If we don’t raise taxes that’s a “tax cut”

May 3, 2014 § 44 Comments

Folks are always trying to pretend that “opportunity costs” are real.  Opportunity costs aren’t real.  Opportunity costs are by definition an imaginary exercise in what might (or might not) have happened if we had chosen a different course of action from the one we actually did choose.

At the fork in the road before we make an actual choice, our imagination can be helpful.  We can tell stories about what might happen in the future under various scenarios, and try to make better choices after reflecting on those imaginary stories about possible futures.

But the temptation to treat these imaginary stories – and associated “opportunity costs” – as if they are actually real is very strong, and as a subtle kind of lie this temptation frequently leads unwary moderns like us astray.

Once you’ve seen this kind of rationalization in one place you’ll start to notice it everywhere.

Murdering civilians in wartime, it is thought, must not be judged apart from “opportunity cost”: the quantitative consequences of incinerating two cities filled with civilians using atomic bombs has to be compared to the “opportunity cost” of an imaginary land invasion and all of the imaginary consequences that flow, in the fictional story, from the fictional invasion.  Divorcing her husband was necessary because of the imaginary life of misery for herself (and her husband and children, because if Momma ain’t happy nobody’s happy) in the fictional story of the imaginary future in which she had actually kept her vows.  Charging profitable interest on a full-recourse loan (usury) was justified because in an imaginary alternate reality the lender could have invested in something profitable.  In the Jerry Bruckheimer film I imagine in my mind, failing to torture terrorist captives led to mass murder and destruction in Los Angeles.  Joining Team Litterbug was justified because heck, in the story I told in my head I actually won the lottery and lived happily ever after.

Our imaginations are powerful things, and when they are made unequivocally subservient to the moral law they can be a very good thing.  But we must never be fooled into thinking that something imaginary out of a fictional story we tell about something that didn’t happen – something  like “opportunity cost” – can justify choosing concretely evil actions.

So don’t play the part of the modernist chump who can’t distinguish between fiction and reality.   Always do what is upright and morally good, and let imagined realities that might come to pass if we choose evil stay in the realm of fiction, where they belong.  The future isn’t in our hands anyway; it is in the hands of Providence.

§ 44 Responses to If we don’t raise taxes that’s a “tax cut”

  • Cane Caldo says:

    “Opportunity costs aren’t real.”

    But it’s all economics, Zippy!

  • vetdoctor says:

  • vetdoctor says:

    and, if I can’t imagine an all powerful God who’s nothing like me then He must not exist.

  • Zippy says:

    One of the most detestable songs of all time.

  • Alfred says:

    That was all one big misapplication of the principle of “opportunity cost”, which is actually an Austrian school economic principle of “what you had to give up in order to gain what you ended up with”, not as you explained it, which sounded more like “what we would have had to do if we had done it a different way”.

  • Zippy says:

    What I can tell you as an MBA is that in business school we were taught that if we have a pile of cash which we could invest in A or B, the opportunity cost of investing in B is profit we would have made had we, counterfactually, invested in A.

    “Opportunity cost” isn’t the (zero) profits we would have made by holding on to the cash and earning no investment return whatsoever. It is the “cost” of foregoing other opportunities (ahem).

  • Zippy says:

    La wik:

    In microeconomic theory, the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the best alternative forgone, in a situation in which a choice needs to be made between several mutually exclusive alternatives given limited resources.

    So those who don’t agree with my take on opportunity cost might want to go edit Wikipedia.

  • Catholic Economist says:

    For what it matters, as an individual who is a few weeks away from earning a PhD in Financial Economics, Zippy’s definition of opportunity cost is perfectly in line with what I was taught as a student and what I currently teach to my students now.

    If I were to offer one minor quibble to the post it would be that it abstracts from the role that expectations play in guiding economic decision-making. For instance, consider the titular example. It is certainly **possible** that not raising taxes might be interpreted by agents as an implicit tax cut if they were **anticipating** (and correspondingly acting upon those expectations) a tax increase. Of course, if agents correctly predicted that no change was going to occur then the announcement of no tax increase would have little to no effect on their behavior.

