Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, July 19, 2008

How Republicans Really Value Human Life

So, you hear Bush and other sanctimonious Republicans talking about "honoring life" and "respecting life" and "valuing life." These holier-than-thou pronouncements have nothing to do with war, the death penalty, AIDS, illegal immigrants dying of thirst in the desert, or famine in the third world, as one might think if one were not schooled in code words. They mean they disapprove of abortion and the right to die with dignity.

But you might think that somewhere conservatives at least value American lives highly. You would be wrong. Today, it was leaked that the Republican-led EPA (Utah's former governor is its head) has reduced the actual value of a human life by about 10%. This makes it easier to justify pollution and harder to justify clean-air and clean-water regulations. Why? Because the EPA, like all federal agencies, has to do a cost-benefit analysis on regulations (this is a Reagan gimmick). And the cost of a human life is part of the analysis. So the Republicans are literally devaluing human life in order to justify corporate pollution. Inflation alone would dictate an ever-increasing value for human life in such equations. But also the Republican insistence that the middle class have no safety net in terms of education, health care, pensions, etc. means that the earning power of an individual is actually even more important than it was eight years ago, not less. The only justification for devaluing human life is that there are more of us. As a (Chinese) friend of mine used to say, if you're one in a million, there's a thousand people just like you in China. I am reminded of a quote attributed to Napoleon. At a meeting with Metternich, he supposedly said, "You cannot stop me; I spend thirty thousand men a month."

FYI, the US government has lowered your value from $8 million to about $7.2 million. You may be surprised that you are worth so much. Just try to insure yourself for your full value. The value of a human slave in today's market is way, way less. I have seen estimates of about $15,000 for a Brazilian woman in the sex slave trade, $4,000 for a Thai girl or boy, and as little as $500 in Sub-saharan Africa. The possibility for arbitrage is immense.


USWest said...

You've got to be kidding! It's the second coming of feudalism!

So tell me, LTG: do they value some lives as higher than others? For instance, a human with a degree from say Harvard or Yale is worth more than one from say CSU San Diego, an "All pigs are equal, but some are more equal than others" sort of thing? After all, isn't this the real point?

USWest said...

OK. I read the article. As a statistial excercise for analyical purposes, it makes sense to me. When in Grad school, I once took a very ineteresting econ class call "environmental Economics" where we spent a lot of time disucssing the value of priceless things. How do you place a value on a national park or the oceans. I think what is sad here is 1) they devalued the statistical number and 2) in this adminstation, they might use it to gut the EPA. HEre's the good news: They may not have much time to do that and they won't have much luck with Democrats in control.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I understood the statistical reason for it. I was just amazed at the audacity to adjust down that number in times like these for the crass purpose of allowing pollution to appear less financially harmful. It also reminds us that cost-benefit analysis applied to regulation may sound wonky and good, but it requires monetizing values that should not have price tags on them. How much is it worth not to have global warming? Al Gore's movie had it right: this is a moral, not an economic issue at heart. Morally, the cost of failing to leave our children the same good planet we were given is unacceptable, no matter how much it may cost Halliburton or Exxon.

Pombat said...

LTG - in that last sentence you've hit the nail on the head as to why I'm keen on doing what little I can in terms of recycling etc (as in that big green thread we had a while ago).

I don't think I vocalised it then, but my aim with all this green stuff I do isn't to save money - it's because I strongly believe (even if I don't ever have children) that I have a responsibility - as we all do - to leave the next generation with a decent planet.

Unfortunately, governments are going to find it hard to do what they must to help in this aim, because it will cost money, and result in them being voted out by the purse-loving majority :-(

The Law Talking Guy said...

It is distressing to see that when gas was $1/gallon in the 1990s, the public would have balked at a 50 cent gas tax. But people are now paying $5/gallon now directly to the big oil companies, with no public benefit at all.

Americans are basically taxophobic (I don't mean afraid of being categorized.). It's a shame. Our taxes are not that high, but I do agree they are high compared to the limited services we receive. We could have much, much better schools, affordable college, and health care for very little more in taxes if we cut back on military spending in Iraq and reformed medicare. This is, of course, why I am eagerly voting for Obama. I think he gets it. His public speeches and position papers make you realize his political aim is exactly that kind of bargain. Slightly higher taxes (like we had in the 1990s when we were prosperous) and much, much better benefits.

Pombat said...

Oh boy, don't start frightening me with the cost of your college educations again - I came out of uni, after three years, with a slightly-higher-than-average GBP12k debt, which included having bought myself a car (well, a metal box with wheels that moved, at least!).

Question - why d'you think Americans are 'taxophobic'?

To (roughly?) quote you from the green thread LTG: "where's my bang for my buck?". As you say, people can accept paying a little more if they then get a lot more in return (and education and health benefits everyone too). With environmental concerns, the problem is how to get them to realise what it is they're getting...

ps one buck a gallon?! Wow.

Raised By Republicans said...

