Moral Vantage Points & Costs vs. Benefits

Moral Vantage Points & Costs vs. Benefits

I am in favor of making as many rational choices as we can, but the reality is that we cannot take subjectivity out of our decision-making entirely. When we strive to be rational, we make decisions based on objective statistics and measurable data. We try to take subjectivity out of our measures so that our decisions can be fact based. But an unavoidable problem is determining which facts and measures to use in our evaluations. At some point, we have to decide which factors are important and which are not.
This means that there will always be some sort of subjectivity built into our systems. It also means we cannot avoid making decisions that are at some level political. No matter how much of a rational technocrat we strive to be, we are still making political and subjective judgements.
Steven Pinker has a sentence in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature which reflects this reality. Pinker writes, “A moral vantage point determines more than who benefits and who pays; it also determines how events are classified as benefits and costs to begin with.”
Pinker’s reflection is in line with what I described in the opening paragraph. Who gets to decide what is a cost and what is a benefit can shape the rational decision-making process and framework. If you believe that the most important factor in a decision is the total price paid and another person believes that the most important factor is whether access to the end product is equitable, then you may end up at an impasse that cannot be resolved rationally. Your two most important values may directly contradict each other and no amount of statistics is going to change how you understand costs and benefits in the situation.
I don’t think this means that rationality is doomed. I think it means we must be aware of the fact that rationality is bounded, that there are realms where we cannot be fully rational. We can still strive to be as rational as possible, but we need to acknowledge that how we view costs and benefits, how we view the most important or least important factors in a decision, will not be universal and cannot be entirely objective.
Autocracy, Democracy, Risk, & Benefit

Autocracy, Democracy, Risk, & Benefit

How often do you pick up trash along the street when you are out for a walk? If you are like most people, you probably see trash, think that someone should do something about it, and keep on walking. If you were to pick up the trash you and everyone else would benefit, but you alone pay the price of removing the trash. It may be unpleasant to pick up someone else’s water bottle. It may be expensive to pick up a TV along the side of the road and recycle it. Even though these costs are small, they are real and when a single individual pays the costs, the fact that the benefit extends not just to the individual but to other people doesn’t make up for those individual costs. The fact that others will benefit in some ways makes the individual costs harder to go through with.
The little example of the cost and benefit of picking up trash extends to larger contexts, like disposing of an autocrat. To explain how democracies have helped people become more peaceful in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker shows how democracies can overcome the individual cost problem that I demonstrated. Pinker writes, “in a dictatorship, the autocrat and his henchmen have a strong incentive to stay in power, but no individual citizen has an incentive to depose him, because the rebel would assume all the risks of the dictator’s reprisals while the benefits of democracy would flow diffusely to everyone in the country.”
A transition to democracy, away from an autocracy, can be difficult and violent, but once you get there, society can be much more peaceful. Opposing an autocrat, as Pinker notes is dangerous. Everyone may despise the ruler and believe that things would be better without them, but taking action on their own is difficult. The costs of overthrowing the ruler are potentially life or death, making it hard for any single individual to oppose the autocrat.
But once you get past an autocrat, once enough people have joined together and once a country has democratized, peace can be more achievable. In a democracy, ousting bad leaders is easier and doesn’t have as many individual costs. The benefits are still there for everyone, but the individual costs have been reduced or eliminated, making peaceful transitions more likely. Violence within democracies comes at a cost to the individual, shifting dramatically from the arrangement in an autocracy. Ultimately, the risk and reward imbalance that individuals face is part of what helps keep autocrats in power, just as it keeps trash along the side of the road.
Slippery Slopes

