On taxing robots.

On taxing robots.

My family recently attended a preschool birthday party at which cupcakes were served.  I watched in horror as the children ate.  Some used grimy fingers to claw off the top layer of frosting.  Others attempted to shove the entire frosted top into their gaping maws, as though they thought their jaws might distend snake-like.  These kids failed, obviously, and mostly smashed the cupcakes against their faces.

And then, a mere two minutes later, the kids all slid from their chairs to run off and rampage elsewhere in the house.  The table was a wreckage; no child had actually eaten a cupcake.  They’d eaten frosting, sure, but left the remnants crumbled and half-masticated on their plates.

Someone needed to clean up.

If I was a better person, I would have offered to help.  But I didn’t.  I just stood there with my mouth twisted into a grimace of disgust.

I wonder why it’s so hard for our family to make friends.  Surely my constant scowls seem charming!  Right?  Right?

Even at our own house, where our compost bin ensures that uneaten food isn’t completely wasted … and where my own children are responsible for the entirety of any mangled remnants … I loathe scraping the plates clean. 

And I don’t like washing dishes.

Luckily, we have a dishwasher.  Slide dirty dishes into the rack, push a button, and, voila, a robot will make them clean!

Automation is great!

Also, automation is making our world worse.

Although official unemployment in the United States is low, the economy is doing poorly.  The official statistics don’t count people who’ve given up, and they don’t count people who are stuck with worse jobs that they would’ve had in the past.

Low unemployment is supposed to drive up people’s salaries.  When a company knows that there are few available job seekers, they’ll pay more to prevent you from leaving.  But that’s not happening, currently.  If a company knows that your life is sufficiently bleak, and also that no other company is planning to treat you better, then they can keep salaries low.  Financial misery lets employers operate like a cartel.

Image by Farcaster.

Despite low unemployment, most employees are quite replaceable.  If you won’t do the work, a robot could instead.  Just like my beleaguered dishwasher, filled with plates and bowls too gross for me to want to touch, a robot won’t advocate for better treatment.  And a robot draws no salary.  If you have the wealth to invest in a dishwasher – or a washing machine, or a donut maker, or a legal-document-drafting algorithm – it’ll serve you tirelessly for years.

People often say that the jobs of the future will be those that require a human touch.  Those people are wrong.  Your brain is a finite network of synapses, your body an epidermis-swathed sack of gristle.  In the long run, everything you do could be replicated by a machine.  It could look like you, talk like you, think like you – or better.

And – after its initial development and manufacture – it wouldn’t cost its owners anything.

As our automation technologies improve, more and more of the world’s income will be shunted to the people who are wealthy enough to own robots.  Right now, human delivery people are paid for dropping off the packages people buy from Amazon – but as soon as Jeff Bezos owns drones and self-driving cars, he’ll keep those drivers’ salaries for himself.  As your labor becomes less valuable relative to the output of a machine, it’s inevitable that inequality will increase.  Unless we implement intentional redistribution.

A recent editorial by Eduardo Porter for the New York Times advocates for a tax on automation.  Perhaps this seems sensible, given what I’ve written above – if robots make the world worse, then perhaps robots should be made more expensive.

After all, the correct way to account for negative externalities in a capitalist economy is through taxation.  That’s how capitalism solves the tragedy of the commons.  If the cost of an action is paid by everyone collectively – like pollution, which causes us all to drink dirty water, or breathe asthma-inducing air, or face apocalyptic climate change – but the profit is garnered by individuals, then that person’s private cost-benefit analysis will call for too much pollution.

For every dollar the Koch brothers earn, the world at large might need to spend $1,000 fighting climate change.  That dollar clearly isn’t worth it.  But if each dollar they earn increases their personal suffering by only a nickel, then of course they should keep going!  That’s what capitalism demands.  Pollute more, and keep your ninety-five cents!

But a person’s private priorities can be made to mirror our society’s by charging a tax equal to the total cost of pollution.  Then that person’s individual cost-benefit analysis will compare the total cost of an action against its total benefit.

