07 March 2012

Steve Landsburg - Again

Earlier today I posted on the fracas growing up around the decision of one of my colleagues at the U of R, Steve Landsburg, to offer a defense of Rush Limbaugh and his name calling. I found the case he made pretty dumb. I thought his follow up to the initial post was pretty dumb too. I still do. So I am not taking back the earlier post. But talking to people on campus today I thought more about why I find Landsburg's views dumb. And, of course, Steve has been picking the scab so to speak. So what follows are a couple more reasons.

Before proceeding, however, I think it is important to say that people, even pretty smart ones, should be allowed to say dumb things. But they also ought to expect that, when they do, others will argue back. I don't take issue, in my earlier post or here, with Landsburg's remarks about legalizing prostitution or the little toy models he trots out to develop his argument or his long, pretty much unpersuasive attempt to deflate critics. That stuff is the side show. What has sparked the reaction on campus and commentary elsewhere [1*] [2] is his effort to endorse Limbaugh without actually appearing to be as crass. I simply do not think Landsburg comes at all close to steering clear of the big pile of crap Rush stepped in.

(1) A grammatical observation: The words slut and prostitute are nouns. (Well, prostitute can be a verb, as in 'to prostitute oneself in the name of an inane ideology like libertarianism.') That surely is the way that Limbaugh used them when he claimed that Sandra Fluke is a slut and a prostitute. Steve Landsburg says this about Limbaugh's observations:

To his credit, Rush stepped in . . . 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?

Two points are in order. Since extortion typically requires threats or intimidation, it is hard to see how Sandra Fluke is extorting anyone. (I return to this below.) So, we are back with Limbaugh's verbiage. Second, because slut and prostitute are nouns, they are statuses we attribute to other people. Hence Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and a prostitute. They are not words we attribute to a "position." That means that the fine distinction Landsburg seeks to draw - "While 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 whatsoever. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty." - is pure crap. A position cannot be a whore or a hooker, a lady of the evening or a woman of ill-repute. Simply put, the dodge fails. Perhaps that makes me "dense and humorless," but I am not sure how. Unless, of course, referring to someone like Ms. Fluke as a slut or a prostitute might be defensible in this circumstance. Maybe Landsburg actually thinks so. Maybe not. I think there are good reasons why he shouldn't.

(2) A fable: Imagine a man, perhaps he is a clever economist, teaching at a rich, private University. He has a daughter or wife, or sister, or girlfriend; and his female loved-one has insurance. Indeed, she works for the same company as I and is covered by the same insurance carrier. That insurance covers contraception (among many other things). And perhaps the clever economist's female loved one takes advantage of that particular benefit. Perhaps she does not, but thinks she might, at some future time, do so.

Now, insurance plans are ways of pooling risk, in this case of various medical conditions including, say, pregnancy and childbirth. I, an unmarried man with only male children, may never actually use the contraception benefit. But, because I have to pay the same premium regardless of whether or not I do take advantage of it, some small part of my premium goes toward funding the contraception benefit. Hence, some part of my premium is going to fund the clever economist's female loved one's access to contraception. Similarly, some part of my premium will be going to underwrite the costs incurred by a lot of other people for a lot of other medical services of which I might or might not ever need to avail myself.

But let's stick to the contraception case. Does the fact that I am paying for the clever economist's female loved one's contraception, and hence for her ability to have sex without risk of pregnancy (actually reduced risk, since no contraception is 100% effective as far as I know) make her a slut or a prostitute? After all what is going on is third party payment for sexual activity. Why am I not free to harangue the clever economist's female loved one - and other women in similar circumstances - for not bearing the entire cost of their sexual activity, actual and/or potential? Am I not justified in muttering Slut! Whore! as I pass the clever economist's female loved on the street or at the market?

Of course no one is making me buy medical insurance. Indeed, the woman in question is not an extortionist precisely because she is not coercing me in any way whatsoever. Nor is she coercing the insurance carrier our employer contracts with. Nor is she coercing our employer (even though, as a member of the status of women in the company committee, she is an articulate, even ardent advocate for insuring that reproductive health care and contraception are covered in the standard insurance package with no special riders.) Nevertheless, she is quite clearly getting me - even if not intentionally - and our male co-workers to subsidize the coverage available to she and other female employees. Finding that difficult to accept, I might simply opt out of insurance. I might simply think that, should I need medical attention, I will go to the emergency room and get it without paying. The hospital is legally prohibited from turning me away. (The prospect of turning the uninsured away from medical providers is the sort of thing that elicited jeers and cheers at one of the Republican debates earlier this season.) And I figure I am old enough to be dead before the hospital would ever get it together to go to court to collect the debt, let alone collect a settlement. My decision would have an analogous effect to what I've sketched above. Someone else would be paying (via higher insurance premiums, higher hospital charges, or whatever) for my care or, if I was lucky enough to never need any, for my risk taking.

There are a lot of details left out here. (Note, for example, the ridiculous assumption that contraception is solely a women's concern. Men, after all, need not think about such things at all. Note the ridiculous assumption that shifting the time of pregnancy and childbirth might, in many instances, be an intelligent or ethical thing to do.) After all, this is a fable. And fables have morals. Here the moral is that calling the clever economist's female loved one a slut or a prostitute in this case seems pretty much wholly out of place. That is because insurance pools risk in order to compensate for the inability to make a simpler sort of market for medical care (or other quite risky eventualities).

The moral could be stated more bluntly: in the circumstances sketched in this fable my calling the clever economist's female loved one a slut or a prostitute would make me a jerk, perhaps even an asshole. Hence my view of Rush Limbaugh. I'll withhold judgment on those who are "jealous" of his reasoning and eloquence. Likewise I will withhold judgement on those who agree with the jealous 100%.
* In The Democrat and Chronicle report, Landsburg is quoted as complaining that Fluke never seriously engaged in argument about her position. He seems to have forgotten that the Republicans on the House Oversight Committee prevented her from testifying at recent Congressional hearings, and hence being confronted with opposing views.

P.S.: Here is Landsburg's lament about being misunderstood and misrepresented.

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Blogger Reverdy said...

"Of course no one is making me buy medical insurance. Indeed, the woman in question is not an extortionist precisely because she is not coercing me in any way whatsoever"

This strikes me as rather a weak argument, in that Sandra Fluke was testifying in support of a HHS regulation that all programs wishing to call themselves medical insurance be required to provide contraception coverage at no additional charge. The rule is being enacted because of the Affordable Care Act which itself mandates that more or less everyone acquire medical insurance or else pay a penalty. She was, in fact, speaking in support of a coercive change.

I think that calling such a move extortion, though, is simply a non sequitur. It completely fails to describe the situation at hand.

10 March, 2012 14:50  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

R ~ Landsburg calls FLuke an extortionist. She did not implement the reform. She is not imposing it. And even if the coverage were private, we generally do not get to pick and choose what we pay for. I don't want to pay for your toenail fungus meds, but if we are on the same coverage my premiums may well be doing just that.

Landsburg was trying to weasel out of a strict endorsement of Limbaugh's "slut" language. But his gambit fails precisely because Fluke cannot plausibly be called an extortionist. Advocating for a position - absent threat or intimidation - simply does not fit the bill. That is true of Fluke; it is true of my hypothetical example too. His "argument" is simply flawed.

10 March, 2012 15:28  

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