saw you, dear reader, sitting beside a clam, I’d assume that you are more similar to me than the clam is.  But the boundaries are fuzzy.  Who is more similar to me, Barack Obama or 45?  Does the answer matter in terms of how each should be treated in a “fair” world?

Is a chimpanzee similar enough to me to deserve a little slice of fairness?  A macaque?  A cat?  A caterpillar?

The answer isn’t out there in the universe, waiting for us.  We have to decide for ourselves.

In economics – especially the conservative Milton-Friedman-esque strains – the goal is to make the world “Pareto optimal.”  This means no one could be made better off without making someone else worse off.  Of course, Pareto optimal distributions of wealth can be blatantly unfair – I’m not keen on the ideas of Milton Friedman.

481px-portrait_of_milton_friedman(One of my professors for graduate macroeconomics loved telling Friedman anecdotes, including a story about Friedman being asked his opinion on tax policy and simply rattling off the theorem “CE is PO.”  Where “CE” means “competitive equilibrium,” i.e. no tax policy at all.  He was joking, but barely.  Whereas all competent economists agree that people behave in wildly undesirable ways unless tax policy is used to balance the costs of negative externalities, i.e. you charge people for dumping pollution into the river.)

If a society has ten dollars and ten citizens, giving each citizen one dollar is Pareto optimal… but giving one person ten dollars and everyone else zero is also Pareto optimal.  The only distributions that aren’t Pareto optimal and the ones in which you forget to hand out all ten dollar bills.  If one person has nine dollars and no one else has any, that is not Pareto optimal.  Toss the last dollar bill at someone – anyone – and the distribution is.

So, okay, economists haven’t solved the fairness game.  Have moral philosophers done better?

One of the stronger (those still irreparably flawed) contenders for a “fair” way to run the world is “utilitarianism.”  This philosophy claims that we should act in a way that maximizes “utility,” i.e. happiness, for the population as a whole.  Which sounds good – who wouldn’t want to make everybody happy?

But… well, we can start simple.  Who should we include in our calculation?  All the presumed Homo sapiens currently living within a country?  Or do we include people living across the entire globe?  Or do we include people who have not yet been born (which makes a huge difference – should we churn through all our non-renewable resources to make everyone alive today as happy as can be, or do we save some happiness for the future)?  Or do we include other species?  Does the happiness of cows matter?  Or the happiness of people who feel sad when they see sad cows?

cow-farmsanctuary

To even get started on utilitarianism, you have to answer all those questions.

And then the real headache begins.  Because… how exactly do you calculate how happy someone is?  If I have one small cookie and two children, I can feel pretty confident that either child would be happy to eat it… at which point utilitarianism dictates that I give the cookie to the child who would enjoy it most.

Our capacity to experience joy, after all, is not equal.

This is the logic used for my favorite rebuttal of utilitarianism: the “utility monster” argument.

Utilitarianism imagines we should redistribute goods to make everyone as happy as possible.  Most people experience diminishing returns – a second bowl of ice cream does not make us as happy as the first – but it’s quite possible that my second cookie would bring me 9 units of utility, and your first cookie would bring only 6 units of utility (maybe you’re not fond of chocolate chips, or are diabetic), in which case, if we had two to share, I should get both.

monsterThe hypothetical Utility Monster is a creature so good at feeling happy that we should all sacrifice everything to satiate its desires, enslaving ourselves to its wants.  I might experience a “disutility” of 1,000 from being enslaved (actually, that seems low – would I really trade my freedom for a hundred cookies?), but if the Utility Monster gets a utility of 3,000 from having another slave, utilitarianism would chain me up.

(Worse, if the founding Americans knew that their slaves experienced a disutility of 1,000 from being enslaved, and a bigoted white “owner” gained only 300 from that ownership, utilitarianism would still say to do it if the founders felt that black emotions and experiences were only one fourth as meaningful as their own.  Or, in contemporary times: if a chicken receives a disutility of 1,000 from being treated as a food-production machine, and I receive a utility of only 30 from having eggs, utilitarianism says we should do it if the chicken is only one hundredth as important as a human being.  The weighted sum of utilities becomes my + 30 times 100 balanced by the chicken’s -1,000.  The world as a whole is better off!)

