Monday, September 24, 2012

Why I Bother Fasting on Yom Kippur

Not being able to eat food or drink water for twenty-five hours is an arduous task. Fasting is a self-deprevation of some major essentials for the human body. So why is it that when it comes to Yom Kippur, I actually not only bother to fast, but I actually enjoy it? It transcends the reason of "because the Torah (Leviticus 16:29-30) says so."

The primary reason why I use the words "enjoy" and "fast" in the same sentence is that I view Yom Kippur as a "spiritual spa day." Yom Kippur is a day I don't have to worry about the physical. I get to put aside work and even eating in order to be solely focused on the spiritual. Removing the distraction of eating and drinking provides me a day's worth of serious downtime for self-searching and to think about the past year and figure out how I can better myself for the upcoming year without being rushed.

Although I have fasted more than once on Yom Kippur without getting hungry, I also realize that the body is not always resilient enough to handle such self-denial. I find the aspect of self-denial to be another good reason to fast because it reflects the important fact that we are human. We can be hungry and choose not to eat. We can choose to be angry and not lash out. We can have a long day and not lull ourselves into procrastinating. The fact that we can choose to do something like "say no to eating and drinking" shows that we have the ability to resist giving into instinct, which is what makes us human. Humans are the only beings on this planet that can curb appetites and choose discipline over instinct in order to affirm mastery over oneself, and I think that is something worth remembering while fasting.

Based on Jonah 3:10, the Talmud (Ta'anit 22a) reminds us that our actions is what G-d sees when dealing with forgiveness (also known as תשובה). Fasting is supposed to be the means to repentance on Yom Kippur. Judaism is not an aesthetic religion, and it takes the physical and intertwines it with the spiritual. What is hunger? Although hunger is primarily associated with food, hunger is an emptiness that desires to be satiated. When one hungers, they yearn for something that they lack. The idea of inducing hunger is to be able to take that yearning and translate it to the spiritual realm, mainly to crave G-dliness in one's life.

That is an interesting idea. Let's take the idea a step further, as reflected in the Haftarah during Yom Kippur. In Isaiah 58, the Israelites mistakenly think that the purpose of fasting was for the sake of fasting, as if that's what G-d had wanted. In verse 3, G-d chides them for seeking personal day on the fast day. The sort of fast day that G-d wants is well beyond self-affliction. One is supposed to do things such as undo the bonds of injustice, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and actively help with eliminating wickedness in this world, all of which are ethical in nature. From this passage, we learn that the sort of fasting that G-d expects from us is the sort that invokes us to be compassionate and actually care about others because that is what real piety entails.

In summation, the purpose of fasting on Yom Kippur is twofold. The first is to get your spiritual house in order. But even getting your spiritual priorities in sync still require a purpose for doing so in the first place, and that is to be a compassionate, sympathetic individual who does acts of loving-kindness (gemilut chasidim). To be able to internalize and actualize these ideas is why I ultimately make the decision to fast on Yom Kippur.

גמר חתימה טובה!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Looking at Economics and Why Marijuana Legalization Needs to Go Beyond Colorado

The state of Colorado is looking to legalize marijuana this November with Amendment 64. Although you have your proponents and opponents, what polling shows is that a majority of citizens support it (Public Policy Polling, Rasmussen), and there is a good chance that the ballot initiative will pass. If this bill passes, it will collide with federal law that classified marijuana as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, which is the DEA's classification stating that marijuana is amongst the most dangerous of drugs. If Colorado does indeed legalize marijuana, it will most probably lead to a debate regarding the federal legalization (or at least decriminalization) of marijuana in which I can make an educational guess that the Supreme Court will be ruling on whether marijuana legalization is ultimately a matter of state versus federal government. As of date, the legal status on a worldwide level is that most countries have made marijuana illegal, whereas some countries have decriminalized marijuana.

I want to take a look at the issue of marijuana legalization with a two-part blog series. This blog entry, Part I, will deal with the interconnected implications on the justice system and the economics. The second blog will deal with the health issues and other social costs (e.g., freedom, how it effects households and jobs, crime levels).

