Friday, December 28, 2007

The Economist on the changing nature of equality

This is brilliant. The whole article is worth reading but this section illustrates the point they're driving at:

"You can see this levelling at work in markets for transport and appliances. You no longer need be a Vanderbilt to own a refrigerator or a car. Refrigerators are now all but universal in America, even though refrigerator inequality continues to grow. The Sub-Zero PRO 48, which the manufacturer calls “a monument to food preservation”, costs about $11,000, compared with a paltry $350 for the IKEA Energisk B18 W. The lived difference, however, is rather smaller than that between having fresh meat and milk and having none. Similarly, more than 70% of Americans under the official poverty line own at least one car. And the distance between driving a used Hyundai Elantra and a new Jaguar XJ is well nigh undetectable compared with the difference between motoring and hiking through the muck. The vast spread of prices often distracts from a narrowing range of experience."

Combine this with the fact that the new income inequality is driven by differentials in skills, as set out brilliantly by Becker, and it should become clear that very different policies are in order. The Economist's arguments suggest that we can take a long-term approach to relieving poverty - there is not a driving need for relief right now. Becker's suggest that improving human capital can bring the poor out of poverty - there is not some other problem keeping the poor from improving their condition.

All that suggests that creating the social and institutional conditions for the poor to improve their human capital is the right way forward. Those who see benefit spending as the way to end poverty should think again.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Misplaced self-righteousness

This, via Iain Dale, is full of misplaced self-righteousness. It assumes that fixed term parliaments can only be opposed by those who are "spineless and self-important".

"The Case" on the website of the campaign for Fixed Term parliaments consists of a single deeply flawed article. Unless there is some masterly treatise elsewhere that neither Iain Dale, the campaign for fixed terms nor the Our Kingdom blog have felt fit to link to we'll have to assume they don't have a better case. If they don't then they are astonishingly arrogant to think that anyone who disagrees with them must have some moral failing. Either that or Anthony Barnett's brain is on holiday.

Sad news from Pakistan

Benazir Bhutto wasn't perfect. There are few saints in any politics as troubled as Pakistan's. However, she was a democrat and a moderate and her murder by extremists is a blow to Pakistan's better nature. Her death marks a sad end to a troubling year for Pakistan.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In the end

I always find films and books concerned with the death of a society fascinating. One of my favourite histories is Runciman's description of the fall of Constantinople. I loved Children of Men as much as any film I've ever seen - although my interpretation of it might not be what the film maker intended. I think that when such stories are handled well the characters' responses can tell us things about how we respond to external social shocks. They also beg deep questions about the direction our own society is going in.

As such, the Telegraph's review of I Am Legend is dissapointing. It sounds like the film has a great start considering questions of what someone does if their society dies, how the bee copes without the hive, but then degenerates into an unspectacular zombie film. I'll still go and see it, though, and report back.

Update: The Telegraph's review is basically right. I think it makes too much of the difference between the early stages of the film and the end though. All the content, through to the end, relating to the disaster and his survival alone is good but never quite engrossing enough to be great. There isn't anywhere near the emotional power or incredible style of Children of Men but it's interesting and worth watching. The monsters are lame but they mostly function as a nameless and unseen threat so their offensiveness is limited. All in all, I'd probably be more positive about this film than the Telegraph was and it only really suffers when you compare it to the masterpiece that was Children of Men.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

All our potential

Fraser Nelson has a brilliant post on the CoffeeHouse which sets out the tragic number of deaths among the old each winter. Excess mortality was 23,900 in 2006-07 and Norway - despite hardly being the warmest of places - typically has just over half the rate we do. There is a political conclusion that should be taken from this: measures like the Climate Change Levy, Emissions Trading Scheme and Renewables Obligation that increase the price of energy have a hefty human cost. However, I'd like to focus on a more philosophical question.

Nelson's central point is that we just don't give the deaths of pensioners the attention we should. I don't think this is merely a matter of fashion; it isn't just that other political issues have more partisan potential.

Instead, there is a cognitive bias created by the utilitarianism of the modern discourse. In modern politics we're all thinking in terms of the greatest happiness of the greatest number and approach each policy recommendation longing to ask 'how many utils?'

When we try to assess the value of saving a life we do the same and think in terms of the number of utils lost. Years of Potential Life Lost is the translation of this concept into terms that can be applied to healthcare debates. It is usually understood as the number of years that the deceased could - had they lived - have expected to live. It is the utilitarian opportunity cost to dying - the life you might otherwise have lived.

To make calculations simpler it is usually just life expectancy minus age at death. It is then often time discounted as years of life (just like monetary sums) are more valuable when we don't have to wait as long for them. Even if years of life in the future are discounted at 3 per cent - as the Americans apparently think it should be - the deaths of old people aren't going to be judged nearly as important as those of the young.

That might not seem outrageous. To a certain extent it reflects a quite ordinary moral intuition that it is somewhat more tragic when someone dies with their life ahead of, rather than largely behind, them. I think that Atonement did a great job of portraying an opportunity costs-based understanding of the tragedy of death (I'm worried I'm the only one who took that to be the film's central emotional message). Its final scenes portrayed what could have been if the couple the story revolves around had lived and this gave a real tragedy to their unnecessary deaths. However, in my view this principle is taken too far by the modern policy debate and explains the callousness with which the old are treated.

To get your around why this concept can be so toxic imagine applying it to another group: the poor. Someone living in Calton - near the centre of Glasgow - has a life expectancy of 54. I'm not sure what the life expectancy of someone from my socio-economic group is but it could well be over eighty. At 24 that means a significant difference in our Years of Potential Life Lost if we die. The utils cost if I'm allowed to die unnecessarily is significantly higher. I'm less likely to die at a relatively young age from some other cause and so have a greater expected life in front of me. I don't think that the ONS revision of its productivity figures for healthcare to take account of rising incomes is, in principle, very far from this at all.

Many economists are under the impression that policy makers don't really 'get' opportunity costs. I think that might be wrong. Perhaps policy is predicated on opportunity costs, combined with radical utilitarianism, far more than it should be?

Montaigne described the purpose of philosophy as being to prepare us for the horror of dying - a particular terrifying moment. He described this as an alternative to the viewpoint of Cicero who saw the purpose of philosophy in preparing people for death - the finality. Montaigne's view might provide us with an alternative reason why healthcare should try to avert death.

We should try to stop people dying because of the direct human tragedy of the process of death no matter how painless. While we will all have to die at some point there is still a very real imperative to spare people when we can. What happens next is a matter for fate, chance or God (take your pick).

If we can balance our opportunity costs understanding of death with a more humanitarian concern that people should avoid the mental horror of dying then we might, as a society, attach more priority to care for the elderly.