The Utility Monster is clearly an imaginary creature.  But there are people who are better at experiencing pleasure than others.  A human gene variant for nicotine receptors seems to make cigarettes more pleasurable, and the bearers have more trouble than average quitting smoking.  Several human gene variants seem correlated with enjoying food more, and the bearers are more likely to struggle with weight.

I don’t enjoy the taste of common desserts as much as my daughter.  If I had access to a cake and a bowl of hummus, I’d choose mostly chick peas.  Not out of any moral virtue – that’s simply the taste I enjoy more.  Whereas N would eat cake.

vicodinSimilarly, painkillers do not bring all humans the same pleasure.  Most people have been prescribed painkillers at one time or another; most college students have probably swallowed a few Vicodins recreationally.  Personally, I never enjoyed opiates much.  They made my mind feel slow, my skin cold, my movements underwater.  It was peaceful, but some people, like David Foster Wallace wigging out while pampered on a cruise ship, don’t enjoy that sense of peace as much as others.

The Utility Monster, however – a creature so good at feeling pleasure that we should all sacrifice ourselves to make it happy – would get hooked at the first taste.  My own failure to enjoy painkillers protected me from addiction.

In a society when most people try painkillers at one time or another – after wisdom teeth, or a broken arm, or a work-related back injury – those citizens who most resemble the mythical Utility Monster will wind up addicted.  After tasting that pleasure, they’ll do what they can to seek it out again.  Yes, there are costs.  Drugs are illegal.  Habitual drug use wrecks our minds and bodies.  We can’t properly communicate with our friends or families while blinkered on opiates.  But, if the pleasure is great enough (or the withdrawal pain of not using sufficiently severe), people will choose the drugs.

And so we can see what our society thinks of utilitarianism.  This philosophy advocates we sacrifice everything for those most capable of feeling pleasure.  In our world, we lock them in a box.

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On pain.

On pain.

Recently I heard a man read a beautiful poem.  The first half of his poem was a slangy narration of an evening out.  Then the piece turned, brutally, into a crystal clear description of his lover’s death by overdose.  Though he was not a user, he’d taken some of her shot, worried she might overdo it.  His fraction was enough to put him under, but not enough to save her.  He woke beside her body, cold.

When he finished reading, everyone in the room was still.  He was asked to read his poem again – it’s difficult for me to follow a poem aloud the first time I hear it, and I assume this is hard for other people, too – at which point he opened his mouth to speak.  Several seconds passed.  No sound came out.  Tears rolled down his face.  He shook his head.

No, he could not read the poem again.  He handed it to me and I read it aloud a second time for our class.

It was difficult for me to read.  My voice is squeaky and might well crack at the best of times.  And I’ve lost an uncle to overdose; nearly my namesake, too.  But I’ve lost less than the men in jail.

When I finished, several more were crying.

Habitual drug use ruins lives.  But the War on Drugs ends them.

Our culture rarely celebrates the endurance of pain.  There are exceptions, of course – professional sports dominates our media, with traffic in many cities tangling for hours on game days, and no one can argue that athletes do not suffer – but for the masses we promote convenience and ease.  Such are the advertisements that flicker seductively on our ubiquitous gargantuan TVs.

There’s fast food for whenever you feel hungry.  Programmers work round the clock to develop new ways for any interstitial time – stint in a waiting room, stop at a red light, lull in dinnertime conversation – to be filled with pleasurable distraction.  Nurses trained near the turn of the century were taught to eliminate pain amongst their wards, since the newest opiates were presumed to be much less addictive than their precursors.

Oops.

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In a culture that celebrates immediate gratification & constant ease – and, moreover, does not teach people how to gracefully suffer – painkiller use can easily spiral out of control.  Opiates ameliorate both physical and psychological pain; for many who’ve felt perpetually beleaguered by the world, a script after surgery might bring the first flush of mental relief in years.

I am not saying, after all, that Americans do not suffer.  Poverty hurts.  Through a cascade of cortisol, stress causes physical harm.  But our pain & forbearance is rarely celebrated.

