Friday, 22 January 2016

The Terrorist's Paradox

     A while ago, I wrote a bit about the security risks of Canada taking in Syrian refugees, in which I argued that the risk that some refugees might turn out to be dangerous was only relevant if it made them on average more dangerous than the crazies we already have as part of our population. But I also expressed an expectation that DAESh would actively try to carry out terrorist attacks specifically to deter us from taking in refugees. I didn't think it likely that they'd succeed, but I fully expected them to at least try. Well, it's just occurred to me how unlikely that is, and it has to do with something I want to call the "terrorist's paradox".

     The paradox doesn't apply to all terrorists, of course. Those who just want to coerce people into doing what they want by taking hostages or threatening some other sort of violence if their ransom demands aren't met don't count. The terrorists I'm talking about here, though, are the ones who see themselves as part of a political struggle in which they hope to inspire the masses to rise up and join them against the enemy. This describes al Qaeda's objective, and to a large extent it's what DAESh is all about, too.
     So the paradox comes about like this. On the one hand, they see themselves and want to be seen as The Good Guys. They view their cause as morally righteous, and their enemy as irredeemably evil, though perhaps not yet recognized as evil by the decent ordinary people they hope to rally to their cause. If only the evil could be unmasked! If only people could see just how vicious and oppressive and cruel the enemy is!
     Well, the terrorist's way to unmask the evil brutality of the enemy is by provoking the enemy into  acting in obviously evil and brutal ways. Blow up a school bus, shoot up a shopping mall, do something to make them really angry, and then everyone will see how viciously they overreact.
     But here's the paradox. In order to really provoke the kind of overreaction you want, you need to make your provocative attack really get a lot of attention. A spectacularly damaging act, like hijacking passenger planes and flying them into iconic national landmarks, is just the sort of thing to send everyone into a panic and start lashing out like the evil brutal monsters you know they are. Except, the more spectacularly awful your act of provocation, the more you look like the bad guy and the more sympathy you create for your enemy, undermining your attempt to rally people to your cause.
     I suspect, in fact, that al Qaeda's attack on 9/11 might have actually prevented the worldwide Islamic uprising against the United States it was meant to inspire. We know, after all, that the Bush Administration was intent on invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. It's also a fairly safe bet that American diplomatic capital was already a limited resource under Bush, and likely to be quickly depleted through Bush's tact-free handing of matters like the collision between a Chinese jet and an American reconnaissance plane. 9/11 gave Bush an instant and huge windfall of goodwill. I wonder what sort of international reaction the 2003 invasion of Iraq would have received, if not for that goodwill.

     That's how the paradox played out on al Qaeda. Now, DAESh is much more media-savvy, but they too are subject to the paradox. See, while al Qaeda organized teams of jihadists to carry out carefully coordinated missions, DAESh seems to focus, at least for its overseas mayhem, on radicalizing locals through the internet and encouraging them to carry out their own lone-wolf projects. This has the obvious advantage of stealth, in that less operational communications means less opportunity for security agencies to detect and disrupt attempts. But it also means that the guys carrying out these lone-wolf attacks aren't going to be subject to the kind of strategic discipline you can get when you're assembling a team and planning. Jihadi Joe in his parents' basement is being fired up with hatred and anger at the evil oppressive West; he wants to strike a blow against the Great Satan, and what's more, he wants to be gloriously remembered as a martyr for the cause. He's not thinking in terms of the strategic goal of making Canadians hate and distrust Muslims; if anything, it's the fact that many of us are already a bit hateful and distrustful that makes him so angry at us. And even if he did think that many moves ahead, he'd recognize that it's awfully hard for a local boy martyr to put together a convincing refugee disguise that stand up to even a cursory investigation.
     So the homegrown lone wolf attacks that DAESh likes to take credit for, then, are extremely unlikely to be willing, much less able to pull off a "false flag" aimed at tricking us into thinking that Syrian refugees are responsible. I mean, sure, there's always going to be a bunch of people who are terrified that we're letting them into the country, and will point at any old act of violence as confirming their suspicions, but for most of us, a transparent attempt to frame Syrian refugees for some terrorist act will backfire, convincing us only that some bad people really don't want us to be so nice to them.
     And, reverse psychology being what it is, if DAESh really wants us not to take in refugees, that's be a pretty good way to strengthen our resolve to do so.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