Slippery Slopes

In American Politics, it is common to hear arguments about slippery slopes. The Republican Party will argue that any new government policy or program places the nation on a slippery slope toward complete autocracy. Civil rights lawyers will argue that any change in policy or regulation could open the door for new policies, leading to a slippery slope where the nation regresses on civil rights legislation and equality. The party is afraid that one small change will lead to a cascade of larger changes. They fear that one policy they don’t like will build momentum for larger policies that go further in what they consider the wrong direction (to be fair, this isn’t limited to the Republican Party, but as the general “anti-government” party they are an easier example).
The rhetoric is often overblown, but the truth is that there are many examples of slippery slopes in politics and in human nature more broadly. Public policy research, as well as the history of the last several years in American politics, has demonstrated that it is harder to get rid of an existing policy than to implement a new policy. The fight to pass the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was a drawn out legislative onslaught. The attempted repeal of large sections of the bill was booted from the realm of possibilities when a single senator gave a thumbs down on the Senate floor. Once a benefit is in place, once people have something, it is hard to go back.
Yuval Noah Harari shows that this isn’t just something that happens in modern politics, it is likely what happened when the very first human institutions and communities formed. The Agricultural Revolution in general helped support more people in a given space than foraging and hunting/gathering. However, it was barely a tradeoff that was worthwhile for the humans who made the first transition to cultivating crops. Their lives were less fun, their diets were worse, and while they had some protections from animals and weather, they were still vulnerable to a host of maladies that were in some instances worsened by farming and living in close proximity to other humans. But once a few generations had settled into farming, once ploughing fields had begun to increase crop yields, a slipper slope was in place, and there was no going back to foraging from farming.
Harari writes, “if the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from a hundred to 110, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times?” Generally, it is hard to take away some sort of benefit (in the case of Harari’s quote the benefit is sufficient food for survival) even if it is for the good of most of the people to take the thing away. Getting rid of farming, ploughing fields, and agriculture would have returned the small human communities to foraging bands that roamed in smaller numbers but didn’t have to spend all day working to cultivate a single crop. The tradeoff may have been worth it for those who survived, but the foraging lifestyle would have supported fewer people in the tribe, and it would have been hard for everyone to abandon farming and accept that someone was going to die without enough food.
It’s worth noting that slippery slope arguments are shallow. They are often dependent on fixed or zero sum economies. They assume that people won’t make changes or adapt, and they generalize an entire population as behaving in a single way. The end point of a slippery slope is hardly ever as bad as it is made out to be at the beginning (we don’t have socialism in 2021 after all – 10 years past the passage of Obamacare). But it is true that slippery slopes do exist, and that policies and programs are harder to take back once they are in place. Slippery slopes have existed in the world of politics for a long time, and have existed within the history of humanity for even longer.
The Costs of Work

The Costs of Work

One argument that is popular against welfare and social support programs is that they discourage work by encouraging people to sit at home collecting a welfare/disability/unemployment check rather than being a productive member of society. This is an argument that is picking up steam as we start to move away from the COVID-19 pandemic, as enhanced unemployment benefits run out, and as companies have trouble hiring back employees who seemingly don’t want to return to work.
To me, as I have heard people make this argument, I think that people make a mistake in who they think are the primary beneficiaries of welfare/disability/unemployment benefits and I think they make a mistake in how they imagine people receiving such benefits actually live. I think people imagine their own lives and living standards, and transpose those onto benefits recipients, except with money coming from the government and not from a job. They see people who are just like them, enjoy the same living standards, but choosing to be lazy instead of making the sacrifices that work requires. With this vision it is understandable that people get angry and want to tear down such social support systems.
I recognize that fraud, waste, and abuse of social support systems occurs. I know there are people cheating the system to get disability insurance and that they would find a way to go back to work if their checks ran out. I also know there are people abusing food stamps programs, and I generally believe it is better for people to be working productively than watching the price is right and not trying to do something valuable for themselves and others. However, I think these arguments are often more anecdotal than factual, and I think tearing down the whole system because a few people cheat is dangerous and misguided. I think the statistics demonstrate that the programs are necessary, and I think that additional considerations regarding the cost of work should also be made to help us better understand why there are “lazy cheats” out there.
Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer do a good job examining the real costs of work and the pressures these costs place on families and individuals to rely on social support systems rather than their own industriousness. Regarding welfare in 1996, the year it effectively died to be replaced by a new system, the authors write, “Work paid only a little more than welfare but cost a lot more in terms of added expenses for transportation, child care, health care, and the like. It was more expensive to go to work than stay on the welfare rolls.”
20 years later we still have this problem, especially in large cities where economic opportunities seem to be located. The costs that people face when trying to work rather than when accepting social support program benefits add up and are impacted by many factors beyond the wage than an individual can earn. Many cities are too expensive to live in, and as a result people have to commute very long distances to get to work, and that commuting adds up in terms of time, vehicle maintenance, or transportation fares. While working and commuting, children need to be watched by someone, adding child care costs into the equation. Time spent in a car or sitting on a bus also takes away from any chance to be physically active to help ones health, potentially increasing health care costs because an individual doesn’t have time to cook a healthy meal and doesn’t have time to go to a gym or get out on a walk.
Individuals who might be prone to laziness don’t have a hard decision to make when faced with these calculations. They can lose all their time, have to pay for child care, and end up with poor health and few extra dollars to spend if they pursue work. The alternative is to accept poverty, accept government aid, and at least reduce the costs, time demands, and stress that work adds to their lives. However, I don’t think most people enjoy or want this life, and I don’t think it is anything to be jealous of.
I don’t think the answer here is simply that employers need to pay more and that the minimum wage needs to be raised. I think that can certainly be part of the equation, but we clearly also need to help people live closer to their jobs, have better affordable access to healthcare, and afford quality child care that will help their kids and keep them safe. This is an idealistic and possibly unrealistic set of policy desires, but I think that is because we have misperceptions about who uses aid, and about our roles and responsibilities as individuals within society. I think that years of focusing on ourselves as individuals has in part contributed to the erosion or lack of development of social supports that would help tip the balance for those prone toward laziness away from staying home and toward working. As it is now, we accept the high costs of work and then criticize those who opt out.
Health Care Supply

