Wednesday, March 07, 2012

In which Steve Landsburg makes me lose my lunch

Steve Landsburg has a post defending Rush Limbaugh's comments about Sandra Fluke. Landsburg claims that Rush was right to mock Fluke, and was right to request that Fluke send him a tape of herself having sex.

This post really made me want to vomit. It is morally repugnant and disgusting in the extreme. It deserves strong condemnation, and possibly a hurled water balloon filled with the unsavory excretions of an African hyena. It is the most sickening thing I have read in the econ blogosphere, bar none.

But as economists, we are supposed to be dispassionate. We are supposed to overcome our biases and dwell in a realm of pure reason. And so I will rebut Landsburg's post not based on its severe moral failings, but on its logical shortcomings, of which there are many. For the post is not merely offensive, it is poorly thought out.

First, Landsburg mocks Sandra Fluke:
[W]hile Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatseover. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty. I expect there are respectable arguments for subsidizing contraception (though I am skeptical that there are arguments sufficiently respectable to win me over), but Ms. Fluke made no such argument. All she said, in effect, was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it... 
Her demand is to be paid. The right word for that is...“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.
The notion that Sandra Fluke deserves to be ridiculed, mocked, and jeered is, of course, a value judgment. But on what basis is this value judgment made? Apparently, Fluke deserves to be jeered and ridiculed because she is requesting an in-kind transfer payment from the government. Do all people who request in-kind transfer payments from the government deserve to be "ridiculed, mocked, and jeered"? Are people who accept mortgage interest tax deductions "extortionists"? What about old people on Medicare? Or poor people on food stamps? Or college students on Pell Grants? Landsburg's justification for mocking Fluke can just as easily be applied to nearly ever human being in the United States - or, at least, any of us who wouldn't voluntarily give up our in-kind government benefits. By Landsburg's definition, America is made up of nothing but extortonists.

(Of course, I didn't even address the question of how Sandra Fluke intends to compel U.S. taxpayers to pay for her contraception; in my book, "extortion" requires some sort of actual force or credible threat of force.)

Now here comes the part of Landsburg's post that is not only the most vile, but the most logically nonsensical:
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.
Again, let's analyze this dispassionately. Landsburg claims that if Rush's taxes pay for Sandra Fluke's contraception, then Rush is entitled to some direct in-kind benefit from Sandra Fluke's sex life (for example, a sex tape to which Rush know). This claim, besides being retch-inducing, has two clear logical flaws.

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 (i.e. reimburse him the amount he paid for the birth control) and let him buy whatever he wants with it. 

Second, by Landsburg's own admission, Sandra Fluke will be having sex whether or not Rush pays for it:
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.
Therefore, "ethical symmetry" would not entitle Rush to receive direct benefits from Fluke's sexual activity. 

So in addition to being horrendously insulting, Landsburg's point is just flat-out logically unsound.

Bloggers and economists, here's a hint: Just because an idea or argument is offensive to the moral sensibilities of the general public (or of liberals) does not make that idea correct or smart. It is easily possible to slip well below the efficient frontier of the accuracy/acceptability tradeoff. Dr. Landsburg, you have made such a slip here.

Update: Via Brad DeLong, I see that the president of the University of Rochester, where Steve Landsburg is employed, has strongly disavowed Landsburg's disgusting statements. Good.


  1. Wow. It's so awful that it seems like it must be a joke. Too bad it's not.

  2. Anonymous9:02 PM

    Thank you for pointing out that Limbaugh's demand for sex tapes is so that he can masturbate while watching them.

    So disgusting.

  3. Anonymous11:42 PM

    Also worth pointing out is that one of the points made by Ms. Fluke was that birth control pills are used to treat not-uncommon medical conditions (ovarian cysts for instance). Should health-insurance be able to refuse to pay for treatments because the treatment renders a woman unable to conceive?

  4. You just now discovered that Landsburg is an intellectually dishonest jerk?

  5. Anonymous1:14 AM

    To the tune of "The Beverly Hillbillies" Theme Song)

    This here's the story
    Of a perv named Rush
    Who said some nasty things
    That would make a sailor blush
    He demanded sex tapes
    And dreamed of 6th grade girls
    And his advertisers fled
    While all decent folks hurled, Vommit that is, projectile puke.

  6. Public goods are wonderful...but it's just so bizarre that you never talk about opportunity costs.

    Do you think this stems from receiving your college degree in physics rather than economics? It's been so long since I took Econ 101 but I'm pretty sure it covered the part about how economics is the study of scarcity.

