Ending Net Asset Value; or, Hook up, hat up, and let go: “Calling Dr. Bartleby!”

Atul Gawande is a Harvard trained surgeon who writes eloquent prose on health and illness. His New Yorker pieces “Letting Go” and “The Way We Age Now” are full of pathos, ethos, and logos on how and when to die decisions and the bedpan reality of growing old. If he continues his work combining writing, doctoring, and educating, he may some day be up for a Nobel Prize. Gary Becker is a Nobel Prize winning economist and professor at the University of Chicago who writes in his blog, The Becker-Posner Blog, pedestrian prose sometimes infected with either-or fallacies. He shares weekly blog posts with Federal Judge and University of Chicago Law School Professor Richard Posner.

What usually passes for health care in our current reasoning is health care insurance. Those with insurance believe they have health care; those without may think they have neither. And the health care debate is derailed with decisions before legislators that have to do not so much with health care but with health care insurance.

Last Sunday, Becker included in his post what appears to be an economist based claim that includes a formula for calculating the value of a year of life: “Presumably, frail elderly people tend to receive less utility from a year of their current life since their lack of health prevents them from greatly enjoying their leisure time and consumption of different goods. However, the utility cost of any time and money they might spend on prolonging their lives is also lower for them. The fundamental measure of the value of a life year is the ratio of the utility gained to this marginal utility spent on prolonging life. This ratio could even be higher for the old and frail than for healthy younger persons.”

We are becoming increasingly Spartan by the moment, for the reductio ad absurdum of Becker’s argument would have us carrying individuals of any age whose disabilities or frailties preclude utility or whose cost to live outweighs their ability to “enjoy their leisure time and consumption of different goods” out to the rocks to die, as did the Spartans.

“Welcome to the 23rd Century: The Perfect World of Total Pleasure,” heads the poster for the sci-fi film “Logan’s Run,” which depicts a dome-covered society that eliminates growing old problems by zapping all citizens when they turn the age of 30. The police, called Sandmen, hunt down and kill those who would run from their forced to die moment. Yet there’s a myth, an old story, of life beyond the dome, where people are allowed to grow old. The place where people are allowed to grow old is called Sanctuary.

But there appears to be no Sanctuary for our elderly these days, at least not provided for by Medicare, for there’s simply not enough money to go around, the Becker-Posner argument seems to go, and we should spend what money there is to go around on those able to enjoy life and consume goods. Perhaps enjoying life, in the worldview of the economist, is consuming goods. In any case, the argument has been boiled down to an either-or moment: either we let old people grow old and die sooner than they would with life prolonging health care (including the R&D necessary to develop that care), or we go broke.

But there are other solutions. Yet there is another problem with Becker’s formula: the value of an old person’s life is not necessarily limited to what that person can enjoy or consume; the lives of the elderly may have intrinsic value to others. But not, apparently, to young doctors, for Gawande points out the current dearth of young doctors going into gerontology. There’s a shortage, and there’s no short-term remedy to what will be an ongoing need for specialists to treat the elderly. Gawande’s solution is for every health care practitioner to be versed in basic elderly care issues.

But to be fair to Becker and Posner this week, they do focus on quality of life versus quantity of life and the avoidable invasions of quality by a system not guided by health care concerns but by health care insurance. And Atul Gawande does also question quality versus quantity. What separates Gawande’s argument from Becker-Posner’s is his value of human life expressed in human versus econometric terms. It’s one thing to force someone to die at the age of 30; but is it something else again to force, or even to encourage, that same person to live beyond what most of us, including our ancestors, would recognize as living? Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Doctor!

Related: An Object Lesson in Health and Happiness

Breakfast at Beckett’s

In their engagement of the studies referenced on the declining level of happiness of Americans, Becker-Posner begin to wrestle with the difficulty of quantifying for economics study human behavior as a market influence.

