Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


MAY 29, 2012 9:15AM

Corny Economics

Rate: 13 Flag

Sometimes we get so mired in the thick of things that we lose track of where we began and what we were about. I think economics is a lot like that. We’re all affected by it. We all have opinions. And yet we’re told it’s a vast topic about which we can have no opinion. It’s too big and complicated for us to understand if we haven’t studied it. I’m not sure I agree.

I want to begin by speaking in very blurry terms to reset the conversation. I think many of us have a problem of not being able to see the forest for the trees. So I want to zoom out to where the detailed view no longer holds us captive. Let’s talk in very broad brush strokes for now.

OK, so having zoomed our view of the Earth out to a resolution befitting an astronaut, let’s click the “Economic View” icon in the upper right corner, and see what the world looks like. I’ll interpret for you, since you may not be familiar with this view and I don’t have a handy screen image.

From this view, I see only two things: People and corn. That’s all there is in the world.

“Corn?” I hear someone in the audience asking “Why corn?”

I’ve chosen corn to metaphorically represent what we need to survive.

“What about beef? We’re not all vegetarians,” some of you are asking.

For the purposes of our conversation today, beef is a kind of corn. We’re too high up to care about the kind of detail that would distinguish beef from corn.

“Health care? Housing?”

It’s all just corn. From here, corn is enough. From here, corn represents everything we need to live.

“We must be awfully high up to think that. But it’s OK. At this altitude, I think the thinning corn is making me light-headed and it’s starting to make sense.”

Great. Now back to economics.

The first and most obvious observation is that there is either enough corn in the world, or there is not. If there is not, we have a serious problem. That would mean we are beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth.

“So that’s your model of the world? That all people do is make corn?”

Thanks for reminding me. Of course that’s silly. They also make harmonicas. Did I forget to mention that? People, corn, and harmonicas.

“I don’t know anyone that owns a harmonica.”

Well, I do. But it doesn’t matter. Harmonicas, iPods—same thing. From our vantage here, anything we make that we don’t need looks to me like a harmonica.

“Why harmonicas?”

They’re a way to pass the time between growing and eating corn. I divide life into essentials and leisure. After all, it takes only a fraction of the population to grow the corn we need. The rest of us just make—or use—harmonicas.

“Sounds like some of us are more necessary than others.”

Now you’re seeing my point. At the highest level, the problems are simpler. We don’t need everyone to grow corn because a few people can make enough for everyone. We’re an affluent species. We could just grow the corn and distribute it out and there’d be plenty for everyone.

“That would mean some wouldn’t have to work.”

Right. And that would drive some others crazy from an equity standpoint.

“So how do we solve that?”

We ask them to make harmonicas.

“But that won’t feed anyone.”

No one needed to be fed. There was already enough. Making harmonicas doesn’t make us more able to feed people, it just soothes our primitive emotions, making it seem that people aren’t getting something for nothing. If they make harmonicas, we tell them they’re entitled to food. No harmonica, no food.

“That seems a bit harsh. And does the world really need that many harmonicas?”

Well, that’s what got me thinking. I have a friend who knows someone named Joe who’s living on welfare. She thinks Joe should get a job. I started to wonder if that was really true.

I imagined Joe getting a job making drink umbrellas.

“Drink umbrellas?”

They’re a kind of harmonica. But don’t interrupt.

Mind you, as with all harmonicas, the world doesn’t really need drink umbrellas. They offer very little value, they mostly just go straight into the trash, and they add to landfill. Plus Joe will burn corn getting to and from work so that he can make this product that adds to the landfill. And someone will have to drive the product to market so that someone else can drive to the store and buy it. All of these activities threaten the corn supply. On net, I’d say, they make us poorer.

Or it might be no one even wants drink umbrellas. We might need additional people to work at a marketing firm in order to figure out how to get people to buy them anyway. Those people would have to expend fuel driving to and from work. They need heat or air conditioning while at the office. They need an internet connection. Expense is layered upon expense just to get society to create and tolerate things we don’t need. And why? Because without all this expense, we wouldn’t feel good giving Joe some corn for free.

I’m not sure any of that makes good sense. None of it will make us more able to feed Joe. It will only make us more willing to feed him.

We don’t end up caring whether the job Joe takes burns more resources to earn the corn than he would burn if we just gave him the corn. In fact, we don’t account carefully for the resources used by our society at all. We take it on faith that resources are being used well because we imagine that when everyone makes purchases that each individually make sense, the entire system will somehow, magically also make sense. But what if that’s wrong? What if there is no such emergent effect? What if being down and dirty in the details obscures our chance to create any global coherence?

We created money so we could keep track of traded value, but somehow things have gone awry. I’m not advocating an end of money, but I am advocating a hard look at the assumptions we make about its effect and about the goodness of the things it buys. I’d like an end to the blind trust in money, as it were.

There may indeed be things we could be doing in our society to make the world better, but merely looking at where there’s money to be made might not answer that. We have erected a consumer-driven society in which we incentivize the making of things. But I suspect we will not have a sustainable society until we start to incentivize the “not making” of things we don’t need.

Maybe there are other ways people can provide value, maybe not. But if there can be such gigantic questions of what’s the right thing to do in the world, can we at least agree to feed everyone in the meantime while we sort it out? And by feed, I really mean feed, clothe, house, and take care of them. I think we’d be able to do it. I think so because I think we could do it if people would just make more harmonicas.

If we’re prepared to do something important if only our people do some utterly irrelevant act, I think we’re prepared to do it regardless. Why not dispense with all the corny excuses and finally just do it.

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Heh, all I can hear is "socialist-pinko-commy-bastard" ...the stupidity of it all is so overwhelming that it gives me a headache, high blood pressure, and depression.

Rick, thanks for visiting. I completely agree that's the easy thing to grab for, so surely some will say that. People always love to dismiss a thing because that means they don't then have to think deeply. As I'm sure didn't go past you, at least, I didn't get here by wanting some sort of commy end. I'm actually just observing that if you want to be conservative about spending, you might get here by other means.
And who processes all the "effluent" created by eating and digesting the corn?
Kent, you should get the Noble Prize in Economics for this! Make it required reading for all high school freshmen. They can "read" it while they're texting on their harmonicas.
Walter, if everyone were fed, people wouldn't be forced to do menial labor just to get food. That wouldn't make all the janitorial jobs go away. It just means they'd be priced at proper market value. When they're offered under duress, they don't really get their correct valuation. Surely that's something that would please the Ayn Rand followers? :) [Maybe not, but only because I read her much differently than they do—and surely differently than she intended (but that's OK. Woody Allen says so).] Topic for a post another day... Thanks for visiting and for the supportive words.

I don't know who you are familiar with in your daily encounters and interactions with others. But I can tell you with full certainty, all that will be seen by a huge swath of RIGHTIES in what you've written here is "government control", and forcing people to do certain things, and "price fixing" and "authoritarianism" and ...well, you get the picture. I'm telling you, there is a huge portion of Americans that simply would never be able to understand this; I work with some of them, I speak to them every day, I have been involved in long extended discussions that have continued over months at a time and they are primarily capable only of a willful suspension of disbelief when confronted with even the simplest truths that contradict their beliefs.
Rick, it's one nice thing about Open Salon. It gives a reasonable place for open-minded people to discuss stuff. Maybe there is a political leaning here, but people are still thinking. And, in fact, I trust even my liberal friends to tell me if something doesn't make sense, since I know they are trying their best to be honest both with me and with themselves. One has to sometimes just follow through an idea and see where it leads. We'll see what others say. :)
FWIW, i very much agree up to the point where you bring in the harmonicas and welfare, and marketing and stuff... not so much afterwards.

i can see what you're depicting as the problem, and i agree with that. but what you're vaguely suggesting, or at least what i read out of you as something you seem to me you're vaguely suggesting, is something that has ended up in cruel chapters of history.

some thoughts to consider:

1) if the general population is too stupid to see that they don't need drink umbrellas, then what do you think, what will happen to such a population if you keep feeding these stupid people for free? and i'm not even getting to the negative aspects of disabling evolutionary pressure (both biological and ideological selection) and what that would result in after a couple of generations... or the morality of it...

"The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools."

and why is feeding everyone the highest moral good? why not maximizing the number of wise, virtuous, consistent, principled, and morally sound people is the highest moral good for which society should aim for? and yes, that implies that we should award and propose the above listed virtues and punish or ignore the lack of them. because whatever your award, there will be more of that... give away food for free, and wait a few generations, and not only harmonicas will run out, but corn, too.

now, i'm all in for giving equal opportunities to humans! especially the new generations, because e.g. if a child doesn't get enough nutrition then it will hinder their mental abilities for the rest of their lives. and the same applies to the psychological environment they grow up in, the amount of aggression (as in the initiation of the use of force, or the threat of it) they are exposed to (spanking, shouting, blind authority!).

so, sure, let's give away free nutritious food to *children*! and support their healthy development in any ways we can! because in 20 years they will start shaping society, and in 40 years they will become the majority, and if we fail to show them a sound model of society, then they will screw up the world in a major way...