    As I mentioned, I feel that this a relatively minor point and in all honestly detracts nothing from the overall point of the post. The only reason I bring it up is that it is closely related to my dissertation and any time I can talk about my dissertation, even if it is tangential, I derive positive utility.

  • Zippy says:

    Catholic Economist:

    If I were to offer one minor quibble to the post it would be that it abstracts from the role that expectations play in guiding economic decision-making.

    It may be worth mentioning that expectations aren’t reality either — not even when they constitute our expectations based on choices we actually did make, as opposed to counterfactual foregone options.

    I think a lot of folks don’t understand usury precisely because they fail to grasp that foregone options and expectations are not real things in the world; and that it is therefore intrinsically wrong – in the same genus as theft – to demand compensation in return for these things, since they literally don’t exist as real things.

    So a contract that is fully ‘covered’ by named real collateral isn’t usury. It is what Aquinas refers to as a ‘kind of society’: a partnership based on real assets (whatever they may be), where those assets alone are what is available for distribution if things don’t go according to expectations.

    But a full-recourse profitable loan is usury, always, no matter what interest rate is charged.

  • CJ says:

    So a no interest, full recourse loan is ok, I would assume. What about a non-recourse loan at a “reasonable” rate of interest (leaving aside the question of what that rate would be)?

  • Zippy says:

    Yes, a not-for-profit loan is (generally speaking) morally licit. When the medievals used the term “loan” they meant that the borrower was on the hook for return of principal. Nonrecourse loans are not loans in the sense that applies to usury.

    Of course that doesn’t mean that a lender cannot do moral wrong by overcharging interest on a collateralized nonrecourse loan. But that would not be usury strictly speaking.

  • Catholic Economist says:


    My apologies if this is muddled, but its just me thinking “aloud”:

    (1.) I would certainly agree that expectations are not reality. Indeed, by definition, they are probability-weighted assessments of potential outcomes and for that reason cannot be reality. So no arguments from me on this point.

    (2.) Perhaps if I were more pithy, my original point could have been simply stated as, “Expectations are not reality, but they are real and consequently have real effects.” Do we disagree on this point?

    If we do, then I’m not entirely sure how you could ever explain a phenomenon such as the inversion of the yield curve *prior* to a recession. Using the concept of expectations it is fairly straight-forward. Investors view information and make a probabilistic assessment of future economic performance. If they believe that future economic activity will be poor, they attempt to lock-in higher yields while they can. Correspondingly, they sell short-term debt (which usually has low yield) and purchase long-term debt. Thus, the price of short-term debt falls (and its yield rises) while the price of long-term debt increases (and hence its yield falls). The result is an inverted yield curve and empirically-speaking one of the best predictors of an oncoming recession..

    At least from my perspective it seems odd to claim that these expectations are not real **in some sense**. If they are not real, then what should we call them? Useful fictions perhaps?

    Would your response to the above be along the lines of “Expectations are models and like all models are necessarily false (i.e. not real), but some nevertheless prove to be useful…”? If so, then we would largely agree other than the fact that in order to be useful it seems to me that a model must capture *some* aspect of reality and thus be considered real *in some sense*. But perhaps this just a hang-up of mine.

    (3.) I will attempt to reformulate your case against usury to see if I fully understand your argument. You seem to suggest that because expectations contain some versions of reality which will never occur, it is immoral, and indeed tantamount to theft, to expect to receive compensation for an event that never actually happens. However, it is morally acceptable to receive some type of compensation if a negative state *actually* does occur. Is this the gist of your argument?

    If so, I would commend you with providing perhaps the clearest explanation of usury I have ever seen. However, in doing so you seem to have completely invalidated the use of opportunity cost and risk as meaningful concepts. Indeed if foregone opportunities and expectations do not exist as real quantities and cannot be used to determine an appropriate rate of return on a loan, how can we ever meaningfully apply concepts such as opportunity cost, risk-adjustment, and the time value of money to any situation? In your mind, are these meaningful concepts at all?

    Additionally, I would add that collateralization is hardly a panacea (not that you ever claimed it was) and comes with its own unique costs as well.

