The Steel man Undisclosed

Steelmanning is a term that has been growing in popularity lately. I think I first heard it in this discussion between Dave Rubin and Eric Weinstein. I’ve also heard Sam Harris discuss it, I believe on one of his podcasts. You’ve likely heard of “strawmanning” or the “straw man fallacy” which can take a variety of forms. You could selectively present the weaker pieces of an argument, or only address one small aspect that is not the focal point. It’s basically just an attempt to invalidate a notion that was not actually the one expressed by an opponent. As you might have figured out, steelmanning is roughly the opposite. As I take it, steelmanning is the act of responding to your opponent’s argument as if it were the most coherent and compelling version of their insights that you can manage, even if they have not necessarily offered that. I think of it sort of like taking devil’s advocate against yourself. People have vastly different ways of expressing and interpreting positions, so checking if your criticism addresses the points that seem strongest to you can be a useful tool.

Unfortunately, steelmanning can be misused. I absolutely agree with the point made here about it being “arrogant to declare that you’re definitely doing it”. If you openly state that you’re steelmanning a position, you might as well say “I’m going to do a better job expressing your point than you did”. This is both obnoxious and ineffective. Steelmanning should remain undisclosed. I think Ozy’s post “Against Steelmanning” may in fact be strawmanning the concept of steelmanning. She brings up crucial problems with the application of the concept, but I don’t think it is intended to be used for condescension. I agree that it’s a very difficult skill, but keeping the concept in mind as you debate with someone is valuable. I don’t think it’s meant to be something explicitly mentioned during an argument. In fact, I think her first two propositions for “alternatives to steelmanning” are exactly what steelmanning is intended to be. Chana Messinger’s response to Ozy provides further discussion and I think both parties make some excellent points. If used effectively, I think steelmanning can help to make disagreements clear, improve arguments, and even cut down on polarization and partisanship.

Estate Tax

Unfortunately, this tax is not simple, so I’ll have to go into some details that I’m sure some will find boring. But once I’m through with the details I will explain the reasoning behind my suggestions. Inheritance tax, also sometimes referred to as “the Death tax”, is incurred by the recipient of an inheritance. Estate tax is very similar in nature, though it applies to the estate before being passed on to an heir. Different countries have different formulae for wealth transfer at death. Canada has no inheritance tax and instead applies capital gains taxes at fair market value on the assets (estate) as if they have been sold. Any capital gains on these assets is then taxed at 50 percent. There are exemptions like transfer of assets to a spouse or leaving “marketable securities to a registered charity through your will”. Primary residences and Lifetime Capital Gains also have their own exemptions. In the United States, estate tax is federal and inheritance tax is left to the state to decide.

Obviously this debate could be framed in many ways, but federal estate tax in the United States is easiest to address. The basic exemption is the one I want you to understand. It can be found here. Also shown is the table for tentative tax, which isn’t worth getting into. As you can see, the first $5.49 million is exempt. Estate tax only applies to amounts exceeding that first $5.49 million. So if an individual’s estate is worth $10 million when they die, they will be taxed at 40% on $4.51 million (without any additional exemptions). This means the estate tax will amount to $1.804 million. So if there were a single heir, that person would inherit $8.196 million. My proposition is to have brackets that scale percentage based on the value of the estate. Let me explain.

I think an exemption makes sense, but with an adjustable percentage, that exemption could start quite low. I don’t have exact amounts worked out, but with a reformed tax the exemption could apply to the first $500,000 and then an estate valued between that and $1 million could be taxed at 1 or 2%. As the value of the estate rises, so does the percentage, in much the same way income tax brackets do. The percentages could also be made to apply ONLY to the wealth within that bracket, also mirroring income tax. This is discussed at more length here. The point is, having a flat 40% tax on taxable estates makes little sense. The higher the net worth/estate value, the higher the percentage taxed on wealth that falls into that bracket. This suggestion is just a marginal tax rate being applied to estates.

I completely agree with what Milton Friedman says when he addresses the idea of 100% inheritance tax. Having a 100% inheritance/estate tax would disincentivize business and cause people to spend frivolously on luxuries and entertainment. But I don’t see how having a fairly high estate tax would yield these same results. If people can only pass on say, 60% of their total wealth, are they less likely to try to earn more? I don’t think so. Of course if they’re only able to pass on 5% of their total wealth they’re likely to spend it, but that isn’t what I’m suggesting. I think a marginal estate tax would allow for wealth exceeding $1 billion to be taxed at say, 80%, and still not destroy incentives to earn.

