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Intertemporal redistribution, a logical conclusion

This idea came to me while watching HBO's "Rome:" Despite being a pinnacle of ancient civilization, Rome was poor. The very few aristocratic families scraped out an existence comparable to a middle-class American (They had the bonus of having slaves but also lacked medical technology that we take for granted.) The vast majority, from the mercantile class downward, are arguably materially poorer than inhabitants of third-world countries today. If Rome existed today, without technology diffusion it would be perhaps one of the worst-off countries in the world. Slave labor is nice but it cannot get you past primitive technology and (at this point) poor governance.

What this implies is that if you're really concerned about income inequality, you should be just as concerned about temporal inequality as with inequalities in a static time frame, such as in the present-day USA. (This is forgetting about concerns about redistributing from the rich US to the global poor, which no serious politician places as a high priority). Redistribution to those poor blokes in the past is, of course, impossible. But - again, if you value equality - what we should really be worried about is improving our own lot at the expense of those lucky bastards who live in the future, where technological progress makes material goods increasingly cheap, and who will probably look at our living conditions as backward savagery.

What policies achieve this? Higher consumption, and lower investment. Spending more money today will make us better-off today. The downside is that we don't get the payoff of investment in the future - but they almost certainly won't "need" it, what with their Playstation 10,000s and flying cars. Yes, at some level, underinvestment will decrease the total welfare of humanity, but this is a tradeoff that current static-time-frame redistributionists are already willing to make to some extent. (Again, the people who lose from this policy are those well-off far-future people.)

You could argue that we already do this tradeoff to some extent, saving below the welfare-optimal amount. But I think that we naturally care about our children and descendants, more so than we care about our poor neighbors, and more so than would be welfare optimizing. Given this powerful emotion I think it's safe to say that we aren't consuming anywhere near what intertemporal redistribution would imply.

So this is basically the logical conslusion of the idea that we should forcibly redistribute from the rich to the poor, for the greatest income inequalities are between those separated by time, not space. One bonus from it is that next time you hear criticism of Americans spending too much and saving too little, you can smile and say that we're not being selfish; we're just ensuring equality!

Another consequence of this belief, by the way, is that we shouldn't do that much about global warming. People in the future will be better-off and will be better able to deal with the problems. This is in contrast to those climate-change activists today, who use literature like the Stern Report which have a positive discount rate: ie they value future welfare more highly than present-day welfare. Temporal redistribution means that we should have a highly negative discount rate.


Flu frenzy

The Science in Society blog has posted a response to recent swine flu news, putting it in perspective with previous flu pandemics. Here is a piece comparing flu intervention in 1918 and today. An excerpt:

Just how important is starting countermeasures early, and what kind of interventions work? The tragedy of the Spanish flu provides a natural laboratory for public health measures, as cities throughout the US differed both in scale and timing of their interventions.

Medical science in 1918 was still getting on its feet. The majority of older physicians of the time were not educated under the scientific regimen of the Flexnerian revolution. The leading bacteriologists of the day mistakenly believed that influenza was a bacterial disease, and it was not until 1943 when it was recognized that a virus was responsible. As a result, medical intervention in the pandemic was of questionable value, not least because most of the best doctors had been drafted to serve in the military for WWI.

However, nonmedical interventions were also employed. These included quarantines, isolation of the sick in makeshift wards, closure of public gathering places such as churches and schools. Quick action (as measured by when flu cases rose to double the baseline number of cases) had a strong correlation with reduced mortality, and that maintaining the measures was important to keep the disease from spreading.

St. Louis, for example, closed schools and canceled public gatherings early, and maintained quarantines for over ten weeks, leading to a significantly lower mortality rate. However, not all cities were as proactive; the median duration of these interventions was only four weeks, insufficient to protect the population. Some cities were even counterproductive: Philadelphia hosted a military parade to promote war bonds, over the objections of numerous doctors and public health officials. Soon afterwards, it became one of the hardest-hit cities in the US.


Obama nixes Yucca Mountain, nuclear power.

Another crosspost from the Science in Society blog:

From the AP:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Thursday the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada no longer is an option for storing highly radioactive nuclear waste, brushing aside criticism from several Republican lawmakers.

To date about $13.5 billion has been spent on the project and last year the Bush administration submitted an application for a construction and operating license to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission....

Instead, Chu said the Obama administration believes the nearly 60,000 tons of waste in the form of used reactor fuel can remain at nuclear power plants while a new, comprehensive plan for waste disposal is developed.

But President Barack Obama's first budget a week ago proposes scrapping all spending on Yucca Mountain except for what is needed to answer questions from the NRC on the license application "while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal."

The lack of a permanent storage site for nuclear waste has been a significant impediment to the expansion of nuclear power in the US. Despite the vague talk of other options for waste disposal, this plan means that plants will have to continue to store their waste on-site, and above ground, making the construction of new power plants very difficult. And given the amount of time and money required to prepare the Nevada site so far, it is unlikely that another solution will be forthcoming anytime soon.

While environmental advocates are usually the first to promote clean-energy subsidies, many have been lukewarm towards nuclear power. Some of this aversion is due to safety - while there are 104 nuclear power plants operating in the US currently, the specter of Three Mile Island still haunts the industry. Some of it is cultural, feeding off an aversion towards the "unnatural" in the environmental movement.

Yet of the various zero-emissions energy sources, nuclear power has been the most significant success, generating 80% of the electricity used by France. (The only alternative energy that comes close is hydrothermal, which generates a similar proportion of Iceland's energy. But Iceland has both a smaller population and extraordinarily favorable geography for power generation.) Because of this success, some within the environmental movement have been pushing for increased nuclear power as the best option to combat CO2 emissions.

