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It was very sunny and pleasant there. Anyone who knows Rochester …


…a new paper appropriately titled “Demographics, Weather and Online Reviews.” The study analyzed 1.1 million online reviews of 840,000 restaurants, looking for exogenous — or external — factors in the data. In other words, they wanted to figure out what makes us like or dislike a restaurant, beside the restaurant itself.

The results can be surprising. The diners’ education levels? No effect on actual ratings. Population of the area? Again, not so much.

But reviewers consistently gave worse ratings when it was raining or snowing outside than when it was clear. And reviewers usually liked restaurants better on warm and cool days, rather than very hot or very cold ones.

In researcher Saeideh Bakhshi’s words: “The best reviews are written on sunny days between 70 and 100 degrees … a nice day can lead to a nice review. A rainy day can mean a miserable one.”

Not surprisingly, restaurants in California and Hawaii are popular.

This week I have a question for the readers. Much has been written recently on how racist and horrible people like Charles Murray are, for merely asking the question of whether in fact there are differences in innate “ability” across different groups of people. Since I am sure to have my classes protested if I actually manage to write something interesting, I’ll eschew from that and merely ask some questions.

1. Is there some measure of “ability” that people can objectively agree matters? And should the answer be yes, is there an agreement on how one might actually measure it?

2. Is it OK to ask such questions WITHIN different subpopulations of people? For example, among us short, fuzzy, Italian-American men, clearly some score better on standardized tests than others. Surely some have quicker hands and feet than others. Surely some have more endurance than others. Are these differences innate? Are they OK to point out? Are they OK even to question?

3. OK, the real reason for today’s post: suppose “we” have all come to the conclusion that redistribution (again, a terrible word that implies that there was some distribution in the first place) is justified on the basis of there being observable differences in life outcomes for different people. Is the case for redistribution stronger if:

- the reason people have different outcomes is due to pure luck and chance (i.e. so that we are all born innately equal)

- the reason people have different outcomes is due to the fact that even with the same life circumstances, some folks are just better than others at stuff.

Again, the point of the question is not even to tread NEAR the empirical question above. Rather, it is a metaphysical one – is redistribution more justified when differences are due to luck or ability or is there no reason to distinguish the two? Remember again that I’m begging the question of whether we ought to permit redistribution in the first place, and that someone above the fray could determine the answer to such questions. I am curious to hear your takes on this.

The April Fools

That would be people like my wife who continue to work. Here is how her income is taxed:

  • Federal tax rate of 28% (her wage puts us in this bracket)
  • State tax rate of 6.5%
  • Social security – her “share is 7.65%, her employer pays 7.65%, but since we know that the incidence of this tax is mostly on workers, this is closer to 15% on her)
  • Since she is married to me, and I have health benefits with my job, she is not able to claim health benefits from her job. Nor does her job permit her to receive the equivalent, or any amount of compensation that is paid for every worker’s health insurance. Estimated value: $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year. So, this is an annual margin to pay attention to, though it is not unreasonable to convert this to a wage equivalent.

These are wholly aside from the taxes she pays on almost anything she buys. Now in what follows I am playing fast and loose with the numbers else I bore you with fancy pictures and imagined income, but to consider a typical $50,000 salary:

  • she’s liable for $14,000 in federal income taxes (that’s more than I am technically liable for despite my larger salary – what’s that about gender equality?)
  • she’s liable for $3,250 in state income taxes
  • she’s liable, directly for roughly $3,800 in payroll taxes
  • she’s liable, indirectly, for roughly $3,500 in payroll taxes
  • she’s liable for $12,000 in lost compensation since her company pays everyone health insurance benefits as part of the compensation package yet does NOT pay workers who do not take such benefits. In other words, her true compensation (ignoring other benefits) would be $62,000 if she were not married to me and did not already have health insurance via me. While there is very little good reason for companies to be paying workers in kind for a particular good/service we like to consume (ignore the historical tax reasons), I see no reason why otherwise identical people should get paid differently. How’s that for gender equality?