  • Mike T says:

    If I were to be uncharitable about it, I’d say that most of this is due to the culture of management. They abuse technical terms freely (“hey Mike do you have the bandwidth to do X by Friday?; what do I look like, a piece of network equipment?”) so why not abuse economic concepts. It’s all a show to make themselves look better. Most of the managers I’ve worked for couldn’t successfully run a McDonalds in a high traffic area so they grasp at anything that makes them look competent.

  • Catholic Economist says:

    Oh, I almost forgot! Since the topic of usury has popped up, it give me an opportunity to introduce folks to Ezra Pound’s Canto XLV:

  • Zippy says:

    Catholic Economist:
    I believe that my understanding of usury is exactly Aquinas’ understanding, the central pillar of which is that usury involves selling (or requiring compensation for) what does not exist.

    Investors do enter into transactions and set prices based on their expectations, and those actual transactions affect yield curves and such and further expectations. But expectations themselves are just fictional stories about what might happen. What matters is what happens when those real transactions unwind because expectations were not met: do they or do they not terminate in real assets (the value of which might go to zero: houses burn, customers abandon their regular providers, etc).

    Folks are always trying to justify usury by pretending that the expectation that the lender will make a profit in some transaction entitles him to a profit in every transaction, even a loan where the borrower is personally on the hook for return of principal.

    Collateralized nonrecourse loans are not always morally unproblematic, but if they are problematic it has to do with unfairly pricing a real asset (fraud etc). Just pricing of real assets is distinct from selling what does not exist at all.

    Usury is the main reason why, in modern economies, real wealth is hopelessly entangled with virtual or faux wealth.

    No time to watch the video now, but I’ll check it out later.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Can’t these “exercises in imagination” be less pejoratively called “exercises in reason”?

  • vishmehr24 says:

    At Just Thomism:
    “The Platonic tradition places good as above being. Proclus and Dionysius do this through the idea of causality: we are very often moved by goods that don’t yet exist.”

    Perhaps pertinent in understanding the appeal of these opportunity costs?

  • Zippy says:


    Can’t these “exercises in imagination” be less pejoratively called “exercises in reason”?

    We can exercise reason in thinking about and discussing The Lord of the Rings, and we are very often moved by the stories and characters. But that doesn’t make Hobbits exist as something real.

    Opportunity costs are no more ontologically real than Hobbits.

  • Zippy says:

    If anything, opportunity costs have less claim to ontological reality than Hobbits. There is nothing in the nature of Hobbits which makes it so that they could not possibly exist as nonfiction. But opportunity costs are analytically fictional: they are by definition the result of choices which were not made in reality.

  • jf12 says:

    Re: counterfactual reasoning. A strong case can be made that all of scientific rationalism, which by definition involves development and testing of hypotheses, requires counterfactual reasoning about hypotheticals aka facts not (yet) in evidence (hypotheses necessarily involving hypotheticals, as you can well imagine …). Then too, roughly all creation, all change, and all prayer involve “things which be not” (Romans 4:17).

  • jf12 says:

    The ontological completion of Murphy’s Law is “Anything that can happen, does happen.” And it is actually an axiom in physics, used extensively in calculating real outcomes. I seem to remember that this principle may have someone’s name attached to it, but I’m drawing a blank. But anyway these calculations proceed as integrating over all *possible* outcomes.

  • Zippy says:

    I’m not denigrating either fiction or reason.

    I’m pointing out that modern people frequently mistake fiction for reality – which is an error of reason – and that this has pervasive consequences.

  • CJ says:

    They abuse technical terms freely (“hey Mike do you have the bandwidth to do X by Friday?; what do I look like, a piece of network equipment?”)

    This made me LOL, because my new boss says it all the time and it brought me up short the first time I heard it. She came from telecom, so I assumed it was just an industry thing.

  • jf12 says:

    @Zippy, “I’m pointing out that modern people frequently mistake fiction for reality – which is an error of reason – and that this has pervasive consequences.” True. But I think maybe it’s usually for the purpose of affecting feelings, not necessarily directly affecting thinkings. War game simulations are useful exercises for coldly calculating contingency planning and preparations, but would be wrong if used for the purpose of affecting feelings in order to sway public opinion based upon emotion.

