Opinion


Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 42 (April 1994): 7-12.

Groping With the Invisible Hand

George A. Tobin

While many people have expressed reservations about the direction of the Clinton economic program, the good economic news is that retail condom sales broke the $300 million dollar mark for 1993. Moreover, this robust figure does not include purchases for nonprofit distribution by entities such as public schools or the U.S. Navy. And, even had there been no NAFTA, the prospects for an export boom appear to be outstanding.

Ironically, this glowing success at the macroeconomic level masks a marked microeconomic failure in condom consumer education. Despite the best efforts of our schools and government, condom use among American teenagers is still reported to be distressingly low. Numerous surveys indicate that the vast majority of adolescent liaisons are taking place without the benefit of assistance from one of America's fastest growing industries.

Because our future economic health will depend on the consumer choices made by the younger generation in this key industry sector, it is likely that our sex education programs will come under heightened scrutiny from government economic policy analysts in the near future. Naturally, all of us want to help in any way possible, and to that end I propose revising and enhancing the behavioral model that is at the core of modern sex education.

Any attempt at reform must begin with the realization that modern condom education is, in essence, an economic argument: the pleasures of sex have more net utility if the risks of adverse consequences are reduced. Therefore, if consumers are educated so as to be able to recognize and reduce risks, sex can be obtained at lower net cost with net benefits to society as a whole. In effect, we are training our teens to make the following calculation, such that sex is deemed appropriate when the following equation is satisfied:

S>P1 X L1 + . . . Pn X Ln (Eq. 1-1)

where S is the perceived value or pleasure of a contemplated sex act, P is the probability of occurrence of a particular adverse event, and L is the net economic loss accruing from the occurrence of any one of a series of enumerated possible adverse events (Sexually Transmitted Diseases [STDs], pregnancy, emotional distress, etc.). In theory, L is constant. Therefore, whenever P can be made to approach zero for each corresponding L, then the sex act under contemplation is the desired course of action.

In actual practice, this simplistic approach does not work for three reasons. First, the cumulative values of PL risk perceptions appear to have dropped substantially over the years. Informal survey data of PL dispositions of teenage boys collected by the author both in his former capacity as a high school teacher and as a systematic observer of both human and teen behavior indicate that the composition and composite value of PL values have indeed dropped since the selected 1968 base year. This trend contradicts popular perceptions and rhetoric concerning increased dangers related to "unprotected" sex.

Comparative Mean PL Values, Teenage Boys 1968 versus 1994 High School Graduation Cohorts

The following table compares the author's quantification of male PL values for his own teen peer group and that of a modern cohort (units are based on a uniform scale of one to ten in which 10 is the largest value):

Classof1968Classof1994
Risk (P)Loss (L)P X LRisk (P)Loss (L)P X L
AIDSNANANA0100
Syphilis2816133
Gonorrhea3721326
HerpesNANANA3412
Pregnancy69542510
Loss of Peer Respect339NANANA
Parental Disclosure6742339
Violence by Girl's Father or Older Brother(s)4832NANANA
Eternal Damnation51050NANANA
Total PL22440
The comparative data suggest that an exclusively risk-oriented, microeconomic (S>PL) approach to sex education would likely have been more effective among teenage boys in 1968 than in 1994, given that the cumulative perceived PL values in that era were much higher. Arguably, the more prevalent religio-moral approach to sex education deployed in that era could also be described as a behavioral calculus in which the respective PL values just happened to be substantially higher.

Even the emergence of AIDS has not substantially altered the PL values for the modern cohort. AIDS is accurately perceived by exclusively heterosexual, non-drug-using teens as being of minimal risk. There is also a perception that effective antibiotic treatments exist for most other STDs. Pregnancy, once greatly feared by males, is now perceived as an exclusively female disorder for which abortion is a socially sanctioned remedy.

The second major reason why the S>PL approach fails is that it fails to take into account the perceived inconvenience cost or disutility of using condoms. The sexual choice calculation needs to be restated so as to include the disutility of condom deployment (Cc). This significantly complicates our analysis because Cc will also be dependent on some but not all of the same variables by which we evaluate S. We can construct a more complete model of overall sexual utility (U) by including the perceived inconvenience costs of condom deployment as follows:

U = Max [S CcC CR ((P1L1...PnLn))

c,r (1-C) (P1L1...PnLn)] (Eq. 2-1)

in which S, L, and P are used as defined previously, R is the perceived reduced risk rate as a result of condom deployment and C is condom use (on=1, not on=0). Using Roy's identity, the choices of condom use and reduced risk that maximize U can be derived as:

C = U/Cc = 1 if condom deployed, 0 if not.

