Monday, July 9, 2012

Some Are More Equal Than Others

The LA Times covers Mitt Romney's Hamptons fundraiser:
A New York City donor a few cars back, who also would not give her name, said Romney needed to do a better job connecting. "I don't think the common person is getting it," she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. "Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them.

"We've got the message," she added. "But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies -- everybody who's got the right to vote -- they don't understand what's going on. I just think if you're lower income -- one, you're not as educated, two, they don't understand how it works, they don't understand how the systems work, they don't understand the impact." (bold mine - JMG)
While quotes like this are not that surprising, it is no less nauseating to see the well-to-do parade around their own high-minded opinion of themselves. Even worse — in my mind — is the heads I win, tails you lose logic to it; if you're poor, you're not educated enough to make the decision I agree with, and if you're educated like me, you'll vote for the candidate that wants to slash Federal investments in education[1], among other things.

[1]From the CBPP:
The cuts that would be required under the Romney budget proposals in programs such as veterans’ disability compensation, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for poor elderly and disabled individuals, SNAP (formerly food stamps), and child nutrition programs would move millions of households below the poverty line or drive them deeper into poverty. The cuts in Medicare and Medicaid would make health insurance unaffordable (or unavailable) to tens of millions of people. The cuts in non-defense discretionary programs — a spending category that covers a wide variety of public services such as elementary and secondary education, law enforcement, veterans’ health care, environmental protection, and biomedical research — would come on top of the deep cuts in this part of the budget that are already in law due to the discretionary funding caps established in last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA).

Constitutional Originalism and Linguistic Plasticity

This is something I have been meaning to write for sometime, and now that the Affordable Care Act has been decided, and we've just celebrated our nation's 236th birthday, I think it's the appropriate moment to give it a try.

Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia, well know from his originalist streak in Constitutional analysis, gave an interview last January. He made the point that as far as he reads the Constitution, women have protections against discrimination inherent in the original text.
You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't. Nobody ever thought that that's what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don't need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box. You don't like the death penalty anymore, that's fine. You want a right to abortion? There's nothing in the Constitution about that. But that doesn't mean you cannot prohibit it. Persuade your fellow citizens it's a good idea and pass a law. That's what democracy is all about. It's not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society. (bold mine - JMG)
Reading Scalia's response, one of the immediate thoughts that jumped into my head was that the justice's instance that “You don’t need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box” breaks down with various groups in society are not enfranchised to use said ballot box. I mean, yes, it is very simple and elegant when all you need is to persuade you fellow citizens about what you believe to be the proper policy or representative; but when the issue is about fundamental rights like suffrage or equal status under law, then no, it's not simply just "a legislature and a ballot box." Agitation for fundamental protections (like say, the legal ability to have a spouse) almost always requires cultural shift. In other words, it is really easy for Scalia to glibly extoll on the virtues of the democratic process, when the entire apparatus of the democratic system favors his European, heterosexual male viewpoints.

Linking this back to questions about how much 'original intent' plays into judicial interpretation, I am really bothered by Scalia's lack of recognition to the plasticity of language. Dr. Steven L. Taylor touches on this in a recent essay.
The words simply do not mean the same to readers now as they did then. Not only has the language itself changed, but the way we comprehend the world is different. Regardless of one’s view of the ACA, the fact of the matter is that the word “commerce” means something different to a person in 2012 than it did to a person in 1787. Consider the following terms and do a quick mental trip through time: “war,” “army,” “arms,” “Commander-in-Chief,” and so forth. Beyond the specific words and their meanings over time, there is much in the Constitution that is simply vague. What, pray tell, is (to pick a big one) “the general welfare”?
Concepts like "who 'citizens' are?", or "what does 'equal protection under law' mean?" are legally important (and discrete), but very philosophically abstract. The intent of the phrase "all men are created equal" was really really groundbreaking at the time it was made, but today its originalist meaning of enfranchising only white, male landowners strikes me (and, I would hope—most) as hopelessly patriarchal. To me there's a bit of intellectual cowardice in the insistence on being exclusively concerned about original intent, because it is a real failure to engage messy concepts like context and viewpoint. Sure, the Founding Father's didn't intend for women to be enfranchised citizens; but that's highly related to the fact that we were still fighting wars over enlightenment concepts like individual self-determination and representative government.

Just because we had a prevailing understanding of a word in 1776, it does not follow that we should preserve this understanding in amber for all time, for all generations of Americans to be subject to. The context of the Constitution's development, and the viewpoints of its writers should be very pertinent to our current interpretation of the document's meaning, but we need to reconcile how the diversification of legal and intellectual perspectives advances the core ideals of the United States Constitution; namely a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

More Gateway Sexual Activity

Just a quick update, just to prove I'm not making anything up. Newsy has put together a well sourced compilation on the story, and it includes actual people who actually think the law is a good idea.

