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Human Capitalism

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Categories: Essays, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Attempting to describe an individual’s welfare is no easy task. A psychologist might discuss a person’s neuroses. A physician could talk about cholesterol and lung function. A sociologist may explore a person’s relationships with friends and family. Human welfare is made up of mental, physical, and social health, but it’s also a person’s ability to provide for his or her needs, contribute to the society at large, and enjoy the freedoms provided by responsible political and economic governance. While psychologists, physicians, and sociologists use different terms and tools to measure human welfare, economists use terms like GDP1 and tools such as the United Nations Human Development Index to determine welfare. Economic measures alone are not perfect determinants of human welfare, but they do provide easily quantifiable metrics for comparing the effects of different circumstances on welfare. Things like immigration/ emigration, infant mortality, average lifespan, AIDS infection prevalence, and adult literacy can be determined, and impacts to a nation’s GDP (the standard of living) explored. Of course, a comprehensive exploration of each country’s circumstances and the impact upon GDP thereof is outside the scope of this essay. Instead, a small sample (three countries each) from the UN Human Development Index in the low-, medium-, and high-development categories will provide case studies from which generalizations can be made about the impacts of illiteracy, HIV/ AIDS rates, life expectancy, infant death, and net migration on GDP.

In high human development counties, positive net migration has a positive impact on GDP. The high (relative) GDP entices further immigration, creating continuous upward momentum in economic growth. As Bade and Parkin note in their economics textbook Foundations of Macroeconomics, “population growth is the only source of growth in the quantity of labor that can be sustained over long periods” (220). The medium development countries, however, face a continuous struggle with negative net migration putting downward pressure on GDP. As their citizens flock to other, more prosperous, countries, less labor is available and GDP suffers. In the low human development countries studied, net migration was also positive, which would normally help boost GDP growth. Unfortunately, any upward trend in GDP in these countries created by positive net migration is offset by other factors.

One of the major factors depressing GDP growth in low development countries is high infant mortality rates. Over nine percent (on average) of children born in the three low development countries studied will not survive to their first birthday. This dampens labor growth, which slows growth in the country’s GDP. The problem of infant mortality is not much better in the medium development countries studied. With rates well above 1%, these countries struggle to increase their populations – and thus the pool of available labor – and a smaller GDP is the result. The high human development countries, conversely, enjoy dramatically lower infant mortality rates. These low rates of infant death help ensure the population continues to expand: greater labor supply pushes GDP upward.

The upward trend in GDP enjoyed by the low infant mortality rate in the high human development countries studied continues into old age. With average lifespans around 80 years, workers in high development countries stay productive longer, further contributing to GDP growth. People in medium development countries enjoy life expectancies between 68 and 77 years; these workers also stay productive for a relatively long period of time. The average life expectancy in the low human development countries (less than 60 years) destroys GDP growth potential. Workers in these countries aren’t likely to see any form of retirement, and will have little incentive to invest in their own human capital.

Workers suffering from HIV/ AIDS are also unlikely to invest in their own future when that future seems so bleak. In the low development countries, average infection rates are well above 1%. Sick workers are unproductive workers. Unproductive workers drive down GDP. Further, the high incidence of AIDS infection seen in the low development countries spills over into higher numbers for infant mortality and a shorter average life expectancy. The medium and high development countries enjoy lower rates of HIV/ AIDS infection and higher GDP figures.

The lower incidence of HIV/ AIDS infection that helps bolster the GDP numbers of the medium and high development countries is in addition to, or perhaps because of, an adult literacy rate that’s dramatically higher than the ones seen in the low development countries studied. While medium development countries have rates around 90% or better, and 99% of the population in the high development countries is literate, 30% – 50% of adults in the low development countries cannot read their native language at a functional level. These low development workers are therefore unable to contribute to the economy in anything but the simplest, lowest-skill jobs. These jobs, of course, are also low-paying. The drag on GDP caused by this lack of human capital development is substantial.

As the previous paragraphs illustrate, low human development countries face significant challenges in growing their economies and promoting human welfare. These challenges are not insurmountable though; policies designed to target the core issues depressing economic activity can improve the lot of citizens in third-world countries. Many issues facing the developing world are important and should be addressed to improve the standard of living in the poorest nations. Two policy initiatives, however, are critical in improving economic conditions and human welfare: HIV mitigation and literacy improvement.

