Sunday, July 19, 2009

Philosophical Novels

I just came across this flow chart "How to succeed as an Ayn Rand Character" (ht: Brian Doherty). I've just been reading through Atlas Shrugged, and I can say that this chart is spot on. The last time I'd read Ayn Rand was when Anthem was assigned as reading in my English class in High School, back in 1997. People had recommended to me that I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged during those years, and I've managed to put it off until now. I always thought the books were unbearably too long, and it also didn't help that other people I knew really bad-mouthed Ayn Rand. But now that Atlas Shrugged has been getting so much attention lately and has had a large recent upsurge in popularity, I thought it important.

I'm not exacxtly bowled over by it. Atlas Shrugged is definitely unbearably too long, and Rand has no skill for succinctness. I can't share other libertarians' fondness for her, though I share the same type of resentment towards the man counter-productive programs initiated by the government in the name of the common good. On the other hand, I don't share the profound disgust that my philosophical colleagues have towards her. I think the main reason they don't like her is because she isn't very philosophically sophisticated. Her ideas aren't as philosophically rich as the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, or even lesser luminaries, which makes her far less interesting and worth the time of study/

But also Atlas Shrugged has left me with the impression that I just don't like philosophical novels in general. I figure that if you want to write about or defend an idea you should just write about it, and not try to dress it up in some contrive plot. There have been many idea-books out there that have sold extremely well (like books by Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas L. Friedman, Steve Levitt), so you can't argue that you need to dress it up to sell it to the people. Admittedly, such books aren't as sophisticated as great philosophical classics, and thus probably aren't the road to timeless philosophical glory, but they are quite influential.

I remember I was reading recently (I wish I could remember where) someone saying that all literature (as well as all movies and plays) is manipulative. The author is always trying to get us to feel certain things, or think certain things about the characters or events. But as a reader (or viewer) what we don't like is obvious manipulation. We don't like to feel we're being manipulated. It causes us to rebel. We like the artistry of subtle manipulation. One thing one would be reluctant to accuse Ayn Rand of is subtlety. Her clearly most admirable characters are all pure prophets of her philosophy, and they defend it in long monologues. If you read her non-fiction, she'll frequently quote her characters' speeches as if they express her philosophy better than she could.

I think one of the problems with philosophical novels, in general is that they have to be so obvious. If they're too subtle, then people will miss the point they're trying to make. SO I say, better to lay out your positions in clear non-fiction prose, and confine yourself to some brief illuminating examples rather than stretching it out over a full-length novel.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Price Competition in Higher Education and Health Care

In a market of voluntary exchange, when sellers of goods and services compete, they compete in two primary ways: price and quality. For example, when I buy a computer, it matters to me firstly, the speed of the processor, the amount of Ram, the size of the hard drive, expandability, operating system, and so on (quality) and secondly, the price. And these both matter when I buy a pair of shoes, or a flight to Minneapolis, or a vacuum cleaner, or a 45-minute massage.

If both price and quality competition are strong, the products will generally both decline in price and increase in quality. But of course the relative importance of either price or quality can be be weaker, if consumers don't emphasize one or the other in their buying.

If quality is not very important, then prices will be driven down even more strongly. This is the type of trend seldom see, but sometimes it happens in some raw material.

Vice versa, price can be of weak importance. For example, with Veblen goods, that is, status goods: things like designer clothes, expensive cars, fine jewelry, huge vacation homes, and so on. Quality matters a lot, but price is less important, since the customers buying these products are much less price sensitive. Thus, relatively marginal improvements in quality count for huge increases in price. Thus, price increases are kept unusually high.

But even more relevant these days than Veblen goods are two other important areas or weak price competition, where price growth is strong. In particular, health care and higher education.

In both of these we observe strong price growth because of factors that weaken price competition. In health care, health costs are primarily paid by insurers, Medicare and Medicaid. Only a very small percentage of health care is paid out of pocket, and prices are not conspicuously advertised. And even then health insurance itself is insulated from price competition by being provided by employers. Paying health insurance out of pocket tends to reduce costs. Thus, in contrast to areas of health care where costs are usually paid out of pocket, such as cosmetic surgery and laser eye surgery, areas of non-elective care that are not paid out of pocket see strong long term price growth in excess of inflation.

Higher education similarly is being paid for by loans or by scholarships or by parents' college funds. Very little again is being paid directly out of pocket by students.

When a buyer is putting down someone else's money for a purchase, price sensitivity decreases, especially if it is someone impersonal, that we don't have any emotional attachment to ("Nobody spends somebody else's money as wisely as he spends his own"). Certainly, we clearly don't have any emotional attachment to our insurer, to the federal government or the a scholarship organization. We, quite frankly, don't really have a lot of emotional attachment to our future self (who we haven't met yet) who will be paying for the loans, as well.