U/s (Eq. 2-2)

R = U/(P1L1...PnLn) X b

U/s

b = 1 if condom deployed,

R if not. (Eq. 2-3)

It appears from the above equations that in a perceptual environment in which the inherent risks of sex are perceived to be decreasing and the benefits increasing, the relative inconvenience costs of condom deployment can become quite high. This suggests that if S>PL-based sex education has the overall effect of enhancing the perceived net utility of sexual intercourse, it may also have the ironic and unintended consequence of increasing the perceived inconvenience costs of using condoms. Even more discouraging for the pro-condom educational agenda is that this is a best-case scenario that assumes that teens' behavior with respect to sexual choices will approximate rational market behavior, an assumption greatly open to question.

The third major flaw in the S>PL-based approach is that sex education theorists typically tend to be blind or even hostile to the concept of sexual economic utility or the instantaneous subjective value of sex. The failure to appreciate the concept of utility invariably leads to "Soviet Central Planner's Syndrome" (SCPS). Indeed, the current failure of our national sex education agenda bears a striking analogy to the root causes for the fall of the Soviet Union.

The economic failure of Soviet Communism was almost entirely due to SCPS. For example, when a central planning agency set a fixed price for a ton of steel, this did not affect steel's true market value to different users at different times. A tractor manufacturer may be willing to pay more for steel than an appliance maker because the latter can use cheaper metal substitutes and thus has a lower utility for the item. If a large and complex economy is not permitted to direct resources to where they are most highly valued, then it must inevitably fail.

In the same way, teens not only vary individually with respect to their marginal utility for sexual activity, individual teens manifest marked variances over strikingly short periods of time. A teenage boy who performs a risk-benefit analysis of a contemplated sex act at 11:00 a.m. while in the sex education classroom will likely reach an entirely different result when a virtually identical analysis is performed at 11:00 p.m. in the back seat of a spacious, American-made car produced by the now-resurgent and highly competitive U.S. automobile industry.

Under the latter conditions S (utility of the contemplated sex act) increases exponentially while the perception of P (risk probability) may diminish substantially, even if L (loss) is perceived to remain constant. In the same way that Soviet central planners could never set the right price for steel, sex educators can never hope to establish fixed values for the condom risk-benefit equation using a simplistic model. The Invisible Hand can be constrained neither by visual aids nor latex.

Rather than treat S as a constant value, we must recognize that teen sexual utility is a function of several variables as expressed in equation 3-1 below:

S = S(H1, H2, . . . Hn) (Eq. 3-1)

in which the various H-factors are variables such as the mean base hormonal status of the individual, beer-equivalent unit consumption, the beer-equivalent unit consumption of the other party to the contemplated sex act, and logistical circumstance factors such as location, proximity of potential observers, music, weather conditions, time of day, and the perceived degree of consensual opportunity.

Typically, sex educators mistake the mean value of hormonal predisposition (H1) for S, when in reality S is a more complex function subject to a great number of other exogenous variables.

This points to another significant difference between the 1968 and 1994 cohorts. Although the mean value of H1 (hormonal predisposition) for a random sample of boys in both cohorts would very likely prove to be identical, anecdotal data suggests that virtually all other H factors tend to be higher on average at the present time.

The older, religio-moral paradigm of sex education actually served to reduce H values under the rubrics of "avoiding occasions of sin," "self- respect," "responsibility," etc. In addition, social organizations and families often acted to reduce greatly the logistical circumstance factors. This organized behavior, combined with the much higher PL values of that era, served to greatly reduce actual outbreaks of teen sexual activity.

However, a more striking difference between the sex education of the 1968 and the 1994 cohorts is that the objective of the earlier education program appeared to be to minimize the actual occurrence of sexual acts whereas the dominant present objective is to insure that sex acts only take place when the S>PL equation is satisfied.