Gateway Theory: The argument made with the Gateway Theory is that marijuana is a stepping stone towards hard drugs. That could very well be, or the phenomenon can be explained without the Gateway Theory. One reason I find the Gateway Theory unconvincing is because when I look at government data for drug usage (See Tables G1-G8), the amount of people who try marijuana is way larger than those who try harder drugs, which would have to assume that 100% of the individuals who have tried harder drugs have tried marijuana first. Another reason I have a problem with the Gateway Theory is that it is just as plausible, and I would argue more plausible, that the reason why the stepping stone exists in the first place is because marijuana has been forced to the underground markets.  For individuals who want to purchase marijuana, they cannot go to a white market (a.k.a. legal market). They have to go to the black market. The distributors in the black market are drug dealers. Illicitness of their business set aside, drug dealers are just like any other businessmen: they want to sell as much of their product to you as possible. Due to the increased availability (read: easier to get pot than booze) and its perception as a "soft drug," people start off with marijuana. More interactions with a drug dealer gives the drug dealer more opportunities to sell the hard stuff. For those individuals that are more susceptible or are just looking for something stronger, they have already inserted themselves in the black market, making it all the easier to try the harder drugs. In this alternative way of thinking about the "gateway" concept, the gateway is not marijuana, but the black market. If marijuana were removed from the black market, I would make an educated guess that the "gateway effect" would disappear over time.

Basic Economics of Marijuana Legalization: What I would like to do now is look at some of the economic implications of marijuana legalization, much like the Colorado Center on Law and Policy (CCLP) has done with their cost-benefit analysis on Amendment 64. It should go without saying that legalizing marijuana would take marijuana out of the black market and bring it into legal markets. This self-evident statement is important because it matters for the economy. First, the revenue created by the legal production and selling of marijuana would count towards the GDP and help boost the economy. If this revenue is in the legal market, that means that we are depriving that revenue from the underground market, which delivers a coup to criminals. Since marijuana would be taxed much like tobacco, there is  also the benefit of creating tax revenue for the government. As Matthew Yglesias brings up, there are still costs of regulating substances. However, as both he and I point out, legalization is by far a more efficient way of going about marijuana.

Legalization would also impact law enforcement. The number one drug-related reason for arrests is marijuana possession, and marijuana-related drug violations consists of the 52.1% of the 1,638,846 annual drug abuse violations. After doing the math, that would amount to law enforcement not having to deal with about 854,000 arrests a year. Since rough economic times have caused law enforcement to cut back financially, it would be a much better use of government revenue to go after the hardened criminals instead of arresting individuals for mere marijuana possession. Also, think of how much less the burden on the justice system would be if marijuana were legal. To read more on the budgetary implications, here is the report from Dr. Jeffrey Miron, which was endorsed by 500+ economists, including Milton Friedman.

I will stop here for now and save the remaining factors to be considered for my next blog entry on the topic.

5-17-2016 Addendum: It looks like that tax revenues for Washington and Colorado are exceeding expectations. According to a recent Tax Foundation study, legalizing on the federal level would bring in $28B in revenues each year. Combine that effect with not having to enforce the inane law, and imagine how much society would benefit.

1-22-2017 Addendum: Here is the most rigorous report on the effects of marijuana from the National Academies, which entails 10,000 scientific abstracts.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Does the Argument for Merit-Based Teacher Pay Have Merit?

Earlier this week, the teacher's union of Chicago began their strike. The teachers were offered a 16% salary increase over the next four years, but the unions countered with 30%. Let's take a look at the situation. The average Chicago teacher makes about $71K per year plus benefits. According to the 2011 Annual Financial Report from the Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund, the average Chicago teacher who works for the schools for thirty-plus years make $105,888 and receives an annual guaranteed pension of $78,756 (p. 110). The high school graduation rate in Chicago public schools is about 60% (which is well below the national average of 75.5%), the state of Illinois is $203B in debt and has a poorly managed public-sector pension fund (see Illinois' credit rating), the Chicago teachers work fewer hours than their counterparts in other urban areas, and these teachers are asking for more

Since most parents cannot afford a private K-12 education for their children, the government has de facto monopoly on K-12 education. We know that the administrators (aka the bureaucracy) do not have the resources to do new hiring en masse to counter the fiscal insanity, so this strike will persist because the teachers know that they are immune from the normal forces of employment. Meanwhile, thousands of children in Chicago, especially poor children, are being deprived of an education. [Note: 52,000 students in charter schools are still receiving an education because their education is not affected by this nonsense.] While the unions continue to claim that they are doing this for the children (Hint: this is not about the children), I began to think about whether there is an alternative to having the primary factor of teacher's pay be based on years of service. What I would like to do now is examine the commonly prescribed alternative to the status quo: merit-based pay.

