The Brass Tack

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Archive for July, 2009

Monday Movies: “clean” and “messy”

Posted by srconstantin on July 27, 2009

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I’m never going to see Foundation. The fact is, pacePaul Krugman, I never liked the Foundation series. The timespan is too long, the characters die off before you get to know them, and I find the whole idea of “psychohistory” predicting human behavior incredibly dismal. It’s what I call “clean” SF — the appeal is supposed to be that the future is more organized than the present, that you can see the sweep of history and technology, and I just find it incredibly sterile. It’s also why I don’t like Star Trek — I don’t want to watch a future where everybody’s united and wearing jumpsuits.
I prefer a “messy,” confusing future, where the heroes are just people suddenly made responsible for their own survival. Now, John Carter of Mars, I could get behind. Y: The Last Man? Absolutely.

Speaking of survival,
this, to the uninitiated, is a great movie, if you can enjoy a little camp with your camping. You have a stirring, martial 80’s soundtrack, achingly lovely Rocky Mountain shots, Jennifer Gray and Patrick Swayze as impossibly lovable guerrillas. And there’s something else, which you either get or you don’t — most of the people who get it have politics pretty much diametrically opposed to mine, but them’s the breaks — the appeal of total self-reliance, of having to hunt your own food, defend yourselves, and beat the Hollywood-overwhelming odds. It’s a bit nuts, and I’ve tried and failed to win converts, but I love it dearly. Watch & see.

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Voters and people, or what is paternalism

Posted by srconstantin on July 26, 2009

The first thing I noticed about Matt Yglesias’ comment on health care is that it seemed paternalistic:

The larger issue here is that while some medicine is very high-tech and cutting edge and so forth actually most medical problems in people’s lives are extremely banal. Little kids get sick all the time and their parents are worried. People fall and break bones or sprain joints and at a minimum need to be checked for concussions. People need strep throat tests and depending on how the test checks out, they may need antibiotics. And it seems to me that with this kind of thing—your banal basic health care for people with minor everyday problems—there’s an extremely strong case for UK-style direct public provision .

So, essentially, he’s saying that we need, through public provision of health care, to create a certain approach to health care as a society, namely one that puts more priority on preventative and “banal” care for everyone, instead of the heaviest spending going to heroic treatments for the very sick if they’re rich enough. That’s paternalistic in the sense that it takes a position on how we should all spend our money, on what our social priorities should be; ordinarily I would argue that the government should be agnostic on such questions. Why not let people decide for themselves what they want and value?

But “what do people want” becomes a complicated question in a democracy. For example, people want universal health care. A slim majority of voters think it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure adequate health care, and 77 percent of Democrats do. Obama’s specific health reforms have polled well. On the other hand, when polled about their own personal health insurance, most people don’t want to change, so health care reform has been sold aggressively as an option that doesn’t require a change of doctors or insurance plans. To some extent these desires are in conflict, as the addition of a public option priced below the market rate will make employers less likely to provide health coverage and insurance companies less able to stay in business. And this is odd: although 72% polled supported a new optional “Medicare for all,” 63% think it will make the quality of their own health care worse.

What’s up here? Are voters simply illogical (as the National Review post would suggest)? I think, rather, that people think differently in their capacities as voting citizens versus private individuals. People vote based on cultural, moral, and tribal factors that often don’t line up well with pure economic self-interest. Rich people voted against their economic self-interest this year (though they don’t always; rich states trend Democrat but rich people in poor states trend Republican.)

So it’s not impossible that what people want for their country, as voters, is different than what they want for themselves, as consumers. They may not think of it directly as a sacrifice of their own quality of health care for the sake of others; it’s simply that civic and personal issues occupy different spheres of thought. After all, the marginal impact of your vote on your own tax burden, or the sorts of public services you receive, is negligible, while the impact of your political views on how you see yourself morally and how your associates see you can be quite significant.

Anti-paternalists think that only the views of the private individual, the consumer, are genuine. The views of the public citizen who has opinions on what’s best for the country are irrational, imaginary, “feel-good” busybodying. I think, for example, that pricing carbon is a good idea because it’s the most efficient way to prevent climate change damage. I voted for a guy who endorsed it — in fact we all did, since both Obama and McCain supported a cap-and-trade bill. On the other hand, anything that raises the price of the power for my laptop or my long showers or my delicious beef jerky is entirely against my self-interest. Why is my vote more phony than my consumption habits? If a majority votes for a system that yields one societal approach to health care, is that less genuine or less democratic than the different societal approach that arises from the private consumer choices of those same individuals?

