Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 3 – America should not favor Americans.

Alternate Assumption:  America should favor American citizens.

I had been planning to discuss this assumption later in the process but this assumption so underpins Obama’s recent executive action on immigration and the entire immigration debate I have moved it up a bit.

First it is important to note that this is strictly a values assumption.  There are no facts to argue here.

The basic assumption is that we are citizens of the world.  Americans are not inherently better than other people in the world.  If our policies favor Americans over other people, we are implying that Americans are more worthy than anybody else.  The moral approach is to treat everybody equally.  Immigration restrictions are immoral because they state that existing Americans have more of a right to be in America than other people in the world.  Moreover, unless you are a native American, you are an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants so it is hypocritical for you to try to restrict immigration.

As Barack Obama said just a few days ago on November 24, 2014 in his immigration speech in Chicago:

If you look at the history of immigration in this country, each successive wave, there have been periods where the folks who were already here suddenly say, well, I don’t want those folks.  Even though the only people who have the right to say that are some Native Americans.

It is clear that the belief that America should not favor Americans is a core value behind President Obama’s immigration approach.    The purpose of this post is not to debate immigration.  I want to look at the core value itself.

This assumption has a further assumption below it.  It states that whenever someone favors one person over another, that person is stating that the more favored person is somehow superior to the less favored person.  I believe that this is a false assumption.  When a parent cares for his or her child, the parent is not saying that this child is more worthy than all other children.  The parent cares for the child because of an emotional attachment and because the parent has assumed a fiduciary duty to act in the interests of the child.

Now let’s move up from the individual to local levels of government.  At the governmental level, we no longer have the emotional attachment, but the fiduciary duty still holds.  A fire department, for example, has the fiduciary duty to protect the homes and businesses within the district from fire.  It does not have the same fiduciary duty to protect the homes in neighboring districts.  This doesn’t mean that if a neighboring district has a fire and there is not currently a fire in the district, that the local fire department shouldn’t assist the neighboring fire department.  If there are simultaneous fires in both districts, however, the local fire department needs to take care of its own residents first.

At the state level, the Missouri government has a duty to protect the citizens of Missouri.  The Illinois government has a duty to protect the citizens of Illinois.  In doing this, neither state is saying that the citizens of its state are better or more worthy people than citizens of the other state.

It is the same at the federal level.  The United States government has a duty to the citizens of the United States.  The Mexican government has a duty to the citizens of Mexico, and the Nigerian government has a duty to the citizens of Nigeria.  This is not racism or any other form of discrimination.  It is a government fulfilling the duty that the government was created for.

Therefore America should favor Americans.  This does not mean that America has the right to attack other countries or expect countries to favor Americans over its own citizens.  America has not only the right but the moral obligation to put the interests of its own citizens first while respecting the obligation of every other country to put its citizens first as well.  Greece should favor Greeks.  Mexico should favor Mexicans.  America should favor Americans.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 2 – The intended effect is the only effect.

Alternate Assumption:  The impact of unintended effects is frequently greater than the impact of the intended effect.

Let’s say we run a store.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s say we have ten customers who each spend $1,000 per month for total sales of $10,000 per month.  We set a goal of increasing sales by 10%.  To do this, we raise prices by 10%.  We expect that we will now have $11,000 in sales each month.

After we increase our prices nine out of the ten customers decides to shop with us as always, but one customer balks at our price increase and chooses to shop at a different store.  Now nine customers spend $1,100 per month for total sales of $9,900/month.  Instead of increasing our sales, we have decreased them.

The unintended effect exceeded the intended effect.  Most people intuitively understand that you can’t just raise prices without losing customers.  Typically, however, the unintended effects aren’t immediately obvious.

