Abortion Funding

December 31, 2006

The most urgent abortion-related issue in the United States is who will replace Stevens. Thereafter, once Roe vs. Wade is safe enough for the time being, it should be access, especially in the third world, where women die by the myriads every year due to unsafe abortions.

Ann‘s boyfriend Brad Plumer has an article suggesting the real possibility of a repeal of the Global Gag Rule, prohibiting the US to give any aid to reproductive rights and birth control organizations that even mention abortion.

Increased access to birth control would, of course, prevent many of those pregnancies from occurring in the first place. Thanks to the gag rule, though, many NGOs can no longer receive donations of contraception from the United States, a primary supplier. As of 2002, at least 16 developing countries had lost their entire USAID supply of birth control, because an affiliate of International Planned Parenthood had been the only group distributing contraception in the country–and refused to accept the gag. A recent study in the Lancet found that 120 million couples in low-income countries don’t get the contraception they need. Partly as a result, 80 million women have unwanted pregnancies each year, more than half of which end in abortion.

Abortion is like a double bypass surgery. It’s a great thing that it exists, but reducing the need for it is as important as making sure it’s widely available. The conservative idea that sex must have a negative consequence is not normative, but right now there already exists a negative consequence – needing an abortion, hardly the most pleasant procedure known to woman.

Another issue is population pressure. Overpopulation is a problem both globally and locally. Countries with fertility rates much higher than 2-2.5 are often plagued by overcrowding and undue pressure on their public health systems. Part of the reason the state of global public health is more pessimistic than it was in the 1970s is that world population has gone up 50% and more than doubled in some regions.

Although much of Brad’s article restates the case for funding reproductive rights organizations, its punchline is that in light of the Democratic takeover of Congress and of internal divisions in the Republican Party. Although Democrats are divided on D&X and even on D&E and earlier-term procedures, they almost uniformly support funding birth control, on which Republicans are divided.

A repeal of the Global Gag Rule does not mean the US will fund a single abortion; the only difference between Clinton and Bush’s policies is that under Clinton the US aided birth control organizations that mentioned abortion as an option or gave any accurate information about abortion. But in a country whose center has been tilting right for a long while, the left can win just by capturing the old center. If the Republicans let the Dominionist faction prevail, the Democrats could portray them as lunatics.

My New Year’s Resolutions

December 31, 2006

Happy 2007 to everyone living east of UTC -3, and a great New Year’s Eve to everyone living in or west of UTC -3.

Last year, I made a New Year’s resolution to read 100 books, which I’ve fulfilled exactly 53% of. In a vain attempt to force myself to make good on my promises for 2007, here they are. Although I surreptitiously update my posts whenever I detect a typo, or a line break that was supposed to be a paragraph break, or an egregious numerical error, this will stay as it is.

Literary: I resolve to read 100 books for real in the new year, and, if possible, 147, to make up for my laziness in 2006. As usual, math books don’t count, and neither do books from other disciplines that are best classified as textbooks. However, math-themed books that aren’t textbook and have content significantly diverging from pure math, like Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, do count. I also resolve to finish editing my book and start sending it to publishers by February at latest.

Mathematics: I resolve to learn the basics of algebraic number theory, at the level of Neukirch or Cassels and Fröhlich. The gold standard is knowing the exact statement and significance of Langlands’ modularity and preferably also functoriality conjectures, as well as understanding elliptic curves and modular forms well enough to know the basic idea of Wiles’ proof of the Taniyama-Shimura theorem.

Blogosphere: I resolve to involve myself in more mainstream discourse. There’s something hypocritical about complaining about political ineffectiveness and then segregating myself among other liberal blogs and arguing with radical leftists. So I resolve to be involved in comment threads on moderate and conservative blogs more, and to restrict my blog consumption to at most two-thirds liberal. Nothing against Jessica and Lindsay, but their readers aren’t the people I’m trying to persuade. I also resolve not to let my blogroll reach gender parity, and to link to nonwhite bloggers more; I should consistently have a female majority, at least 20-25% nonwhites, and at least 20-25% moderates and conservatives on my blogroll.

