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Quality Contributions Report for April 2023

This is the Quality Contributions Roundup. It showcases interesting and well-written comments and posts from the period covered. If you want to get an idea of what this community is about or how we want you to participate, look no further (except the rules maybe--those might be important too).

As a reminder, you can nominate Quality Contributions by hitting the report button and selecting the "Actually A Quality Contribution!" option. Additionally, links to all of the roundups can be found in the wiki of /r/theThread which can be found here. For a list of other great community content, see here.

These are mostly chronologically ordered, but I have in some cases tried to cluster comments by topic so if there is something you are looking for (or trying to avoid), this might be helpful. Here we go:

Quality Contributions to the Main Motte




Contributions for the week of April 3, 2023





Recognition Diplomacy




Contributions for the week of April 10, 2023






Transitive Reasoning






Contributions for the week of April 17, 2023




Identity Politics





Contributions for the week of April 24, 2023





Discriminating Taste








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I keep coming back to the @Lewyn post and I think this is a fundamental blind spot of a lot of social change. It’s fine on paper because paper ideas don’t have to account for knock on effects that affect other people or systems.

On paper one guy in his twenties transitioning isn’t a big deal. Let him do what he wants, right? But then he’s divorcing his wife with his child (given the ages I’m assuming under 5). So a single mother with a fatherless child. The statistics on what happens to fatherless children aren’t great. More likely to live in poverty, more likely to commit crimes, less likely to get a degree, and if the child is female more likely to end up a single mother herself. So he’s effectively diminished the life of his own child just by choosing to divorce them. What the child will make of daddy getting a divorce to become a woman is unknown, although I think the rejection of being the child of divorce itself is a problem. Being rejected because daddy would rather be a girl than be with the child is going to be harder than that.

Concerning the @Esperanza post:

Pope Francis said that a man’s gayness was less important than whether “he searches for the Lord and has good will.”

No, he asked who was he to judge, forgetting his position. He could decide to make homosexual actions not a sin. It is within his power.

I've been seeing the question lately in a few places, most recently when Bryan Caplan did a podcast with Richard Hanania: how much "power" do people "in power" actually have? In the podcast, they talked about university presidents, but I've heard it discussed for all sorts of positions. The idea is that, to become a university president, you have to do so many things to please certain people, who have certain interests. To what extent do you need to continue pleasing them to remain university president? Even if you can't be formally kicked out of your role for a particular action, to what extent does your role require cooperation/acquiescence from a variety of stakeholders? If you spend all of your political capital accomplishing one thing that is incredibly controversial among your stakeholders, they may proceed to do everything they can to neuter every last shred of remaining power that you have until they can actually kick you out.

I imagine these constraints vary significantly across different positions of power, but as a non-Catholic, I would argue that the pope does not have the power to "decide to make homosexual actions not a sin", even within the Catholic church. The bulk of the power centers within the Catholic church are committed enough to the position that the bible means something, that one of the somethings that they can easily interpret the bible as meaning is that homosexual actions are sinful, and that this is supported by so great a weight of history and tradition that it would be near inconceivable for a mere pope to, on his own, without a long careful process of arguing for and convincing many stakeholders of his position, suddenly reverse course. They would feel as though a "foreigner" has somehow invaded their group, a spy, a saboteur, an enemy operative. They would view it as illegitimate, do all that they can to remove the invader or at least neutralize his further power until he can be removed. Then, they would go about reversing the decision to whatever extent their history and tradition allows them to. They will declare that it was not "conformable with Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Traditions" (to just copy the words from wikipedia).

In a different time, maybe the pope will gain such power. If the cultural memeplex continues propagating among enough of the rest of the leadership of the Catholic church, perhaps enough will get on board with whatever new argument arises to shift around their traditional position. Different levels of support (or even just apathy) across the leadership will require different expenditures of political capital by a hypothetical future pope, but I think that right now, it's not reasonably "within his power".

In a different time, maybe the pope will gain such power. If the cultural memeplex continues propagating among enough of the rest of the leadership of the Catholic church, perhaps enough will get on board with whatever new argument arises to shift around their traditional position.

I know that isn’t the main point of your post, but ‘towards the idea that gay sex isn’t a sin’ isn’t the direction that Catholic Church leadership has been shifting in. Aside from Germany, developed world bishops have been shifting right, alongside their congregations. Third world country bishops(which very much includes the pope- Argentina is a developed country but it’s very definitely global south) have never wanted much liberalization on social issues and where they seek doctrinal changes it’s to accommodate third worldist political nonsense.

The college of cardinals is more liberal than it was in 2013, but they’re aware of the limitations on that(old men with advanced degrees and very long terms of service tend to be) brought about by being out of step with average bishops, and also the increased liberalism is overstated because a lot of these guys, especially the new ones, are third worlders.

I've wondered before whether the most "powerful" man in history was Napoleon; in the sense that he was the individual who had the most agency as both the ruler of a strong and rich country, and with effectively no internal institutions that were outside of his control/influence to oppose him.

I get what you mean, but for all practical purposes if he was the most powerful man in history he wouldn't have ended up on St. Helena.

Or, alternatively, he was the most powerful man in history, but he still ended up on St. Helena, which demonstrates how powerless even the most powerful people are.

if it takes seven coalitions to put you on St Helena you might've been pretty powerful

This is more of an aside, but there’s a complexity to the Christian position on homosexuality. Homosexuality refers to both actions and an inclination of the flesh. The Pope is not saying that it’s okay for priests to engage in any homosexual behavior — because it’s not even okay for them to engage in heterosexual behavior! — instead he is saying that he does not judge the proclivities of the flesh, which come from an essentially unconscious part of a human. Hunger happens whether we will it or not, and the sin of gluttony is to always obey our hunger. Similarly, the sin of lust according to Christianity comes from the act (as well as when we consciously look with desire upon a woman, which is a conscious act), and not what “the flesh” wants. What the flesh wants at any moment has nothing to do with our Will, though it is influenced by past behavior. The Pope is saying that if the “flesh” of a Priest is homosexual, that is, if it desires men rather than women, the priest is not to be judged, because a man is only responsive for what he wills (does and thinks and intends and attends and so forth).

