Friday, August 29, 2014

Parsha Shoftim: "Faith in G-d" Is Not Supposed to Translate Into Passivity or Complacency

Just have faith in G-d. G-d knows what's best for you. G-d wouldn't give you a test you couldn't handle. This is G-d's will. There are many Christians, and even some Jews, who fall for this paradigm. When something bad happens, G-d is testing you and you just have to "keep the faith." I find this annoying for enough reasons, some of which I will elucidate upon in this blog entry. For those who hold this theological view, we come across what can arguably be a prooftext in this week's Torah portion:

תמים תהיה עם הי אלהיך.
You shall be wholehearted [perfect in faith] with G-d. -Deuteronomy 18:13

The word תמים can be tricky to translate. It can mean wholehearted, blameless, or perfect. It can even mean "simple." Since it is not clear, let's look at some rabbinic commentary to clear up the context of the verse. According to Rashi, this means that you should follow G-d with complete trust, without feeling a need to know what will happen. Sforno and Nachmanides follow suit by saying that Israel should have complete faith in G-d, and given the previous verse, relying on soothsayers and sorcery is subsequently idiotic (Deuteronomy 18:12). Here it is: Deuteronomy 18:13, the supposed license to passively accept what happens around us, good or bad, as G-d's will.

Let's not even get into the notion that the idea of passivity and submission does not fit within the greater context of Judaism. Take a look at the beginning of this week's Torah portion at Deuteronomy 16:18. There is a reason why the Torah portion is called Shoftim. We have judges to make rulings. We are told the ever-famous צדק צדק תרדף, or "Justice, justice you shall pursue" (ibid., 16:20). We are not meant to sit back and accept what happens to us. Otherwise, what would be the point of having humanly courts to adjudicate wrongs committed? As the prophet Isaiah said (1:17), "Learn to do good, seek justice, aid the oppressed. Uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow." As R. Abraham Joshua Heschel points out, צדק צדק תרדף means that we must actively pursuit justice, and we need to do so by just means (Simcha Bunem) because the ends don't justify the means.

Judaism is not the opiate of the masses. We are meant to be agents of justice in this world. If the Talmud (Moed Katan 29a) is correct in saying that "the righteous have no rest, neither in this world nor the next," then what does it mean to be תמים? What Rashi is saying in his commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13 is to accept the present as it is. The juxtaposition with the verses about soothsaying, sorcery, and prognosticating makes much more sense now. Why do people feel the need to go to a psychic or a soothsayer? Answer: they are anxious about the uncertainty that the future begins. These supposedly psychic individuals bring false hope into peoples' lives by thinking these individuals have some divinity or clairvoyance to accurately predict the future. Neither the commentary nor the verse says that you have to like everything that happens to you or that it's ideal. I don't think Abraham was completely okay with having to leave the homeland he knew his entire life, nor was he too thrilled about having to sacrifice his son. In our own time, we don't even have to happily accept our travails or rough patches. We are meant to function in spite of the uncertainties that are bound to exist.

This is what is meant to be תמים. Faith is not blind acceptance, but rather the ability to develop a sense of equanimity. This does not mean that we aren't going to have our off-days or have emotional angst (quite the opposite, actually). This doesn't mean we have to like everything that happens. This doesn't mean we should stop actively pursuing a better future or stop caring. It means that we develop a certain internal calm amidst the craziness of life. If we are to be whole, it means that we accept what is going around us and emotionally making the best of it. Looking at ourselves and being wholehearted, it also means to stand before G-d with both your faults and virtues because we have to realize that no one is perfect. Ultimately, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't think about the future, but rather that we should do it with the calmness of knowing who we are and our current situation. By working towards that equanimity can we develop a true sense of wholeheartedness with G-d.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How Badly Does Wind Power Blow, and Should the Government Subsidize It?

A few days ago, the Department of Energy praised wind power in a couple of recently released reports. The Department of Energy (DoE) not only found that wind power meets 4.5 percent of the electricity demands in this country, but that wind energy prices are at an all-time low. Considering that wind power is a clean fuel source, we should be celebrating the DoE findings. Not only that, but it should give us reason to renew the production tax credit (PTC) used to subsidize the wind power industry, although the IRS loosened the deadline by saying that anyone who incurred at least five percent of construction costs by the end of last year can still qualify for the PTC. I have to wonder whether the DoE's findings are noteworthy or if it is just a bunch of hot air.

The question of whether we should subsidize wind power is important because we are reaching a point where we need to invest in alternative energy sources. Oil and coal are non-renewable, high-polluting energy sources that will eventually run out. Natural gas is great, but will only be a medium-term solution. Increased nuclear power production is stifled by political infeasibility. Since something like wind power won't cause a Chernobyl, wind power causes less fear-mongering than nuclear power. Wind power seems like a viable alternative, but I have to wonder if it would work on a larger scale.

In order to fully understand wind power, we need to understand its disadvantages as much as its advantages, and that's without getting into negligible disadvantages such as noise disturbances, wildlife disruption, or whether windmills are eyesores. While wind power does not require any fuel costs, it is still very much a capital-intensive endeavor. As the DoE points out, wind power still needs to be able to compete with conventional energy sources on a cost basis. Since wind power costs 70-140 percent more than oil, coal, natural gas, or nuclear power, it makes me wonder just how much more expensive wind power would be if the government did not subsidize wind power. Even the Left-leaning Warren Buffett admitted a few months ago that wind power doesn't make sense without the PTC. Energy subsidies, and subsidies in general, are economically problematic. How much is due to the fact that the customer legitimately values wind power, and how much is due to the economic distortions of the PTC? We also have to realize that artificially decreasing prices in the short-run doesn't do anyone favors because the expected rate of return decreases, which will end up driving prices in the long-run (Lesser, 2013).

As the Cato Institute shows (ibid) shows, wind-generated electricity was least available when its demand was at its highest. Wind power is an intermittent, unpredictable power source. When considering the subsidy on a per-kilowatt hour basis, wind power gets a lot more money than coal or oil. Looking at the EIA's government projections for energy consumption, the combined percentage for renewable energy is less than 10 percent by 2040. If wind power does not have the capacity to provide for the consumption of American energy demand, then we should also have to question its efficacy.

The government already screws up with ethanol subsidies. Why should we continue to fund a failure with the PTC? This is not to say that we should not pursue wind power or we should dismantle windmills. Much like those over at Harvard's School of Engineering have realized, we should realize that wind power has its limits (Adams and Keith, 2013). Wind power should be a part of the portfolio of American energy production, but don't count on it being a huge part of that portfolio. If you still think that wind power will be the wave of the future, that's your prerogative. I just wouldn't hold my breath.