    Do you think that just because the government can print as much money as it wants that this somehow means that the government can just buy voters whatever they want? Or do you think that if we taxed the rich at a higher rate then the idea of scarcity would somehow lose its relevance?

    Who cares if Rush Limbaugh said something that was politically incorrect. What I care about is understanding your perspective on how scarce resources are efficiently allocated.  Please make an economic argument that explains exactly why I should trust congress with my taxes.  Help me understand why they can spend my taxes better than I can.

    You could even just critique my own perspective on the efficient allocation of scarce resources...Partial Knowledge and Opportunity Costs. Where am I going wrong?

    The bottom line is...if you can't explain how scarce resources are efficiently allocated then Steve Landsburg and Rush Limbaugh will always have the upper hand.  No matter how politically incorrect they are...I'll stand by their argument that less taxes are ALWAYS better than inefficiently allocated taxes.

    1. Anonymous8:10 AM

      well said Xerographica! Couldn't agree more. How come a graduate student of economics analyse this way?? I wonder!

  7. Anonymous8:22 AM

    @Xeographica: i am sorry that you do not like the way your tax dollars are spent but guess what, I dont either, thats just part of the deal of living in this country. if we are going to play that game, pay me back for oil subsidies, the wars and the million other things i dont agree with which tax dollars are spent on. in short your argument is moronic sir, and dont try to hide it behind claims of scarcity and efficiency, we all took econ101.... on another note, Noah, I think you would have a stronger argument if you emphasized two things; this is not about letting people use your money for sex. such a claim is a gross misunderstanding of how birth control works and the many reproductive health issues it treat-- so again birth control does not equal free sex for people. second, this is about requiring private insurance companies to provide coverage because of the many women's health benefits concerned not about the government using your tax dollars so everyone could have sex. John Stewart did a pretty good bit on this.

  8. The "tax dollars" bit is a unbiquitously-used red herring.

  9. Anonymous, it might help to actually understand my choice...before you try and attack it.

  10. @xeographica: I'm genuinely impressed by your ability to define Limbaugh's (and his enthusiast's) remarks as "politically incorrect". My speculations on your upbringing and socialization success would not serve to advance the discussion so I'll keep them to myself. I do wonder idly what you would regard as "morally repugnant" or "offensive", but of course those are such subjective and indeed loaded terms. At any rate, with regard to your argument, I intend to simply disregard it. Anything that is proposed by someone whose moral structure is so malformed becomes highly suspect to me. It's similar in my opinion to the sort of argument that you hear people propose who find Ayn Rand to be an exciting and important philosopher. In other words, it's like listening to 12-year-olds discuss whether BloedSnaeke or MegaSplatterDethKult was the Greatest Band Of All Time - there's a very strong likelihood that it will be a near-complete waste of time, and God knows I'm already too far behind on things that are important.

  11. Anonymous2:16 PM

    Alright, let me at this one.

    First point:
    "The notion that Sandra Fluke deserves to be ridiculed, mocked, and jeered is, of course, a value judgment."
    He explicitly said "her position", and not her.

    "Apparently, Fluke deserves to be jeered and ridiculed because she is requesting an in-kind transfer payment from the government"

    I think "jeered and ridiculed" are just strong words for "criticized." Which is perfectly reasonable. If someone is going to take money from me to spend it, they had better have a good argument and reasoning behind it. Likwise, I'm going to criticize it and see if
    it holds. "We want it" isn't good enough. I want some pizza, but I'll worry about that myself. I won't make you pay for it. As to your other examples, although many people have varying opinions on them, they didn't base their arguments on "we want money for our house", or "we want you to pay for our food." They were a bit more thought out than that. Which is the same as most arguments for contraceptives, but like Landsburg shows, she doesn't bring them up.

    A small point, however:
    "(Of course, I didn't even address the question of how Sandra Fluke intends to compel U.S. taxpayers to pay for her contraception; in my book, "extortion" requires some sort of actual force or credible threat of force.)"

    Sandra Fluke, like the rest of us, can use the political system to get what she wants. Now, if she votes for a politician that says "you all must pay for contraception for other people", guess what happens when I refuse? I get thrown in jail, and if I refuse that, I get beaten by police. Extortion.

    "Rush is entitled to some direct in-kind benefit from Sandra Fluke's sex life (for example, a sex tape to which Rush know)."