The one thing I am really struck by, is how uncertain everybody seems to be when it comes to actually defining what "gateway sexual activity" is. The bill itself is described as one intended to make sure Tennessee's sex education classes remain focused on abstinence[1], and seems to penalize educators who encourage non-abstinent behavior or contraceptive use. Representative John DeBarry, a supporter of the bill explains:
“I think you and I both would know when we’re looking at a kiss, and when we’re looking at, for lack of a better way of saying it, someone who is trying to open the door to more activities,”
Somewhat related, TIME states that
Some detractors argue that it could unreasonably punish teachers for allowing students to cuddle, hold hands or even hug, whether in the halls between classes or at a school dance.
Even after Barry's explanations, we're right back where we started; with a bizzare tautology that makes a person liable or condoning an activity that is literally defined as condoning said activity. If all the bill's supporters have is vauge allusions to door-openings and and "more activities", then I'm not quite sure how this will withstand even the most cursory legal scrutiny.

[1] Surprise!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Social Networks and General Speech

We invest a lot of time and money into making communication faster, and our communication gadgets fancier. I don't think this is a bad thing at all, but I am also not convinced its is wholly a good thing either. I get text messages and e-mails sent to a device I carry in my pocket, a fact that continues to ever so slightly blow my mind. The internet and smartphones certainly improve people's efficiency and productive capacity.
But it also provides more opportunities to share things that aren't necessarily 'ready' for sharing, or weren't really meant to be shared in the first place. I continually resist the urge to share the latest cute cat picture on Facebook because, well, they're are enough cute cats all over the internet. Private thoughts tend to be best left to private places, and I think we're still working on what is private as participants in this developing world of social media.

Near the end of chapter 13, Vonnegut creates an extended section of Kilgore Trout fiction[1], which describes something remarkably similar to our current trajectory. In the fictional universe of Trout's novel, people from earth can gain steady work across the galaxy as "language teachers". Why? Well:
The reason creatures wanted to use language instead of mental telepathy was that they found out they could get so much more done with language. Language made them so much more active. Mental telepathy, with everybody constantly telling everybody everything, produced a sort of generalized indifference to all information. But language, with its slow, narrow meanings, made it possible to think about one thing at a time—to start thinking in terms of projects. (198 emphasis mine - JMG)
Some of you may remember an essay I wrote about Arendt's The Human Condition, in which I probed some of Arednt's ideas of 'the public sphere'. Arednt was specific on how speaking or thinking the public sphere entailed of shaping one's thoughts for public consumption, and more specifically;
[...] that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity (50 emphasis mine - JMG) 
Now, I want to make a few qualifications here; Arendt is talking about publicly available communications (in a political context). Vonnegut/Trout is envisioning an existence with universal mental telepathy, where all thoughts are by definition public. While I don't think we're anywhere close a grim future where we're all plugged into each other, a la The Matrix, but more and more communication tools are in the business of encouraging personal disclosure (e.g. Facebook, twitter). We are certainly entering a period of redefinition of what thoughts are acceptably public or private, and I do think that Vonnegut's imagination should serve as a cautionary example of unfettered exchange.

[1] Vonnegut's use of science fiction within his own fiction reminds me of Alan Moore's "Tales of the Black Freighter" within Watchmen.

A Man of Principle

Massachusetts junior Senator Scott Brown has thrice voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but he has told the Boston Globe that "of course" he includes his 23-year-old daughter on his congressional health plan.

For those who are unfamiliar with the details of health law and policy, prior the the Affordable Care Act, the health insurance industry's standard was that dependent children were no long eligible for coverage under their parent's plan upon college graduation.

As someone who only has insurance coverage because of the current Massachusetts law, and could only get coverage in other states because of the national law, I find Sen. Brown's callous insistence on voting to revoke healthcare coverage for his constituents, while glibly acknowledging how he and his family benefit form the very law he supposedly opposes on deep philosophical grounds, to be a microcosm of everything wrong with conservative legislators.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Gateway Sexual Activity

New name for a rock band? No, just the latest from Tennessee's legislature.

Once again the party of 'limited government' and 'personal responsibility' looks for new ways to legislate individual sexual conduct. The bill itself defines such activity as:
(7) “Gateway sexual activity” means sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior. A person promotes a gateway sexual activity by encouraging, advocating, urging or condoning gateway sexual activities;
According to The Tennessean, the bill passed the state's House "68-23, with all but one Republican for it."

I understand that the GOP's fundamental organizing base is evangelical christian networks, and that these type of bills make perfect sense from a strategic perspective. But this is becoming grimly comical. The bill passed the Senate 28-1 on April 5. This will be an actual law that actual Tennesseans will have to live with.

Chutzpah. Also Amnesia.

The Washington Post quotes Mitt Romney's "senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom" asserting that the Auto Industry Bailout was really his bosses idea.
“[Romney's] position on the bailout was exactly what President Obama followed,” Fehrnstrom said. “He said, ‘If you want to save the auto industry, just don’t write them a check. That will seal their doom. What they need to do is go through a managed bankruptcy process.’

“Consider that the crown jewel. The only economic success that President Obama has had,” Fehrnstrom said, “is because he followed Mitt Romney’s advice.”
Unsurprisingly, if not predictably, a quick Google search yields an op-ed penned by Mr. Romney and published in The New York Times, on November 18th, 2008 titled:
Let Detroit Go Bankrupt
The op-ed itself is an exercise in free-market lionization and general supply-side tropes, without any specific plan, aside from "[...] automakers should come up with a win-win proposition," by undergoing a managed bankruptcy in a historically tight credit market.