11-24-2014 Addendum: I recently came across this list of 20 reasons why wind power really blows.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Does Ferguson Reflect a Trend Towards Police Militarization?

For about the past couple of weeks, there has been civil unrest in the city of Ferguson, MO over the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed, African-American male who was shot six times by a police officer. I don't want to get into the racial aspect, get into the particulars of the charges filed against the police officer, or ask why the result was rioting and looting, even though there are about 400 justifiable homicides committed by police every year. What I have found most interesting about the situation is the reaction of the local government: bringing in the National Guard, mandating curfews, arresting journalists, heavily-armed SWAT teams roaming the streets. The Founding Fathers are probably rolling in their graves right now because this was the sort of thing they wanted to prevent from happening. Without exaggeration, it sounds like the description of a totalitarian county. Not that I'm a fan of Amnesty of International (AI) because of its anti-Israel bias, but maybe it should say something if things are bad enough where even Amnesty International felt that the Ferguson unrest merited a dispatching of AI delegates in America for the first time in its history. This leads to an important question: Is Ferguson an example of how militarized our local police forces have become, or is Ferguson merely an outlier that the media has hyper-sensationalized for the purposes of attracting more viewers that has no bearing on civil liberties?

"Protect and serve." That is what most people expect from their police force: to be a force of good, to catch the bad guys, and to make sure that crime is kept at a minimum. For much of American history, local police forces did not have such advanced equipment as where they can pull off 50,000 SWAT raids per annum. John Oliver's video below (start at 6:59) humorously illustrates how Ferguson is an example of increased militarization of local police forces. Just how bad has police militarization become?

If you need somewhere to start, the Cato Institute has a National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, and also has been tracking botched paramilitary police raids since 1985. Even prominent conservatives have wondered (e.g., Mark Steyn, Heritage Foundation) if police forces have gotten out of hand these days, if that says anything. What really started the militarization was when Congress passed the 1033 program back in 1997, which allows for the Department of Defense to freely transfer excess DoD property to local and state police. The amount of military equipment that the police have stockpiled as a result has been alarming. 9-11 didn't help either because the "war on terrorism" allowed for state governments to receive at least $34B in federal government grants to purchase military equipment to fight the "war on terror." So on top of fighting a war on terror, you also have police fighting a war on drugs while encouraging a "tough on crime" mentality? Should it be a surprise that police have increasingly developed the mentality of a solider or a warrior? Should it be a surprised that the ACLU found in its study on excessive police militarization that 80 percent of SWAT raids are conducted merely for search warrants, or that vast majority of raids do not have weapons when the police think there are? Should we need more militarization when the rate of police fatalities and assaults have been on the decline since before 1997?

People are realizing what libertarians have been saying for many years: the police have become way too militarized, especially in a country that is supposed to respect civil liberties. Granted, it's nice to see that every city in America does not have such a police force and that even this rioting in Ferguson is not as bad as the rioting of the 1960s. However, I'm sure for those who appreciate their liberty and civil rights, one of the last things we would want to see is the unrest in Ferguson become the norm in American policing.

What can be done to reverse this perturbing trend? First, stop the federal funding that allows for this to take place because federal subsidies artificially increase supply of military goods, thereby distorting the market. In his 2012 report, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) points out the wasteful spending that is done in the name of national security. As for the equipment that they already have, we should work on taking away some of the equipment to offset the excess supply that was created in the first place. We can constraint the law enforcement's usage of SWAT raids, require police officers to wear body cameras, or increase the transparency of data collection on SWAT raids to keep local police accountable. Even with removal of equipment, the police culture will have to change. Instead of being an isolated force, police officers should work on being a part of the communities they serve. We can also eliminate techniques like stop-and-frisk or even stop the War on Drugs altogether. As the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy shows, there are better ways to police than with reactionary police enforcement. A few bad apples, overt militarization, and inferior policing techniques should not prevent necessary policing reform that will help protect and serve our citizenry, not intimidate them.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Why Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance Doesn't Get the Job Done

Approximately one week ago was the sixtieth anniversary of the IRS enacting a generous tax exemptions and benefits that allowed for employer-sponsored health insurance to thrive. What the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 did was exempt certain health-care uses of income from being considered taxable for purposes of collecting income and payroll taxes. This tax exclusion really took practice as an exemption starting back in the World War II era to avoid wartime wage controls. What a surprise: the government creates one problem with an onerous law, only to create another [arguably bigger] problem with another onerous law, which has now become the nation's largest tax break. What's sad is that the problem behind employer-sponsored health insurance is nothing new. The Cato Institute has been harping on this at least since 1999, and the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank pointed out back in 2004 how it distorts the health care market. Even the New York Times has recently pointed out the ridiculousness behind the concept. Why is it that I have such a problem with the government providing tax breaks for employer-based health insurance? Sure, it comes with advantages like encouraging workers to take health insurance, reducing health care costs for those who have employer-based insurance, and quite possibly could give a small boost to the GDP (although the latter does not take efficiency gains into account). It sounds like there are less taxes being paid and is a financial win-win, but is it really?

The so-called free money has to come from somewhere, and in this case, it's the workers' wages. This gives employers control over a significant amount of workers' earnings. If the government had taken $12,000 per annum in taxes to provide workers with health insurance, that would be called a tax increase. But when government drives a wedge between workers and a significant amount of their earnings, it suddenly becomes a tax "cut."  What's worse is that the unintended consequence is that the worker feels as if they were spending someone else's more money. Since people tend to spend more liberally when it comes to other people's money (even if it's merely the perception thereof), they consume more health care than they need. What happens when you artificially increase demand like that? Health care costs skyrocket, which is why this tax exclusion is arguably one of the primary drivers of health care costs in the United States (Gruber, 2010).

This tax exclusion can hardly be considered fair. The only ones who receive benefit are the ones who are lucky enough to have access. Everyone else has to pay out-of-pocket with after-tax dollars, which is an even more sizable percent of one's earnings. It's also inequitable because the ones who need the tax benefits the least gain the most. There's also the consideration that employer-based health insurance is tied to one's current employment. If you get laid off, fired, or decide to quit, your health insurance would go along with your job. And don't get me started on the negative effects on entrepreneurship (Fairlie et al., 2010) or other market distortions.

We need to see the real prices of health care instead of obfuscating them with government policies that keep health care costs high. This is why we need to treat health care like a good instead of categorizing it as "special interests that only the government can handle" or a charity case. We need to sever the connection between employment and health insurance. Health insurance needs to be portable from job to job if we want to remove the market rigidity and stop the rise in health care costs.