Lowering the incidence of HIV infection is imperative for low development countries as it dampens economic growth by increasing the infant mortality rate and lowering the average life expectancy. In the third world, medicines to extend the life of AIDS patients are not readily available, and infected mothers frequently pass the disease along to their newborn children. High rates of HIV/ AIDS disease also drive down human capital growth, because “as life expectancy shortens so does schooling inducing a lower growth rate of income” (Huang, Fulginiti, and Peterson).

Reducing HIV/ AIDS rates is facilitated by a literate populace: people who can read can be taught more easily than those who cannot. Those same literate workers can also acquire job skills more easily. As noted by Grant Johnston, in his work for the New Zealand Treasury, “people with better literacy skills are more likely to be employed, and to earn more, than people with poorer literacy skills.” Adult literacy also has non-economic benefits, such as increased appreciation of arts and culture, political and religious tolerance, and family stability. 

1Throughout this essay, the acronym “GDP” is used to signify “real gross domestic product per capita.”

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New Essay: “The Duty to Die”


Categories: Essays, Writing, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

For the record, I am not a utilitarian, and this essay helps explain why. I hope you can at least appreciate the logic I employed in crafting my thesis. Without further ado, here is my essay, “The Duty to Die”:

For those existing with the intense pain of a terminal illness, the right to life sounds like a cruel joke. Every day becomes a choice: continuing to endure the pain of disease, taking powerful pain medications to ameliorate the discomfort, or ending one’s life. Which option to pursue can become a moral dilemma to someone battling excruciating bone cancer or advanced HIV/ AIDS. Some may choose to grit their teeth and bear it, believing they must preserve their mental clarity in the final stage of their illness. Others seek comfort in the form of potent narcotics that may render them incoherent. The morally virtuous instead choose to die on their own terms, either by their own hand or with assistance.

The moral theory of utilitarianism requires us to always choose the action that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for all those affected by the action. Thus the terminally ill patient must perform a wicked calculus; which of the three available end-of-life treatments will maximize pleasure and minimize pain for everyone involved? Obviously, in the situation of someone who is terminally ill, it’s doubtful there’s any hope of maximizing pleasure. Therefore, the patient needs only focus on minimizing pain.

This eliminates the possibility of sustaining one’s life without benefit of pain management drugs while maintaining moral correctness. As noted by Foley et al, “the suffering of an individual radiates throughout households, neighborhoods, and villages.” Toughing it out certainly does not minimize pain. In fact, it does the opposite; it maximizes pain and minimizes pleasure. The second option available is to continue existence with palliative drug treatments. While this does minimize the pain of the patient, the family and friends of the terminal patient continue to suffer. In their February 2010 article on Scientific American’s website, psychology professors Robert Emery and Jim Coan state:

During a particularly stressful experience, the anterior cingulate cortex may respond by increasing the activity of the vagus nerve – the nerve that starts in the brain stem and connects to the neck, chest and abdomen. When the vagus nerve is overstimulated, it can cause pain and nausea.

Few would argue dealing with a loved one suffering from a terminal illness is not stressful. Therefore, simply by being terminally ill – whether one utilizes pain management or not – a patient is causing pain to his or her friends and family. The death of the patient is also stress-inducing, and the pain of losing a loved one can last for years, decades, or a lifetime. Friends and family suffer their own pain while the ill person is dying, and after their death. The final solution available is to terminate one’s life. Suicide, whether assisted or not, can be accomplished painlessly. The terminally ill patient’s pain ends at the moment of death. This means less pain for the patient than if they had foregone medication, and the same amount (or less) than if they had opted for palliative care. The friends and family of the patient will still experience the pain of that person’s passing in the same way as the previous two options. They will, however, be spared the pain of watching their loved one languish away. The friends and family of the ill person will skip the pain caused by watching the patient slide closer and closer to death, and move directly to the pain caused by the death itself. This means less pain for those affected by the patient’s passing than if they had continued to suffer with their disease, medication or no.

Clearly, then, of the three options available to the terminally ill patient in pain – palliative medicine, no medication, or death – self-euthanasia is the option required of the morally righteous, according to the utilitarian thesis. It is the choice that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for all those affected by the action. The patient’s pain ceases; the suffering of family and friends is diminished. Terminally ill patients in pain not only have a right to die, they have a moral duty to pursue their own death as quickly and painlessly as possible.

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