What Causes Wealth Inequality?

This discussion is adapted from a forum debate.

There are many causes of wealth inequality, but several major factors come to mind:

  • High effective income tax rates and costs of living. When the government takes larger percentages of income, it becomes harder and harder to accumulate wealth, but existing wealth is untouched. Hence, those trying to climb the economic ladder find it much more difficult to get to the top than it is for the wealthy to stay at the top. You’ll notice that most blue states have high taxes and high costs of living due to redistributive welfare policies, regulations, bans, licensing laws, etc.
  • High inflation. Inflation that is driven by the government printing money is effectively a flat-rate tax on income and wealth. This is even more harmful than the income tax for those trying to climb the economic ladder, because those are the people who tend to have their assets purely in the form of cash. The wealthy have enough wealth that they can afford to (knowledgeably) put most of it into stocks, bonds, securities, and business investments. So, they are hardly touched by inflation, while poorer people who have all their cash in the bank will see their effective purchasing power dwindle over the years.
  • Regulation and licensing laws. Regulations make it harder to run a business. They also make the learning curve and required initial investment to start a business MUCH steeper. The people who are already at the top can afford legal experts to parse through all the regulations for them, and can afford to comply with all the licensing laws. But people who are just trying to get started and make something of themselves are hopeless unless they can get free outside assistance to help them navigate the regulatory pitfalls and compliance requirements. Unless you’re very sociable and know the right people, free help is pretty hard to come by. Big businesses actively lobby for strict licensing laws (e.g. medical licensing, food service licensing, distillery licensing, “official” taxi licensing, etc.) because they know it keeps potential small competitors with great ideas out of the game completely. A powerful example of this effect can be seen in the beer market. After prohibition ended, all forms of alcohol production were kept under strict licensing laws, and only 2 or 3 breweries and 1 distillery dominated the entire market for decades. Then, in the 1970’s, brewery licensing laws were repealed (while distillery licensing laws were kept in place) and the craft brewery movement immediately got started. The quality and variety of available beer skyrocket so much that, within a decade, the beer market started to even outcompete the wine market on their own turf (i.e. customers interested in “classy” alcoholic beverages). This is why today, we have tens of thousands of choices in beer whereas in 1970, you had to pick Coors, Miller, or Budweiser. Though, distilleries still suffer under (some of) the old licensing laws, keeping just a few big companies in control of the whole market.
  • Government grants. Government grants sound like a good idea for helping causes you like (e.g. business, science, etc.), but it gives government enormous power to play favorites. The wealthiest districts in the country are those where people are most skilled at winning government grants. If you’re trying to run a business, and you have the best product on the market, but your competitor has a government grant, your competitor will win. And it’s much easier to get a government grant if you’re already wealthy, so the politicians have already heard of you. This process entrenches an economic elite that does little of value, but speaks the language that makes political hearts flutter with excitement. In graduate school PhD programs, they don’t even teach young scientists how to raise private money from willing contributors anymore. They just teach us how to apply for- and win -government grants. Getting government grants is also a lot easier if you live in a state that votes Democrat, simply because Democrats populate most of the government’s executive offices that distribute these grants. Based on what I’ve seen in my own field, you could have a university in Texas that generates more high-quality research than a university in California, both competing for the same grants, and the California university would get >80% of the grant money.

It is a perpetual irony of the political economy that every major problem faced by the lower-class and middle-class is created or worsened by the same people who claim to want to help them. Nobel Laureate Friedrich von Hayek observed this phenomenon in the 1930’s, and published a book in 1944 called The Road to Serfdom, in which he describes how totalitarians successfully subjugate a voting population through a vicious cycle of Observe a Societal Problem -> Implement Government Authority to Fix It -> The Authority Causes More Problems -> Repeat. Voters fall for it every time.

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What’s the Point of Insurance if it’s Not Socialism?

This post is derived from a conversation I had on Facebook with a middle-aged Californian.

Q: What’s the point of insurance if you can’t force people to cover treatments they’ll never use (e.g. charging men for women’s birth control pills)?

A: Are you saying that you do not understand the difference between managing risk and redistribution of known costs? I can explain this to you.

Think about how your car insurance works. It insures you against collisions and the associated liability- a situation that has a low chance of occurring, but is associated with high costs. When you pay your premiums, you are buying the mitigation of risk. If you have a 5% chance of incurring $20,000 in damages each year, then your customer group is costing the insurance company an average of $1000/year. So they charge you $1170/year, spending 15% on bureaucratic overhead, and walking away with a 2% profit margin for the service of converting your individual risk into a certain, statistically-weighted charge.