Here are a few suggestions: health care vouchers, cap the tax exclusion (see here, herehere, and here), create need-adjusted tax credits (Miller, p. 16), create more neutrality by allowing out-of-pocket health care expenses and individual insurance to be tax deductible, or eliminate the tax exclusion all together and replace it with a paid-claims tax instead (Bipartisan Policy Center, p. 77-82). I do worry about the potential of the increased tax revenues being used to fund single-payer system, but I would recommend a revenue-neutral offset. Just lower taxes to offset the elimination of the exclusion or by implementing a health savings account (also see here). Whatever the combination of policy reforms ends up being, we need to put an end to this World War II relic.

10-15-2014 Addendum: The Mercatus Center recently published findings as to how employer-sponsored health insurance is a major driver of income inequality.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mo'ed Katan 9b: Choosing Words Wisely and Getting Past Negativity Bias

I haven't written on Talmudic passages in a while. Not only is it nice that I have picked up my Daf Yomi study again, but also that I have found something worthy of writing about. In yesterday's Daf Yomi portion, we come across an interesting passage in Mo'ed Katan 9b (translation based on Koren Talmud Bavli):

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai's son approached Rabbi Yonatan ben Asmai and Rabbi Yehuda because Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai told his son to "go to them and they shall bless you." The rabbis said to the son: "May it be G-d's will that you should sow and not reap, that you should bring in and not take out, that you should take out and not bring in, that your house should be destroyed and your lodging place should be inhabited, that your table should become confused, and that you should not see a new year." Upon returning, the son told his father that not only did the rabbis not bless him, but they caused him great pain with his words. The son relayed the story to his father. 

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai then goes on to explain why each supposed insult was an actual blessing. After reading this, I had to wonder why this whole ordeal needed to occur in the first place. It's analogous to someone who has to explain a joke they just told you. After said explanation, the joke loses its effect. The same happens here. The rabbis already caused insult with their words, regardless of intention. The fact that Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai had to explain the intricacies of the blessing says a lot about how we choose our words.

Apparently, these rabbis did not heed the advice given in Pirke Avot (1:11): Avtalyon says: "Wise scholars, measure your words carefully, lest you incur the debt of exile and be exiled to a place of foul waters, causing your disciples to drink and die, thereby desecrating the name of Heaven." This might seem like only an admonishment for Torah scholars when dealing with their disciples. Given the extent of Jewish speech ethics, it's not that difficult to argue that regardless of status or context of the relationship, one should be wise in terms of word selection because words have the power to create or destroy. Reading the end of the passage in Mo'ed Katan 9b, we see this point reaffirmed with another parable:

Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta took leave of Rav. His father said to him: "Go to him so that he should bless you." The blessing Rav gave was "May it be G-d's will that you should not shame others and that you should not feel ashamed." Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta came to his father, and upon relaying the encounter with Rav, he said that "mere words he said to me," i.e., he did not say anything of significance. 

In this case, Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta did not realize he was being blessed, which is why his father had to cite Joel 2:26-27 to remind him just what a blessing he received. What are we to learn from these two cases about seemingly obscure blessings?

With Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai's son, he was incapable of seeing the blessing as a blessing because the blessing was poorly constructed. With Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta, he dismissed what he was told as a blessing. I would argue that he was so ungrateful for what he had because it was clearer that the second parable was indeed a blessing. The problem was that Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta couldn't see it as such. This often happens when you become accustomed to having something in your life and take it for granted, instead of being grateful for it. What both of these individuals suffer from is what psychologists call the negativity bias, which is to say that we have a greater propensity to see what is bad in the world than what is good in the world. 

Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta needed to realize how being blessed to not feel ashamed or to shame others is an important trait in Judaism, especially when we are to treat other human beings decently because they are created in G-d's Image. The first case, the one with Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai's son, makes it seem like the son was in the right, but even in this case, he bears some of the blame. Why? Because he fell for the negativity bias. He also forgot what it says in Pirke Avot (1:6), the part about which you are supposed to judge people based on their merit. The men who blessed the son were reputable rabbis. Rather than automatically take it as an insult, he should have tried to interpret the blessing in a more positive light, which was the lesson his father was trying to teach his son. 

It's not easy getting over negativity bias. L-rd only knows that I succumb to it more than I care for. However, if we are to get past it and live a more fulfilling life, we need to learn how not to view things so negatively. It all starts with making a commitment of looking to view one's situation in a more positive light, which can be tricky at times. Are you willing to make that commitment to a more positive outlook? 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Parsha Re'eh: Rejecting Moral Relativism While Navigating the Shades of Gray

Moral relativism is one of those charged phrases that get a lot of people going. "How can we talk about absolute morality when there are so many religions and philosophies out there? Is there an ethos we can all abide by?" And so forth. Yes, there are some disagreements about ethical situations or whether G-d even exists. Nevertheless, there are some basic moral truths that have developed throughout history, most notably surrounding the idea of the Golden Rule. Even if certain differences exist between groups of people, the Golden Rule exists in some form in every major world religion and the vast majority of philosophies out there. Do not murder. Do not steal. Rape and genocide are morally wrong. Without this minimalist sense of morality, it would not take long for society to descend into chaos. In this week's Torah portion, we see a condemnation of moral relativism:

לא תעשון ככל אשר אנחנו עשים פה היום איש כל הישר הי אלהיך נתן לך.
You shall not do after all that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his eyes. -Deuteronomy 12:8

If we didn't have a general sense of ethos or "right and wrong," it would ultimately be based on "might is right" because the subjective morality that would dictate policy would be those in power. Even if perceived and emphasized differently, societies across much of history have developed concepts of love, justice, peace, honor, and compassion. The values have existed; it simply has been a matter of emphasis and composition, which brings me to my next point. 

Even with these values that exist, how do we discern which values are right and when? The fact that a non-relativist sense of morality exists does not mean that morality or ethics exist within a black-or-white context. Far from it. Yes, Judaism has a set of values that are well-defined. At the same time, reality gets in the way, which could explain some of the nuance behind Jewish law and practice.

Our starting point has to come from a couple of Torah portions ago when it said that "you shall do what is right and good in the sight of G-d (Deuteronomy 6:18)." There are so many ethical situations that transpire in life that the Torah does not list them all. It's even for difficult for the corpus of Jewish law to capture every possible scenario, which is why having a guide such as a rabbi, friend, or other person of influence to help you (also known as mashpia) is important. That way, you don't succumb to personal tastes or subjectivity being your ultimate guide in life. Why is it nice to have someone more objective help you out? Because we find ourselves in situations in which our values can collide.

Here are but a few examples. Truth and peace are both important in Jewish morality. However, what do you do when they conflict? And if you don't think this can happen, it happened in the Torah. If you take a look at Genesis 18, G-d shows us that if one had to decide between the two, peace wins. If one has to choose between observing the Sabbath and saving an individual's life, one opts for the latter. Abraham had to choose between receiving the Divine presence and showing hospitality to three strangers. Which did he choose? Hospitality. Moses disobeyed a divine directive to show gratitude because G-d realized gratitude supersedes even obeying Him.