Now, from a practical perspective, the reason why her employer does not pay her for the value of unpaid health benefits is that the employer does not actually see lower health premium costs if she does not accept the policy, or so I suspect. My understanding (not articulated by her employer to her of course) is that when you are part of a group health insurance policy, the global premium from the employer to the insurer is fixed and is a function of expected number of employees covered and their relative risks. So, though her dropping out of the insurance pool should reduce the costs to the insurer, it does not, for now, reduce costs to the employer. That said, if every employee opted out of health coverage it would be hard to take seriously any justification for not paying out the value of the benefits (or some fraction thereof) in cash.

Taking the very simplified information from above, on a salary of $50,000, she ends up walking home with $28,950. But that salary of $50,000 actually captures the net payment to her from the employer, which should be $65,500 (the employer share of payroll taxes and contributions to health premiums included now but which do not have state and federal income taxes deducted from). Putting this all together, each year my wife’s “supposed” compensation should be $65,500. And each year she walks home with $28,950.  This is an effective marginal tax rate on her annual work effort of 56%.

Say what you will about the 1% and how privileged both myself and my wife are to have been born to the United States (both to rather poor families in poor circumstances, but ignore that for now), that’s a pretty hefty marginal tax rate on her work effort, especially given the type of work she does (maybe more on that in a future post), which includes wiping the asses of complete strangers. A lot. 

And then of this $28,950 that she is so blessed to keep, she pays 50.6 cents per gallon of gas in NYS excise taxes and 18.4 cents in federal – so just driving each year (600 gallons of gas burned) costs her another $414. And I’d estimate that 2/3 of her spending ends up being taxed at the 8.25% sales tax rate, meaning she dishes out another $2,354 in sales taxes to the state/county each year. And then of course is the embedded higher prices she must pay for almost anything else she consumes because of the various regulations that businesses must adhere to (not all bad of course and things we’d happily pay for if priced a la carte) such as FCC taxes on the phone plan she has, taxes and fees and licensing on the car she drives, and so on, which I’d estimate easily at 10% of her gross salary, but to be generous we’ll call it less than 5% of her take-home salary – meaning about another $1,000 in costs she pays. 

Putting this all together, for a pretty tough job that required $50,000 in debt to obtain schooling to train for (and several years of lost wages), my wife ends up taking home and obtaining about $25,000 worth of goods and services, or an implied annual tax burden of 62%.  Now, $2,000 per month of extra take home free income is, ipso facto, nice. But not given the effort one must make to obtain it. No reason to comment much more here, aside from the following:

  • if women tend to be second earners, as they sadly are in our house right now (I’d LOVE to have her be the big time breadwinner!), then we have a tax and regulatory system that is entirely biased against them. A woman earning $50,000 faces, in this example, nearly a 2/3 tax burden. On what planet is this intended? 
  • given the way our finances and life is set up, we may actually be better off divorcing, though I am sure divorce lawyer fees have been driven up to arbitrage the difference
  • we are not really very near the 1% (as if that should matter anyway)
  • you can see that we are questioning whether we want to work this hard for this kind of reward. Again, you may say these are first world problems, but they have far larger repurcussions that I think are obvious. I already gave up a fairly lucrative consulting gig because I was tired of working at tedious tasks at 2 in the morning just to keep half of what I was being paid – i.e. it wasn’t worth it. 
  • No amount of carve outs, exemptions and the like can “fix” this, assuming anyone wants it fixed.
  • We are at an income and life stage where there aren’t great ways to reduce this tax burden, unlike perhaps, people who are far wealthier and have far more income than we do. 

Much more to say of course, but as I look at it, we are complete suckers. 

I’m not in the mood to rant and rave about this silliness, especially since we here at the Wintercow Brewing Company partake in a very “small scale” version of the same:

In Maine and across the country, brewers and farmers have formed handshake agreements: Brewers brew beer, producing barrels or truckloads full of heavy, wet spent grains. These grains have been heated up to extract sugars, proteins and other nutrients that go on to make beer. The process is called mashing. The spent grains are a byproduct — with no real usefulness purpose left for the brewer.

