Thursday, March 8, 2012

Landsberg's latest

Noah Smith points out a Steve Landsburg column that doesn't make a lot of sense.  I am going to try (although it is hard) to ingnore the moral dimension here (although I am very much on Sandra's Fluke's side) and focus on the inherent logic of the positions being staked out.  Consider Landsberg's comments:
To his credit, Rush stepped in to provide the requisite mockery. To his far greater credit, he did so with a spot-on analogy: If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits. His dense and humorless critics notwithstanding, I am 99% sure that Rush doesn’t actually advocate mandatory on-line sex videos. What he advocates is logical consistency and an appreciation for ethical symmetry. So do I. Color me jealous for not having thought of this analogy myself.

There’s one place where I part company with Rush, though: He wants to brand Ms. Fluke a “slut” because, he says, she’s demanding to be paid for sex. There are two things wrong here. First, the word “slut” connotes (to me at least) precisely the sort of joyous enthusiasm that would render payment superfluous. A far better word might have been “prostitute” (or a five-letter synonym therefor), but that’s still wrong because Ms. Fluke is not in fact demanding to be paid for sex. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) She will, as I understand it, be having sex whether she gets paid or not. Her demand is to be paid. The right word for that is something much closer to “extortionist”. Or better yet, “extortionist with an overweening sense of entitlement”. Is there a single word for that?

But whether or not he chose the right word, what I just don’t get is why the pro-respect crowd is aiming all its fire at Rush. Which is more disrespectful — his harsh language or Sandra Fluke’s attempt to pick your pocket? That seems like a pretty clear call to me.
 Noah Smith comments that:
First, from an economic efficiency standpoint, in-kind benefits are inferior to direct cash payments, as Ed Glaeser will tell you. Instead of giving Rush a sex tape, it would be more efficient to simply hand Rush some cash and let him buy whatever he wants with it. 
But I think that this critique also misses the point of the most relevant exmaple given.  In this case (a lesbian student who wanted to be prescribed these medications to prevent cyst growth on her ovaries -- which led to surgery to remove an ovary) -- the rationale for taking the drug had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with preventing unnecessary surgery.  From a strict cost perspective, Landsburg should be praising Fluke for trying to save the state money by improving medical efficiency.  From a utiliatarian perspective, it's probably worth a few thousand dollars to preserve a person's otherwise healthy organ.  So this policy (in this case, at least) is costing extra money for all parties involved. 

So I am mystified by Landsberg's clear call.  He wants to spend more money on unecessary medical procedures that could be avoided with inexpensive and commonly available drug therapies?  Is this because Landsberg thinks his personal tax rate is too low? 

Not only do I find the substance of the argument repugnant, it seems to fail on even on it's own terms.  So I am confused by what Landberg is trying to accomplish wit it.  Is he hoping that we will turn it around and support open access to oral contraceptives?  Is he advocating for higher tax rates to enable a greater degree of social engineering?  Or am I missing something here? 

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