Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Dose Makes the Poison

This is an utterly banal observation, but if that's not what you're looking for, may I humbly suggest that a different blog might be more suitable for you?

In Republican rhetoric, tax cuts are pretty much always good.  "I cut taxes" is a universal selling point for a Republican governor who is running for president, and a vote for a tax increase must be denied or explained away.

What is so crazy about this, of course, is that it focuses exclusively on the change in taxes and not on their absolute level.  This would be appropriate if the "right" level of taxation were zero, since all tax cuts would then represent improvements.  And this is effectively the Republican position, even though it is utterly insane and could not possibly be defended if it were scrutinized.  Kansas is on the rocks precisely because its idiotic governor took Republican rhetoric literally.

Anyway as much as I hate the Republican Party, I actually think this is a very common tendency that people have—in their minds, they code policy changes as "good" or "bad" without paying too much attention to the absolute level.  A good example on the other side is the minimum wage.  I think the minimum wage is a good policy, and I think it could probably be usefully increased by a modest amount, but I am very skeptical that a national $15 minimum wage is a good idea.  And even if $15 is a reasonable level, I think it's a big mistake to code "minimum wage increase" as "worker-friendly."  That's only true over some range, and the range really matters.  (By the same token, if you're going to insist on a "living wage" for workers, and you're unwilling to admit any tradeoffs, then why not aim for a "living wage" of $400,000, which would unquestionably eliminate the need for subsidized childcare, housing, nutrition, etc.?  At that level of income, I'm not sure people would even need subsidized healthcare or retirement support.  Even a one-parent household would earn enough to support pretty much any number of children, and a two-parent household could retire after like 10 years of work.)

In particular, this is how I have been thinking about globalization lately.  I have no sympathy for old-fashioned protectionism.  But not all liberalization is good!  We have pushed things so far in one direction that I am basically agnostic about future changes—it seems to me that a "trade deal" is as likely to be harmful as helpful at this point.  This is not because I'm a trade skeptic!  It's because the dose makes the fucking poison, and at this point "liberalization" is largely about domestic policies that arguably affect trade but are also often open to legitimate debate.

There are areas where we are so far from the optimal level that there is no real danger in simplifying the terms of the debate.  Greenhouse gas reductions are not going to turn into a bad idea until we've moved a long way along the spectrum, so it's safe to support reductions without any risk of going too far.  But in general it's lazy and dangerous to adopt rhetoric that simplistically identifies policy changes as "good" or "bad" depending on the direction of the change.


Blogger Zed said...

I guess most of the reason it is a problem is heterogeneity of political circs. The chances of enacting a too-large minimum wage at the federal level are basically nil, so if that were all that mattered it'd make sense to not worry so much about levels. But in practice Jerry Brown and Sam Brownback are in different political environments, so if they all believe the same oversimplifications some of them will tend to go overboard.

11:06 AM  

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