The Pope’s position has additional complexity because he is morally prevented from revising anything that Christ would have believed. The Pope does not replace Christ, he is bound (by fear of hell) to obey Christ. So while Jesus said little on homosexuality (I think perhaps one or two opaque references), the Jewish and early Christian sources are clear.

There is one final level of complexity, which is that platonic male physical affection was historically normal and now is not. This means that a homosexual of Jesus’ era up until the era of Wilde could have as much physical affection with a male to his heart’s content, just not to his flesh’s content. Loving, living with, and forever enjoying his company? Yes. The whole spectrum of friendship and love and physical affection which are elements of today’s construct of homosexuality were entirely permissible, if not promoted in stories like David and Jonathon. You just can’t whip your dick out. Anything involving a dick would be a sin. This is important, because much of the harm seen in anti-homosexuality is the loss of the romantic/love sphere, yet in the past, the only thing lost would be handjobs/oral/anal. Incidentally, heterosexuals also lost these upon joining Christianity, because sex was established as a solely pro-procreative act (they lacked the scientific understanding that the ubiquity of oral sex among animals promotes safe copulation for the female for microbiotic reasons).

It's worth noting that one of the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Reformation was over whether concupiscence was sin, so, at least originally, Protestants would probably consider homosexual desires sinful. (not uniquely to homosexual desire, looking after a woman lustfully in your heart, as Jesus put it, would be sinful as well, as well as plenty of nonsexual desires)

The Catholic Church does have the disadvantage of having to stick to tradition and scripture to a certain extent to maintain credibility. The Mormons have come up with a brilliant solution to this kind of problem: if a church doctrine becomes unworkable because of social change, their leadership can just say they've had a new revelation from God and the dogma has been revised. This is exactly what happened with polygamy.

This is exactly what happened with polygamy.

No it's not. That was explicitly a policy change, meant to allow the church's survival.

The Mormons have come up with a brilliant solution to this kind of problem: if a church doctrine becomes unworkable because of social change, their leadership can just say they've had a new revelation from God and the dogma has been revised. This is exactly what happened with polygamy.

And blacks receiving the priesthood. That must have been embarrassing. As "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon puts it:


I believe that Satan has a hold of you,

I believe that the Lord God has sent me here,

And I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!


Black people!

How long until the president of the church has a revelation allowing gay "marriage"?

And blacks receiving the priesthood. That must have been embarrassing.

Black people received the priesthood early in church history and had a promise that they would receive it again eventually. I agree that it's embarrassing, but not as much so as you make it out to be. The church won't pivot on gay marriage.

a promise that they would receive it again eventually

Is this an interpretation of Brigham Young's "they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof"? That qualifies as "eventually", and straight from the horse's mouth, but it was at least a bit of a pivot to interpret it not as "after the Resurrection", but rather as "after mid-78".

The church won't pivot on gay marriage.

Maybe not, but if they did it wouldn't be any harder to rationalize. Pivoting on prior scripture about what's clean vs unclean is as old as Christians eating bacon; it even makes sense to the non-religious! Something like "this was actually risky before modern STD cures" (i.e. accounting for some failures of celibacy and trying to minimize the damage) would be closer to "this was actually risky before modern animal husbandry" than to "I guess the pre-existence ran out of less-valiant souls?"

Is this an interpretation of Brigham Young's "they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof"? That qualifies as "eventually", and straight from the horse's mouth, but it was at least a bit of a pivot to interpret it not as "after the Resurrection", but rather as "after mid-78".

Yes. To be honest though everything he said about that topic (and many others) is very doctrinally questionable, so I am more of the opinion that he was mistaken (and later church leaders were not confident enough about this to correct the doctrine) than that this was an actual promise. Whether it was a mistake or not though, I think you understand my point, which is that a pivot in timing is less significant than a flat-out rejection of the doctrine itself.

if they did it wouldn't be any harder to rationalize.

I strongly disagree here. Just because superficially, one single change has been made in the past, does not mean that any other change is exactly equal. The non-religious should probably be thinking harder about these things too--why should all of God's commandments have readily apparent physical justifications, such as the parasites common to pigs? Is he not allowed to give any commandments as a test of obedience? We can look for ways in which the commandments, especially the more "ritual" ones, benefit us (and usually find them), but at the end of the day they're "commandments", not "tips and tricks".

A change in the doctrine of eternal marriage would contradict LDS doctrine to a far greater extent than a change to the timing of the priesthood ban being lifted. The former is much more important, has a longer history (it is both much older and outlived 1978), and has far more scriptural support. Heck, for most of the OT the priesthood was restricted to a certain lineage of Jews so it's not like other arbitrary restrictions are that far-fetched.

The non-doctrinal policy change of forbidding polygamy created a whole offshoot church, so I fail to see how a much larger doctrinal change would not have a larger effect.

I thought much the same.

All that institutional pushback would be downstream of an understanding that the pope does not get to do that. Asserting that he can just say “I’m the prophet now” is a misunderstanding of the institution. Vatican II was long, formal, explicitly not infallible, and still wildly controversial.

I wish @FarNearEverywhere had been around to set the record straight.

I don't think the framing of 'treasure' or 'keys' in The Rules For Rulers is entirely correct, but it's useful to keep in mind at least metaphorically.

I am a Catholic and the moment the Pope claims to have the ability to make something the Church has taught was inherently immoral "not a sin" is the moment I stop being Catholic. Because at that point it's all made up. (Please no zingers here about how it's all made up anyway, I am not going to try to prove Catholicism on TheMotte.) The Pope is one of the last absolute monarchs in the world, but he is absolutely beholden to the dogma of his predecessors. He maintains power to the extent he convinces Catholics that he is genuine.

Now, the Pope has the ability to make something not inherently immoral a sin. For example he could say all Catholics must abstain from wearing pink. But it wouldn't become inherently immoral to wear pink. He would be saying, as a matter of obedience to the Church, he's asking us to abstain from the color pink. (To increase our self-discipline or as reparation for our sins or whatever.)