We must face up to the reality that even if American teens had the reasoning and math skills necessary to adequately and accurately perform S>PL pre-sex analysis, such analysis may result in a net disutility for regular condom use. Therefore, in order to preserve the macroeconomic benefits of widespread condom retail sales, a more radical pro-condom approach is called for, one that combines the net risk reduction effects of the religio-moral education paradigm while still preserving the macroeconomic benefits of widespread retail condom purchases.

Perhaps surprisingly, the only model that meets both requirements would be one that (1) requires mandatory, periodical condom purchase by teens; and (2) relies on a sex education paradigm that stresses absolute abstinence until an age of financial and personal maturity as expressed in equation 4-1:

S = 0 (Eq. 4-1)

Some may argue that this is contradictory: Why require condom purchases by persons who are simultaneously being instructed never to deploy them? In this respect, the condom purchase requirement under the proposed new sex ed paradigm parallels what was known in the older religio-moral paradigm as "rendering unto Caesar." Moreover there are substantial historical precedents for purchase and storage of condoms that will never be used. An estimated 45 percent of all men's wallets manufactured between 1957 and 1970 were put to use in this precise fashion for their entire useful lives, a consumer application that was unaffected by the decline of the domestic leather goods industry during that period with its subsequent adverse impact on the balance of trade.

The more significant criticism of the revised paradigm is that an S = 0 approach is an unrealistic denial of the inherently high utility of teen sexual intercourse. However, as we have seen S is the result of a number of exogenous variables, not the least of which is the role of adults in minimizing socially constructed H factors. Or, to put it in terms of the old religio-moral paradigm, adults would be required to set an example, resist hypocrisy, and actively intervene to discourage teen sex.

Reliance on PL values under the present approach sends the desired message that life largely consists of adversity risks against which the autonomous individual in pursuit of enjoyment must struggle armed only with reason and data. In contrast, an educational approach that focuses on H value components of S implies that just as adults have a vested interest in teen behavior, teens will themselves be entrusted with the well-being of the next generation. While this latter message may run counter to educational efforts to promote individualism and self-esteem, the perception that there is a long-term bond between generations may make transmittal of this and other constructive educational messages easier to effect.

This new approach runs an enormous risk of accentuating the link between sex and reproduction as well as the danger of instilling community values in the individual teen. This would, of course, be a formidable price to pay; but if it reduces the drag on the GNP from the external costs of sexual misadventure and helps create American jobs, we may be forced to consider it in light of the economic alternatives.


George A. Tobin practices law in Washington, D.C.


For Luddite Humanism

David R. Carlin

Now that researchers at George Washington University Medical Center have split human embryos, thereby producing genetically identical twin embryos, cloning human beings is on the table for national debate.

Reactions to the event at George Washington have been varied.

Some people (the Vatican, for instance) were horrified at this development, visions of Brave New World dancing in their heads. These we may call the Moral Luddites (ML), unenlightened enemies of the technological utopia that lies before us.

Others said, "Why not? Science is wonderful! Progress is inevitable!" These are the Instant Dehumanizers (ID).

Still others, having little to say but feeling compelled to utter a weighty pronouncement on such a weighty occasion, told us that cloning contains both bright promise and frightening possibilities; continuing research therefore should be permitted, but approached with caution. In this category was the New York Times, for instance, which on November 6, 1993 intoned that "the issues raised by cloning are compelling and deserve the kind of thoughtful debate physicians and bioethicists are asking for." These are the Gradual Dehumanizers (GD), who do not exactly like the world they see coming down the road but cannot think of any good reason for opposing it. Thus they will let it arrive inch by inch, justifying it after the fact.

I submit that, barring some significant cultural revolution in the United States, the future of cloning is assured. The only question is whether it will be done under the aegis of the ID party or the GD party.

The ID party will win if the issue gets taken to the U.S. Supreme Court on a day when the Court is in the mood to assert its high doctrine of privacy, pronouncing that the decision to clone or not to clone is one that should be made between the owners of the embryo and the Dr. Frankenstein of their choice. If, on the other hand, the Court decides to play a minimal role in this contest, thus disregarding the doctrine of privacy it enunciated in Roe v. Wade, the GD party will eventually win a victory in legislative chambers and scientific associations.