Merit pay is the idea that pay should be performance-based. Those who perform their job well based on performance criteria get bonuses and pay increases, whereas those who cannot perform to standards either get very low wages or the sack. Merit-based pay sounds like a great example of rational choice theory: the teachers are given incentive to perform better. The desire for a better pay check and bonuses motivates the teacher to teach better, which in turn, has a spillover effect to the quality of education the student is receiving.

This sounds wonderful, at least in theory. I hesitate to accept the idea in practice because I have a few apprehensions, and a lot of them are surrounded around the fact that not all school districts are created equal. Different school districts have different resources available, and on the aggregate, each school district has students from certain socio-economic classes. Suburban school districts tend to be more affluent, whereas too many urban school districts regrettably have severe funding issues. There is a lot of interaction between the quality of education and the overall socio-economic status of a given school district.

If there is anything we have learned from such creations as the U.S. Department of Education or No Child Left Behind, it's that a solution to solve education woes that is based on a centralized government doesn't work. School districts are just too diverse. Those who are involved in the local politics and the local school district are much more attuned to its own specific needs than some bureaucratic agency located out in Washington DC attempting to apply some one-size-fits-all solution. As such, the incentive structures should be tailored for each school district, or even each school itself, in order to better fit their needs.

One can argue that even if you have localized incentive structures, you're still not going to incentivize everyone. Some are going to need a much larger dollar amount to do the trick. Others won't be moved to do better than they're already trying because they're truly in it for the love of teaching. And having a positive impact on society and wanting a larger paycheck aren't mutually exclusive. However, those aforementioned preferences become irrelevant in the sense that as long as there is a net increase in motivated teachers, which I'd argue there would be, then the argument for merit-based pay is justifiable.

There is also the issue of the limitations of teachers. Teachers can only do so much. If the students don't want to learn or are dealing with problems outside of class, maybe only a tiny handful of teachers with the patience of a saint can pull it off. Even so, the teacher is still by far one of the most important factors to a child's education.

There is the argument that defining merit becomes next to impossible. Having localized incentive structures certainly diminishes this argument. The argument still has some weight because there are certain things (e.g., motivating a student to take the SAT and go on to college, student achievement gains) that are difficult to quantify. However, if you want to take this line of thought to its logical conclusion, then teachers can be hired randomly because who is to say that applicant X is any better than applicant Y?

There can be certain measurements such as standardized test scores, attendance, portfolio assessments, consumer satisfaction reports by the parents of the children, or have an administrator directly monitor the teacher's progress and rate it. In a way, it is actually easier for teachers to come up with an incentive structure. Why? Because unlike many other businesses, the education sector is one of the few industries in which there is consistent and direct client-to-customer interaction, which gives educators and administrators the opportunity to come up with something even more concise. While there is no perfect way of going about a merit-based system, other industries, as well as private K-12 schools and institutions of higher education, create and use performance-based incentive structures with much success. I would take an imperfect merit-based system over the status quo in public K-12 schools any day.

There is not a public policy out there that can be considered "a silver bullet." However, I would consider the idea of performance-based pay to have more pros than cons. Even so, there is one major issue out there that makes it all the more untenable: the status quo. I mean this in specific regard to the public-sector teacher unions. If merit-based pay is implemented, then the unions lose much of their relevancy. That's just bad for business. Once in existence, a [bureaucratic] organization typically has the goal of self-perpetuation, hence what we are currently observing in Chicago. Even if one could get past the unions, there is still the matter of profound changes in the education bureaucracy, such as dealing with union contracts or the labor rigidity that comes with state licensing requirements. However, I would actually like to remain cautiously optimistic about the chance for real education reform. Although there would be initial costs to revamping the salary and pension structures, can this country really afford to continue with the status quo?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What It Really Means to Be Pro-Choice

I find it to be amazing just how careless and capricious people can be with labels, especially in the political realm. Negative labels such as "socialist" or "Nazi" are loosely thrown around to disparage one's opponents. Positive labels are used to make oneself look so great that attempting to argue against their stance comes off as a non-starter. As I was reminded while looking at the website for Reason Magazine, using the label "pro-choice" happens to be one of those positive labels. The label of "pro-choice" is really used to denote "pro-abortion." The purpose of using this device is so that when an individual disagrees with someone who self-identifies as "pro-choice," the disagreeing individual is thus labeled as "anti-choice." In a country that was founded on freedom and liberty, how can one oppose an individual's right to choose?