If he commanded someone to do something inherently immoral under this framework they would be obligated to disobey and no sin would be incurred. We are only obligated to obey just laws.

It sounds complicated when I write it out but I hope the underlying principle makes sense. The Pope is subject to the divine law, but can impose an additional ecclesiastical law on adherents.

Is there a clear, unambiguous definition of "inherently immoral" in an authoritative source – such as the Bible, or maybe something written by one of the great Catholic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas – or is this just begging the question?

The Catholic Church has already had U-turns of a similar magnitude. For the vast majority of its existence, the Church was in favour of capital punishment. Then, in the late 20th century, their stance suddenly flipped and now they're strongly opposed to it.

Their previous stance on capital punishment suggests that they can be flexible about Biblical interpretation if they really feel it is necessary. If they can interpret "do not kill" to mean "actually, you can kill sometimes", then why wouldn't they be able to interpret the much more ambiguous condemnations of homosexuality in the New Testament to mean that homosexuality is not prohibited in general, but only in certain circumstances? (The condemnations of homosexuality in the Old Testament don't matter because the old laws have been "fulfilled" – whatever that means – and Christians are no longer required to follow them and are permitted to eat pork, not get circumcised, wear mixed fabrics, etc.)

If they can interpret "do not kill" to mean "actually, you can kill sometimes", then why wouldn't they be able to interpret the much more ambiguous condemnations of homosexuality in the New Testament to mean that homosexuality is not prohibited in general, but only in certain circumstances?

My understanding is that the New Testament prohibition on homosexuality is just part of the broader prohibition on sexuality. At least in the Pauline epistles (specifically, 1 Corinthians 7) the New Testament pretty unequivocally suggests that it's better to just be celibate, but if you can't be celibate, then monogamous marriage of the heterosexual variety, with a husband and a wife, is an acceptable alternative. So "do not have sex" immediately becomes "actually, you can have sex sometimes, if you must, but only under the circumstances of a monogamous heterosexual marriage."

I don't want to speak for other people's faith traditions; I don't want to tell Christians what they must really believe, when I find the whole institution broadly unbelievable. But it really does seem to me that anyone who thinks Biblical Christianity is even ambiguously compatible with a homosexual lifestyle must be engaged in some motivated reasoning somewhere.

At least in the Pauline epistles (specifically, 1 Corinthians 7) the New Testament pretty unequivocally suggests that it's better to just be celibate

I believe it says "good", not "better".

Capital punishment is pretty clearly justifiable—it's arguably instituted with Noah in Genesis 9, which is not specific to the people of Israel nor is ecclesiastical, it's instituted by God himself in the law, and it's spoken of approvingly as the sword in the new testament (see Romans 13). I wouldn't think that it's absolutely necessary that it be instituted, but I do think that it's a legitimate ordering of things.

I don't think that the condemnations of homosexuality are terribly ambiguous. Because it's a political issue, people will use every attempt to find ambiguity or alternative interpretations that they can find.

A definitive list of Catholic Dogmas and their teaching weight has been made, yes. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott is the best at explaining the degrees of authority each teaching possesses. St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Moral Theology is likely the most thorough explication of Catholic Moral Theology. As Rev. Thomas Slater, S.J. put it, "Moral theology is still what St. Alphonsus left it."

Ott lists 6 grades of Theological Certainty, ranging from "immediately revealed truths... defined by a solemn judgement of faith (definition) of the Pope or a General Council" to "Tolerated Opinions." A solemn judgement of faith cannot be just what the Pope said last Tuesday, or even something put in an instructional document like the Catechism. (The current Catechism of the Catholic Church has many topics with various degrees of authoritativeness, and explicitly states that the degree of authority pertains to the documents outside of the Catechism in which they are defined. Addition to the Catechism does not increase magisterial authority.)

The Church has not U turned on capital punishment, which is infallibly considered not intrinsically immoral. The current Pope skirting heresy does not change the fact that capital punishment is good in a lot of situations. The Pope could even be a full blown heretic and that would still not pose a problem for the Church. What he cannot do is declare he's changing prior dogmatic teaching using his authority as the Pope.

In the case of capital punishment, Pope Francis is clearly making a prudential judgement, which is still binding on Catholics as my first comment shows. Prudentially, in most countries today, is is possible to protect society without killing murders. Much of the benefits to the murderer from killing them are gone as well - in a non-Catholic society it is unlikely that a murderer will repent, go to confession, face the hangman, and go on his way to Heaven. Instead, keeping the murderer alive for longer gives him the best chance at repentance. Prudentially, there is a good argument to not practice Capital Punishment. And as I said above, the Pope doesn't even need a good argument to make Catholics do something under obedience. He could outlaw the color pink arbitrarily.

"Do not murder" in the Bible has always been consistent with God commanding the Israelites to practice capital punishment one book over. There is no ambiguity or conflict there. If you are interested in a more thorough explication of Catholic teaching on Capital Punishment, I recommend, "By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment." (You should be able to pirate it, there's nothing about copyright in Alphonsus' Moral Theology, so it's totally morally fine.) (Also copyright would probably be considered unnatural, like usury, and therefore prohibitions on it are unjust.)

Honestly that reminds me. I owe a debt to Pope Francis for his ambiguous statements on Capital Punishment. It is much, much easier to talk about how Church teaching hasn't changed in regards to Capital Punishment than it is to talk about how Church Teaching hasn't changed in regards to Usury, which used to be the go-to zinger.

Are you sure about that first sentence? My impression was that there wasn't even a consensus on which statements are ex cathedra, beyond the two Marian ones?

That is a common misconception among Catholics. Or rather, the Marian dogma of the Assumption is the only ex cathedra statement made since ex cathedra was defined in 1870.

But obviously, the Church existed for a while before 1870 and defined a lot of dogmas prior to that time. It would be really weird to have a Christian Church where the only thing they are sure of is Mary was assumed into Heaven, and not something like Jesus Christ is True God and True Man.

