Sonntag, Juli 08, 2007

Tetzel Function

As an economist, I am always trying to understand human behavior as it applies to dealing with a world of limited goods and hard choices to be made about using them, which is fundamentally what economics is all about.

I've come up with a new function, and thought I'd put it up here:

The Tetzel Function

The Tetzel Function is named after Johann Tetzel. He's the monk who basically came up with the idea of selling foregiveness and salvation in order to pay for the construction of St. Paul's Cathedral in Rome. The basis for this concept came from the recognition of some aspects of human nature, that sin must be compensated for, and what better way to ensure that, for instance, your dead father's soul would enter heaven if you, basically, paid for that to happen. This is what is called an indulgence, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The word indulgence (Latin indulgentia, from indulgeo, to be kind or tender) originally meant kindness or favor; in post-classic Latin it came to mean the remission of a tax or debt. In Roman law and in the Vulgate of the Old Testament (Isaiah 61:1) it was used to express release from captivity or punishment. In theological language also the word is sometimes employed in its primary sense to signify the kindness and mercy of God. But in the special sense in which it is here considered, an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. Among the equivalent terms used in antiquity were pax, remissio, donatio, condonatio.

Tetzel got into the business of selling indulgences, not merely for the living, but also for the dead. Indulgences remain, but are no longer for sale: they remain part of Catholic theology (note: I'm not Catholic, but Protestant, but have no quarrels with Catholics) and there is a clear rejection of the idea of selling them. Now while the Catholic church sees the historical role of indulgencies with a bit of bias - it was one of the major reasons for Luther to call for the Reformation and was thesis #82, if I remember correctly (I do) - indulgencies remain.

Now, I'm interested not in indulgencies as such, but much more the role that Tetzel played.

He basically offered the rich the ability to use their financial abilities to avoid going through actual penance and spiritual compensation for their sins: while this may or may not have started as a kind of indulgence on his part - in the sense of choosing a way for a sinner to make true spiritual recompense for his or her sins - it rapidly became corrupted and venal. It became wide-spread and was a major, major source of dissatisfaction of those who did actual spiritual recompense for their personal sins, as they saw the wealthy not only believe that they were able to buy their way into heaven, but the church being corrupted in doing so.

Hence my Tetzel Function: it describes the mechanism that a group uses to avoid facing unpleasant truths about themselves, buying compensation/indulgences for their sins. Tetzel was, at the end of the day, merely the one who took the practice to its logical, mortal, sinful conclusion.

Now, modern society remains heavily based on many conflicts that have their sources in the Middle Ages: the contradiction between public duties and private desires, for instance, is one of the driving forces behind the controversy, for instance, about homosexual marriages. The state and the church have a public duty to support the family and ensure that it has a protected status, as the best possible way of ensuring the continuation of the state and society. The private desire of homosexual couples to exchange vows as if they were not homosexuals is in direct conflict with this public duty, as the natural function of a homosexual relation is that there are no children and they do not, in this sense, ensure the continuation of state and society. I am not making any argument, simply stating that the nature of the conflict between public and private is not new, but rather ancient.

That said, what is the Tetzel Function exactly?

The Tetzel Function says that when economic conditions develop such that hard decisions must be made that will place large numbers of the members of the economy in jeopardy, that someone will find a way to monetarize the nature of these decisions in such a way that wealthy members of that economic group will avoid having to make those choices.

In other words, if it is necessary to massively reduce the emission of carbon dioxide from industrial societies, then someone will find a way of monetarizing contradictory behavior in such a manner that it appears to be non-contradictory. The larger the desire to not change behavior, the greater the willingness to spend money to avoid the change in behavior.

If we all were to take the purposed problem with carbon dioxide seriously, then massive changes in behavior are neccessary: airline flights would need to be heavily restricted, mass transit necessary and private transportation heavily controlled, industrial activity curbed, non-renewable energy use also heavily curbed, and past emissions of carbon dioxide compensated for via carbon sequestering.

This would me for many a severe change in life style: no major trips, inflexible transportation, reduced economic compensation and a life with few of the current creature comforts, all enforced by the State. This would mean quite a bit of suffering, of penance, as it were, for the sins of the fathers (and mothers) and an acceptance that humans have sinned against nature. I dare say that there are few outside of the environmental movement that would be prepared to voluntarily impose such a regime, but that is exactly what the environmental movement is actually largely all about.

Now not everyone will be willing to go along with that, and that is where the Tetzel Function comes into play: those with the means to do so will be able to purchase indulgencies so that they do not have to change their behavior. This, of course, will be explained as something good and proper.

Hence the current systems of "carbon compensation" fulfill the Tetzel Function for the environmental movement.

Let's parameterize the function:

Let F equal the Tetzel Function, x the amount of necessary privation (determined by legislation!), y the monetary amount available to compensate and z is the non-monetary compensation (i.e. the acceptance of privation). We then get a function like this:

F= x - (z + y)

In other words, the privation can be minimized by throwing money at it. Let's do a simple check:

Person A has $1'000 for carbon offsets, Person B has $200 and Person C has $5'000.

If we set the F to be 0 (i.e. neutral), then if x is legislated at, say, 1500, then

A: 1500 - (1300+200) for a F of 0
B: 1500 - (500+1000 for a F of 0
C: 1500 - (-3500+5000) for a F of 0

which means that those with the least ability to pay will suffer the greatest deprivation, and as long as the ability to pay for carbon offsets is greater than the cost of the carbon offsets, the impact of being able to purchase indulgencies in the form of carbon offsets is actually positive, i.e. those with the ability to pay will not only not suffer any deprivation, but rather they will enjoy additional benefits, such as reduced congestion, smaller or non-existent lines for airplanes, etc.

In other words, this is a regressive tax.

That's how the Tetzel Function works. Of course, this is very simplistic, tossed together on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Anyone wanting to do real work on it is welcome to, with one caveat: I "discovered" it, and the name remains the same... :-)

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