Funding the US Government

December 31, 2006

As I explained earlier, in the US it takes about 32% of GDP to fund government seriously (I’m ignoring federal-state distinctions here – I’ll talk about them later). It’s a little higher than the current level of spending, but with somewhat different priorities – less defense and farm aid and health care waste, more welfare. In other countries, where welfare payments need to be higher relative to GDP, it’s a higher proportion, probably in the mid-to-high 30s.

Now there’s the question of how to raise that money. Strictly speaking the US needs more than 32%, mostly thanks to Reagan and both Bushes’ fiscal irresponsibility. Interest on the debt is about 3% more, so in fact the US needs to raise 35% to break even.

Now, the simplest way to raise money for that is to tax individual incomes flatly. Individual income is about two thirds of the USA’s national income, so that level would have to be 53%. That’s too high, especially at the bottom, so the easiest way to divert money away is by taxing corporate profits. The current tax, 35%, generates 2.5% of GDP in income, but is full of loopholes. Corporate profits are 10.7% of GDP and rising, so closing off loopholes and hiking corporate tax to 40% should increase revenue to 4%.

Another way to divert costs away from most people is to tax capital gains at the same rate as normal income. Capital gains taxes are heavily dependent on how the stock market’s doing, and even so in 2000 they only reached 1.5% of GDP, albeit at a reduced rate.

Finally, dividend tax is supposed to complement corporate tax. If corporations pay 40% and the top individual rate is 60%, then dividends should be taxed at 33%. In terms of revenue, there’s no difference between a 40%/33% tax and a 60%/0% tax, so the revenue from that can be viewed as 60% of corporate profits.

This leaves the big two – income and consumption taxes. Assuming a top rate of 60% for capital gains and corporate/dividend purposes, it yields maybe 8% of GDP in those taxes, i.e. 27% in income and sales (note that social security taxes are functionally identical to income taxes). Right off the bat it means an average of 40% on income, if there’s no sales tax.

The question of how to divide this 40% is heavily dependent on the degree of social engineering permitted. Strictly speaking, anything but payment based on need is social engineering. For example, anything other than a precise child credit and marriage penalty socially engineers birth rates, marriage status, and within-family division of labor.

On the other hand, taxation that encourages behavior that helps the economy may be acceptable; the gold standard is whether the economic gains outweigh the social engineering effect, in some sense. Sin taxes barely decrease public health spending, so they’re out; if you don’t believe me, look up non-smoking Sweden’s health expenditure versus smoking Japan’s. Taxes on environmental externalities encourage innovation in green technologies, and on top of that raise a lot more money, so they’re in.

Raising US gas prices to European levels, i.e. $7/gallon, will net $4.50/gallon * 581 gallons/year per car * 243 million cars = $630 billion, or a little over 5% of GDP. The 581/year average is for sedans only; for SUVs it’s 813. And assuming this will reduce gas consumption to French averages, i.e. 6.2 l/100 km = 38 mpg, it will cut gas consumption by 43% from the sedan-only average, which will reduce revenues to $360 billion. In fact there’s no way it will go up to 38 mpg immediately, because it will require people to immediately move closer to the city centers and buy cars that consume less fuel, and cities to spend more on public transportation. So for the first year, a 5% receipt is likely; subsequently it will go down, but so will debt interest payments.

Assuming no further sales taxes, it makes the average income tax burden 33%, which roughly means household income tax must raise 2 trillion dollars. Now I’m going to base calculations on the assumption that all households have the average number of people, 2.65. Since my data is stratified only by income, it’s equivalent to assuming that household size is independent of income (it’s not, but that’s the best I can do).

From a need-based perspective, it makes no sense to tax people on welfare. Since my minimum income proposal goes up to 150% of poverty, which for 2.65 people equals $23,000/year, it means no taxes on income under that amount. Income under that amount averages $20,000/year, which means that adding the total income of households making less than $23,000/year and $23,000/year for each household making over that threshold yields an average of $20,000/year. That’s a third of household income, so the average tax above that amount needs to be 50%.

Although a 50% tax on income above $23,000/year sounds scary, it’s not so bad for the middle class as it seems. The median household will pay a 25% income tax, while under the current system, federal income tax starts at 10%, FICA is 14.2% of what it costs the employer to employ a person, and state income tax typically starts around 1% and rises rapidly. A head of household making $46,000/year pays 14.9% of his gross income in taxes, or 13.8% of the cost to his employer. To take one state, in Wisconsin he’ll also pay 6.1% of gross income, or 5.6% of the cost to the employer. So in fact, his income taxes will be cut to 25% from 33.6%.

