Friday, December 23, 2011

"The arc of the moral universe is long..."

One of the most maddening aspects of the marriage equality "debate" is how patently ridiculous the arguments against allowing gays to enjoy equality under law really are. A majority of these arguments tend to be couched, either implicit or explicitly on religious grounds and/or a personal animus against gay people ("marriage is between a man and a woman", "it would erode our values", etc.). I'm not particularly interested in engaging these points mostly because they're nakedly bigoted.

I would like to then credit those that at least try and accept the humanity of gays and lesbians, and claim that gay marriage would 'dilute' or otherwise 'harm' the institution of "traditional" heterosexual marriage. Now, this argument is uniquely convoluted and false, which is why this open letter from Minnesota's LGBT community apologizing to the State Senate's former majority leader and recently outed adulterer all the more delicious. Specifically, this quote:
We apologize that our selfish requests to marry those we love has cheapened and degraded traditional marriage so much that we caused you to stray from your own holy union for something more cheap and tawdry.
This is one of the tiring but necessary aspects of being an advocate for the legal equality of minorities. The reluctance to grant equal legal rights is almost always based on cultural mores, but this can never be explicitly admitted. The hard work of "winning" the hearts and minds of everyday people, in short actually shifting the entire national political culture, is the accumulated contribution of snarky open letters like these.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

How Far We've Come

Mike Konczal has some smart points on Polifact's "Lie of the Year" that I think everyone should read. The gist of Konczal's piece, and the general liberal critique of Polifact's claim, is that the factchecking organization is being breathtakingly obtuse in their defense of Paul Ryan's 'Path to Prosperity' Medicare overhaul, and is specifically obscuring some of the important details of Ryan's plan.

The basics of Ryan's plan is to shift Medicare from the broad entitlement plan it is into a voucher system. Medicare is currently a guarantee to cover a certain level of healthcare costs for a broad basket of products and procedures for American citizens 65 and older. Ryan's plan, on the other hand, coverts the program into a (poorly funded) voucher system—a coupon for healthcare. The caveat is that those 55-and older would be grandfathered into the current as-it-is entitlement-Medicare. Only those 55-and younger would face the uncertainty of a voucher; the value of which, I'd like to add, declines over time.

I bring this up because Konczal makes an important, if not interesting point:
Because I’m a senior-in-waiting, and [Ryan's] plan will affect me. Someday I’ll be elderly, and then I’ll have to deal with taking a worthless coupon to the notoriously ugly healthcare market if this plan passes. This is not semantics – it’s the basis of the inter-generational social contract.
Now the phrase "inter-generational social contract" has quite a bit of currency in political theory nowadays. But if you go all the way back to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1791 you'll find one of the first examples of the idea:
You will observe that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors. (emphasis mine – JMG)
Burke's basic point is that the “natural rights” of man, whatever they may be, do not spring fully formed in an a priori way. Rather, the rights of man are an hereditary property of a nation, formed through the process and deliberation of the government, and enshrined by the current generation for the benefit of the next.

I bring up Burke because I find it interesting that Mike Konczal, in my estimation at least, qualifies quite well as a "liberal" or "progressive" (or whatever you please). Just a few days ago he wrote an (excellent) essay arguing for a dismantlement of the current subsidization of higher education through the tax code, and simply using the money to provide college for free. Moreover, Medicare (and Medicaid) are thoroughly "liberal" programs in that they were championed by a Democratic president and fulfill the broad liberal goal of a strong social safety net; a public guarantee to aid the poor and elderly who lack the resources to fully care for themselves.

So how did we get to this point where liberal commentators are writing successfully persuasive essays on the defense of liberal polices using quite possibly the oldest argument of modern conservatism? My guess is that today's liberals are more conservative than they'd prefer, and today's conservatives are more radical than they're willing to admit, and politics in general continues its constant cyclical movement towards nothing in particular other than a repetition of the same patterns we've been observing since the Greeks.