(this help does NOT involve setting up a mandatory public school system, which is financed from stolen money extorted by coercion and distributed by some central planners, and where parents get beaten up and put in a cage, and their children taken away from them if they.. well... don't give away their children without opposition for the mandatory indoctrination).

more here:

2) money is a claim on human labor. it's just an accounting tool to keep track of who produced how much welfare (well, in a fair system, not what we have on the west since the past few decades, where some can straight out print their money). where 'welfare' denotes what people want to have. on the top of that list is food, down deeper on the list there are more unnecessary stuff.

but if a smartphone is unnecessary, then annual health checks are also unnecessary... if you oppose, then you just say that extending lifespan is of higher value than having a more enjoyable life lying on the couch with a smartphone in your hand. who is to decide? central planning? following your logic that quickly leads to population control, and good luck morally defending direct human interference with the life of other humans. i'm much more ok accepting that some people die of hunger, than some individuals choosing who is worthy of living in the form of some direct human action...

IMO, the problem is not with money, or starvation... but with the general quality of the psyche of the individuals forming our society.

money and capitalism is only a tool to organize society, and while a rather good one, the end result will ultimately be defined by the quality of the individuals. if the individuals forming our society are lacking virtues, or if our idea of what is virtuous is screwed up (e.g. being a full time soldier), then things will also get screwed regardless of the organizational framework...
and re crony economics, it's worth reading this:

Priceless: How The Federal Reserve Bought The Economics Profession 2009-09
"It’s too big and complicated for us to understand if we haven’t studied it."

I don't agree either. I don't need to understand particle physics to understand nuclear proliferation represents a clear and present danger. And it seems glaringly obvious that applies to nuclear power as well. That, I submit, is an indication my understanding is superior to the understanding of the particle physicists promoting nuclear power -- at least in its present state.

And in the "semi-great minds, same channel" vein, interesting that you chose the corn metaphor:

Lend Me An Ear
Brilliant. That is all. Corn and harmonicas.
I can only hope that at the end of this period and screaming and yelling and fighting at the hint of insult comes a period of open caring, sharing, and healing.
For the comparison to food and noises I commend you Kent.
Well done...
Attila, thanks for taking your comments out of the Facebook venue, where I think it was tedious to address them, and putting them here where I can deal with them just once, not redundantly. There's a lot to respond to and I won't have time to do it right now, so please be patient and try not to feel snubbed if I sort of temporarily skip over your stuff and come back to it later when I have a little more time. That's my way of not answering too superficially.

Tom, I'll check out your post later when I have more time, too. Something in what you wrote reminds me I got mail from someone I know accusing me of having endorsed the idea that it was OK to talk about things without a proper understanding, so let me clarify that. Clearly, and I doubt you'd disagree, there are places where expertise is critical. But it's possible, as you note, to abstract away from the detail of nuclear physics to talk about the politics of nuclear in society. Likewise here, economics and particularly things like capitalisms and socialisms and the myriad unnamed pragmatic hybrids in between are just tools for getting something done in society. Those things may require considerable expertise to understand and debug. But knowing what we want of them in terms of basic values or even preferred ends is something that I think should precede implementation, not follow from it, which is why I'm saying it's possible to discuss here in the absence of all that. I think my responses to Attila later will make it clearer what I mean by that. Anyway, thanks for visiting, as always.

Froggy, I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)
Mission, hi. Thanks for dropping in. We'll try to keep it civil and see what we can learn. I like it when people disagree as long as it's civil. No point in just a rah rah session. While it's useful to know that it speaks to people, I'm also quite curious who it doesn't speak to and why. I just want to keep brains engaged and not have it melt down to slogans and whatnot. But we've been lucky with that here at Open Salon before, at least on my threads, and I'll assume we can do it again.
Exellent. Are "market economy" and "consumer economy" considered the same to professionals or are they different?
The emphasis on market economics as the be all and end all of human existence merely justifies the greed of the plutocrats, who have way more corn and harmonicas than is decent for any one person to have.

Remembering that no man is an island, and the Golden Rule is the way towards making a more just society. Emphasizing capitalism and individual achievement (at the expense of others) as the penultimate means and ends merely brings us all closer to the Lockean world of life as nasty, brutish, short, and poor.
Kent: Like Tom, I too keyed on the first paragraph, which seemed to imply that you were endorsing having strong opinions under a condition of ignorance. But I see that you've clarified that, to mean that it's ok to talk about values and ends, without necessarily understanding the details of implmentation. That makes much more sense.

I like your high-level abstraction about corn and harmonicas. It's an interesting perspective.

You talk about "the carrying capacity of Earth" and "needs". This also seems to have echoes of your earlier essay about "Enough", with the distinction between "needs" and "wants".

I wonder what "need" really means, though. At an extreme, it's just whether the population can maintain its numbers sustainably. Which probably leads to an earth of something like 20 billion people, all living in the density and subsistence-level poverty of Delhi.

I'm not sure whether you'd approve of that outcome, but I wouldn't. I'm far more interested in the growth of per-capita wealth. How rich and interesting can we make the lives of everyone? Rather than just: how many people can we keep alive at the bare minimum level? ("Harmonicas" are what makes life enjoyable, above and beyond what keeps humans alive and reproducing to the next generation.)

I know that you didn't explicitly endorse population growth. But that's almost certainly an unintended consequence over the long term of taking all the "corn" grown across the planet, and simply gifting it to each individual person. The "Joe"s in your story will just sit at home and make lots of children. And even if you have enough corn today, their capacity to create more humans completely dominates your capacity to grow more food on earth.

In the end, Malthus wins. He's only been wrong in the last few centuries because of capitalism, which has enabled skyrocketing per-capita wealth. But that's not the natural state of things.
Kent, the demand for and consumption of frivolous products is a necessary consequence of a free market system. If people are free to spend their wages how they please (within limits of course, I can’t easily purchase a nuclear device), some will spend their money in ways that seem foolish, wasteful and unnecessary to many others.

Short of a Soviet style economy, you can’t really stop it. The best you can do is discourage it through luxury taxes, and penalty taxes such as those on tobacco and alcohol. A more progressive income tax system to even out net incomes would also curb some of the more extreme excesses.

As for supplying everyone with food, I can’t imagine any but the most ideologically rigid to oppose it in principle. But wouldn’t you then have to socialize food production and how do you do that without the Soviet style collective farms. I thought they were the least efficient of farming methods.
Abrawang (going out of order here, since answering your question is easier—I'll get back to others later): The question of implementation is different than the question of goal. My meta-goal here was to get people to talk about the goal of economics, not the implementation.

But also, in fact, I was not trying to say that harmonicas are bad or should be discouraged. Rather, I was trying to say there is something morally different about denying people corn than denying them harmonicas.
Sometimes the most basic answers offer the best relief.
I myself came up with something almost childishly simple (I'm not suggesting this is on a par with your idea here, which is actually very sophisticated), but which could radically shake down Washingston if ever anyone took me seriously.
My idea: Never allow the mass production of any product which cannot be "un-made" or deconstructed molecularly with ease by nature.
Simple. Even justifiable.
But who would go for it?
Most people are too afraid their jobs would end were we to reframe our lifestyles with an edge on ecology.
But then, "mostpeople are a dying species," as philosopher/poet Paul Williams (not the singer/songwriter) once wrote.
Nice post, Kent. Fascinating viewpoint.
Sounds like required reading material for Econ 101.
Since I live across the lake from a farm that grows corn I feel very lucky indeed.
rated with love
Kent writes: "But if there can be such gigantic questions of what’s the right thing to do in the world, can we at least agree to feed everyone in the meantime while we sort it out? And by feed, I really mean feed, clothe, house, and take care of them. I think we’d be able to do it."

That sounds good, but I don't think it is possible. Perhaps it might be possible if we had "perfect people." But to paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, we have to go with the people we have, not with the people we might want or wish to have.

Many of the economic problems in third-world countries are caused by corruption. Imagine, for example, if we decided to "adopt" Niger, and make sure that everyone in that country had a decent standard of living. Niger already has considerable natural resources, but because of corruption the benefit of those resources does not flow to the average citizen, and around 90 percent of the people live in poverty. One of the most corrupt countries in the world, there is an entire Wiki article devoted to "corruption in Niger."

Anyway, we hypothetically decide to adopt Niger, and massive shipments of food and medicine flow into the country. How much of that would actually end up helping the people? I'd be surprised if 10 percent did. Most of it would be stolen and sold overseas, with the profits ending up in the pockets of corrupt politicians.

In many countries it's not even safe to operate. For example, a few years ago the Peace Corps had to shut down their Bangladesh projects because of terrorist threats from members of the "religion of peace," aka Islam.