December 9: V-S Day

     I think December 9 is a day we should celebrate with every bit as much solemnity and pride as November 11. On this day in 1979, a United Nations commission declared smallpox extinct. The official endorsement from the World Health Organization wouldn't come for another five months, but neither did the Treaty of Versaille that formalized the end of World War One was almost a whole year after the Armistice, but we celebrate when the shooting stopped, not when the diplomats shook on it.
     Of course, it's a little harder to be clear when the war on smallpox was really won. The last patient was diagnosed in 1977 (he survived), and it's by no means certain that the last wild specimens of the virus were in him; possibly some unidentified infected person was hit by a bus in 1978 or even 1987 and took the last ones with her. We only know we won because enough time went by without any new infections to give us some confidence that it's over. There were no parades or fireworks.
     But even so, it was a truly stunning accomplishment. I mean, we've driven countless species extinct before, but mostly unintentionally and to our detriment. Smallpox was a vicious virus whose only role in the ecosystem, so far as anybody can tell, was to hitch a ride from human to human, killing lots of us in the process. The defeat of smallpox was one of the best things that has ever happened for our species.

     And defeating it took enormous organization, resourcefulness, skill and courage. The last person to be infected? He was a hospital cook who worked with the WHO team working to eradicate smallpox. And the last person to die of smallpox was a medical photographer. So fighting diseases is not without its risks.
     Yet it wasn't only the medical professionals going out and vaccinating people who won this war. There wasn't always enough vaccine to go around, and so it had to be applied strategically. That meant getting good intelligence on where the virus was. New cases anywhere in the world were reported quickly to the team, who would isolate the patient and vaccinate all her contacts. The last natural infection of the deadliest strain (the hospital cook got a somewhat less deadly but still dangerous version) was reported to the authorities by an 8 year old girl, so there were important contributions made by everyone. And that includes everyone who received a vaccination (which can be a scary thing, especially for children).

     So we should all be grateful and celebrate this anniversary, but not just because ending smallpox was a good thing. Deadly infectious diseases like smallpox are kind of like war in that most of us, living in the developed world, haven't directly experienced one, and can scarcely imagine the epidemics of even the recent past. Influenza killed more people in the years of the Armistice and the Treaty of Versaille than the four years of war they ended. Lest we forget.
     We should remember these things so we don't repeat them. When we debate whether or not to get vaccinated against the diseases we're still fighting, we should remember what we're up against, and bravely, proudly, patriotically roll up our sleeve and take that shot. Even if you believe that vaccines can cause autism (they really don't), even if you're afraid of all the (very rare) complications from vaccines, remember that you live free of smallpox because of people who were willing to be vaccinated despite their fear of these strange foreign doctors and their needles. And generations yet unborn may have reason to be grateful to us for a life free of polio, measles, the Guinea worm and other pestilences we might yet defeat.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Fear and Anger