    Incorrect. Just like Landsburg explicitly states, he doesn't think this is exactly what Rush wants. It's purely a rhetorical analogy for: "Why should I pay for it? What do I get from it?" Obviously a bit gross, but then again, it's Rush Limbaugh.

    "First, from an economic efficiency standpoint, in-kind benefits are inferior to direct cash payments, as Ed Glaeser will tell you."

    Man, Noah. This one was literally introductory micro. I don't need to ask Ed Glaeser. Anyways, to answer your point. If we are only talking about Rush Limbaugh still, then your assumption is that he wouldn't already spend all of his cash subsidy on online porn anyways. Too big of an assumption. Besides, like I said, it isn't about getting porn. It's still about "Why should I pay for it?" and "What do I get from it?" But to take the argument further, what sense does it make if I pay her for contraceptives, and she pays me a cash subsidy in return. Why doesn't she just pay for the contraceptives? His idea was that if she didn't have money, then that's his gross way of getting something out of it.

    "Therefore, "ethical symmetry" would not entitle Rush to receive direct benefits from Fluke's sexual activity."

    You're building off the same assumption as before. The point was, "Why should I pay for it?" Not, "Why can't I watch that?" Regardless of whether she bones or not, why should I be paying for contraception? As Landsburg statement suggests, perhaps we could be better off if some women were given contraceptives so that they don't run the risk of having children and then being unable to afford them (Which would hurt us. This answers the question "What do I get from it?). That, however, is not the point brought up. Maybe I misunderstood what you meant in the last part, though.

    Now that you've gotten hired, Noah, your posts have slowly been getting worse. Go figure.

  12. Johnson853:52 PM

    "By Landsburg's definition, America is made up of nothing but extortonists."

    Most Americans want stuff and for other people pay for it. Fluke's argument is just particularly contemptible because she skipped the part where most people asking for money come up with a pretext as to why other people should pay for their stuff. Solyndra should get your money b/c they're reducing carbon output and decreasing reliance on fossil fuels, for example.

    While treating people who come up with a pretext for why they want to take your money by force differently from people who are honest enough to admit they want other people's money b/c they don't want to use theirs is in some ways silly, but it does at least provide some (very) small check on people trying to appropriate the force of gov't to steal other people's money.

    Unfortunately, lots of people now think there's nothing contemptible with Fluke's position that the only 'justification' you need to take other people's money is enough votes, and the number of people that think this is probably only going to get bigger. But even if it's a losing cause, we should at least put up an effort and mock the idea that "other people should pay for it b/c I don't want to" is an opinion or argument deserving of respect.

  13. Anonymous4:07 PM

    What is truly strange about Landsburg's rant here is that the same Landsburg wrote a book entitled "More Sex is Safer Sex," in which he argued that promiscuous sex was a public good that should be subsidized. Look it up for yourself!


  14. Alright, let me at this one.

    Hey, commenter, guess what?

    SHUT UP.

    Damn, I've been waiting so long to say that to a deserving schmuck. You just made my day.

  15. Anonymous5:55 PM

    @Anon 4:07

    That really doesn't have much to do with what he's talking about. I don't think his ideas of "more sex", and the ones he portrayed in his article, are mutually exclusive.

  16. JohnR, obviously I was raised to focus on substance rather than style. Why don't I find what Limbaugh said to be "morally repugnant"? Well, in an Afghan village a distraught woman told us that the Taliban had recently beat her husband to death because he refused to give them his family's meager supply of food. In my book that's what qualifies as "morally repugnant" behavior. Limbaugh's behavior, in comparison, only qualifies as politically incorrect.

    "there's a very strong likelihood that it will be a near-complete waste of time, and God knows I'm already too far behind on things that are important."

    Oh the irony. If you had gotten off your moral high horse you might have understood that your point forms the basis of my argument. God knows your priorities...and you know your priorities...but does congress have any idea what your priorities are?

    Does congress listen to your prayers like God listens to your prayers? Do you think that you are the little sparrow that congress has its eyes on?

    Help me understand why you have such strong faith that public funds will be efficiently allocated when congress has no idea what any of our priorities are. In case anybody wasn't aware of economic terms the "opportunity cost" concept helps reveal what our priorities are. Whether you decide to have or eat your cake reveals your priorities. Putting your time/money where your mouth is reveals your priorities. Allowing people to reveal their priorities is what helps ensure the efficient allocation of scarce resources.

    Given that you value your limited time...and I'm guessing that you also value your limited might be worth it to at least understand my argument regarding partial knowledge and opportunity costs.