I am ashamed to admit that I am so unenlightened as to belong to the ML party, having grown too old to appreciate what are no doubt the great merits of dehumanization. Why then so pessimistic a prognosis for my own party? Let me explain.

The ancient definition of the human being as a rational animal may have been a tad optimistic. But if we are not quite rational, we are at any rate logical-at least on the whole and in the long run. Give us a premise, and we will eventually draw the conclusions that follow from it. And if this premise and its conclusions have to do with matters of morality and practice, we will eventually tend to act in accordance with our principles.

Take the Declaration of Independence, for example. The premise America adopted when it embraced the Declaration-namely, that "all men are created equal"-led among other things to the Civil War and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and today is leading to the creation of a national health system. We are still a long way from having exhausted all the deductions to be made from the "created equal" premise.

Similarly we are a long way from having exhausted the conclusions to be derived from the privacy-and-autonomy premise-the premise that lies at the heart of contemporary American secularism and was enshrined in constitutional law in 1973 in the Roe decision. But this privacy- autonomy premise will justify a good deal more than abortion. Given the premise, suicide also is justified. So, therefore, is assisted suicide- for if there is nothing wrong with X committing suicide, how can there be anything wrong with Y assisting X in doing so? Hence Dr. Kevorkian seems to many to be a kind of Arthurian knight, rescuing unwilling prisoners trapped in the Castle of Life. Although the state of Michigan has taken steps to restrict his activities, who can doubt that it is only a matter of time before America follows the example of the Dutch in these matters?

And of course the privacy-autonomy premise justifies cloning. If privacy and autonomy legitimize abortion, could they not also legitimize cloning? If society and government have no right to interfere with the abortion decision, what right could they possibly have to interfere with the cloning decision, which, from the point of view of us Luddites, is far less obnoxious than the abortion decision?

No doubt there are many pro-abortion rights folks who are at the same time anti-cloning. But this is totally inconsistent of them; they don't have a logical leg to stand on. What basis besides prejudice and whim can they offer for this approval of the worse and disapproval of the less bad? None at all. Their condemnation of cloning arises not from principle but, most likely, from their not yet having grown used to the idea; or from long-ago teenage impressions of Huxley's novel; or from personal self-interest (that is, the low probability of their having to resort to cloning versus the relatively high probability of their having to resort to abortion).

Unless that cultural revolution I mentioned earlier comes along, displacing America's regnant secularism, the world will become increasingly safe not only for abortion but for euthanasia, cloning, and numerous other antihuman perversities.

We are, it seems, marching to dystopia, where, thanks to cloning, all the girls will be blond and shapely, all the boys tall and athletic. And when the boys get the girls pregnant, they will be free to choose between (a) having abortions, and (b) cloning embryos and selling the clones. And when the girls begin to lose their looks and the boys their muscle tone, euthanasia will rescue them before their once lovely bodies become a cause of embarrassment.

O brave new world, toward which we eagerly wend our way!


David R. Carlin, a former member of the Rhode Island Senate, was a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. He is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island.


On The Other Hand


Hatred Under Ice?

Peter L. Berger

There is by now a well-established conventional view about the eruptions of ethnic hatred in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet empire. This view holds that these are the result of age-old enmities, which were held under control by the various Communist regimes and thus for a time, at least in some places, were barely visible. The hatred was preserved, as it were, in amber or under ice. As the Communist regimes collapsed- the amber broken, the ice melting-the ancient ethnic passions came to life again, perhaps gaining particular new ferocity because of the long period of repression.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, of course, is supposed to be the prime example of this phenomenon. There, in the heart of the Balkans, ethnic and religious animosities go back many centuries, back to the struggles between Latin and Orthodox Christians, and between Christianity and Islam. The three religio-ethnic groups currently engaged in the war over Bosnia derive their national aspirations and indeed their very identities from these old struggles, without which what is now going on in this unhappy territory would make no sense at all. The rival groups are indistinguishable by either race or language, and it is doubtful whether religious beliefs as such have much to do with the antagonism either. None of the three groups shows signs of great religious fervor. The religious affiliations are "markers": to be "Orthodox" means to be "Serb," which means not to be "Latin" ("Croat") or "Muslim" ("Turk," as that term went earlier in this century). One could almost imagine that, say, hair color would do just as well to mark off one group against another. An outside observer might conclude that all of this bloodshed is completely meaningless, an outbreak of madness-unless, that is, this observer is informed as to the ancient history that, supposedly, explains it all.