But, like the majority of the environmental movement, Obama has a record of being less than wholehearted in supporting nuclear power, even as he pushes for subsidizing less quantitatively promising - but politically safer - sources of alternative energy. The safety problem with nuclear power is a real and significant challenge, but by piling up waste at over a hundred discrete sites, this move will likely only exacerbate the problem in the short to medium run. In the long run the risk may decrease, if only because nuclear power generation will stop altogether as old plants are shut down.

The cynic in me must note that the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, is from...you guessed it, Nevada.


Obama's statist service plan is about to pass Congress.

I've previously talked about the dangers of Obama's creepy mandatory service plan, a far-reaching campaign promise to enlist students in government-designated "service." Well, now a version of it is before Congress, tucked into the budget.

From here:

The legislation will, in many circumstances, force our children to participate in charitable activity as part of school – and that activity may well be chosen by or approved by a bureaucrat. The bill causes a federally chartered, Washington-based institution to, essentially, pick priorities and winners and losers in the charitable universe – undoubtedly putting many charities at a significant disadvantage…

None of this even considers the lack of Constitutional basis for such a massive federal intervention into local charities and volunteerism… but when does that ever stop anyone in Washington?

And:

This is how it goes in the Senate. Rush a 300 page bill through the Senate that will fundamentally re-shape the relationship not just between government and charity – but between our national government and charities nationwide, small and large… all so that Senators don’t have to be bothered over the weekend. After all, they have fundraisers to attend – fishing trips to take – golf matches to make....

Our national government in Washington – the same folks who are supposed to be managing our budget ($10 Trillion+ in debt and running), our borders (10 million illegal immigrants or more?), and who brought you social security and medicare (each of which are bankrupt) – are now going to tell us how to volunteer, and start telling our kids that they must volunteer and with whom they must do it.


Just the Science?

Cross-posting from the Science in Society blog:

Last week, the Obama administration rolled back restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on newly created embryos. When he was in the Senate, Obama said the following:

...the promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.

A recurrent theme of this blog is that science policy is more than just science. Like all policy decisions, it is informed by facts but fundamentally comes down to a question of priorities. What is the value of a human embryo, and is it worth trading off X of these to develop Y therapies? What is the cost of climate change, and how much are we willing to pay economically to mitigate the effects? The "judgment of science" can tell us the characteristics of a blastocyst and vaguely sketch out possible benefits from stem cell research. But the decision whether to have the government fund it is a political and ideological one, and to point to one side of the argument as "science trumping ideology" is disingenuous.

The Economist article goes on to point out that Obama opposes human cloning. In his remarks on embryonic stem cell research he called human cloning "dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society," and promised that "we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction." Now there are good reasons for this opposition: even on animals there is a very low success rate, and even for successful clones there are often lingering medical issues. But notice how the reasoning has suddenly changed - he is morally opposed to human cloning based on these known risks, thus justifying at least defunding of the research and possibly (the wording is unclear) banning it altogether. From science trumping ideology we now have ideology directing science.

Not that this makes these decisions necesarily wrong. There are strong arguments for embryonic stem cell research, which become stronger or weaker depending on the value you place on a human blastocyst. Likewise many (but not all) believe that the suffering attendant upon human cloning efforts is too great to justify scientific advance in that field. But we need to be clear that these decisions are informed by science but ultimately based on personal beliefs and priorities, not solely on "the judgment of science."

Politicians ought to appoint scientific advisors on a nonideological basis and listen to what they have to say, but it is ultimately their job to issue a judgment based on their value system. However rhetorically convenient it may be, it is disingenuous for them to claim to follow science's lead when approving of research, only to voice moral disapproval when they wish to hit the ideological brakes.


Obama's creepy "Call to Service"

Before the election, I wrote elsewhere about Obama's creepy "call to service".

Public schools will have their funding cut unless they force their students to perform 50 hours of service a year. Since for most people, public school is the only choice they've got, this amounts to a mandatory service program for every child in a public school in the country.

Well, it appears that this wasn't just standard electioneering pablum, because Obama's new website expounds on his plan "to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year." This program is disturbing, representing a new government intrusion into private life cloaked in the patriotic rhetoric of "serving America," and a crowding out of private enterprise by government-created programs using forced labor. So it would seem that the nation's first black president wants us to work for free.

EDIT: I note with interest that the wording of the website has been changed, no doubt because of the spate of blogs talking about it. (Change...our position on the issues!) The original full text will be posted below. Nevertheless, the amendment is still troubling.

Grants contingent on community service, while still a matter of government taking money from taxpayers to entice others to do things, is an easier sell. But as I argued before, this program will offer $40/hour wages, enticing students away from good resume-building activities to government make-work jobs, and the proposal may well lead to tuition inflation based on simple supply and demand. (Note that in this case the rich will be better able to afford lower-paying but better resume-building internships - a way for Democrats to play to their Upper West Side faction.)

And for secondary school the ploy will be even more coercive. He talks about "setting a goal" to force kids to volunteer. But how will that be accomplished? By the only means that the federal government has - public schools will have their funding cut unless they force their students to perform 50 hours of service a year.

APPENDIX: The original note was changed to its current stage without fanfare, retraction, or acknowledgment. Now politicians do this all the time, so it's not much of a criticism of the Obama administration to point this out. It is, however, a small rebuke to those who believed that his election would somehow lead to a quantum leap in political transparency and integrity. The original Obama blurb, before they were called on it and cloaked it in nicer sounding language:

"The Obama Administration will call on Americans to serve in order to meet the nation’s challenges. President-Elect Obama will expand national service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and will create a new Classroom Corps to help teachers in underserved schools, as well as a new Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, and Veterans Corps. Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year."