I’ve been reading about Lincoln and his cabinet, and a period when partisan politics was even more a national sport than it is today, and reading the diaries of men of that time, I’m convinced that the opinions people hold in their civic capacity, opinions that appeal to a moral worldview and general welfare, are as genuine and potentially as well-reasoned as opinions about private self-interest. Most people with an active interest in politics are not agnostic on social priorities, on the kind of national landscape they’d like to see. We’re all busybodies to some degree; we’re not agnostic as to what we think of our neighbors’ choices. And if government were required to be so agnostic, you could imagine a paradox where consent for a policy was unanimous, but it was wrongly paternalistic because it imposed a set of social priorities.

“What do the people want?” has two answers, a civic and a private one; if they differ, then giving people what they “want” in one sense reduces their freedom to pursue what they “want” in the other sense. Though I don’t want to reduce people’s individual rights, there are times when we have to choose between whole systems (shall we have Medicare for all or not?) and not putting the question to a vote denies people the freedom of choosing between systems. I’m not sure we ought to privilege one kind of “want” completely over the other.

Edit: from Postbourgie, a scary personal story on why it really sucks to have no health care due to changing jobs.

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Subsidizing the press: newspapers or news?

Posted by srconstantin on July 18, 2009

Paul Starr of Princeton and the American Prospect thinks maybe we should, but in a viewpoint-neutral way:

Public policy in the United States didn’t always put the public press at a relative disadvantage. Beginning in the 1790s, when most papers were partisan, Congress subsidized their development through postal policy. The postal rates for sending newspapers through the mail were set below cost, and editors could exchange copies with one another at no charge. Congress also refrained from taxing newspapers, a legacy of colonial opposition to Britain’s Stamp Act. These postal and tax policies — unlike the subsidies that the president and other officials gave their own party papers through printing contracts and government advertising — benefited newspapers across the board. In the language of modern First Amendment law, the postal subsidies were “viewpoint-neutral.” As Madison and other founders envisaged, they didn’t just promote newspapers; they also helped to knit together the young republic and sustain its political life.

As Clay Shirky pointed out, news for people who followed politics closely had always been subsidized: by advertisements observed by the eyeballs of people who picked up a newspaper for the classifieds or the sports scores or the weather. Now, classifieds, sports, weather, financial stats, and so on are available outside of newspapers, which is why ad revenue isn’t enough for papers anymore; information has come unbundled. So maybe we need another kind of subsidy.

Notice that trade periodicals have done fine even as newspapers have crumbled. This is partly because the subscriptions are paid for by readers’ employers. So it’s worth wondering whether employers who need globally literate workers — probably anything in international business, to start with — could buy newspaper subscriptions. It would work something like academic journal subscriptions: no content is free, but everyone has a pre-paid subscription, so reading is free on the margin. But that could become a problem for the free press, as employers would probably choose newspapers friendly to their policies or institutional culture. The same applies to the dream of having foundations fund investigative journalism. That can be a part, but not the whole, of the solution for news; I wouldn’t feel adequately informed in a world where all my information came from think tanks.

Normally, I don’t argue for the government to subsidize a thing just because I like it a lot. (The NSF, NEH, and Smithsonian are my big exceptions. Science is my bread and butter, and art is my joy.) But there’s a case to be made that newspapers are a genuine public good. The thing is, people don’t choose to read “hard news” when they have other options: politics, war, and international relations take a back seat to culture and opinion (and lolcats). And the result is a less educated citizenry. We used to have a newspaper system that effectively forced people to get some neutrally presented hard news, but we don’t anymore. Like a high-school education, not everybody really needs a newspaper to make it through life; you could earn a paycheck without knowing the capital of France or the current president of the US. We accept that such an outcome is worth preventing when it comes to education; we might do the same when it comes to self-education through news.

There’s always the question of what a newspaper is, of course. Is a blog a newspaper? Is Rolling Stone? I think any government attempt to distinguish newspapers from non-newspapers will damage freedom of the press; we have to be more careful with a newspaper subsidy than with, say, a corn subsidy. Besides, even things that are clearly not newspapers (Twitter) can provide news. If the newspapers vanished but news persisted, we’d still have an educated population; the problem is that without newspapers, there may be less news.