Late last night, after class, happy with a bowl of homemade chocolate ice cream, I flipped on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, on the Sundance Channel, and it occurred to me that perhaps the unhappiness of Americans has something to do with its writers, for a culture can only be as happy as its artists. We have, of course, come to confuse celebrity with art, and anyone can achieve celebrity status. Our ballplayers might be considered artists. But our insistence that they be heroes both on the field and in the museum results in a collusion of unhappiness.

Where our novelists are concerned, where the great American novel remains an elusive grail, the unhappy string of strikeouts has all but emptied the stands. Consider the Lost Generation hopefuls, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald; substituted with the failed promises of Vidal, Mailer, and Capote; and the newest crop, including Vollmann and now Keith Gessen, whose All the Sad Young Literary Men imagines nothing less than the success of unhappy celebration, yet at least does so without the usual self-delusion of greatness.

I flipped the movie off and headed to bed but first grabbed an old copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s off the shelf. In the book, unlike the movie, Holly has already gone lightly, leaving a heavy absence in her wake – the rest is flashback, beginning with “Her dispraising eyes surveyed the room again. ‘What do you do here all day?’ I motioned toward a table tall with books and paper. ‘Write things.’…‘Tell me, are you a real writer?’ ‘It depends on what you mean by real.’ ‘Well, darling, does anyone buy what you write?’ ‘Not yet.’”

And so on, until this morning when I pulled Samuel Beckett’s Molloy off a shelf. Too many think Beckett a despairing, desperate, depressing writer, but I’ve never thought that. He’s nothing of course like Capote, who, nevertheless, as Beckett commented on his own fate upon receiving the Nobel, was also “Damned to Fame.” But we must remember not to confuse narrators with authors; in those cases where the narrator is the author, yet the book is still called fiction, I think of the self-conscious infielder who can’t get his mind off his last throwing error.

Turn to any page in Molloy and count the number of times the word “I” appears. It’s extraordinary, each page, held at a distance, so that the I’s stand out, like some iconic, Concrete poem.

Becker, Posner, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Don’t miss the Chicago Two waxing on happiness in the latest posts at the Becker-Posner blog; the January 10 posts are impoverished economic analyses attempting to explain why Americans are unhappy. Neither the Nobel economist nor the federal judge seems happy with his conclusions.

Even as they both begin to move away from the Chicago School’s famed ignorance of psychology, the problem still seems to be with their approach, as John Cassidy explains in his January 8, New Yorker article, “After the Blowup”: “A useful new economics will need to integrate an awareness of human nature with extensive practical knowledge and high-level mathematical expertise” (32). It’s not that an attempt to explain human nature is lacking in the Becker-Posner posts. They both conclude that the pursuit of wealth is the paramount claim of value for Americans, but they ignore their colleague Rajan’s argument “that the initial causes of the breakdown [the recent crash] were stagnant wages and rising inequality” (32-33), that upward mobility, in other words, is a metaphorical, ultimately unreachable carrot, for as one moves upward, so does the top.

Their analyses do not mention half-day commutes in mortgaged, gas-expensive rigs to institutionalized jobs (public and private) so Dad can pay the mortgage and Mom get the health benefits and pay for daycare until the divorce where everyone gets the Community Chest card that says “Return to Go.” Posner argues in his conclusion that “People have a strong preference for more income over less and thus for a rising standard of living. Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that people fooled themselves in thinking they would be happier with more money. Maybe so; but as long as people do have this strong preference, economics can explain a great deal of human behavior.” The faulty assumption in Posner’s argument is the claim that more income leads to an improved standard of living. Rising income results in rising costs of living and a breakeven that continues to move upward, like the unreachable carrot.

Becker seems closer to reality: “My conclusion is that happiness data have been useful, and the relation with income is plausible. Yet happiness data do not enable us to directly measure utility and wellbeing. I admit I do not know why average degree of happiness has not risen in recent decades in the US as incomes rose.”