Not only that, Mr. Romney also wrote another op-ed[1], published on Feburary 14th, this year, lamenting that:
“The president tells us that without his intervention things in Detroit would be worse. I believe that without his intervention things there would be better.”
“The indisputable good news is that Chrysler and General Motors are still in business. The equally indisputable bad news is that all the defects in President Obama’s management of the American economy are evident in what he did.”
What makes Mr. Fehrstrom's assertion so outrageous is not only the chutzpah required to say that Mr. Romney's advocacy to force GM, Ford and Crysler into a managed bankruptcy "was exactly what Obama followed," but the amnesia required to ignore Mr. Romney's own written statements decrying the President's decisions that are, according to Mr. Fehrnstrom, supposed to be his own.

[1] A note on the citations: The Detroit News does not have a digital copy of Mr. Romney's op-ed on their website. The quotes were taken from The Hill's Ballot Box, which is linked above.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


The Politico is reporting today that "Mitt Romney aims to rock the youth vote". How? Well, I am not sure, and it seems like the Romney campaign is not so interested in the details either[1]:
Though the Romney campaign did not share specifics of their strategy, an aide told POLITICO that they view the youth vote as key to their strategy in November and that they plan to put significant resources into turning out young voters for Romney.
I am interested to see what, if anything comes of it; but I do not think the former Massachusetts Governor is going match this kind of swag:

[1] It's also possible they just don't want to tip their hand.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Quote of the Day

Why can't Mitt Romney be a little more honest about his wealth?
Look. I don’t begrudge Romney’s having had his college tuition and living expenses paid for with family money. Mine were too. My background, though not as fancy as Mitt or Ann Romney’s, was privileged enough. But the guy should just come out and admit it: “I was a child of privilege and have my parents’ wealth to thank for my education. That said, I worked very very hard in business, and the vast majority of my fortune I earned myself.”

But there is of course a reason he can’t say that: such a statement is customarily followed by an expression of gratitude and a willingness to give something back to society. And gratitude and a willingness to give something back are precisely what Romney lacks—in common with the party he’s aspiring to represent.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Social Networks and Political Speech I

Facebook devils me. It is a social networking website that allows anyone with an internet connection - for free - use their server space to host a profile page. The catch, I gather, is that you become the product Facebook intends to sell. When I think about it, it is clear that the 'social media' business model revolves around personal information, to help make more targeted marketing. The more personal information a social media firm can gather and offer to advertisers, the more revenue potential a firm (like Facebook) has.

But there is something more fundamental to Facebook specifically, and social media in general, that piques my interest; the notion of the 'public sphere' entering one's ostensibly private 'social networks'.

First, I'd like to outline my terms a bit. I consider myself an 'Arendtian', so my understanding of the public sphere is largely based on Arendt's definition. In her opus The Human Condition Arendt asserts
[...] that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. (50 emphasis mine — JMG)
Nowadays, if I have a witty joke joke or a short piece of personal news I want to share, I put it on Facebook; if I have a larger or more unweidly point that I want to examine, I post an essy on this blog. I'm doubtful that my one-liners about the weather, or latest observation on Rick Santorum is "seen and heard by everybody". But it is available for public consumption. I think that the quality of "availability" is important when trying to distinguish between a "public" comment and a "private" thought. The problem now is that private thoughts are publicly available, depending on your security settings. But availability is not the only concern. A speaker's intent certainly has to play a role in distinguishing private and public speech.

Ardent continues:
Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life—the passions of the heard, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses—lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existance unless and until they are transformed, deprivateized and de-individualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance" (50 emphasis mine — JMG)
Look at you newsfeed an ask yourself; are your or your friend's postings being "shape[d] to fit" for public consumption? Does the average facebook poster engage in the mental process of shaping their thoughts for public consuption? Does Facebook "count" as a part of the public sphere under Arendt's framework in the first place?

I ask these questions, becasue ultimately; to be social is to be political. I don't mean this in a heavy-handed "friends don't let friends be convervative/liberal" kind of way. I mean that our individual ethics and political convictions are untimatly products of "being social". Of inter homines esse, as Arendt put it. I think that new social media technology is certainly changing some of those dynamics, and perhaps warping some of our (or Arendt's) longstanding assumptions about how the "private" and "public" spheres are distinguished.

Everything is a Culture War

Dave Weigel continues his invaluable constituent interviews during the waning days of the this cycle's Republican nomination contest. The latest I have read is from the Nevada caucuses, which took place back in early February. The news itself is a bit old, but the constituent's quote is pertinent my contention on the 'culturalization' of political debates.

