On AIDS and drought in Malawi.

On AIDS and drought in Malawi.

Nobody wants to be bitten by a wild animal.  Even my former housemate, who is exceedingly likely to wrestle raccoons or be chased up a tree by a flock of angry turkeys each time she visits her ancestral home, would prefer not to be bitten.  But let’s say you slip up.  Make a wrong move and let some critter sink its teeth into your wrist.  In the United States, there are limited consequences to your mistake.raccoon.JPG

Maybe you’ve heard that the rabies vaccine is scary, but it’s not so bad.  A series of four; none hurt; none made me feel sore.  It did hurt when the nurse injected human-anti-rabies immune serum directly into my wound.  I began a long, loud diatribe – I know this is for the best, and I know that it hurting is not your fault, but I am decidedly unhappy right now – that went on for the entire twenty minutes it took for the nurse to inject ten milliliters.  All the children screaming in the ER at four a.m. sudden became very quiet; because the hospital was overcrowded that night, I was on a gurney just outside their ward.

Still, I didn’t suffer much.  By five thirty I was home, snoozing contentedly.

I’m not saying that health care in the United States is great.  I was a graduate student at Stanford.  We had fancy coverage.  I could drop by a fantastic hospital for free.  Others are less lucky.  People go broke from medical bills in this country.

I am saying that health care in the United States is pretty great compared to the standard fare on offer in Malawi.

malawiMalawi is a very poor country.  We – meaning not you & I personally, but rather the people who engendered the prosperity of the United States, from whom the contemporary beneficiaries inherited both wealth and blame – are responsible for the poverty of Malawi.  Throughout Africa, resources were plundered.  Europeans brought horrific violence to the continent.  And, because wealth begets wealth, the repercussions of these sins have grown more severe over time.  Unless there is a conscious effort to repair past economic wrongs, they won’t vanish on their own.

This same principle underpins lingering individual inequality in the United States.  Some wounds, time does not heal.  A rising tide only lifts those comfortably ensconced in boats.  The world’s plundered nations are still struggling, sinking farther and farther behind.

In addition to dire economic circumstances, Malawi has been ravaged by an HIV epidemic.  Ten percent of the population, approximately 1 million people, are living with HIV.  30,000 or more die of HIV-related illnesses each year.  This public health crisis is tragically self-perpetuating.  Poverty exacerbates epidemics by reducing access to medication and pushing people toward riskier lifestyles.  And then it’s hard to escape poverty since young people are dying daily and huge numbers of children are orphaned by disease.

In the United States, we often discuss the curtailed economic prospects for children raised in single-parent households.  Those children have it hard.  Now picture all the Malawian children in zero-parent households.

My father, who has worked with sick patients in HIV clinics in the United States for many years, is now practicing medicine in Malawi.  It’s grim.  For instance, the reason I began this piece with a description of rabies vaccination?  Those vaccines are not available in Malawi.  Instead of four relatively painless shots, those who get bit face death.

After four decades of practice as an infectious disease doctor, my father has obviously seen patients die.  But a sign like the one below is new for him.

image1 (1).JPG

“Dying from rabies is a terrifying experience for both the patient and their relatives,” it says, before admonishing, “Don’t forget to ask about spiritual needs!”  Nothing drives home privilege like the thought that someone else’s son would die from the sort of bite that simply sent your own to a hospital for a late night.

It feels even worse knowing that his doctoring – and my sister’s, who will be traveling to Malawi with her newborn child to practice pediatric medicine starting this fall – is a meager staunch against whelming calamity.  People are dying now.  They can’t make effective long-term plans when the short-term outlook is so bleak.

And yet.  Poverty there is so deep, and infrastructure so quickly deteriorating, that many people have been chopping down the country’s few remaining forests to produce charcoal.  For many, charcoal production is the only source of income.  For others, in circumstances only slightly less dire, it’s necessary to buy charcoal to weather the frequent blackouts.  Even those responsible for protecting the forests buy illegal charcoal.  There’s no winning.

Without the forests, there will be drought.  When the drought comes, people will starve.  Climate change – caused primarily by the nations responsible for plundering our world’s currently-impoverished nations, yet which will beleaguer those plundered nations first – will exacerbate this problem.  New tragedies are coming.

I’ve obviously benefited from the prosperity of the United States.  I have a computer.  I have access to the internet.  When I turn the tap, there is clean water.  When I flick a switch, the room is instantly (and always!) illuminated.

But this means that the blame for the current plight of our world’s plundered nations – which brought my prosperity – falls on me, too.  I’m glad that my family members are doing what they can to help.  I wish it were enough.