  17. Re: 4:40 Noah -
    (at 05 seconds)

  18. Julie Fauble Garrett10:51 AM

    Even you really smart people miss the point. The question isn't about taxpayers paying for birth control. The question is: should birth control be covered by insurance companies like other preventive care. We already mandate that insurance companies provide a long list of preventive services/products. Why shouldnt birth control be on that list?

    For a very large chunk of their lives, most women's biggest health care issue is managing fertility. That includes preventing/timing pregnancy as well as dealing with a really annoyingly designed reproductive system that often causes problems ranging from cramps to anemia to ovarian cysts to excessive bleeding. Good preventive care, often in the form of birth control pills, helps with all of that.

    So if anyone wants to defend Limbaugh, they need to explain why women's preventive care shouldn't be covered by insurance, why we can mandate all sorts of preventive care, but deny it to women.

  19. Anonymous1:25 PM

    Here's one:

    The pill costs $9 a month. Is a woman who can't afford that going to bother going to the clinic to get it for free?
    Is that something people need to be "insured" against?
    What was the point of insurance to start with?
    To prevent everyone completely from factoring in costs to their decisions?

    1. " The pill costs $9 a month."

      Actually, it would be more accurate to say a specific brand of pills costs that much. There are other kinds of birth control that may either work better or are safer. The other types of contraceptives maybe more expensive.

  20. Most recent Anon:

    My point is not that govt. should pay for contraception (I think it should, but that is an argument for another day), but that Landsburg is A) being ridiculous by suggesting that Sandra Fluke ought to send Rush a sex tape, B) pointlessly singling out govt.-sponsored contraception out of all the vast multitude of in-kind transfer payments, and C) being a pig for defending Rush for making such sexually aggressive and sexist statements.

  21. McMike4:12 PM

    It's ok with me. He just laid the intellectual foundation for refusing to pay my taxes if they fund illegal wars and wall street bailouts.

    There is in fact an argument made for the social benefit, by the way, which has to do with lower unwanted births, less young and single moms, better public health, etc.

    And as another poster already pointed out, this is about mandates for private insurance policies coverage, not about use of tax dollars (except indirectly via government employees).

    I think Landsburg and Limbaugh (and anyone near them at the time) both have demonstrated their right to be assinated via a taxpayer funded drone attack.

    As for me, I think I deserve to enter any home financed with the mortgage tax deduction.

  22. Noah, given that you received your undergraduate degree in physics...I thought of you when I read this...

    "The explanation for this problem, Hayek argues, is that modern
    thinkers have erroneously adopted the paradigm of physics in assessing and judging their social theories, when a better model could be drawn from biology with its focus on evolutionary development." - Lawrence J. Connin, Hayek, Liberalism and Social Knowledge

    If you get a chance you should read that paper.

  23. "Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatseover. " -Landsburg

    "The notion that Sandra Fluke deserves to be ridiculed, mocked, and jeered is, of course, a value judgment." -Noah

    Anyone else confused?

  24. Thank you, Julie Fauble Garrett.

    To speak of what's happening as a mediated "in-kind transfer payment" from one person to another cedes rhetorical ground to the libertarian I-pay-for-your-X mindset. If you start out viewing the transaction as some sort of individual payment, you're going to reach ridiculous conclusions in your normative reasoning, because that's simply not what's happening. The whole idea of government is predicated on the notion that some actions need to take place at a systemic rather than individual level.

    So if "I don't like it so I shouldn't have to pay for it" is vacuous, what's left to argue? The question of whether birth control should be covered by insurance companies like other preventive care.

    There should be a name for the cognitive bias of conceptualizing systemic causation as a single instance.

  25. Its been mentioned in this thread but it really needs to be emphasized that Sandra Fluke is not asking for Rush Limbaugh or anyone else to pay for anything. The people who continually spout that line are demonstrating an acute ignorance of the basic facts here. Fluke was asking that the insurance that she pays for be mandated to cover contraception because it is a genuine health cost.

    Her testimony concerned the ways in which contraception is used to treat serious health conditions. Although it would have been certainly appropriate for her to do so, she does not even discuss preventing childbirth as part of this.

    Her school is exempted from providing that coverage because the Church it is associated with believes it is immoral. She does not believe that is an appropriate reason for exemption. One can agree or not but the notion that the argument itself is offensive or that she is committing some sort of act of extortion by arguing that contraception is an important part of women's health that should be covered by insurance whether one goes to a Catholic school or not can only come from a kind of hostile ignorance of the underlying issues. Certainly Landsburg as well as his defenders here are guilty of just this sort of ignorance.