All around the world, leaders of poor third-world countries are working night and day to loot the countries of anything and everything of value. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is in the process of stealing the land of white farmers in order to turn it over to his black cronies who have no interest in or knowledge of farming. Zimbabwe now actually has to rely on food imports and donations in order to keep people fed. In addition, the black workers who used to work and live on the white-owned farms are thrown into poverty as the new black "farm owners" strip the farms of assets and abandon the land. For an excellent documentary on what has happened in Zimbabwe, check out "Mugabe and the White Farmer," available on Netflix instant view.
Mishima: That is right on. Much of what you've shared y be backed up by a (now free) viewing at YouTube of the documentary, "The End of Poverty?".
So much of it has ben caused by our country's politicos, it is sickening.
Attila, I'm going to skip the issue of cruel chapters of history unless you give more texture/reference to respond to. I suspect what you're saying is based on a misreading of what I've said, but it's hard to tell without elaboration.

To be clear, in case this is the issue: I am not suggesting to only allow people corn (enough to survive) but rather to minimally allow them that as a baseline below which they cannot fall. However, I'll grant you that someone could do a crude calculation of how to hold some number of people to a certain minimum standard of living and no more. Still, saying they'd be better off without a minimum is like saying prisoners of war would be better off without the Geneva convention because captors would have to always worry that there was no minimum standard that would keep them from getting in trouble, so would offer luxurious accommodation just to stay out of the risk of trouble. Not buying it. Nor do I think that failing to offer a minimum wage is the best way to assure wages rise because employers will err on the side of high wages for fear that their wage might be seen as insufficient. These are not the observed trends in the absence of regulation. So I'm alleging that there is no harm, and perhaps some good, in saying what people minimally deserve.

But note well: I did not begin by setting this as the question. This is not a piece on “what kinds of comfortable benefits can we guarantee people?” I just got there somewhat accidentally as the result of a different bit of thought about the question of “Is it beneficial to society to ask that someone work for their food?”

Perhaps you're asking whether this justifies insisting that they do not work for their food. That, in fact, is a different question. Although to some extent the answer should be quite obviously that if they're allowed to choose to work for their food, they're not able only because they'd get food anywya. So they're just choosing to work because they want to. And we could certainly place limits on what endeavors are good for society. We don't let people paint the houses of others without permission. We don't let people perform surgery without a license. There are lots of restrictions we make on what jobs people can take. And we could make more, surely. But I don't see those as creating a burden on individuals, as the whole society is bound by the same rules and could change the rules if they did not suit that society... at least in theory. (Present day democracy is not doing well in changing various rules that are not suiting the majority, I think, but that's question for another day.)

OK, now on to your numbered items.
Attila, as to your item #1...

First, the issue isn't whether the general population is too stupid to see that something is not needed. The question is in fact whether people have the perspective to see. One weakness of liberty and democracy is that it requires no coordination of the parts. It's like building a giant perceptron, and that has definite limitations. Vendors do not control entire markets, just pieces of them, so it's easy to commit to a product no one wants. You could decide to make 8-track tapes at the time the market is consolidating around cassettes, or betamax at the time the market is consolidating around VHS. We make tons of waste. We even make goods to wear out because if we didn't there'd be no more need to sell them: planned obsolescence.

Next, you say “why is feeding everyone the highest moral good?” Part of the reason I wrote this post was to determine whether they were people willing to utter this phrase. I may try to take this up as a separate post sometime, but will prefer for now to somewhat answer a question with a question: “Why is allowing people to be born the highest moral good?” I'm all for birth control. I think there are too many people and consequences to that. So I'm not unsympathetic to your concern that sheer numbers is not a goal. I'd like to see numbers reduced and not by mass murder, so that leaves birth control. But if society is going to allow, even require, that people be born, I think the answer is that it should commit to having that birth be part of the societal plan, and if it isn't going to plan for it, it troubles me personally to tell someone that society's plan for them is that they should starve to death. The fact that we don't know which person we plan to starve to death, only that we mean it for some, is too slim a tree to hide behind in saying our conscience is clean. If someone starves and our answer is “we intended that,” I think that's a problem. And while I'll grant you there may be people who are stupid who get born, I don't think that happens at nearly as high a rate as it happens that they are just treated as if stupid by a population that can afford not to care. In my experience, a lot of people who are written off as stupid really are not, and are more victims of lack of resource to assure that their intelligence is properly nurtured. This again argues for smaller populations, such that we can afford to care about each individual. And I'd like to get there without violence or hardship. So equitable birth control. Certainly anyone willing to not have a child should be lauded for that, at least until our numbers is so few that not having kids is our chief threat. Fair to say that is not our problem today.

And if all this discussion does is point people to the fact that we have too many people, well, it's mostly the conservatives who tell me that we are not at carrying capacity. It's one of those touchy-feely treehugger liberal things to worry that we need to care about the environment and the size of population. The GOP is the party of unfettered reproduction and don't tell me what I can do to my environment. So if it's the GOP who suddenly say “wait a minute, we can't afford so many people on finite resources” then I regard that as a big step forward.

I know you're not from the US so your situation is slightly different, but I assume there must be analogs and/or that you can translate.
Attila, to your point #2...

You write “money is a claim on human labor. it's just an accounting tool to keep track of who produced how much welfare”

(I assume you mean welfare in the most generic sense, as in good outcome, not as in contributing to the social institution by the same name.)

I recognize that this is the intent of money, though it is certainly an imperfect vehicle (and some would argue outlandishly bad). This is for several reasons.

One is that once money can beget money, you get situations like Mitt Romney, who I'd argue has not produced a lot of goodness, but even let's say Bill Gates, who most certainly has produced goodness but who I'll allege has not produced goodness on the order of magnitude that he has been alleged to. The big contribution of Gates, by his own implicit admission, was not what he did, but that he was first. If he had really been the only person who could have done what he did, he'd have finished out Harvard and done what he did at a time of his own choosing. He left Harvard not because the world needed him but because he knew the world did not need him and would do what it did regardless of who was at the helm. He did some interesting things. (We'll even graciously leave out the very questionable things he is alleged to have done in terms of market fixing. I tend to believe those were serious things reasonably attributed to him, but our court system has run on the matter and at this point it's a distraction.) What he really did was take credit for an unstoppable wave. Things would have been different if someone else had done it, and so the world has his indelible mark on it, but that is not to say the world would be without computers today without him. For all anyone knows, progress would have been better. One can't reasonably judge better or worse—it's just speculation. But affording him billions of dollars for what he did? He was just a gambler who won. That gamble did not itself create the wealth. The hard work of programmers did that. Programmers who were set to program no matter who had been in charge.

And so I think money does not fairly measure any of that.

Nor at the low end does it measure things. If a teacher or janitor or firefighter who has worked all their life, perhaps double-shifts all too often, hasn't the money to buy health care, then money does not measure the goodness they have created either.

So money is a fiction. We can at another time argue whether we should have it. Maybe money is the best we can do. We have many fictions that hold society together. But let's distinguish what our starting points are and what our conclusions are. Our starting point should be what we want to accomplish, not what an arbitrary mechanism leads us to.

And neither did I say a smartphone was unnecessary. You may note I said that oil was corn, at least for now. That is, necessary. Maybe in some constructions of societies, a cell phone, even a smart one, is necessary. It could depend. I deliberately blurred out what is and is not essential because I think it's a secondary discussion to have about “what is necessary.” Some have argued the internet to be necessary as a human rights thing, and yet the world survived without it. But my point is that there's a minimum cost to having a person. If we're going to have them, let's commit to getting them the tools and skills and resources they need to be here. Or let's not have them.

I've been told, and I don't know if it's true but it sounds right so I'll use it with some trepidation as an example, that in some societies where death rates are high, people have more kids. As a parent, worried about the idea of bringing kids into a world that may be full of strife due to Climate Change, that scares me. Why would someone do that? But I'm told, rightly or wrongly: spares. It's an interesting theory that I'll try not to moralize about except to say that this is a calculation I'd like to avoid. I'd like to say that we can enough depend on the success of any child being born that we can really invest in him/her, rather than saying let's just have a lot of them and let some die and be glad some didn't. Both are theoretically possible to weave into stable societies. I can't argue on the basis of some abstract theory that one is unworkable. I just would rather aspire to avoiding that.

The question of extending lifespan is a complicated one. I'll just acknowledge that even people who have to undergo these complicated procedures to do questionable extension of life often opt out. So I think we'd have to separate that and say I'm not talking about end-of-life spikes or how these are judged. But I had cancer a few years ago (and nominally still do, being presently classified as “no evidence of disease” for quite a while, not cured, for technical reasons) and, while biased on the matter, I also have some fairly strong thoughts. Even if the expense fell to society, not to me, I think a reasonable case could be made that it was a good investment. Raising a person is a big investment. I'm already raised and ready-to-work. The cost of fixing me as opposed to making a new me was very modest. My objection to me paying for it personally isn't that I shouldn't bear the cost but that the timing might be such that I couldn't. There are stress points in individual finances that can kill a person whereas for large blocks of people the laws of large numbers can much more easily accommodate that. I want a society that commits to its members.

