Creativity or Parasitism?

There’s a lot to be said for green plants. From water, carbon dioxide, and a handful of chemicals, they grow, reproduce [often producing edible fruit or vegetables in the process], and eventually die, enriching the soil in the process. That is, of course, a great oversimplification, because there are parasitic plants among the more “creative” ones, but it’s not a bad model. And it works in nature so long as there are a lot more creative plants than parasitic ones. In considering this plant “model,” I realized that one could definitely make analogies to modern technological societies… except others have done so, and long before me.

Extreme conservatives, of course, are always insisting that government is the parasite, taking income and resources and otherwise penalizing those who create goods, services, and jobs, and redistributing those resources to help those unable or unwilling to work. Extreme liberals, on the other hand, claim that all too many businesses are the parasites, preying on underpaid workers, polluting the environment, avoiding paying taxes whenever they can, and failing to contribute enough to governments in return for the services and infrastructure they receive.

Both sides concentrate on their “costs.” Power companies have appealed EPA’s latest regulations on coal-fired power plants to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that compliance costs will cost more than $9 billion annually over the next ten years, while EPA studies show that the benefits from reducing mercury and particulate emissions exceed $90 billion annually by reducing health care and clean-up costs, etc. Studies show that the national direct health care costs for treating asthma, just one of many health conditions worsened by air pollution, exceed $20 billion annually, and I suspect that figure is low, given the just the prescription medication costs incurred annually by the asthmatic in our family. Those medical costs also don’t take into account lost wages and indirect costs. And to put the matter into perspective, an EPA study based on Census Bureau data showed that the total pollution abatement spending by U.S. manufacturers represented less than one percent the total value of goods they shipped [nearly $5 trillion].

And then there’s the minimum wage/benefits question. Since in the United States, we largely, but not totally, try to not to have people die of starvation and acute medical problems, we provide various benefits to those practically unable to work… or to those whose earnings don’t cover many of the costs of living at a low level. There’s always been a question about how many of those of those individuals are truly needy and unable to work and how many are parasitic. Then add to that the question of wage levels, when in many areas of the U.S., a full-time job at the minimum wage won’t cover even the basic cost of living. Is legislating a higher minimum wage parasitic on business, or are low minimum wage levels a form of parasitism on workers who cannot find jobs that pay more?

So…who’s preying on whom?

And what about our national obsession with guns? A recent study completed by Dr. Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation calculated that annual cost of gun violence in the United States is $229 billion. Regardless of what position one takes on gun control, $229 billion is a fairly substantial price tag for the freedom to bear arms. Are those with those guns parasites, since they’re spreading the cost of their bearing arms across the entire population? Yet can you imagine the outcry if someone suggested an annual seven hundred and fifty dollar tax on every firearm in the U.S, since that would be the pro-rated cost per gun?

A nearby town here in Utah was considering a parks and recreation sales tax. It wasn’t very much, a penny on every ten dollars of sales, and the money was to be used for park and recreation projects to improve the community. The measure barely passed, largely because a great number of retirees protested that they would derive no benefit from it, because the parks were used by others. Parasitism or community improvement?

Or does the definition just depend on who pays the bill?

5 thoughts on “Creativity or Parasitism?”

  1. Jeff says:

    You make a lot of sense, but the skeptic in me thinks that since these ideas could never be reduced to a bumper sticker or 30 second news brief, they won’t be heard by the majority.

  2. Thom says:

    Of course anytime someone starts throwing around estimates for the cost of this and that my first thought is “And just how did they come up with that number? And can we see some comparative costs of other things so we can know if we’re being manipulated according to someone’s agenda?”

    For example, the estimated cost of gun violence in the US. Let’s just assume it’s 100% accurate for the sake of argument, and that PIRE is truly politically-neutral. Can we see a comparison to the cost of traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities, since the death rate from each is comparable? Can we see a comparison to the cost of non-gun violence? Or, for that matter, can we see the estimated savings in cases where gun ownership prevents crime/injury/death? And, can we see estimates on how much of that $229 billion we would really save by removing guns from all law-abiding citizens (because surely we don’t believe the truly criminal will NOT get them just because they’re illegal (see War on Drugs, Prohibition)). Gun control won’t totally eliminate all gun violence costs.

    Now, it may very well be that every single one of these other estimates could turn out to not only support gun control, but place it at the head of the list of massive savings gains for society. But if so, wouldn’t that be an even more effective approach to getting the point across rather than throwing out a single, isolated statistic? Perspective can be a great debate tool.

    Critical thinking is increasingly hard to come by these days, unfortunately, and I think we run great risks as a result. Suppose, for example, I were to point out that the US’s net expenditure on health care in 2012 was $3 trillion (according to Forbes), that the cost of gun violence amounts to 8% of that, and that medical costs often increase by more than the cost of gun violence every year? Would that change our priorities a little? I might be able to convince you that we’d be much better off pouring the money we might spend imposing gun control into cancer research.

    Critical thinking, however, might lead one to question the underlying assumption that it’s a zero-sum game; that we can only choose one “public expense” to work on at a time. Or it might lead one to wonder if I have some partisan objective in bringing up the costs of health care in the first place. Or it might lead one to question whether there are even bigger potential gains to be had in areas we’ve not even touched on yet.

    Of course the cost of critical thinking is that it might lead to analysis paralysis–it’s difficult to know where our attention in best directed, so perhaps we don’t direct attention to any issue at all. That’s also a danger.

    I do think you’re right that the perception of the severity of something is usually measured by whether it’s me paying for it or you–or if it’s sufficiently hidden from both of us so that neither of us pays attention.

    And ultimately I think this is the real casualty in our current political divisiveness. By increasingly polarizing ourselves we make it even more difficult to compromise and make progress on things that would otherwise be a no-brainer. This is partly because an increased scorched-earth mentality that says we can’t allow the other side to get their way on ANYTHING or they’ll just keep coming back for more. Meeting in the middle is seen as weakness, and any fool who takes that route won’t be in office long.

    Could it be underneath our clothes we’re ALL parasites?

  3. John Prigent says:

    I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said here, Mr Modesitt. But I also can’t help wondering how much of the opposition to the parks and recreation sales tax you mention came from people’s experience that a tiny tax soon grows, and that bureaucratic fingers dip into its pool to fund things it wasn’t supposed to pay for.

    1. I’m certain that was some of the intent, but the tax in question is fixed to that amount, can’t be changed except by popular vote, and has to be re-approved every ten years or it ceases to be.

  4. Rigel Kent says:

    Here’s a question, how much of that cost of gun violence comes from legal gun ownership? Because unless most, or at least a large portion of it does, then the cost of gun violence is not the same as the price of the right to bear arms.

    I haven’t checked the study you cite, so I may be wrong, but I would guess that most of it came from criminals who obtained their guns illegally.

    No matter what actions are taken against lawful gun owners these criminals would still obtain their firearms the same way they obtain the drugs that fuel much of the gun violence. That is they would smuggle them in, and would still cause the cost the study refers to.

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