Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Government makes for a poor charity; it’s better to help people yourself

I got into another Facebook debate this week, basically on whether it’s better to have public or private charity (though as always, it spilled over onto other subjects).  I started it this time with the following post:

I support the women's marches that took place on inauguration day, and I'm glad they took place. Having said that, it's worth noting that based on The Atlantic's estimated range of how many total people showed up to protest across the country, had everyone who demonstrated merely donated about $140 to Planned Parenthood instead (often far less than the transportation and opportunity costs faced by the DC marchers), it would have displaced 100% of the government funding PP currently relies upon.

That's not in any way an indictment of those who chose to march, but it is powerful evidence that charitable organizations of all sorts would not be nearly so helpless without tax dollars as some would have you believe. It is immensely admirable to get organized and rally support for what you believe in - but often tragically inefficient to direct those efforts towards changing POLICY by force of habit. With a handful of exceptions, there's no reason to go through the unresponsive middle-man of government to address the problem you're hoping to solve. We don't need them. Like I said in my post on Obama's legacy, let's make the change ourselves.

A debate ensued with three of my liberal friends who I’ll call JJ, Stephanie, and James.

JJ: That's assuming everyone had the excess funds to donate... and that's saving 1 organization of the funding the trump is cutting... what about the countless others

Me: Not everyone does, sure, but many of them sacrificed a day's wages or a vacation day to be there, and some even spent a few thousand on a plane ride to be there. And this was one day, mind you; if PP and the march organizers devoted 365 days a year to their advertising and mobilization efforts, focusing exclusively on private fundraising, and people had more disposable income to give to charity due to lower taxes, I believe they'd have no issues surpassing their current funding levels.

Which others are you worried about?

JJ: ... if PP & the march organizers devoted 365 days a year to this none of them would be able to maintain an income at all 😂. There's a reason the government allocates resources. That's it's job. That's what we are paying taxes for the gov to do. We have other things to do in life than flying across the country protesting, as you pointed out. There needs to be a source of public funding for things that are not profit driven, but are people/society driven. That's how you create a developed society, or country

And the EPA would be the biggest one :/. Not sure if the FDA is going to be up for cuts, but that would be pretty scary as well.

We all reap the benefits of a developed country. We currently don't have an aids epidemic in this country. Why? Because of public funding, organizations that tackled that issue when it arose. Widespread access to birth control = less people in the foster care system = less people in jail = less crime = less homelessness. Every time you walk past a homeless person? That's a lack of public resources & funding that gets to annoy you on the street. These are BASIC tenants of a developed society. We know this because we see the difference between countries (and states) who invest public funds into, for example, healthcare. If you want to live in an under developed society, I invite you to try out a country where there 1. Is not enough wealth for the gov to invest in things or 2. Where the gov actively has not invested into certain aspects (lebanon's been a fun one). Pure socialism doesnt work, but crazy I know, pure capitalism or privatization doesn't work either.

Me: "There's a reason the government allocates resources. That's it's job. That's what we are paying taxes for the gov to do."

It's clear we have a fundamental philosophical disagreement about the govt.'s role in society. The allocation of resources is certainly not it's job, it is very bad at it, and whenever it tries it tends to trample on people's rights (especially those of the disadvantaged). It is primarily the job of the market to allocate resources, and then (if you lean left) the government's job is at most to "correct market failure."

Neither controlling AIDS nor our widespread access to birth control were primarily accomplished by government, and nor is walking past a homeless person a failure of government. That is the exact mindset I'm hoping to counteract. These are things private humans spearheaded of their own initiative - or didn't, in the case of the homeless guy - and the credit/blame for our successes/failures as a society should not be placed at the feet of centralized planners.

I would not support cutting the entire EPA, and in fact I favor a robust carbon tax/fee.  Pollution violates property rights and we need government to defend those. That said, there is much the EPA does which is onerous, useless or unimportant, and wasteful. Some of it should be cut. Same goes for the FDA; it's played a role in making healthcare so needlessly expensive and it kills people every year by withholding approval from treatments which might have saved them.