You would think that in libertarianism, a political philosophy that embraces the idea of freedom and allowing individuals make their own choices, the "libertarian stance" would be self-evident, but the truth is there is even debate in the libertarian world on this topic, especially with regards to the extent to which one considers the unborn child a life. Libertarianism strongly believes in the nonaggression principle, which essentially states my natural rights [of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] end where your natural rights or the natural rights of any other individual begin. I have my own opinion on the matter, and I'm not here to resolve the hot-button issue of abortion.

What I wanted to do in the previous paragraph is use the most common [political] usage of the term "pro-choice" as a springboard for a further discussion. If those who claim to be "pro-choice," would they say that they're pro-choice on the following questions:

  1. Is it acceptable to allow individuals to purchase a gun and carry it in self-defense?
  2. Instead of requiring people to pay into Social Security, should people have the choice of investing in their own retirement account
  3. Should parents be allowed to send their children to whichever school instead of having such immobility where many students are de facto trapped in the public school system? 
  4. Does an individual have a right to smoke cigarettes or drink sodas greater than sixteen ounces, even if it's clearly an unhealthy choice?
  5. Should people be able to buy SUVs and incandescent light bulbs if there are more "green alternatives" that emit less carbon such as hybrids and CFLs?
  6. Is there a moralistic problem with forcing people to buy health insurance?
  7. Should businesses be allowed to make the choice of outsourcing their labor overseas? 
  8. Would you have a problem if people couldn't buy products produced in sweatshops?
  9. Even in spite of the fact that "the rich" pay an extremely high amount in taxes that is arguably more than their fair share, should we scale back the tax burden so individuals have more freedom to do what they want with their money? On a similar vein, how about getting rid of wealth transfer programs such as welfare and food stamps so individuals have more economic freedom?   
I can continue with this line of questioning, but my point is that if you asked these questions to abortion proponents who use the label "pro-choice," they would overwhelmingly respond to these questions in the negative. If you were truly "pro-choice," you would have responded in the affirmative to most or all of these questions. However, that is not the political reality of the term "pro-choice." Invoking the "pro-choice" label while having the desire to deny choices in a multitude of instances is very disingenuous, to say the least. It would be more accurate for said individuals to use the label "pro-abortion, but that's not nearly as politically expedient as using "pro-choice." Rather than use "choice" out of political convenience, we should be working to actually make choices more readily available to the people.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Berachot 33b: Is Fear of Heaven Our True Expression of Free Will?

I finished reading the Talmud portion of the day (Berachot 33) a few hours ago. I would be lying if I said there was a degree of frustration with what was going on in the passages. One line I found brought up mixed feelings:

ואמר רבי חנינא הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים

And Rabbi Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven.

According to this Talmudic passage, the only choice we have is whether we have the free will to serve G-d out of fear (יראת), based on Deuteronomy 10:12. The first issue I have here is that יראת is commonly translated as "fear," although a closer translation would be along the lines of "reverence" or "awe." The second issue is that if you look at the rest of the verse in Deuteronomy, it ends with "loving Him and serving Him with all your heart and all your soul." While I don't deny the importance of having a sense of awe about G-d, I find that love needs to be the ultimate goal in one's spiritual practice.

If taken literally, this passage severely limits the idea of free will. Although I believe that belief in G-d has the potential to change one's behavioralism, fear in Heaven is not the only factor in one's free will. Free will extends well beyond a reaction to one's perception of G-d. This verse seems to conclude that "serving G-d" guarantees good behavior, and after observing enough people and looking at enough history, I know that is certainly not the case.

On the other hand, I know that the Talmudic rabbis were known for using literary devices, particularly hyperbole, to make a point. The rabbinic literature teaches us there are multiple mitzvahs that are so important that following them is as if the entirety of Torah were fulfilled. Those included, but were not limited to, tzedakah (Bava Batra 9a), not speaking lashon hara (Tosefta, Peah 1:2), wearing tzitzit (Menachot 43b), and circumcision (Nedarim 32a). A strictly literal reading not only contradicts many Jewish teachings, but also common sense. I will assume that Rabbi Chanina was using a literary device to emphasize the importance of recognizing the "fear of Heaven." From what I can gather, what Rabbi Chanina was trying to convey is that the choice that ultimately matters is how the aforementioned reverence for G-d affects our behavior.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Still Not Understanding Why the Government Needs to Fund the Arts

I was reading the Economist recently and came across a debate on whether the government should be funding the Fine Arts. As a libertarian, I knew that my initial reaction would be in the negative. However, I wanted to see if a case could be made in favor of the government subsidizing the arts. Although there might be some sub-points, the proponent's argument can be boiled down to the fact that supporting the arts is a positive externality. A creative society leads to innovation, which leads to overall growth of a society. I'm not questioning the causality in this instance. What I do want to discern is whether the government should be funding the arts in the first place.