Health Care Supply

Dave Chase makes an argument in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call that healthcare has a substantial supply side drive, not just a demand side drive. This argument doesn’t align with standard pictures of healthcare, the idea that people seek care when they are sick, and don’t use care when they are well. Its troubling, but evidence does support the idea that the healthcare market is in some very important ways a supply driven market, meaning that as supply and capacity increases, demand also increases.


I’m not completely sure I understand this idea, but it is important for us to acknowledge and think about, especially if we live in growing cities, gentrifying regions of the country, and areas of the United States that have real opportunities for reinvention. When looking to the future of healthcare in the United States, Chase includes many elements from Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book The New Localism and thinks there is an important role for new models of city and local government to play in shaping local healthcare ecosystems. He is also heavily influenced by Jim Clifton’s book The Coming Jobs War and the importance that local communities invest in sectors that are likely to be highly productive in the future. Chase writes,


“Sooner rather than later, we can expect other developments along the same 3.0 spectrum [More info on Economic Development 3.0 here]. Cities will incorporate true health needs into mater planning and review building permit applications with a deep understanding that health care is a supply-driven market. The more supply there is, the more demand will increase, with little regard for value and community well-being. Approving more health care build-out virtually guarantees a massive burden on local citizens.”


It is important that we think about what it is in healthcare that actually provides value. If simply adding more healthcare capacity will lead to greater demand and utilization, then we need to take steps to ensure that an uptick in services is actually accompanied by improvements in health. When communities are redeveloping and growing, they should be focused on upstream social determinants of health rather than just hospitals and healthcare service buildings. Designing communities that will have ample green space for outdoor activity, that will control noise, and will have well lit parks and outdoor areas will help build healthy communities. Plopping a hospital in a space that doesn’t include these elements might give people a place to go when they are stressed, overweight, and injured by debris in the streets, but it will not help people actually live healthier, it will capitalize on a broken environment that fails to support health.


I think that is part of the idea that Chase argues for. We should maintain the healthcare capacity and services which actually improve health, and we should be weary of systems that provide healthcare but fail to demonstrate real health improvements for citizens and communities.

Second Best

Diana Wakowski is a poet who authored a letter for James Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice, a combination of letters from creative people.  In Wakowski’s letter the poet writes, “Try to balance the material world and  the idealistic one, so that your standards always remain high but you learn to gracefully accept and be second best.” This quote is difficult to understand when you look at it from a surface level, and it seems to run against the ideas and visions of success that are programmed into us from the time we enter elementary school.  I think that unpacking this quote, examining our motivation, and defining success are at the heart of Wakowski’s vision.


Throughout school we are constantly competing against our peers and being rewarded by congratulatory stickers and medals.  Whether it is academics or athletics the competition aspect of life is built in from a young age.  Success in both areas for many people is driven by the material rewards and social benefits that accompany outstanding accomplishments.  In sports, the desire for shiny medals or trophies may be the motivation for some to spend hours practicing, while in academics, certificates and self satisfaction from achieving the highest possible grade can be the drive.


What Wakowski is saying in her quote is that the outward benefits of success that many so strongly desire need to be combined with an understanding of the world we live in.  Striving to achieve a level of success in order to call oneself the best can be detrimental to not just ourselves but those around us.  When we begin to see this, it is important that we consider our motivations.  Working hard is not a bad thing, but pushing ourselves to the point where our health is in question and the relationships around us become strained is dangerous.  If our motivations are based purely on outside recognition and material gains, then the sacrifices we make to our health and relationships will leave us in a place we never wanted to reach.  In addition, striving towards material goals and desires often leaves us working towards goals and lifestyles set by other people or companies. These types of goals are not aligned with our true desires or our inner personalities.


In her quote, I do not believe that Wakowski is suggesting that we leave all material desires and outside motivations behind us, but rather she is asking that we become aware of those desires so that we can align them with our true selves.   We cannot do this if we have not spent time trying to understand what our motivation is, and where our desires come from.  Having high standards and expectations is a good thing in our lives, but constantly driving to be the very best may take away from parts of our lives that could be more meaningful than the boost to our wallet or social image.  Settling for second best in this view is not settling for good enough, but rather striving to be excellent at what you do, but not to a point where you are unable to enjoy the success that accompanies the hard work.  If you reframe your goals and desires then your success become more aligned with who you truly are and what you truly enjoy so that you can have better motivation to pursue excellence.