Posner gives Adam Smith short shrift, for Smith is much more devastating in his argument than merely suggesting that “people fool themselves”: No doubt we do fool ourselves, about many things, but about money buying happiness the fooling is an aggressive and dynamic belief, not passive and benign, a belief that requires as a tenet a dichotomy of human worth. This belief is what allows some of us to live comfortably in mansions paid for by the labor in sweatshops of people who live in shanties: Smith says, “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” This is at least evident in the gated communities that sprung up in response to a new age of fear fostered by the holders of the carrots to secure their own positions of power and wealth, increasing the gap between the claim of value and its reason and exposing the underlying faulty assumption that wealth buys happiness, for as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang in Merle Travis’s classic “Sixteen Tons” (1955):

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

Becker-Posner: fodder for rhetoric foragers

The shallow depth of the unstated warrants at the Becker-Posner blog makes for good fodder for rhetoric foragers. Consider this, from Posner’s half of their 15 Nov 09 post: “Should the U.S. economy grow more rapidly than the public debt, we’ll be okay. But the government’s focus appears to be not on economic growth, but on redistribution (the major goal of health reform) and on creating at least an aura of prosperity, at whatever cost in deficit spending and future inflation, in time for the November 2010 congressional elections.”

Redistribution may be an effect of health care reform, but there’s no evidence that it’s a goal; at the same time, distribution, and redistribution, is always a goal or effect or both of most legislative programs, so why mention it? Because redistribution is always viewed as a negative value (something one doesn’t want), particularly for those who do value the current distribution.

Posner’s claim is that the “major goal of health [care] reform” is “redistribution.” In Posner’s view, wealth should not be redistributed to achieve health care reform (redistribution by definition is a wrong).

Yet it’s impossible to have meaningful health care reform without some form of redistribution, so Posner’s unstated warrants here include that we should not have health care reform, that redistribution is a wrong, an economic wrong, and that he values this wrong over the health care uninsured – and over the inflated costs being paid by those who do have health insurance. Posner values the wealth of a minority over the physical and economic health of the majority, and the support for this is found in his cynical reference to yet another assumption – that any legislation that involves redistribution has as its root cause an upcoming election. It’s no wonder we never get anything accomplished.

Posner’s claim is that the government should not take something from someone who has and give it to someone who has not. Redistribution is a trigger word intended to attract those that have with its click. It’s quick draw rhetoric. Posner’s use of “government’s focus” also serves as a trigger, for the word government in this context is meaningless, or can only mean one thing – that entity constantly at work to take something from one and give it to someone else – it’s the government of Huck Finn’s father.

There are many entities at work on health care reform, including doctors and hospitals. For a thorough discussion of health care costs and what’s at stake in trying to lower those costs while insuring everyone, see Atul Gawande’s article “The Cost Conundrum,” in the June 1, 2009 issue of the New Yorker.

Caleb Crain and Becker-Posner Print Their Blogs

As we watch the coming of the end of books and the disappearance of newspapers, we note an increase in electronic self-publishing, blogs the obvious pedestrian example, but then, in an interesting twist, we see blogs subsequently published in more traditional print copy format. Two recent and noteworthy examples illustrate: Caleb Crain’s The Wreck of the Henry Clay (Lulu, 438 pages, $14.95), selections from his blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything, covering blog years 2003-2009, and Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism, a “best of” The Becker-Posner Blog (University of Chicago Press, 384 pages, $29.00).

Caleb Crain is a 19th century scholar and freelance writer with degrees from Columbia and Harvard who has written scholarly papers, a book, American Sympathy, and a novella, Sweet Grafton, as well as general interest articles and book reviews for the New Yorker and other prestigious publications. Richard Posner is a federal judge, Becker a Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago. The ethos that Crain and Becker-Posner bring to their blogs adds validity to what some consider to be an environment rife with charlatanism and chicanery – the world of the blog. But their blogs improve the potential of the art of blogging by setting a high standard of quality and quantity, by elevating and advancing the long-term potential of self-publishing, and by engaging readers in the possibility for a democratic, egalitarian, and interactive conversation that is not available elsewhere to general readers, students, or others whose interest in the discussion of ideas may go beyond skimming the mosaic of the daily newspaper or the weekly magazine.