A pollution tax wouldn’t tell people to stop being productive … it would simply nudge them toward forms of production that either pollute less, or are more valuable per unit of pollution.

But automation isn’t harmful.

Yes, automation is making the world worse.  But automation itself isn’t bad.  I’m very happy with my dishwasher.

If we want to use tax policy to improve the world, we need to consider which features of our society have allowed automation to make the world worse.  And it’s not the robots themselves, but rather the precipitous way that current wealth begets future wealth.  So the best solution is not to tax robots, specifically, but rather to tax wealth (with owned robots being a form of wealth … just like my dishwasher.  Nothing makes me feel rich like that lemony-fresh scent of plates I didn’t have to scrub myself.)

And, after taxing wealth, we would need to find a way to provide money back to people.

World War II taught us that unnecessary production – making goods whose only value was to be used up and decrease the value of other goods, like bombs and tanks and guns – could improve the economic situation of the world.  We ended the Great Depression by paying people to make weapons.  And we could ameliorate the current economic malaise with something similar. 

But an actual war seems misguided, what with all the killing and dying.  There are better, kinder ways to increase wasteful government spending.

If I were in charge of my own town, I’d convert the abandoned elevator factory into a bespoke sneaker and clothing factory.  The local university offers a degree in fashion design, and it might be nice if there were a way for students to have batches of five or ten items produced to specification.

As a business, this wouldn’t be economically viable.  That’s the point.  It would be intentionally wasteful production, employing humans instead of robots.  Everything would be monetarily inefficient, with the product sold below cost.

It’d be a terrible business, but a reasonable charity.

With alarmingly high frequency, lawmakers try to impose work requirements on welfare payments.  I obviously think this policy would be absurd.  But it wouldn’t be so bad if there were government-provided work opportunities.

Robots can make shoes cheaper.  That’s true.  But by taxing wealth and using it to subsidize wasteful production, we could renew people’s sense of purpose in life and combat inequality.  No wars required!

And no need for a tax targeting my dishwasher.  Because, seriously.  I’ve got kids.  I don’t want to clean up after them.  Would you?

On food and willing sacrifice.

On food and willing sacrifice.

Agni_devaIn ancient Indian mythology, fire was a god.  The word for fire is agni, and Agni the god who ate oblations.  Agni served as mouth and gullet for the entire pantheon – when sacrifices were offered to any god, Agni would eat them, ferrying goods from our world to the spirit realm.

When the gods were cursed such that they could not sire children with their wives, Agni, who’d once consumed Shiva’s semen, was asked to stray.  From Robert Goldman’s translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana:

(note, in terms of safety for reading at work, that the following passage is decidedly less circumspect than you might expect based on a familiarity with other sacred texts, e.g. the King James rendering of Genesis 38:9)

[A]ll the gods proceeded to Mount Kailasa, adorned with metallic ores, and charged Agni, the god of fire, with the task of begetting a son.  ‘You are a god, eater of oblations, and should carry out this task of the gods.  Great is your splendor.  You must release the semen into the Ganges, the daughter of the mountain.’

Agni, the purifier, promised the gods he would do this and so, approaching the Ganges, he said, ‘Bear this embryo, goddess, as a favor to the gods.’

Shantanu_Meets_Goddess_Ganga_by_Warivick_GobleHearing these words, she assumed her divine form, and he, seeing her extraordinary beauty, scattered the semen all over.  Agni, the purifier, showered it all over the goddess, so that all the channels of the Ganges were filled with it. 

In ancient Indian mythology, the semen of powerful males will sprout children wherever it lands, no female gamete required.  Numerous heroes were engendered when males chanced across beautiful women bathing and shortly thereafter just happened to ejaculate – their children might be born from baskets, butter jars, or someone’s mouth.

A fetus soon formed from the material sprinkled over Ganges’s body, but although she’d consented willingly to bear the child, she soon declared it to be too powerful, that the embryo was burning her body.  She tucked it into the base of the Himalayas to finish gestation.