     I sat down to try to write something about the terrorism at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. I wanted to talk about how "terrorism" isn't (or shouldn't be seen as) violence-by-Muslims, but that it's a specific kind of violence, strategically aimed more at provoking a terrified response than at inflicting decisive damage. Terrorism is about the emotional reaction to the violence more than the violence itself, and violence used to intimidate people to change their behaviour (such as deterring them from attending health care services) clearly fits the bill.
     But I also wanted to talk about how maybe the word "terrorism" is itself a bit misleading, because the emotional overreaction that it provokes isn't always purely a terrified one. A natural reaction to fear is anger, and displays of escalating rage are a very common defence: if I can make you more afraid of me than I am of you, maybe you'll leave me alone. I like to call this phenomenon "badass bravado", and you see it all over the place, from politicians boasting about how they're going to get "tough on" criminals or terrorists or foreigners, to Second Amendment crazies fantasizing about how would-be government despots quiver in fear from their mighty home arsenals of small arms. 
      What's especially dangerous about this bravado is that, in believing that one is driven by anger and not fear, one can think that one is immune to the strategy of terrorism. "They want us to be afraid, but I'm not afraid. I'm angry, and I'm gonna kick their asses, not cower in fear!" Yet the objective, at least in the case of DAESh's use of terrorism, is to provoke exactly this kind of response. To be fair, there certainly are uses of terrorism that are intended to intimidate, as well, as the Planned Parenthood example illustrates. But in all cases, terrorism is aimed at getting you to react emotionally instead of rationally.
     There are very good evolutionary reasons for why we have emotions that make us stupid. In a suddenly dangerous situation, being able to react quickly without stopping to ponder if maybe there's a better way to avoid the charging angry bear is important: fight or flight, but whichever you choose it's better if you don't linger over the decision.
     But anger in particular is meant to make us irrational, especially in the badass bravado scenario. We have a strong need not to appear weak before our rivals or enemies, to pose a credible deterrent to any slight or insult they might offer. It wouldn't be, in the immediate situation, rational to escalate to a costly retaliation when the cost of just turning the other cheek is so low, but little insults add up, and in the long run it can be costly to be seen as willing to tolerate little wrongs. And so, being seen as easily angered to irrationally costly vengeance is often worth it. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. made the rationally calculated choice to assure each other not just that they would be able to retaliate to any nuclear attack, but unable to stop themselves from retaliating. Thus was WWIII deterred: by the awareness on both sides that the other side would become irrationally dangerous if provoked.

     So this is what I was trying to organize into yet another blog post about violence, when yesterday I heard about the mass shooting in San Bernardino and threw up my hands in frustration. And anger. So much anger. And maybe a bit of fear, too, but I'll get to that.
     See, the thing that sends me into a seething ultraviolet-hot fury is not the shooters. I'm mad at them, a bit, of course, but they're dead and unworthy of further attention except as data points in trying to understand and prevent future incidents. No, what enrages me is when the Gun Lobby people start blaming the victims, saying that if only they'd been armed, they could have defended themselves and saved lives. 
     That is just plain offensive, but it's something the Gun Lobby does a lot, and if you apply the tiniest fraction of the paranoid creativity that goes into dreaming up false flag explanations for Sandy Hook or ... or... jeez, I can't even remember which of the many other shootings they've tried to claim was a hoax as a pretext to confiscate guns. If you consider the motives of the Gun Lobby with the slightest hint of the skepticism they have for Teh Gubmint and the "liberal" media, it might occur to you that an industry that makes all of its money from the sale of guns and ammo might not be completely free of ulterior motives in their enthusiastic promotion of guns as the solution to gun violence.
     I am reminded of the obscene hypocrisy of tobacco company executives asserting before Congress that they believed tobacco was not addictive, and spending vast sums to challenge the claim that maybe cigarettes weren't very good for you. No, it's not the mere fact that they were lying that was obscene. It's that the lie was so transparently a self-serving lie, because at the very same time they were claiming there was no health risk from smoking, they were also insisting that their advertising wasn't aimed at children or indeed at convincing anyone other than established smokers to switch to their brand. Really? If you believe tobacco is harmless and non-addictive, then what kind of an incompetent moron are you not to be trying to encourage everyone to try your wonderful product?
     The Gun Lobby argument is not quite as inherently self-refuting, but it's close. It's certainly more profoundly immoral, though, because at least with tobacco, dying of emphysema was at worst an unfortunate side-effect of tobacco use that had to be downplayed. With guns, mass-shootings and the fear they inspire actually create more profits for gun manufacturers, because terrified people rush out to buy guns to defend themselves against other terrified people with guns, or to stockpile them before a reactionary government bans them. In other words, it's actually in the Gun Lobby's interests for there to be fairly regular mass shootings.

     So if I'm angry, what's the fear behind it? Well, apart from just being morally outraged that people are dying unnecessarily to keep the money rolling in for the gun industry, there's another pretty terrifying aspect to their rhetoric. A common variation on their blaming-the-unarmed-victim argument is the claim that Hitler disarmed the Jews, as if they could have defended themselves effectively against the state if only they'd had guns. And this offends and frightens me, because the lesson of the Holocaust was not "Don't be like the Jews"; it was "Don't be like the Nazis". There is a guy running for President of the United States, a prime example of badass bravado, who has openly advocated making Muslims wear badges. 
     Sure, I'm not a Muslim. Heck, I don't even live in the U.S. Why should I be afraid?