We aren't the only tax averse people around. Tax resister movements are quite popular all around Europe. In Denmark the far right tax resister/xenophobic Danish People's Party is the third largest party in Parliament and it's votes are crucial for the functioning of the Liberal-Conservative miniority coalition. There are similar parties in similar political positions of strength in Austria and Italy.

The difference is that in Europe these movements rose up after tax rates were already set at very high levels. In the US our tax resisters got going sooner and were able to keep the tax rates lower than in Europe.

From a normative point of view, I agree with Pombat. If Americans just learned to look at expenses like health insurance/medical bills, college tuition and fees, parental leave benefits etc as manditory expenses that might cost them less if they were processed as taxes instead of private transactions, people might change their opinions.

USWest said...

Americans are taxophobic at their core. Remember, the American Revolution started in large part because of what were seen as unfair Briticsh taxation policies, tea tax, stamp tax, etc.

Also, Americans have a strong sense of possession: my hard work earns me MY money and your lazy ass doesn't get MY money. Also, in our system of government, we pay taxes to cities, states, and the fedearl government also means that our collective tax rate is fairly high.

What is missing from American Capitalism, however, is this sense of social responsibily. In capitalism, the market is supposed to meet the needs of the consumer. But in American capitalism, the market tells the consumer what he wants and needs. They create need, regardless of the social consequences, or the morality involved. How does this tie into the disucssion? Well, in a true capitalist society, we should have choices. I should be able to choose between viable public transport and a private vehicle. But I don't have the choice because tax payer dollars have not been sent in that direction. And the taxes that are meant for that type of improvement are diverted to other things, like war.

So it goes beyond distain for taxes.

Raised By Republicans said...

I think US West neatly sums up the psychology of tax resisters. But I still don't think the US is completely unique with regard to the presence of this thinking.

We may have slightly more people who think this way but it's not like there is some unique cultural imperative at work here.

The policy effect here are greater perhaps because of things like our electoral system, our bicameral legislature etc. But consider this. In Denmark the three of the four largest parties in Parliament advocate at least no new taxes and would actually prefer reducing taxes (and taxes have been lowered in Denmark lately). But they can't completely undo the Danish welfare state because once people get this stuff they don't want to give it up (even if they want to pay less for it).

USWest said...

Well, like many governments, our government has a special gift for diverting funds. Taxes never go for the things we want. And we set money aside for the things we want, like say social security, it gets diverted for wars and bridges to nowhere.

I can think of 10 things that I would love to see my government build or fix here at home. And if I listed them all, most of us would agree that those things are worthy of public expenditure: Infrastructure, health care, public pre-school, a new air traffic control system, solar panels on the tops of all the rooves in the country, fixing social security and Medicare, a real prescription drug benefit for the elderly, etc. But instead, we go to war in Iraq and buy them all the new stuff. So why should I pay more taxes?

In addition to what RBR mentions, there is a perception in America that the tax burden is unevenly spread. It would appear that middle class Americans spend more relatively speaking on income and payroll taxes than do the wealthy, many of whom have write offs, who exceed the cap on payroll taxes, and who have enough money that they can shelter it off shore or in tax proof investments. We have a priority problem in this country. And if you ask most Americans if they would be willing to pay a little more for many things, I bet many would agree provided that their money went just for those things. Why do you think California voters insist that something like 40% of the state budget go to education? Because they would agree to pay higher taxes for that and then see the money being spent on insurance claims on burnt homes in the Oakland hills. Or they would agree to a temporary tax hike to pay for earthquake damage, and discover that "temporary" became a relative term.

Here, e see value only in profit. We fail to see social value. In Nantes, France, there is a train line that isn't used by tons of people, but by some. It isn't a line that makes a profit. But rather than get rid of it, the city continues to fund it because some people do use it and in the future, others may. They don't see that as a waste. It has a social value. We need to start considering that type of thought.

Pombat said...

RbR - I wasn't trying to imply that Americans are the only taxophobic people out there, merely questioning LTG's assertion that "Americans are basically taxophobic", in order to gain more understanding - I know about Poms & Aussies, but my knowledge of Americans & their base attitudes is limited.

I can totally understand the I work hard for my money, your lazy arse isn't getting it viewpoint - it's the one issue I've had with every welfare system I've heard of: no way of discriminating between those genuinely in need, and those milking the system (for example taking unemployment benefit whilst working cash in hand). But overall I think I'd rather see those systems in place than not - better to inadvertently assist milkers than not help the needy. Oh, agreed on uneven tax burdens too - seems to be the way in most countries - what's the quote about getting rich enough to be able to afford to not pay tax anymore?

I guess one of the feelings I get a lot when reading/hearing about the US is that a lot of the people are very self-focussed, with everything being about their wants, their rights etc, and 'rights' seems to extend way beyond where I would think it should, to include things like "it's my right to own this house / drive this car / eat these big macs etc".
(just a feeling, no data to back that up - outsider's impression...)

But that's not just a US problem either I guess - lots of people are getting too selfish and too consumerist for my tastes. It's one thing I can say about the Italians - their economy might be all over the shop, and their trains never run to time, but as a whole, as a people, they're very socially driven, and do seem to care very much about their community and values (even if some of them are godawful litterbugs).

