Friday, July 04, 2014

Paying for birth control

The argument that employers such as Hobby Lobby have a right to refuse to pay for birth control seems nonsensical on its face.

My employer pays for everything* I buy. They pay my rent, my food, my car, my beer, my movie tickets. All of this money comes from my paycheck. Traditionally, we hold that although my employer pays for everything I buy, they have no standing whatsoever to tell me how to spend it. We could, of course, make a different social decision about that, but if a principle of law is to keep things consistent, then the obvious answer is that the employer is paying employees in money, and employers cannot dictate what employees do with that money, whether the money is paid directly to the employees or passed through directly as premiums to an insurance company.

*Or would if I still worked a straight job.

Just that companies are mandated to buy insurance does not change anything. Companies have a lot of coercive mandates regarding my paycheck. They have to pay me the minimum wage, they have to pay me for all my time, they have to pay me on time, they have to pay social security taxes (mine and theirs) and unemployment insurance premiums, etc.

The whole point of paying employees in money instead of in kind is precisely to place the decision about what to consume in the hands of the employees. If we are consistent on the principle of payment in money, then we either say that employers have no say on how employees spend their pay, or employers have say over everything employees buy with their pay.

Of course, the consistency the Supreme Court is actually employing is that conservative employers have say over how female employees manage their sexuality. Women (especially women workers) are, of course, inferior, and women's sexuality is evil (unless they're having sex to pop out Republican babies and no orgasms please). It is of the highest social necessity that someone regulate women's sexuality; if we let government do it, we might end up with something (ugh!) democratic. It's much better to place this regulation in the hands of corporations; the owners of land and capital have been explicitly and intentionally insulated from democracy since the founding of the republic.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014


"Fundamentalism" and its derivatives are perhaps the least useful words when discussing religion. Atheists do not object to fundamentalist Christianity or fundamentalist Islam primarily because they're fundamentalist; we object primarily to Christianity and Islam. Fundamentalism in this context usually just means more Christian or more Muslim, i.e. more bad; similarly, moderate Christianity or moderate Islam usually just means less bad, which better than more bad, but still bad. The problem in the world we New Atheists struggle against is not "fundamentalism"; we struggle against religion.

(More precisely, New Atheists struggle against a specific kind of religion. Human language is somewhat fluid, and people attach words to concepts willy-nilly, without philosophical precision; the word, "religion," is no exception. We are, on the whole, pretty clear about what kind of religion we object to: the idea that God exists, imposes moral duties, obligations and prohibitions, on human behavior. Given that a metric assload of people actually use "religion" to mean just this idea, our use of "religion" to denote the exact same idea does not seem at all confusing or ambiguous.)

I don't even know what "fundamentalism" really means. It has an ostensive definition: when attached to Christianity, "fundamentalism" just means all the things that that Christians use to distinguish self-described "fundamentalists" from "non-fundamentalists." (Similarly, mutatis mutandis, for Islam.) As a New Atheist, I am not particularly interested in theological disputes. Analytically, though, fundamentalism is used in three main ways, to denote the idea that someone believes:
  1. X is true and worthy of promulgation
  2. Some text should be taken literally
  3. X is inerrant

I am a fundamentalist in all three senses. I believe that communism, atheism, evolution, anthropogenic climate change, are all true and worthy of promulgation. I might change my mind that one or another were true, but today I think they're true, and worthy of promulgation. Everyone does this. I do not object because Christians believe something is true; I object because they believe Christianity is true. I believe that my textbooks should be taken literally, not metaphorically. When my economics textbook describes a relationship between the quantity of hats demanded and produced and the price of a hat, I believe they are talking literally about actual hats, actual dollar bills (or euros, etc.), actual factories, and actual people buying and wearing hats. Again, I don't object to Biblical literalist taking something literally, I object that they are taking the Bible literally.

The third meaning is a little more subtle. I believe the data are inerrant, but I want to be very careful about what I mean here by "inerrant." Inerrant does not mean veridical. Inerrant means that if the data appear contradictory, I must repair the contradiction by altering my belief about something other than the data. For example, if I am weighing bricks, and I my scale reports the weight of a brick as 1012 kg, then I have a contradiction between my experience of putting the brick on the scale and the scale. I cannot resolve this contradiction by denying the data: I cannot deny that I lifted the brick, and I cannot deny that the scale reported 1012 kg. I must resolve the contradiction by changing my beliefs not about the data but about the world. Perhaps I performed the measurement incorrectly. Perhaps the scale has changed so that it is no longer measuring weight or reporting the measurement in the same way it was a moment ago. There are, of course, a lot of elaborate ways scientists use to resolve contradictions in the data, but the one way that is absolutely forbidden is to say that because the data contradicts my ideas about the world, the data does not exist or should not be taken literally. (I cannot, for example, say that the scale is measuring the brick's happiness.)