Monday, 16 November 2015

On Refugees and Security

     So, I'm hearing from people who are concerned about our new federal government's plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees. They say they want to help, of course, but they're worried that maybe some terrorists might sneak in disguised as refugees, so they want there to be very careful, very thorough screening.
     This sounds very reasonable, and it is so long as the screening is cost-effective. But how much screening is cost-effective? I'm going to suggest, with the following analogy, that the answer is not very much.

      Imagine you are relaxing in a hot tub, and a child proposes to drop a piece of ice in there with you to watch it melt. Sure, that'll cool down the water a bit, and you might prefer to keep it hotter, but you're willing to endure the modest temperature change which you probably won't even notice, since it'll make the child happy and you want to encourage her to do harmless little experiments like this anyway.
     But wait. Where did she get this block of ice, you ask? And she explains that she broke it from the frozen surface of a puddle in the front yard.
     Eewwww! That puddle in the front yard? It's all muddy and gross, and almost certainly full of germs and bacteria and pesticides and everything else! You don't want that in the hot tub with you!

     Now stop and think for a moment. What kind of germs and bacteria and unwanted chemicals are already in the hot tub with you? If you're at all realistic, you'll know that water you're soaking in is far from sterile. It's teeming with nastiness, kept in check of course by the high temperature and whatever chemicals you might use in your hot tub to keep microbe populations down. And while there might well be dog poop and other residues in the little piece of ice, it's certainly not worse than what's already in the tub, and your filter and chemicals can handle it in any event. Moreover, since the skin of ice came from the top of the puddle, it probably doesn't have any of the nasty sediments at the bottom of the puddle; odds are, it's actually purer water than what you're already sitting in.

     So this is analogous to the situation with Syrian refugees. We warm-hearted Canadians might be willing to sacrifice a little short-term comfort to help the needy, just as we'd be willing to let the water in the hot tub get just a little cooler as the ice melts. But we seem to be irrationally terrified that there might be dangerous people who want to hurt us among those we let in.
    Of course there's a possibility that some terrorists might sneak in along with refugees. But we need to consider whether that actually has any real impact on our safety, and I want to argue that it doesn't really. See, Canada is a nation of some 36 million people, and we have our share of dangerous people right here. We have serial killers and criminal gangs and angry young men with guns, and even a few would-be jihadists, just like any other country. Just like your hot tub is already full of pathogens and other icky stuff. And just like your hot tub has a system of filters and chemicals in place to deal with a certain amount of infectious goo, so too does our country have a robust system of law enforcement and security, to deal with the dangerous people who already live here.
     Moreover, just like the ice from the puddle is already quite a bit purer than the rest of the puddle, refugees are generally people who are fleeing the fighting; most of those DAESh thugs are too busy fighting to hang onto the territory they seized to be able to spare a lot of people to carry out terrorist operations elsewhere. They might send a few, but almost certainly not enough to make the 25,000 refugees statistically more dangerous to Canada than any other random bunch of 25,000 Canadians.

     There is a difference, of course. Unlike the pollutants in a mud puddle, DAESh might make deliberate, conscious attempts to exploit any perceived security lapses in our refugee process. And in fact, I actually expect them to do so. I don't expect them to pose any statistically significant danger, but I am confident they'll try to carry out some attack or other, and they'll likely go out of their way to let us know how they got into the country, because after all, their objective is to make us in the West hate and fear all Muslims, forcing all Muslims to throw their lot in with DAESh. And that, of course, is another reason why we should welcome Syrian refugees with open arms: because doing so will foil DAESh's plans.

     I'm not going to say that welcoming refugees will keep us safe. We're already in danger, and we always have been, and so keeping refugees out won't make us any safer. And DAESh really doesn't want us to mess up their narrative of evil infidels persecuting pious Muslims, so yeah, there's actually a pretty good chance they will try to attack us, especially if we do take in more refugees. But here's the thing: We're tougher than they are.
     I don't mean we can hit them harder than they can hit us, although of course we can; modern nation states like Canada with conventionally trained and equipped militaries are infinitely more powerful than a bunch of religious fanatics with Kalashnikovs. I mean we can survive anything they throw at us, and shrug. If they kill a hundred of us, or a thousand of us, we'll be upset and sad and angry, but you know what? So will all the people they're trying to recruit to their side.