Later in the Ramayana, Sita attempts to sacrifice herself – but Agni will not take her.  Sita was kidnapped and so her husband Rama comes to rescue her.  With the help of a monkey army, Rama destroys a South Indian kingdom and slays his wife’s captor.  But he assumes that Sita has been tarnished by rape.  He tells her (in the Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman translation):

I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

Heartbroken, Sita decides to jump into a fire – she’d rather die than lose her husband.  But the fire doesn’t burn her.  Instead, her presence is said to burn the fire itself.  Agni lifts her from the bonfire and tells her husband that she is beyond reproach.  The man agrees, briefly, to take her back.


More often, Agni simply burns things.  Objects from our world disappear, leaving nothing but ash.

And we are also like fire.   In David Shulman’s essay for the New York Review of Books, he writes:

Fire_from_brazierFor Vedic thinkers, all that lives survives by consuming other living beings.  Humans, too, have a hungry fire burning in their bellies; they have to sacrifice other creatures to that fire every day if they are going to stay alive.

We are heterotrophs.  Unlike plants, we can’t create ourselves by drinking in water, air, and sunlight.  We have to eat – sacrificing something – to survive.

Much of the time, the sacrifices that allow our lives are violent.  Humans evolved as meat eaters – scavengers, likely, then hunters.  We stalked, killed, and butchered mammoths.  On contemporary industrial farms, plants are culled by nightmarish threshers, ripped from the ground and shaken clean by machines.

We are heterotrophs.  It’s either us or them.

But sometimes we’re fueled by willing sacrifice.

apple-1122537_1280Fruit-bearing plants co-evolved with animals.  Fruit is a gift.  When a plant bears fruit, it hopes for reciprocity, but in a generalized way.  The plant isn’t trading – it can’t guarantee that any one offering will procure a service.  But over time, many hungry animals have willingly spread the plants’ seeds – that’s the gift we offer in return.

(This is true of all fruit.  I’d say it’s foolish to trust our Supreme Court justices’ opinions on just about anything – I definitely wouldn’t expect them to correctly identify the parts of a plant.  In addition to bananas, grapes, and apples, things like tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and peppers are fruit.  It’s thought that each type of fruit co-evolved with a specific animal that was originally responsible for spreading its seeds.)

Even if a plant gives fruit to us willingly, though, you could wonder whether the fruit agrees with the sacrifice.  No matter what the tree might want, perhaps an apple would rather not be eaten.

Any one cell might prefer not to die.

1024px-Mucinous_lmp_ovarian_tumour_intermed_magCancer is a rough equivalent to libertarian philosophy.  Cancer is the ultimate freedom.  In a multicellular organism, most individual cells will voluntarily cease to grow when their industry infringes upon their neighbors.  They experience “contact inhibition.”  As soon as a cell touches another, it respects the established boundaries as inviolable.

If a cell’s usefulness has waned, it undergoes apoptosis – voluntary suicide.

In a multicellular organism that practices sexual reproduction – even unilateral reproduction like Agni showering sperm over Ganges’s prostrate body – every cell that isn’t part of the germ line is doomed to die.  From the perspective of evolution, your body is like a disposable rocket ship, built only to ferry the lineage of cells in your genitalia forward through time.  Those cells matter – their descendants might survive forever.

The cells in your hand?  They might have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – but their line will come to an abrupt end.  Maybe you were bitten by a radioactive super-power-granting DNA-altering spider and the cells in your hand became amazing.  Doesn’t matter.  Their glorious kind will go extinct.

And if the cells in your hand decide that this isn’t fair, and instead liberate themselves from the shackles of self-restraint and suicide, growing as much as possible – well, that’s cancer.  The host organism will die.  And those renegade cells, the ones who adopted the mantra look out for number one, will inevitably also die, starving fruitlessly, progeny-less.

It’s the same old tragedy of the commons, the same reason why there are now so few fish in the sea, and why Easter Island has no trees.  Sometimes personal persistence dooms you more completely than would sacrifice toward a common cause.

On free-market capitalism, political spending, and Jane Mayer’s ‘Dark Money.’