You don't even have to look at it through a Jewish lens to realize that there is no such thing as a character trait or value that is 100 percent desirable. Generosity is normally considered a good trait in Judaism. A Jew is supposed to give ten percent of income to help the poor. Generosity also comes in many other forms in Judaism. However, if your generosity impoverishes you or enables the recipient to continue with bad behavior, then generosity has been turned into a negative characteristic. I am a man who loves truth. Truth is important because reality helps us navigate life. If you use truth to knock down an individual, then it has become a deleterious weapon. Even commitment is normally a good thing. It helps individuals stick to a task or promise when times get tough. If it keeps you in a loveless or abusive marriage, or if the commitment is making you absolutely miserable, then commitment is counterproductive.

Just because there can be a conflict in values or just because a single value is not good in all cases does not mean that we should not have well-defined morals. It just means that life is complicated, much like Abraham discovered when he was about to sacrifice his son but realized that he literally had to choose between two opposing divine directives. We are meant to struggle with our conscience and act on our free will. This paradox, also known as the human experience, is what can make life simultaneously frustrating, joyous, confusing, and meaningful. It's why we should embrace our ability to deal with moral ambiguity while sticking by our morals and values. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

"Praying In Public" Discount & Why Price Discrimination Is Not Inherently Evil

In North Carolina, there was a diner that recently had a peculiar pricing practice: provide a 15 percent discount to those who prayed in their diner. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), which is a non-profit organization promoting atheism and separation of church and state, put legal pressure on the diner, at which point the diner discontinued the pricing practice. Aside from grinding an anti-religious axe, why did the FFRF do what they did? They thought the practice of offering such a discount was discriminatory, and should thus be stopped. Is this sort of outrage against this specific example, as well as price discrimination in general, justifiable?

Before providing an answer, let's ask ourselves what price discrimination entails. Price discrimination is the practice of a producer selling the same product to different individuals at different prices not based on production costs, but willingness to pay. First-degree price discrimination is extremely rare because the probability of a business knowing the willingness to pay for every single customer is nigh impossible, not to mention that the vast majority of businesses do not have the monopolistic power required. Second-degree price discrimination is typically done with quantity discounts (e.g., bulk buyers pay less per unit). Third-degree price discrimination deals with a price variation based on location or some other customer segmentation. These degrees are not necessarily mutually exclusive from one another. That being said, let's get into some examples of price discrimination:

  1. Flying on an airplane. Just because you fly from Chicago to New York doesn't mean you're going to pay the same price as everyone else. Someone in the business class pays more [due to inelastic demand] than someone in the coach class [who has a more elastic demand]. The reason for this is business travelers have a higher willingness to pay than pleasure travelers. Additionally, airlines will charge different amounts based on how far in advanced the flight is booked, day of the week and time of day of the booking of the flight, as well as other discounts and fees that come along with booking a flight.
  2. Coupons. Coupons are an advertising gimmick to get customers to buy their good who otherwise would not. The differentiation is that the customer who is willing to collect coupons has a higher price sensitivity than the one who is not on the hunt for coupons. A similar argument can be made for those who decide to stand in long lines on Black Friday. 
  3. Haggling. Negotiating for a price "on the spot" has been a common form of price discrimination practiced for centuries. Some countries still practice it quite frequently. In the United States, however, you only really come across it when negotiating the price for something like an automobile or a house. This type of negotiating is decidedly a form of price discrimination because the producer or broker is trying to assess your willingness to pay for a good.  
  4. Financial aid for university. Every student is offered the same base price, but incentives in the form of financial aid are offered so the student can afford it (as a tangent, that's probably just the feeling one gets. Odds are that it actually fuels tuition inflation). This form of price discrimination is based on individuals from lower-leveled socio-economic status being able to afford a college education.
  5. Student and senior discounts. You see these sort of discounts crop up when the operating costs for places like the movie theatre or museum are primarily fixed costs. The marginal cost of another attendee is next to nil, which is why using an incentive to bring in more attendees with lower willingness to pay, such as students or senior citizens, is such a good marketing tool.  
  6. Bulk purchasing. You notice how when you buy more of a certain good in a larger quantity, you tend to get a better deal? That's the producer utilizing economies of scale. The reason why buying a large coffee at Starbucks is cheaper per unit than buying a smaller cup the output per unit decreases with increased scale. That is the joy of "three-for-two" offers and buying in bulk at Sam's Club or Costco. 
Although I could provide more examples, the point is that we do not live in a world of uniform pricing, nor is that optimal from the standpoint of maximizing revenues or consumer surplus. When people capriciously say that such price discrimination is unfair, like they do with price gouging (see my analysis here and why government setting prices in general makes for lousy economics and detrimental policy), these individuals tend to have good intentions while lacking the basest understating of the economic ramifications of their decision. 

So let's go back to the diner in North Carolina. There are certain individuals who are offended or feel coerced because not praying would mean having to pay an extra 15 percent in comparison to those who decided to pray. Let me point out a few things in response. Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution guarantees that no one impairs the obligation of contracts. What is implicit is that you are not required to enter a contract unless you are a willing party. This is an important cornerstone of a lawful society based on respect for economic freedom, which not-so-incidentally means the protection of property rights, and by extension, letting businesses operate with whichever pricing mechanisms, provided that they do not violate the nonaggresion axiom.   

In a liberalized economy, an exchange takes place between a willing buyer and a willing seller. That is the beauty of a capitalist society. No one is legally obligated to sell a certain good or service at a given time. With the possible exception set by the Supreme Court's idiotic ruling on Obamacare, no one is obligated to buy a good or service. In a market economy, people voluntarily exchange goods because both seek a benefit in the transaction.

If you don't like the fact that Mary's Gourmet Diner in Winston-Salem gives a 15 percent discount for those who decided to pray during their time there, you have a few options. You could stop going to that restaurant. Winston-Salem alone has over 500 other restaurants to choose from. Finding a restaurant that has a different pricing system is not that difficult. The vast majority of industries in general are competitive marketplaces. Going to a competitor means that the other business loses out on revenue because of their poor business decision. If you like the restaurant, you could alternatively pretend to pray to get the discount or simply pay the extra amount because you like the food. It depends on your willingness to pay (and in this case, your willingness to pray). In the improbability that you don't have a lot of other restaurants in the area, you can either make the drive to a larger town or city, or you can simply eat at home. It's not as if restaurants are the only source of food, and it's not as if the producer has some obligation, legal or otherwise, to provide you a dining experience without such a discount. Economists call this phenomenon the substitution effect. Once again, it depends on your willingness to pay to go to a restaurant that has a public prayer discount. You are able to assess your willingness to pay, adjust your consumption patterns accordingly, and make voluntary economic transactions based on your consumer preferences.