But in situations where the chance of a cost being incurred are either 0% or 100%, it makes no sense to buy insurance. If the chance is 0% (e.g. the chance of a man needing an abortion, or the chance of a woman needing Viagra), then your risk is zero, and the insurance company has nothing to offer you on that plan. If the chance is 100% (or you have control over the event’s occurrence), such as with birth control pills that you know you want, or that vasectomy that a guy chooses to get at a particular time in his life, then the premium cost associated with the service will be the cost of buying it without insurance, plus 15-30% bureaucratic overhead, plus 2-5% profit. In these cases, you already have complete control over the costs, yet you’re paying the insurance company extra to manage no additional risk. Financially, this is not a smart decision.

However, you seem to want people who have zero risk to share your known (100% chance) costs. This is not insurance. This is known as “social ownership” of costs. Social ownership is always advantageous to those who spend more and contribute less, and disadvantageous to those who are more responsible with their cost-management. There are only 3 cases I can think of where this sort of arrangement happens voluntarily for a long term: marriages, corporate ownership, and socialist communes. These arrangements only survive if they are very selective about who is allowed to participate, and have established mechanisms for removing (divorcing) members who take advantage of the contract without contributing much in return. Otherwise, the best members will always leave first, collapsing the arrangement.

When you use government force to mandate social ownership of costs throughout an entire society, that is known as “socialism.” In this case, there is no check on the behavior or character of participants. There is no mechanism for removing bad actors from the arrangement. It’s like being stuck in 300 million bad marriages all at once…unless you’re the one being a bad partner. This system violates the human right of free association, incurs unnecessary bureaucratic overhead costs, reduces productivity, reduces innovation, and ultimately reduces prosperity for everyone involved.

So if you’re seeking social ownership, insurance companies are not the institution you’re looking for. Let insurance companies sell insurance, and get your desire for social ownership fulfilled through family, communes, or (if you think your desired organizational structure is more efficient than existing companies) start a corporation. Don’t try to force insurance companies to be something they’re not, and don’t try to force us all to participate in a social ownership plan that some of us really don’t want to be a part of. Involuntary association of that nature will only make us all poorer.

UPDATE: She responded that I was “mansplaining” to her, and argued that because birth control “is a basic part of health care,” insurance must cover it, completely ignoring my argument. Logic and reason doesn’t get through to these socialist idiots. They only understand the fear of having their own smears turned back against them. So I called her a bigot for trying to use my gender to demagogue me into silence through that misandrist term. That’s when she “lost interest” in the conversation…meaning she no longer had any way to maintain dignity while making her argument. This is just about the best outcome that can be hoped for with people like this- they’ll never admit they’ve lost the debate, but they’ll be too embarrassed to make those arguments in public again.

5 Very Stupid Beliefs About the Hobby Lobby Ruling

1. The Supreme Court doesn’t understand science/economics/women’s needs!

  • NO. That is stupid, and you are stupid for thinking it. The Supreme Court’s job is to interpret law, not write it or make policy. All they have said is that the contraception mandate is not legal because it contradicts the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed (nearly unanimously) by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton. It would be illegal for the Supreme Court to change the law from their bench.

2. Hobby Lobby is denying women birth control!

  • NO. That is stupid, and you are still stupid for thinking these things. All Hobby Lobby has done is stated that they will not pay for 4 kinds of contraception (while happily offering to pay for 16 others). Nobody is stopping you from going to the store and buying that contraception yourself.

3. I have A RIGHT to make others pay for my contraception!

  • NO YOU DON’T. That is stupid, and you are a horrible person for believing that. You don’t have a right to make anyone else pay for ANYTHING for you. Well, unless you’re an infant and you’re asking your parents to take care of you. Are you an infant, and you need breast milk from your Hobby Lobby Mommy? The foundation of civilization is voluntary interactions and transactions. Can you imagine a society where I could come up to you and demand that you buy me a new car, and claim you’re violating my rights if you don’t? Yeah, that’s what you’re doing here. Stop being a greedy asshole trying to take things from others and learn to take care of yourself and interact with others on a voluntary and respectful basis.

4. Hobby Lobby is FORCING their religion on me!

  • NO THEY AREN’T. YOU are in fact trying to force YOUR beliefs on them by FORCING them to buy birth control that violates their religion, and then FORCING them to give it to you. How would you feel if they were forcing you to buy rosary beads and communion wafers and Pope hats and cross-shaped wall-hangings to give to them? Then you would see this for what it is. Don’t you DARE try to tell me “It’s DIFFERENT” when you’re on the other side, you hypocritical weasel.

5. Hobby Lobby still covers Viagra and vasectomies, so they’re DISCRIMINATING!

  • NO THEY AREN’T. I don’t know if there’s a female analogy for Viagra, but the comparable analogy to vasectomies is getting your tubes tied, which Hobby Lobby covers. In fact, Hobby Lobby covers far more contraception options for women than for men. I don’t see them handing out free condoms and spermicide to all the men. HEY OBAMA, WHERE’S MY CONDOM MANDATE!?