On free-market capitalism, political spending, and Jane Mayer’s ‘Dark Money.’

So-called libertarian economic philosophy — which has been having a larger and larger influence on mainstream politics over the past few decades — doesn’t make sense.  Which is too bad.  I like the basic ideas behind capitalism.

And I love liberty.

But there are major logical inconsistencies in the popular conception of free market capitalism.

Economist Robert Reich recently published Saving Capitalism to address some of these misconceptions.  In the first few pages of his book, he dismisses the distinction between free markets and government intervention:

Reich_SavingCapitalism_Book_v3The question typically left to debate is how much intervention is warranted.  Conservatives want a smaller government and less intervention; liberals want a larger and more activist government.  This has become the interminable debate, the bone of contention that splits left from right in America and in much of the rest of the capitalist world.

But the prevailing view, as well as the debate it has spawned, is utterly false.  There can be no “free market” without government.  The “free market” does not exist in the wilds beyond the reach of civilization.  Competition in the wild is a contest for survival in which the largest and strongest typically win.  Civilization, by contrast, is defined by rules; rules create markets, and governments generate the rules.

A market — any market — requires that government make and enforce the rules of the game.  In most modern democracies, such rules emanate from legislatures, administrative agencies, and courts.  Government doesn’t “intrude” on the “free market.”  It creates the market.

Some would have you believe that, in a world of free-market capitalism, producers would extract oil from the ground however they want, process it however they want, sell it to whomever they want, keep the entirety of their spoils, then spend that money however they want.

This is, sadly, not what would happen in a world free of government intervention.

Instead, roving warlords would conquer the oil reserves.  Or the refinery.  There would be no money, so oil would have to be bartered for other goods.  But someone bringing huge quantities of oil to the market would likely be murdered, their possessions stolen.  It would be difficult to maintain inequality as extreme as we have in the contemporary United States, because the wealthy would pay huge sums to employ bodyguards.  Greater concentrations of wealth would lure greater extremes of violence.

But this is not the world that self-proclaimed libertarians envision.  Instead they support rules that favor the already wealthy; they claim that the peculiar set of rules they favor is free-market capitalism.  It is not.

This contrast is lucidly described in a passage from Matthew Desmond’s Evicted.  He focuses on the housing rental market, but his analysis applies equally well to many realms of our economy:

unnamed (3)Those who profit from the current situation — and those indifferent to it — will say that the housing market should be left alone to regulate itself.  They don’t really mean that.  Exploitation within the housing market relies on government support.  It is the government that legitimizes and defends landlords’ right to charge as much as they want; that subsidizes the construction of high-end apartments, bidding up rents and leaving the poor with even fewer options; that pays landlords when a family cannot, through onetime or ongoing housing assistance; that forcibly removes a family at landlords’ request by dispatching armed law enforcement officers; and that records and publicizes evictions, as a service to landlords and debt collection agencies.  Just as the police and the prison have worked to triage the ill effects of rising joblessness in the inner city (like social unrest or the growth of the underground economy), civil courts, sheriff deputies, and homeless shelters manage the fallout of rising housing costs among the urban poor and the privatization of the low-income housing market.

Without government intervention, the plight of the urban poor would not be nearly so miserable as it is today.  Landlords could not stake claims to huge numbers of properties throughout a city, because the impoverished would simply claim a place to live and retaliate with violence if a landlord asked them to leave.

This is the basic reason why I support progressive income taxes (and progressive wealth taxes, too).  I think that people should fund government to the extent that their life would become worse without it.  The poor are kept poor by our existing rules.  They cannot take the things they need.  I think they should pay a negative tax, i.e. receive an income supplement.  The wealthier someone is, the more likely that person would be murdered and robbed without the protections of government.  I think it is eminently reasonable for the wealthy to pay a higher percentage to maintain our current order.