So absolutely, I can see why a 100% (or close to it) estate tax is bad, but I think raising it (especially in the sense of scaling to wealth) makes sense. I see no adequate justification for repealing estate tax (or lowering it for that matter). Peter Schiff argues that the wealthiest Americans don’t even pay much estate tax because they use loopholes in tax code, lawyers and the like to essentially avoid paying these taxes. Here’s the full podcast for context. The problem with this argument and others involving inefficiency (at generating government revenue) is that they address estate tax as if corruption is built in. If we can do something about heavy lobbying in regards to tax reform then we can start to challenge tax avoidance and evasion. I don’t blame business moguls when it comes to avoiding taxes within legal parameters. Unfortunately many of these tycoons attempt illegal methods as well (evasion). Enforcing stricter policies is a good way to make businesses more accountable. No, I don’t mean more regulation, I mean reforming current regulations to make them more concise and to include fewer loopholes. A reform to estate tax like the one I suggest must coincide with a reform in the way tax policies are enforced or it’ll be insignificant. I recognize that it’s not an easy task. Further discussion here.

As far as fairness goes, the current U.S. estate tax does not seem unfair to me. As stated, I believe it could use reform, but certainly not in the direction of reducing the burden on the wealthy. Schiff and other opponents of the estate tax imply that this tax is targeting small family business owners and farmers. I would hardly call a $5.49 million business a small family business. It’s a substantial estate at that point. And beyond that point, you’re only taxed 40% of the additional wealth. It takes until roughly $20.5 million to be taxed even 30% of your total wealth. That doesn’t seem so unreasonable. As far as farming goes, it’s a relatively expensive industry, so I can understand issuing some exemptions. But those exemptions should be for owners of small farms with high costs for assets (equipment, machinery, inventories). I think exemptions can also be given on the basis of renewable energy and other sustainability practices (as long as they don’t become vessels of further tax avoidance).

If the heir to a business has to sell their parent’s business in the case that they can’t afford the assets because of estate tax… is that truly a bad thing? Of course they will have valuable skills if they were an apprentice to their parent, but those skills do not automatically qualify the heir to take over as CEO. They would certainly already have an advantage if they sought employment with whoever purchases the business from them and they could work their way up to the top like everyone else is required to do.

I would love to hear some alternative perspectives and criticism of my suggestion of creating a bracket system for estate tax.

The Biggest Misconception About Income tax

This video touches briefly on most of the debates concerning income tax. Obviously, it’s a sensationalist title and the discussion itself is reduced to character attacks and shouting, but it’s entertaining and significant nonetheless. I by no means wish to claim that this debate offers the best positions for either side of the discussion, nor do I think it’s the most productive debate on the issue. The reason I picked this debate in particular is because Stuart Varney (The Fox Host) glosses over the issue of marginal tax rates when he says  “federal income taxes and state income taxes add up to a net loss of 50 cents on the dollar for me, for every extra dollar that I earn“. This is the most crucial and most misunderstood fact of income tax brackets. Many people, possibly even the majority, think that it can actually mean a decrease in net income if you move up a tax bracket. This is simply false. The higher marginal income tax rate applies only to the income generated that exceeds the last bracket. Hypothetically, if income under $40k were taxed at a rate of 10%, and I earned $40k, I would pay $4k in income tax. Someone who earns $10 million per year pays that EXACT same rate on their first $40k earned. I think Stuart Varney understands this but he certainly does a good job of obfuscating this fact.

An issue that is relevant to estate tax as well as income tax is the setting of a maximum. Estate tax in the U.S. essentially functions as a flat tax (40%) after $5.49 million. Income tax for 2017 in the U.S. maxes out at 39.6%. I would love to hear a coherent justification for brackets halting at an arbitrary point. Why does the tax rate not increase as income increases? I see no sound justification for why someone earning say, $1 million above the ~$420k bracket should pay the same rate (on the $1 million) as someone earning $1 billion above that bracket. If percentages scale with income up to ~$420k it makes no sense to have them suddenly cap at 39.6%. Sure the percentages would have to level off and increase at an exponentially smaller rate at higher incomes as to not approach 100%, but having the tax become flat arbitrarily past the $420k mark is senseless.

There are, of course many more topics brought up in the video I linked such as capital gains taxes, national deficits, the nature of tax being non-voluntary, etc. I think to even broach these subjects it’s crucial to develop an understanding of commonly held misconceptions that many people share.

Vegetarians and Vegans

Many mainstream media personalities and organizations involved with promoting vegetarianism and veganism are not only ineffective, they are sometimes counterproductive and antithetical to the cause. Some of the most prominent examples are Gary Yourofsky, Vegan Gains, and PETA. These of course are the extreme examples, but the problem is widespread within vegetarian and vegan communities. Ridiculing and shaming meat eaters is not only obnoxious, it makes the message unpalatable for those who might otherwise have been willing to engage in discourse. Many vegans and vegetarians are too absorbed in touting their own moral superiority to realize that discourse is the only way forward. You don’t create a paradigm shift by being condescending to the people you’re attempting to persuade.

I personally decided to stop eating meat because I heard sound arguments about environmental impacts and the suffering endured by animals. I was also exposed to friends who offered arguments about compassion and sustainability without any element of shame. I was not convinced by shock value, or cuteness, or people stating that meat consumption was immoral with no justification. I don’t think meat production is sustainable or moral. Does that mean I think people should cut meat out of their diet immediately? No. Suggesting that ANY amount of meat consumption is evil is just going to polarize. Switching your diet to exclude meat is a big change for some people. This change needs to happen slowly, with health effects being considered carefully. Yet I think for the majority of people it would merely be mildly uncomfortable for a while. It’s not that hard. And that’s a much better message to spread.

