Why Rawls Is Devoid of Moral Perspective

A brief response to Will on Rawls:

What is wrong with Rawls’ discussion of justice is that he neglects to realize that any form of distributive justice is disrespectful of the person to whom goods are being distributed at the expense of others.  Note, I’m not saying it is unjust to the person who is forced to give something up unwillingly, which it is, but that the person to whom those goods are given is being morally demoted to the status of a thief.  If I were the worst off behind Rawls’ ”veil of ignorance” I would want people to treat me with respect.  I would not want society to rob me of whatever little bit of dignity, self-respect and integrity I may still possess.  I would want others to help me because they wanted to. I hope that I would have, or develop, some form of redeeming characteristic that would justify someone’s love, respect, willingness to help, or support.  I would be ashamed if someone was forced to help me against their will.  The realization that we all are who we are in part due to an accident of birth; that we all could have been one the worst off instead of who we are had things been different, should make us empathetic and giving, not thieves.

“Data Mining Doesn’t Catch Terrorists”

That’s the quickest summary of a paper the Cato Institute issued today, which I co-wrote with Jeff Jonas, distinguished engineer and chief scientist with IBM’s Entity Analytic Solutions Group.

Data mining is the effort to gain knowledge from patterns in data.  A retailer can use data mining to sift through past customer interactions and learn more about potential new customers, but it can’t figure out which customers will actually come into a new store.  Terrorism is so rare in society that there are no patterns to search for.  Data mining has no capability to ferret out terrorists. 

It appears that the Automated Targeting System, which made news last week (because of its previously unknown focus on American travelers), uses data mining.  It sifts through information about border-crossers to assign them a “risk score.”

In a National Journal article published last week, Secretary of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff discussed ATS, revealing the need for government officials to get more clear about what they are doing, what works, and what doesn’t work.  According to NJ, Chertoff called ATS “the process by which we collect that information and analyze it to see what are the patterns and the relationships that tell us, for example, that a particular telephone number is associated with a terrorist, or something of that sort.”

Comparing the number of a traveler to phone numbers of terrorists is data matching and it is not what ATS does - or at least not the interesting part of what ATS does.  Data matching, link analysis, or “pulling strings” is a proven investigative method and, as we discuss in our paper, it’s what could have prevented the attacks of 9/11.

There should be forthright public discussion about whether a program like ATS, or any data mining program, can catch terrorists.  Such a program might help fight ordinary crime, where suitable patterns may be detectable.  But whether the public would countenance mass surveillance for ordinary crime control is a different question than whether it would accept such methods to prevent terrorism.

The Wire

Today’s Washington Post has an interesting article about the HBO show, The Wire, which is one of the few bright spots on television these days, IMHO.  Excerpt:

The show’s mirror to real life has drawn a cult following, particularly among African American college students. The fourth season has piercingly showcased an ongoing failure of schools, police and government agencies to protect vulnerable kids – four friends in particular from a neighborhood that’s low on income and education and loaded with drug-dealing violence and addicted parents.

There’s plenty of politics, but there is no cant.  Gritty.  Get yourself a stocking stuffer.   More here, here, and here.

Be Wary of Late-Night Legislating

SANTA FE – I’ve received a few reports now that the bill Congress passed in the wee hours of this morning would increase the amount that most people can contribute to a health savings account (HSA). 

Most reports claim that the bill would let all those who qualify for an HSA (i.e., those with a high-deductible health insurance policy) contribute the maximum amount to their HSA ($2,850 for individuals and $5,650 for families; figures are for 2007), rather than set a lower contribution limit for those who have insurance deductibles lower than those maximum contribution limits. That’s probably a good idea, and moves HSAs in the direction we should be taking them.

However, the Washington Post reports this morning something different, and alarming.  Lori Montgomery writes:

The package also would repeal a $5,450 limit on contributions to health savings accounts, allowing taxpayers to shelter an unlimited amount of money as long as they choose certain insurance plans with high deductibles.

I doubt that description is accurate. But Thomas and the Government Printing Office don’t have copies of the full bill online yet, so you and I can’t check it out. 

If it is accurate, that means taxpayers would be able to put all their income into an HSA and only pay taxes on it when they withdraw funds for non-medical purposes. They would pay income taxes and a 10 percent tax on non-medical withdrawals. (That 10 percent tax would disappear after the account holder turns 65.) In many cases, they would pay no payroll taxes on those funds. Less money would flow into Social Security and Medicare, and many workers would accumulate fewer benefits under those programs.

All that sounds like good news to a libertarian. But it would be a messy change that would further complicate the tax code. And it would have been enacted with no public debate, which would make HSAs a prime target for the incoming Congress when Democrats might have otherwise ignored them.

But maybe what the Washington Post reported was inaccurate. I don’t know. And right now, I can’t find out. A populace that’s kept in the dark is just one of the perils of late-night legislating.

(In other health care news, that same bill would cancel a scheduled pay cut for doctors under Medicare, a prospect over which I’ve been unable to muster anything but, “So what?”)

Second Amendment Legal Battle

There is a landmark Second Amendment case that is working its way up to the Supreme Court. The case is Parker v. District of Columbia and it was argued to the appeals court here in D.C. yesterday. Even if the appeals court upholds the strict handgun ban that is in place here in D.C., the plaintiffs will be anxious to get the case to the Supreme Court. 

For additional background on the lawsuit, go here. For Cato scholarship on this subject, go here.

More Trade, More Jobs, Higher Wages

Critics of international trade argue that imports mean fewer jobs and lower wages for American workers. They repeat this mantra despite plain evidence to the contrary.

The latest evidence comes this morning with another U.S. Labor Department report that the U.S. economy continues to create new jobs at a healthy clip. U.S. payrolls grew by another 132,000 in November. The unemployment rate ticked up slightly to a still relatively low 4.5 percent because new workers surged into the labor market.

In the past year, total payroll employment has jumped by 1.8 million. Since mid-2003, payroll jobs have grown by 6.2 million, and since 1990 total payroll jobs have grown by 27 million. That impressive job growth has occurred against a backdrop of rising U.S. trade with the rest of the world, so clearly trade does not mean fewer jobs for American workers.

What about wages? They too are rising again, according to the same labor-market reports this morning. Average wages are up 4.1 percent from a year ago, ahead of inflation. When benefits are added, total compensation for U.S. workers continues to rise faster than inflation and is up significantly in real terms compared to previous years.

Like technology, trade can cause turnover in the labor market. But also like technology, trade raises the overall productivity of American workers, leading to better jobs and higher real wages.

The best analysis on this subject remains the 2004 Trade Briefing Paper, “Job Losses and Trade: A Realty Check,” by my Cato colleague Brink Lindsey.

Dasgupta Corrected

I am deeply chagrined to see Brad DeLong take me to the woodshed for mischaracterizing one aspect of Prof. Parth Dasgupta’s criticism of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. 

Prof. Dasgupta does not criticize Stern’s use of a 0.1% discount rate (that’s Prof. William Nordhaus’ job) per se. He criticizes the use of that discount rate while simultaneously ignoring the difference in well-being between present and future generations. That was indeed the point of my post, but I inadvertently suggested that Prof. Dasgupta complaint resided in the discount rate. 

Mea culpa.