The Law Talking Guy said...

The ancestors of the (voluntary) immigrants to America came here for two main reasons: economic gain and religious freedom (the "freedom" to oppress others who don't practice your religion gets wrapped up in this too, by the way, but let it pass). Most of these immigrants were very brave people who - in an age without telephones or even reliable international mail service - set forth, often alone, from their homes and families often never to see them or speak to them again. They went to a country where they did not speak the language or know the customs. It sounds really simple, but those two reasons for immigration really help explain an awful lot about modern America. We are a very religious country (compared to other Western democracies) and most Americans care a great deal about money. There are plenty of other things to talk about in the American character and history, but this alone explains a ton. These are, after all, the sorts of values that get passed on in our families.

Raised By Republicans said...

Hi Pombat,

I didn't think you were picking on Americans. I just honestly think the answer to your original question is that tax aversion is a fairly common phenomenon in industrialized democracies. So in many respects, if you want to know what it is about the American psyche that explains these attitudes, just ask the same question about British or Aussie psyches. We're really not that different. The similarities between Americans and other democratic people aren't that great - even when it comes to the French (gasp!). The difference for us is one of how many of them there are and how they're able to work within our institutional structures which are quite different.

In Denmark for example, hard core tax resisters make up about 20% of the voters (just based on election results for the far right and allied parties). In France, the right has been trying to reduce taxes for years with mixed success. In Britain, Thatcher reduced taxes quite a bit (if I recall). Much of the appeal of Jurg Haider's nasty little FPO in Austria is their tax resister position.

That's not that different from what we have in the US. Democrats aren't that paranoid about minor increases in taxes and make up nearly half of the voters. The Republicans are split on the issue. The current GOP leadership don't worry too much about taxes so long as they get to blow up or incarcerate lots of foreigners and exercise their religious freedom (and by "religious freedom" they absolutely mean the freedom to oppress others etc). But there is a faction of the GOP that cares a lot about taxes but they are on the outs in the party and they're kind of pissed off at their own party right now. They're the ones who voted for Ron Paul and some of the folks who voted for Romney in the GOP primaries.

USwest said...

agree, RBR, that the individual takes precedent over the whole in many Western Democracies. That is by design. The Enlightenment put the human being, men mostly, at the center of the universe, thereby replacing God and community. We have only strengthened our sense of self and independence since then, which is why we sometimes exaggerate our value as an individual. And technology has made even less necessary to depend on others in our community. I do my own banking from my computer. I can even do self-checkout at the grocery store. You no longer hand your credit card over to the clerk, you run it yourself and follow instructions to complete the transaction. My boyfriend gets irritated all the time that service is replaced by "speed" in that you do it all yourself.

Getting back to the point that LTG raised in his post: the value of human life. Call me callous, but I am not convinced that any single human being is worth that much. Another way to put the question is: How many people should we sacrifice? Who will be the last solider to die for a stupid "cause"? We've said it before: 3000 ($22.5 bil) people killed in WTC. In the larger scheme of things, that is a very small number when you consider that China lost something like 60K ($4.5 trillion?)in earthquakes.

You've heard of the classic moral dilemma? Imagine 2 train tracks, one where you have 4 people working and one where you have 5 people working. The train is coming and you can pull a leaver and change the direction of an incoming train thereby saving 4 people who are working on the track but killing the one on the other track. Do you do you? Studies have shown that universally, we would. But then you change the scenario to something resembling the last season of MASH. You have 5 people on one track. And you have a man standing beside you. To save the 5 people, you have to push the man next to you onto the track. Do you do it? Suddenly a majority of people studied refuse. I said yes. But that's me. We put the individual over the collective. We devalue the masses to save the one who is similarly positioned to us. And this plays out in society, just as Pombat said. Is it better to have a welfare safety net where some people will cheat or none at all? Or the classic 80/20 rule. 80% of the people are honest, 20% lie. So collective punishment is employed and the 80% pay the price for the 20%. If you accept that 20% lie and leave it alone, you are considered corrupt. Why be that absolute?

Raised By Republicans said...

Hey LTG, how do lawyers calculate the value of a life in wrongfull death law suits? Doesn't it have something to do with the corpse's former productivity/earning potential?

The Law Talking Guy said...

Yes, that is the primary method. The economic value of each life is analyzed individually - there is no single value of "a human life."

But it's not so simple as that, because the jury gets its say. Since the plaintiffs are the survivors, not the dead person, they also have their own causes of action for loss of a loved one - the non-economic value of the life. That loss-of-consortium action is all about emotional losses, pain and suffering, and such. So the verdicts in these cases can differ wildly their amounts.

History Buff said...

Well, Here I go again, but more people means less value on their lives. If we have less people each individual life is worth more. It's population control that is key.

The Law Talking Guy said...

HB - that sounds like a supply/demand analysis of the value of human life. If correct, it's heartbreaking. People shouldn't be commodities.

History Buff said...

I agree, but that's how it works, especially for cost analysis.