I was drawn to Geoffrey Miller's book Spent because I like evolutionary psychology. He's a relatively funny guy, lumping together 'burglars, prostitutes, and babysitters' (all big tax avoiders), and other funny little ripostes. He goes over some obvious facts, like that female beauty basically corresponds to a woman trying to look like a woman in her peak fertility: smooth skin, pert breast, white sclera, shiny hair, rosy cheeks, hourglass figure, etc. As most people prefer intelligence in their mates, IQ is positively related to romantic attractiveness, which I'm sure is of cold comfort to those chess club members who are taking their cousin to the prom. Did you also know that IQ is positively correlated with brain size (in spite of SJ Gould's Mismeasure of Man), size of specific cortical areas, concentrations of particular neurochemicals, height, physical symmetry, and semen motility?
He's big on signaling, and in a series of experiments researchers found that people were more likely to expend money and effort on products and activities if they were first primed with photographs of the opposite sex or stories about dating. Men were more willing to splurge on designer sunglasses, expensive watches and European vacations, while women became more willing to do volunteer work and perform other acts of conspicuous charity — a signal of high conscientiousness and agreeableness, like demonstrating your concern for third world farmers by spending extra for Starbucks’s “fair trade” coffee. I don't know how that fits in with my private survey data documenting men like to sleep after sex while women want to talk, watch tv, or clean the house; if everything's a sex signal, it seems we are miscommunicating when the object of signaling is right there.
But he mentions that people have 5 traits other than intelligence that are genetic and the subject of signaling. These Big Five are
- Openness - appreciation for art, emotion,adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience.
- Conscientiousness - a tendency to show self-discipline and aim for achievement; planned rather than spontaneous behavior.
- Extraversion - energy, positive emotions, and the tendency to seek >stimulation and the company of others.
- Agreeableness - a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others.
- Neuroticism - a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability.
His Theory of Everything is that we basically have evolved to signal too much on wasteful peacock displays, like Rolex watches, that waste resources and make poor people feel bad. Consumer drek such as that sold at the Mall of America he gives as a prime example of a consumer abomination. I live by the Mall of America. It has a mini amusement park open year round inside (good for Minnesota). I bought year passes for several years, and on many Sundays would take my kids there, they would run through several rides and play in their giant Lego park. We would get some ice cream, I would visit the bookstore, shop at fun stores like Brookstone. Who knew our happiness was actually a false consciousness?
His cure? A consumption tax. I have no problem with that, replacing an income tax with a consumption tax. But then he adds two insanely scary nuances. First, keeping track of consumption so we can make it progressive. If everything has a 30% VAT, then rich guys pay 30% just like poor guys. That is not progressive. Every purchase would need to be recorded at some Department of Consumer Purchases, so government would know everything you have ever bought. That should end well.
Then, he wants to tax some things more than others, like cigarettes, luxury goods, and anything that has an externality. The idea of externalities is highly intuitive; it makes sense that the actions of one affect the happiness of others. A positive externality occurs when one's actions benefit people who were not directly involved in exchange. Think of the benefit we get seeing a neighbor's well-kept yard that contains wild flowers and bunnies (awe). On the other hand, a negative externality imposes a cost on third parties. A factory polluting your streams creating three-eyed monster frogs would be an example. So, subsidize the positive externalities, tax the negative externalities, and social welfare is optimized. For a psychologist, this seems relatively straightforward.
Thus, he starts out by giving what he thinks is a no-brainer: taxing bullets. As bullets kill people, every bullet has an 0.0003% chance of killing someone (10billion rounds sold each year, 30k homicides). As the value of a human life is about $3MM, each bullet should be taxed at 0.0003%*$3MM, or $9. QED. As bullets cost about $0.22, that's a 4000% tax. He concedes there might be some offsets, skeptically noting crime prevention, but such a principled case needs to be made with proof, noting the "social, economic, medical, and funeral costs."
The idea that lawful bullet sales cause crime is fanciful. How many gun deaths are from registered gun owners? Very very few. DC basically outlawed guns and has a very high homicide rate, while rural areas have much greater proportion of bullet buyers and lower murder rates. Japan outlaws guns, in Switzerland everyone has one, both have low crime, so that's a null effect. But those are just a few facts, and so aren't definitive. It would be hard to reject the hypothesis that the social, economic, medical, and funeral costs are not some some small fraction of some really large number, especially when he is asserting a 0.0003% probability of causing deaths--standard errors probably asymptote above that. It is very hard to disprove things with very complex interactions, as for example you can't simply say unions are good because unions pay more because this higher wage comes only at the expense of rationing employment in that industry or firm, and ethanol means we don't burn oil, but we need a lot of energy to create this. Adding up the assets and liabilities is nontrivial. The key in these debates is to be the null hypothesis (ie, the statement to be refuted), because it's a lot easier to have proposition "A" be not rejected than rejected. Miller presumes his Liberal agenda would form all the null hypotheses, so we would tax frappuccinos, popular art, and fraternities, and subsidize almond croissants, Tori Amos concerts, and ergonomic keyboards.
It's fun to see a neat bunch of insights and powerful evolutionary theory all basically rationalizing the standard Liberal agenda. Didn't Cicero say the function of wisdom is to find the good? If the good is simply what Air America spouts all day, his signaling Theory of Everything seems a needlessly circuitous way to get there. Why not say we must subordinate everything to egalitarianism? Proof: Evolution. And if you don't believe in evolution, you must merely be a creationist fool. QED. But evolution explains a lot, not everything, about life, and there are many smart people who think opposite policies maximize long-run species fecundity. I don't think a top-down shift in social tactics via 'progressive' consumption taxes and subsidies is necessarily better for our 2-3 billion year future in this solar system. His vision is just an excessively intrusive nanny state trying to tell everyone what to do because consumers are so stupid, unlike wise, selfless politicians and bureaucrats.