On Robert Gordon’s ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth.’

On Robert Gordon’s ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth.’

k10544I read Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth during nap time. My daughter was just shy of two years old. She liked to sleep curled against my arm; I was left with just one hand to hold whatever book I was reading during her nap.

If you’re particularly susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome, I’d recommend you not attempt to read Gordon’s book one-handed. I had a library hardcover. My wrists hurt quite a bit those weeks.

But I was pleased that Gordon was attempting to quantity the economic value of my time. After all, I am an unpaid caretaker for my daughter. My contribution to our nation’s GDP is zero. From the perspective of many economists, time spent caring for my daughter is equivalent to flopping down on the couch and watching television all day.

Even very bright people discount this work. My best friend from college, a brilliant urologist, was telling me that he felt sad, after his kid had been in day care, that he didn’t know how to calm her down anymore, but then laughed it off with “Nobody remembers those early years anyway.”

I understand that not everyone has the flexibility to sacrifice career progress for children. But, I reminded him, it isn’t about episodic memory. These years build the emotional pallet that will color my daughter’s experiences for the rest of her life.

And it’s important, as a feminist, to do what I can to demonstrate a respect for caretaking. I believe, obviously, that someone’s gender should not curtail their choices; people should be allowed to pursue the careers they want. But I think it’s silly to imply that biology has no effect. Hormones are powerful things, and human males & females are awash in different ones. This isn’t destiny. But it does suggest that, in large populations, we should not be surprised if people with a certain set of hormones are more often drawn toward a particular type of work.

I think it’s important for a feminist to support not only women who want to become cardiac surgeons, but also to push back against the societal judgment that surgery is more worthy of respect than pediatrics. As a male feminist, there is no louder way for me to announce that I think caretaking is important than to do it.

Your_WASHING_MACHINE...Helps_Keep_Clothes_Clean...Make_Your_Equipment_Last._-_NARA_-_514669I felt pleased that Gordon attempted to quantify the economic value of unpaid work like I was doing. Otherwise you would come to the bizarre conclusion that time-saving home appliances – a washing machine, for instance – have no economic value because a stay-at-home mother gains only worthless time. Those extra minutes not spent washing dishes still contribute nothing to the GDP.

Gordon argues – correctly – that better health, more attentive parenting, and more leisure do have value.

So I was happy with the dude. But I still disagreed with his main conclusion.

Gordon also argues that we will have low economic growth for the foreseeable future – and I’m with him here – because our previous growth rate was driven by technological innovation.

Here’s the rub: once you invent something, nobody will invent it again. Learning to harness electricity was great! A world with electrical appliances is very different from, and probably better than, a world without.

refrigerator-158634_960_720But the massive boost in productivity that accompanied the spread of electrical appliances can’t happen twice. Once everybody already has an electrical refrigerator, that opportunity for growth is gone.

The same is true of any technology. Once everybody has clean water (setting aside for a moment the fact that many people in the United States do not have clean water piped into their homes), you won’t see another jump in quality of life from water delivery. At that point the changes would be incremental: perhaps delivering clean water more efficiently or wasting less of that water once it arrives. Important, sure. But those are tiny changes. Low growth. Nothing like difference between turning on a tap versus hauling water back to the house in buckets.

water
One of these seems easier than the other.

Gordon thinks that the major technologies were all invented by the 1970s. Just like the physicists who thought their field would devolve into more precise measurement of the important constants, Gordon feels that there is little more to be made. Which has led to a pattern in reviews of his book: the reviewer feels obliged to rattle off potential inventions that have not yet been made. For the New York Times, Steven Rattner mentioned driver-less cars. For the New York Review of Books, William D. Nordhaus posits the development of artificial intelligence smarter than we are.

Speculating on future technologies is fun. I could offer up a few of my own. Rational enzyme design, for instance, would have many productivity-boosting consequences. If you consider farm animals to be machines for food production, they are woefully inefficient. You could do better with enzyme design and fermentation: then you’d use yeast or bacteria to produce foods with the exact same chemical composition as what we currently harvest from animals. (Former Stanford biochemist Pat Brown is developing technologies that use roughly this idea.)

Complex pharmaceuticals, too, could be made more cheaply by fermentation than by organic synthesis. Perhaps solar panels, too, could be manufactured using biological reagents.

But, honestly, none of this would contravene slow growth. Because the underlying problem is most likely not that our rate of technological innovation has slowed. I’ve written about the fallacy of trying to invent our way out of slow growth previously, but perhaps it’s worth using another contemporary example to make this point.