Instead, we turn on the TV and see another ad for the latest pharmaceutical.

symptoms-muscle-painBut there’s a hook.  Painkillers do not remove pain, certainly not when the pain is psychological, stemming from structural disconnects between our desires and the world.  Painkillers simply act to make pain temporarily bearable.  Over time, painkillers aggravate pain.

This was demonstrated with a recent experiment asking opiate users to put their hands in cold water.  Pain is necessary – some people are born with unusually high pain tolerance, and these people are exceptionally prone to injury because they fail to extricate themselves from circumstances that ought to hurt.  Luckily, most people’s brains are looking out for them.  When people take painkillers, their bodies will produce fewer endogenous opiates and the signals reporting pain will scream louder, attempting to be heard over the muffling cloak of chemical numbing.

If a person uses painkillers too long then tries to quit, the body’s efforts to re-sensitize to pain will make every moment agony.  Dip a hand into chilly water and it’ll feel unbearable.  Our skin is a huge surface, and nerve endings grope throughout our body: when quitting, all scream hurt!

According to William Burroughs, “No one will stand still for junk sickness unless he is in jail or otherwise cut off from junk.  The reason it is practically impossible to stop using and cure yourself is that the sickness lasts five to eight days.  Twelve hours of it would be easy, twenty-four possible, but five to eight days is too long.”

The sickness can drag on interminably.  The agony.  Worse, the mind knows all the while that there is a way to make it stop.  Another pill.  Or, if you can’t afford a pill, then…

409px-bayer_heroin_bottlePainkillers are known entities, with precisely calibrated dosage, but they are expensive.  Even for those with money, they require a prescription.  Many switch to heroin, which might be ten-fold cheaper, but the War on Drugs ensures that heroin users face mystery dosage.  The product is gravely unstandardized.  Here in the Midwest, where the cartels sometimes experiment with new blends, new compounds to cut their product with, no one can anticipate the effects.

Hearts slow, lips turn blue.  By forcing everything underground – unregulated, uncontrolled – the War on Drugs prevents users from learning their limits.  A safe dose from one batch might kill you from another.  Users are well away from medical care.

But there are intimations that, as more and more wealthy, “respectable” people get hooked, the world might change.  In Vancouver, Canada, users are provided with a space safe to inject, and one consequence has been a drop in the rate of addiction.  It’s easier to quit when you’re not cut off from the world by the stigma of being considered a criminal.  And decriminalization would allow addicts to choose safer alternatives – my namesake, who didn’t die, was able to obtain standardized pills.

speaker_at_the_2010_annual_rally_against_the_war_on_drugs_at_u-c-_berkeleyIf it were legal, marijuana could supplant some opiate use.  Pot isn’t harmless, but one of the worse side-effects is that it makes people insufferably boring.  This seems preferable to making them dead.

Within the depths of addiction, the world looks awful.  Many users want to quit.  But quitting means suffering through the spell when the body screams, and the mind feels nary better … and we’ve criminalized help.

On the shifting sands of family, specifically: whose counts?

On the shifting sands of family, specifically: whose counts?

In her fourth year of graduate school, an acquaintance of mine realized that 1.) her project was going nowhere, 2.) she was uninterested in the particular field of developmental biology she’d been assigned, and 3.) she wanted to devote her life to anything but research.  She began dragging herself to work later and later each morning, checking out earlier and earlier in the afternoon.  In a department where most people worked from ten a.m. till eight p.m., she arrived near noon and left by four.

Her advisor — who at one of our departmental retreats gave a fifteen minute presentation describing the need for a slightly better animal model of the developmental process they were studying, then clicked forward to a slide showing a rare primate cuter than anything I even realized existed and announced his hope that his students would soon be dissecting them — was flush with grant money.  He was managing a huge team of students and post-docs.  It took months before he noticed her slothful behavior.

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Mouse lemur.  See, I told you: incredibly cute.

Eventually, though, he did.  At which point he called her into his office, closed the door, and told her sternly, “_____, I don’t even leave that early, and I have a family.”