But to your point, the issue isn't who says what's necessary and what's not. That must not be a prerequisite to the commitment. For example, do we commit to justice only on the condition we can precisely define it? We can't precisely define it, as we've found, or knew all along. And yet the endeavor is enough worth it that it's better to commit to the idea and then see how well the budget can be managed. I think there are some substantial rough edges around frivolous lawsuits, etc. But these are manageable. We treat them as if they are anomalous and should not happen, but they're pretty predictable. I think the makers of a society needs to understand that people will push the system and that the fabric of the system must be to push back, not to declare the process bankrupt. If a human gave up on living merely because life was a constant struggle against infectious organisms, that would kind of defeat the purpose. As a society, we must commit to things we cannot say we can solve, not because that will make them solvable, but because not committing will assure they are not solvable.

But if the essence of your message is that you'd rather Darwinism be rampant in our society, to the point that the penalty for making mistakes is an awful death for lack of food or other basics, then I part company with you. I think we can motivate people without appealing to the idea that if they don't eat they'll suffer. And I think even if there are occasional people who just want to feed off the wealth of others, we're better off than if we say that the answer is to make sure no one ever has the opportunity to do that unless they can personally account for why they're deserving. I would not be proud to live in such a society, no matter how “successful.”

There may even be edge cases where we can't help people for economic reasons, but I still think it's best to say we'll try than to say we plan not to. I don't see a reason to make that the case of concern. That's something you deal with at the resource level once you work out your goal; you don't let resource concerns down the road tell you that it should never have been your goal in the first place.
Don, doubtless some of my answers to Attila will address your points as well. It's late and I'm worn out, but I'll try to hit some of your points that I think I didn't hit already above...

First, I think we have too many people. You seem very concerned about the carrying capacity issue, but I think first that if you're concerned about resources, then population is the issue I'd focus on, not the level of promise. Part of my emergent goal (I didn't set out to make this point per se from the outset, but I'm latching onto it as something I learned in the discussion and am pushing it harder) is to get people to see that we're well beyond carrying capacity for a humane society. If we are to a point where we cannot commit a rational existence to our people, we're overextended by definition. If we have to say “a decent living is not possible mathematically for us all to have” that's almost the definition of lifeboat ethics, albeit in the large. And if lifeboat ethics are in play, then ipso facto my argument that we're past carrying capacity must be true.

I have also come to think carrying capacity is about “fragility.” That is, how easily could a guarantee of a given level of quality be broken by circumstance, such as a disaster at a critical supply source, a break in the supply chain, a change in the system that precluded a large institutionalized solution from working at all, etc. In computer science terms, this has to do with the gap between typical and various kinds of worst case performance, as well as the probability of one or more of those worst case scenarios getting tickled. Sadly, a lot of really basic problems in our overall system are scarily close. Society should be focusing on improving the overall throughput even in bad times, and one way to do that is to make it someone's job to worry about what our commitment is. As long as we're a society that is full of rugged individualists, it's really no one's job to care what happens in those circumstances, and that's scary as things like climate change, the depletion of the ocean's fish, the possible pollution of the US aquifers by fracking fluid, the possibility of bird flu, the possibility of global economic collapse, etc. loom.

Also, perhaps overlooked in my remarks is that I'm not intending corn to be the world's only goal. Rather, it's the starting point for where people might voluntarily build good things. Capitalism relies on creative destruction as it ruthlessly creates successful companies at the expense of unsuccessful ones. We ask individuals to participate in this, but it becomes an externality. The people who succeed do so at the expense not just of those at fault in the other companies but the loyal soldiers who were just doing a day's work and who only happen to work at the winning company by accident of the draw. The question is this: If a person's job is to do a clerk's job and they do it perfectly, why should they pay for someone's decision to make a good or bad product? How could they do their job better to improve their stake? And so is it necessary to tell them they cannot eat just to get better companies? I'd suggest that we should instead tell them maybe they can't earn harmonicas, but that they can still have food.

Whether that comes by a minimum wage, by fully funding soup kitchens, by offering free health care, etc. is a detail. We can work out the details when we figure out the goal. But the goal should come first. Is the goal really to make people unable to eat or perhaps take care of their family's health or have a house on a routine basis just because we need more harmonicas? Because we have more than enough people to make corn. If our problem was needing more corn, we could just ask the unemployed to work on that. But the problem is that we have plenty of corn. We're only hurting for harmonicas at a good price. And yet we're willing to deny faultless people corn to crank out that good price. Is that really something we can't set as a goal not to do?

As it happens, people pay for their own unemployment insurance. Why? Why don't the people who remain employed pay for that? If the goal is to have some win for the sake of all of us, then why not tax those who win? The theory is that 95% win and 5% get unemployed, and we still don't have the money in the 95% to pay for the 5%? It's the system that is cranking out the 5%. These people did nothing bad in absolute terms, we just cranked up what we wanted. Great. But let's not make these people victims. Or if we're going to, let's say it before we start. I'd like to hear you say the words “I want to design a system in which 5% of the people just lose utterly because that's how it should be.” Because that's what we have. They don't just get kicked out and get on their feet again. Increasingly, they end up stuck outside the system, unable to get reemployed, unable to get health care at a rational price, etc. We're fighting a war against industry that is veritably salivating over the notion that by kicking people off the lifeboat, it can profit. Is that the design? Is that what it was about all along? Has our unspoken goal been realized?

If you don't say what the goal is before you start, how can you measure whether you are on track? We're like a gambler who has gone into a casino not knowing what he expects to win and constantly adjusting expectations because staying at the table is his big goal. Our people are losing and it's hard to show because no one wrote down goals that are measurable so we can't say “hey, this is not working, how do we make it better?”

And no, I'm not trying to incentivize population growth. At that level, I'd rather incentivize birth control. Quality of life is a function of birth. And especially in a post-manufacturing era, we need fewer people. What's funny (sad) to me is that Japan is actually managing to do it . I'm not sure the mechanisms so we'll ignore that aspect. But independent of mechanism, their youth population is going down and they will actually be well-positioned for a post-manufacturing, robot-mediated society, yet they are described in grim terms as a failing society. In my view, looking to a society that is making its alleged wealth on population growth is what's failing, they just don't see it yet. China saw it and had to institute its one-child policy. It's a real problem. So these are the discussions we need to have. But if an alleged incentive for population growth gets created, then the answer is to teach everyone math and then have a healthy discussion about what the math of that leads to. I think an educated population would understand that there is no incentive for population growth.

We already have the problem that oil will run out, which is probably solvable if we're careful and speedier than we've been doing. And we have the problem that beef is going to be in short supply, so we need more vegetarians even at current population levels. Probably better for methane production anyway. Fish won't last either at present levels. But overall reducing our stress on the planet would help a lot, and the best way to do that is population control.

Failing to commit to a standard of living won't make these problems go away, it will just mean no one is tracking them.
PW, sustainability is certainly a bit part of all of this, yes. By forcing a discussion of what we're committing to, it becomes easier to see that. If we don't say what lifestyle we expect people to have, it's hard to notice when that lifestyle has slipped and why. Issues of sustainability come into play merely by doing actual accounting. Once you see the numbers and understand they have tangible impact, it's hard to avoid taking action that presently we're not taking. Thanks for stopping in. :)
Poetess, thanks for taking time out to visit and reflect on your luck. I think we'd all be better off if we with the resource to indulge these conversations were clearer on how much that got us here was luck rather than just hard work. A lot of people work very hard, way harder than I ever will, and will never have a chance for the kind of luck you're describing or that has happened to me. It would be nice to give some thought to figuring out how to widen that circle as much as we can. I feel like instead the world is about the people with the resources putting up sandbags to defend “their” turf.
Mishima, while you raise a very legit point about how human nature will thwart perfect delivery of something, I don't think at some level that it's relevant here. That is, we also offer all kinds of Constitutional rights that are nevertheless imperfectly applied in some regions or neighborhoods. We're still better off having them as goals to be aspired to or complained about. Saying we shouldn't offer them because they'll be violated seems wrong.

I'm not really talking here about the denial of corn by people who are thugs, but by people who are claiming to be executing the plan for society as spelled out. And I'm not saying it's all on us to do. You could regard my remarks as an imposition on foreign governments as much as a requirement that the US become do-gooders. But all this is implementation. The question is what the goal is because then we have tools for understanding where the goal is not being met.

(I was glad you made the point anyway, by the way, since it's a facet that was omitted in the discussion and for completeness it should at least be touched on.)
Kent writes: "But all this is implementation. The question is what the goal is because then we have tools for understanding where the goal is not being met."

There's a very real sense in which the implementation IS the goal. Stated differently, the implementation and the goal are so logically connected that we cannot talk about one without talking about the other.