Market Structures

Markets need a variety of factors to work in concert in order to be a "free market" that we lionize so well in everyday political discourse (e.g. "market-based solutions"). In short, they need a "structure". Academic economists tend to use the word “competitive” as a short hand for the confluence of factors that are needed to keep a market economy running smoothly as our 101 textbooks promise. On the microeconomic level, a “competitive” market structure has enough consumers and producers so that no one market actor can influence the market overall, has reasonably few and minimal barriers to entry and exit to the market, and both consumers and producers have the voluntary choice whether or not to enter a transaction or contract.

There are more wrinkles that what I've outlined above, of course, but they're not particularly pertinent to the issues raised by the Altarum Institute Center for Consumer Choice in Health Care latest survey comparing how much effort we devote to shopping for doctors versus shopping for appliances or cars. As the Washington Post's Sarah Kiff explains “appliances and cars, it turns out, get a lot more attention.”

This is at the heart of why the healthcare market in the United States (or to my knowledge, anywhere for that matter) is specifically unsuited for purely “free market-based solutions”; consumers do not have the ability to make “rational” decisions.

First, a few qualifiers: I use quotes because I mean rational in the economic sense. I do not mean to imply that people cannot be rational when they consume healthcare, but that the inelasticities of demand for essential care, combined with lack of pricing transparency, makes forming a “rational” choice while shopping for healthcare “products” - like a heart surgeon or hearing aids - an unrealistic expectation for consumers. I also don't mean to say that there's no space at all for market forces in healthcare policy. Quite the opposite, markets are have an excellent track record on decreasing costs and increasing availability of elective treatments and techniques (e.g. Lasik , gastric bypass procedures, Viagra). But these market success are constrained to a specific basket of medical procedures and goods that we would consider elective. This gives consumers time to compare prices, quality and alternative treatments. Consumers don't have this luxury at the onset of a heart attack or the outbreak of an infectious disease.

As Kiff elaborates:
Shopping for a doctor is a lot harder than shopping for a dishwasher. There’s no price tag for what you’ll pay, or a Consumer Report to reference on quality.
Representatives and pundits who spend their air and ink extolling on the the virtues of markets often have little understanding of their composition. This does damage to both our country and policy discourse.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Abstract Policy Agendas Must Meet Institutional Realities

This is something I haven't hammered on in awhile, so I want to reinforce the point that abstract understandings of political goals and policy agenda's needs to be understood from the lens of institutional realities. The GOP's successful filibuster of CFBP head Richard Cordray is the latest example of such.

A quick primer: The Dodd-Frank Act (which went into effect back in July 2010) calls for the creation of a Consumer Protection Financial Bureau (or CFPB), headed by a director who is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate (like all presidential apointiees). Elizabeth Warren acted as an interim director while the CFPB was being assembled, but was never nominated for the position. Robert Cordray's nomination for the position was just "defeated" by a vote of 53 wishing to begin debate on Corday's nomination, to 47 opposed. I place those quotes around defeated because, as Johnathan Cohn explains:
Remember, the Senate didn’t actually vote on Cordray’s nomination. The vote never took place because the Republican caucus, with one exception, are supporting a filibuster the nomination. Together, they do not represent a majority. On the contrary, 53 senators voted to proceed with the vote. Had the vote taken place, a majority likely would have voted to confirm him. But that’s the way the Senate works today: The majority doesn’t rule. The minority does.
To be honest, I can't think of a more perverted example of how our political goals need to be adjusted to institutional context. Democrats have not only translated the abstract policy idea of "regulating Wall Street" into a formal piece of law, but have successfully legislated this into federal law (a feat I think liberals give Democrats too little credit for). Unfortunately, here is where the institutional realities create constraints, as the Senate's Republican members have "[...] pledged to prevent any candidate from being confirmed unless significant structural changes are made to the bureau." Specifically:
Republicans want the director position replaced by a five-member commission and tighter oversight of the agency’s decisions by other regulatory bodies. They are also seeking to subject the agency to the congressional appropriations process; currently, it is funded through the Federal Reserve.
Now, I am open to debating legitimate points of the CFPB, but we are past the point. The law has been written, voted on, and is now in effect as a federal statue. The basic game Republicans are playing is a use of every procedural tactic available to extract maximal policy concessions, with out having to submit to the actual process of policy making. It's breathtakingly cynical, and counter-production to the broader goal of national health and prosperity; but it is the choice the 47 members of the Senate's Republican caucus have chosen.