9780385535595Of course, several extremely wealthy people do not agree with me.  As Jane Mayer documents in Dark Money, these individuals have used their wealth to promulgate a philosophy very different from my own.  Everybody knows that politicians can be bought — and cheaply, too, with hundred thousand dollar campaign contributions often resulting in million dollar lawsuits being dropped.  Well, academics can be bought, too.  University professors expend so much effort scrabbling for grants that it was unsurprising to learn how a few targeted donations led to steadfast ideological purity throughout the recipients’ careers.

These wealthy individuals (the Koch brothers, among others) self-describe as free market capitalists.  They claim to favor extremely limited governance, but their actions bely these claims.  In Mayer’s words,

Singer [who ran a hedge fund that bought “distressed debt in economically failing countries at a discount” then took “aggressive legal action to force the strapped nations, which had expected their loans to be forgiven, to instead pay him back at a profit”] described himself as a Goldwater free-enterprise conservative, and he contributed generously to promoting free-market ideology, but at the same time his firm reportedly sought unusual government help in squeezing several desperately impoverished governments, a contradiction that applied to many participants in the Koch donor network.

The wealthy political donors arguing for less government intervention in the economy are precisely those people who have benefited most from government intervention.  They might argue that their position is internally consistent because they feel that the sole function of a just government is the protection of property rights.

But this is nonsense.  All property carries a history of violence — government protection of “property rights” simply chooses an arbitrary cut-off date and legitimizes all violence that occurred on or before that date, while threatening violent reprisal against those who do not respect ownership claims from after that date.

Furthermore, the environmental regulations that Charles Koch denounces are property rights.  If you own a farm and somebody comes with a gun and tells you, “Get out, it’s mine now,” it’s pretty clear that the government has not protected your property rights.  But this isn’t so different from someone coming and setting fire to your farm — you used to have it, now you don’t.  It isn’t so different from someone starting a huge fire on their own property and letting the flames spread to yours.

And it isn’t so different from someone pumping out toxic sludge just upstream of your farm.  Your land was useful — it could grow food fit for human consumption.  If someone dumps a bunch of mercury upstream, now it can’t.  Most of the value of your property is gone, just as if someone had come and set fire to it.

If a corporation buys the land adjacent to your home and puts in a concentrated animal feeding operation, again, much of the value of your property will vanish.  It’s hard to breathe near those things, and most homeowners like to breathe.

Indeed, if you run a company that digs up coal or oil for people to burn, you should expect the government to tax your industry if you care about property rights.  Because your industry is wrecking property all over the globe.  At minimum, you should expect to compensate others for the losses you’re causing — that’s if a government protecting property rights would even allow you to churn out all that toxic waste.

But not everyone agrees.  In Mayer’s words,

Jane_mayer_2008The problem for this group [of oil & coal profiteers] was that by 2008 the arithmetic of climate change presented an almost unimaginable challenge.  If the world were to stay within the range of carbon emissions that scientists deemed reasonable in order for atmospheric temperatures to remain tolerable through the mid-century, 80 percent of the fossil fuel industry’s reserves would have to stay unused in the ground.  In other words, scientists estimated that the fossil fuel industry owned roughly five times more oil, gas, and coal than the planet could safely burn.  If the government interfered with the “free market” in order to protect the planet, the potential losses for these companies were catastrophic.  If, however, the carbon from these reserves were burned wantonly without the government applying any brakes, scientists predicted an intolerable rise in atmospheric temperatures, triggering potentially irreversible global damage to life on earth.

And, the solution?  Well, the real free market solution is simply to tax negative externalities so that harmful industries can make the correct cost benefit calculations.  If producers reap all the benefits but costs are spread over the entire population, they’ll make too much of a thing.

Indeed, this is a commonly-cited rationale for capitalism: back when many people’s wealth was their livestock, partitioned land holdings was seen as a cure for the tragedy of the commons.  A major cost of raising animals is feeding them, and without private land holdings everyone has an incentive to overgraze.

So, sure, I guess there’s another answer.  We could carve up the atmosphere, trap air in discrete boxes, try to stop all diffusion between them… and then allow the Koch brothers to pump out as much carbon dioxide as they want into their own home’s air.  Presumably they would make different choices, no government regulation required.  Or die — most laboratories gas dissection-bound mice with carbon dioxide.

