The title is a fair description of the position taken in a provocative new paper by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. The reasoning goes something like this: newborns do not yet want to live (they just want to avoid pain), thus a newborn is not harmed by being killed painlessly. In the case that parents and society are harmed by the existence of the newborn, euthanizing the baby is ethically correct.
The paper is not very tightly argued. The authors speak a lot about rights. They make the questionable claim that "a necessary condition for a subject to have a right to X is that she is harmed by a decision to deprive her of X." They also claim that "those who are only capable of experiencing pain and pleasure...have a right not to be inﬂicted pain." It is not clear to me where these rights are coming from. Certainly common-sense morality dictates that it is wrong to cause a baby pain, and also that it is wrong to kill a baby.
Even so, it strikes me that whatever the merit of the paper's argument in the baby case, a similar argument could be used to justify eating meat. If animals don't want to live, then the authors might argue that there is nothing wrong with depriving them of life. Of course, animals clearly dislike pain, so the authors might assign animals the right "not to be inflicted pain." This would be enough to make being veganism ethically correct in today's world.
I think the main structural problem with the argument is that it is not clear what "want to live" means as I have been using it above. I am paraphrasing the paper here, so to be fair let me put "want to live" in the authors' own words:
"Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and
potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of
‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an
individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence
some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this
existence represents a loss to her"
What does it mean to want to exist? Babies seem to have consciousness--why would you suppose that they do not attribute some basic value to their own existence? The same goes for animals.
The paper is certainly provocative, and it focus the debate on a valid point--why should the legal status of a human being change on either end of the birth canal?
Alternative energy is closely associated with the green movement in my mind. Greens stand for non-violence, ecology, democracy, and social justice. At the same time, the alternative energy industry has an interest in a high oil price. One thing that drives high oil prices is instability in the middle east. I wonder how wind power executives feel when they hear Iranian officials threaten Israel or civil war erupts in Syria. I plotted crude oil prices vs. the price of GAAEX, an alternative energy index fund. Although recently the two have diverged, the day-to-day jumps track each other pretty closely .
When I mentioned this idea to my officemate Felix, he said that it reminded him of the green paradox of German economist Hans-Werner Sinn. According to Sinn, the expectation of greener energy policy in the future makes the owners of "dirty" energy resources want to extract and burn their reserves more quickly.
Apple's net profit in the previous quarter was 13 billion dollars. The US GDP is 14.5 trillion dollars a year. Does this mean that Apple created 3/1000 of the value of all goods and services produced in the US last year? (HT: Andrew Gelman)
Saundra at Good Intentions are Not Enough has some sad news:
"I got engaged the second week of January and two weeks later, on January 30th, my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Before then we knew she was sick but had no idea it was cancer. She delayed seeing the doctor because she was uninsured and waiting to get onto Medicare. I too am uninsured – in the country that supposedly has the best healthcare in the world it is inaccessible to far too many people."
Saundra's post led me to think a little bit about the how much additional mortality there is due to uninsured people delaying healthcare. Given the recent political debate about universal healthcare, maybe it is not surprising that I found quite a few studies that address this question on Google Scholar, including a few by well-known economists. Many of the earlier studies (this is a more recent example) conduct a survey of insurance status in some base year, and then estimate the effect of baseline insurance status on mortality over time. What makes this difficult is that uninsured people also tend to be have worse health behavior and lower income. The trick is then to include everything relevant to mortality on the right-hand side of the estimation equation. An omitted variable may be correlated with both being uninsured and mortality, causing an overestimation of the effect of being uninsured on mortality. For what it is worth, the study cited above finds 45,000 deaths a year are associated with being uninsured--but I find the methodology a bit hard to swallow.
I often find simple specifications more convincing. Finkelstein and McKnight (2007) look at relative mortality rates between the "young-elderly" aged 65-75 and "non-elderly" aged 55-65 around the time medicare was introduced in 1965. If insurance is important, then around 1965 the young-elderly should suddenly have lower average mortality rates. However, Finkelstein and McKnight find instead that the elderly relative mortality rate begins decreasing a few years before medicare was introduced, and the trend continues into the early 1970's, at which point relative mortality of the young-elderly begins increasing again. One might be worried about the effect of expectations on pre-1965 behaviors, but it seems like it should make both the young-elderly and non-elderly delay health care. After testing a number of other estimation specifications, Finkelstein and McKnight conclude that they can not reject the null hypothesis that the introduction of medicare had no effect on mortality.