The ordinary means of infallibility are when all bishops teach the same doctrine, through Church Councils headed and approved by the Pope.

Certainly. I was just saying that I wasn't aware of a list that everyone can agree is good.

Wikipedia says:

There is no complete list of papal statements considered infallible.

Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma has been considered as the definitive single­ volume summary of Catholic dogmatic theology ever since its original publication in German in 1952. This great work by Ludwig Ott presents a comprehensive yet concise outline of the entire system of Catholic doctrine, laying out its sources in Scripture and Tradition as taught by the Magisterium of the Church. The level of authority behind each doctrinal point is indicated and there are frequent references to the teachings of Fathers, Doctors and numerous Saints of the Church.

In Catholic Academia, it is widely regarded as the list, though I don't know how to prove that without going through each college class's syllibi and listing how often it shows up.

Do you have a recommended rundown of the development of doctrine relating to usury? As a fellow Catholic I've always been curious.

There are people who argue things like, "our understanding of money has changed" and that sufficiently low interest rates (such that they cover just inflation + a reasonable salary for the employees necessary to facilitate the loan) are acceptable now.

However, I am becoming more and more convinced that the Church hasn't officially developed its teaching in this direction at all. I think loaning money on interest is still a sin. It's not a sin to accept a loan under such terms (though should be avoided if possible.) And yes, this does mean that the Vatican Bank is - at the very least - a near occasion of sin to a lot of people. But that shouldn't be surprising, given what we know of Vatican Bank officials.

If you want to learn more in depth, New Polity did a series on "Good Money."

Church Leaders are not very outspoken on this topic these days. I can only speculate as to why, a charitable guess would be that if the average Catholic understood that the entire system on which they base their livelihood on involves sinning, they will either reject the Church's definition of sin or become scrupulous. It's rare for people to take the middle way, that we live in a fallen world but it's not a sin to be taken advantage of.

Interestingly, I think organized Christianity in general (and maybe all historic faiths) are in a bit of a bind on matters like this. There are definitely people who separate themselves from their church as a result of, essentially, absorbing political views that are incompatible with received dogma. In an attempt to staunch the outflow, many churches have jettisoned millennia-old commitments... but this has led to further outflow, now from the committed faithful who see their churches placing retention (and, presumably, associated tithes...) ahead of doctrinal consistency, tradition, historical group identity, etc.

I don't know what the endgame is. I am certainly numbered among those who regard Wokism as, essentially, a neo-religion, a secular and distributed form of ideology that erroneously holds that because it doesn't do "supernatural," it must be immune from criticism along the lines of faith or metaphysics. But whether it will ultimately subsume Christianity (as Christianity subsumed so many faiths that came before it), or generate a successfully reactionary response along other lines, I cannot guess. Just by the numbers, Chinese statism, Indian Hinduism, and (to a slightly lesser extent) global Islam seem to be the relevant faiths of the future, anyhow. It would be interesting to know how Christianity and/or Wokism come through that development, but I will be long dead before that game is done, I expect.

Christianity should continue to be relevant. Per my recollection, Christianity will continue to be about a third of the world's population for decades to come per some projections.

I do not think jettisoning old things will work. Most of the churches which have done so and in large part capitulated to progressivism have been shrinking for some time now. What results in dedication to Christianity is dedication to Christianity, not removing parts that seem distasteful in order to make it harder to object to the rest.

What is more important to Christianity than being in line with culture as a whole is preserving a distinct Christian vision, as something valued internally.

As it is written, "Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to gentiles, but to those who are called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."

The problem with getting rid of the olds is that it always ends up undermining your credibility as “the faith”. People believe in it because they believe that it came from god(s) and that those preaching it are faithful to said god(s) over and above whatever the rest of the world thinks. Once you get rid of that, it’s just another social club, and then what?

Well now I wish I'd written something thoughtful instead of just ranting.

Holy crap. That @ControlsFreak post on personalized pricing just blew my mind. I hadn't seen it when it was first posted, but I'm very glad that I did because it just changed my perspective on the whole financial assistance thing.

Thanks for such positive feedback! It's really nice to hear that it resonated with people; when I first wrote it, I got no responses, so I actually figured that it had just fallen flat with the audience.

If you look, it got more upvotes than the post it was responding to, so most likely people who saw with it agreed but didn't have anything of their own to add in response.

I don't know about everyone else, but I don't dig into the responses on every top level post, only ones I find interesting. And often miss responses if they happen after I've already read the top level post, as I usually don't go back and find new responses. So that's why I missed this one, because I do read every top level post, but I didn't care about this one.

I also more frequently respond to people I disagree with than people I agree with, because people I agree with already said half of my thoughts. So that's a bias towards non-response which was probably relevant here given how insightful your post was.

So I guess as a followup here:

Is there a solution? I think we'd both agree that this scenario is generally bad for society if businesses capture all of the gains, because that screws over the customers. Economic surplus is created by the economic trade between producers and customers, and thus both are partially responsible for it, so both deserve some of the surplus. Not necessarily exactly 50-50, but some reasonable fraction. So if producers capture 99% of surplus by near-perfect price discrimination and leave just a tiny scrap of surplus to customers to push them over the edge of indifference, then customers are being deprived of surplus that is rightfully theirs.

On the other hand, price discrimination is often more economically efficient than a flat rate.

Suppose we have 10 consumers who value a good with utility 1,2,3...10. And a producer who can produce the good with cost 2.

1: With a flat price for all customers, the producer maximizes profits by setting their price at 7 - ε, in which case they sell to 4 consumers. The total surplus is 26, of which 20 - 4ε is captured by the producer and 6+4ε is captured by consumers.

2: With perfect knowledge and price discrimination, the producer sells to each person with value greater than 2, at a cost ε less than their valuation. They sell to 8 consumers, the total surplus is 36, 36-8ε is captured by the producer, and 8ε is captured by consumers.