I’d like to imagine that he meant to say he had school-aged kids.

A few months later, our department hosted a special event for women in science.  Invitations were sent to a dozen female post-docs around the country, rising stars who were interviewing for faculty positions.  They were wined & dined.  There were, as ever, several seminars.  The women met privately with various professors to discuss grant writing, laboratory management, that sort of thing.

At a luncheon for these professors-to-be hosted by the two female professors from my department, one of the guests asked, “How many female professors at Stanford have families?”

It’s a pertinent question.

The tenured professor sitting at the head of the table leaned forward and said, chidingly, “________, we all have families.”

The woman who had asked felt too embarrassed to clarify that she’d meant children and so never (officially) received an answer.  Personally, I don’t remember the percentage for the university as a whole.  Not high.

Woman_teaching_geometryI do know that neither of the female professors in my department had children.  As it happens, this absence was something that the woman who’d leaned forward to answer the question had complained about frequently to her students.  And yet she also declined to hire a promising post-doctoral candidate when she learned that the woman had a child (and sternly lectured her students, who had chatted with the woman, that they should’ve reported this bit of espionage back to her sooner so that she wouldn’t have wasted so much time considering a mother), and demoted a hard-working post-doc to effectively “research assistant” status after the woman gave birth.  That post-doc, deeply aggrieved, soon switched laboratories and went on to considerable success.  Despite her “strange” priorities.

The concept of family can shift and squirm, becoming whatever those in power want it to be.

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Of course, it’s hard to see the blight from here.

I found myself thinking about this while reading a recent New York Times article titled (on paper) “Violence in St. Louis traced to cheap Mexican heroin.”  The article is bleak, as you might expect.  The current culture of the United States values instant gratification and devalues suffering, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s been a boom in painkiller prescriptions.  But painkillers are addictive.  And painkillers are expensive.  After people acquire a taste for opiates, many switch to heroin — compared to vitamin V, it’s a bargain!

Heroin is cheaper for consumers than most pharmaceuticals, but it still yields hefty profits for the dudes at the top of the supply chain.  Hawkers on the street eke out sub-minimum wage, but they can see the big money at the top and dream the dream.  And those hefty profits have lured bad men with guns to the trade.  Feel free to read my recent post on Ioan Grillo’s Gangster Warlords here.

So, there’s a lot of money involved.  And the product is illegal, which means there are no state-sanctioned protections for that money.  Inevitably, this leads to violence.  That’s what the Times article was about.  Nothing you wouldn’t expect.

What struck me was this line:

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Mr. Slay in conversation with U.S. Sen. Clarie McCaskill (Flickr).

“These heroin addicts are daughters, sons, husbands, wives, or, in my case, a brother,” Mr. Slay [the mayor of St. Louis, whose brother was arrested for possession] told reporters last month.

It’s nice that Mr. Slay is able to distinguish these addicts from the addicts of the past, who were all robots, test-tube babies, science experiments gone wrong, and other socially-isolated monstrosities.  Or, wait.  No.  Those heroin addicts were minorities, as opposed to daughters, sons, husbands, wives, or brothers.  Which was why they deserved incarceration, as opposed to the treatment options that have been vociferously proposed recently.

And even that was never true.  The popular misconception was that most heroin users were black people.  But, even when our brutal imprisonment of drug addicts was at its peak, it’s unlikely that more than about 15% of heroin users were black.  All the statistics are vaguely suspect — it’s not easy to study criminal behavior — but most data suggest roughly equal rates of heroin abuse across ethnicities.

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Graph on the left by Timeshifter (Wikipedia).

Black users were over-represented in prisons, but that’s because our criminal justice system (from police officers to district attorneys to judges) views black people’s drug use as scarier than drug use by “these heroin addicts.”  The mothers and sons and brothers.

(It’s perhaps worth noting that, although heroin use does not seem to enrich for any particular ethnicity, it is inversely correlated with wealth.  People with money can afford prescription painkillers.)

I’m not upset that politicians are finally willing to acknowledge that drug users have families.  Or that drug users deserve our compassion and mercy.  It’s true.  They do.

They always have.