At one time, you needed to drive to a different store each time you wanted to buy something. Now you can sit down at a computer, type the name of whatever it is you want to buy – running shoes, books, spices, video cameras – pay by credit card, and wait for it to show up at your home. The world now is more efficient. You might even save a few dollars on whatever it was you’d wanted to buy.

But many people received money in the old world. There’d be a running shoe store in every town. A book store. A camera store. In the new world, the dude who owns the single website where all these items can be purchased receives all the money.

And the distribution of income might soon narrow further. At the moment, many delivery people receive money when they deposit those purchased items at your doorstep. But these delivery people may soon be replaced by robotic drones.

drone.PNGThis is even more efficient! No humans will be inconvenienced when you make a purchase. You chose what you want and wait for the robot.

Also, no humans need be paid. The owner of the website – who will also own the fleet of drones – keeps even more of the money. The erstwhile delivery people find worse jobs, or are unemployed. With less income now, they buy less.

After the development of a new technology – delivery drones! – the economy could produce more. It could boost the growth rate. But the actual growth might be low because the single person receiving money from the new invention doesn’t need to buy much, and the many people put out of work by the invention are buying less.

The same problem arises with the other posited technologies. If our foods were all produced by fermentation, farmers would go out of business (of course, concentrated animal feeding operations and other industrialized practices have already sunk most small farmers) and only the owner of the fermentation vats and patented micro-organisms would receive money.

If someone patents a superhuman artificial intelligence, then no other humans would need to be paid ever again. The AI could write newspapers, opinion sections and all, better and faster than we could. It could teach, responding to students’ questions with more clarity and precision than any human. It could delete us when it learns that we were both unnecessary and unpleasant.

Which is why I think it’s irrelevant to argue against Gordon’s technological pessimism in a review of The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I may disagree with his belief that the important technologies were all invented before 1970, but my more substantive complaint is with his theory that our nation’s growth slowed when we ran out of things to invent. I believe the nature of our recent inventions have allowed the economy to be reorganized in ways that slow growth.

Gordon does mention inequality in the conclusion to his work, but he cites it only as a “headwind,” a mild impediment to overcome, and not a major factor in the shift between pre- and post-1970 growth:

The combined effect of the four headwinds — inequality, education, demographics [more old people], and government debt — can be roughly quantified. But more difficult to assess are numerous signs of social breakdown in American society. Whether measured by the percentage of children growing up in a household headed by one parent instead of two, or by the vocabulary disadvantage of low-income preschool children, or by the percentage of both white and black young men serving time in prison, signs of social decay are everywhere in the America of the early twenty-first century.

economic-worriesI found it worrisome that he did not explain that this social breakdown – which will cause slower growth in the future – is most likely caused by slow economic growth. It’s a feedback loop. Growing up in a one-parent household makes it more likely that someone will be poor, but the stress of poverty makes it more difficult to maintain a relationship. When you’re not worried about money, you can be a better spouse.

So I would argue that the best way to address these economic headwinds and restore growth would be a guaranteed basic income. Technological advances in communication and automation have made it possible for ever-smaller numbers of people to provide all the services we need. As we invent more, the set of people who receive money for this work should continue to shrink. You might think, well, there will always be nurses, there will always be janitors, but, setting aside the fact that it’d be a bleak world in which this was the only work available for humans to do, this isn’t even true. A flesh-coated robot with lifelike eyes and superhuman AI could be a better, more tireless, less fallible nurse than any human.

Despite carrying a flip-phone, I’m no Luddite. I don’t want human ingenuity to stop. But it’s worth recognizing that our current system for wealth distribution will inevitably yield wretched results as technological progress continues.

And that’s without even mentioning the ways in which a guaranteed basic income – worldwide, funded by a similarly worldwide tax on wealth – would compensate for past sins.

On computing and word magic.

On computing and word magic.
Art by Bryan Alexander Davis.
Art by Bryan Alexander Davis.

While reading Louisa Hall’s Speak, I was reminded of an essay on the connection between golems & computers that I’d intended to write.  Hall acknowledges George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral as providing inspiration for her project, and I’d also hoped to draw material from Dyson’s book for my essay.

I’d been convinced by William Poundstone’s review of Turing’s Cathedral that there would be a lot about words in it: “For the first time, numbers could mean numbers or instructions.  Data could be a noun or a verb.”

Unfortunately, Turing’s Cathedral did not match my expectations.  Not that it wasn’t good.  I simply had in mind a very specific thing that I wanted the book to say: something about words summoning forth the universe, maybe paralleling Max Tegmark’s idea (described in Our Mathematical Universe) that the underlying descriptive mathematics create the world.  His idea was, in effect, “we exist because numbers can describe us.”