New York City had a problem.  Rents were rising and elderly people could no longer afford to stay in their apartments. People were moved by the plight of elderly people being forced to leave their homes, and so they instituted rent control which limited how much landlords could increase rent on their tenants.  This solved the problem of high rent increases forcing out the elderly, but what were the unintended effects?  These included:

  • There was a major housing shortage in New York City causing rents for new residents to skyrocket.
  • As people age and their children move out, they need less room.  Typically people would move to a smaller apartment to save money.  After rent control, renting a new smaller apartment costed more than staying in the rent controlled apartment, so people stayed in apartments that were bigger than they needed.  The unavailability of the large apartments forced young families into higher priced, smaller apartments.
  • Landlords would often not perform proper maintenance on their apartments.  The normal incentive is to keep your existing tenants happy as it is more costly to find a new tenant than to keep collecting checks from the old tenant.  Under rent control, however, if the old tenant moved out the landlord could rent the apartment for much more to a new tenant so landlords were rewarded for performing shoddy maintenance,

Rent control had an intended effect that was good but it also had unintended effects that were bad.  With some thought, the negative affects were fairly predictable.  One just needs to look at what behaviors are being rewarded and what behaviors are being punished.  You will get more of what you reward and less of what you punish.  The people who pushed rent control didn’t do that, however.  They wanted to stop elderly people from being evicted.  If you opposed rent control, that meant you wanted elderly people to be evicted.

Right now there is a current push to substantially increase the minimum wage.  There are proposals before Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.10.  Fast food workers have been protesting demanding a $15 minimum wage. The argument is that if people work full-time, they should be able to earn a “living wage”, enough to pay rent and food and other basic necessary expenses.  This certainly appears to be a reasonable argument.  If the minimum wage increases, it will certainly achieve the intended effect where people who work for the minimum wage will get paid more.

What, however, are the unintended effects of increasing minimum wage?  Employers now have an increased cost and they need to do something about it.  What are their choices?

  • They can absorb all of the costs and reduce profits.  Some employers can and would do this.  This is certainly what many who are pushing for the minimum wage increase are expecting.  In some cases the profits aren’t large enough to cover this cost and the employer would be forced out of business.  Also, if the profitability of a business decreases, it decreases the incentive for people to open new businesses and stops new jobs from being created.  We will never know how many businesses aren’t even started because they are no longer perceived to be profitable.
  • They can pass on the increased costs to consumers.  This will cause everybody’s prices to rise.  This is not a good thing.  Some consumers will reject the price increases and shop elsewhere causing a loss of sales, profits, and eventually jobs.
  • They can hire less people, reducing jobs.  There might be one less person behind the counter and you will wait a little longer for your fast food.
  • They can replace people with machines.  The burger flipping machine might seem to expensive at an $8.25 minimum wage but attractive at a $10.10 minimum wage.

As a result, raising the minimum wage would cause a drop in minimum wage jobs.  One can debate over how large that would be, but there would definitely be a drop.  Also, many people who make minimum wage are teenagers who live at home.  These teenagers do not need a living wage.  They want to help their families or earn extra pocket money.  Most importantly, the minimum wage job is the first rung on the ladder of a career.  The minimum wage job for most is where you get initial experience, prove yourself, and work your way to a higher paying job.  If the minimum wage job isn’t there, the teenager never gets to step on that first rung of the ladder and may never go any higher.

One could conceivably account for that by passing a higher minimum wage for adults than for teenagers.  In this case, you are now favoring the hiring of teenagers over adults, so you are hurting the adults who need the job to survive and helping teenagers gain extra pocket money.

In short, we have a trade off.  The intended effect is that minimum wage workers make more money.  The unintended effect is that some businesses go out of business, other businesses never open, inflation rises, unemployment rises, and some young people never get their career started.

I personally think that the unintended negative effect is greater than the intended positive effect,  This is debatable.  The big problem though is that there is often no debate.  This is because of Bad Assumption #2:  The intended effect is the only affect.  If you oppose the minimum wage increase, you don’t want people to earn a living wage.   You must be mean.  (See Bad Assumption #1.)

While I focused here on my examples of rent control and the minimum wage, this bad assumption is pernicious and can be seen in an endless number of policies that on the surface do good but below the surface do a lot of harm.  It is easy to make this awful assumption.  We need to recognize it and fight against it.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 1 – If we disagree, you are either mean or stupid.

Alternate Assumption:  If we disagree, we may have differing assumptions.