Crain and Becker-Posner have long lists of traditional publication credits. They don’t have to blog, nor do they have to self-publish. Crain’s blog performs a service to the reading community, so call it pro bono publico. Of particular interest are those posts that follow the print publication of his longer articles and that discuss his research; these posts have value for both the general reader and students. The links he provides are purposeful and meaningful, interesting and useful. Crain’s blog often generates civil comments and discussion, unlike some blogs that seem to foister the awry warrant. The Becker-Posner blog no longer accepts comments. Readers may miss the discussion, but the more popular a blog becomes, the less likely its founding readers will be able to follow the discussion – the traffic and the drive-by comments may become too distracting, the volley of retorts from the obsessive commenter tiresome.

Blogs like Crain’s and Becker-Posner’s are not without criticism from within their professional writing communities (it took the n+1 blog six months to finally review Crain’s blogbook). Why would a professional writer blog, thereby giving away content, setting a bad precedent? But no writer’s every word is going to see print, and the ones that come closest, the syndicated, the featured, the columnists, frequently suffer from a paucity of ideas, quality, and freshness (consider George Will and Stanley Fish). Bloggers are under no compunction to blog daily or weekly, but blog regularly enough to maintain a loyal readership, blog when they actually have something to say and the energy to say it.

Becker-Posner introduced their blog in December of 2004. In their first post, they said “Blogging is a major new social, political, and economic phenomenon. It is a fresh and striking exemplification of Friedrich Hayek’s thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge…The internet enables the instantaneous pooling (and hence correction, refinement, and amplification) of the ideas and opinions, facts and images, reportage and scholarship, generated by bloggers.” Five years later, the Becker-Posner blog posted a notice announcing their blog’s print publication.

Crain, on his blog, explains that his blogbook comes with “six years of essays, which many of you will already have read, about dogs, torture, etymology, American history, gay marriage, political rhetoric, movies, tree climbing, indie rock, Mars, peak oil, anarchism, and literary criticism.” Crain’s blog is more personal and eclectic than the Becker-Posner blog, and the general interest reader may prefer it.

While some writers may wonder why some bloggers give away content, readers may wonder, now that the blogs are available in print form, why they would purchase a blogbook when the content is available free on-line. The answer is simple: because the general interest readers who follow blogs like Crain’s and Becker-Posner’s for any length of time value books. Books are what they want. But it’s that book interest that sparks the interest in the blog – following such a blog allows a reader to watch a professional writer writing a book, and more, to participate in that writing by interactively watching the work develop. The last time this happened was when magazines still serialized books in progress (Dickens, for example; or the New Yorker’s serialization of Capote or John McPhee, or its publication of Hersey’s Hiroshima – these were all followed by books). The difference is the initial self-publishing aspect of the blog. While the Becker-Posner blog is an example of self-publishing, their blogbook is not, while Crain’s blog and book are both self-published. Either way, the loyal reader will look forward to sitting down with a hard copy, like spending time with an old friend, reminiscing.

12-19-09 update: The  Becker Posner site has moved to Typepad and updated their site, citing technical problems with the old location. Comments are turned back on at the new site.

The Retiring and Re-tiering Posner

The claim Posner seems to be making (a claim of value) is that federal taxes should not be used to support economically non-productive groups – the retired elderly is his example. If we accept his claim of value as something we should all want, then we should include all non-productive groups, which would include the disabled (including veterans), the imprisoned, children, the mentally ill, and the unemployed. It would also follow logically that federal aid should be distributed in proportion to the level of economic productivity of groups. Thus those in the service industry, for example, should receive the least benefit (if any) from federal taxes. A stratified hierarchy is thus created.

We encourage Becker and Posner to tune in to Professor Wolff’s (UCL Philosophy) discussion here. From his summary: “…those who leave school early are more likely to end up in physically demanding work, and may well develop physical health problems during the course of his or her working life. Accordingly, retirement, when it eventually comes, may be lived in poor health and for a much shorter period than those who start later in less physically demanding jobs. It may also be, then, that our current retirement policies contribute to the social gradient in health and life expectancy.”

Note: The Becker-Posner Blog comment function appears to be disabled.