For example, let's say that you want to lose 30 pounds. One way would be through diet and exercise. Another way would be to cut off your right leg. Both accomplish the same goal, but the latter comes with some very negative consequences. The goal itself, considered in isolation from the implementation, really doesn't do much for us.
Mishima, I don't agree. Losing 30 pounds can be accomplished either way, but there are always additional constraints and they don't have to involve the process. The issue isn't that the process matters, it's that what are called the “invariants” matter. You might want to lose it while not injuring your body, for example. That still doesn't tie you to process and lets you choose between diet and exercise. Even some surgeries are OK, just not the leg surgery in most cases. But it would be a mistake to say prematurely that because you don't want to chop off your leg, you must talk only about diet or only about exercise. That's what I mean by deciding your goal before deciding the process. So at least during the discussion you can distinguish between goals and implementation. And if you have to go back and revise the problem statement to account for additional constraints, that's OK. At least you'll know when you're doing it. If it's all a mush, you won't know if you're adapting process to accomodate a new goal or a new implementation. Those are very different.
Kent: Thanks for the extensive response (both to me, and to others). I think, at root, one of the big, big differences between us, is that you appear to see the vast majority of life outcomes as being due to luck. In your imagination (I suspect), we're all just gamblers at a casino, and some (few) people happen to win big. And so your intuitive sense of morality is shaped by a sense of what would be "fair" in such a random world. Perhaps, as a society, we can agree to smooth off the rough edges of the capricious god who randomly assigns a few winnings.

My own view is that of course luck plays a major role, but individual choices (and hard work) matter a whole lot too. In fact, over the long run, they dominate (most) outcomes. For me, what's critical is the incentives. Do people view themselves as victims of fate, powerless to change their life circumstances? Or instead, as actors with individual responsibility, who have the ability to make of their lives what they choose?

Given this deep philosophical difference, I think my responses to your points are probably predictable. Is earth beyond carrying capacity? Almost certainly not. It is possible to configure human societies so that earth can easily sustain a ~7B population. The US -- the richest society ever in history -- may not be completely sustainable, as currently structured. But it is SO rich, that surely with some minor long-term adjustments can serve as a model for the developing world. The problem is the populuous poor countries, whose societies are not structured in a way that those citizens have high-quality lives.

(Quick aside: you say "that's scary as things like..." and then go on to list an interesting collection of what is basically "tragedy of the commons", problems requiring centralized control, that fail to be dealt with well in a decentralized capitalist free market. I agree with you that there exist some problems -- e.g. the ones you've named! -- which require intervention beyond a simple free market.)

You say: "The people who succeed do so at the expense not just of those at fault in the other companies but the loyal soldiers who were just doing a day's work and who only happen to work at the winning company by accident of the draw. The question is this: If a person's job is to do a clerk's job and they do it perfectly, why should they pay for someone's decision to make a good or bad product?"

I think that's a fascinating scenario. I agree that there's a strong element of luck here. But I feel that you're too quick to jump to a complete lack of responsibility. "The guy was just a clerk, how could he possibly be expected to know anything about the company he's working for?" I'm less willing than you to absolve him of all responsibility. Some companies succeed, some fail. When you're trying to get a job as a clerk, at least a small portion of your responsibility is to think about the likely future of the overall company, as compared to any alternatives that you might have. This attitude of "it's not my fault, I was just doing my job", doesn't sit well with me. You (generically) are a mature, intelligent human being. Learn what you need to learn. Figure it out. Take responsibility for your own life outcomes.

You say: "then why not tax those who win? The theory is that 95% win and 5% get unemployed, and we still don't have the money in the 95% to pay for the 5%? It's the system that is cranking out the 5%. These people did nothing bad in absolute terms, we just cranked up what we wanted."

Because I think you're missing the incentives. Your model is that there is absolutely nothing that the 5% could have possibly done. It was a completely random event, whether they were in the 95% or the 5%. But I don't believe that the outcomes are completely random. I think people have a lot of choice, and a lot of influence over their outcomes. And it is absolutely critical, for a successful society, that people try to do anything they can to be in the 95% instead of the 5%. The more you structure society to say "it wasn't your fault, there's nothing you could have done about it", the more people turn fatalistic and don't exert effort into changing the outcomes. But that effort is exactly the piece that is most valuable to society!

You said: "I'd like to hear you say the words “I want to design a system in which 5% of the people just lose utterly because that's how it should be.”"

People "losing utterly" is of course not a goal. But the goal is individual responsibility. The goal is people (at least acting) as though their actions matter, and change outcomes. When people use their best efforts to strive to improve themselves, both they and society win together.

The problem is that a lot of your efforts to soften the pain at the bottom, at the same time have the unintended consequence of widening the gap between people's actions and their outcomes. Your "randomness" philosophy of life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But randomness is not why the US is so rich. Capitalist incentives, and people working hard to better themselves, is why the US is so wealthy.

You ask: "If you don't say what the goal is before you start"

My goal would probably be to maximize per-capita wealth. Well, let's throw out the very richest people, because they'll be fine no matter what, so who cares about them? So get rid of the top quarter or third. So let's say, maximize the per-capita wealth of the bottom 2/3 of the population. Not just the poor; but both the poor and the (very broad) middle class. And over the very long term: how are they doing 20 years from now? 50? 200?

I suspect you would find that transfer payments, via taxing the middle class (and wealthy, of course), and giving stuff to the poor, is not a successful way of making everybody rich a century from now.

The kinds of things that really matter, is not whether individuals happen to be suffering today. What matters are questions like: why is the plight of typical US urban blacks so much worse today than it was 50 years ago? Especially given that there was far more racism 50 years ago than there is today. And yet the number of black males in jail, typical education levels, number of unwed single moms, etc. In almost any societal metric you can measure, US urban blacks are a far worse subculture than they were decades ago. This is a horrible tragedy. And it isn't about that those better off ought to give the unfortunates "more". It's that the daily structure of their lives somehow winds up with them making destructive choices instead of positive choices. Fixing THAT would be a huge improvement in welfare, but I don't think it has anything to do with offering them free corn.
Don, how fortunate you are that you've never had to make some of the choices many people have. You've never faced worrying about whether your children will get sick because you don't have health insurance. You've never gone to the grocery store and had to decide which cheap food to buy because you cannot afford any better for your family. You've never had to get canned goods at government handouts or a food band. You've never had to tell your children that they couldn't have something because your child support payments were $70,000 in arrears.

Sitting in your ivory tower and telling a person that he or she merely needs to choose the right company to work for when in reality she or he may have taken the only position available just points out how out of touch you really are.

Please do not talk the talk until you walk the walk.
Don, you write “In your imagination (I suspect), we're all just gamblers at a casino, and some (few) people happen to win big. And so your intuitive sense of morality is shaped by a sense of what would be "fair" in such a random world. Perhaps, as a society, we can agree to smooth off the rough edges of the capricious god who randomly assigns a few winnings.”

I would not have put it that way, but I'll work with you. I don't think it's all that way, but I think it's a lot more random than people admit—and apparently than you admit.

You write, “over the long run, [individual choices (and hard work)] dominate (most) outcomes. For me, what's critical is the incentives. Do people view themselves as victims of fate, powerless to change their life circumstances? Or instead, as actors with individual responsibility, who have the ability to make of their lives what they choose?”

Individual responsibility? Who are you suggesting is being irresponsible? The people I'm talking about have to live this life. They go daily to work for lots less money than you or I have had the sometimes privilege to make. They do it tirelessly and often thanklessly. In what sense are they not taking responsibility?

They are victims of fate. Sure, a few are not. And you can console yourself by pointing to isolated examples where someone has gotten ahead and you can blame it on their doing the right thing, and others not getting ahead you can blame on them doing the wrong thing. But I simply do not believe you.

You go on to say, on another topic, “Is earth beyond carrying capacity? Almost certainly not. It is possible to configure human societies so that earth can easily sustain a ~7B population.”

I'm frankly stunned and saddened we don't agree on this one. Sure, you can wedge more people in, but you enormously increase the fragility of the system. Later, when (not if) it crashes, I want it on record that this was predictable. The entirety of modern industry about squeezing out every last bit of “inefficiency,” but remember that “insurance” and “robustnesss against unusual events” may be easy to confuse with inefficiency, and the pressure to remove slack may not be visibly a problem until the bad thing happens. Big Business is also engaged in relying increasingly on technology, such that if that technology ever fails (sourcing problems due to resource limitations including environmental disasters or human-induced political barriers, transport problems due to fuel shortages or storms, economic collapse leading to labor shortages or spikes in cost, etc.) there could be huge gaps in supply that could be very severe. The people at the high end will just pay more. The people at the low end will suffer a catastrophic unavailability as prices spike above their ability to pay or as limited supply goes only to those well-connected.

You write, “The US -- the richest society ever in history -- may not be completely sustainable, as currently structured. But it is SO rich, that surely with some minor long-term adjustments can serve as a model for the developing world. The problem is the populuous poor countries, whose societies are not structured in a way that those citizens have high-quality lives.”

I fear that your “minor long-term adjustments” will be the loss of what you regard as an acceptable percentage of lives or an acceptable percentage of utter loss of mobility or hope. I don't think it's going to be as neat and pretty as you expect, unless you just get good at turning a blind eye.