Kent, an escavator from Virginia City, Nev. explains his views on partisanship:
"This is going to sound rough," he said. "But if you're a Democrat, you are my enemy. Democrats piss me off. They've gotten extremely socialistic." What did that mean? "Every time they get in, they raise taxes. They screw things up. I've got a jeep I've had for ten years; I pay $100 a year on the license plate. We just got a new Dodge; $600 to license it. You pay your money, they pass it on to the Mexicans, the colored people. Free education, handouts, all of that." (emphasis mine - JMG)
I want to link this back to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's earlier comments about how we are turning into a nation of "people sitting on a couch waiting for their next government check," and how a lot of economic policy questions are being transmogrified into morality plays of how the 'government' poses a threat to concepts of 'independence' or 'virtue'. Once you start examining these kind of statements through the perspective of economic theory or social policy, you start to see how devoid of substance these kind of sentiments are. But a lot or people do not care to consider viewpoints of economic theory or social policy for all kinds of reasons. (If I had to guess the probable causes, I would suggest lack of technical understanding or a need for worldview that eliminates ambiguity.)

Now, a lot of people (myself included) complain about the lack of good faith in debates between our ideologically opposed representatives. A lot of people, myself excluded, diagnose the problem as an issue of party-driven polarization. Well, that is not quote right. I do agree that there is an issue of party-driven polarization, but I find that the drivers of party polarization are party participants and constituents like Kent and Gov. Christie. Representatives are less and less amiable to 'bi-partisanship' because the people they represent are less 'bi-partisan'.

Now, if you are frustrated with the way things are right now via-a-vis partisanship and gridlock (and I think you should be), then the first thing I think you should focus on attacking, is this idea that all policy disagreements can fundamentally be explained as 'us' against the 'enemy'. I think this goes for both camps, but I certainly do not think there exists an equivalence in degree or severity. Especially since Barack Obama has been president, conservative constituents and party actors have seemed more than comfortable to resorting to more and more brazen appeals to paranoia and 'otherness' as a tool to gain political advantage.

So I think I understand why people like Kent from Nevada feel that Democrats "raise taxes" and "pass it on to the Mexicans, the colored people", but I do not think that 'partisanship' any real excuse for statements like that. If anything, I find it all the more to be an indictment against the conservative opposition to progressive tax policy or a robust social safety net.

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is decrying the the current state of the country, lamenting that the 'Nation turning into 'people sitting on a couch waiting for their next government check'. Gov. Christie's exact complaint is that:
When the American people no longer believe that this is a place where only their willingness to work hard and to act with honor and integrity and ingenuity determines their success in life, then we’ll have a bunch of people sitting on a couch waiting for their next government check,
I bring this up because I am honestly not sure how the $102.4 million Panasionic received from the Christie administration in tax credits (to help incite a headquarter move on the electronic giant's part) services Gov. Christie's dream of an America where "honor and integrity and ingenuity determines their success in life".

I don't quite get why this snakeoil keeps getting sold, let alone bought. The logic Gov. Christie is presenting here, from what I gather, is that tax breaks for individual citizens, particularly low-income citizens, is somehow a signal for the end of an America where "honor and integrity and ingenuity determines their success in life"; while tax preferences for large multinational conglomerates is just a part of 'staying competitive'. Not only is this internally inconsistent, it is just naked, anti-competitive corporate welfare disguised as pro-market policy. Markets need its participants, as well as firms, to be competitive.

I think the most flagrant thing about this, is what a horrible deal it is for the taxpayers of New Jersey. According to the self-reported jobs creation projections,
the companies have promised to add 2,364 jobs, or $387,537 in tax credits per job, over the next decade.
Gov. Christe is giving Panasonic, Goya Foods and Prudential Insurance almost $400,000 for each job they create? Only 2,364 jobs over the next decade? And he has the gall to complain about citizens whose poverty is so abject they perhaps need public assistance? Absurd.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Complaints and Compliments

Dave Weigel reports from Alabama and Mississippi's March primary, asking some of the Republican primary voters "why did Obama ever win in the first place?" The answers are for the most part conservative boilerplate; voter fraud, white guilt, naïveté of young voters, etc. I wanted to highlight one respondent's statements, because I think it revels some of the idiosyncrasies of the conservative mindset.

Kerry Anderson of Biloxi, Mississippi* laments that:
“[Obama] fooled the young people, mostly. He fooled the people looking for an easier way of life, and he made them belief life would be easier, the government would take care of things if he won. It bothers me that young people aren’t better-informed. We older people, we stay informed. I should say: I’m on Medicare, but I still work. I was on the election commission in the county this year.” (emphasis mine - JMG)

The criticism Ms. Anderson is trying to make here is quite clear, and is a part of the longstanding, implicit conservative allergy to government solutions to social problems - especially at the federal level. But the literal complaint; that if elected life wold be easier and that the government should step in to solve social problems, well, I have to agree that that was part of the logic of Obama's candidacy.

Take healthcare: Barack Obama campaigned on, and signed legislation enshrining, the idea that it should be easier to purchase health insurance, and that government would solve the issues of adverse selection and pre-existing conditions that has plagued the United States' heath insurance market since (arguably) the Truman administration. I understand Mrs. Anderson is articulating a complaint, but really it sounds like a compliment.

*For disclosure, I am a native of, and still have roots in, Biloxi and Gulfport, MS.

Good Lord! (Updated)

Can we all agree that Geraldo Rivera is awful, and we hate him?

“I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was,”
For those of you unfamiliar with the details of Trayvon Martin's death, you can start here, and read on here.