In health care and higher education there is constant demand for ever better quality. This quality costs money, which drives up costs and without a check from consumer demand, this will increase rapidly. Now, we should recognize that there are many factors that may drive up prices in health care and education. In medical care, there is also dramatic growth in regulation (which grows ever more expensive). With higher education there is also the influence of college ratings and how they are calcuated, as well as that most colleges are not for profit (another short post on the same article). And in both cases there is the simple fact that we can afford to pay more because of greatest prosperity. These other factors are undoubtedly relevant. It's just that all industries have upward price pressure, bot in those cases price competition via consumer demand keeps prices in check and may even push prices downward despite all these factors. Weak price competition thus might be better described as permitting price growth by opening the spigot wide open to other factors.

Of the two, the rise in the cost of higher education is actual the more disturbing trend, since, whereas it is clear the health care has dramatically improved as costs have increased, it is not clear that education has gotten any better while costs have risen.

This is relevant for us now since policies are being pursued that will further weaken price competition. Much talk has been made of expanding higher education through increased lending. Considerations are also being considered of expanding health care by making the government an insurance provider (More health insurance not the answer). The idea behind the latter in particular is that government can control prices simply by fiat, namely through price controls. Of course, this will invite all the problems of shortage that price controls always entails.

Obviously, the way to control health care costs is to expand the amount of care covered out of pocket, with more individuals opting for high deductibles, that merely serves to cover emergencies and not basic health care, and to have more health insurance paid by the insuree, instead of their employer. And similarly, we should be contract student loans or increasing the amount that students have to pay out of pocket if we want to control costs.

The current policies unfortunately will have consequences completely in contradiction to the intentions of their advocates.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Consciousness & Sci-Fi Transportation Technology

I like to use science fiction as a good way to try to reimagine thorny philosophical questions. A good place to me to look at questions of whether there is a non-material part of us—like a soul, a mind, a consciousness—is in the possibility of science fiction teleportation devices.

If we assume that all we are is a body, then something like the transporter from Star Trek is unproblematic. Let's assume that we have a soul that's some sort of free floating thing separated from the body that is liberated after death. In the Star Trek transporter, your body is transformed into pure energy, zapped down to the planet's surface and is reconstituted as an identical material form. Does your soul float along through space and jump into the reconstituted body? Does the reconstituted body even have a soul? Does it acquire a new soul?

We might think it possible that since the same matter is used all the way through—being translated in energy, zapped down, then reconstituted—that the soul might be towed along.

Let's try an even harder case. Let's imagine that transportation works something like in The Fly: the original matter is destroyed, the information to reconstitute the matter is transmitted through electrical signals, and then a separate machine creates an identical copy. Is the copy going to somehow acquire the same soul?

I think the movie that best raises this point is the film very of The Prestige. In The Prestige, there is a machine that both transports and replicates the subject. When the subject steps into the machine, a second version of him is created in a different place. So, what happens to his soul? Is it duplicated, bifurcated, split? Let's look at it from his perspective. He steps into the machine, looking out at the audience; the machine warms up and there is a flash. Now, what does he see after the flash? Is he 1) still looking at the audience as the trap door opens below his feet? Is he 2) looking out over the audience from the balcony? Is he 3) seeing both simultaneously? Or is he 4) seeing nothing because his soul has blinked out of existence? I think the movie suggests it is 1), which is why the ending is so poignant. This also seems like the more plausible scenario given the situation.

To return to Star Trek, we might imagine what it would be like from someone using a transporter. I step into the transporter, looking out the room as someone prepares to transport me down to the planet's surface. Is it a) just a blink and now I'm looking out over some strange alien planet? Or is it b) the room disappears and then there is nothing, since I've blinked out of existence; meanwhile, simultaneously, a new man has been generated on the planet's surface, a new man physically identical to me, who bears all my memories, all my self-identity and who is in every sense convinced he is me. This new man remembers being up on the spaceship and everything that happened to me before and is convinced that he has done and experienced everything I have, even though he was just newly created only two seconds ago. This presents a problem since you can't decide whether it was scenario a or b that happened just by asking him.

If we think of the transfer in any of the cases when we are merely recreating the matter, and not reusing the same matter, then it is difficult to imagine the soul being conserved. It seems like the only reason to destroy the original is to preserve the illusion that the person hasn't simply been copied and that the copy is an entirely different person. Destroying the original before the copy is made allows us to think that it is merely the same person. But just like in the case of The Prestige, where there is a lag between the creation of the copy and the destruction of the original, the consciousness doesn't seem like it would find its way to the copy.

This is all to say, that if we develop technology like the above, then it will present real tests to help us better understand the nature of consciousness. And, in addition, it's possible because your consciousness or mind or soul cannot be transported with your body, these technologies will be things that most of us would prefer not to try.