Obviously, this system becomes more and more of a tax increase as income goes up. Marginal tax in Virginia for a couple filing jointly with each person making $25,000 is 13.9% federal, 14.2% FICA, and 5.3% state, or 33.4% (the couple’s total liability under my system will be 27%, down from 31.6% right now). But even at $92,000, it’s 37.5% in my system compared with 35.6% in the current one.

If raising taxes on households making above $85,000-90,000 is too onerous, there’s a way out. Note that the assumption about corporate/dividend and capital gains taxes is that individual income is taxes at 60% in the highest bracket. The top quintile’s average income is just short of $150,000/year, so hiking its tax burden by 10% nets the government $6,000 per top quintile household, or $1,200 per household, or 2% of all taxes.

2% seems low, but it allows any of a) getting rid of the debt faster, b) spending more on social security, c) having a few deductions, or d) reducing every taxpaying household’s tax burden by $1,600, or equivalently raising the income tax threshold to $26,250. The tax hike at the top makes the break-even point the same as in a pure 0/50% system, but it cuts the taxes of people in the middle three quintiles more.

In either case, although the marginal tax hike seems huge, in fact it’s a tax cut for 80% of the population, which, incidentally, makes it more politically feasible than the spending increases. In fact if the FICA cap is lifted first, the plan will be an income tax cut on almost everyone; going by Massachusetts tax rates, which are actually relatively low at the top, lifting the FICA cap will increase the rich’s marginal income tax to 51.3% of employment cost.

Given that, you may ask yourself how this plan is revenue-positive. The answer is that in the real world, the rich pay the lower of the two rates available to them, income and corporate/dividend. Big businesses take care of their own, and small business owners can choose how to compensate themselves. Not coincidentally, in the 1950s, when corporate taxes were higher, the US collected 5-6% of its GDP in corporate tax revenues. In addition, the gas tax raises 5% of GDP, which is the same as a sales tax of about 7.5%, higher than most states’ sales taxes.

More interestingly, the bracket nature of the current US income tax is such that after eliminating the FICA cap, my plan will be a tax cut on people making less than about $85-90,000, depending on the state, and on people in the current 35% bracket, which starts at $336,550; on the rest it will be a small tax increase.

But the most interesting thing about this exercise is that it tends to highlight how tax brackets are an unnecessary complication. To someone making $50,000 a year, it doesn’t matter if there’s a $20,000 exemption and 50% on everything about it, or an $15,000 exemption, a starting rate of 25% between $15,000 and $25,000, and 50% thereafter. The starting rate will raise more money from people making $15,000 to $25,000, and only from them, netting about $9 billion dollars, or 0.075% of GDP.

Also, the actual revenues are heavily dependent on the distribution of household size, which I ignored entirely. In this system the easiest thing to do is to determine a poverty rate for each size of household and then let the tax be 50% on anything above 150% of that rate, possibly with an increase to 60% at a fixed level, say $100,000/year.

It’s possible to have a more individual system, but that requires having a more complex welfare payment system. The simplest thing to do is to have a hybrid system, in which welfare and tax payments are determined based on household size, but are then split equally among members. For welfare, it means each parent gets half the check in a family household; for taxes, it means the exemption is split equally among working members. This procedure helps increase women’s financial independence without egregious social engineering.

On one last note, I haven’t said anything about deductions. That’s mostly because most deductions cause more problems than they solve. For example, the mortgage deduction is a subsidy to the middle class at the lower and upper classes’ expense, which doesn’t even increase home ownership; the USA’s home ownership rate is 69%, compared with 67% in Canada, which has no mortgage deduction.

Saddam Hussein

December 30, 2006

I don’t have that much to say about Saddam’s execution. For longer treatments, go to Majikthise and Pandagon. I’ll just note two things.

1. The trial was a sham. Just because some conservatives believe that any human rights organization that doesn’t share their views on the I/P conflict is worthless doesn’t make it so. Up until the 1960s, Western leftists were supportive of Israel, and even brushed off some of its crimes because it was a socialist state founded by an oppressed minority. But it takes intellectual bankruptcy to say MLK was not a real civil rightist because he supported Zionism. If you have an on-point refutation of Human Rights Watch’s report, you don’t have to appeal to ad hominem arguments. If you don’t, you should look into the possibility that HRW is right.