To the farmer, spent grains are a valuable dietary supplement for their livestock. It’s common for breweries to reach out to local farms to offer up their spent grains as animal feed. Most often, farmers are happy to oblige, picking up the spent grains themselves a few times per week. Little or no money exchanges hands during these deals. Brewers are glad to get rid of the grain, and farmers are glad to take it off their hands.

“FDA understands that many breweries and distilleries sell spent grains … as animal food. Because those spent grains are not alcoholic beverages themselves, and they are not in a prepackaged form that prevents any direct human contact with the food, the Agency tentatively concludes that subpart C of this proposed rule would apply to them,” according to the FDA rule.

Most small and medium-sized brewers wouldn’t be able to follow these rules without significant investment. Breweries that want to send their spent grains to farmers would have to dry, package and analyze the grains, all without it touching human hands. These efforts would cost brewers money, time and resources, making it too much of a hassle for some to continue partnerships with farmers, according to critics.

Actually, there’s no reason to rant and rave. I am pretty sure people are doing their jobs. We have a statute that is intended to protect the feedstock of animals, and I can see no reason why some feedstocks ought to be treated differently than others. Where you ought focus is not on whether brewers should get an exemption, but in general the overall principle about whether feed needs to be regulated in this particular way in the first place. I don’t have an opinion on that right now, believe it or not – I am sick of living in a world where everyone is trying to get something carved out for themselves, get their little slice before everyone else does, and so on. My point is that it’s a bit of a red herring to get worked up about the silliness of not being able to feed spent mash grains to the cows.

The point I’d like to make instead is not even about the absurdity of the rules in some places, but rather that I am sure that when the FDA animal feedstock regulations were initially written that no one had any idea that the relationship between brewers and farms would be threatened. Yet here we are. And this is the way that the thousands of laws and regulations that are on the books are structured. Each unto themselves you may or may not be critical of – but there is simply no way to know at all how these rules interact with one another, and even if we are willing to make carve-outs and exceptions on a case by case basis, and each seems reasonable, it’s certainly not in accordance with the rule of law and certainly there is no way to know whether or not they can actually be carved-out anyway, even if we wanted to.

So think about the need to convert the entire energy sector into one that is less carbon intensive – a sector that took 50-60 years to put together in a far less strict regulatory environment and with far simpler and mature technologies. And think about rebuilding that entire sector with new technologies with myriad state, local and federal rules and regulations in place in a more populated, more litigious, more cantakerous country, and there is no way that we will see any kind of major transformation in the energy or other sector in our lifetime (for those of us born before 1980 or so).  And this is assuming that every person working for every regulatory agency and every new technology firm is NOT trying to get while the getting is good – in other words, in a polite world.

When someone sends me a note, for example, asking me “what do you think about the future of hydrogen cars” I don’t think of technical challenges or how much carbon or fossil fuels they may save, I first think of the spent mashing grains … and the time it took the “Freedom Tower” to get rebuilt … and how the “Cape Wind” project is going …

POSTSCRIPT: Every time I try to write a post calling for a bit of calm reflection, someone sends me this stuff.

My inbox this morning greeted me with two things. First this:

University Sets Tuition Rates for 2014-15 
Tuition for undergraduates in the College and the Eastman School will be $46,150 in the 2014-15 academic year, a 3.5 percent increase from 2013-14. Read more…

Then this:

Does Classroom Time Matter?  A Randomized Field Experiment of Hybrid and Traditional Lecture Formats in Economics
by Theodore J. Joyce, Sean Crockett, David A. Jaeger, Onur Altindag, Stephen D. O’Connell

