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Utility and the 800-Pound Gorilla

October 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Peter Singer and Tyler Cowen have a fascinating conversation on Bloggingheads TV

I really love how the mind of an economist works.

(someone want to let me know how to embed bloggingheads video into wordpress?)

[Update 10/26]:

Over at Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog he wishes he asked about how a utilitarian deals with animal rights in situations where, for example, malaria originated from gorillas and AIDS developed in chimpanzees. File:Female gorilla with 8 months old baby boy gorilla in SF zoo.jpg

Cowen seems to be suggesting, and someone correct me if I’m reading him wrong, that a utilitarian would have to favor wiping out gorillas and chimpanzees because if they weren’t around less humans would have died from these diseases. I’m certainly no Peter Singer, but let me take a crack at that one.

Let’s take for granted Cowen’s assumption that more people have suffered and died because of these infections than if these primates were all killed. But notice that even that’s not totally assured, it’s possible we could learn enough from the science of studying those creatures than if they weren’t around – but it seems likely that Cowen’s intuition is more probable so we’ll go with that. Yet, a utilitarian would also have to take into consideration the value of the lives of all chimps and gorillas and considering that those primates have extremely high cognitive abilities for nonhuman animals (so can suffer and experience pleasure almost as much as humans) we can’t take their own worth lightly. Also, many humans derive a lot of utility from those animals (and the existence of animal diversity as well). We’re pleased by seeing them and learning about them; wouldn’t you personally feel worse if we killed off all chimps and gorillas? We have empathy for them; my friend Dave even cried at the remake of King Kong when the big ape suffered. I’ve already mentioned some of the scientific utility we can gain from learning about our closest evolutionary relatives. We also have to take into consideration the utility future generations of gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans would lose if they went extinct.

I’m also not sure why anyone would think that primate specicide would cause less suffering than say just finding cures and resistances to the diseases. Most people would be turned off by killing all those apes because they feel bad for all those animals and think that it’d be worse for everyone if they disappeared – not because of some inherent value in the existence of a particular animal. Let me try to demonstrate that case. Back in 2003, Olivia Judson, argued in the New York Times that we should consider causing the extinction of the type of mosquitos that spread (conveniently for this example) malaria.

Each year, malaria kills at least one million people and causes more than 300 million cases of acute illness. For children worldwide, it’s one of the leading causes of death. The economic burden is significant, too: malaria costs Africa more than $12 billion in lost growth every year. In the United States, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year on mosquito control. What’s more, a malaria vaccine is still out of reach; the parasite’s resistance to drugs is a growing problem, as is the mosquito’s resistance to insecticide. The proposed extinction technology could eradicate the malaria mosquito, and malaria with it, within 10 years of the time mosquitoes modified to carry an extinction gene are released into the wild. Tempting stuff.

Most people don’t feel as bad for mosquitos because they almost certainly aren’t conscious creatures and we don’t get as much obvious pleasure and value from them as we do from chimps and gorillas.  Additionally, mosquitos don’t suffer as much as primates do. Of course, people still hesitate to purposefully cause any species’ extinction, but why?

One fear Judson considers is “ecological collapse.” If we killed off any species (mosquito or gorilla) there is a risk of unintended negative consequences. In other words, bad consequences=bad utility. Yet, as Judson writes about mosquitos:

There’s nothing sinister about extinction; species go extinct all the time. The disappearance of a few species, while a pity, does not bring a whole ecosystem crashing down: we’re not left with a wasteland every time a species vanishes. Removing one species sometimes causes shifts in the populations of other species — but different need not mean worse.

Cowen, for the sake of pinning down a utilitarian, could argue the same about gorillas and chimps. Also, as I like to do, let’s make his argument stronger. Let’s stipulate that an omniscient being proved to us that humans would suffer substantially less if we wiped out all gorillas and chimpanzees and there is not better way to reduce suffering and increase utility in this instance. Should we do it?

Yes. Let’s think about it this way. If that omniscient being came to you and said you could bring back the dodo or some currently extinct primate species but to do so 100 million people have to be killed; would you do it? I’m pretty sure no one but someone in the most extreme animal rights groups would take that offer. Surely you’ve noticed that the result is the same or similar. To make it clearer, if gorillas and chimps naturally became extinct would you bring them back at the cost of 100 million human lives? Again, no. We have a nice example of the moral illusion of loss aversion and maybe status quo bias. Even if the net result is the same, we’d chose different options depending on how the question is framed. That suggests to me that it’d be morally correct to choose the utilitarian option: the one with the least bad consequences. So, if it actually was (doubtful in reality and impossible to know in practice) the case that wiping out all the chimps and gorillas meant that 100s of millions of people who would otherwise suffer and die would not and there was less overall suffering of conscious creatures in the world, the more moral choice would be to choose specicide.