Of course, Tegmark is a physicist, a math brain, so it makes sense that he’d propose that numbers would create reality.  Hall, the author of Speak, has a Ph.D. in English, and so, in her book, words do it.

Ales_golemIndeed, within the context of novels, words do create reality.  Her characters exist because her descriptive language make them so.  For some twelve thousand years at least, Homo sapiens have been spinning myths with language.  Creating worlds, and in the meantime reshaping our own.

I wanted to write about that generative power.  Several years ago I filled three pages of my notebook (my handwriting is very small, so this took me several days) with notes for an elaborate analogy between Turing machines and golems, linguistically-created life forms both. And I wanted so badly to cram it into my novel, but there was simply no way for it to fit it in without risking the adjective “sprawling,” which I don’t see as a positive characteristic in literature.

In brief, Turing machines are lent life because their data also serves as words.  Although the commands are written in a partial script (a numerical versus verbal language), each command can also be treated as a thing to be manipulated.  Golems are also given life by the power of a word.  Plus, the traditional golem myth prominently features the compelling power of the word death, which nicely mirrors the Ramayana — can you tell how badly I wanted all of this to fit in my book?  Math and words and robots and the Ramayana!

Art by Philippe Semeria.
Art by Philippe Semeria.

I suppose I have a bit of explaining to do.  Here’s a summary of the golem story: Clay man was built. Clay man was inscribed with the word truth (in Hebrew, “emet”) on his forehead. Clay man, computer-like, would follow instructions with no flexibility or human intuition. This led to problems, clay man had to be killed, a letter on his forehead was erased (leaving the Hebrew “met,” death or dead), clay man was a man no more.

And here’s a summary of the original invocation of the Ramayana, also featuring the word death: A brigand was robbing and killing to support his family.  One day he was about to kill some monks and one asked, “Your family shares the money you bring home, do they also share your guilt?”

Obviously, I think they should — prospering from evil should transitively mark you with that evil, which in my opinion is the wellspring of the argument that reparations should be paid even now, many years after the end of the most egregious abuses — but the brigand went home and asked his family their opinion and they said, “No.  You do the killing.  Your soul is tarnished.  We simply eat the food you bring.  We are still good.”

The brigand didn’t like the sound of that so he gave up killing (and abandoned his family) and became a traveling bard.  He was chosen by the gods to sing the most glorious epic myth, The Ramayana, but to summon this story from wherever myths live he needed to chant the hero’s name.  This chant would apparently infuse his mind with all the necessary details and plot twists and whatever.  His job was to say “Rama Rama Rama” until, bam!, he knew the story well enough to rattle it off in metered verse.

But he said he couldn’t.  He’d done all that killing and whatnot, remember?  So he told the gods, “It would be an honor, but, no, I am too impure to speak his name.”  Couldn’t chant Rama.  So the gods instructed him to chant “death death death” instead (in Sanskrit, “mara mara mara”), and the syllables bled into one another and, “mara mara ma ra ma ra ma rama rama rama,” he found himself chanting the name by accident and the story came to him.

To the best of my knowledge, computers cannot be manipulated this way.  As far as I know, trying to trick your computer with a palindromic pointer might cause the wrong area of memory to be modified, which could cause further instructions to be mistargeted, and the entire hard drive could be made fubar… but maybe it’s my ignorance that gives me this suspicion.  Maybe computer scientists know secret power words to summon forth the magic.

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.

353181520_92b6b4a831

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.”

On hunting.

I saw many posts on the internet from people upset about hunting, specifically hunting lions.  And eventually I watched the Jimmy Kimmel spot where he repeatedly maligns the Minnesota hunter for shooting that lion, and even appears to choke up near the end while plugging a wildlife research fund that you could donate money to.

And, look, I don’t really like hunting.  I’m an animal lover, so I’m not keen on the critters being shot, and I’m a runner who likes being out and about in our local state parks.  Between my loping stride and long hair, I look like a woodland creature.  I’m always nervous, thinking somebody might accidentally shoot me.  Yeah, I wear orange during the big seasons, but I still worry.

But I thought Jimmy Kimmel’s segment was silly.