The important point I want to make with this, is that these Senators have made this choice at the acquiesce, perhaps even behest of their constituents. It's unfortunate that the pigheadedness of a minority of Senators is reinforced by equally obtuse voters. I am sure there is all sorts of thing that Democrats in the House, Senate and yes, Oval Office would like to do; strength the oversight of the CFBP, extend unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut, perhaps even force major mortgage banks to accept some kind of forbearance on the millions of subprime mortgages that threw us into a financial crisis in the first place. But we need to understand that the abstract political goals that we hold must be tempered by the possibilities allowed by our political institutions.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Know What You're Talking About

One of the things that irritates me, both as a writer and as a student of markets, is when very well regarded columnists make basic errors in logic or argument. By "basic", I mean something I would expect from the average college sophomore. My suspicion is that it is generally a symptom of a process where the writer starts with his conclusion, and just works his way around the facts so that he can get there, in whatever word count the editor is asking for. The latest example of this comes from the Washington Post's George Will, who's written an unsurprisingly sloppy and inaccurate column on the Affordable Care Act.

Now, Slate's Matthew Yglesias has a much better critique of the article overall, and I strongly suggest you read it. However, I would like to litigate a more narrow point of one of Will's claims; that California's regulatory regime is stifling the construction of more Carl's Jr. restaurants, whereas Texas (an implied paragon of the free-market) is booming with expansion. Specifically, Will writes that
CKE has, however, all but stopped building restaurants in [California] because approvals and permits for establishing them can take up to two years, compared to as little as six weeks in Texas, and the cost to build one is $100,000 more than in Texas, where CKE is planning to open 300 new restaurants this decade.
If one takes a quick look at CKE Restaurant's website however, it's pretty easy to find out that California is already home to 723 CKE establishments, 713 of which are Carl's Jr alone. Whereas Texas only has 53 CKE Restaurants overall (all of which are Carl's Jrs). I'm pretty sure market saturation is just a, if not more compelling explanation for the chain's expansion choices than Will's implication of onerous regulation.

Quote of the Day

From Larison:
"Remember that Palin’s popularity with conservatives was the function of identity politics [...]"

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday Night Links

Tyler Cowen on income ineqality

The Atlantic Wire crew on the politics of global warming with in the Republican party.

Occupy DC comes to a head.

When Ideology Meets Nessessity cont.

Another entry by FrumFourm's "Galatea" has been published, this one taking the issue of healthcare head-on with the title "I Heart Romneycare". I previously commented on "Galatea's" inability to connect her political ideology with the nessessity of heathcare services.

You can read the new piece for yourself, but I am personally underwhelmed by the author's grasp of the issue. The essay is written as an open "letter" to Mitt Romney in a playful, somewhat humorously sexual tone. While it is clear the author was concerned more with entertainment that education in the piece, the policy tidbits are depressingly callow. First she explains:
"Honestly, in this election, Romneycare is [Mitt Romney's] tramp stamp."
While crude, this is a reasonable point. Polling on conservative voters has overwhelmingly shown that past endorsement of an individual mandate-based healthcare reform plan is essentially apostasy. (Although, Romney is not alone in past support of a mandate.) Next, she breaks the core of her argument into two pieces. First:
I mean, at a Constitutional level, Obamacare’s federally-enforced individual mandate destroys Congress’s limitations on regulating interstate commerce since it regulates economic inactivity. (emphasis mine - JMG)
Furthermore, even if it were constitutional, AHCA is not a necessary and proper means for Congress to expand its police powers(which the Court has in the past expressly forbade them from doing)! (emphasis mine - JMG)
Both of these arguments are as well traveled as they are flawed. The first is easily the most popular conservative argument against an individual mandate in general, and the Affordable Care Act specifically. So, it is unfortunate popularity cannot replace coherence; "inactivity" in the health insurance market produces substantially different outcomes than "inactivity" in say, the mobile phone market, or unappealing vegetables market. Or, as DC Appeals Court Justice Laurence Silberman wrote in the Court's November 8th 2-1 ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the law:
It suffices for this case to recognize, as noted earlier, that the health insurance market is a rather unique one, both because virtually everyone will enter or affect it, and because the uninsured inflict a disproportionate harm on the rest of the market as a result of their later consumption of health care services.
The second point on the expansion of "police powers" genuinely confuses me. The law's Wikipedia article has no mention of "police power", nor does the Kaiser Family Foundation's summary. The law itself has the word "police" in it only twice; once one page 724, defining law enforcement terminology and again on page 852, with respect to intervention services. I suspect "Galatea" is referring to the obvious expansion in oversight required to properly enforce a mandate on health insurance purchase. If so, then she is genuinely confused about how the mandate works; it is enforced through a fine. Specifically, as Ezra Klein explained back in March last year:
The law specifically says that no criminal action or liens can be imposed on people who don't pay the fine. If this actually leads to a world in which large numbers of people don't buy insurance and tell the IRS to stuff it, you could see that change. But for now, the penalties are low and the enforcement is non-existent.
Lastly, "Galatea" "thanks" Romney, writing that her coverage under her mother's health insurance "was the best free health care I’ve ever received." Only, it is not free; it is paid for by her mother, her mother's employer and her mother's co-workers. One can only imagine her plight if she did not have the fortune of these people covering her health insurance costs. Perhaps she would no longer have the free time to write terribly misinformed articles.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