We test whether students in a hybrid format of introductory microeconomics, which met once per week, performed as well as  students in a traditional lecture format of the same class, which met twice per week.   We randomized 725 students at a large, urban public  university into the two formats, and unlike past studies, had a very high participation rate of 96 percent.  Two experienced professors taught one section of each format, and students in both formats had access to the same online materials.  We find that students in the traditional format scored 2.3 percentage points more on a 100-point scale on the combined midterm and final.  There were no differences between formats in non-cognitive effort (attendance, time spent with online materials) nor in withdrawal from the class.  Comparing our experimental estimates of the effect of attendance with non-experimental estimates using only students in the traditional format, we find that the non-experimental were 2.5 times larger, suggesting that the large effects of attending lectures found in the previous literature are likely due to selection bias.  Overall our results suggest that hybrid classes may offer a cost effective alternative to traditional lectures while having a small impact on student performance.

Where to begin? The CPI increased by about 1.1% over the last 12 months, so our tuition rates are increasing at triple the “average” price increase. Of course, this is not Lake Woebegone, someone HAS to be above average just as someone has to be below average. This continues a trend where the sticker price of universities has increased at more than twice the rate of inflation going on 40 years. 

  1. This is sticker price. The “right” figure to focus on is what the “net price” (i.e. price you actually pay after financial aid awards) has done over the same period. I’ll leave it to my readers to imagine. I will note however that the net price of community colleges has been flat for nearly two decades.
  2. Almost no one has an incentive to keep college sticker prices down who is currently affiliated with the university, including yours truly. I suppose my “strategy” is to hope  the whole thing doesn’t blow up before I decide my time is up. 
  3. Let me give readers a flavor for how these tuition dollars are spent. It’s a flavor addition by omission if you will. For example, I teach about 600 students per year in my classes. Folks probably think I am overworked in my teaching load, and maybe that’s true in some relative sense, but to be quite honest I could teach one more full blown class with no problem, and probably several more. Indeed, I’ve offered to do so in the past and have been politely turned down (even when I offer to do it for no money cost, but that’s another story for another time). For arguments’ sake, suppose the “all-in” cost to have me teaching, including the indirect costs associated with my use of the library, office space, the direct and indirect cost of benefits, salary and a whole lot more, are somehow up at $150,000 per year. At $46,000, spread across 8 classes a year, a typical “full-pay” student pays $5,750 per class. So, it would take me only 26 student-classes to fully cover the costs of having me teach here at the University. This means that the tuition revenues generated by the other 574 students goes elsewhere. I will not here elaborate on the elsewhere, I just want you to focus on: 96% of the tuition dollars that “I generate” go somewhere other than me (which is fine by me by the way, I happily signed my current contract) – so in a universe filled with people claiming that labor markets are really exploitive, then it’s a bit striking that so much of “my” surplus is extracted each and every year. I bet that this is “worse” than even the most “extractive” Walmart and its “ilk” do. Again, we can lecture you on wage determination and exploitation at some other point. Another point is that despite this, tuition fees still increase, despite the fact that folks like me can both teach more, and given results like the paper above – that we can deliver our teaching in far more cost-effective ways than we currently do. 
  4. Among the other puzzling facts about university life, and there are many, is that the places are really like little islands of anarchy in a sea of  typical governance. Yet I would bet a decent pile of cash that most people who are drawn to university life would be quite vehement in their opposition to anarchy.  

Vance Fried has written on how he could deliver the same sort of education that we currently deliver for less than 20% of this cost.

Alex Tabarrok reports today:

Excellent piece in the Washington Post on the FDA and sunscreen:

…American beachgoers will have to make do with sunscreens that dermatologists and cancer-research groups say are less effective and have changed little over the past decade.

That’s because applications for the newer sunscreen ingredients have languished for years in the bureaucracy of the Food and Drug Administration, which must approve the products before they reach consumers.

…The agency has not expanded its list of approved sunscreen ingredients since 1999. Eight ingredient applications are pending, some dating to 2003. Many of the ingredients are designed to provide broader protection from certain types of UV rays and were approved years ago in Europe, Asia, South America and elsewhere.