JJ: Socialism (or communism) doesnt work bc when government owns the means of production, it removes the aspect of competition, creating a monopoly. W/o competition, there's no reason to preform more effectively or develop, leading to stagnation, corruption & ineffectiveness (check out Argentina's free college system). Essentially you have the will for societal development, but often not the means (profit, competition etc).

While pure capitalism is the exact opposite- entirely profit driven, & profits have very little to do with public wellbeing or societal/collective development (this is assuming without effective taxation & redistribution). You may have the means, but w/o a government or collective social aspect, you have no will.

E.g. Cutting down all the trees in the city to develop real estate may make a profit, but will cause also cause increased air pollution, illness etc for the whole community since you destroy nature's filtration system. There is no profit base for leaving trees alone lol.

Without effective societal (i.e government) regulation, companies also have a tendency to consolidate & control markets, creating barriers to entry & raising prices without competition, leading to a lack of opportunity for others in the community. The government should function as a voice for the society as a whole, for the collective good- it's a counter balance to the private good. This is why if you de-fund the government, you destroy the balance & corruption, monopolization etc becomes widespread (and vice versa)

We need well funded, transparent & accountable governments to be able to effectively regulate markets to create the most effective, meritocratic (competitive but fair), system for our society economically, while maintaining a commitment to improving our communities. Personally I also define this as the difference bt masculine & feminine energy, ying and yang (yes, im such as hippy). One can't function effectively w/o the other, its a balancing act.

So IMO we can see that this "middle ground" is most effective. A really basic example is Japan's trains (vs Britain or the US)- how the gov has effectively promoted competition to keep improving them, while keeping prices down for the society.

Unfortunately without government involvement there is no reason to switch from something that is already profitable to something that may be slightly less profitable, but far better for the community. e.g. Ending the sale of plastic. Sure, we can switch over to bags or something. But it's def not going to be as profitable, since we aren't throwing them out & rebuying constantly. There have to be some guidelines that are made with the community, not the individual, in mind. Who's going to enforce that if not the only collective body we have?

Me: “You may have the means, but w/o a government or collective social aspect, you have no will."

One of the beauties of market solutions is that nobody needs to have the will - what you call "societal development" occurs naturally and spontaneously without anyone directing it. That's the observation that made Adam Smith so famous. But for the record, I don't think government is required for a will anyway. We can have a "collective social aspect" without state violence, and in fact I think that violence is antithetical to truly healthy community.

"There's no profit base for leaving trees alone."

But there is a profit base for keeping trees around, for so long as there's a profit to be made from trees. Property rights coupled with supply and demand are the ultimate preserver of scarce resources. An example I like to give is the American buffalo and the cow - biologically, these species were almost identical. Yet one of them went extinct and the other is more abundant than ever; why? In short, because somebody was allowed to own the cow. Ownership provides legal protection and an incentive to ensure cows reproduce and stick around. Plus, as scarce resources get scarcer, the supply goes down and the price goes up, reducing consumption and making them less scarce. That's why, to return to your analogy, the earth's trees are in very little danger (and the earth is greener than it has ever been before, in any case).

"Without effective societal (i.e government) regulation, companies also have a tendency to consolidate & control markets, creating barriers to entry & raising prices without competition."

No they don't; companies only have a tendency to consolidate and control market WITH regulation, thanks to regulatory capture. Most monopolies are government created.

Also, you can't compare ideal regulation with real-world markets. If I say "under ideally competitive circumstances the market works great!" you might counter that circumstances are rarely ideally competitive, and in practice, markets usually lead to monopoly. Fair argument. But in like fashion, when you say "when crafted by transparent, all-knowing, selflessly motivated, accountable governments, regulation is effective," I get to counter that governments are rarely transparent, all-knowing, selflessly motivated or accountable, and in practice, regulation usually leads to corruption.

JJ: "The earth is greener than it's ever been before" ?? no, it isn't.

Ironically, the profit base of trees does not seem to have stopped us from removing them almost to extinction, and continuing to do so. Because planting them is not profitable in and of itself, so no companies are not going to waste money doing so. It's cheaper to just move to a new area when the trees in that one are gone.

"In 2014, the planet lost more than 45 million acres of tree cover, with tree cover loss in tropical countries accounting for more than half of that total. Tropical countries alone, the report found, lost nearly 25 million acres of tree cover in 2014, a chunk about the size of South Korea." https://thinkprogress.org/trees-are-disappearing-from-the...