What I find absolutely infuriating (though I haven’t experienced it personally) is this zealous vigilantism that seems to occur among certain vegans and vegetarians. People are trying to improve their habits and they are attacked if they “cheat”. It’s disgusting. The point of avoiding meat consumption is to limit production. Even getting someone to go from eating meat 7 days a week to 4 days a week should be considered a huge success. And if someone accidentally gives you bacon on a salad, or pepperoni on a pizza, why would you throw it out? People treat these choices as if they’re some kind of religion and anything that could even be interpreted as a transgression is a sin. It’s great to have moral values, but rather than force those values down others’ throats, why not encourage discussion of the things you care about.

Instead of dehumanizing the majority of society, we should seek to humanize the experience of animals, and to remind people that not only animals suffer from factory farming, but the environment does as well.

If this topic interested you at all, be on the lookout for my take on oysters and other bivalves and their relation to meat-free diets.

 

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager proposes that we ought to adopt Christian values and beliefs just in case Hell exists, because it is too large a risk not to. It basically asserts that even if no other reason can be found to believe, one should do it out of self-interest since facing eternal damnation in the afterlife is horrifying. This argument is fallacious for numerous reasons.

Firstly, the basis for disbelief (i.e. atheism) is in the likelihood of possibility. The Christian notion (along with others) of God is extremely unlikely, which might be why faith is so crucial to believers. For someone to choose assimilation to such a belief system on the basis of such an absurdly unlikely possibility is illogical. Proponents of Pascal’s Wager might argue that a lack of belief has no advantage, so why not take the chance, however unlikely. Unfortunately, engaging in such a belief system usually means spending a great deal of time attending a Church of sorts and adopting practices/ideologies that might lead to problematic outcomes, such as the ostracization of homosexuals.

Secondly, Pascal’s Wager does not account for belief systems that contradict each other. Some of the practices Christians are taught to engage in might be considered sin or “haram” in Islam, and vice versa. If one were to decide to take Pascal’s Wager, they are then left to decide between many equally unlikely concepts of “God”. Usually popularity is a somewhat worthwhile heuristic for evaluating the viability of a belief system, yet to choose the most popular of a multitude of systems that are equally lacking in feasibility is absurd.

Finally, if I were to come up with a fictional entity that demands certain practices of you, I highly doubt you would conform to those practices on the basis that the entity I’ve proposed might be “real”. I could come up with limitless belief systems that require you to act in contradictory ways with infinite rewards and punishments. What makes the claims of any one of these belief systems stronger than another? Popularity? A book? If the wager that Pascal offered up truly were heads or tails like he suggests, then his claim might be worth further examination. Unfortunately, if analogized to coin flips, the likelihood is better described by a coin landing on its side millions of flips in a row.

Preamble/Introduction

The thing I believe we lack most in modern discourse is direct communication. Almost everything is embedded in complicated ideology and metaphor. I aim to use simple to understand, yet expressive language. The topics I want to start with are things like religion, race and gender politics, economics, abortion, libertarianism, education etc. I haven’t planned out exactly what I want to cover as of yet, but I want to express my thinking in the simplest way I can. The subjects already have their own discourse communities, that is, their own ‘local’ vocabularies. Of course it will be hard not to draw on these, but the goal is to use general enough language for easy understanding regardless of your current familiarity with the specific subject. For example, if I’m trying to discuss philosophy, I wouldn’t use a word like “tautological” without explaining what I meant by it. I believe too many writers, politicians, academics, etc., throw complicated sounding words around to sound intelligent. I’m certainly guilty of it, maybe even in this intro. Good use of language doesn’t mean confusing your audience with how brilliant you sound, it means expressing what you want to as clearly as possible.

No, the goal here is not to criticize others for a lack of straightforwardness. I’m sure there will be some of that, but what I really want is to promote discussion that attempts to be inclusive to EVERYONE. Laymen’s terms no longer exist. There is so much “technobabble” (complicated jargon) of various sorts out there. Expanding terminology is a great thing, but when we want to express something further than just within or among the community that understands the jargon, simplification is crucial and sometimes a difficult skill to learn. This requires empathy, and sometimes even a willingness to sound dumb. For example, I don’t know the first thing about programming, so if someone starts talking to me about it without recognizing my lack of understanding, it’s not only frustrating, but it means time is being wasted, knowledge transfer is being impeded, and it has the potential to isolate.

Even the language and tone I’m using now isn’t appropriate for everyone. I know that. It doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I’m doing my best to be expressive and concise while making myself as clear as possible. There are many people I know that would read this and already be turned off by the academic sounding speech or “seriousness” of this. I don’t know exactly who my audience is for this project, I guess I have a rough idea, but hopefully I can give you a decent mix of simplicity and authenticity while remaining engaging and maybe even somewhat entertaining.