This is the essence of economic liberty. Producers have the freedom to produce whichever good or service with whichever pricing mechanism they like. Consumers have the freedom to consumer whichever good or service that suits their fancy. We shouldn't implement arbitrary, deleterious rules simply because someone is offended. Pricing discrimination is fair and just. If an establishment providing a certain pricing mechanism really bothers you that much, it's really quite simple: use your economic freedom and go elsewhere.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Reflecting on Robin Williams' Suicide and Market-Based Solutions for Depression

The death of Robin Williams has taken many aback, myself included. For the past few days, I have asked myself how a man who brought laughter to millions could have committed suicide. The irony of a man who played humorous characters in such films as Mrs. Doubtfire, Birdcage, and Aladdin, not to mention the television program Mork and Mindy, and could not feel joy to his own life is saddening. If a man as hilarious as Robin Williams was unable to defeat his depression, what hope does that leave for those who are dealing with their own depression? What's even scarier is that Williams had been dealing with it throughout his entire life. His ability to overcome substance abuse, only to relapse once again, shows just how difficult it is to not have depression dominate one's life (And I'm sure dealing with the early stages of Parkinson's disease wasn't helping Williams, either). That's another thing with depression: even if it goes away or dissipates, it can always reemerge. Williams' untimely death has been a wake-up call in terms of the effects of depression (see infographic from Healthline here) and its prevalence.

The amount of Americans that are currently dealing with major depression is about 6.9 percent. The lifetime risk of depression is about 17 percent. Depression is the most common cause of suicides (alcoholism being the second most common cause of suicides), and suicide is one of the leading causes of death in this country. The prevalence of mood disorders is truly a public policy issue, and the fact that we treat it as a sign of mental weakness instead of it being the complex mental disorder that it is only creates stigma for those who legitimately need help. Depression affects people because it creates an obstacle in terms of being productive members of society and pursuing happiness.

The silver lining in this whole discussion is that the vast majority of suicides can be prevented, and that study after study shows that depression is treatable [as opposed to being curable] for a large majority of those with depression. From a public policy standpoint, how can we prevent suicides and decrease the rate of depression?

One of the challenges is that it is not easy to detect or diagnose, which is yet another reason I think rates of depression are actually underestimated. Unless someone explicitly tells you that they are depressed or they are clearly exhibiting symptoms, odds are that you are not going to know if a loved one is struggling with depression. That is why I have to wonder just how much the government could do to help. Does the government possess such omniscience that they can detect depression at the click of a button or with some gadget? I think not. If it's difficult enough for friends or family who are close to depressed individual to detect it, how do you expect a bureaucratic agency in DC to figure it out? Short of subsidizing treatments for depression or reforming the disaster known as Obamacare so that people have better access to mental health treatment options, there is not too much the government can do.

So much of being able to help those going through depression is being able to make sure people have support systems in their lives. Since we don't know what sort of internal battles people are having, it is all the more imperative to give people as much of a benefit of a doubt as humanly possible and show some empathy.

Yes, the depressed individual needs to choose to make steps towards treatment and work on cognitive-based therapy or other methods towards treatment. But the individual also needs friends, family, and community, i.e., a social network, to make sure one can get through the treatment process. It's about creating a network and environment that fosters strong emotional health and welfare. As Gandhi, another individual who suffered from depression, said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." We need to start with being empathetic towards those who are in our lives and go from there. Creating a world in which we show kindness to others and help others with their struggles is a step in the right direction, particularly in terms of helping those with depression.

If you are someone or know someone struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, don't wait. Make sure they get the help they need right away.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Social Security Disability Insurance Is The Social Security Program in Most Dire Need of Reform

The recently published Social Security Trustees Report isn't something that leaves much to be desired, at least in terms of good news. I have discussed Social Security on this blog enough times, whether it is about policy reform, its inefficiencies, or the fact that it is one of the major cost drivers in the federal budget. It should be no surprise that I am hardly a fan of Social Security, and would personally be happy if the United States government created a policy that gradually resulted in the privatization of retirement benefits. There is one aspect of the Social Security program that does not get enough attention but should: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). This might be because the aforementioned Trustees Report projects that the SSDI Trust Fund will be depleted in 2016 (p. 3), which is only in two years! If something is not done within the next two years, those on SSDI will be facing a twenty percent reduction on their benefits, which is hardly flattering.

What is the SSDI? How much should we care about its fund exhaustion in two years? Is there anything that can be done to ameliorate this situation? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and its 2012 policy report on SSDI policy alternatives provides a good primer for the discussion. Essentially, the Disability Insurance (DI) program was established back in 1956 to provide cash benefits for non-elderly individuals who were able to work in the past, but are since unable to do so due to a disability. Current SSDI expenditures are about $143B per annum (Trustees Report, p. 32), which makes up about 16 percent of overall Social Security expenditures.

One of the major issues with SSDI is that the ratio of disabled-worker beneficiaries to insured workers [for disabilities], i.e., the prevalence rate, has increased substantially (Congressional Research Service, p. 1). This trend is fueled by many factors, including the increase of Baby Boomers in the labor market (CBO, p. 3), more female workers in the labor force (p. 4), more lax requirements under the 1980 Social Security Disability Amendments (ibid), an increased full retirement age (ibid), and the recession (p. 5). Since the SSDI is a fixed tax, and not based on the number of employees on SSDI, it creates a major disincentive for employers to accommodate workers who have reached enough of a rough patch where they need cash assistance. It's easier for the employer to get the employee on SSDI and hire someone else instead of retaining the employee, which is why the current program discourages work (Maestas et al., 2013; Autor and Duggan, 2010). Work is not as strenuous as it was when the SSDI was enacted in 1956. Many who are considered disabled can still participate in the labor force. The fact that SSDI cannot encourage employment and economic self-sufficiency is a damning statement of its efficacy. To quote the Cato Institute's analysis on SSDI, "SSDI is a classic example of a well-intentioned effort to provide modest support to truly needy people that has exploded into a massive entitlement that is driving up the federal deficit."