If you want to understand how dysfunctional regulation has become ponder this sentence:

“This is a very intractable problem. I think, if possible, we are more frustrated than the manufacturers and you all are about this situation,”

Who said it? Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research! Or how about this:

Eleven months ago, in a hearing on Capitol Hill, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg told lawmakers that sorting out the sunscreen issue was “one of the highest priorities.”

If this is high priority what happens to all the “low priority” drugs and medical devices?

The whole piece in the Washington Post is very good, read it all. I first wrote about this issue last year.

Or in other words, we’re doomed. And what of the FCC? And the trade commission? And …

I follow environmental news quite closely, and picked up this one today:

Saving dying lake is priority for Iranian leader

So read just a few sentences into the story and you see this:

Lake Oroumieh, one of the biggest saltwater lakes on Earth, has shrunk more than 80 percent to 1,000 square kilometers (nearly 400 square miles) in the past decade, mainly because of climate change, expanded irrigation for surrounding farms and the damming of rivers that feed the body of water, experts say. Salt-covered rocks that were once deep underwater now sit in the middle of desert.

So, the climate warmed by 0.7 degrees centigrade from about 1880 to the mid-1990s according to measurements reported by all kinds of scientists. As far as I can tell from this story, the lake was fine during all of this time. And as several folks know, average temperatures around the globe, while 0.7 higher than “pre-industrial times” (not all time of course, just according to some baseline) have been flat for the time period over which the author claims this lake is dying.

And when the possible causes for the destruction of the lake are given, what comes up #1? Yup, you got it. Climate change. If this is not evidence of the absolutely sorry state of basic scientific understand, of basic journalistic competence, of the sensibility of people that obviously this stuff is being written for, then I can’t possibly figure out what other evidence could be provided. I had intended to tone down my attitude and writings, but when this sort of stuff is front-page news, we’re doomed.

Climate change.


EVEN IF the temperatures had increased an additional degree over a decade in Iran where this lake is, is there ANY way that could explain anywhere near EIGHTY PERCENT reductions in the water level of a lake? For fun, go check out the latest (5th assessment report) report from the policymaker/advocate/scientists on the IPCC and find out what their “catastrophic” expectations are for more than 5 degrees warming over a century and how many lakes will lose 80% of their volume. Extra credit points if you do.

Climate change.

Is there some sort of requirement that the term “climate change” be included in any article about anything having to do with elements? And one wonders why when people who are actually knowledgeable about climate change are increasingly not being listened to, and why folks who want to work up reasonable strategies to protect us from some of the uncertain tail risks that are involved with climate change are giving up or not being listened to – this is why. It’s not just that there is fear-mongering exhaustion, or that our behavioral biases get us comfortable with risks that we are aware of, but that it’s now impossible to tell who has what agenda, who is spouting nonsense, and who is actually being sincere. There’s more reason to be depressed about this too, but we’ll save that for a future post. I have never been privy to an intellectual “discussion” about anything that has been as heartbreakingly fruitless as dealing with global climate issues. I’ve basically stopped lecturing on anything related to it to – it’s not like people are actually trying to be analytic about any of it.


This is in the same genre:

The biggest lease holder in Canada’s oil sands isn’t Exxon Mobil or Chevron. It’s the Koch brothers.

About the only thing the headline is missing is a “… MWAAAAHHHH AAAAA, MWAAAAAHHHHHH!” Maybe I’m an idiot but:

  1. It would never have occurred to me that the biggest leaseholders in the oil sands were Exxon or Chevron. I know they’re big oil companies and all, but they’re not the biggest in the world, for one, and second, I am familiar with the leases for gas rights by me and it is not unusual for small/independent holders to be quite large interests in certain regions.
  2. Should one bother to examine the history of Koch Industries, they would find that they got their start by developing innovating cracking processes for refining oil. While their major business today is much more diversified, they are very much an oil products firm. So while they are not drilling everywhere for oil, is there even ANYTHING newsworthy about their company having lease rights to hundreds of thousands of acres of fields that are suspected to have oil? Another major business line, I recall, was commodities investing, or something similar. Would it be equally newsworthy to report that, “Harvard University is investing heavily in online software companies who are capable of helping teachers deliver content electronically?” When I saw the lede I did not see Koch in my feed reader, and I was actually expecting to see something like, “Walt Disney!” Or something like that.