You refer to the “tragedy of the commons” issues I've touched on. I'm glad we agree these are problems. I hope you'll give some thought to whether they might not be modular, but might instead have domino effects such as the ones I mentioned above. What happens if there are big storms or wildfires or floods, whether one attributes them to climate change or not, that cause nations we expect to receive goods from to not do so. In the long run, maybe we'd compensate. But if a supply of my medications, or those of others, has a gap, the results could be dire. If food supplies are injured and some country that is major supplier turns inward (as russia did with wheat after its wildfires a couple years ago), that could be bad. What may have seemed cool and high-tech in terms of global supply chains may suddenly seem inefficient and foolhardy.

Your suggestion that someone has a choice between companies they work for severely misunderstands the present market for jobs. People rarely get two offers at the same time, and they cannot in general afford to pass up or hold a job that would work hoping to get one from a better company. Neither can they afford to apply only to companies they like. It is not that kind of job market. I have to say your response on this sounded very “let them eat cake.”

Again you refer to taking responsibility. I think that expression is insulting to the many, many people who live lives where they have remarkably little choice but where the one choice they do exercise is to continually take responsibility. No matter how discouraged, humiliated, lacking in upward mobility, etc., most still go to work very reliably, even often showing a cheer I doubt I could muster under such circumstances. I really think you need to work that phrase out of your critique.

You say “I think you're missing the incentives. Your model is that there is absolutely nothing that the 5% could have possibly done. It was a completely random event, whether they were in the 95% or the 5%. But I don't believe that the outcomes are completely random. I think people have a lot of choice, and a lot of influence over their outcomes.”

We do indeed disagree on this, quite strongly. Surely they have some wildcard ability to help things, but while I don't think there's no possible effect, I certainly feel the effects people can have are slim.

You said, “the more people turn fatalistic and don't exert effort into changing the outcomes.”

I didn't say they were fatalistic. They keep trying, to my amazement. I just observe that they're often wasting their time. It is me doing the claim, not them. As I've said, I think they are being extraordinarily responsible given the quite plain truth that their efforts are not yielding the kinds of outcomes they should. In the modern world, even just going to school and getting a degree is no longer a guarantee of a job. People are asked to take on enormous debt to get a degree and told they may not be able to pay it back and (recently) may not even through bankruptcy get out of their obligation to pay, unlike the debts of wall street gamblers. Regular people act in good faith and may lose, while people act in bad faith and get away with all manner of things, and get absolved of sins much worse.

You write, yet again, “the goal is individual responsibility” as if that were not already happening. I just don't believe you. We're asking things of people and there is a social contract to do well by them and we are increasingly not doing it.

You write, “randomness is not why the US is so rich.”

No, a healthy middle class is. And that's eroding.

You refer to “Capitalist incentives” but that's a joke to most people, who are coming to the conclusion that the present system is rigged.

You say, “My goal would probably be to maximize per-capita wealth.”

And what is your plan for that? It sounds like trickle down, and I don't trust that.

You write, “The kinds of things that really matter, is not whether individuals happen to be suffering today.”

Well, so you say. I absolutely think it matters a great deal if people are suffering ever. You and I obviously disagree on this as a basic premise.

You write, “It's that the daily structure of their lives somehow winds up with them making destructive choices instead of positive choices.”

Here again you assume that people have all kinds of choices. I guess I've answered that already.
CoyoteOldStyle: Thank you for your reply. I hesitate to get too personal here, but it strikes me that pretty much every human being is naturally envious of those who happen to be better off, and unfortunately typically takes for granted many of the good things they already possess. This is true for a HUGE range of absolute wealth. People just naturally view themselves mostly on a relative basis.

The examples you give still describe a life that is better than that lived by the vast majority of humans throughout history, and probably better than most humans alive today. You don't compare it to living in the recent civil war in Libya, or the government-less failed state of Somalia, or as a homeless beggar in Delhi, or as a rural farmer in China, with hard physical labor from dawn to dusk, and no retirement regardless of age.

I suspect that your story involves shelter from the weather, and a refrigerator and color television. And your local grocery stores always have shelves full of food -- unlike Soviet stores in the 60's and 70's, where food was unavailable at any price. For that matter, I see that you constrast "cheap" food with "better" food, but in fact more expensive food is typically tastier but much worse for your body. Broccoli and beans are super cheap and also super healthy. And if that's not enough calories, hundreds of millions of Chinese eat mostly rice, and the Irish used to eat mostly potatoes; both of which provide tremendous calories per dollar.

So I have to admit, that mostly what I get from your post is: "others have it better". I agree, that's probably true. But most of human happiness is about relationships with friends and family, not about material possessions.

I'm having a hard time figuring out what to conclude from your story.

"I think it's a lot more random than people admit—and apparently than you admit."

It strikes me that this shouldn't be something that we just have opinions about. This is an empirical fact about the world. In theory, it ought to be possible to study the world and resolve this, to see just what fraction of life outcomes are due to luck, vs. conscious choices.

"Who are you suggesting is being irresponsible?"

I am suggesting that you are viewing the people as irresponsible, as you continue to write about how there is nothing they can do to improve their lives, unless they are simply given things. I'm not at all suggesting that the people themselves are not adults. I think it is you who wish to treat them like children.

"their efforts are not yielding the kinds of outcomes they should"

What kind of outcomes "should" an effort to better oneself yield? The world offers no guarantees. All you can do, is try your best. Life is long, and over the long term, the odds tend to even out.

"getting a degree is no longer a guarantee of a job. People are asked to take on enormous debt to get a degree"

Again, no guarantees. And who is this mysterious entity that is "asking" people to take on debt?

People have choices. Choices have expected (but variable) outcomes. Make the best choices you can. No guarantees, but in the long run, making good choices will almost certainly result in a better life.

"We're asking things of people and there is a social contract to do well by them and we are increasingly not doing it."

There's a different view of society, where people's first responsibility is to take care of themselves. Then, secondly, there can be mutual gains from trade, as when we all band together and decide to tax ourselves in order to fund national defense, or police services, or fire services. Those are examples where we all need the service, but it's far more efficient to do it as a group than it is to do it individually. We're happy to pay the taxes and get the services. Society is a benefit to us.

That's not the story you're telling. You're telling a story of, "I did what I was told, and now society owes me a good life. It isn't my fault if it didn't work out. I'm not responsible for my outcomes. I don't understand how the world works, but I was a loyal citizen who obeyed orders."

That's the story of a child. That's what I tell my own children: if you do what I tell you, then I will make sure you are safe and secure and taken care of.

But someone eventually needs to bridge the gap between the harsh reality of the real, cruel, universe, and the desire for comfort and safety. Somebody needs to be the adult, and take responsibility for outcomes. "The buck stops here," vs. "I did my best, so whatever happens it's not my fault."

"You refer to “Capitalist incentives” but that's a joke to most people, who are coming to the conclusion that the present system is rigged."

OK, I can can see how your initial commenters already anticipated a call of "communist!" But that's using it as a contentless epithet. You are, in fact, talking about government control of the distribution of the results of production (give corn to everyone who needs it), which is pretty much the same intuition that communists had a century ago. Let us not just dismiss communist out of hand. It's certainly a reasonable concept to consider.

My question for you is: we've learned a few things in the last century. Yet I don't see any recognition of that learning in your proposals. In particular, government control and redistribution, when used to structure large human societies (it might work well on small ones, like an Israeli kibbutz), seems to regularly suffer from these two problems:

1. Some human is in charge of the redistribution. That position naturally has enormous power, and power attracts corruption. Over the long term, the necessary centralized power tends to use that power for its own benefit, rather than the benefit of the citizens.

2. The producers, who no longer gain selfishly from their additional efforts, tend not to work so hard. So the society as a whole no longer has as much "stuff" to distribute.

Perhaps your structure would work for a society of non-human robots. But the way humans are wired, different incentives produce different results. However much you might wish that humans put the good of the group above their person gain ... they don't actually act that way. You need to deal with humans as they actually act, not as you wished they acted.

China is an example that is very meaningful to me. You have the communist takeover in 1949. You have the Great Leap Forward around 1960, of centralized economic planning, with the result of 20-30 million deaths, mostly due to starvation.

And then you have this remarkable story of the Chinese village Xiaogang in 1978. The village elders, under threat of execution from the central government, secretly adopted property rights and personal profit. And they even agreed to collective family care, in the case that some of the farmers would be caught and jailed or executed.

And what happened? The same people, the same land, the same technology ... harvested in a single year five times the bounty of each previous year.

This lesson was so incredible, that it has transformed China. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are vastly richer today (and no longer under starvation threat), primarily because of the benefits of capitalist economics over central planning and distribution.

In your proposals, Kent, I see no awareness at all about the state of Xiaogang and its productivity, before vs. after 1978. It constantly seems to me that you look at the way the world is today, and then imagine that you exert additional government control over some of the resources, but at the same time also imagine that nobody's behavior would change. That farmers would produce the same food tomorrow, as today, but the only change would be that you would give it to different consumers.