On sex work, reparations, a global wealth tax, and the connection between the three.

On sex work, reparations, a global wealth tax, and the connection between the three.

CaptureMany people are upset that Amnesty International finally came out in favor of decriminalizing sex work.

Not me.  I think decriminalizing sex work is a step in the right direction.  Sex workers’ lives are often miserable.  Their underground status denies them police protection; instead, they are often actively abused by the police.

The philosophical rationale for outlawing sex work is at least more sound than the equivalent rationale for outlawing the drug trade, though.  I’m in favor of decriminalization for both, but in the case of sex work I acknowledge that there are extremely valid reasons to feel squeamish about the tacit approval conferred by decriminalization.

Laws are just only insofar as they protect people.  Driving laws are imminently just — letting people drive however they wanted would endanger the lives of everyone else on or near roadways.  Whereas drug laws appear at first glance to be imminently unjust — if a burnout decides to loaf around his apartment, smoke a jay, watch some television, it would seem that no one else is harmed.

Only two arguments I’ve seen for outlawing drug use have any merit.  One is that a person under the influence of a particular compound cannot be trusted to peacefully loaf in his apartment.  Amphetamine use, for instance, both confers extra energy and impairs judgement (the latter effect is due mostly to lack of sleep, not a pharmacological effect of amphetamines themselves, but I think it’s fair to make this approximation since amphetamines impede sleep.  This is especially true for the methylated analogues because that methylation slows drug metabolism; the half-life is so long that a single dose can prevent someone from sleeping for a day or two).

It’s reasonable to guess that people given free access to amphetamines would become unlawful.

CaptureOf course, we outlawed amphetamines poorly.  They are all scheduled, meaning they are all illegal to purchase or possess without a prescription… but many flavors can be purchased in large quantities with a valid prescription.

In practice, this means that amphetamines are outlawed for poor people.  Wealthy college students and medical doctors and tenure-track professors all have ready access.  So the way amphetamines are outlawed in this country is clearly unjust, and rampant abuse among wealthy populations belies the notion that amphetamines lead to lawless behavior… but as long as you ignore the empirical evidence and just focus on the theory, the philosophical rationale makes sense.

The other argument for outlawing drug use is that compounds are so addictive, and so dangerous, that we should accept some harm to adults (imprisonment, the danger of participating in underground markets) in order to prevent children from ever trying drugs.  Children, knowing that the laws make users’ lives awful, might consider that extra cost and decide that a first taste isn’t worth it.  Additionally, the laws might reduce access, so there’d be less risk that a child ever has an opportunity to choose poorly.

Personally, I think this is a rotten strategy.  There are viable alternatives that allow adult access while still keeping a good or service out of the hands of children.  These strategies also tend to break down in markets for illegal goods or services.  In many regions of our country it is easier for children to buy marijuana than alcohol.  And we now have nearly a half-century’s worth of evidence that harm caused by the War on Drugs outweighs the potential paternalistic protection afforded to children.

The War on Drugs has led to heroin overdoses because illegal goods have limited quality control.  Brutality & murder in impoverished urban areas because people without access to police protection depend upon reprisal to maintain order.  Brutality, murder, rape, kidnapping, terror & more in huge swaths of Mexico, all clearly the result of U.S. drug policy.  And millions of harmless people denied their freedom in U.S. prisons, effectively state-sponsored partial murders because those people forfeit the bulk of their adult lives.

But, again, that’s merely empirical evidence.  None of that contradicts the theoretical justification for outlawing drug use, the idea that some harm to adults is acceptable in order to protect children.  Perhaps our legislators simply care about children’s well-being much more than I do.

(Except, right, they don’t care about children in Mexico.  Or those living in our nation’s dangerous inner cities.  Or those who grow up without access to their incarcerated parents.  But, give our legislators a break!  Empathy fatigue is real!  They can’t be expected to maintain the same degree of concern for everyone.  Shouldn’t they be commended that they at least care deeply about the well-being of privileged suburban children?)

It felt necessary to detail those arguments because they also provide the motivation for outlawing sex work.