    If you believe that it is appropriate for a health insurance plan to not include coverage for what is clearly a key component of women's health, then let us hear why. All this nonsense about being paid for sex is deeply stupid.

  26. Thank you, Brent. I was waiting for someone, even Noah, to accurately describe Fluke's position on this.

    She wants the insurance SHE PAYS FOR to include contraception.

    Thank you.

  27. Oddly you didn't get around to mentioning two other gross errors.

    First Fluke was talking about Georgetown U. insurance for students. Georgetown is a private non profit (obviously the issue was Catholic church controlled employers). So public money was not involved (not even a tax break, as the students are paying Georgetown U not vice versa).

    Second Fluke in now way stated or suggested that she personally sues contraception. The testimony which Landsburg calls an attempt at extortion contained no statement inconsistent with the hypotheses that for example she is saving it for her wedding night or for another, that she is lesbian. She didn't mention the case of Sandra Fluke at all.

    Landsburg's claim about what she said is demonstrably false and shows reckless disregard for the truth (the transcript of her testimony is on line).

    OK it isn't really odd. The post you critique is so full of errors of fact and logic that it is hard to list all of them. Plus you have better things to do with your time.

  28. OK it isn't really odd. The post you critique is so full of errors of fact and logic that it is hard to list all of them. Plus you have better things to do with your time.

    Why, yes. ;)

  29. Noah: "Damn, I've been waiting so long to say that to a deserving schmuck. You just made my day. "

    Good. Hammer the sh*t out of these guys.

  30. Among other failings, Landsberg show here that he hasn't even looked up 'insurance' in wikipedia, let alone understood it.

    I won't say that this is a shocking failure in an economist - it's almost required by the right-wing econosphere.

    However, it should be mercilessly mocked whenever it comes up.

  31. In addition, it's clear that Landsberg didn't actually read Ms. Fluke's testimony, but worked from Rush. I guess that Daniel Keuhn thinks sourcing one's facts from Rush is good scientific practice, which does give useful evidence about him.

    Second, both of these guys don't understand how birth control pills work. Again, they seem to be relying on Rush's work, which was based on Viagra in the Dominican Republic.

  32. bigjeff52:24 PM

    Landsburg and a few commenters on his blog have actually articulated several cogent pro-contraceptive arguments on his blog, far better than anything I have read here or seen in the general media on the subject.

    Ms. Fluke, however, did not make an argument. Her testimony consisted of a story of a friend who was harmed because her insurance, which actually covered contraceptives for medical reasons, improperly denied her coverage because they did not believe her doctor, and instead erroneously believed she would be using the contraceptive as birth control. This is everything that I believe is wrong with health insurance in the US as it stands today, and I can't help but wonder why Fluke's law student friend did not sue her insurance company for everything they've got. Certainly it's the type of case that the ACLU would love to jump for a whole host of reasons, I can't see money being a problem in this case.

    It also has absolutely nothing at all to do with the issue Fluke was testifying about. It's a complete red-herring, an emotional manipulation of the dirtiest kind.

    Strip away this story, and Fluke's argument becomes simply "Contraceptives are too expensive, I want everyone on insurance to help pay for them."

    If you actually consider this to be an argument, then this is the most idiotic and useless argument I can imagine. Without actually giving a reason WHY the burden should be shared, she actually makes the case that it shouldn't to anybody who cares about their own money.

    There are good arguments for paying for birth control, and in fact this is probably why most health insurance does indeed cover birth control, usually with a small co-pay. Fluke does not make one, and what she does argue is worthy of scorn.

    Limbaugh's analogy was spot on, but far too crass for my taste (one of the reasons I don't follow Limbaugh - the other being that I am not inclined to his general ideology) and obviously too subtle of the likes of Noah and his readers.

    Lastly, I think it says a lot about you, Noah, that you will twist Landsburg's words so disingenuously.

    He very clearly articulates that Fluke herself does not deserve personal ridicule. It is her position that is ridiculous, and is therefore deserving of ridicule. You even re-posted this statement before you went on to claim Landsburg's personal ridicule of Fluke is reprehensible! His admiration for Limbaugh's analogy is in my opinion gross, but not unfounded. Disgusting as the idea is, it is entirely accurate as an analogy.

    That you choose to ignore the substance and instead create a straw man out of specific words is very telling of your character.