The problem is, that once you change the societal structure of government, the people you have producing wealth change their behavior as well. You don't get to make the "last move". You're most likely to find, once you start moving corn around to people who can't pay for it, that the world as a whole doesn't produce quite as much corn as it used to.

I said: My goal would probably be to maximize per-capita wealth. And you asked: "And what is your plan for that? It sounds like trickle down, and I don't trust that."

No, not trickle down. The greatest current US economic crisis is the huge numbers of unemployed. Plenty of people want to work, but can't find jobs. That's both suffering for them, and also a waste for the US economy. My #1 goal would be to improve the job market.

Macroeconomics is probably off-topic here, but if you're asking for a specific plan, the fault is almost certainly that the US Federal Reserve Bank allowed nominal GDP to crash in 2008. And the fix is easier monetary policy, i.e. simply printing more money.

"I absolutely think it matters a great deal if people are suffering ever. You and I obviously disagree on this as a basic premise."

No, no. Of course I am concerned with people suffering today. My complaint instead is that you are SO concerned with today's suffering, that you ignore future consequences. You would make someone slightly better off today, at the cost of causing much greater suffering in the future. I'm trying to minimize all suffering, over all time. So I'm not willing to make more people suffer later, just so a few people today can be a slightly happier.

"Here again you assume that people have all kinds of choices."

I'm not trying to blame the victim. I'm saying that the structure of society shapes the kinds of choices that seem reasonable. A young black teenager in Watts considers studying hard in school, but his peer group tells him that is "acting white" and mocks him for it. Meanwhile, he gets "street cred" for having a gun, dealing drugs, and impregnating a girl. That's "cool". Then he's arrested at 20 and in jail for decades, and we have another unwed teenage single mom. That kid grows up with no role models, no father, a highly-stressed, uneducated, and poor mother. Does that kid have a chance? Did the dad make a "choice" to not study in school? Did the mom make a "choice" to get pregnant?

You could put me and my kids in that same environment, with no resources, and we'd be out of there in a generation. Because I know how to make the right choices, and have the willpower to put in the hard work. The opportunity is there ... if you can take it.

But the people in those situations, don't make the same choices that I would make. That's the problem. And giving them more corn, so that they're not so hungry today, does nothing (and in fact, may be counterproductive!) to stop the rejection of education, the unwed mothers, the crime and drugs. It does nothing to stop the kid from similarly suffering in the next generation.

Why does the Middle East and Africa suffer from the resource curse, but oil-rich Norway built a strong and sustainable civilization with their resource bounty? Surely you don't believe the answer is just that whites are smart but Africans and Arabs and Persians are stupid savages? Surely there is something we can learn from the structure of Norwegian society, to help those other countries?

The answer is not giving people stuff. The answer is making people self-sufficient, so that they produce enough value and wealth to support their own lives.
No, Don, you have missed the point of my comment altogether. Perhaps if you put aside your condescension for a while and really read it, putting yourself in the shoes (not necessarily mine, by the way) that were described, you might have a different viewpoint. But I doubt it.
Coyote: Agreed, I've missed your point. I would like to try to understand. Would it be possible for you to attempt to explain it again, in another way?

And BTW, here's another thing that puzzles me. In your comment above, you said: "You've never had to get canned goods at government handouts or a food band." But at the same time, I assume you agree with and support Kent's original post. Which is basically suggesting that, if a person can't afford to buy their own corn, then society ought to provide a minimal level of support.

Forget about what I think of all this. I don't even understand what you think. It seems to me that getting government food handouts is the kind of societal structure that Kent is advocating. And here you are, suggesting that we don't even have to change anything -- it's already happening! And yet you describe it as though it's a tragedy.

Why do you both support Kent's "distribute corn to everyone who needs it", while at the same time denigrating government food handouts? Again, forget about whatever I might think about it. Isn't that exactly the way you and Kent wish society to work? Why aren't you celebrating the joy of people who get to get "canned goods at government handouts", rather than describing it as something I am "fortunate" that I've "never had to" do?

It seems inconsistent to me. I might not think that handouts are a good idea, but you and Kent do. So why would it be shameful to participate in exactly the way society ought to work (from your perspective)?
Don, having only a brief moment, let me say that you seem to have utterly lost the point of this piece, which was not to advocate or not advocate a general policy of government handouts, but rather to observe that it's probably just a fact that it's cheaper for us to do that than make a fiction of the fact that every job improves the world, at least until we stop having an economy built on consuming resources, and to also observe that the things we ask people to do to earn money are just a fictional ceremony, not a real sense of “earning” anything. You may disagree, but your arguments as presented are just not addressing my key points. You seem to take it as a given that it follows from the fact that someone wants to buy a particular harmonica that the world should be making such harmonicas. To say otherwise involves planning in a way I perceive you do not want the world to do. If not, I don't see how you can avoid this effect.

As a thought experiment, suppose our brains were weirdly wired, perhaps for some non-useful reason, to always buy shiny things. I think there are some mice that do this. They just collect certain objects that have no value to them really. Now suppose people just feel a compulsion to buy and buy and buy these things, which means people will make them and make them and make them, possibly killing some other important thing in the process (whether it's opportunity cost of those people making those things rather than being doctors, for example, or whether it's the resource cost of using up all the metal in the world on something unnecessary). How would/should the present system of economics recognize such a glitch and fix it? We have trouble establishing the facts of the real world situation, whether any particular thing is bad, so let's take it as a given for my thought experiment that we agree that the thing people feel compelled to buy is not useful and in fact actively harmful to make in quantity, but that although we personally know this, that the world does not have an easy way of establishing it. My question, in other words, is how does the present process, in the face of things that may be bad, ever deal with the fact that badness is hard to prove. For example, we could poison our water supply before ever agreeing it was happening and be just as dead.

The question isn't whether we're poisoning it in this particular thought experiment—the question is what mechanism is it that you expect society to use to ever notice such a thing and stop it effectively. Because I don't see a responsible entity for even thinking about this. I see the GOP trying to shut down basically all such processes and claiming that all groupthink is bad. I know you've studied the aforementioned perceptron issue, or can research it on wikipedia, so you'll understand what I mean about the local agent having insufficient knowledge to make the global system aware of things it needs to know. And that's the problem I perceive we are in now. Down in the trenches, we are not making the system better. Things that look like they are being helpful may not be, and things that look like a drag on the system likewise may not be.

Sorry this is rushed, but that's my dilemma.

It's fine as an answer to assert that you have some special godly knowledge that there are in fact no problems of the kind I'm describing (needing societal coordinatino other than local money changing hands); I'll spoil my answer by saying I won't agree with that, but it is a possible answer in this problem space. I'd just like to understand what you see as the mechanism for self-correction because you hear me saying “communisim” where I'm not saying it and you don't hear me merely saying “capitalism is incomplete and having harmful effects.” I'm not proposing communism as an alternative, I'd prefer a hybrid system. But I am asking that basic premises be reconsidered because the system right now is too trusted in situations that are unwarranted.
Kent asked: "You seem to take it as a given that it follows from the fact that someone wants to buy a particular harmonica that the world should be making such harmonicas."

Yes, that's right, I do. At the end of the day, humans are remaking the world into something they prefer. There's nothing objective, based in physics, that says that butterflies are better than mosquitos, but nonetheless I'd personally prefer a world with more butterflies and fewer mosquitos.

"They just collect certain objects that have no value to them really."

Perhaps the shiny things have no nutritional value, or reproductive value. But they make the brains happy. That's enough. It's why I like listening to music, and looking at art. Those things have mental value to me, just like the shiny things in your thought experiment.

"possibly killing some other important thing in the process"

Well, then it's a tradeoff between the value perceived in the shiny things, vs. the value in the thing lost. Depending on the details, presumably one group or the other will be more valuable overall.

"we could poison our water supply before ever agreeing it was happening"

I'm not quite getting your example. Obviously, if we can't even tell it's happening (until too late), then no possible process could ever "fix that glitch".

If instead, we notice it, but you're worried that we won't do anything about it ... why not? Is it because we value the shiny things more than the water supply? In that case, the choice is rational.

Or are you thinking that each individual person values their own shiny thing, and they wish the water would remain pure, but the net effect of everybody getting a shiny thing is that the water is poisoned and then we are all sad, and wish in hindsight we hadn't done it?

That's a classic tragedy of the commons, which is a known failure mode of unrestricted free market capitalism, and the two typical fixes are either government regulation (your shiny things are limited even if you want more), or else strong property rights (somebody owns the water, and you need to pay them to pollute it).

Who is arguing for unregulated capitalism? You seem to be arguing against a strawman. But yet if we all agree on well-regulated capitalism, there's still a huge gap between that, and your original post of distributing free corn to Joe because the world makes plenty for everyone.
Don, I'm just making observations. It's you who wants to turn it into arguments for something. Re-read the post. It doesn't advocate anything. It just observes. It's point is to create different frames of reference which allow people to view a system they're used to in a way they may not be used to—in order to re-engage actual live thinking.

