Topic: General

Income Inequality and Social Unrest: What’s Their Function?

The current debate on Cato Unbound, particularly today’s contribution from economist Edward E. Leamer, circles around the danger that income inequality poses to political stability.

Leamer argues that computer technology amplifies innate talent differences, and hence will widen existing income disparities. This seems undeniable. He then goes on to imply that this is necessarily a threat to political stability or social harmony. But is it?

Leamer’s unstated assumption is that there is a simple monotonic relationship between income disparities and social unrest. That is certainly a reasonable hypothesis, but it is not the only such hypothesis.

Isn’t it also possible that the relationship is more complex, and multivariate? It seems at least worth investigating the possibility that the relationship between income inequality and political instability is asymptotic – that the richer and richer Bill Gates becomes, the less impact any further increase in his income will have.

More importantly, isn’t it also worth considering the possibility that there are other variables in the equation besides income inequality; for example, the sufficiency of the incomes earned by those in the lowest quartile of the earnings distribution. If the poorest quarter of citizens were destitute, that would seem more socially destabilizing than if they could comfortably feed, clothe, and house themselves and their families – regardless of the incomes of the rich. Someone able to live comfortably might not care if the richest citizens double their incomes tomorrow, whereas someone who is barely scraping by might resent even the most modest increase in the incomes of the rich.

So perhaps the seemingly inevitable increase in income inequality will not pose a threat to social stability, so long as those with the least marketable skills can still earn a comfortable living.

It would be interesting to see a natural experiment conducted to test this theory using historical data.

The American Meddling Association

The American Medical Association has long ceased to be a serious advocate for doctors. It instead has become a propaganda arm for the wackier factions of the public health movement. The Chicago Sun Times reports that at its annual meeting this week, the AMA is considering throwing its support behind a move to tax soda sales, with proceeds going to various anti-obesity measures. This, despite little evidence that soda consumption is linked to weight gain (non-diet soda consumption has remained virtually unchanged since 1988). Not to mention the fact that if we’ve learned anything about sin taxes, it’s that they’re inevitably used for projects far removed from those educational programs promised when they’re enacted.

The soda tax endorsement comes on the heels of the AMA’s embarassing attempt to pass off a web-based survey (which the organization later admitted was an “advocacy” tool) about alcohol consumption as scientific research, complete with a fake margin of error. Last year, the same organization and its president expressed shock that – gasp! – most minors get their first taste of alcohol from… their parents. Seems to me that the supervising eye of a parent would be the ideal circumstance under which a minor would get his first sip of beer or wine, wouldn’t it?

Consider these other action items from the agenda for the AMA’s annual meeting this week:

  • Support a 50 percent reduction in salt in processed foods, fast foods and restaurant meals over the next decade.
  • Oppose beer ads on college sports broadcasts.
  • Prepare a report summarizing video game research, including emotional and behavioral effects and addictive potential.
  • Push to ban smoking in all public places and workplaces.
  • Support mandatory school instruction on the dangers of Internet pornography.

Meanwhile, as it continues to tell parents how to raise their children, and push for government regulation of private behavior, the AMA has been conspicuously silent, passive, or just plain wrong on issues you’d think would be high-priority for a group that claims to represent doctors: The relentless DEA campaign against doctors who specialize in pain management, for example. Pain activists say the AMA has been AWOL. And not only didn’t the AMA oppose many of the more onerous HIPAA regulations, it lobbied for their enforcement. The organization has also taken a relatively passive stance of the federal prohibition on medical marijuana, which puts political drug eradication goals ahead of patient care.

The AMA’s percentage of revenue from membership dues has fallen over the last few years. It now counts just 26% of U.S. physicians among its dues-paying members.

Given the organization’s priorities, I can see why. Journalists should keep that figure in mind when reporting on official AMA positions. The group certainly doesn’t represent the opinion of all doctors. Of, for that matter, even a majority of them.

A.I. Yai Yai!

Economist Robin Hanson suspects that the world economy may soon be doubling every week or two. He arrived at that suspicion based on historical extrapolations, but he also has a theory as to how it might happen: the development, in the near future, of intelligent machines.

According to Hanson, efforts to computationally model the human brain, neuron by neuron, could reach fruition within the next 25 to 50 years. He plays pretty fast and loose with the details, though, so let’s take a closer look at the bleeding edge of the field.

The mother of all brain simulation projects is Blue Brain, a joint project of IBM and Ecole Polytecnique Fédérale de Lausanne (a Swiss town also known for its lower tech, but tastier, fondue). Announced with much fanfare in 2005, Blue Brain has as its anything-but-modest mission to create a complete and exhaustively accurate simulation of the human brain within a decade or so. They figure they can knock out the neo-cortex in the next few years.

Somebody buy these guys a calculator.

The current Blue Brain hardware has 8,000 processors and they have apparently set it up so that one chip models one or two neurons. That has allowed them, as of this month, to model a 10,000 neuron grouping called a “column.” That’s hugely impressive. But, umm, 10,000 down, 99,999,990,000 to go.

The human brain is estimated to have about 100 billion neurons, so they’re going to need another 10 million or so Blue Brain computers to finish the job given the current specs. They’re having a tough time convincing the Swiss government to spring for another one or two of them.

Mind you, computer processing power per dollar has been increasing exponentially over time since the earliest electromechanical computers. So maybe, in a generation, we’ll be revisiting this question. But that’s an awfully big maybe.

It seems doubtful that we’ll be able to create Marvin the paranoid android any time this century. And it’ll be some time after that before the technology is commercialized and we all have “plastic pals” who are “fun to be with!”

So keep contributing to that 401K. It’s gonna be a while before it starts doubling every week or two.

Since When Does the Right Have Any Health Care Prescriptions?

Ezra Klein responds to my post on the Citizens’ Health Care Working Group, where I lament that its tax-and-spend approach to health care shows that it was hijacked by the left—despite having a business-community chairman and Bush’s HHS Secretary on the panel. Klein provides an alternative interpretation: “the right’s prescriptions on health care didn’t even convince the panel’s Republican ringers.”

I’m new to the blogosphere, so I’m not clear what the rules are regarding subtlety. My point was that the right doesn’t have any prescriptions or even premises when it comes to health care—at least, not of their own. To compensate, they adopt the left’s premises (“we need to expand health coverage”) and prescriptions (“we need a Medicare Rx benefit”). For examples, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Even when the right comes across a good idea (e.g., health savings accounts), they often gravitate toward it not because they understand why it’s a good idea, but because they think it serves leftist premises (“HSAs will … reduce the number of uninsured!”). The exception that proves the rule would have to be the GOP’s Rep. John Shadegg and Sen. Jim DeMint, who have a smashing health care proposal and who know why it’s a good proposal.

In general, Republicans and conservatives do not understand health policy, and do not have a health policy agenda that distinguishes them from the Left. Then, lo and behold, we get the GOP’s top health care guy sitting on a panel that (tentatively) recommends universal coverage financed by tax increases.

Go figure.

Private Answer to Stem Cell Debate

Harvard has announced that it is launching a privately funded, multi-million dollar program to clone human embryos for use in stem cell research. In this 2004 column, I argued for exactly this kind of private sector initiative to solve the politically divisive debate over stem cells.

I wrote in part,

By its very nature, government politicizes everything it touches. Science is no exception. Stem cell research needs neither government money nor politics. It is better to get the government out and let the private sector continue its good work. Those people calling for increased funding could take out their checkbooks and support it. Those who oppose embryonic stem cell research would not be forced to pay for it.

Harvard is proving one again that civil society can do what government can’t.