Update: Mr. Rivera seems to ignore is own advice.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Reach

I'm not sure what Mitt Romney is trying to say here, but he sounds very confused:
“I keep hearing the president say that he’s responsible for keeping America from going into a Great Depression,” Romney told a crowd at a town hall meeting in Maryland Wednesday. “No, no no. That was President George W. Bush and Hank Paulson that stepped in and kept that from happening.”
So, George W. Bush rescued America from the Great Depression he caused?

At any rate, I thought the internal conservative logic was that Bush/Paulson's TARP program was not "conservative" in the sense that conter-cyclical fiscal policy is the anathema of freedom.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Context Matters

Just a quick point made by Matthew Yglesias that I wanted to co-sign; context matters:
The big picture that emerges, I think, is simply of a China that's still exceptionally poor by American standards. (emphasis mine - JMG)
There has been a lot excellent (and not so excellent) of coverage over the working conditions at Foxconn's factories. I am not going to add commentary to the conditions themselves, but rather how we talk about working conditions in general.

Standards of living and working conditions are relative ideas. Just like the adjectives "hot" or "cold", "quality working conditions" or "low standards of living" implies there's some baseline for comparison; usually our own. This is not to say that there is ever an excuse for barbaric working conditions, or standards of living that traumatizes a basic regard for human beings. But we need to be aware of (and appreciate) the quality of life that middle-class American citizens enjoy is the result of decades, if not centuries, of progressive social movement and advocacy for those on society's lowest rungs (e.g. child labor laws, protected classes, minimum wages, etc).

There is a bit of hubris in the expectation that the rest of the globe, especially the parts that are in the process of developing, to conform to the standards of an industrialized, western, middle-class lifestyle without a deeper commitment to understanding the context of the Foxconn employee, or the Malaysian Clipsal worker, or the Moroccan OCP miner.

If you'd like to learn more about supplier standards that created your iPhone, Apple's CSR reports are available here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

An Honest Mistake

At Business Insiders, Michael Brendan Dougherty reads Paul Ryan's new budget plan so you don't have to.

Can you spot what is missing from Rep. Ryan's colorful chart? Hint: In FY 2011, it comprised of 58% of the Federal Discretionary Budget.

We Will Take Your Word For It

Karen Santourm assures us that, if elected, women have "nothing to fear" from her husband's espoused views on contraception.

I supposed we will just have to take her word for it? Or perhaps his?

“The Blunt amendment was broader than that,” Santorum told Fox News host Chris Wallace on Sunday. “It was a conscience clause exception that existed prior to when President Obama decided that he could impose his values on people of faith, when people of faith believe that this [contraception] is a grievous moral wrong.” (emphasis mine - JMG)

No One Has a Monopoly on Liberty

The The New York Times has a wonderful piece on gender gap on health insurance costs. They key lesson of the article:
In a report to be issued this week, the National Women’s Law Center, a research and advocacy group, says that in states that have not banned gender rating, more than 90 percent of the best-selling health plans charge women more than men.(emphasis mine - JMG)
Buttressing this, The Atlantic Wire has great compilation of similar articles all pointing out the same thing: there is a inherent gender disparity in healthcare costs and services, that the current contracetion "debate" only serves to highlight.

I bring this up because I have seen and read a handful of conservative opinions concerning the mandate that all health insurance plans provide for contraception without co-pay. I am not going to take time to delve into the policy specifics right now. Instead I want to make a broader point about conceptions of liberty.

The conservative/libertarian point against a contraception mandate is couched in terms of contractual "liberty". Namely that:
[...] there is no need to be your sister’s keeper when she can keep herself.
What these opinions ignore, or cannot seem to comprehend, is that one class or group of people do not have a monopoly on "liberty".

Some people want the liberty to set the terms of their contract between their health insurer, free of regulatory mandates. I think women should have the liberty to choose the timing, spacing, and numbers of their child births. A freedom they do not have if there are barriers to contraception. I also think a people should be free from economic and medical discrimination based on their gender. A freedom women do not have, as illustrated by the above New York Times and Atlantic Wire articles.

"Liberty" is not some empirically, objectively established concept that one side gets to hold as a cudgel in political debate. It is a concept and a value that requires us to make normative judgments about what is, and is not, important to us as a society and polity.

Just because you want to be "free" from some onerous regulatory mandate does not make you a brave crusader for individual liberty. It just makes you a advocate for your own opinion of what liberty should mean in a regulatory context.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Inmates Run The Asylum cont.

I am not sure what Rick Santroum thinks he's doing, but this is the 2012 election cycle, not 1912.

Lobbying as a Legislative Subsidy

Ezra Klein has written a great piece for the New York Review of Books; diagnosing some of the ways money does, and does not, corrode our political system.