  • Zippy says:

    I’m not actually criticizing using fictions to affect feeling either though. I’m criticizing the treatment of fictions as if they were real, which they are not.

    I’m in particular and most strongly criticizing actions which intrinsically treat fictions as if they were real, e.g. charging profitable interest on a full-recourse loan.

  • jf12 says:

    @Zippy, ah, I see. I hadn’t quite admitted the actual enormity of deceptions; I thought we were criticizing the indulgence of willing suspensions of disbelief. Beating straw horses dead, as it were.

    I try not to think too much about economics, since besides platitudes it seems all smoke and mirrors to me. But one thing that might make “opportunity costs” more real, maybe (in my limited understanding) is the idea of market efficiency. If the markets have *already* corrected for the fact that people are emotionally invested in expecting a particular outcome (e.g. taxes will be raised) then if a different outcome occurs instead (e.g. taxes are not raised), then supposedly the market reacts as though the actual opposite of the expected outcome also occurred (e.g. taxes are cut).

  • Zippy says:

    “The market reacted” though is shorthand for “lots of investors entered into lots of different real transactions”.

  • hi zippy,

    this is offtopic, but me and NickBSteves are talking about you on my blog here -> http://peppermintfrosted.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/condomistic-sex-isnt-sex/ <- because I paraphrased a blog comment you made once upon a time badly.

    Also I'd appreciate any comments you have on that article 🙂


  • Zippy says:

    Contracepted sexual acts are certainly still sexual acts (and what people say about them doesn’t change the kind of act they are): they are just deliberately mutilated sexual acts. You may be thinking of this post, or this one.

  • Thanks for replying. I do respect your arguments. I was actually thinking of this one, in which you argue that contracepted sex is disordered sex instead of being something completely different.

  • Zippy says:

    You are welcome.

    “Disordered” and “mutilated” are denotationally similar; the latter can be taken with a connotation of willfulness, whereas the former connotes a kind of clinical detachment. So in my more recent posts I’ve tended editorially toward the latter.

    But either way it isn’t that contracepted sexual acts aren’t sexual acts at all; just that they are distinct qua behavior from ‘natural’ (in the teleological sense) sexual acts.

  • Okay. I know you like talking about objective behaviors, and certainly condomistic sex is sexual. At the same time, it comes with a social context and an intention. I have two objections to saying it is sex

    (1) men like to brag about their number of sexual partners, despite all parties understanding that pregnancy is not an option. People even like to “have sex” with people they would prefer not to have a baby with.

    (2) I do know a couple who have gotten a proper marriage after hooking up at a party, like, with proper fornication, that led to pregnancy. I also know a couple who had been “married”, and “having sex”, for years; eventually, they got “divorced”. They’re pretty cool people, decently high IQ, thoughtful; I hope they eventually do get proper marriages. It seems that the 20s are supposed to be wasted; they chose to devote that time of their lives to a weird mutual masturbation pact while they finished school together.

    All together, today’s sexual marketplace is just *weird*, in a way that isn’t captured by simply calling it fornication. Yes, it’s sin; it’s also… not sex as a biologist would understand it, nor is it often a promise to have sex in the future, but seems to be sterile and have no purpose.

  • I mean, the second couple I mentioned, what they had together was less than a chaste engagement that was eventually broken off, even though they annoyed their entire families and then wasted a court’s time to break it off. A proper engagement would involve a serious understanding that they would some day have proper sex.

  • Zippy says:

    Whatever we might say about the language, I think you are right that the calculated sterility of modern fornication seems to take on a different – more nihilistic perhaps – character than even “traditional” pagan fornication. You have an interesting way of putting it, at any rate.

  • Mike T says:

    When my son was due, I learned an interesting fact that complicates it further in modern times. C sections can only be safely done up to about three times, then doctors will only do them on an emergency basis. Doctors otherwise counsel to absolutely stop having children because by the third C section the mother’s body is at risk of not recovering. It’s a surprisingly violent surgery.