What is to be done about the current SSDI system? More from a pragmatic sense, i.e., the Overton Window, something tells me that Congress is not going to willingly eliminate the program. Even in a libertarian context, one could argue for a basic social safety net (the operative word being "basic"). It would certainly be an improvement of SSDI acting as a form of welfare. Assuming that we opt to create a basic safety net for those who become disabled, how can we reform the current system? Let's go through a list of policy reforms on the table:

  1. Increase the SSDI tax. Although this might create some additional tax revenues (CBO p. 7), this alternative is as simplistic as it is naive. All this does is encourage the same disincentives while creating further disincentives that taxes typically do. Plus, let's remember that DI rolls are going to outpace population growth, which means further deficits. Further tax burden on a declining labor force participation rate is simply a bad idea.
  2. Decrease benefits through changing the DI Benefit Formula. The government can adjust the primary insurance amount factors and the bend points (CBO, p. 12), which would decrease the outlays, thereby making the program more solvent. 
  3. Require stricter eligibility requirements. As the CBO brought up (p. 4), there have been more lax requirements based on more subjective determinations. The other issue is that one could qualify for SSDI by combining non-severe disabilities to count as "one severe disability," whereas it was only possible prior to if there was a severe disability. There needs to be a more clear-cut set of rules [than what we have now] of what is defined as a severe disability. Based on the current finances, we cannot fund and try to save everybody, which is why if we are to create a basic social safety net, it needs to go to those who need it the most. In that vein, it would also be a good idea to require applicants to have more work experience (CBO, p. 14)
  4. Create an "experience rated" tax system. Instead of making the government responsible for paying disability insurance, this policy would shift the burden more directly onto the employer. This is not a policy alternative that was recommended by the Right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. It is also joint policy alternative by the Left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) and the centrist Brookings Institution. I'm not all that enthused about mandating that employers pay a certain amount to disability insurance. However, I also have to realize that the government is doing that already with SSDI. At least this policy would keep the insurance in the private sector. Furthermore, since there would be vocational support and short-term wage replacement, this policy would actually encourage disabled workers to return to work, but it would also decelerate the growth of people receiving SSDI benefits. There would also be the advantage of incentivizing employers to interact with private disability insurers at the onset of the disability. 
  5. Relegate fraud monitoring to the private sector. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is not the best at detecting SSDI fraud. If Dutch disability insurance reform has taught us anything, it's that employers and private insurance companies can monitor and detect fraud better than the federal government (Van Sonsbeek, 2011).
  6. Demonstration programs. The folks over at the Brookings Institution came up with the idea of implementing various programs to reform SSDI. Much of it is surrounded the idea of targeting disabled employees at the onset, although the third demonstration program is essentially the joint program by Brookings and CAP mentioned in Point 4.
  7. Modify the waiting period. The current waiting period before one receives SSDI benefits is five months. The CBO suggested two modifications: eliminating the waiting period and extending it to twelve months. I would be more prone to opt for a longer waiting period (CBO, p. 14). Not only does it deter individuals from gaming the system, but it also decrease the outlays by 7 percent in 2037 (p. 7).
  8. Create a $1-for-$2 offset. The premise behind this offset is to ease the phase-out of the benefits. There ends up being a dollar reduction in benefits for each two dollars in earnings the beneficiary earns above the substantial gainful activity (SGA). Preliminary studies show the program to have improvements over the status quo (Wang, 2012Benítez-Silva et al., 2010).
  9. Create a generalized period offset. What this policy alternative would be a more intense version of the $1-for-$2 offset. The $1-for-$2 offset essentially acts as a de facto increased marginal tax rate on beneficiaries. This offset would theoretically solve the cash cliff issue. Due to time constraints on my end, I will simply post this Cato Institute analysis here.

Postscript: In order to mitigate the mess of SSDI, you need to address the incentive structure to make sure it encourages employment and its current finances, the latter of which means you need to decrease expenditures and enact more stringent requirements. Whichever combination of policies that can pull that off would certainly be an improvement over the status quo.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tipping at Restaurants Does Not Make Economic Sense, But Should We Ban It?

In many restaurants in America, one is served their food by a waiter or waitress. After the meal, one is expected to pay a certain amount of money for a service charge, which is known as a tip or gratuity.  The premise of this social custom is to compensate service workers (and in this case, waiters and waitresses) since they are paid $2.13 per hour and have to rely on good tips to help make ends meet. Gratuity is meant to be an act of altruism. However, I have to say that I am annoyed by this non-optional social convention, especially after listening to this Freakonomics podcast and reading up on tipping research.

What's the issue with tipping? For starters, it's a practice that parades itself as the façade of being an option, but unless you don't care at all what other people think, it's a de facto quid pro quo arrangement. Although some people tip because they get a kick out of it (Lynn and Wang, 2013), most people do so not because of altruism or compassion, but because of social pressure, guilt, and embarrassment (Azar, 2008), which creates a negative externality. Although there is an incentive to free ride and pay next to nothing on the tip (Margialoth, p. 122) when you're not going to return to the restaurant (not to mention that you're not legally obligated to pay the tip), it would explain why many people still tip. We don't want to come off as stingy or frugal, and gratuity somehow seemingly abates that. Plus, there is the idea in longer-term game theory (i.e., people expect better service next time they return), it can provide an incentive for the server to do a better job next time. Additionally, servers do not have a consistent wage, but they can better evade taxes (Estreicher and Nash, 2004). There is also the matter that the practice has a racial component. Some empirical evidence shows that African-Americans are perceived to tip less, which means poorer quality service (Nash and Pugh, 2012). This ends up creating a racial disparity in restaurant service.

People can do their job just fine without tips. There is little evidence that the tipping system is particularly effective. Providing very good service only gives about a two percent bump in one's tips (Lynn, 2003), which just tells me that tipping is not performance-based, but typically based on the size of the check (Margialoth, p. 125). This means that tipping does not save on service-monitoring costs, and instead creates market inefficiencies (ibid., p. 126) because it "exerts indirect upward pressure on spending by the median earner....which results in overconsumption, less leisure time, and overall decreases in welfare (ibid., p. 127)." This would also mean that a transaction with unfair values took place, which is unfair to the customer.