In many of the conversations I've privately had with liberal friends and acquaintances, money and politics is often reduced to a kind of arithmetic: Money + Politics = Corruption. I do not completely disagree with the assertion, but I certainly think there is more to it that that (as I've touched on here). Why I like Klein's piece so much is that he really plumbs the depths of causation mechanisms between well financed lobby interests and favorable legislative results. The problem with the "lobbying as a form of bribery" hypothesis is that it doesn't really stand up to scrutiny in the real world:
[...] lobbying, at least in its bluntest form, doesn’t seem to work. For many Americans, lobbying is a form of bribery. A rich lobbyist goes to a corrupt congressman, money changes hands, and the lobbyist gets his vote while the congressman gets money for his campaign. Many researchers have tried to find systematic evidence of vote buying. Very few have succeeded. Lessig quotes research by Dan Clawson, Mark Weller, and Alan Neustadtl, which concluded, “Many critics of big money campaign finance seem to assume that a corporate donor summons a senator and says, ‘Senator, I want you to vote against raising the minimum wage. Here’s $5,000 to do so.’ This view, in its crude form, is simply wrong.”
Klein explains that lobbying, instead, is more a form a legislative subsidy:
In addition to providing campaign contributions and employment prospects to outgoing elected officials and their staffs, [lobbyists] provides legislative expertise. Political scientists call this “the legislative subsidy” model of lobbying, and it poses a serious challenge to the view that lobbyists are little more than parasites.

The theory was first proposed by Richard Hall and Alan Deardorff in a 2006 paper entitled “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy.” The paper was an attempt to solve a problem that, at first glance, should not have needed to be solved, because it should not have existed in the first place: Why is the behavior of lobbyists so hard to predict?

For instance: you would think that lobbyists would concentrate their financial power and well-honed connections on the politicians they need to persuade. But they don’t. They concentrate it on the politicians who are already most convinced of their positions.
In a lot of ways, the money spent on lobbying is not so much a direct attempt at vote buying or bribery, as it is an indirect attempt at agenda setting and coalition building. Certainly there's going to be "ol' boys club" type glad handing, which favors those who already are familiar and participants in networks of privilege. But that does not necessarily mean that levels of financing is the only factor.

One last thing that I think is very important, and is not mentioned nearly enough, is the fact that the "expenditure effect"; that is, the amount of influence lobbyist spending has on an issue, recedes in relation to the issue's prominence. Klein explains:
Take any issue that you’ve actually heard a lot about. The headline clashes. The big-ticket bills. They’ve all got money on both sides. They’ve all got platoons of lobbyists swarming onto Capitol Hill. They’ve all got activists and interest groups and even ordinary Americans pestering their congressmen. And they all go the same way: the Democrats vote with the Democrats, and the Republicans vote with the Republicans.

That’s true even when the big money lines up in favor of another outcome. In 2011, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO joined together to call for a major reinvestment in American infrastructure. None passed. In 2010, most of the health care industry was either supportive or neutral on the Affordable Care Act, and if any one of them could have swung the votes of even a few Republican senators or congressmen, the desperate Democrats would have let them write almost anything they wanted into the bill. But not one Republican budged. In 2009, the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the stimulus bill as a necessary boost to the economy. Not one House Republican voted for it. Almost every major business group has been calling for tax reform and a big, Simpson-Bowles-like deficit reduction package for years now. But Congress remains deadlocked.
I do not want to imply that I do not think money is an issue in American politics; it is. But I think we need to look at the effect money has on our political system in less ideological way, and in a more scientific way.

Bonus: Ta-Nehisi Coates' own thoughts on Klein's work.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Rush Limbaugh Sinks to New Lows/Reaches New Heights

If Rick Santourm is calling you absurd, well, that's absurd.


TPM has a new headline that I just can't resist:

Romney Urged Obama To Embrace Individual Mandate In 2009.

Mitt has been trying parse his signature achievement by making a state/federal distinction. Apprently, his 2009 op-ed failed to do so.

These are the kind of problems you have when you're a presidential candidate, and you decide you don't really care, as long as people vote for you.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

I Don't Even...

I would like to submit Exhibit A in the case against the fallacy that the rich "just work harder" A sample:
Executive-search veterans who work with hedge funds and banks make about $500,000 in good years, said Arbeeny, managing principal at New York-based CMF Partners LLC, declining to discuss specifics about his own income. He said he no longer goes on annual ski trips to Whistler (WB), Tahoe or Aspen.

He reads other supermarket circulars to find good prices for his favorite cereal, Wheat Chex.

“Wow, did I waste a lot of money,” Arbeeny said.
Yes, "wow".

Bonus: Matt Taibbi tearing into David Brooks for his wealth worshiping foolishness.

h/t Gin and Tacos

Monday, February 27, 2012

Citizens United and the Legitimate Question of Campaign Finance

Bill Maher is in the headlines for announcing that he will make a $1 million gift to the pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA Action. The Daily Beast's Llyod Grove has a piece on Maher, who expands on what motivated his decision:
No, I think it’s practical,” the comedian told me Friday afternoon when I accused him of being a political romantic. “The difference between a country governed by Obama and one governed by Rick Santorum is worth a million dollars to me. Not just because I think the country would be better, but because I think it would actually better protect the money I have left.” (emphasis mine - JMG)
One of my biggest frustrations with liberals is the habit of ignoring the complexity of issues out of hand, simply because conservatives hold an opposing view. Campaign finance and the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision is, in my opinion, an acute example of this.