    There is a trend of women seeking this method of delivery because they see it as a relatively painless alternative to natural labor. For Catholic women, unnecessary C sections are incredibly stupid as they make even natural family planning dangerous.

    Now, I’m not a doctor, but I would be inclined to say that it would be reasonable for a woman who has had three medically necessary operations to have a hysterectomy or her tubes tied. Probably the former, since I believe part of the problem is that the uterus itself is in a state of possible damage beyond repair. Removing it is no longer, technically, removing a healthy organ and since the consequence of failed sexual continence would be a non-trivial chance of a violent death for the mother, this is an edge case that if not tolerated should be considered.

    I mean, I had a condition called Biliary Dyskinesia which meant that gall bladder no longer really worked well, but it did “work.” It was usually able to work, but the consequence of it acting up was an extremely violent digestive attack that if it happened on the road could literally kill me as it resulted in loss of vision and then loss of consciousness at times. By the time I had it removed, the function was at 13% of a normal adult’s function. I see a great deal of similarity here.

  • CJ says:

    Now, I’m not a doctor, but I would be inclined to say that it would be reasonable for a woman who has had three medically necessary operations to have a hysterectomy or her tubes tied. Probably the former, since I believe part of the problem is that the uterus itself is in a state of possible damage beyond repair. Removing it is no longer, technically, removing a healthy organ and since the consequence of failed sexual continence would be a non-trivial chance of a violent death for the mother, this is an edge case that if not tolerated should be considered.

    Yeah, this seems reasonable to me as well, but I’m not Catholic and am not convinced of their teaching that contracepted/sterilized sex is intrinsically immoral.

    I don’t think you’d get much traction for this from those who hold to the Catholic teaching, though. There is a morally licit way to avoid the potential harm from another pregnancy (perfect continence). Unlike your gall bladder, the woman’s thrice C-sectioned uterus isn’t going to kill her just out of the blue. It’s within your power to avoid it by doing something that’s completely licit. Also, (I’d like Zippy or someone else to correct me if I’m wrong), but even if a woman had a hysterectomy to remove, say, a cancerous uterus, the surgery itself would be licit under double effect, but subsequent intercourse would be sinful.

  • Mike T says:

    IIRC from previous discussions the sex would not be sinful because the couple did not take a step aimed at frustrating contraception during the act of sex. There’s nothing wrong with her having unprotected sex then just like there isn’t when a woman hits menopause since the act, not her body, “is open to life.”

    With regard to my gall bladder, it wasn’t “going to kill me” per se. I could radically change my diet to a degree equivalent to celibacy for sex. And in both situations, a momentary lapse of judgement with something morally good in the right situations would be fatal when ought not to be.

  • […] In the comments below, CJ writes: […]

  • Zippy says:

    I wrote a new post to address this subject.

  • I’m a woman who may never be able to delivery children the usual way and, uh, I have never heard that from the many, many, many high-risk perinatologists and ob/gyns I’ve had to deal with through my pregnancies. They all know/knew exactly how many children I hope my body will allow me to carry and from their perspective, multiple c-sections were the safe/sane way to approach that.

    It is true that after three c-sections, the risk goes up of bad things happening as a result of the accumulated scarring and adhesions, to a point where attempting vaginal delivery is actually in some ways lower-risk (if it succeeds in a vaginal delivery most obviously). But that’s not the same as what Mike T said. Doctors regularly do 4th and 5th and 6th c-sections on a non-emergency basis. It’s just not that many women having so many children, so it’s not likely many doctors will encounter them and due to clustering, the ones who do will see quite a few.

    I do think the yay c-section trend is a regrettable one, and that doctors overesteem their surgical skills, but that’s hardly the same as the bizarre notion that doctors are frightened at the thought of a fourth c-section. A seventh or eighth, certainly, but again by that point you are talking about a small pool of women even among women who have lots of children.

  • Exfernal says:

    Zippy, what stops you from organizing your own version of gemach?

  • Zippy says:

    How do you know I haven’t?

  • […] No. Opportunity costs are not ontologically real assets. […]

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