None of the studies I saw convinced me one way or the other, but a casual reading suggests that even if there is an effect of insurance coverage on mortality, it is likely small.
Occasionally I read an article that makes me realize I don't understand something as well as I thought I did. Noahopinion's post today was like that. The post is about the popular meaning of "land of opportunity". Using a couple of thought experiments, Noah shows that people probably don't mean a meritocracy based on ability. People also don't mean completely random success, so that parents have no effect on their children's outcomes. Instead, the meaning of opportunity is tied to hard work:
"If I'm right, this means that we value opportunity because it fits with a certain moral model that we have regarding rewards, punishments, and free will. We view humans as being able to freely decide how much effort to put forth; hard work is a choice."
Here Noah hits the nail on the head. Opportunity is closely related to ability to choose. Barriers to success based on gender or race violate opportunity because gender and race are not chosen. The same can be said about ability and random chance in the thought experiments above. Since effort is painful, it feels only fair that those who suffer through it should succeed. It seems also fair that those who don't put out enough effort should not succeed. A simple thought experiment backs up this intuition. Suppose that there was a place where income was an common increasing function of effort, I = f(e). I think most would agree that this place is a land of opportunity.
So, let's say that a land of opportunity is a place where income is almost completely determined by effort. Is this the sort of place in which you would want to live? The answer probably depends on how much ability and wealth you have. The interesting question is that of Rawls (and Harsanyi!), and I don't know the answer. I think it will depend on the degree of complementarity between ability and effort.
edit: Here is an example of the kind of sentiment I am talking about:
"If [Chelsea Clinton's reporting for NBC is] hard for the audience, it is even harder on some NBC veterans. NBC insiders tell FoxNews.com that Clinton is doing a job meant for deserving journalists within the network who have toiled for years, and sometimes decades, in the trenches to get the chance to produce segments and report them on air."
Treb Allen--on the job market this year--has a neat paper on the importance of information in trade. The idea is that it is costly for firms to search for the market with the best price, so sometimes firms sell for prices lower than they could have received in another location. Using a new and very rich data set from the Philippines, Allen estimates that transport costs explain only a small part of why more is sold between close locations. The cost of acquiring information about market conditions far away is much more important.
On the face of it, Allen's point seems plausible. Back when I was working in the business world, I learned about price creep. As time went by, we would slowly raise the rates we charged our repeat customers. After some time, we would be charging significantly more than what the customers could have got from our competitors. Occasionally a customer would get a quote from the competition and we would have to lower our rates, but this happened quite infrequently. I have to think that it was just too costly for our customers to search for a lower price, even though they were out there. Same sort of thing famously happens in the car insurance market.
There is a famous result in the trade literature that there are almost no welfare gains to further reducing tariffs. Tariffs are already very low. If Allen's paper is correct, however, there may be big gains to improving access to information. Mobile phones and the internet have already done something. This might do more.
“People say, 'I'm going to sleep now,' as if it were nothing. But it's really a bizarre activity. 'For the next several hours, while the sun is gone, I'm going to become unconscious, temporarily losing command over everything I know and understand. When the sun returns, I will resume my life.'"
There are a lot of things that, like sleep, seem weirder the more you think about them. Today Robin Hanson posted about trees. Why are trees so chaotically shaped? Why do they let any sunlight pass by them at all? Why are they supported by a single trunk? I am sure that there is some evolutionary arborist out there who can provide some insight.
I have mentioned before on this blog that the existence of firms is weird. Right-wingers in the United States (stereotypically) both love the free market and also support pro-business legislation. If you think about it, though, the market ends in the lobby of the firm. Within a firm is a command economy in which employees are directed to do different tasks by managers, and which are in turn directed by bigger managers all the way up to the CEO or board. Employees create output which is incrementally passed around to other employees (not bought or sold for a price) until a final product is delivered to buyers outside the firm. Each firm is a mini Soviet Union, with planners at the top allocating resources below based on their judgement about which department will need what and when. This can be a difficult task. My brother-in-law works for a large company as a controller. He flies around the country evaluating how much money to budget for various factories and branches. Presumably he reports to even higher level management who make an ultimate decision.
On an unrelated strange note, most employees have no contract with the firm--they just show up to work everyday, do a bunch of things, and then a paycheck arrives once a month. There is an excellent wikipedia article about why firms exist here.