The issue of money and speech is complex, and there are a number of valid viewpoints depending what conditions you value. Simply stating "corporations aren't people" is not an actual argument, and does not really approach the problem that I think Mr. Maher has raised here. Yes, he has a lot of income and yes, I am very concerned about the issue of moneyed interests dominating our political economy. But if Mr. Maher (or any individual) has the means, and feels it is worth the investment, I am not sure what principle one would call upon to deny a person from making whatever donation he or she would like to make to his or her preferred candidate.

Just to be clear; I am very concerned about the issue of certain (rich) people's speech being worth more than others, simply because they donate a lot of money. But that does not immediately imply that we should deny people the freedom to make the same choice that Mr. Maher has made.

You Don't Say?

I will be honest in that I do not particularly like Maureen Dowd's columns. To me, her writing jumps off the page as successive attempts to be clever rather than clear. That being said, her latest piece on the Republican primary and the party's exceptional need to placate its most radical constituentcies has a collection of excellent quotes. My favorite:
“Republicans being against sex is not good,” the G.O.P. strategist Alex Castellanos told me mournfully. “Sex is popular.”
Who knew?

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Just a little celebratory post, with a bit of an oldie but a goodie: Atul Gawande's excellent "Cowboys and Pit Crews." Thanks for reading!
Many doctors fear the future will end daring, creativity, and the joys of thinking that medicine has had. But nothing says teams cannot be daring or creative or that your work with others will not require hard thinking and wise judgment. Success under conditions of complexity still demands these qualities. (emphasis mine - JMG)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Inmates Run The Asylum

"That's why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image,"
I'm not sure how this is a criticism. Being a Columbia graduate, Harvard Law Review President and University of Chicago Constitutional Law professor would be pretty nice.

Friday, February 24, 2012

In Which I Feel Bad for Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney gave a speech today at Detroit's Ford Field, and the optics are woefully bad for the candidate. Liberal news outlets are picking this up as yet another example of Mr. Romney's glaring enthusiasm gap.

Now, Mr. Romney's alleged inability to fire up conservative voters has been well documented, but I think this dog ain't barking. According to the Detroit Free Press, the Romney campaign and the Detroit Economics Club jointly organized the event, and were quite cognizant on the optics issue. The only reason they did not use a smaller venue was that it sold out:
They scrapped three earlier plans: one to have Romney stand in the end zone, speaking up to guests seated in the stands; another to have him on the sidelines near midfield, speaking to guests seated in the stadium's middle sections, and an initial plan to hold the event at the Westin Book Cadillac, which quickly became oversold. (emphasis mine - JMG)
I mention this only because it is unfortunate how we're more focused on how Mitt Romney looks, rather than what he's saying.

h/t TPM

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Policy and Incentives

The United States' Federal Budget has many problems. They are compounded by Republican party's a priori allergy towards taxes, irrespective of context. On that note, Ezra Klein talks some sense about budget policy, and the radicalism of the current state of the Republican party's fiscal proposals:

You can’t look at that and say revenues have nothing to do with our current deficits.

Which isn’t to say it’s not difficult for elected Republicans to admit that taxes need to rise. The Club for Growth might primary you. Grover Norquist will come after you. But being responsible is difficult. No Democrat who says Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security can’t be cut can be considered fiscally responsible. And no Republican who pledges to oppose all tax increases, regardless of circumstances, can be considered fiscally responsible. There’s no curve here. There’s only math. And politicians who want to be applauded as “responsible” can’t be permitted to ignore it. (emphasis mine - JMG)
The kind of policy "flat-earthism" that Klein is talking about permeates the the Republican party so much right now because the party's constituents are demanding it. I think this is the real tragedy of the Republican party these days. Perhaps even a tragedy of our politics in general.

Ideally, elected representatives and they constituents they represent would work in concert. People have policy preferences and vote accordingly. In turn, paid representatives of the state have a responsibility to the people they represent, to be clear about the realities of the state's finances. To me the problem is coming from both ends; GOP voters want to hear strident re-confirmations of preconceived conclusions about spending and taxes. Republican officials are not responsibly trying to cultivate a discussion of what are budget problems are, and what possible solutions might be.

Intellectual curiosity is a tricky thing. But without it, I think, we are worse off as a nation.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Mitt Romney has recently (and correctly) implied that spending cuts harm economic growth:
"If you just cut, [said Romney] if all you're thinking about doing is cutting spending, as you cut spending you'll slow down the economy," he said in part of his response. "So you have to, at the same time, create pro-growth tax policies."
Which leads me to wonder why Mitt Ronmeny's economic plan is largely spending cuts:
[Romney] has pledged to cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP. He has pledged to cut taxes to about 17 percent of GDP. He has pledged to a floor on defense spending at 4 percent of GDP. And he has pledged to balance the budget.

So let’s add it all up: Romney has to cut federal spending down to 17 percent of GDP. Federal spending is currently at 24 percent of GDP, and the Congressional Budget Office predicts that it will be around 22 percent for the next decade. For comparison’s sake, Paul Ryan’s budget would keep spending above 20 percent of GDP for at least the next 20 years.