How much of this view holds up? As with most conventional theories, this one has some supporting evidence. There can be no doubt about the venerable lineage of the homicidal rivalries in the region. Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Muslims had indeed been slaughtering each other with enthusiasm for centuries, and the memory of these massacres was maintained in legends and folk songs. One could say, then, that the hatred was always "at hand."

But there is also some inconvenient counter-evidence to the theory of frozen hatred. Many reports from two periods point to remarkably amicable relations among the three Bosnian groups. One is the period 1878 to 1918, when the territory was ruled by Austria-Hungary, which was not a notably repressive regime. The other was the period between 1945 and the breakup of Yugoslavia. This is not to say that there were not some nasty prejudices voiced now and then. But the old passions appeared to have been thoroughly tamed-analogously, say, to the antagonism between Southerners and Yankees in twentieth-century America. Perhaps the best evidence for this in the Tito period is the high rate of intermarriage, especially in the cities.

The conventional theory must propose that this amity was "not real," was "only superficial." Conversely, the "reality" was the hatred smoldering "underneath," in the depths of the collective memory. Perhaps. But there is nothing compelling about this interpretation. It assumes a relation between apparent amity and latent hatred somewhat comparable to the relation between the conscious and the unconscious in Freudian psychology. The analogy is unconvincing, and in any case, the assumption invites a counter-theory: The amity and the hatred are equally real; which of the two comes to the fore is subject to political manipulation, which is capable of converting emotions "at hand" into motives for aggressive action. Thus, despite all the archaeology of hatred that Balkan historians are regaling us with, what is going on in Bosnia today can best be understood as an altogether novel phenomenon.

The two conflicting interpretations of the Bosnian situation derive from alternate understandings of history. The first derives from what might be called the ancient curse theory of history. Thus one can explain modern Anglo-Saxon individualism by the landholding arrangements of medieval England, the political systems of Latin America by the constitution of Old Castille, and the Japanese economic miracle by the brand of Confucianism adopted by the samurai caste. The second interpretation comes from what might be called an adult education theory of history. The past counts, to be sure, and there are potent memories. But the past can also be forgotten, and adults are quite capable of striking out in altogether new directions.

The two theories of history can be translated into two discrepant views of the human individual. The first implies a "depth psychology" (not necessarily Freudian), which proposes to explain human actions by the power of memory. However, a very different psychology is possible. It would be skeptical about these alleged "depths" and would hold that human existence is mostly lived "on the surface"; that the realissimum is the superficial world of everyday life, and the rest is dreams, cloudy intuitions, and intimations, with a doubtful status of reality. It follows from this latter psychology that, given certain circumstances, human beings are capable of rapid and radical change. Perhaps the best evidence for this view comes from the annals of religious conversion. Many an ancient curse has been dramatically liquidated on the road to Damascus.

In all likelihood the truth lies somewhere in between. Archaic passions may indeed live on "below the surface," both for individuals and collectivities. But the arrangements built "on top of" them-that is, the "surfaces" that try to bury the old memories-are no less real for that, and there are social and political institutions to keep this reality going, as there are social and political actions to break it down. Thus it is not difficult to imagine a course of events following the breakup of Yugoslavia that would have led to a very different situation today. The emergence of a different political leadership in Serbia and in Croatia would have been the most likely cause of such a different development. As might even now be the imposition by force of a new "surface"-by the NATO powers taking over the role played by Austria- Hungary in 1878.

I'm not sure that such an alternative view is in the nature of good news. Old memories can be evil, but so can novel actions. Old enemies can become friends, but good neighbors can turn into mass murderers, and both conversions can occur overnight. Santayana was almost certainly wrong with his famous dictum to the effect that those who will not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Human beings are capable of splendid feats of forgetfulness, be it for better or for worse. But one could paraphrase Santayana: Those who want to pretend that their intended actions are fate will remember (or, if necessary, invent) those bits of history that make it seem that way. On balance, I think, this is bad news. In the case of Bosnia, and in many similar situations, a humane outcome would have to be based on a massive loss of historical memory.


Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.