So even though the consumers are better off in the flat price scenario, the total economic surplus created with price discrimination is higher. If we could somehow detect these scenarios and redistribute the surplus back to the consumers in a way that didn't distort the economic incentives of the producers or consumers, the price discrimination scenario is better. I will note that there's also a third scenario with comparable surplus:

3: If the producer is altruistic/non-profit, they can set a flat price equal to 2+ε, they sell to 8 people, the total surplus is 36, but now 36-8ε is captured by consumers and 8ε is captured by the producer.

So if the balance of power tips too far in either direction, one of the groups will snatch all of the surplus. I think a fair equilibrium would maximize surplus while splitting the distribution somewhere in the middle. Not necessarily 50-50, but somewhere in the ballpark. But how do you do that here? Taxes and explicit forms of redistribution usually distort incentives, but maybe there's something clever I'm not aware of?

I think the easy answer here is not to set up a monopoly/cartel in the first place.

However, once you have set up a weak cartel, then give the individual components of the cartel reason to defect from the cartel. Cartels want to restrict output, exactly in line with your example (1). But they can struggle to enforce the restriction internally, since individual members have an incentive to reduce the price. One member could charge 6 and make more individual profits. The hope is that defections build on defections, and the result is the competitive equilibrium of everyone charging 2. (In most cases, the supply curve will be upward sloping instead of constant, so they will still capture some surplus.)

However, if we hand each member the ability to perfectly price discriminate, there is much less incentive to defect. Each member of the cartel simply presents each potential buyer with the price that is their individual willingness-to-pay. At best, you have little mini-competitions where each member considers, say, the buyer who values the good at 5, and presents them with a price of 5-ε. The members of the cartel might haggle a bit over who chooses the biggest epsilon for each individual, but none have much of an incentive to deviate much. Instead, I think we would predict exactly what we see universities do in practice - "competing" primarily on non-price factors. Prestige. Name brand. Exclusivity. That helps them maximize their chances to get those 10 and 9 buyers, selling to them at 9.9 and 8.9. The lower tier universities might offer them prices of 9.8 and 8.8, respectively, since they also know their willingness-to-pay, but they're offering a product that is actually valued lower. If each university offers individual prices that are pretty darn close to the individual willingness-to-pay, adjusted slightly for perceived quality, then consumers are going to make slightly different estimates of value, different members of the cartel will "win" a different set of the customers, and so each buyer will get some surplus, but not much. Mostly noise. It's just an entirely different ballgame when every member of the cartel has quite good information concerning each individual's willingness-to-pay.

But in general, your point is a good one. IIRC, many economists judge the value of price discrimination based on whether it actually increases total output. This is the reasoning behind statements like that of @FlyingLionWithABook:

This means poor people benefit greatly from price discrimination: they get goods or services they want at a price they are willing to pay when otherwise they wouldn't be able to afford it.

Would universities actually reduce output if they couldn't price discriminate so perfectly? I'm not sure. Their marginal costs are pretty low.

So if producers capture 99% of surplus by near-perfect price discrimination and leave just a tiny scrap of surplus to customers to push them over the edge of indifference, then customers are being deprived of surplus that is rightfully theirs.

I know you're probably speaking casually, but customers do not have a "right" to anything here (other than a right to the product or service they paid for). We can say that we prefer it when gains from trade are divided as evenly as possible, but there is nothing morally wrong about selling something for a price that a customer is willing to freely pay.

And as we see in your own example, total surplus can be greater when price discriminating. In fact, we often see price discrimination as laudable in medical context: if a doctor charges clients based on what they can afford to pay, we see that as a good thing. Perfect price discrimination is just charging people exactly what they can afford to pay: that is, the most they'd be willing to pay for the good or service you're providing.

This means poor people benefit greatly from price discrimination: they get goods or services they want at a price they are willing to pay when otherwise they wouldn't be able to afford it.

EDIT: One further thought. If we had to choose between producer and consumer getting the majority of the surplus, favoring the producer has the benefit of incentivizing more people to become producers. Which benefits everyone.

favoring the producer has the benefit of incentivizing more people to become producers. Which benefits everyone

The hypothetical really well coordinated cartel needed to ensure price discrimination and prevent shopping around in an attempt to defeat it would surely enact legal barriers to entry. The sorts who would form a cartel would also engage in regulatory capture.

This means poor people benefit greatly from price discrimination: they get goods or services they want at a price they are willing to pay when otherwise they wouldn't be able to afford it.

No, the entire point is that they don't. They benefit a tiny tiny bit from price discrimination. If the maximum someone is willing to pay for a product is $10, and it costs $9.99, then they benefit by $0.01. That is, they are barely coming off ahead at all, almost all of the benefit from that product they gain was lost to them in the $9.99 they spent and given to the producer. You can sell five times as much product to five times as many poor people and create five times as much benefit, but none of them are gaining much benefit at all because the products are just barely worth it.

If you have a crippling leg injury, and a doctor cures it but charges so much money that the debt cripples your life 99% as much as the leg injury did, you have benefited... but just barely.

From the producer's standpoint, this is great. Tons of value is being created by the increased number of exchanges. Lots of people are incentivized to become producers... which benefits the people who are in a position to become producers and able to (assuming the market isn't an oligopoly that crushes small competitors). And the increased trade does benefit customers... by like 1% because that's how much of this increased surplus they get to keep.

If the only two options are perfect price discrimination or unserved customers, then the price discrimination scenario is technically better for those particular customers. But my goal is to find a third option that's better, because the price discrimination scenario isn't very good for anyone except producers.

In a medical context, price discrimination means the difference between getting medical treatment and not getting medical treatment. If I can only afford to pay $1,000 at most for medical treatment, and I'm in serious pain or dying, and treatment costs $50,000 for everybody then I'm going to go without treatment, or go for treatment and be saddled with medical debt. If the doctor price discriminates, then I can get treatment for $1,000 which is better than going without and better than being saddled with $49,000 worth of debt.

Most doctors do this de-facto anyway, if someone owes a clinic $10,000 and they say they can't pay they'll usually cut a deal where they pay $500 and the doc writes off the rest. Very common. Because money in hand is worth more than money owed that you'll never collect on. Those who can afford to pay their bills pay them, those who can't pay what they can.