How have we seen the environment being protected? Strict government policies protecting them. Why did we lose tree cover this year ? The need for profits (e.g. palm oil). I understand your logic, that this it is "possible", or even intelligent for companies to protect societal goods-- but we don't actually see that happen, because companies are competing for profit margins today, not for what will benefit them 50 years from now-- and that's the way pure capitalism fails us as a society.

Me: http://theconversation.com/despite-decades-of-deforestation-the-earth-is-getting-greener-38226

I'm not saying policy restrictions on pollution aren't required in some ares, but trees are nowhere near extinct. If they ever near dangerously low levels, the price of paper and palm oil will skyrocket, consumption will decrease, and so will deforestation. Current tree levels are not a problem unless they're coupled with immense carbon pollution, which is what I see as the real problem and why I want the carbon tax.

JJ: Interesting, but I'm wondering how accurate that is? Is number of trees actually increasing? Would be interested in more info on this

Regardless, that's def not because companies are so environmentally conscious as to plant new ones!


Khloe (new entrant to the conversation, responding to my original post): Thank youuuu. I support planned parenthood existing I just don't support the government paying !

JJ: If you'd rather poor women not have access to health services, don't complain when we reap the consequences of that (crime, overpopulation, poverty, strained school districts, competition for lower paid jobs). If the government doesn't fund them, they wouldn't be able to offer services for free. These things affect us as a community, that's why we pay for them as a community. Would be interested in hearing what your solution would be to offering lower cost services.

Me: That's not what she'd rather, and that's the whole distinction I'm trying to make here. The sentence "I don't want the government to steal people's money and then subjectively allocate some of it to health services" IS NOT THE SAME AS "I don't want poor women to have access to health services." There are other ways to ensure that happens, and even if there weren't, the means matter.

Government is not community.
It is not society. It is not "all of us." It is some of us, appointed by others of us, wielding violent force on the rest of us. The reason "we pay for X as a community" is quite simply because some person with a gun said we have to, and that's bullshit. Nothing should make that clearer to you than the fact that Trump is now holding the gun.

JJ: As we've already clarified, we have very different understandings of gov. If we were to get rid of it all together... we would just put it back in place again lol, as has happened in every single place in the world, because yes, the basis of government is in fact "by the people, for the people" to represent us as a community. That's why dictatorships tend to get overthrown. If the government is anything but that, it's time for a revolution (hello Bernie). IMO it's not just people with guns ordering us around, it's our collective conscience. So we have a fundamental difference here.

And you didn't answer the question though Andrew, if you want to cut funds to PP: without offering government funds how would you offer health services to woman who don't have the money to pay for them.

Me: In "every single place in the world" where there is government, that government did not come into existence because 100% of the people there "just put it back in place again." In most cases, that government seized power and told everyone else to deal with it.

There are a handful of things on which there truly is a "collective conscience." It's wrong to murder, steal, rape, assault people, etc. There are certain basic moral tenets that are practically universal and I'm ok with enforcing them - I'm no anarchist. But you are seriously fooling yourself to pretend the government as it currently exists (much less the government Bernie would create, get real) represents anything remotely approaching our "collective conscience" as a society. There is no collective consensus on healthcare. There is no collective consensus on abortion or Planned Parenthood or education or drugs or the environment. There has never been any collective conscientious agreement on 90% of the things government currently does, my own job very much included. And in the absence of such consensus, you too are one of the bullies who is basically saying "we're doing things my way, deal with it" to those who disagree. To advocate government doing X is to advocate physical violence to accomplish X - by definition, that's literally the only thing that separates public from private action. That's sometimes a reasonable thing to advocate, but you can't sugarcoat it or squiggle out of it with comforting cliches about how really it's just a "representation of community."

If it was up to me, the whole country would literally vote on every issue #democracy. I in no way am advocating for “we're doing things my way”, but for "we're doing things by the vote of the majority who will be affected" (fascinating to think about for example women's health care issues could only be votes on by women, or race-based AA etc, and what these communities might decide for themselves)

True that govs just seize power, and that's exactly what I meant actually. There is no country in the world that does not have a government, there will always be a system in place (although you clarified w the not an anarchist thing)

I would actually be really fascinated to see where in the world you think that unfettered capitalism has been successful. Can you give me a place or policy that a country has implemented which has led to a healthy economy & social services? Where has this theory actually been proven accurate?

