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December 2012 posts

Health Care and the Elderly

Jonathan B. Wight

America's health care crisis is very much a crisis of how we treat elderly people:

Note that the surge in American spending starts before Medicare kicks in.

Americans do "heroic" spending to add an extra few months to a life without making the quality of that life better, and often making it worse.

This has been my experience with various family members, who endured painful procedures and expensive hospitalizations. Without these they might have passed to the new world a few months sooner, but their enjoyment of life in this world might have been much better--at home, hooked to a morphine pump.

How do we make the transition to death with dignity?

One option is to pay people! A hospice worker for the insurance company could offer this deal: "If we do all the fancy modern interventions, your last four months of life will cost $400,000. On the other hand, we could split that with you. We'll give you $200,000 to simply walk away (with marijuana brownies to cover the pain). We'll save money and your heirs will, too."

It sounds crude and crass to bribe someone to die earlier. Instead, it could be viewed as the reward for dying with dignity.

If it were me I would love to die thinking I could donate a large chunk of cash to worthwhile people and causes. What a way to go!

Why Do Religions Survive?

Jonathan B. Wight

The rabbi Jonathan Sachs has a short but helpful article in today's NYTimes on why religions survive ("The Moral Animal").

One theory is that at an instinctual evolutionary level, humans are hard-wired to care about others in addition to themselves. Churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples are places that celebrate and elevate those feelings—and release oxytocin (see Paul Zak's The Moral Molecule).

Understanding our connections with the wider universe cannot just be an amusing afterthought, but rather may be an essential element in the survival and success of groups.

Sachs concludes: "Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology."

[Photo: http://civicdilemmas.facinghistory.org/content/talking-about-religion]

A Musket in Every Closet?

Jonathan B. Wight

Amendment 2: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Suppose we adopt strict constructionism here: you are allowed to bear the arms that were available and legal in 1791. From the Columbia University's American Constitution Society we learn that a musket or pistol in 1791 would:

...be made by a gunsmith [individually, not mass-produced].

...have rudimentary rifling.

...be single-shot weapons.

...be loaded through the muzzle.

...fire by means of a flintlock.


The ACS concludes by proposing that: "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms as such arms existed at the ratification…. Courts can't wish the Second Amendment away, but they can construe it in a manner that works in today's society."

This is a clever idea. But if we strictly interpret the second amendment, would we not also strictly interpret the first amendment—as protecting only free speech in the types of news media as existed in 1791? Heavens, that would eliminate television and the Internet!

It's not clear to me how some weapons (assault rifles) are judged allowable to civilians under the 2nd amendment and other arms (grenades and bazookas) are deemed off-limits. The only standard seems to be the common sense judgment (or misjudgment) of the legislatures in each locality.

A federal buy-back of assault weapons and stricter gun licensing may be partial answers. We know that people, not guns, kill people. But we also know that people with guns are able to kill a lot more easily. That is the only purpose of an assault rifle.

The Bush Tax Increases

Jonathan B. Wight

As we move closer to the fiscal cliff we face across-the-board tax increase that will hit most families.

These will not be Obama tax increases. These were tax increases enacted by the Bush administration in 2003 in order to win approval for the tax cuts proposed at that time. The tax cuts broke the fiscal bank; so voting to raise rates in 2010 was a way for the Bush era Congress to keep the deficit from exploding indefinitely. In the midst of recession Congress and Obama extended those cuts until 2012.

The logic has not changed: those Bush tax cuts were not sustainable in 2003 and they are not sustainable today (and neither is spending). If rates rise on January 1, it will be "thanks" to the 2003 Congress and President Bush.

If rates had stayed where they were in President Clinton's boom years, would we be in better fiscal shape today?

Christie: Armed Guards in Schools Not the Solution

Jonathan B. Wight

The tragedy in Newtown, CT has led to over-reacting calls for armed guards in every school (see Virginia's governor's proposal). The NRA's Wayne LaPierre stated that "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Sorry, we don't have the money for lowering class sizes or other instructional aids. But we have all the money schools need to arm them to the teeth.

Does anyone really think this would curb mass shootings? If shooters aren't at schools they will move somewhere else, as the sad demonstration in the movie theatre in Colorado last July demonstrates.

Fortunately, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has taken a saner course for the moment.

Pinker on Violence

Jonathan B. Wight

We don't know much about what motivated the shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

The peculiar irony is that I just ran across Peter Singer's review of Steven Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The evidence seems convincing that as a whole, people today are less likely to die at the hand of another compared to earlier points in human history. Yet some pockets of higher violence remain, such as in southern United States.

Singer writes: "Pinker argues that at least part of the reason for the regional differences in American homicide rates is that people in the South are less likely to accept the state's monopoly on force. Instead, a tradition of self-help justice and a 'culture of honor' sanctions retaliation when one is insulted or mistreated. Statistics bear this out — the higher homicide rate in the South is due to quarrels that turn lethal, not to more killings during armed robberies — and experiments show that even today Southerners respond more strongly to insults than Northerners."

Was honor—or the lack of honor—a cause of this son's matricidal rampage in Connecticut?