There is a growing boycott of academic journal holding company Elsevier, initiated by no less than Fields Medal recipient Timothy Gowers. I had never thought deeply about the way journals work, but it is a bit ridiculous. Academics pay journals to submit content, and academics edit (referee) other people's submitted content for free. The journals then charge libraries for access to the content, which they didn't create or edit. Moreover, academics lose the copyright to their articles, and are paid no royalties as would be standard in the publishing industry. The main value added of the journal companies is presumably maintaining a database of articles. For this, companies like Elsevier rake in huge profits. Here is a list of Elsevier economics journals, including some fairly prestigious names:
Accounting, Organizations and Society
China Economic Review
Communist and Post-Communist Studies
Economics and Human Biology
Economics of Education Review
Emerging Markets Review
European Economic Review
European Journal of Political Economy
Explorations in Economic History
Finance Research Letters
Games and Economic Behavior
Global Finance Journal
Information Economics and Policy
Insurance Mathematics and Economics
International Journal of Accounting
International Journal of Forecasting
International Journal of Industrial Organization
International Review of Economics and Finance
International Review of Financial Analysis
International Review of Law and Economics
Japan and the World Economy
Journal of Accounting and Economics
Journal of Accounting and Public Policy
Journal of Asian Economics
Journal of Banking and Finance
Journal of Business Research
Journal of Business Venturing
Journal of Comparative Economics
Journal of Corporate Finance
Journal of Development Economics
Journal of Econometrics
Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization
Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control
Journal of Economic Psychology
Journal of Economic Theory
Journal of Economics and Business
Journal of Empirical Finance
Journal of Environmental Economics and Management
Journal of Financial Economics
Journal of Financial Intermediation
Journal of Financial Markets
Journal of Financial Stability
Journal of Forestry Economics
Journal of Health Economics
Journal of Housing Economics
Journal of International Economics
Journal of International Financial Markets, Institutions & Money
Journal of International Money and Finance
Journal of Macroeconomics
Journal of Mathematical Economics
Journal of Monetary Economics
Journal of Multinational Financial Management
Journal of Policy Modeling
Journal of Public Economics
Journal of Socio-Economics
Journal of the Japanese and International Economies
Journal of Urban Economics
Mathematical Social Sciences
North-American Journal of Economics and Finance
Pacific-Basin Finance Journal
Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance
Regional Science and Urban Economics
Research in Economics
Research in International Business and Finance
Resource and Energy Economics
Review of Economic Dynamics
Review of Financial Economics
Structural Change and Economic Dynamics
Eric X. Li went trolling a couple days ago at nytimes.com. While I am aware that feeding the troll is against internet protocol, I can't help myself.
1. Straw man: "Why, then, do so many boldly claim they have discovered the ideal political system for all mankind and that its success is forever assured?" Who makes that claim?
2. Who defines "national interest"?: "Its leaders are prepared to allow greater popular participation in political decisions if and when it is conducive to economic development and favorable to the country’s national interest." "The fundamental difference between Washington’s view and Beijing’s is whether political rights are considered God-given and therefore absolute or whether they should be seen as privileges to be negotiated based on the needs and conditions of the nation." What if policies which promote "national interest" hurt many individuals? Who makes up the nation?
3. Crystal ball: "[The Tiananmen Square] uprising was decisively put down on June 4, 1989. The Chinese nation paid a heavy price for that violent event, but the alternatives would have been far worse. The resulting stability ushered in a generation of growth and prosperity that propelled China’s economy to its position as the second largest in the world." What is the counter-factual (Taiwan and Korea seemed to do ok...)? Also, what does "the nation paid a heavy price" mean? The leaders of China came out ok--it was the protestors who were shot on June 4 certainly paid a heavy price.
According to a recent nytimes article, Target has its ways of statistically uncovering your personal information:
"As [Target statistician] Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy."
Yesterday I blogged about the ethics of police using related methods to choose where to look for criminal activity. Target's goal is to predict the sort of products that customers will be interested in in the near future, and send relevant advertisements.
This sort of prediction makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Target doesn't have a micro model of pregnant mothers purchasing behavior. The company presumably doesn't know why pregnant mothers are making the product choices they do. What the company knows is that given present industry wide marketing practice, the state of the economy, and everything else, pregnant mothers buying habits are predictable. Now suppose that Target (or its competitor) changes marketing practices. Then pregnant mothers might buy a different set of products at Target, and the old statistical model may no longer hold.