On Sunday Morning Talk Shows

There is something disturbingly vulgar about the well-to-do men who sit around nationally broadcasted talk show coffee tables, sporting expensive suits and extolling on the virtues of Newt Gingrich's latest - that inner city schools should fire their "high-priced" union janitors and replace them with pre-adolescent students.

"[...] multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation."

Some weekend reading,a wonderful piece from the Atlantic:
What my mother could envision was a future in which I made my own choices. I don’t think either of us could have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation.

A Donald Trump-moderated debate

I want to be honest. I am young by most standards. But, I've been a recreational politics watcher since the waning days of Clinton's second administration. I can recall a variety of moments when I was sure - so sure - that American politics had reached its nadir. And everytime something else came along to prove me wrong. It's like extreme sports; only instead of death-defying stunts, it seems American political thought is locked in a game of one-upmanship in intellectual immaturity (viz. "freedom fries," Birtherism).

With this in mind, I'm really excited to see what event tops the Donald Trump-moderated Republican debate, in terms of sheer humor value.

Update: While I am sure the future is bright for even more farcical political events and/or phenomena, I think the extra dimension of Newt Gingrich's attendance will make this debate a highlight to revel in with future generations.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Quote of the Day

America in a nutshell:
According to a Gallup survey released in October, 50 percent of Americans said they believed marijuana use should be made legal, the highest percentage to date. But there is significant resistance to legalization; 46 percent say marijuana use should remain illegal.

When Ideology Meets Nessessity

I have been trying to be consistent on the point that there is a big divorce between the political ideology people say they hold and the policy outcomes they prefer. I encounter this quite a bit when writers make passing comments about things they can or cannot do, with little acknowledgement on the political process that allowed whatever outcomes they're discussing. As an example of this, I would like to direct you to this essay on FrumForm.

It's the latest in a series of pieces written by a recently unemployed college graduate writing under the pen name of "Galatea". The author admits to having libertarian sympathies in one of the earlier entries, (which causes some cognitive dissonance when applying for unemployment benefits) but is otherwise silent on the policy implications of her current lack of employment. The latest entry strikes me as most sympathetic so far, if only in recognition of the mental toll long-term unemployment can have on a person. For example, Galatea writes:
I'm breaking out everywhere and getting a rash on my face.
However, the very next sentence, the author breezily recalls that
I'm still on my mother's health insurance, so technically I could see a dermatologist. (bold mine - JMG)
Immediately upon reading this, the glib retort "You can thank the Affordable Care Act for that" ricochets around my head. I don't want to be particularly flippant about this, but the inability for people to make the connections between the material welfare they get to enjoy (even when they're unemployed) and legislative work that went into securing these kinds of benefits is a source of never ending irritation to me.

Politics is more than just partisan gamesmanship. The more this point is obscured, the more disservice we do the democratic ideals that underpin the country as a whole.