Why don’t we do it? One, we’re not omniscient. It’s not at all probable that we can predict all the consequences. There are obviously ways with less potential negative utility to fight diseases such as malaria without resorting to killing apes (killing specific types of mosquitos would be one potential one and I’m sure you can think of even better options). Also, if we killed every species that indirectly or directly caused the death of some humans, we’d have virtually no species left, which would negatively impact those species and ourselves. Sadly, it’s also true that many of the people who suffer from diseases like malaria would lead lives full of suffering even if we eliminated the species of that disease’s origin. Cowen certainly knows a thing of two about marginal utility. Finally, it’s far more practical and moral (and thus utilitarian) to fight the suffering caused by malaria and AIDS by taking steps to eliminate poverty and the effects of those infections (e.g. antimalarial drugs could be more widely distributed). Bug nets and condoms also work well. No one would think about listening to the Catholic Church on the morality of bug nets and we don’t need to for condoms either.

Most moral choices don’t boil down to 2 repugnant choices; we have a wide variety of options to deal with any problem and the utilitarian would advocate for the option with the most utility, not just one that happens to be slightly less horrible than another. Nevertheless, if forced to make an unpleasant choice, the more moral one can be derived by looking at utility.

Categories: Tyler Cowen

Does the VAT Increase Government?

April 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Daniel Mitchell from CATO argues that we shouldn’t accept a VAT. He makes 3 major points. My comments are bulleted. 


1. A VAT on top of our existing income tax wouldn’t reduce the “economic distortions” of our current tax code.

  • Well that’s hard to argue with. I’d hope we could ultimately replace the complexity of the old system with a simpler tax like a VAT. 

2. Starve the Beast. Mitchell writes,

Simply stated, there’s no way to finance all this new spending without an added broad-based tax. But this is exactly why we should vigorously resist a VAT.

Blocking a VAT may not be sufficient to control the size of government, but it’s necessary. Handing Washington a whole new source of revenue would be akin to giving keys to a liquor store to a bunch of alcoholics.

  • The problem with this argument is that “starve the beast” doesn’t work (see: here and here) – we get more spending anyway along with less revenue. It’s a great way to continue our path of huge deficits and will eventually lead to recessions and insolvency. 

3. A VAT will increase the size of government – i.e. feeding the beast will make it grow. He writes,

The real-world evidence shows that VATs are strongly linked with both higher overall tax burdens and more government spending.

  • Most of the evidence he points to reveals correlation not causation. I’m not saying he’s wrong, it is just hard to know. This ties into his overall narrative that “blocking a VAT” is “necessary” to “control the size of government.” I actually may have assumed he was right but a day earlier I read this at Marginal Revolution: “In a purely statistical sense, there is, thus, no strong evidence that the VAT has in itself caused the growth of government.” That’s from a paper Tyler Cowen links to which surveys a lot of evidence about the VAT around the world. 

More from Cowen

February 19, 2010 1 comment

Tyler Cowen responds to critics of his VAT endorsement.

The way to get closer to the truth is to start with the conditions under which you’re wrong, not to list all the reasons you think you are right.

Categories: Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen, VAT Tags:

VAT Watch

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Clive Crook continues to push for a VAT to help deal with long-term deficits.

I put in another word for a VAT, which is still regarded as an outlandish idea. You could make this the litmus test: as long as a VAT is regarded as political suicide, the country isn’t ready to be serious.

Veronique de Rugy over at a National Review blog counters VAT advocates who think it could be used to pay down debt.

I can’t understand how supposedly free-market advocates can consider a VAT. No matter what the positive theoretical characteristics of a VAT are, we must fight it to our last and dying breath. The VAT is an enormous money machine for governments and there is no doubt that if we give politicians in Washington a new source of revenue we will get more government and more spending, more corruption and more waste. How can anyone really believe that Washington will use this new source of revenue to just pay off its debt?

If you follow Rugy’s link to CATO, Daniel Mitchell tries to rebut Bartlett VAT championing.

[Bartlett] makes the point that a VAT does not do as much damage, per dollar raised, as the personal or corporate income tax, but so what? That would only be a compelling argument if the VAT was used to eliminate other taxes.

Like Rugy, Mitchell’s argument is that a VAT would make it too easy to raise revenue and thus help aid in the growth of government. Bartlett basically concedes this point, but Mitchell (like most Libertarians) is an idealist that doesn’t seem to ever recognize our democratic reality. In order to prevent absolute fiscal catastrophe, revenues need to rise – spending is just too politically impossible to cut enough to get away with not raising taxes. So, VAT proponents argue that if you have to raise taxes – do so efficiently. Europe can finance a huge state with a VAT without crippling economic growth (or freedom as Hayek worried). I’d love for politicians to wildly scale back the size of government. I’d vote for politicians that have the courage to do so. I’ll help libertarians and small government supporters however I can. But I’m not going to close the door on fiscal sanity to wait for an improbable political transformation that may never happen. In a democracy fighting for ideals is important, ignoring reality is naive.


[update]: Tyler Cowen at his Marginal Revolution blog makes the case for a VAT. 
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