In a deep sense, I mean exactly by the inerrancy of the data what Biblical literalists mean by the inerrancy of the Bible. They do not mean that if there is an apparent contradiction in the Bible, that the proposition is both true and false. Instead, they believe that they must add an interpretation that resolves the contradiction. Similarly, when the data from the double slit experiment contradicted data from our ordinary experience of of rigid objects, we had to add quantum theory to our interpreation of the world to save the data. No matter what our a priori ideas about the world happen to be, if the data contradict those ideas, it is the ideas that must change, not the data.

The change in focus of anti-atheist polemic* from religion to "fundamentalism" — when it is not just outrageous lies and (thanks, Dr. Coyne!), and Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning is a flat-out liar) — seems at best confused and at worst intentionally misleading. We object to "fundamentalism" only to the extent that "fundamentalist" something-bad is usually worse than "moderate" something-bad. That something bad is, in the sense noted above, religion.

*I do not object to polemic per se. Obviously, I believe that specifically anti-atheist polemic is incorrect.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Political economy, the Chicken Game, and hard work

The Chicken Game (a.k.a. hawk/dove or snowdrift) is a particular game theoretic payoff matrix:

Cooperate Defect
Cooperate (4,4) (5,2)
Defect(2,5) (1,1)

If player 1 chooses to cooperate, player 2 should defect, and vice versa. However, if player 1 chooses to defect, player 2 should cooperate, and vice versa. So there's no dominant strategy.

In the dialectic between capitalists and workers, for capitalists, "Cooperate" means paying high wages; "Defect" means paying low wages; similarly, for workers, "Cooperate" means working hard, "Defect" means slacking off. If both defect, if capitalists pay low wages and workers slack off, then the workers will starve (because they don't have enough money to buy food), and civilization will collapse. Contrawise, if both cooperate, there is a higher overall payoff (4+4=8) than if one cooperates and the other defects (5+2=7). However, because the individual payoff is better, there is an incentive for one player to defect if the other cooperates. In essence, whoever gets to defect "first" (or most credibly) will win; there's no incentive (as there is in the Prisoner's Dilemma) for one player to defect if the other has already defected.

Thus we can create the political economy payoff matrix:
LaborHigh Wages Low Wages
Work Hard Erehwon Capitalism
Slack OffSocialism Disaster

Let me be blunt: workers are no more altruistic than capitalists. If high wages are more or less guaranteed, workers will consume more leisure — leisure is a normal good, n'est pas? Economically, the effect of laissez faire capitalism is to make sure the workers consume as little leisure as possible. And, economically, the effect of socialism (the first stage of communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as distinct from welfare-state capitalism) is that workers will consume more leisure: they will, as compared to capitalism, slack off.

(It may be more socially efficient under capitalism to have workers work harder than is strictly economically efficient; we don't want the workers to get the idea that they deserve leisure. And it is arguable that many of the problems of Communism of the Parties (USSR/PRC) was caused by their attempt (probably necessary to resist the capitalist West's unapologetic desire to annihilate communism and commit genocide against the USSR and PRC) to "square the circle" and try to get both hard work and high wages.)

The project of socialists and communists, therefore, should not be to argue that socialism and communism will get us to some sort of utopia where and the workers get paid well and everyone works as hard as they do under capitalism. That's an economic contradiction. Instead, we should valorize leisure.

One theme of capitalism is to valorize hard work. Most of our common phrases for hard work — initiative, can-do spirit, commitment — are positive. Most of our common phrases for leisure — slacking, laziness, goofing off — are negative. They may be vices we indulge ourselves in, but they are vices nonetheless. But why should this be so? Why should hard work be good for its own sake? Some goals require hard work instrumentally (I work harder as a student than I ever did as a middle-class professional, for a third the pay) but why should goals that require hard work be considered better just because they require hard work? Why is the Dude a bum just because he works only enough to live and indulge his relatively inexpensive passion for bowling? (The Big Lebowski works only because it subverts the preexisting trope of hard work and wealth good/laziness and poverty bad; the film would make no sense under communism. In contrast, Downton Abbey is sterile and boring because it fails to subvert the trope.)

Valorization of anything is only partly a project to convince people to value it. Valorization is more importantly a social construct to justify the punishment and coercion of those who do not valorize it. If hard work is a value, then those who do not work hard are "vicious"* and deserve to suffer. (Similarly, sobriety is a virtue; those who are not sober deserve to suffer just because they are not sober.) Hence the major argument and justification for capitalism's tendency to keep wages low is that low wages promote the virtue of hard work. If the working class received higher wages, they would not work as hard (at least not for long), and would therefore descend into the vice and decadence of lazy, unproductive activity. The capitalists are just virtuously trying to save the working class from their own vice! How can we not give such a project our most enthusiastic applause? And how can we not condemn (true) socialism as inherently and ineluctably vicious?

*virtue : virtuous :: vice : vicious

I say fuck hard work.

Not only should hard work not be a virtue, it should be something of a vice. If you want to indulge yourself in the vice of hard work, well, you're an adult and can do as you please, but don't act like you're any more proud of your hard work than you are of any of your other vices. We want a society where it's good that people have a lot of leisure.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Micro- and macroeconomics

A commenter has asked me why we study microeconomics and macroeconomics* separately. It's necessary but not sufficient to simply say that microeconomics is the study of households, and firms**, and macroeconomics is the study of the national economy as a whole. After all, while physicists do specialize, we don't have "microphysics" and "macrophysics" as separate disciplines, even though physicists study everything from quarks to planets to galaxy clusters to the whole universe. It's all just physics.