But nope. It’s clandestine, evil Koch brothers all the time. I used to read Wonkblog when Klein ran it. He didn’t do too much writing like that despite his need to feed his audience a few treats every so often. But if this is what that site is becoming, I’m sorry for that website, it used to be quite good. Once again, we’re doomed. Or maybe we’re doomed because I even bothered to waste blog space on it.

It is typically asserted that on utilitarian grounds we can and should redistribute wealth from the richer to the poorer. On its face and all-alone the argument makes some sense. The argument goes like this: since there is diminishing marginal utility of wealth, a dollar to a rich person is worth less than a dollar to a poor person. Hence, taking a dollar away from a rich person will cause a small loss in utility while giving a dollar to a poor person will cause a large increase in utility – so the net change to society from a redistribution of a dollar from rich to poor is positive.

There is something wrong, mechanically, with this argument however. In other words, what about this implication of diminishing marginal utility is not quite right?

Yes, additions to my income may well bring me less satisfaction the richer I am … but this says nothing at all about how the next dollar adds to MY happiness as compared to how the next dollar adds to YOUR happiness.

For example, I am a millionaire and you have only $50,000. What diminishing marginal utility tells us is that the 100,000th dollar maybe added 50 utils to my satisfaction, and the 200,000th dollar added 45, and the millionth dollar added 30 … and so on. What it also tells us is that the 10,000th dollar to you added some amount to your happiness, the 20,000th added a little less and so on. But what the assumption CANNOT say, especially since we cannot do interpersonal utility comparisons, is how much satisfaction the millionth dollar gave me as compared to the 50,000th dollar you got. It could be the case that the 50,000th gave you 32 units of satisfaction while the millionth gave me only 10, but that does not at all follow from the theory. It could also very well be the case that the millionth gave me 25 units of satisfaction, which is of course less than the satisfaction that the 500,000th dollar gave me, and at the same time that the 50,000th gave you 20 units, which is less than the 40,000th gave you.

If you were a consistent utilitarian, then you would necessarily advocate for transferring income from the poorer guy to the richer if the assumption above is violated. I don’t know many people, self-proclaimed utilitarians among them, who would go that far. This is not, by the way, the only problem with utilitarian justifications for income transfers from rich to poor. But let’s keep things simple for now.


Imposing Altruism

We’re quite accomplished at that here in the United States. I wonder, do you actually feel good when you have to impose force in order to get people to do something? Is it really altruism, when for example, if tax dollars are collected to provide food for the hungry? It may be morally correct, from a broad perspective, but I am asking the question of whether and why folks think such things count as “charity.”

Unless freely chosen, an act has no individual moral component. None.

Which brings me to my point today. When we are in the business of imposing altruism via policy, why do we do it in the forms that we do. For example, take the Endangered Species Act – an act that in principle I suspect many people across the political spectrum agree with. The way it works in practice however is that nearly the entire burden of species protection is forced upon a single or small group of people who have interaction with the Endangered Species. But, if “we” all benefit from such protections, then why are we exempted from the rules and costs of the ESA?

Or take policy that more of you are familiar with: kidney donations. We have it is a matter of religion that people should be forced to give away, for free, a piece of their body in order to help someone in need of a kidney. Keep in mind that the kidney itself is nowhere near the most scarce and most expensive part of the entire procedure. The hospital space and time is far more scarce. The nurses, doctors, anesthesiologists, etc. are far more scarce. Yet, I’ve NEVER seen a serious argument that doctors should be forced to perform kidney transplant surgeries for free. I tell you what, I’ll get off my “free-markets in organs” high horse when I see anti-market people pass legislation that requires every kidney operation to be done pro-bono by ALL parties involved. We know why that will never happen.