An alternative idea — I’m dreaming wildly — is an NSF for investigative journalism. You write in with your credentials and a proposal for a story, to be published anywhere, newspaper, blog, giant blimp, whatever. Within hours, if you’re judged legitimate, you get a small government grant to pursue the story. We’d be subsidizing news, not newspapers. The problem, of course, is speed: I have no idea if it would be possible to make these kinds of decisions on the fly in a bureaucracy, but they are made on the fly in newsrooms, as editors decide which stories are worth running. This “journalism fund” doesn’t get away from the neutrality issue — what if the government doesn’t want a story to leak? — but it doesn’t deny the existence of new media, the way subsidizing newspapers would.

Starr says, “We need the modern equivalent of the postal subsidies of the early American republic, except that there ought to be no bias in favor of publications that appear in print.” But we want to have a bias in favor of news, as opposed to celebrity gossip, weather, classified ads, humor, or personal blogs. So it seems that Starr’s subsidy is hard to implement unless the government takes it upon itself to distinguish news from non-news.

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Yup, it’ll cost jobs.

Posted by srconstantin on July 18, 2009

I’m sorry if lately it’s been all health care, all the time — it’s the news of the hour, and I’m learning as I go.
The new plan in the House pays for healthcare with a surtax on wealthy families and a payroll tax on companies that do not provide health insurance.

That’s a problem. Now I’m not one of those who thinks taxing the rich is bad in itself; it’s the payroll tax that is problematic. It’s a retrenchment, instead of the promised reversal, of the subsidy for employer-provided insurance, which leads to high rates of medical bankruptcy.

And there’s no way to argue that raising payroll taxes won’t cost jobs. If you believe in wage rigidity at all, then making the marginal worker more expensive will make companies less likely to hire him. Arnold Kling and Paul Krugman have been batting this back and forth for a while, but I think there’s no escape from it. Krugman (who knows Keynes backwards and forwards, which I can’t say of myself) argues that under Depression conditions, with short-term interest rates near zero, lowering wages shouldn’t increase employment.

“Suppose that wages across the US economy had been, say, 20 percent lower than they actually were. You might be tempted to say that this would make hiring workers more attractive. But to a first approximation, prices would also have been 20 percent lower — so the real wage would not have been reduced. So how would lower wages lead to higher demand for labor?
Well, the real money supply would have been larger — but the normal channel through which this might increase demand, lower interest rates, was blocked by the zero lower bound. ”

But let’s think about this for a moment. Suppose you raise payroll taxes. Let’s say that increases prices, and so contracts the money supply, in a mirror image of Krugman’s argument. But it is possible to raise interest rates if they’re starting at zero, so it’s not clear why this shows that demand for labor won’t drop. Please, correct me if I’m missing something — I’m pretty sure it’s more likely to be ignorance on my part than stupidity on Krugman’s.

He’s not the only one to think this: Gauti Eggertsson thinks that raising payroll taxes would increase the costs of doing business for firms, and drive the AS curve upward and inward, forcing businesses to raise prices. This, he says, would reduce deflationary expectations and actually help end a recession. Again, I don’t understand what mechanism prevents firms from hiring fewer workers when the cost of labor rises.

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VAT, stat

Posted by srconstantin on July 18, 2009

Bruce Bartlett comes out in favor of a value-added tax. The usual argument for a VAT is that, unlike the income tax, it doesn’t penalize labor or savings, but consumption, so it can make the US more attractive for investment and more productive. The usual argument against the VAT is that it’s regressive.

Bartlett alludes quickly to some justifications that bear expanding. He compares the VAT to a carbon tax (which, after all, is also a tax on most consumption). So the arguments (usually put forward by liberals) for why a carbon price wouldn’t have to be unduly regressive — rebates, sliding scales, and the like — also work for an ordinary VAT.

Also, Bartlett says that a VAT is “broad-based,” that is, that everybody pays it. He is disturbed by the fact that many Americans don’t pay income tax: “And I think it’s bad for democracy when people get into the position when a majority can vote benefits for themselves but not pay for it.” This seems to be an argument for regressiveness for its own sake. I’m a bit unconvinced.

But the fact is, we are going to have to raise taxes simply to pay for projects currently in the pipeline. Eventually too much government debt becomes a bad thing — someday foreigners will be unwilling to buy it. And the VAT promises to be simple, non-distortionary, and good at raising revenue. Ezekiel Emanuel likes the idea. The only problem is that ordinary people will have to pay it.

And, perhaps, that it’s vulnerable to fraud.