On a personal level, I think that we should get rid of tipping. This makes me ask the question of how to address the issue. For the most part, this is not an issue created by the government. Granted, the government sets the minimum wage for servers at $2.13, which indirectly perpetuates the practice, as does the fact that employers also benefits from the current tipping system by paying less taxes (Margialoth, p. 133). However, this is primarily a market failure. Without the government changing the minimum wage of the server, the only other alternatives for businesses to implement are service-inclusive pricing or a service charge. Each business practice comes with its advantages and disadvantages. I think service-inclusive pricing is most fair because it includes all labor costs in the pricing, but customers could complain because of perceived, albeit inaccurate, unfair pricing. Why they would complain if the net amount spent is comparable is beyond me, but maybe the irrationality is that it's more disconcerting for a customer to see it as a service fee or to see food prices to increase than to remove the current system. Ultimately, we have the freedom to practice whichever forms of altruism the way we want. Imposing minimum wage laws or irrational social norms is not the way to go. Putting an end to tipping in our personal lives will force restaurants to switch over to service-inclusive pricing, which will improve the restaurant industry in the long-run.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Lowering or Eliminating the Corporate Tax Would Stop American Corporations From Relocating

Walgreens, the Fortune 500 Company drug retailing chain, was looking to relocate its corporate headquarters using a tax inversion. Demonized by Obama as an "unpatriotic tax loophole," Walgreens was looking to relocate to Switzerland, a country known for being a tax haven, while maintaining its material operations in the current county, so that it could reduce its corporate tax burden. Earlier this week, however, Walgreens caved into the political pressure exerted by Democratic lawmakers and activists to keep its corporate headquarters located in Illinois. Is Walgreens, or any other company looking to relocate its corporate headquarters, an exploitative, greedy entity that only cares about the bottom line or was Walgreens right in moving its corporate headquarters because the idea of having to pay such a corporate tax rate is that ridiculous?

Before getting into the economic effects of corporate taxes, let's briefly define the corporate tax. Although corporate tax law varies enough from country to country, in as brief terms as possible, the corporate tax is a tax on the income or capital of legal entities, most notably legally-defined corporations. Who pays the corporate tax? I can get snide and say that for proponents of Big Government, corporations are only people when you want to tax them into oblivion. Aside from that, I guess not. But in all sincerity, one can only levy a tax against a corporation. People ultimately pay taxes. Is it done by passing the costs on to the consumer? How about in the form of lower wages? Perhaps it's done through lower stock dividends. The answer will vary by industry, but looking at studies on the issue will show that someone ends up paying for the tax. There are some who think that the burden goes to the worker in the form of lower wages (Carroll, 2009; Randolph, 2006), although the Congressional Research Service [CRS] finds that the owners of capital take the burden (CRS, 2014a, p. 16). Economist Steve Horwitz is spot-on of the deleterious effects of the corporate tax, regardless of incidence: "If corporations respond to tax hikes by reducing compensation or firing workers, the impact of the tax hike hits the employees. If they raise prices, the impact falls on the consumers who buy the product. And if they take a reduction in profits, the falling stock value lowers the value of various investment funds on which millions of Americans depend for retirement and other income." Considering that one of the main functions of a tax is to discincentivize behavior (the other being to collect revenue), this makes economic sense.

I'm not against the corporate tax simply because it's a tax. Granted, I believe that the private sector can and should do just about everything that a government can theoretically do because the private sector tends to allocate resources more efficiently, thereby generating better results. However, being a consequentialist libertarian, I realize that there are some basic services that the government has to perform, which would explain why I believe in smaller and less intrusive government than no government involved. In order to perform these rendered services, the government needs a revenue base. I would rather have that revenue base be as minimalist, indirect, and efficient as possible. The corporate tax cannot be considered efficient or helpful. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is not a free-market organization by any means, recognizes that corporate taxes are the most harmful when it comes to economic growth (OECD, 2008, p. 2). The corporate tax reduces productivity of labor, disincentivizes investment (Chen and Mintz, 2011), creates a huge marginal excess tax burden (Conover, 2010), and acts as an additional tax on already-taxed income, thereby creating a double taxation effect. 

When I look at the corporate tax for America, it gives me a particular gag reflex. Compared to OECD countries, we have the highest statutory corporate tax rate, not to mention one of the highest effective corporate tax rates in the entire world. Look at the revenue as a share of the GDP, and it can hardly be considered an efficient form of taxation.

What can the American government do about its relatively high effective corporate tax rate? Although I found this Congressional Budget Office report outlining some policy alternatives, I'll go through three policy alternatives that I found more palatable: lower the tax rate, create a territorial tax system, and eliminate the corporate tax. 

The first policy alternative would be for the federal government to lower the marginal corporate tax rate. If the corporate tax rate is high compared to the rest of the developed world, it gives the United States a distinct disadvantage in terms of attracting investment. The Leibniz Information Centre for Economics calculated "tax attractiveness," and found that the United States is on the bottom of the list in terms of overall government treatment of business income. Having to pay one of the highest effective corporate tax rates is not exactly an economic turn-on. Conversely, Canada, Estonia, and Ireland have reduced their corporate tax rates and it has done wonders. Economic advisers for the Obama Administration published a report on corporate tax reform back in 2010 stating that lowering the corporate tax would "encourage saving and new investment (p. 69)." Lowering the corporate tax translates into an increase in foreign direct investment (Wijeweera et al., 2007). Increasing the corporate tax rate doesn't do the trick because as former Obama economic adviser Christina Romer discovered, a corporate tax increase of 1 percent of the GDP leads to a three percent decrease in output (Romer, 2010). Interestingly enough, a decreased tax rate would increase revenue due to the effects of the Laffer Curve (also see Schuyler, 2013Brill and Hassett, 2007).

The second policy alternative would be to create a territorial tax system. The difference between a global system and a territorial one is that in the latter, the government only collects only on income generated within the borders. The International Monetary Fund, as well as the people over at the Left-Leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, calculate that a territorial tax system would actually create more incentives to invest overseas. Those over at the Right-leaning Heritage Foundation estimate that a territorial tax system would actually create more domestic jobs and increase wages. From the looks of it, a territorial tax system would be preferable to a global system. 

However, let me propose a simpler solution: eliminate the corporate tax (Viard and Toder, 2014Fehr et al., 2013). It's one of the few things economists across the board can agree on. There are even those on the Left who think that eliminating the corporate tax is a swell idea (also see here and here). The Congressional Research Service found (CRS, 2014b, p. 8) that the only tax rate that really could really stop inversions is 0 percent, which partially makes me wonder about elimination versus reduction of the tax rate. We can eliminate the corporate tax and substitute it with more efficient taxes. Regardless of which reforms we opt for, let's find a better way to produce government revenue while we protect shareholders, workers, and consumers from economic stupidity like the corporate tax.

1-3-2015 Addendum: If you need more reasons to dislike the corporate tax, the Wall Street Journal recently put out an article with ten reasons.

4-30-2017 Addendum: Last month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a paper on corporate tax rates in developed countries. The CBO found that the U.S. has the highest statutory rate, the third highest average corporate rate, and the fourth highest effective corporate tax rate. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Don't Cry for Argentina and Its Latest Default

I find myself in a sardonic enough of a mood to wonder if defaulting has become an Argentinian pastime. About a week ago, Argentina de facto defaulted on its bonds for the second time in thirteen years per a New York court ruling. If you need a good primer on Argentina's history on defaulting and how we arrived at this situation, the Washington Post has a good analysis on it. There are some speculations as to the effect this default will have both on the defaulting country and the global market. Default is typically rough on a country because it becomes nigh impossible to borrow money from other countries to help the defaulting country rebuild its economy. This is the eighth time in Argentinian history that it has defaulted, so maybe the eighth time is the charm. So who do we blame for Argentina's default?