Khloe: “58% does not equal consensus. It actually just reiterates what Andrew just said in his reply.”

JJ: 1. "People form a community that supports things that matter to them" this is literally what a government is

2. As I pointed out, charitable contributions are somewhat difficult to make effectively to all things you want to support, esp depending on your income level. So IMO not the most effective way to actually help people at the level they need it. This is why charities are supported by government funding, and most NGOs basically run off government grants. People do not give enough or redistribute it effectively- this is why we have a government

And 3. If you read my response, I said a majority. It is literally impossible to get a 100% consensus on anything, ever. If that's what we're waiting for be prepared for nothing to happen.

Me: I'm finally crafting my bigger response below but I just saw this comment, and holy smokes does your #1 point rustle my jimmies. Remember when you joked that you were such a hippie? Saying "People form a community that supports things that matter to them - this is literally what a government is!" is the hippiest of the hippie: straight-up flowers and sunshine and rainbows type naiveté. That's simply not how it happens!

Is Donald Trump currently the embodiment of people just joining together and holding hands and supporting things that matter to them? Or is he sending men with guns to detain families at airports, and exile people who've lived here their whole lives, and imprison people for smoking pot, and shoot blacks with impunity, and seize taxes on avocados to pay for military aggression and corrupt Russian kickbacks and a wall most Americans don't want? And when Obama was in office, were the things he sent men with guns (or drones) to go do also simply "things that matter" to our one-big-happy American "community," with any higher degree of unanimity? Or did the fact that they required guns indicate that many in our community were as repulsed by his actions as you are by the Donald's?

No matter which party is in charge, violence is not a tragic, momentary symptom of government gone wrong; it is it's trademark - by definition, "literally what government is." That makes it the OPPOSITE of community. Community is voluntary. Community is social and friendly and cooperative. Community is the antithesis of coercion. Government and community are like oil and water, and that so many in our society impulsively reach for state force to get their way indicates a BREAKDOWN in our communal sense of togetherness (one which so many on social media have detected this past year).

To acknowledge government is oppressive (as you said you do) and also to think it's the solution to lessening that oppression is doublethink, from my view. This peeves me only because we are both so passionate about a very similar set of issues, and we share so many common goals, and I'm trying hard to reach out to the left and form alliances on those issues, and it's frustrating to agree on 90% of it but then have such wildly divergent ideas on how to get there.


Stephanie (new entrant to the conversation, responding to my original post): The women's marches were about far more than reproductive rights. People also marched against police brutality, to end sexual assault, to welcome refugees, for their healthcare, for better education, for LGBTQ rights, for changes to foreign policy. A lot of these issues can't be solved by throwing money at them, and require collective action and appeals to elected officials. And at these marches, people met each other, shared ideas about how to take action next, invited each other to meetings. Protest and grassroots organizing are the start of policy change. And if you have better ideas, then you go ahead and take the lead.

Me: Right, and I'm all for that. Like I said, I support the marches. There are many areas where govt. is the cause of the problem, such that solving it necessarily requires changing govt. You listed some of those areas. Obviously I am interested in govt. affairs a great deal and don't advise that we completely tune out policy questions.

I'm just saying that to the extent the "Women's March" pertained primarily to so-called "women's issues" that predominantly or uniquely impact women (as opposed to things like police brutality, immigration, education, healthcare or foreign policy which affect men and women about the same) many of those issues either do not require govt. involvement or could be advanced more efficiently through private means.

Protest is effective in rough proportion to the specificity of the protestors message; the more issues you try to lump in to your manifesto, the more fractured and divided you become and the more muddled the signals you send. It seems clear to me that while the people who gathered wearing pussy hats and carrying signs about reproductive rights might not have agreed on education or foreign policies, they might have been linked by their hatred and resistance towards one of the most misogynistic political figures in recent memory on the day of his inauguration.