I can also conceive of problems with implementation: it will be appealing to exclude food, heat, and so on from the tax to make it less onerous on the poor, but this could make it tempting to choose certain commodities to tax more than others, which would be distortionary. (Consider how much state revenue comes from cigarette and liquor taxes.)

Interestingly enough, it seems to be progressive rather than regressive in poor countries. And if you consider consumption as a proxy for lifetime income, rather than annual income, then even in the US a VAT is only modestly regressive. In fact, if you literally used consumption to stand for lifetime earning, assuming that consumption was perfectly smoothed over the life cycle, then the VAT is by definition proportional (flat). Will Wilkinson has philosophical reasons why we should think about consumption rather than annual income when we’re concerned about inequality and the distribution of wealth.

VAT may not be so bad, and we might need it anyhow if rolling back the Bush tax cuts is not enough to cover current and future spending.

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On “soaking the rich”

Posted by srconstantin on July 17, 2009

Something is odd about this Economist article. It objects to Pelosi’s new House health care bill because it’s funded, not by reducing the tax break to employer-provided health insurance, but by raising taxes on the wealthy. One of the Economist’s arguments is pretty sound — the tax preference for health insurance is a market distortion, costing $250 billion a year, and it makes people over-dependent on employer-provided health insurance, making the loss of a job catastrophic because you lose your health care as well. We have higher rates of medical-related bankruptcy than do countries without this tax break. So I agree that it’s a mistake not to reduce the tax preference.

But the Economist mentions raising taxes on the wealthy (here that means those who make over $350,0000) in passing as though that’s intrinsically a bad thing. It seems to me that you at least have to justify why it’s counterproductive to “soak the rich.” Is the increase in marginal tax rates enough to really decrease productivity? Given that it wouldn’t raise the top income bracket even to Reagan-level tax rates, I think it’s not certain that it will. A universal health care system will inevitably be supported more heavily by the rich. And since according to polling, the rich don’t mind paying more I think it’s a mistake to automatically judge this as a bad thing.

Jamelle has posted on just this issue, arguing against the standard property-rights critique of progressive taxation. Jamelle spends a lot of time talking about how the rich don’t entirely earn their wealth, how Bill Gates was part of a network of privilege that helped him succeed, and I actually think that’s not the point. We don’t make tax judgments in a democracy based on whether people are “worthy” — a lottery winner and a brilliant tech wizard are taxed the same. And even someone who didn’t believe in progressive taxation would admit that some rich people are undeserving.

The point is that a liberal (in the Rawlsian tradition) thinks that certain outcomes are bad enough that redistribution is justified to prevent them. A property rights absolutist thinks that no outcome, no matter how bad, can justify wealth redistribution. Consider torture: if you seriously believe (as I do) that people have a fundamental right to not be tortured, then we must not torture, even if the victim is a scummy person, even if torturing him could save lives: it is the kind of horror we must never commit against a human being. A believer in absolute property rights feels this way about wealth redistribution. Property, to him, is morally equivalent to an extension of one’s own body; one is entitled to it, unconditionally. I don’t really think that’s true, not anymore. I think that if half the US population would die unless I gave a dollar, then it would not be wrong to take a dollar from me to save millions of people. It would be wrong to deprive me of property without due process of law — we do have property rights — but the scope of those rights can be shaped through legal means. Sufficiently bad outcomes can tip the scales. If, without progressive taxation, we have glaring class inequities and serious human suffering, then we can agree, through the democratic process, to pitch in and help. There’s an ordinary moral intuition about “pitching in” that seems to be absent in anti-tax ideology.

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Sweet Ass American Trends

Posted by srconstantin on July 17, 2009

human_lives_map
These breakdowns by state on poll questions are very interesting and don’t line up well at all with the traditional “red state/blue state” paradigm. The above map answers the question “Are some human lives worth more than others?” Green is “yes,” red is “no.” Liberal states don’t seem any more egalitarian, in the sense of saying that all human lives are worth the same. Minnesota, the home of “Minnesota nice” or what one commenter called the “fairness belt” does much better than California.

Also note: Westerners are more likely to say they’d commit murder if they knew they would not get caught. Southerners (California included) rate themselves as more self-confident than Northerners (both from liberal and conservative states.) “The colder it is, the more likely you are to hate yourself.” As a low-self-esteem Northerner, I can attest this to be true.

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The Ballad Of Hollis Wadsworth Mason Junior

Posted by srconstantin on July 17, 2009

Apparently there’s a book club in Brooklyn that writes songs. This week the book in question is Watchmen, and there’s a wonderful, poignant song with Franz Nikolay of the Hold Steady, singing about the first Nite Owl. Link here .