Rightly or wrongly, I sense in your replies a general trend that wants to dismiss anything I have to say because you think it might lead to suggestions you have already decided are wrong by their nature. So I don't feel the exchange with you is being productive. Not because of the positions you take, but because you seem to have taken those positions from the outset. I've heard them from you before. I've learned nothing new from this discussion with you other than that you're willing to say out loud without embarrassment that you think a lot of things I and others think are wrong with society are not wrong in your mind. That surprised me only slightly, and saddened me a lot.

The post at its heart merely observes that either we're prepared to feed the world or we're not. If we're not prepared, as in we don't have the resources, then we're beyond the carrying capacity of the planet by any definition I understand. Somehow, you think we are both well below the carrying capacity and yet simultaneously unable to feed everyone. I can't make sense of that and am tired of trying.

If we're prepared to feed everyone and we just want them to do a little jig first in order to get their food, that's an odd thing. And that's the point of my post—just to observe how odd that is. But all of these are just observations. My goal was to look at the world differently. I don't even myself know what I woudl do with that. I'm trying to engage in a thought experiment without a pre-formed idea of the consequence of the thought, without agenda.

But I find myself instead defending myself against all of your fears that I might have an agenda, defending things I've not said and don't even think. And that tires me enormously, like I'm just treading water and not getting anywhere in the discussion. We've each made some points and I'm content to just be done.

I don't think at this point anyone can say I haven't made a good faith effort to respond to your questions, but I feel I'm going in circles if I persist. People can read what you've written and what I've written and get what they will of it. Life is sometimes messy that way, not always wrapped in a neat little bow. It's time for me to move on to other things.

If there's more you have to say to correct or respond to anything I've said, feel free to have a last word. I'll just let it stand without comment so you can feel comfortable about the resolution. Just because I'm not responding doesn't mean I'm not listening. I'm sure I'll read what you've written, as will others, so it doesn't hurt to wind things down gracefully.
"I don't feel the exchange with you is being productive. ... I've learned nothing new from this discussion with you"

Understood. That makes me sad. But I tried my best.
"I don't feel the exchange with you is being productive. ... I've learned nothing new from this discussion with you"

i was planning to answer to much more actual points of yours Kent, but after reading that above i realized it's futile...

Don makes good points, well expressed, relatively concise, logically consistent and pretty much in line with empirical evidence. so, what else to say? (although Don, printing will not solve anything, not even in the medium run these days, because it merely redistributes capital from people who've been good in producing stuff towars people who are better connected. and also eroding it a great deal in the process... but that's the fundamental problem with the fiat money system.)

but there are a few points that bother me enough to write them up regardless:

Kent, regarding your opinion on population control ("I'm all for birth control."): first we need to see whether it's an opinion, or you promote it as a universal moral rule. if the former, then so be it, people, including me, have opinions. but if you propose it as a universal moral rule for the entire mankind, then i must ask whether you ever had a chance in your life where you could decide whether to have offspring or not? and if you had, did you and will you live up to your proposed universal moral rule? (rhetorical question, not trying to force personal topics in public...)

another thing that remains completely unvoiced here is that if you promote free corn as a universal moral rule, then it implies that you also want to form a coercive group that will go around and take the corn from people who produced it using the initiation of the use of force.

“Is it beneficial to society to ask that someone work for their food?” -- no such thing exists as society in the material reality. it's merely a concept in our head that denotes the cooperation of a large number of people. and as such, it's kinda hard to see what's beneficial without first agreeing on what are the universal moral values. and as your idea points out, or more specifically the ignorance that corn must be taken by force from productive individuals to be redistributed to less productive ones, we can't seem to agree on such complicated moral values.

that's why many people promote something much more simple with which most people can identify: the non-aggression principle, namely that the initiation of the use of force (coercion, fraud) is an unacceptably moral evil, and then let the rest work out without some busybodies having the means to run other people's lives...

and also, why do we draw the line at food, water and shelter? there's no conceptual difference between e.g. food and healthcare. the only difference is quantitative, namely that the lack of water leads to your death in shorter term than the others.

and on that line, then why not provide free healthcare also to everyone? and then why not write laws that the hospital waiting lists must be less than 3 days? and then send out policeman to beat up doctors and put them in cages if the waiting lists run longer than that arbitrary number written in a rulebook...?

"And we could certainly place limits on what endeavors are good for society." -- and who's this "we" denoting there? because e.g. you and me doesn't seem to agree even on the conceptual level here, let alone actual implementations... or does that "we" there denote the group of people that you are planning to form, which then will have more power than me and will coerce me into whatever they (you?) judge as "good for society"? that very much sounds like soviet russia... one of the cruel chapters in history i was referring to. (without wars, 100+ million died in the 20th century directly due to government actions! private murders are estimated to be less than 10 million in the same period. more at: )

"Present day democracy is not doing well in changing various rules that are not suiting the majority" -- i hope you're not implying here that whatever suits the majority more should be made into a rule. e.g. enslaving a random minority and redistributing their wealth towards the rest of the group, wherever we randomly/arbitrarily draw the line to form the group in question.

"We make tons of waste." -- no one said that we shouldn't collect the taxes from environmental damage instead of income tax to collect what's needed to run this coercive organization called the state. well, *if* we are to stick to this idea... but that's already much better than taking away products/money, the result of the past time of people, by force. if 100% of that is slavery, then at what percentage of income tax is it not slavery anymore?

“why is feeding everyone the highest moral good?” / “Why is allowing people to be born the highest moral good?”

i hope that you are aware of the fact that not feeding someone is merely a lack of action, while actively interfering with other people's reproduction/life is an action inflicted by some individual(s) on other individual(s).

as i pointed out before, dying due to natural laws is the way our universe works (to the best of our knowledge, and until some humans gain enough capability to reprogram our biology and overcome aging/diseases to a relatively big extent), but dying or being denied of reproduction due to the direct actions of other people is a whole different story.

"it troubles me personally to tell someone that society's plan for them is that they should starve to death" -- it's not society's plan for two reasons: 1) society doesn't exist, 2) it's the effect of natural laws that apply to everyone equally.

"But affording him [bill gates] billions of dollars for what he did?" -- our monetary system is a fraud and currently unwinding and hopefully returning to a more sound equilibrium. some people can straight out print their money, while put others who try the same end up being put in a cage. and gates couldn't have what he has now without the flawed idea of corporations and intellectual property rights enforced by organized violence...

"There are stress points in individual finances that can kill a person whereas for large blocks of people the laws of large numbers can much more easily accommodate that." -- that's what voluntary insurances, families and friendships are for. IOW, much smaller groups where personal behavior and attitude towards the others and towards their own health have some effect on the outcomes. what else would provide incentives for individuals towards reasonable behavior? public healthcare, where it's completely detached and all i need to do is to buy the doctor by the kilo to get ahead on the list? i lived in a society organized by such rules and know how that works out...

also, with a sound monetary system and a reasonable level of taxation, let alone without taxation, people would have way much more income from which there's plenty of room for charity... and if you tell me that it doesn't work because people are evil/ignorant/greedy, then please try to convince me that when they get 'politician' and/or 'bureaucrat' label, then they suddenly become charitable and caring!

bah, i stop here, because in my opinion you're either ignorant or confused about the morality of your proposal/ideas. i did what i can and find reasonable, but i'm not expecting you to change your opinion after reading some 10 odd paragraphs, when you're already deeply invested in this system both financially and psychologically, and i'm also sure you met these thoughts before and had the opportunity to reject or reify them...

and as a final thought, i believe that everyone is responsible for what they do/say/promote/publish, and no one is responsible for anything what someone else do/say/promote/publish (except if these people were raised by them, in which case some responsibility applies).

so, along the lines of your last comment to Don, let me also express then that after reading this article of yours, but especially your comments in this thread, i don't mind at all that you disassociated from me on facebook, and that the probability of me being exposed to your thoughts will get lower.

"i don't feel the exchange with you is being productive" either.
Kent, I just returned from a trip to Hong Kong. And your article about corn and harmonicas kept rattling around my brain. The Hong Kong harbor is one of the busiest shipping harbors in the world. Enormous container ships, loads and loads of harmonicas. We kept looking at all that stuff in those ships, wondering if anyone actually needed any of it. How many of those containers were full of plastic crap from China, headed for the Dollar Store, then headed for our garage sale graveyard? Makes ya wonder. Anyway, thanks again for the fantastic analogy.
froggy, that's it exactly. Thanks for sharing that observation. It's not because I'm a communist, as I think some might think, but because of exactly that analysis that I got here. What really does make us richer as a society? I realize it's not a black&white issue, but a messy and subjective matter. But that doesn't mean there is no insight to be had, just because the actual world is messy. And it seems pretty clear (at least to me) which side of the line the stuff you're seeing falls...
First comment seems sadly prophetic.
When I first read this, after a post from Stever on Facebook, the basic idea seemed obvious and familiar.
The comments prove the opposite. :-)
How to persuade people of what seems almost self evident?
"... headache, high blood pressure, and depression..."
Janus, thanks for the vote of support.