     We're going to suffer more tragedies. Be ready for it, but don't think you can prevent it by giving in to hate and fear. Courage and compassion are how we will win.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sacrifices for Freedom

     My sister just forwarded me this link alerting me that today is "Love Your Lawyer Day", probably because she found out I'm a lawyer. I'm gratified, I suppose, but reading through the article I'm also a little disappointed that the rationale for the day seems to be entirely a reaction to cruel lawyer jokes and an awareness that lawyers have feelings too. And, as it also happens to be early November and everyone is wearing red poppies and waxing poetic about how much we owe our veterans, the contrast is a bit troubling.
     I hasten to stress that I am grateful for the courage and sacrifice of our veterans, and very much aware of how vitally important it is that they are willing and able to fight in defense of our civilization. But I am troubled by the apparently unlimited scope of the platitudes of gratitude we express, especially around November 11, in which people seem quite unrestrained in thanking men with guns for everything we have. For example, there is the story about VFW's Teacher of the Year Martha Cothren and the poignant lesson she taught her students about what earned them the right to sit in their desks, by having a group of veterans troop into the classroom, each carrying a desk.
     And certainly there have been instances where the willingness of soldiers to put themselves in harm's way has played a direct and visible role in letting children attend school. Consider, for example, when President Eisenhower ordered the Arkansas National Guard to protect nine black students as they attended Little Rock Central High School, which had previously been reserved only for white children.
     But also consider that before Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard, that very same unit had been sent by Governor Orval Faubus to prevent those same students from entering the building. The point here is that men with guns can be an instrument of oppression as well as defense against it. Indeed, I shouldn't need to mention that the primary use of violence throughout history has been in service of one form of oppression or another; those who resolve their disputes by reasoned negotiation and moral persuasion generally have little need for weapons, and then only because there are other people out there who do favour violence as their strategy.

     So it is not simply the fact that someone wears a uniform, carries a gun and follows orders that makes him or her a champion of freedom. It's that the gun is carried in service of freedom, or more to the point, in service of the form of government and the rule of law and the principles that support that freedom. And while the contribution of armed forced to protecting that freedom is very important, it is not the only contribution There are others who serve to protect our freedom as well, albeit in less dramatic and less appreciated ways.
     Remember that Eisenhower did not simply decide to send in troops because he wanted to see Arkansas schools desegregated as a matter of might-makes-right. This was not just a clash between the policies of the President and the Governor. It was a matter of law: a Federal Court had ruled that racially segregated school systems violated the Constitution. And that court had not simply decided that they thought it would be nice if children of all colours could attend schools together; it had been persuaded by legal arguments raised by lawyers.
     Now, it's true, of course, that there were lawyers on the other side, arguing that separate-but-equal segregated schools were constitutionally sound and that it was entirely appropriate that black students should not be allowed to set foot in all-white schools. But that does not mean that those lawyers were enemies of freedom. On the contrary, they played a fundamentally important role in protecting it. Our legal system is adversarial: the court must hear the very best arguments available for both sides of a claim, so that we can have confidence that the decisions they make are as fair and just as humanly possible. And that means that we need lawyers to be the bad guys as well as the good guys, in particular because in most cases that actually make it all the way to trial, there's actually an open question as to which is which.
     This means that there will always be lawyers arguing the very opposite of what you want to hear them saying, assuming you ever take sides on any issue. And this makes it hard to avoid coming to the opinion that lawyers are slimy dishonest shysters who will argue anything for anyone, so long as they get paid.
     But consider for a moment what it is we want from a soldier: we want them to be well-trained and highly disciplined, and in particular we want them to be able to promptly follow lawful orders even when those lawful orders require them to do something they might personally find distastefull. Like, for instance, shooting someone dead, or  blowing up a bunker with people inside it. These things may be tactically necessary, and in the big picture they may well be the least of all evils, but in the immediate situation, there's no getting around the fact that killing people is ugly, and something all decent people have a natural resistance to.
     We consider soldiers heroes for their ability to bravely do what we would consider abhorrent, and rightly so on both counts: they are heroes, and it is still abhorrent. So why do we feel comfortable condemning the lawyer who defends a pedophile, or who argues that black kids shouldn't be allowed to go to white schools? Why do we vilify lawyers with lawyer jokes?