You say that you can only afford $1k, but your parents are awfully rich, and you have an up-and-coming career, and isn't that some savings there? That'll be $5k up front and a payment plan for an additional $30k, please. Aren't you so grateful for the discount from $50k? Never mind that the procedure would've been <$20k if they had to set it by cost+ or by profit-maximizing single price, or some other system.

It's a two step process: the base price is raised (but almost nobody pays it), then the cost is selectively lowered to near-zero-utility based on a lot of private information. It would be great for the consumer if it wasn't for that first step, though.

Now do food.

Suppose there is a food cartel that has gained sufficient market power that they could restrict output, raise prices, and profit according to standard monopoly theory. If you are in a position where you can't afford food, you're going to go without food or you're going to be saddled with food debt. If the food cartel perfectly price discriminates, then you can get food for exactly your willingness-to-pay (i.e., you have basically nothing left for any other aspect of the Good Life).

This is the threat that the cartel issues in order to get you to be willing to have the government come in and hand them the tools to price discriminate perfectly. But that's all it is. It's a threat. Blackmail. From their position of market power.

You're right that once we've gotten ourselves into such an abhorrent situation with the food cartel, maybe it's an appealing trade-off. But hot damn is the vastly better deal to break the food cartel, create a competitive market, watch the price of food fall to the marginal rate of production, and see everyone eat plenty of cheap food and have money left over for, like, flatscreen TVs or whatever.

This is sort of the point of my OP. We see this progression of reasoning happening over and over again in all these domains where the gov't comes in; they subsidize demand, restrict supply, create a de facto cartel, completely destroying the competitive market. Then, when your back is against the wall and all seems lost, they issue the threat. "Just let us take all the surplus now; it'll be epsilon better for the poorer part of the population." And they're right! It is epsilon better for the poorer population (and significantly worse for the richer part of the population).

The real problem is that you put yourself in such a vulnerable position to such a threat. That you let the gov't subsidize demand, restrict supply, and set up a de facto cartel. The first best solution is to undo all of that shit. The second best solution is to observe on the internet how the same dynamic that results in this threat seems to keep materializing over and over again. A distant third is to just give in to the threat, trading what's left of consumer surplus for the richer part of the population in exchange for an epsilon improvement for the poorer part of the population.

I don't think you're using my premises.

Let's set aside life threatening scenarios, because I'm not entirely sure how my argument interfaces with them, and trying to assign personal valuations to them probably ends up with infinity dollars or something silly. Similarly, let's set aside issues of bankruptcy, and issues of involuntary treatment. And assume we're dealing with amounts of money which a person either can afford, or can afford by going into debt that they eventually mostly pay off. The clinic will treat its sale price as the amount of money they actually expect to receive from someone.

I'm fine with conceding that limited price discrimination can have positive effects, as you point out. But I'm specifically referring to perfect or near perfect price discrimination. That is, there is some level X, such that you are perfectly indifferent between receiving no treatment, and receiving treatment that costs $X. If it cost $10 million dollars and put you in debt for the rest of your life, you'd be better off untreated and saving your money, so X is less than 10 million. If it cost $1 you'd be better off with treatment, so X is greater than $1. Intermediate value theorem, or iterate, or whatever, we find some finite value, which differs from person to person based on some combination of their finances, how bad the injury i, how much they hate being in debt, how much social support they have, etc, at which they are perfectly indifferent, the scenario in which they go untreated is exactly the same value as the scenario in which they pay X and get treated. The treatment increases their utility by the exact same amount that losing $X decreases their utility, so if they paid $X for treatment they have gained nothing on net. If the clinic has some cost C for the procedure, then they are willing to charge any amount P > C. The client is willing to pay any amount P < X. Therefore any price P with the property C < P < X is mutually acceptable to both parties. The clinic profits P - C, the client "profits" X - P, and both are greater than zero. A normal sane version of price discrimination would pick some value near the middle of the interval (C,X), such that both have nontrivial profit.

However, if the clinic has perfect knowledge of X, and is selfish, they will pick some amount trivially less than X. The doctor is only going to charge you $1000 if their costs are less than $1000 and that is every last cent you have to your name or can scrounge up by going into debt. Take whatever money is the most you could possibly be willing to part with to undergo the procedure, such that if it cost a single dollar more you'd be better off untreated, and the doctor charges you exactly that much, such that the monetary cost to you is so painful it's only a tiny bit. By definition, if the person is benefiting a nontrivial amount from the transaction, we are not in this scenario. I am defining "perfect price discrimination" to be this, this is not itself an argument.

My argument can be broken down as:

1: Perfect Price Discrimination as defined is as coherent concept and isn't some contradiction of terms.

2: Perfect Price Discrimination would follow from a perfectly rational/selfish producer with perfect knowledge of their client's utility function.

3: Perfect Price Discrimination is a tiny bit better for each clients than a scenario in which they are not served at all, but worse than any other pricing mechanism in which they are served (because it gives them the least possible nonzero surplus), including imperfect price discrimination.

4: Price Discrimination scenarios increasingly approach Perfect Price Discrimination as a price discriminating producer gains more knowledge.

On this last point, if the client has some imperfect knowledge of clients, like maybe it bins them into "poor" "average" and "rich" then maybe it sets up three prices, like $1k, $10k, $100k. Then all the poor people who value the treatment at $3k can benefit because they're only paying $1k for a treatment that improves their lives by $3k, but they couldn't afford the $10k cost, so they're genuinely better off by not having to reject treatment. Average people who value it $15k will benefit by $5k, because the price is lower than their valuation. Someone who by sheer coincidence values the treatment at $10,001 is screwed, because they'll be charged $10k and receive a trivial benefit, but if the prices are spaced out enough such people will be rare.

But if the producer gains enough data to accurately bin people by thousand dollars, ie it can detect and set prices at $1k, 2k, $3k..., then we're in worse shape. Now if someone has, say $3500 valuation, they pay $3k and only get $500 benefit. If someone has $23232 valuation, they pay $23k and get $232 benefit.