The feminist argument resembles the supposition that people allowed to buy drugs will then behave unacceptably.  The idea is that men who are allowed to purchase women’s bodies will devalue women in general.  I’m skeptical, though.  After decriminalization, most bodies will still not be for sale.  No one would be forced to participate in the sex trade.  And just because you can walk into a sparring gym and pay a boxing instructor to let you take some swings at him does not mean that people think it’s fair game to throw down some bills and punch whomever they like.

shutterstock_128676716-800x430It’s true that we live in a very misogynistic culture.  Some misogynists might feel empowered to talk & act even more crudely if they were legally allowed to purchase sex.  But it’s not as though misogynists are currently unable to purchase sex.  And our current system denies sex workers protection against bad actors — decriminalization would confer dignity and allow them to demand more respectful treatment from their clientele.

And there is a serious problem with the “increase the cost of participation in the sex trade to protect people from it” argument.  A major reason why people need to be protected from joining the trade is that it is illegal.  Decriminalization would reduce the dangers.  And even though current laws against sex work increase the cost of participation, there are still many people willing to pay that cost.  There are individuals who want to buy sex.  There are desperate people who need money.  Ironically, the laws against sex work even reduce the amount of money that the latter group can earn.

(Some economics in brief: demand for most goods is based on price.  If price increases, demand goes down.  For purchasers of illegal sex, the risk of being caught is an additional cost.  Which means that in every transaction they are paying in both dollars and risk.  If the legal risk were instead zero, the amount of dollars that buyers would be willing to pay for identical services would increase.)

This is where my personal qualms come in, by the way.  I’m willing to believe that some people are genuinely willing to sell sex.  I’ve spoken with several people who enjoy working as massage therapists, and to my mind some types of sex work differ in degree, not in kind, from massage.  A professional uses practiced touch to confer physiological and psychological wellness.

The problem is that people who did not want to but had no other options might also sell sex.

Lydia_Cacho_en_entrevistaI’m in favor of decriminalizing sex work, but I think that if we do decriminalize sex work but make no other changes to the world, the result will be evil.  Women will continue to be hurt in ways resembling those documented by Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery, Inc.  (The book is great — if you care about these issues, it’s well worth a read.  Also, if somebody ever starts printing heroic human rights worker trading cards, I’d definitely nominate Cacho to appear in the first set.)

Without a concurrent effort to address poverty, decriminalizing sex work could reasonably be construed as coercive.  The impoverished might well feel compelled to participate in order to survive.  If people have extremely limited options, making one option more attractive does funnel people into participation.  It wouldn’t be entirely against their will, but survival impetus means it wouldn’t be entirely voluntary either.  Ironically, their near-forced participation would also reduce the amount that all those desperate people could earn from each unwanted act.

(The other side of price equilibrium is based on supply — if supply of a good is high, like if many hungry people have to sell sex to have enough money to eat, the price has to be lowered to move the whole quantity.  Poverty-impelled participants would undermine each other’s wages.)

Part of why this is so crummy is that we have sufficient resources to fix this.  The productivity gains from modern automation and agriculture mean we could probably provide all people with food, shelter, and basic utilities (water will get trickier as time goes on) for free.  The rudiments of survival don’t cost that much relative to modern production capacity.

And a guarantee of subsistence would make the idea of decriminalized sex work much more palatable.  The idea of sex being traded as commerce isn’t so problematic in and of itself — as I mentioned, I see it as being on the same continuum as legal massage… or mosh pits, which also provide paid access to human contact.  The horrors come from people feeling pressured to sell sex in order to survive.

In my opinion, a guaranteed minimum standard of living is also the most practical form for reparations to take.

320px-Ta-Nehisi_CoatesI really enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article about reparations (“The Case for Reparations”).  It wasn’t at all pedantic or abstract — which means that I was clearly not the intended audience — but I enjoyed it all the same.  One of his main aims is to show that people alive today have been victimized by the long legacy of racially-motivated abuse in the United States.  Which means reparations would be not only an acknowledgement of long-past wrongs, but would also serve to ameliorate very recent & ongoing harm.