But these solutions would make it slightly more difficult for our country’s wealthy to continue accumulating mind-boggling quantities of money.  So they’ve chosen a different plan: buy a bunch of academics to churn out philosophical nonsense nearly as toxic as the effluents from their industrial processes.  It’s depressing that this was so successful.

But let’s face it.  Philosophy is dull.  Economics is hard.  When enough people with fancy credentials trumpet nonsense loudly enough, it seems, people will believe.

In Mayer’s words,

When these donors began their quest to remake America along the lines of their beliefs, their ideas were, if anything, considered marginal.  They challenged the widely accepted post-World War II consensus that an activist government was a force for public good.  Instead they argued for “limited government,” drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry, particularly in the environmental arena.  They said they were driven by principle, but their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests.

On free-market economics & the actual meaning of words.

On free-market economics & the actual meaning of words.

CaptureDespite being rather politically liberal, I consider myself a free market economist.

(Maybe it’s unfair to self-describe as an economist, though?  I did the coursework for a master’s degree in economics… but couldn’t get a degree because I didn’t complete the residency requirement.  I was enrolled as an undergraduate at the time, and apparently would’ve needed to be enrolled as a graduate student for my coursework to count.)

Sure, there are instances where free markets don’t fare so well — the free market solution to entertainment is for people to pirate whatever they’d like to watch, hear, or read, and then for producers of those media to realize they can never turn a profit.  But for many types of commerce, free markets work great.

But, just like the term “pro-life” (I describe myself as pro-life, for instance, which can confuse people because I am a staunch supporter of women’s rights and lives), the words “free market” have taken on a political connotation that doesn’t always gel with actual meaning.

For instance, I promptly began to pout when I read the following paragraphs in James Surowiecki’s New York Review of Books article, “Why the Rich Are So Much Richer“:

CaptureThe redistributive policies [Joseph] Stiglitz advocates look pretty much like what you’d expect.  On the tax front, he wants to raise taxes on the highest earners and on capital gains, institute a carbon tax, and cut corporate subsidies.  But dealing with inequality isn’t just about taxation.  It’s also about investing.  As he puts it, “If we spent more on education, health, and infrastructure, we would strengthen our economy, now and in the future.”  So he wants more investment in schools, infrastructure, and basic research.

If you’re a free-market fundamentalist, this sounds disastrous — a recipe for taking money away from the job creators and giving it to the government, which will just waste it on bridges to nowhere.  But here is where Stiglitz’s academic work and his political perspective intersect most clearly.  The core insight of Stiglitz’s research has been that, left on their own, markets are not perfect, and that smart policy can nudge them in better directions.

A strange turn of phrase.

Sure, it’s reasonable to imagine a free-market fundamentalist kvetching over increased taxes on high earners and capital gains (progressive taxation means that, for anyone outside the bottom tax bracket, choosing to work one additional hour produces income taxed at a higher percentage than the average tax rate being applied to your current income.  So the claim is that progressive taxation causes people to work less.  This claim is unverified, though, and indeed you could make an equally plausible argument for the opposite: if people want a certain post-tax income, raising tax rates will cause them to work more in order to earn that same amount).

But it’s very strange to write that a free-market fundamentalist would consider it “disastrous” to cut corporate subsidies.  How do government handouts to high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers reflect the free market?

They don’t, obviously.  But it’s so ingrained in our culture to equate things like “free-market fundamentalist” and “right-wing economist” that even very bright people (I enjoyed the rest of Surowiecki’s article) sometimes make claims about one when they mean the other.

Similarly, I think that someone who self-describes as “pro-life” should be concerned about women’s well-being, would weigh the well-being of a sentient neglected child above that of a pre-sentient fetus, would be an advocate for economic & social justice, would have empathy for livestock subject to torturous existences in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation), would be appalled that environmental harm & climate destabilization is aggravating armed conflict across the globe.  Obviously I was thrilled to read Thomas Friedman’s editorial, “Why I Am Pro-Life.”  I thought it’d mean I’d get fewer confused looks.