Stephanie: The Women's Marches had a platform focused on intersectionality. And he's not only a misogynist, he's a racist, a xenophobe, a demagogue, and a science denier, and people at the marches were resisting all of that. And some "women's issues" like sexual and domestic violence or harassment in the workplace aren't going to be adequately addressed through private channels. We need laws for that. We need recourse in the courts. And those of us who don't have the budget to give to charitable organizations that focus on the issues we care about are not just going to wait quietly for someone else's generosity to solve our problems. And like I said, if you have better ideas about how to accomplish these things then you take the lead next time.

James (new entrant to the conversation, responding to my original post): I mean yes and no. It's easy to donate if you have money. Lots of people don't. And if you talk to people who work in charitable organizations, most of them will tell you that peoples' generosity isn't sufficient, and without public help they'd be lost. Either directly, or indirectly because they know their donor bases would migrate elsewhere if the government didn't already fill in the gaps. If we lost the food stamp program, so much of the resources currently allocated toward more specific and targeted types of charity would immediately be redirected toward fighting the inevitably massive increase in hunger. Do you really think that we'd be able to do everything we do in terms of charity without government help? Maybe, but I'd argue that the math is really tough. Where would we get the money to donate to childrens' cancer research or the American Heart Association if we suddenly needed to give hundreds of dollars a year to PP, our local food banks, and to pool resources to pay for the children in our communities who couldn't afford health insurance? I'm not saying it is impossible but it hasn't been done and when the gov funding is cut charity rarely replaces it, because there just is not enough. Services simply disappear. And additionally, charitable donations plummit during economic crises, the exact time when they're needed the most. Ideologically, the argument makes sense, but when you get to the nitty gritty math of finding the money, I have yet to be convinced.

JJ: Exactly. Interesting idea in theory, show me where it's actually been tested & worked effectively.

Essentially, as I said, there has to be a balancing act with for-profit organizations, since that is what the gov is checking. The larger & more powerful the for-profit organizations become, the larger the government needs to become to check them.

(Singapore's been pretty successful, battles corruption by paying their government workers extremely high wages, which increased competition, and has the best people in the country competing for those jobs as they are very prestigious etc etc)

Marge: Is Andrew writing about MORE money or is it just redirecting what people spent to attend the Jan. 21 protests, to charity? I do work in the non- profit sector and yes we do just fine if taxes don't emasculate our donors first!

Me:  I am writing about why a voluntary polycentric (private) system of helping one another is both more efficient and more ethical than a coercive centralized (public) system.  For now, let’s forestall the debate on the ethics and zero in on efficiency.  I have a lot to say so I’ll respond to Jace first and then lay out my argument more generally.

James notes that while “it’s easy to donate if you have money, lots of people don’t.”  That’s true, and those who don’t can either help in other ways (that are still more helpful than lobbying government), or focus their efforts on improving their own situation before they worry about helping others.  But if they don’t have enough money to give some away, they also don’t have enough to pay taxes.  For me to be right that voluntary aid is more effective than state aid, nobody needs to give any more money than they’re currently giving in tax.

James worries that “If we lost the food stamp program, so much of the resources currently allocated toward more specific and targeted types of charity would immediately be redirected toward fighting the inevitably massive increase in hunger.”  But if we lost the food stamp program, the resources currently allocated towards it would not simply vanish into thin air.  Those resources would merely be returned to the same public whose concern for the plight of the hungry initially motivated creation of the food stamp program in the first place.  Those individuals may choose to recreate a similar program, or build a different version that offers food directly, or do any number of other things with that money.  In any case, they are no more selfish than the Congressmen who currently make those decisions.

Next, James wonders: “Where would we get the money to donate to childrens' cancer research or the American Heart Association if we suddenly needed to give hundreds of dollars a year to [various things the government currently funds].” We’d get it from the same place we currently get it!  Each of us with a stable income already give hundreds of dollars a year to Planned Parenthood, hunger relief, and children’s healthcare on or around April 15th.  It’s fair to point out that some of us would doubtlessly allocate it differently were we given the option, and that might starve some organizations currently receiving government funds.  But their failure wouldn’t be because there’s just not enough money to go around

James retorts: “when the gov funding is cut charity rarely replaces it, because there just is not enough. Services simply disappear.”  This is true, right now.  But as Marge mentioned, there is a well-established inverse relationship between taxation and charitable giving, which means your sentence is only true for so long as there is no link between what the government spends and what the government collects (i.e., when you’re $20 trillion in debt).  A balanced budget amendment would go far to help re-establish that link, and make it such that less government spending = lower taxes = more private spending.  I will concede that for now, nibbling around the edges of current spending levels will not produce the sea-change in private charitable endeavor that I’m hoping to encourage, and I wouldn’t cut welfare programs to the bone without empowering private alternatives first; if the government “breaks your legs and then gives you a crutch,” the first thing to do is not to throw away the crutch.