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The Bushwick Book Club also has a myspace page. Some of the weirdest, most charming stuff I’ve heard yet.

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Health Care: I fell off my horse

Posted by srconstantin on July 17, 2009

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Well, not literally. I’ve just had a major change of opinion, prompted by some reading and some conversations with friends. (I think I got some of these ideas from Mike and Dylan. Thanks for changing my mind.)

I used to be staunchly against universal health care. This used to be my “health care plan” — Milton Friedman’s prescription of ending the federal subsidy for health care, drastically reducing all insurance coverage, and essentially making medicine something that behaved more like other commodities. It’s an important argument, and worth summarizing here. The reason we have expensive health care is that most payments are being made by third parties, partly because insurance payments are exempt from income tax. This subsidy for health care makes people spend more on medicine than they otherwise would, and it puts medical decisions in the hands of employers or insurance companies rather than the patients themselves, both of which raise healthcare costs. Third-party payment adds bureaucracy and makes medicine impersonal. Friedman was advocating a return to the good old days when health insurance covered much less, when a country doctor like my grandfather was a small businessman whose livelihood depended on keeping his patients healthy and satisfied, not a harried employee of an HMO. If people had to pay out of pocket for most health expenses, we’d all spend less on health care. It’s a great vision — and, to someone of libertarian politics, especially great because it’s free. All we’d have to do is remove a tax and some regulatory impediments to turn a mess into a well-functioning market.

But I’ve come to believe that this isn’t the right way to go about things. First of all, the subsidy isn’t the only reason health care is expensive. Partly it’s that doctors over-prescribe tests and procedures, even when they don’t produce better outcomes, because they’re reimbursed by insurance. Atul Gawande wrote on this in a New Yorker article:

As economists have often pointed out, we pay doctors for quantity, not quality. As they point out less often, we also pay them as individuals, rather than as members of a team working together for their patients. Both practices have made for serious problems.

Providing health care is like building a house. The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of coördination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later? Getting the country’s best electrician on the job (he trained at Harvard, somebody tells you) isn’t going to solve this problem. Nor will changing the person who writes him the check.

That is, the solution is coordinating health care as the Mayo Clinic does, collaboratively, to maximize patient recovery at minimum cost: for instance, paying doctors a salary so that they don’t each have an incentive to increase their revenue by ordering a lot of high-margin procedures. What matters is how medicine is provided. Making individuals pay out-of-pocket is no cure-all:

The third class of health-cost proposals, I explained, would push people to use medical savings accounts and hold high-deductible insurance policies: “They’d have more of their own money on the line, and that’d drive them to bargain with you and other surgeons, right?”

He gave me a quizzical look. We tried to imagine the scenario. A cardiologist tells an elderly woman that she needs bypass surgery and has Dr. Dyke see her. They discuss the blockages in her heart, the operation, the risks. And now they’re supposed to haggle over the price as if he were selling a rug in a souk? “I’ll do three vessels for thirty thousand, but if you take four I’ll throw in an extra night in the I.C.U.”—that sort of thing? Dyke shook his head. “Who comes up with this stuff?” he asked. “Any plan that relies on the sheep to negotiate with the wolves is doomed to failure.”

This is the psychological issue. People don’t treat medicine like a trip to the mall. They don’t comparison shop. Often they can’t (changing hospitals is hard) and don’t have the information to know when a procedure is overpriced or unnecessary. And, being human, we have great difficulty treating health risk in the same abstract way we treat financial risk; we don’t want to haggle over heart surgery. But this means, if we take it seriously, that health care can never really be a market, because we trust the sellers (doctors) to tell us what we need.

So, hesitantly, I’m now in the universal health care camp. It seems that public insurance actually can hold down costs: Medicare has lower administrative costs than its private counterpart Medicare Advantage. That’s in real life, not in a hypothetical future. And a public option really could compete with private insurers by contesting the market. Yes, those cost savings are done by rationing, but “rationing” may well mean “cutting out unsuccessful procedures,” not denying care to the sick, since there’s quite a bit of waste in the system already; Peter Singer has a nice clean utilitarian case for rationing by outcome rather than by wealth. There’s even an efficiency argument for health care reform (it’s from Matt Yglesias but I can’t find the original link):

There seems to me to be decent evidence that labor market flexibility leads to employment growth. It also seems clear that America’s health care system generates substantial labor market rigidities as people with medical histories need to maintain a seamless web of insured-ness in order to remain insurable. There economic costs here seem potentially quite large, but obviously you’d need some really smart people to take a look at it.