Maybe Argentina was receiving bad advice from its lawyer. Maybe this is a sign we need to adjudicate sovereign-debt disputes in international courts because Argentina was not given enough leeway with being able to restructure its debt (although, in all fairness, the court ruling is too narrow to have broader implications). I'm actually going to put the vast majority of the blame on Argentina. While I was in graduate school, I wrote a policy paper for one of my classes outlining the fiscal irresponsibility and poor macroeconomic decisions that led to the 2001 default. It doesn't help that Argentina's economy is not in the greatest of shape (although it could be doing much, much worse), nor that its freedom of press has been in decline. And let's not forget its deteriorating economic freedom (see here and here). This is not a case of a victimized nation-state that has been bullied or coerced. It is about Argentina needing to make payments that it promised to makeSome kvetch how it's unfair to make Argentina payments on "vulture funds," but you know what is truly unfair? Reneging on debt payments you promised to pay. Refusing to keep to your word is something that should put any sensible creditor at ease.

Whether it's dealing with student loans, mortgages or sovereign debt payments, we should hold contracted parties accountable for their financial irresponsibility. That is why the court-induced default was a victory for the rule of law. Argentina chose to borrow money under New York jurisdiction, waived sovereign immunity, and agreed to no collective action clauses (Collective action clauses are more common in such debt restructuring now than it was when Argentina first took out the loans, which is another reason why this court ruling isn't going to have broader implications). Argentina lost fair and square because it preferred to borrow money at a lower interest rates and for a longer period of time than to borrow elsewhere. Either pay what you owe, which seems to be in Argentina's power, or default. Argentina has weathered worse economic conditions before, it hasn't had the same potential for the contagion effect that the last default had, and I think they will be able to make it through this default. There's no reason to cry for Argentina, so why waste your tears?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Tisha B'Av: Redemption Through Consoling Others

As we approach the most somber day of the year on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B'Av, I tend to get more contemplative. Tisha B'Av is a commemoration that is more difficult for a modern-day, non-Orthodox Jew such as myself, but I can still find reasons to observe Tisha B'Av. I don't mourn for the loss of a building because at the very least, if a building or a sacrificial system were that essential to Judaism or its spiritual core, Judaism would have ceased to exist for about two millennia. I mourn for the spiritual downfall that resulted in the Jewish people losing their spiritual center. I still mourn because the very baseless hatred (שנאת חנם) that destroyed the Second Temple and brought about the exile of the Jewish people still exists. Sure, we have more feelings of unification and ahavat Yisrael, such as when Hamas decides to attack Israel. However, if precedent is any indicator, we'll eventually go back to the internal quarreling and backbiting that is regrettably so common amongst Jews who disagree with one another, which is so regrettable since we are already such a small people and can hardly afford divisiveness.

When we interact with others, it's all too easy to forget that on the other end of that interaction is another live, sentient human being. Ego and the self can get in the way, which has the potential to distort the purpose in our interpersonal interactions. The reason that such שנאת חנם exists in the first place is that because people have a propensity to forget what it means to treat people with basic respect. 

How we go about treating people is all the more pronounced during Tisha B'Av. Tisha B'Av is a time to mourn and grieve. Similar to the Exodus that we are supposed to relive during Passover, we are asked to relive the emotional tumult that the Jews experienced when they lost the Second Temple, or even when a subset of Jews was exiled from a given country. We are to recreate the sense of loss through memory. We realize that there is a time to feel suffering. Do we want fellow human beings, or even G-d, hating on us when we're down? Absolutely not! When we're down on our luck is when we need to be most consoled. 

As Dr. Erica Brown points out in her well-written book In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, there is one time in the year in the prayer book that we explicitly ask G-d to console us: Tisha B'Av. The additional supplication inserted in which we ask G-d to console us [specifically to rebuild Jerusalem] is נחם ("Console [us]"). While it's true that the Jewish people have restored Jerusalem back to Jewish sovereignty, there is still the need to relive what so many of our ancestors lived. Why? Because it helps us put ourselves in their shoes. It helps us understand the pain they felt, even though we never directly experienced it. It is a lesson in developing sympathy for others and the losses they feel. We should decidedly take the experience felt in נחם and apply it to our daily lives. How so?

We need consoling when things are not going well. We ask G-d to console us in our hour of need. If we ask this of G-d, we should also ask this of other human beings because we are created in G-d's Image. Suffering and struggle are part of the human experience. We all come across it a various moments in our lives. And when we do come across it, we hope that we can feel a sense of consolation. It helps to be able to reach out to others, verbalize our troubles, and have other people find ways to surmount the tough times. Even if they cannot do anything to change the circumstances, at least consoling you will help you weather it. As Dr. Brown brings up in her book (p. 75), "It is always more of a consolation if people understand our pain and reach out to us before we have to articulate our distress. We feel more loved when others can anticipate our feelings rather than when we have to spell them out. It makes us feel like we are the objects of their genuine concern. They have been thinking of us before we even told them of our distress."

In a more abstract sense, how does this work? The Sages had an answer to this: "Who is wise? He who foresees the consequences of his actions" (Tamid 32a). When we know someone is not doing well, we put ourselves in that person's shoes. The quintessential example of this in Jewish practice is when someone is sitting shiva. When attending a house of mourning, you should have the foresight, not to mention the social tact, to realize that there are certain things you do not say to someone in the grieving process. There are also proper ways to go about helping a person in their time of mourning.

It doesn't even have to be a time of mourning in which someone is in trouble. Take Abraham as an example. When the three men came to his tent, Abraham did not even need to ask what they needed (Genesis 18). Abraham had the foresight to realize that they were wandering in the desert, and that they would be hungry and thirsty. Without hesitation or question, Abraham immediately provided for all of their amenities because he had this foresight. 

We can act with this sort of alacrity in our own lives. If someone lost their job, חס ושלום, you would let them vent, emotionally support them through their period of unemployment, and help that individual find a job. If they broke their leg or fell ill, חס ושלום, you would visit them on a bikkur cholim visit and do whatever you could to help ensure a speedy recovery. There are many opportunities that we can help other people, Jewish or not, to ease their pain and suffering, and in certain cases, even eliminate it. While consolation is hardly the only way in which we can connect to others, it is certainly a way that we can perform mitzvahs, help the world be a better place than it was before, and inculcate the appreciation of essential humanity of those who are around us. Only by reversing the שנאת חנם that destroyed of the Second Temple can we hope to bring about the Messianic Era.