This is the first in a top ten list on bad assumptions.  I am interested in why people disagree.  In particular, I am interested why people who I know are intelligent, caring people often strongly disagree with me when it comes to politics.  If I know them to be intelligent and caring, does that mean I am stupid or uncaring?

I am a computer programmer.  I know that any process has three components:  input, process, and output.  If we disagree, we must differ in one or more of these.

The output is our goal, our desired outcome.   We may have differing goals.  If my goals are noble and pure then you must be mean, racist, selfish, unpatriotic or have some other horrible motivation.

The process is our logic.  If I think you might not be a horrible person, then the alternative is that your logic is flawed.  You are stupid.  You are incapable of thinking rationally.  If you weren’t stupid, clearly you would agree with me.

The input is the facts.  Maybe you aren’t mean or stupid.  Maybe you just don’t know the facts.  We disagree because you don’t know the facts.  I present the facts to you and we still disagree.  This means that you are either mean or stupid after all.

I see this thought process all the time.  It seems so obvious, so logical, so true.  There is one missing piece.  The missing piece is assumptions.  Input is more than just facts.  Input is facts and assumptions.  The assumptions are what we believe to be self-evidently true.  For example, one assumption can be that the United States is a great country.  An alternate assumption is that the United States is a terrible country.  There are countless facts that can be used to support or attack the United States.  We don’t go through these facts every time we make a decision though.  We start with are underlying assumption as an input and we go from there.

There are some assumptions that can’t be supported or attacked by facts.  For example, the key assumption in the abortion debate is whether the fetus is a human life.  If you believe that the fetus is a human life, then abortion is simply murder and there is nothing else to talk about.  If you support abortion rights, you support murder.  Alternatively, if you believe that the fetus is not a human life, then abortion is simply a matter of a woman’s right to control her own body and there is nothing else to talk about.  If you don’t support abortion rights, you are either a nut or you hate women.  In actuality, science can not prove or disprove whether a fetus is a human life.  It is a value judgment.

I think that assumptions are very important, and nobody ever talks about them.  If we don’t share the same assumptions, we can’t converse.   If a person’s assumption is that 2+2=5, that person can prove to you with brilliant logic that 4+4=10.  If you don’t share this assumption, however, their logic from that point is meaningless.  As we say in the computer world:  garbage in, garbage out.

The only point where we can hold a meaningful conversation is at the point where we hold common assumptions and our opinions at this point differ.  For example, two priests can have a meaningful conversation about moral values using the New Testament as a starting point and citing scripture to prove their points.  A priest cannot have this same conversation with an Atheist who does not share this same assumption that the New Testament is the authoritative source for moral decisions.

I think that everybody has some bad assumptions that can and should be re-examined.  I am sure that I have bad assumptions.  True discourse comes from reaching that level where we first disagree and then examining our beliefs from there.  This was Socrates’ contribution to the world.  Socrates would start where he and his opponent first agreed and get this opponent to say yes.  He would then build on that with a series of questions to which his opponent had to continue to say yes.  By the end, his opponent had agreed himself into a position that was totally opposed to his original position.

If we say, however, that our opponents are mean or stupid, then we don’t have to listen to their arguments.  Why should we listen to the arguments of stupid and mean people?  Yes there are mean people and the world and there are stupid people in the world.  Rather than initially assuming that our opponents are mean or stupid, I think it important that we assume that they are intelligent people and that we all want the same things.  Most of us all want peace and prosperity and a bright future for our children.  We all would prefer a world where everyone can be happy than a world where everybody is miserable.  Yes there are mean people in the world and there are stupid people in the world.  After we fairly evaluate their arguments, we might conclude they are mean or stupid, but this should not be the starting point.

This is why the first bad assumption in my top ten list of bad assumptions is the belief that if we disagree, you must be mean or stupid.  If we make this assumption, we will never be able to learn from anybody else.  We will never be able to correct our own bad assumptions.

In this series I will be listing what I believe to be bad assumptions along with what I believe to be more valid assumptions, and I will be arguing for my assumptions.  I will state here that my assumptions might be wrong as well.  If anybody reading this finds a flaw in my assumptions, please feel free to point them out.  Unlikely as it may seem, maybe I am the one with the bad assumptions.

Let’s find out.