2. That said, pretending the Iraqis didn’t want that result misses the mark. Some Sunni allies of Saddam regret that he’s gone. The rest of Sunni Iraq, as well as the Shi’a majority and Kurdish Iraq, wanted him dead all along. The whole “Execute the dictator because there’s nothing else to do” is based on a tiny kernel of cynical truth, surrounded by a lot of projection of the Western left’s attitudes on the Iraqi populace.

Iran and Israel

December 30, 2006

The other thread is getting derailed, so here’s what I think about Israel, Iran, and existential threats.

1. Iran is ruled by a conservative rather than radical establishment. Conservative establishments can and do seek domination – both sides in the Cold War were behaviorally conservative – but usually not destruction. Iran’s ruler is Khamenei, a conservative cleric who, while much closer in views to Ahmadinejad than to Khatami, has often clashed with Ahmadinejad’s radical mentor, Mesbah Yazdi. Such a leader is unlikely to launch a first strike against a nuclear power.

2. There is no immediate existential threat to Israel. Palestine and Syria are too militarily weak and plagued by internal problems to threaten Israel’s existence. Hezbollah is an elite task force rather than an infantry. Iran shares no border with Israel from which to attack on the ground, and will not use nuclear weapons first.

3. Threats to security need not be existential. Hezbollah-style harassment is a military issue. Palestinian terrorism is to some extent, though Israel makes too little use of detective work. Having Syria and Iran as enemies necessitates a larger military than 2% of GDP.

4. Although the Occupation is the source of some of Israel’s problems, it’s not the source of all or even all military ones. Nasser scapegoated Israel years before the Six Day War. Syria and Lebanon are an entirely separate issue, and Iran is yet a third one (Hezbollah is pro-Iranian, but it poses a different kind of problem from Iran). The largest financial drain of the Occupation isn’t military spending, but subsidies to civilian settlers. In fact, an independent Palestine without a lasting peace agreement with Israel will not enable Israel to reduce its military spending by a shekel.

On Evidence

December 30, 2006

Simen has a few wonderful posts about atheism, including the best put-down of Dawkins’ nascent radicalism I’ve seen. He also has a very good post about the difference between atheists, agnostics, and theists.

In the latter post’s comment thread, a presumably theistic comment asks why atheists believe books that say the Earth spins but not a book that says God exists. It’s an argument I saw a few years ago, back when I was a regular on Hofesh: “Why do you believe Napoleon existed?” Since the unreflective answer is “Because history books say so,” it superficially exposes an analogy between the Bible and mainstream science.

In fact, Napoleon’s existence is more than just something written in a book. There’s a multitude of independent accounts of people who knew him, an even greater multitude of independent accounts of people who fought against or under him. There are maps he used when devising strategy, and contemporary newspapers referencing him. That’s not extraordinary evidence, but the claim that a short-statured Corsican came to be Emperor of France isn’t extraordinary either.

Now, compare Napoleon with an apocryphal historical figure, say Jesus. There’s only one independent source saying Jesus existed, Mark; the other Gospels are derivatives of him. Paul predated Mark, but he refers to Jesus in mythical terms, saying nothing about his life. Mark was not a contemporary of Jesus: he wrote his Gospel in the 70s, while Jesus supposedly died in 30. Mark’s account of Jesus is full of impossible religious miracles, while real historical accounts that leave Jesus out entirely, like Josephus’s, are not.

There is a gray area between the two extremes, of course. There are four independent pieces of evidence Socrates existed: a historical record showing Athens executed someone by that name in 399 BC, and the writings of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. The writings by and large contradict one another, and although it’s probable that someone by the name existed, it’s entirely plausible Plato invented Socrates’ philosophy. But I digress.

The actual form of the theistic argument fielded in the comment to Simen’s post is not about history, though, but about science: “How do you know the Earth spins?” The best answer to that takes the form of Popper’s scientific principles, which, while not perfect, are by and large true. The objections to Popper that aren’t batshit crazy tend to apply only to established theories, but not so much to statements of scientific fact.