*There are actually three levels of economics: micro, macro, and international economics.

**Households and firms usually are not internally organized by markets, although there are many economists who use economic techniques to study intra-household and intra-firm behavior.

Economics is different because economics is more complex (has more independent "moving parts") than physics, and has more feedback mechanisms. Specifically, although they are connected, there are features about the economy as a whole (macro) that have such a radically different character than features about the economy of individuals (micro) that we must think about them in radically different ways. A more apt analogy is the difference between biology (the study of individual species and organisms) and ecology (how organisms interact). Obviously, ecology is intimately linked to the biology of the species, and in some sense emerges from that biology, but the conceptual tools are very different between the two fields.

Economics in general is the study of trade-offs. When someone has to give something up to get something else, economists spring into action! The fundamental difference, therefore, between micro and macro is what is being traded off, and how those trade-offs are measured and conceptualized. Fundamentally, microeconomics is about relations between actors in a national economy, but there is nothing for a national economy to be relative to. (Again, international economics complicates this framework a bit, but by and large, most large national economies such as the United States can be treated as closed systems with a small correction for net imports and exports.)

The biggest difference is flow. Micro is linear: a household or a firm has an income on one side and an expenditure on the other side, with stuff coming in or out in the opposite direction. In contrast, macro is circular: money circulates between households and firms, with labor and stuff circulating in the opposite direction.

Another difference is money. A household or firm can run out of money; the national economy cannot run out of money. While some individual household or firm might not have money (savings or income), and is therefore limited in what they can consume, the money is always somewhere in the national economy. In micro we study how households and firms allocate their money, how they make choices constrained by the money that they have (savings) and that they expect (income). In macro, however, because the money is always somewhere, and the total amount of money is (more-or-less) constant, so we don't conceptualize trade-offs as being constrained by money. Instead, macroeconomics is concerned with the total real productivity and consumption of the economy. Indeed, there is presently a debate between classical/neoclassical macroeconomists, who think that money doesn't matter at all (it's just a lubricant; you have to have some, but adding extra lubricant won't make your engine any more powerful), Keynesians (classical, neo- and paleo-), who think that money does matter (prices not as much), and monetarists, who also think that money and prices matter, but in a different way than Keynesians. In contrast, there are exactly zero microeconomists who think that the money a household or firm has doesn't matter.

Similarly, individual households want to accumulate money. They want to optimize their money income and/or their profit. In macro, however, we can't make a profit; profit is always relative; the net profit for the economy as a whole is exactly equal (as a boring accounting identity) to whatever new money we have put into the system in one way or another, i.e. mining gold and silver or printing dollar bills.

Another difference is what is being traded off. In micro, we trade off between production or consumption of different items. I can buy better food, or I can pay more in rent. I can choose between oranges and apples. A household can work more or have more leisure. A firm can produce more or fewer oranges or apples, and it can choose between more capital (machines) or more labor. In macro, however, all there is is one big lump of everything; generally, we don't worry about the trade-off between everything and nothing (nobody wants nothing). Instead, the big trade-off is between consumption, producing stuff we'll use today, and investment, producing stuff that will produce stuff we'll use tomorrow. In macro, we also think about trade-offs between the the large-scale entities in an economy: all households (and sometimes all working households vs. all investing households), all private productive firms, all financial firms, and, of course, the government.

There is also a controversy in macro as to whether the economy as a whole can fail even if all the parts are working correctly. Classical and neoclassical economists say that if all the parts (households and firms) are working, then the whole economy is working by definition; if you don't like how the whole economy is working, then one or more of the parts are failing. For example, the classical economists attribute the Great Depression (and the current Lesser Depression) to a combination of malinvestment (we built too many factories to make stuff people didn't want), structural unemployment (workers didn't have the skills that firms wanted), irrationality (workers refusing to accept lower money wages even though prices had fallen, so their real wage had increased), and government misregulation (in the extreme, some assert that all government regulation except enforcing contracts is misregulation). Monetarists lean towards the classical view in this regard: they attribute problems in the whole economy to failures of the banking system or government regulation of the banking system. In A Monetary History of the United States, Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz make a compelling case that errors by the Federal Reserve in regulating and supporting the private banking system at least deepened and may have caused the Great Depression. In contrast, Keynesians assert that all the parts of the economy can be working correctly in micro terms, but the economy as a whole can still fail, measured by cyclical or involuntary unemployment.

Again, in contrast, there are exactly zero microeconomists who claim that all the parts of a firm can be working correctly, it has sufficient capital and labor in the optimal proportion, it has a market for its correctly-priced product, and its workforce and administration are competent, and yet the firm can be unprofitable.

So, basically, the individual household and firm are conceptually very different from all the households and firms in a national economy. Therefore, we divide up economics into micro and macro.