If the producer gains enough data to accurately bin people by tens of dollars, then nobody can benefit by more than ten dollars.

I'm not so much arguing that such extremes are realistic, I don't think a person themselves could accurately assign a monetary value to how much they would benefit from an action X even after having already received it, since they would have to compare to a counterfactual scenario in which they hadn't received it and had kept their money. But more information allowing for more accurate price discrimination can, in many cases, lead to lower consumer benefits. If you were previously in a scenario where you "couldn't afford" something (in the sense of it not being worth the money, not whether you literally have enough money), and the price discrimination puts it into an acceptable price then you're some amount better off. But if you were previously in a scenario where it was worth it, the price discrimination raises prices on you, squeezing out your value and making you worse off. And this happens incrementally, such that one supper accurate price discrimination is comparable to an initial discrimination that makes everyone be able to afford it, followed by a bunch of subsequent discrimination that squeeze all the value out. You seem to be under the impression that price discrimination = lowered prices, but it also means raised prices. You might consider it an incremental raising and lowering of prices on every single person until as much value as possible is squeezed out while still giving them barely enough to keep them consenting to the transaction.

At the extremes. I'm not attempting to apply my argument to all possible scenarios of price discrimination or suggest that it's always bad. Just that it can be bad when taken to extremes.

This means poor people benefit greatly from price discrimination: they get goods or services they want at a price they are willing to pay when otherwise they wouldn't be able to afford it.

No, the entire point is that they don't. They benefit a tiny tiny bit from price discrimination.

If I may--I think the disconnect here is one the difference between poor people benefiting from specific cases of price discrimination, and poor people benefiting from the overall existence of price discrimination.

A producer who is willing to let a good go for as little as $10, assuming a single transaction ever, is different than a producer who is willing to let a good go for as little as $10, conditional upon someone else paying $20 for the same good, or for some other good. My understanding is that airline pricing often functions in approximately this way. If you have a ten-seat airplane, and a flight costs you $10,000 to run, then your break-even point is $1,000 per seat. But if there are five people willing to pay up to $2,000 per ticket, and five people willing to pay up to $200 per ticket, and no other possible customers, then your ability to price discriminate means you get to make a $1,000 profit beyond your break-even, and five people get to fly who would not have gotten to fly at a flat, evenly-distributed price. The "poor people" in this scenario got a benefit, even though the airline could arguably have accepted $100, or $10, for those other five seats.

I don't think every case of price discrimination looks like this; I'm not even sure most cases look like this. But it does seem to me that "willing to accept an $X transaction conditional upon other transactions" is an important part of how to think about price discrimination.

I think this is right, and I think the usual justification for why it would be beneficial in increasing output is often related to situations with significant fixed costs and small marginal costs. Buying a plane/operating a flight has significant fixed costs and low marginal costs. Another standard example is a drug company selling a pill in Africa for a tenth of the price they sell it for in America. Drug development has high fixed costs, while production of the pills often has low marginal costs. The key question is, "Would not being able to price discriminate lead to market exit?" In the drug case, if a company couldn't price discriminate between America/Africa (i.e., they had to choose one price everywhere), they're simply not going to sell drugs in Africa. They're going to exit the market. If an airline can't price discriminate at all, then some routes are going to become unprofitable, and they're just not going to offer the flights (and not buy the aircraft to fly the routes). I think this is essentially your idea that they're willing to sell African pills/cheap flights conditional on being able to price discriminate with other transactions. But in both of these cases, I think it's important to note that the price they're willing to give to the "poorer" folks is still above the marginal cost of production. This is obviously true, because otherwise they wouldn't sell a seat to a poorer person or a pill to an African, even with price discrimination.

A couple other salient differences between these examples are 1) monopoly power, and 2) the nature of the price discrimination. On (1), the drug example really only applies to drugs that are patented (and thus, the producers have monopoly power). For example, some countries don't respect patents of US drug companies, and those consumers get generic pills at the (low) marginal cost of production. Once a regular drug goes off-patent, no one really argues for the benefit of price discrimination, because everyone ends up enjoying paying the (low) marginal cost of production! Both in the US and Africa! (Remember, both sets of consumers were paying above the marginal cost of production during the period of monopoly + price discrimination.) The point of difference here is that while airlines have some significant regulatory and other barriers to entry, the market for air travel is much more competitive than that of a patented drug. Part of the question really boils down to how much "cartel-like" control one actually thinks universities/hospitals/whatever actually have. (We could probably argue about this another time; is a pretty rich conversation.)

Concerning (2), I think there is a significant difference in the nature of the price discrimination. Drugs in US/Africa is in a meaningful sense, I think, targeted at general income patterns by regional area. That is short of the very individualized income data that universities/hospitals are able to use. The price discrimination will be a little "less perfect". Moreover, I think that there is a conceptual difference between a company simply being able to look at incomes (whether abstracted over a region or individualized) as opposed to traditional means of price discrimination. Like I mentioned in the OP, all companies want to price discriminate. They want to know incomes. They want to know everything that is going to correlate with willingness-to-pay. But usually, they have to fall back on some other sort of weak correlate. "Vacation travelers tend to book further in advance than business travelers, and the latter tend to have higher willingness-to-pay." "Retirees are more able to view a 2pm matinee at the theater on a week day, and they tend to have lower willingness-to-pay." It may in some sense be correlated with income, but they're actually targeting something else. I also think it's meaningful if the method involved includes actually giving people a different product. Sure, selling a business class ticket for $2k may help make it profitable to run a flight that also includes some $100 seats, but they have to at least, like, try to make that business class seat better in some way. Some incentive for the person to choose to pay $2k rather than just, "Whelp, we magically know your income, so you're gonna have to pay more for the same thing, because fuck you, that's why."