In his article, however, Coates did not address who would pay or how reparations might be fairly distributed.  To my mind those practical considerations are of utmost importance in deciding whether the idea is at all viable.

I think it is.  I think that a global wealth tax used to fund a minimum standard of living for all people is plausible, philosophically justifiable, and would have meaningful economic & psychological consequences for the decedents of oppressed peoples.

I wrote about some of the underlying principles in my previous post about the creepy parallel between gene duplication and oppression — the idea that our cultural & technological heritage is the product of exploitation because subjugation of the world’s many allowed a free-riding few to pursue goals other than subsistence.  This has rough equivalence to the way advancement comes about in evolution — gene duplication produces free-riding DNA sequences that are allowed to drift because the original copy takes care of required function.

But the basic idea behind using a wealth tax to fund reparations is even simpler: wealth begets wealth.  Initial inequalities in distribution (which probably even existed amongst “egalitarian” hunter gatherers) will, over time, magnify into dramatic unfairness.  Wealthy heirs earn far more by renting their property than our hardest workers possibly could via effort alone.

I’m not sure anyone still thinks that communism is a reasonable fix for this, though.  As much as I dislike Ayn Rand’s writing (although it’s fascinating to me that many feminists and conservative Christians both like her books… this despite repeated depictions of Rand’s ideal men sexually assaulting her ideal women and Rand’s clear disdain for Christianity), I agree with some of her arguments against communism.  Knowing that you can’t profit from your efforts saps motivation.  Absolute equality undermines personal value.  And it seems just plain strange to have your net worth instantly decrease whenever a stranger has a child.

345829246_a7434a76dcMore reasonable, to my mind, is a tax on total wealth.  This would not devalue effort because it ignores income; the tax would be based on current holdings.  Taxation at any amount less than the rental income rate would still leave that maxim “wealth begets wealth” untouched… the only change would be that wealth would beget slightly less wealth.  (A reasonable rate of return on wealth right now, like if you buy some certificates of deposit, is about 3%.  Historically 5% is standard, and the largest property holders are often able to attain rates of 8% – 12%.  If you’d like to read a little more about this, you could check out my previous post on wealth tax, automation, & human trafficking.)

A global wealth tax would be philosophically justifiable as an acknowledgement that all current holdings can be traced back through time to violence and oppression.  For instance, no one created land (this isn’t entirely true — China has been constructing islands, and you could argue that draining the weather-buffering swamps in Florida and Louisiana was akin to creating land — but for most places, though most of history, it’s true enough).

It’s pretty easy to see land entitlement as having resulted from violence.  Humans migrated into new territory, killed off the dangerous animals that were there, then were murdered in turn by a new wave of human migrants, who were then murdered by new migrants, over and over until the conquerors were sufficiently powerful to defend their property and stop the cycle of theft.

Or there’s the case of the United States.  Our current wealth reflects our long history as a global superpower, but that history began somewhere.  First European settlers massacred the Native Americans.  Our meteoric rise was then propelled by cotton.  And how was the United States able to dominate the world’s cotton market?

Oh, right.

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Our nation’s rise as an economic superpower was due to the brutal exploitation of black laborers.

Murder of those who resisted their enslavement.  Rape to propagate an imprisoned people.

Because wealth begets wealth, and because economic reparations were never paid, all current wealth in this country can be traced back to that initial evil.  Our nation’s initial prosperity came from sin.  Everyone who enjoys good fortune here today benefits from & is thereby marked by crimes whose reverberations have not ended & will not end on their own.

I’m not saying that no one did honest work later.  Obviously hundreds of millions did.  Your parents presumably did not oppress anyone in order to purchase their house.

But that doesn’t change the legacy.  If they were lucky, your parents received a decent education — their schools’ funding did not materialize wholesale from the aether.  They presumably received a loan to be able to purchase a home (the Coates reparations article has some excellent documentation for historic and contemporary harm perpetuated by both our nation’s banks & federal lending policies).  The original inhabitants of the land on which that home was built were murdered.  The national prosperity that makes that land more valuable than an equivalent parcel elsewhere was bled out of generations of slaves.