But you knew all that, and I knew all that. It’s uncertain how we are to generate all this efficiency, because politics is a blunt instrument and senators aren’t philosopher-kings, but in theory a public plan could make health care cheaper and cover the uninsured, and the justifications have been well-known for years.

Why has it taken me so long to come around? Well, really, because I believed in absolute property rights. Secretly, not in mixed company, of course. But I found something compelling in the Nozickian view that it is wrong to force people, through taxation, to do things for other citizens. That no social insurance, really, is a legitimate function of government. That no matter how much anyone may want to make poverty less crushing or the loss of a job less catastrophic, we have no call to forcibly take other citizens’ labor to accomplish that common goal. Self-ownership, which is the basis of freedom, extends to property ownership. It’s radical, but when you’re young and nothing personal is at stake, that radicalism can feel bracing, like a strong wind when you’re well protected in a down coat.

I can’t believe in that anymore. I don’t want to sit around waiting for the minimal state while people suffer here and now. It doesn’t seem just anymore. It seems absurd. Justice is building a society that anyone would be willing to live in, rich or poor, of any race or gender or background. And yes, it is legitimate if a democratically elected government raises tax revenue for those aims. I realize that for many people this is simple common sense, but I’m a convert, and for the first time I’m realizing I actually believe in liberalism.

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The root of all evil

Posted by srconstantin on July 15, 2009

Jamelle and Grand Mute follow up on my obesity post, and point out that culture is important:

Because, for all the economic and technological factors that have gone into fueling the obesity epidemic, these factors have only been the “how.” The “why” of obesity stems from culture, and specifically the culture of food: what is food, when and how and with whom it should be eaten, and so forth. Basically, if people didn’t recognize fast-food french fries as food, it wouldn’t matter how cheap McDonald’s could sell french fries for, because the demand would just not be there. On a broader scale, people eat as they do because of a mix of old customs, new marketing, and timeless peer pressure – and, yes, because technological and economic developments have enabled them to eat so.

So what’s the point of this – if you will – sociological take on obesity? Even if we remove the enabling factors – cheap corn, “supersize” portions, urban “food deserts”, total ignorance of nutrition – we will still be left with the root cause of obesity: the desire for a certain (and incidentally unhealthy) diet. And that means, so long as a caloric surplus is available, people will continue to get fat(ter).

I’ve been thinking a bit about food lately, and this reminds me of an idea of C.S. Lewis’s, actually. The protagonist in one of his books is alone on a strange planet, passing his time by gathering alien fruit. He can find plenty of nourishing fruit, but once in a while he sees a brilliant red fruit, sweeter than all the rest. He’s tempted to focus only on gathering the sweet ones, but voluntarily holds himself back, thinking that would be too much sweetness. He reflects that perhaps the root of all evil is the human desire to only eat the red fruit, to taste only the most pleasurable experiences and have them over and over again. Perhaps, Lewis writes, that’s why money is said to be the root of all evil; buying things is how we ensure we can have pleasurable experiences whenever we want.

It’s possible to literally do this with food, of course. We can have every drink a soda, every meal a treat. (I don’t want to admit to what extent I actually do this — I think I actually drink more Diet Coke than water.) If an occasional red fruit is good, it would be best of all to have nothing but red fruit.

And interestingly enough, that’s exactly how Homo economicus behaves. All economic models have individuals consuming as much as they can of the things that make them happy. A model consumer will stop if he runs out of resources, or if his consumption has nasty side effects, but he won’t consume less than he could just for the sake of being moderate. There’s no self-restraint for its own sake.

I wonder, sometimes, in my grimmer moments, if we’ve become culturally worse at self-restraint for its own sake, if we behave too much like utility-maximizers and red-fruit-gatherers. Sure, food manufacturers and their calorific innovations are to blame for a lot of obesity, but maybe we’ve also lost an old-fashioned kind of asceticism. The automatic “No, thanks.” The embarrassment at putting too many lumps of sugar in your tea. A part of me, personally, is terrified by truly having limited resources — limited sweetener, limited electrical power for my laptop. I want all the goodies of life to be too cheap to meter. Maybe I’m like those conservatives who Jamelle says have an ethic of consumption, a commitment to the idea that a mighty country like America shouldn’t have to stint itself. We want to have all we want. It’s an idea that would be alien fifty or a hundred years ago.

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