That's perhaps too simplistic. Yet it is important to recognize that the feeling of honor (or being properly respected) is a powerful instinct; when others fail to reciprocate our emotions the result can be rage:

"But if you have either no fellow-feeling for the misfortunes I have met with, or none that bears any proportion to the grief which distracts me; or if you have either no indignation at the injuries I have suffered, or none that bears any proportion to the resentment which transports me, we can no longer converse upon these subjects. We become intolerable to one another. I can neither support your company, nor you mine. You are confounded at my violence and passion, and I am enraged at your cold insensibility and want of feeling." (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Liberty Fund, p. 21)

Norquist’s Nonsense

Jonathan Wight

The Richmond Times Dispatch, which is generally Republican-leaning but with a strong dose of libertarianism and Hayekianism, recently gave Norquist the boot

The editorial noted that by setting up a litmus test of no new taxes Norquist helped eviscerate some of society’s important  assets and institutions, in particular the transportation infrastructure  “That is not good stewardship. It also has serious implications for business, which today’s conservatives (unlike, say, Burke) value above almost all else.”

In conclusion: 

“Real conservatism is at least as much a character of mind and a set of virtues – prudence, temperance, moderation, rationality and responsibility, for instance – as a set of dogmas. The adoption by American conservatives of rigid litmus tests, the failure of which means banishment from the tribe, has not ennobled the movement but, ironically, deracinated it.”

Right on the mark.  Great leaders, like Abraham Lincoln, upheld great principles and moved us closer to them through compromise.  Adam Smith was likewise a great idealist in theory, but thoroughly pragmatic in implementation. 

Supreme Court to pronounce on Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Section 8

Mark D. White

Just announced: the Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8. See the live blog at SCOTUSblog (or upcoming analysis soon, I'm sure) for more.

Needless to say, I'm thrilled about this, given a) my support of same-sex marriage and b) my firm position that the controversy over same-sex marriage should be settled by the courts (see earlier posts such as this one for more).

"Property in Human Biomaterials—Separating Persons and Things?"

Mark D. White

QuigleyMuireann Quigley (Centre for Social Ethics & Policy, School of Law, University of Manchester) has a fascinating paper in the latest issue of Oxford Journal of Legal Studies (32/4, Winter 2012) titled "Property in Human Biomaterials—Separating Persons and Things?":

The traditional ‘no property’ approach of the law to human biomaterials has long been punctured by exceptions. Developments in the jurisprudence of property in human tissue in English law and beyond demonstrate that a variety of tissues are capable of being subject to proprietary considerations. Further, among commentators, there are few who would deny, given biotechnological advances, that such materials can be considered thus. Yet, where commentators do admit human biomaterials into the realm of property, it is often done with an emphasis on some sort of separation from the person who is the source of those materials. One line of argument suggests that there is a difference between persons and things, which constitutes a morally justifiable distinction when it comes to property. This article examines whether the idea of separability can do the work of demarcating those objects that ought to be considered property from those that ought not to be. It argues that, despite the entailment of a separability criterion inherent in both the statutory and common law positions, and the support given to this by some commentators, it is philosophically problematic as the basis for delineating property in human tissue and other biomaterials. 

Call for abstracts: Pro-Social Strategies for Public Welfare (The Role of Social Capital and Trust)

Mark D. White

Pro-Social Strategies for Public Welfare: The Role of Social Capital and Trust

Panel/Stream Proposal for IIPPE Fourth Annual Conference in Political Economy, International Institute for Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands July 9-11, 2013

Dr. Luca Andriani, Birkbeck College University of London, UK

Dr. Asimina Christoforou, Athens University of Economics and Business, Greece


The Fourth International Conference in Political Economy will take place in The Hague (The Netherlands) July 9-11, 2013. The conference theme is “Activism and Alterative Economic Strategies” in light of the on-going economic and political crisis (for details, please consult IIPPE’s new website at http://iippe.org/wp/).

As members of the IIPPE social capital working group, we propose a panel on “Pro-social Strategies for Public Welfare: The Role of Social Capital and Trust”. In the past decades, state and market institutions have failed to deliver redistribution and welfare in both developing and high-income geopolitical contexts, particularly after the global economic crisis broke out. This induced agents to engage in short-term, self-oriented strategies either to consolidate their power or salvage a subsistence level of living, which impedes collective action for social reform and the promotion of long-term public benefits. Nonetheless, and in response to deeper recession, social upheaval and political instability, there are collective efforts for social awareness and mobilisation to confront immediate problems of destitution and to reclaim people’s right to a quality of life.

In this sense, the panel aims to open a constructive discussion on the role of social capital and trust in building pro-social strategies for public welfare. We ask how norms and networks of cooperation, reciprocity and trust could facilitate – or hinder – a wider range of pro-social strategies, which could include, but are not limited to:

  • active social and political participation to deal with the democratic deficit of both the developed and developing world;
  • assessing events of corruption associated not only with the effects and motives of rent-seeking behaviour and tax evasion, but also with the imperspicuous transactions of powerful economic and political groups;
  • advocacy and redistributive functions of non-governmental organisations and voluntary associations that represent disadvantaged groups and fight for their needs and rights;
  • activities of social enterprises and cooperatives that provide alternative ways of production, based on general-interest objectives and innovative forms of democratic participation of
    stakeholders, workers and investors.

We welcome works that derive from various social science disciplines and use different units of analysis (individual, regional, country or cross-country level), methodologies and techniques (theoretical, empirical, qualitative and quantitative).

Abstracts (500 words maximum) should be submitted by the 10th of February 2013 to: Luca Andriani ([email protected]) and/or Asimina Christoforou ([email protected])