A question that gets overlooked is "what is art?" It can be defined as an expression of human creative skills or imagination. That seems pretty broad of a definition, so for the sake of argument, it is best to re-frame the question as "what does one, i.e. society, consider art?" Answers that come to my mind would be such arts as classical or jazz music, opera, or even ballet. However, there is no clear-cut, unanimous agreement of what constitutes as art. Below is a "piece of art" I saw a few months ago at the Art Institute of Chicago. Do we classify this as art?

Should Blue Collar TV be considered art? How about pornography or a crucifix in a glass of urine, both of which would be considered highly offensive to many people's sensibilities? After all, one's idea of a masterpiece is another individual's idea of obscenity. The point I am trying to make at this moment in the discussion is that what we define as cultured, refined, or artistic is dictated by our personal preferences, which makes defining art a subjective matter.

The NEA only has a $146M budget for this year, which is a very small amount of money in comparison to the entirety of the US federal budget for 2012.  However, my response is this: I wouldn't care if the budget were $146M or $146B; it's simply money this country cannot afford to spend while dealing with debt issues. The issue with government intervention is much deeper than the fiscal issues. Why do some bureaucratic agents at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) get to decide which type of art is worthy of funding? If further public funding leads to crowding out private donations, then the government gets to decide what is appropriate art (i.e., censorship). That would be a violation of the First Amendment's freedom of speech. Based on legal precedent, America has been pretty good about preserving freedom of speech, which is why I'm not too worried about the government going in that totalitarian direction. Regardless, there is nothing in the Constitution that enumerates that Congress should fund the Arts. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 is in the specific context of preserving intellectual property rights (i.e., copyright laws).

Whether it's with funding Solyndra, "rescuing" Chrysler, or keeping your local symphony orchestra afloat, the government shouldn't be choosing winners and losers. If the government doesn't intervene, especially in these economic times, wouldn't that just be us waving the white flag and giving up on the Fine Arts? Of course not! However, you have to contend with those who disagree and think the government is the solution to everything because they believe that the free market is incapable of creating positive externalities. How do you think that artists such as Michelangelo, Shakespeare, or Francisco Goya made it? Through private benefactors. The Royal Academy of Arts in Britain has survived for over two centuries without public funding.

Even now in 2012, only 13% of arts funding in the United States comes from the government (page v of NEA document). The remaining 87% comes from two sources. The first is wealthy, private donors. The second is ticket revenues. The arts are largely treated like a private good, and it should be rendered as a private good. Much like any entrepreneur who wants to invest in a business venture, the artist has to prove his value to society. Not all art is good. Just because one calls himself an artist does not mean that any entity, whether it's the free market or the government, should sustain his livelihood just because it's called "art." If an artist cannot find a benefactor or produce enough revenue to keep up his business, he should fail, just like any other businessman.

As an example, I really love classical music, and I thus lament over its decline in this country. I personally think that all the money that goes into something like football or baseball is crazy, especially when considering the millions of dollars that the athletes make while so many Americans are struggling financially. However, I can explain the "ridiculousness" by the fact there is a high consumer demand for these sports (i.e., a lot of people like it and are willing to spend a lot of money on football-related and baseball-related goods and services), and if that is what the people want to spend their money on, they should be allowed to do so because that's the underlying premise behind economic freedom.

Conversely, I can explain the decline of classical music in economic terms, which can be either attributed to an over-saturated labor market (i.e., there are too many orchestras), the subsidizing of classical music caused the ticket prices to exceed the actual socially optimum benefit (i.e., tickets are too expensive because classical music was overvalued via the subsidies), a change in consumer preferences (i.e., less people like classical music than they used to), or obsolescence (i.e., technology caused the preference change from seeing live concerts to recorded music). If classical music aficionados are worried about the state of classical music, there will be more benefactors to symphonies and more people attending classical music concerts. If not, seeing live classical music will either become a luxury good or extinct.

By funding what is deemed the proper form of art that should be preserved, the self-prolcaimed cultural elitists in this country are essentially defining art. From hearing these proponents, you would think that art couldn't survive without a bureaucratic agency, in spite of doing just fine for centuries. Art is a part of culture, and culture is an organic process that reflects a given society in a given time period. That process should take place through the "spontaneous order" known as the free-market system. Anything short of that inhibits the free expression of the artist.