     Sure, it's not the same as getting shot at. But neither is it the same as shooting at people. And just as soldiers willingly bear the risk of being shot, so too do lawyers knowingly enter a career and make arguments they know will make them unpopular.
     So I'm not complaining. I see it as an inevitable part of the process, of what lawyers do, that they will be regarded with suspicion and even contempt. The fact that many earn respectable salaries (and much more than what members of the armed forces typically earn) is probably more than enough to make up for this. I don't think we need a Love Your Lawyer Day, nice as the intention behind it is.
     But I do think we need to balance the hyperbole of thanks for veterans with a recognition that it's not just their willingness to fight that keeps us free, because I think the militaristic rhetoric is ultimately dangerous. The most egregious example I can think of is how some American gun proponents talk about the 2nd Amendment as the one that makes all the others possible, which is of course absolutely backwards, as I've argued before. More concretely, there is a strain of law-and-order ideology in which the police are very quick to use force to silence any perceived challenge to their authority, whether it be slamming a high school student to the floor for refusing to obey a command or arresting a driver for declining to put out her cigarette in her own car, or any of countless other examples. But these acts are not law; they are force.

     It is not force, then, but the law that keeps us free. Those who take up arms to meet force with force in service of law deserve our thanks, but so do lawyers, who work to apply and improve the law. But neither can do it alone: without our collective commitment to resolve our disputes in accordance with principles of civility and respect, their sacrifices would be for nothing.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

On "Allowing" Disrespect

     A quote from the Reverend Billy Graham has come across my news feed a couple of times now, and so I think it's time to deconstruct it, because I think it's wrong and misleading. Rev. Graham says:

A child who is allowed to be disrespectful to his parents will not have true respect for anyone.

     Why would I take issue with this? Obviously I think children ought to respect their parents, and obviously I agree that it's a good thing for children to have respect for other people, as well. These are certainly desirable things. But often when we read or hear something that seems to be about uncontroversial values we all share, we lapse into a kind of warm glowy agreement with it, and don't look closely enough to notice that what it's actually saying is, well, wrong.
      There are, after all, children who are born to disreputable and irresponsible parents, who still somehow manage to grow up into decent and respectful human beings despite (and sometimes as a reaction to) their awful role models.  It is entirely conceivable that such a child might not respect her parents at all, having been disappointed in them too many times to extend them the benefit of the doubt, and yet still have true respect for others. So the claim is empirically false, but it goes deeper than just the occasional exception-that-proves-the-rule.

      The real problem I have with this claim is that that's just not how respect works. Respect is not a behaviour but an attitude, a recognition that other people exist, that they have their own perspectives which we are not well-situated to judge, that they have their own concerns and interests, and most of all that they matter. Once one has that basic element of respect, all sorts of respectful behaviours just naturally emerge from it. When we respect each other, we will defer to each other's preferences and expertise, or at least take them into account. We will choose our words politely, so as to avoid giving offense, because respect means that a person's preference not to be offended matters to us.
     Now, what does it mean, then, to "allow" a child to be disrespectful to his parents? From my perspective, this is an almost meaningless question; how can you allow someone to have an attitude or belief about your inherent worth as a human being? Indeed, the very question is itself disrespectful, insofar as it disrespects the basic sovereignty of the child's own mind.
     What one can allow (or disallow) is behaviour, and yes, it's possible to demand politeness and deference, and to punish their absence. And by all means, as parents we certainly ought to attempt to teach our children how to behave politely, towards their parents as well as towards anyone else. A respectful attitude can emerge from this, as we model the practice of considering others. But if we are focused on demanding that our children show us polite deference as their parents, we might well end up modelling an authoritarian self-centeredness that undermines the foundations of true respect.