Scientific hypotheses, like “the Earth spins,” make an enormous number of falsifiable predictions that can be independently verified. In case of the statement about the Earth’s spinning, its converse also makes an equally large number of predictions that are falsified: that the Sun will be found to revolve around the Earth, that there will be no centrifugal force, that there will be no Coriolis effect, and so on.

Usually, independent verification takes the form of an appeal to better-established scientific principles. That’s why the falsification of a theory is a big deal: it tends to falsify a lot more than just a single statement. In the case of the Earth’s spinning, the easiest appeal is to the parallax effect, which shows it revolves around the Sun. That’s not why scientists accept heliocentrism, but the last geocentric theory to remain standing, Tycho’s, was based on the falsifiable prediction that no parallax could be observed. A more theoretical appeal will be to Newton, whose theory had a ton of empirical backing in its own right.

It’s this stack of scientific theories, each presuming a more basal one’s soundness, that causes science and religion to superficially appear comparable. The average person barely knows science, so to him, it really is just something he read in a textbook or heard from a teacher. Most people who are asked how they know the Earth spins can’t give any satisfactory answer.

The Enlightenment didn’t make the common people more rational; it made the scientific and philosophical establishment more rational. A century of developments in public education hasn’t been able to extend knowledge of scientific evidence to more than a few percent of any country’s population. It so happens that most people in the modern world believe in true things, but it’s sheer luck. Three hundred years ago, they’d believe in witches.

The increasing complexity of scientific theories makes things even worse. In 1750, an educated person could have a grasp of the entirety of human knowledge available in his locale. In 1900, a scientist could know everything in his field. Right now a scientist is restricted to one subfield; when he knows two, it’s usually as part of a fusion of fields, like biostatistics.

I know the precise evidence for the Earth’s spinning, but I know the evidence for relativity only in general and without the math that distinguishes it from woo. The only way I can know PZ Myers isn’t lying in his science posts is that there are other evo devo-minded commenters who’d check him, who I in turn trust because I have no reason to believe that scientists are only honest when I know enough to check their work.

In contrast, I do have reason to believe scientists are materially different from theologians. Theologians may be individually honest, but their entire enterprise is predicated on premises I know to be shaky. And while scientists concentrate on accumulating evidence for their theories, theologians content themselves with hermeneutics. Therefore, I have grounds to dismiss religion as false, while possessing no similar grounds to dismiss fields I know little about except that they’re scientific, like neuroscience.

How to Spend Government Money

December 30, 2006

I think I have enough material now to outline what the government should be spending big bucks on. I’m assuming that about 7% of GDP goes to relatively small things like infrastructure and scientific research, in order to concentrate on the big items on the budget.

1. Every country needs a military. However, some countries overspend on it, usually for no good reason. In today’s world, the only developed country that is militarily threatened by anyone is Israel. The rest just fake it to placate irate Generals. A good rule of thumb is that if you spend more than 1.5-2% of GDP on defense, including military intelligence and weapon R&D, you’re wasting money.

2. Health spending is typically 8% of GDP. But most health spending is on things that don’t usually cost more when national income goes up by a little bit, like building and equipping hospitals, or buying prescription drugs, or maintaining hospital staff. So a better figure than 8% would be $2,000-$2,500 per capita. In the US, 6% would be about right, as it would in Norway, the number two public spender on health care in the world.

3. Education spending averages about 5% of GDP, but rises faster than GDP. In the US, which spends almost 7%, the main sources of wasteful spending are the need to provide teachers with health insurance, which costs $1,000 per student; overall educational disparities, which reduce performance on their own and require a higher average spending to compensate; and out of control college tuition. Note that just making college free costs 0.25% in the US. Tacking on free daycare adds another 1% or so.

4. Welfare costs money. The exact amount depends on the poverty line and the ability of unions, worker retraining, etc. to get people out of poverty without handouts; in the US, a good guaranteed minimum income program will cost 4.5-5%, and unemployment insurance costs another 2%. Finally, social security spending ranges from 2% in Canada to 9% in Sweden. Part of it is explained by the difference in dependency ratios, but it’s also due to Sweden’s paying a lot more than Canada. The US is somewhere in the middle with 4.5%, which will be perfectly fine if health spending takes care of prescription drugs.