141202150915-lion-exlarge-169For one thing, he’s a big barbecue fan — you can watch him driving through Austin searching for the best — and pigs are a far sight smarter than lions.  Plus, most of the lions that people hunt had a chance to live (this isn’t always true — there are horror stories out there about zoos auctioning off their excess animals to hunters, which means they go from a tiny zoo enclosure to a hunting preserve to dead — but in the case of Cecil it clearly was.  He was a wild animal who got to experience life in ways that CAFO-raised pigs could hardly dream of).  Yes, Cecil suffered a drawn-out death, but that seems far preferable to a life consistently horrific from first moment to last.

Most people eat meat.  And humans are heterotrophs.  We aren’t obligate carnivores the way cats are, but a human can’t survive without hurting things — it bothers me when vegetarians pretend that their lives have reached some ethical ideal or other.  Especially because there are so many ways you could conceptualize being good.  I have some friends who raise their own animals, for instance, and they could easily argue that their extreme local eating harms the world less than my reliance on vegetables shipped across the country.

I think it’s good to consider the ramifications of our actions, and I personally strive to be kind and contribute more to the world than I take from it, but I think it’s most important to live thoughtfully.  To think about what we’re doing before we do it.  Our first priority should be taking care of ourselves and those we love.  I don’t think there’s any reasonable argument you can make to ask people to value the lives of other animals without also valuing their own.

That said, if people are going to eat meat, I’d rather they hunt.  We live in southern Indiana.  Lots of people here hunt.  In general, those people also seem less wasteful — hunters are more cognizant of the value of their meals than the people who buy under-priced grocery store cuts of meat but don’t want to know about CAFOs or slaughterhouses.

Hunters often care more about the environment than other people.  They don’t want to eat animals that’ve been grazing on trash.  Ducks Unlimited, a hunting organization, has made huge efforts to ensure that we still have wetlands for ducks and many other creatures to live in.

To the best of my knowledge, Tyson Foods hasn’t been saving any wetlands lately.

Hunters generally don’t kill off entire populations.  And they don’t pump animals full of antibiotics (which is super evil, honestly.  Antibiotics are miracle drugs.  It’s amazing that we can survive infections without amputation.  And the idea that we would still those compounds’ magic by feeding constant low levels to overcrowded animals, which is roughly what you would do if you were intentionally trying to create bacteria that would shrug off the drugs, is heartbreaking.  There are virtually no medical discoveries we could possibly make that would counterbalance the shame we should feel if we bestow a world without antibiotics on our children’s generation.  See more I’ve written about antibiotics here).

"Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park (4516560206)" by Daughter#3 - Cecil. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cecil_the_lion_at_Hwange_National_Park_(4516560206).jpg

Sure, Cecil wasn’t shot for food.  I would rather people not hunt lions.  But lions are terrifying, and they stir something primal in most humans — you could learn more about this by reading either Goodwell Nzou’s New York Times editorial or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, in which she argues that humanity’s fear of predators like lions gave rise to our propensity for violence (a thesis I don’t agree with — you can see my essay here — but Ehrenreich does a lovely job of evoking some of the terror that protohumans must have felt living weak and hairless amongst lions and other giant betoothed beclawed beasts).

The money paid to shoot Cecil isn’t irrelevant, either.  It’s a bit unnerving to think of ethics being for sale — that it’s not okay to kill a majestic creature unless you slap down $50,000 first — but let’s not kid ourselves.  Money buys a wide variety of ethical exemptions.  The rich in our country are allowed to steal millions of dollars and clear their names by paying back a portion of those spoils in fines, whereas the poor can be jailed for years for thefts well under a thousand dollars and typically pay back far more than they ever took.

The money that hunters pay seems to change a lot of host countries for the better.  Trophy hunting often occurs in places where $50,000 means a lot more than it does in the United States, and that money helps prevent poaching and promote habitat maintenance.  Unless a huge amount of economic aid is given to those countries (aid that they are owed, honestly, for the abuses committed against them in the past), the wild animals will be killed anyway, either by poachers or by settlers who have nowhere else to live.  So, sure, I dislike hunting, but hunters are providing some of the only economic support for those animals.

And, look, if you think about all of that and you still want to rail against hunters, go ahead.  But if you’re going to denounce them, I hope you’re doing more than they are for conservation.  And I hope you’re living in a way that doesn’t reveal embarrassing hypocrisies — I’m sure any one of those pigs Jimmy Kimmel eats would’ve loved to experience a small fraction of Cecil’s unfettered life.

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Photo by Jessika.
Food at our house (taken by Jessika).

p.s. If you happen to be one of those people who can’t imagine living happily without eating meat, you should let me know and I’ll try to invite you to dinner sometime.  I love food, and I’m a pretty good cook.  I should be honest — it is a little bit more work to make life delicious if you’re only eating vegetables, but it definitely can be done.