Or take social justice labor market legislation like the minimum wage. Why is it that the entire burden of supporting low-skilled workers is being foisted upon entrepreneurs? Those entrepreneurs are of course about the only people actually doing anything for low wage workers. Indeed, when an entrepreneur pays a worker even below some desired minimum wage, that is far more than I am currently doing. But heck, any entrepreneur that hires anyone is doing more good than the rest of us – by raising the demand for labor generally, they help keep wages higher than they otherwise would be. Why do they get singled out for special “treatment?” Indeed, I will support increases in the minimum wage when they come along with legislation that requires that x% of the people currently working MUST quit their jobs AND not accept government assistance. Why? In a short-term, zero-sum (i.e. not realistic) view of the world, when I choose to work, I am supplying additional labor, and allowing greedy firms to keep wages lower. So, just as wages at Burger King skyrocketed in New Orleans after Katrina due to the scarcity of workers, let’s create that scarcity by law – why shouldn’t current workers who are already “responsible” for “forcing” the wages of the low-skilled down to unacceptable levels, be responsible for this social policy? At the very least, why shouldn’t current workers, if you don’t want to fire them, be required to pay an extra tax on their wages that goes into the “minimum wage” pool? Let’s go further, let’s have all unions have a levy added to their annual union dues in order to support the plight of low-wage workers. Again, we know why this will never happen.


Imposing Indeed

Now it seems that the offering of options to people is now morally questionable, and perhaps even exploited:

“This means that even if you have no possessions to sell and cannot find a job, nobody can reasonably criticise you for, say, failing to sell a kidney to pay your rent. If a free market in organs was permitted and became widespread, then it is reasonable to assume that your organs would soon enough become economic resources like any other, in the context of the market. Selling your organs would become something that is simply expected of you as and when financial need arises. … 

We should ask questions such as the following: Would those in poverty be eligible for bankruptcy protection, or for public assistance, if they have an organ that they choose not to sell? Could they be legally forced to sell an organ to pay taxes, paternity bills or rent? How would society view someone who asks for charitable assistance to meet her basic needs, if she could easily sell a healthy ‘excess’ organ to meet them? … Wherever there is great value in not being put under social or legal pressure to sell something as a result of economic forces, we should think carefully about whether it is right to permit a market and to thereby impose the option on everyone to sell it

The author is indeed right to ask those questions, and the very government folks wish to use to prevent organ sales (successfully today?) ought to be “powerful” enough to make sure bankruptcy courts, for example, don’t consider organs liquid assets.

But let’s not argue about kidneys, or forcing the poor to sell them, today. We addressed this in part way back in the day. Instead, focus on the implications, again, of this philosophy when placed in conjunction with others.

  1. Markets are exploitive and immoral because they shut out the poor from consuming many goods. In other words, the “poor get poorer” at the expense of the rich. The are also immoral because markets are prone to monopoly and people are forced to do business with only one supplier. Workers are exploited because firms exercise enormous control over them.
  2. Markets are exploitive and immoral because they force people to have choices. In other words, on the firm side, we’ve seen the “paradox of choice” where we are inundated with so many options that we are now exploited? And in this case, we are given so many options about how to earn income that by adding one more option we are now exploited. 

I simply don’t understand how these and so many other views can be held at the same time. But that’s because I used to expect folks used reason and logic to form their ideas. But I am wrong. We are mystics, plain and simple. We’re a bit more sophisticated than the mystics of the past, but mystics nonetheless.

By the way, if we had a truly free market in organs, you might expect that the price of the actual kidney itself (I recall a Becker paper putting it at $15,000) to fall so much that selling it really isn’t on the high priority list, even for the most cash strapped among us. But ignore that too, it’s too easy to conjure up images of people being held down by debt collectors only to have their kidneys forcefully ripped out and sold on eBay. 

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