It didn’t.  But it’s still a lovely editorial.

And, getting back to economics: even though right-wing politicians oppose it, a free-market fundamentalist would support a carbon tax.

CaptureProducing carbon is a negative externality.  That means it’s a cost of production that is not inherently paid by the producers — other well-known negative externalities are the raw sewage, bad smells, & concomitant reduced property values brought by CAFOs, or the suddenly poisonous well water in towns adjacent to certain types of coal mines.

For the free market to work properly, negative externalities must be priced through taxation.  If not, too many of the associated good are produced and everyone’s utility (“happiness” is a reasonable synonym for the word “utility”) is lower than it could’ve been.

(Well, almost everyone’s — in some cases net utility is lower, and all but one person’s utility drops, but the person operating a mine at below-market rates and poisoning everyone’s water is happier.  The mine owner might earn enough that he can afford to buy bottled water, a big house, & a politician or two.)

This is analogous to the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” the idea that if all shepherds have unlimited free access to a shared space, they’ll have their sheep overgraze it.  After a few years, the grass is dead & everyone’s sheep starve.  Similarly, if we give all corporations unlimited free access to the atmosphere as a garbage bin, each has an incentive to overpollute and kill us all.

If that sounds overdramatic, please read the Easter Island chapter of Jared Diamond’s Collapse.  The book’s central message is that environmental disaster obliterates societies, and Easter Island is perhaps the best example of a once-fertile land pillaged by its inhabitants, who then could not survive minor geological shocks.  To this day the island is covered by grassy hills & insouciant gods, but it was once densely forested & harbored a variety of plant life.  Then the inhabitants chopped down the trees.  In Diamond’s words:

CaptureI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?”  We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity.  Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference.  Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets.  No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

Sure, a free-market fundamentalist would bemoan government interventions like a cap & trade system to regulate pollution.  I’m a hippy-dippy liberal and I hate the idea of cap & trade, too.  But assessing the cost to all for each unit of carbon production, then levying a tax so that corporations know the true consequences of their decisions?  That is a free market solution.

Similarly, a free-market fundamentalist should support government subsidies to education, infrastructure, and basic research.  Those are all goods with significant positive externalities, meaning each produces benefits that accrue to the population as a whole, not just to the individual who had to pay to build a road.  Since the value of these goods to the economy as a whole is undercounted, the correct equilibrium amount won’t be produced unless they are subsidized.

CapturePositive externalities are things like keeping bees.  If you keep bees, you get some honey, maybe you get some pleasure by looking at your hive from time to time.  But your decision to keep bees also makes all nearby farmland more productive.  Because it’d be difficult to track each bee & charge each nearby farmer for every flower fertilized by one of your bees, it’s more sensible to simply subsidize beekeeping (with perhaps some restrictions on where you’re keeping bees — if you’re living in the middle of a city, your bees might not be helping much).

Similarly, if you educate children, employers gain access to a more competent workforce, citizens gain more pleasant neighbors, often less needs to be spent on policing & prisons a few years down the line.  Government-funded research made possible our wireless technologies, the internet, microwave ovens — & these make everyone’s lives more efficient.  The free-market solution that compensates the researchers who gave us all these near-magical technologies is to subsidize their research.

The other common solution, the one that is not a free-market approach but is favored by many right-wing politicians, is to grant patent protections, artificially disallowing all but one corporation from producing any of a good.

That type of distinction is why it saddens me to see habitual misuse of words or phrases as slogans lend them a connotation that’s so different from their actual meaning.  Especially because, in the case of something like “free market” or “pro-life,” the distinction changes the world in appreciable ways.  Like, okay, if everybody wants to use the word “peruse” to mean “skim,” of if everybody wants to use the word “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate,” I’ll just stop using those words.  I don’t want to use them incorrectly, but I don’t want to confuse anyone, either.  But “free market” and “pro-life” are such big, emotionally-charged concepts that I get upset about political efforts to commandeer them.