That said, by the time President Doris is finished striking-through the legal code with his red pen, he will have a very sore hand, and hundreds of millions of Americans will have a much larger portion of their earnings back in their bank accounts.  So by around 2060 or so, the conditions will be set for a much more efficient charitable system

Finally, we get to the heart of the matter: “Do you really think that we'd be able to do everything we do in terms of charity without government help?” Yes, and then some.  Here’s why.

Imagine if one of those charity rating organizations, like GiveWell or Charity Navigator, were to evaluate the United States Federal Government and give it a score based on what % of our tax dollars actually went towards providing charitable services.  I don’t know the exact rating formula those sites use, but you don’t need to be a libertarian to realize the numbers would be pretty bleak.  If American taxpayers received honest receipts for what their money goes to fund, they’d see that a fifth of it goes to build bombs and weaponry, or to train and compensate Soldiers so they can kill people in faraway countries who pose almost zero threat to us.  They’d see that another quarter of it goes to a broken healthcare system with inflated prices and no cost consciousness, that has most of the funding sucked up by massive insurance and pharmaceutical companies shoveling as many drugs to elderly patients as the doctor is willing to prescribe.  They’d see that a full one-third of it goes to fund pensions for people who would have gotten a much higher return had they simply put that money in a cruddy mutual fund, that 6% of it goes to fund interest on the debt produced by this organizations chronic fiscal mismanagement, and that most of the remaining 13% or so pays the salaries of entrenched bureaucrats doing little of charitable importance.

Nothing about this particular funding breakdown is morally authoritative.  It was not chosen by our “collective conscience” as a society, and there’s nothing selfish or antisocial about preferring a different allocation.  People have different priorities in philanthropy as they do in everything else, but if the average American were to look at this hypothetical receipt, I suspect they might decide they could get better bang for their charitable buck with a very different allocation of resources indeed.  They should be allowed to opt out.

There are intuitive reasons for this inefficiency, as our constitution was never built with charity in mind.  If you were to create your ideal all-purpose giving organization (something like the Gates Foundation that manages and allocates vast sums of money) with an eye towards doing the most good for the most people, what are the odds you’d select an organizational structure that looks anything REMOTELY like that of our federal government?  Maybe you’d have a Board that makes decisions, and maybe members could vote on who the President of the Board is, and you could make sub-departments specializing in each of your various charitable ventures.  But would you really want that board to have 535 people, evenly distributed by region, who are accountable only to their region, who each have competing personal interests and agendas they’ll get fired if they don’t accomplish, and have institutional incentives to disagree about everything EXCEPT that the charity must amass crippling debt by perpetually prioritizing the short term over the long term? Would you require that those board members also know how to protect themselves from foreign armies with nuclear missiles?  Would you want those board members to be chosen by an electorate so ignorant that only 34% of them can even name the three branches of your organization and most have no clue what the organization actually spends money on?  Would you grant nine additional board members instant veto power on all decisions, based on their interpretation of a 230 year-old document?  There’s plenty of other inefficiencies that don’t fit into my analogy neatly (political parties, gerrymandering, the media etc.) but you get the idea.

Our system of checks and balances is pretty decent at the job it was designed for: protecting people’s rights.  It’s not good AT ALL at allocating resources towards charitable ventures in a speedy, adaptive, efficient, or reasonable way, just like governments aren’t good at making cars or food or anything else we let the private sector handle.  “That government is best which governs least;” which serves as a neutral, third-party arbiter for private disputes, which protects people from violence at home and abroad, and then mostly leaves us alone in the pursuit of our own happiness and that of those around us.

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