It’s too late to seek forgiveness for sins perpetuated against those who are now dead, but economic reparations could serve to make current wealth clean.

There is, of course, the question of who should benefit from reparations.  History is sufficiently tangled that I don’t think any attempt at strict accounting of whose ancestors were harmed & how much would be fruitful.  Nor do I think an accounting of that sort is necessary.  In contemporary times, the most egregious harms result from our failure to provide for the children of the poor — in our country, not only does wealth perpetuate itself, we have policies that go a long way toward guaranteeing that poverty will perpetuate itself as well.

This could be ameliorated by providing all people with a minimum standard of living.  Children can’t learn when they’re hungry. It wouldn’t cost much to offer all students a peanut butter & jelly sandwich (or a calorically-equivalent hypoallergenic meal) at the beginning of each school day.  Instead we let them sit in classrooms with rumbling stomachs & agitated minds and chastise their teachers when they fail.

Children who work long hours to help their parents pay rent (please scroll to the bottom of this article and read the final 10 paragraphs — the rest is good too, but I’ve picked out the most heartbreaking section for you) can’t learn well either.  Even children who simply stay awake worrying what’ll happen to their families are at a major disadvantage.  If you’re worried about having enough money to survive, you can’t really think about anything else (feel free to check out Mani et al.’s “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” if you haven’t seen it yet, or see this recent post).

If food & shelter & basic utilities were guaranteed, we’d cut down on those worries.  Poor people would be given room to breathe and think and plan.

(Are you one of those people who likes numbers?  Here is a tiny bit of math to support my claim that this is feasible.  I’d say $500 per month per person is reasonable to provide food, shelter, and utilities — honestly, this amount comes close to cutting it in Bloomington IN, and that’s without any dedicated infrastructure for the project.  For most of the globe, $500 might be a vast overestimate.  With a world population of seven billion, that puts us at needing $3.5 trillion per year if all people wanted to take advantage of the crappy minimum offerings.  Under a twentieth of the gross world product.  And, regarding a wealth tax, it would take approximately a 1.5% tax on wealth holdings to fund that full amount.  That’s well below the historical 5% rate of return for capital.)

This implementation wouldn’t explicitly target blacks.  Maybe that’s a bad thing, because it wouldn’t make the apology aspect of reparations explicit.  This nation, as a collective, has done wrong and should atone for it.  But our nation’s blacks do suffer the slings of poverty more severely than other citizens (largely because we still have policies in place that ensure that they will), so a serious program to address poverty would benefit many who’ve inherited that legacy of mistreatment.  And the impoverished masses in other countries generally reside in areas that were once (or are still) exploited by our world’s now-wealthy nations.  Their plight reflects past theft of their resources.

And, getting back to sex work — many of the problems that will come from decriminalized sex work would not arise in a world with guaranteed subsistence.

People might feel compelled to sell sex against their wishes if the practice is decriminalized and they need money to survive but have no other way of obtaining it.  Many of the current ails of sex workers result from their criminal status.  But without addressing poverty, it is likely that sex workers will still be denied police protection because they’ll still be considered criminals.  Instead of being criminals by virtue of being sex workers, they’ll be considered criminals because of immigration status.  Impoverished people have long been trafficked to regions with decriminalized sex work and held hostage by the threat of fines, deportation, and reprisal against their families.

5611594783_8e9a533564_bWhich obviously sounds grim.  But I don’t think those are inherent consequences of decriminalized sex work.  Those are the consequences of impoverished desperation amongst people with few options.  Similar economic motivations underlie participation in unethical organ markets (which I wrote about for my first post to this website).

Still, I’d like to thank Amnesty International.  Their advocacy for decriminalization is sorely needed.  But I expect to hear many more horror stories akin to those documented in Cacho’s book unless we make a sincere effort to combat poverty.  Micro-loans or not-quite-enough-to-live-on food allotments are not going to cut it.  People need to know that they’ll at least survive if something goes wrong.

Also, how did I type up this whole post without including the Balzac epigraph from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather?  I’ll include it here — please pretend you read it earlier, to punctuate any of the above paragraphs where it would’ve been appropriate.

“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”