     And so I would say that, as superficially profound as the Rev. Graham's quote sounds, it's actually backwards. Teach your children what respect is, not by demanding it from them, but by modelling it for them. Demonstrate respect by showing it to everyone.
     You cannot make your children, or anyone else, respect you. What you can and should do is strive always to be worthy of that respect; whether you get it or not is not up to you. And if your children live by the same principle, you'll have done your job well.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Road Gets Steeper: On the Alleged Unfairness of Progressive Income Tax

     I've been having a lengthy and frustrating argument with a friend who seems to hold the position that progressive income tax is unfair. He seems to think it is punitive to impose a higher tax rate on someone just because they happen to earn more than someone else. And he's not alone in using words like "punitive"; lots of people are wrong along with him.

     Simply put, progressive income tax is where the marginal tax rate rises as income rises; as your income rises, you are taxed a progressively higher percentage. Simple enough, and simpler still if you just ignore the word "marginal", which is a common mistake, but turns an otherwise sensible policy into a horrifying injustice.
     Consider: You earn 10,000 quatloos, and are in the 10% tax bracket, so you pay 1000 quatloos in tax. But next year, you earn 10,100 quatloos, and that puts you into the 15% back, so perversely you end up paying 1515 quatloos, effectively losing money by earning more. That definitely would be punitive, because there's an actual disincentive to earn the extra quatloo.
     That's how many people think progressive income tax works, so they naturally find it objectionable. But that's what you get for ignoring the word "marginal". The way progressive taxation really works is that you only pay the higher rate on the income above what you earned in the lower bracket. So you pay 10% on the first 10,000 quatloos, and then when you earn an additional ("marginal", for the margin or gap between what you earned and the previous bracket) 100 quatloos, you pay 15% on the additional income, or 15 quatloos. So your total tax bill is now 1015 quatloos, not 1515. There is no point at which earning an extra quatloo costs you more than one quatloo in taxes; earning an extra quatloo always means taking home more money. Hence, it's not actually punitive; you're never actually worse off for having earned more, at least so far as taxes are concerned.

     I think my friend understands this much, but he still insists that it's unfair to make the rich pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. I must confess I've really been having a hard time understanding this reasoning. It might come from an inappropriate emphasis on the word "equal", which doesn't necessarily mean "fair". After all, a straight head tax of $1000 per person per year would be equal in dollar terms, but impossibly burdensome on the poorest, and imperceptibly so on the richest. Obviously fairness does not demand arithmetic equality; why should we assume it would require equal percentage rates?
     But that seems to be the core of the objection: progressive income tax treats the rich and the poor differently. And I want to argue that it doesn't, at least, not in a discriminatory way.
     Think of it this way. You are moving along a road. Every meter you travel horizontally is a dollar in your pocket. Every vertical meter you ascend is a dollar in taxes. At first, the road is level, or even slopes gently downward (if you're receiving social assistance from the government, perhaps). But as you move farther along, it gradually begins to slope upward. After a hundred kilometers or so, you're heading up quite a noticeable grade, and in another thousand kilometres, it gets steeper yet. But it never becomes quite vertical; it's always possible to travel another meter horizontally, although you may need to climb more than a meter vertically to do so.
     Now, as you strain your way up the steepest part of the slope, you may cast a longing glance backwards at those lucky people ambling easily along the gentler rise behind you, and lament how unfair it is that they have an easier time than you. But is in unfair? Are those people enjoying some benefit or advantage that is denied to you?
     Of course not. You've already travelled that stretch of road. You just travelled it much faster. Perhaps you had a bicycle, or a car, that let you cover those kilometers so quickly, while they're jogging, walking, or even crawling. There is no advantage they have over you that you haven't already enjoyed. You might legitimately complain that the road is too steep for you here, and you might even decide to emigrate to a different country where the roads are flatter, but you are in absolutely no position to complain about unfairness.

     And so, likewise, with progressive income tax. The very rich are not being penalized by higher taxes any more than you, having already travelled the gentle slopes, are being penalized by a steeper hill. They have already earned and used up their Basic Personal Exemption, and paid the same low tax rate as everybody else on the first few tens of thousands they earned this year. It's just that the tax rate, like the road, gets steeper the farther you travel along the income axis.

     It's important to emphasize that in this argument, I'm not claiming that we should implement progressive (or more steeply progressive) taxes because it would be fair to do so. Rather, I am here attempting to refute the specific objection that progressive taxes are unfair, which once you understand the math, is not just wrong but almost incomprehensibly wrong.