Bringing it back to universities (maybe I'll do healthcare another day), I think they are remarkably more cartel-like than most people understand. They control the accreditation boards that determine who is allowed to sell education. They control processes that require universities to "show a need" for opening up a new program even within an existing university (at least sometimes)! They went knives out in regulatory processes against for-profit colleges, MOOCs, etc. (notwithstanding other legitimate concerns that may exist with those things). You should hear the stories of various tech people/billionaires/etc. who have tried to go after the academia cartel. They give up, because the cartel is stronger than you think. We've bolstered it by subsidizing demand and restricting supply. That's the first problem. Then, I don't think there's any real charge that they will exit the market if they can't price discriminate. While their marginal costs are pretty low, their fixed costs don't really correlate with market exit in the same way that say, not buying a plane to fly a route or not bringing a drug to market does. They have no natural analog to simply not selling drugs in Africa if they're unable to price discriminate. And finally, they've always been able to "price discriminate" by offering a different product. Business class seats are like living in the fancy new dorm building. I don't know that anyone really cares about it that much. Those consumers are genuinely getting additional consumer surplus out of the deal. It is specifically the, "We've magic'ed (by force of government) into existence a new way to just take the surplus from you, not by giving you something else you want or by providing more things to more people, but because we vaguely threatened 'poor people' enough that the gov't now tells us how much money you make," that is a problem.

No one would accept this in any other industry that hasn't already been mammothly screwed up. No one thinks that when you go to the grocery store, or go to buy a TV, a refrigerator, or car, or anything else, that you should first have to just give them all your financial information so that they can tailor your price. Everyone realizes that if the starting point is one of those regular, well-functioning, competitive markets, there would be no benefit to such a thing; it would be a pure transfer of surplus from consumers to producers. Everyone realizes that apples/TVs/refrigerators/cars are already sold at the marginal cost of production, and that adding income-based price discrimination isn't going to magically make producers sell them below the marginal cost of production to poor people. It's only after we have completely screwed up a market that this starts even being a thinkable proposition.

No one thinks that when you go to the grocery store, or go to buy a TV, a refrigerator, or car,

Actually, for cars, they kinda do that. Especially for used cars, I routinely got asked "how much you can afford to pay?", for which I usually answered "yeah, right, nice try" but in polite form. In other markets, it's less pronounced - e.g. there are often brands that function on substance about the same as another brand (and often are owned by the same company and literally are manufactured in the same place) but add a little bit of polish and a lot of marketing, and charge much higher price, in order to extract surplus from customers that are less price-sensitive. They don't ask for your income level, they just price and market it so the people of certain class - and thus, presumably, income level - would be attracted to it.

Sure. I wholeheartedly agree that in some instances price discrimination is better for both consumers and producers simultaneously. Especially when costs are nonlinear as in your example.

But in other cases it's bad for consumers (as a whole, every case will have a few specific individuals who benefits at the lowest end of the curve who wouldn't be served without price discrimination, but the average consumer ends up worse off)

And producers with perfect knowledge have no incentive to pick and choose only to use it when it benefits customers. And I don't think it's necessary to demand such a strong burden on them. If scenario A has $500 consumer surplus and $500 producer surplus, while scenario B has $400 consumer surplus and $1000 producer surplus, it doesn't seem unreasonable to allow them to do scenario B without getting upset at them. But if scenario C has $1 consumer surplus and $2000 producer surplus... I feel like something has gone wrong. Like, it's economically efficient on a global scale, the total surplus is higher. But it violates intuitive notions of "fairness" in ways that lead to poverty and discontent. Note that utility is nonlinear with respect to money. A thousand people with $10,000 each will be more happy/healthy/fulfilled/content/secure on average than 999 broke people and 1 person with $10 million.

Maybe if we could figure out a way to losslessly tax them and redistribute some of the profits back to consumers this would be fine? But I'm skeptical of "lossless taxation" on producer surplus being possible. I feel like a more organic market solution involving competition and balanced bargaining power would be better, where prices are set in between customer's values and producer costs such that both could extract nontrivial fractions of the surplus.

We can say that we prefer it when gains from trade are divided as evenly as possible, but there is nothing morally wrong about selling something for a price that a customer is willing to freely pay.

I'm quite skeptical of this statement, at least at the margins. Trade is pretty clearly give-and-take negotiation, and it's not obvious to me why the economics which emerge from such interactions should set their roots all the way down to the level of fundamental moral axioms. If I'm dying of thirst in a desert, and someone offers to sell me a bottle of water for 90% of all my future earnings, and I have a handgun, I am going to get water and they are maybe going to get dead. They didn't care much for my life, after all, so why should I care much for theirs?

The fact that negotiated trade works well in low-pressure environments doesn't mean that it's infallible. It works because it's so much easier and better than the alternatives that there's not much contest, not because it's one of the basic building-blocks of the universe. Deform conditions to the point that it's not easier and better than the alternatives, and people will switch. Expecting otherwise is simply foolish.

All this is to say that trades can be imbalanced, and there are levels of imbalance that undermine confidence in the win-win nature of trading. This isn't much of an issue under normal conditions, but rampant AI isn't normal conditions.

Trade is pretty clearly give-and-take negotiation, and it's not obvious to me why the economics which emerge from such interactions should set their roots all the way down to the level of fundamental moral axioms.

That was kind of my point. Saying that someone has a right to an even share of the gains from trade is making a moral statement. It's saying that anything other than an even share is morally wrong, a violation of someone's rights. It's not.

All this is to say that trades can be imbalanced, and there are levels of imbalance that undermine confidence in the win-win nature of trading.

If its not win-win, then don't make the trade. Like your bottle of water example: given I have a gun, I wouldn't make that trade. Would you make that trade? Certainly not. My point is, if you willingly take a trade (and no fraud is involved, you know what you're trading for and you get what you expect) then the person trading with you has not done anything wrong.

The difference is in monopoly scenarios, which is kind of the root of the problem. If the desert man engineered the situation in which you are dying of thirst then I'd say they did something wrong. The reason someone isn't already selling the product at marginal cost is monopoly power, so when the monopolist comes around and only demands 5000% of the marginal cost instead of 10000% it's maybe not as generous as it seems.

agreed, interesting way to think about financial aid / FAFSA / medicare/medicaid/etc ... And even the new mortgage thing.