That’s a lot of numbers, so here’s the bottom line: Romney is proposing to cut more than twice as much from the budget as Ryan. And Ryan’s budget, as you’ll remember, was already quite austere.
I think it is fairly clear that the logic behind Mitt Romney's candidacy is tautological; Mitt Romney wants you to vote for him to be President because he wants to be President. I hope I've been unequivocal in that I find the current field of candidates for the Republican party's Presidential nomination to be a callow lot. My contempt of Mr. Romney, however, is accentuated by the fact that it is clear to me that he knows better.

Photo source

The Power of the State

Ta-Nehisi Coates contemplates the human toll of our Drug War:
When people talk about ending the War on Drugs, or decriminalizing marijuana, or reining in stop and frisk, they are not simply talking about the right of private citizens to get high, they are talking about the right of private citizens to not be subject to lethal violence at the hands of the state.
I would like to start this by stating that I am somewhat sympathetic to the plight the individual of police officer. They are charged with protecting the public and servicing their employers (the taxpayers) with a judicious enforcement of the law. Individual officers do not have the luxury of contemplating the justice or barbarism of their job requirements while in the pursuit of a suspect who may or may not be armed.

Society at large, however, must deliberate exactly such questions, usually in the legislative process of a law's creation. Which I why I am so exasperated how self-proclaimed advocates of "limited government" continue to advocate an unlimited expansion of the state's ability to intrude on a person's private narcotic choices through the most onerous and violent apparatus of the state - the police force.

The problem is, and will continue to be, that the politics of the War on Drugs remains a winner among the Republican party's disproportionately older, rural, married and Caucasian constituency. The calls for "smaller" government are not really premised in any deep philosophic distaste for government power. It is premised in a deep seated philosophic distaste for government power in areas where government is objected for whatever personal or rent-seeking reason; like environmental regulations or minimum wages. The proclamations of support for a "small government" ideology should not be read as actual calls for "less" government, but simply "less" of government that "we dislike".

Conservative constituencies support the War on Drugs, and continue to make such polices politically popular, because for whatever reason they're allergic to certain to use of certain narcotics. I would argue, but can't empirically substantiate right now, that this relates to how an individual's culture and partisanship mediates their political ideology; as opposed to some deep-seated deliberation on the appropriate level of state power.

I conclude this to be the heart of the matter. Our Drug War's socially and economically ruinous tactics of incarceration and interdiction persist (and will continue to) because there exists a strong conservative constituency for such polices. My major complaint is that there is nothing "conservative" about this.

To avoid misunderstanding: I think the logic behind empowering the state to interfere with the incidence of externalized costs and benefits is well understood, especially when the incidence of such costs are unjust, inefficient, or non-welfare maximizing. Also, the scale and seriousness of a individual's, or a society's, drug dependency is certainly a legitimate point of discussion.

But the immediate conclusion that the modern state's most awesome power - the monopoly of violence through the power of a taxpayer provided police force - is the first and most appropriate tool to "force citizens to be sober" from a predetermined set of narcotics has to be the least "conservative" thing I can imagine.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Market Outcomes Are Not Always Ideal Outcomes

Mike Konczal explains things in ways far more clear than I ever could:
Privatization replaces the democratic role of citizens finding solutions to collective problems and transforms it into consumers trucking and bargaining in a marketplace. Finding solutions in a public space emphasizes accountability, voice, transparency, rules and claims through reasoning that goes beyond the self. The market emphasizes cost-benefit thinking, profit-seeking strategies, bargaining and the satiation of individuals’ wants; good things in many circumstances, but not necessarily when it comes to the powers of the state. (emphasis mine - JMG)
This is really something I want to hammer home in the face of a long-standing misconception that markets always produce the best outcomes. Markets produce human welfare maximizing results when they are competitive. This is one of the major reasons markets persist as the economic system of rich and successful Western nations.

But the end goal is not to have more "market" relative to "government". Markets are not a goal into themselves. The goal is to maximize human welfare through just and equitable mechanisms; whether it be through the market or through the government shouldn't be a major concern. Moreover, there are a number of goods and services where a profit motive is more harmful than helpful, as this Mother Jones piece on Pontiac, Michigan's privatization ordeal can attest:
Gov. Rick Snyder put Louis Schimmel in charge of Pontiac last September, invoking Public Act 4, a recent law that lets the governor name appointees to take over financially troubled cities and enact drastic austerity measures. Under the law, passed last March, these emergency managers can nullify labor contracts, privatize public services, sell off city property, and even dismiss elected officials.

Schimmel got to work quickly, firing the city clerk, city attorney, and director of public works and outsourcing several city departments. City fire fighters were told that they would be fired if their department was not absorbed by Waterford Township's. Schimmel has proposed putting nearly every city property up for sale, including city hall, the police station, fire stations, water-pumping stations, the library, the golf course, and two cemeteries.

Williams and his six colleagues on city council have been stripped of their salary and official powers. "Nearly the whole city has been privatized," he laments.
The mind-set that places an emphasis on fiscal balance, or profit-maximization on public-service sector goods and services completely misunderstands the logic of the public service sector in the first place. The use of taxpayer funds to provide public goods is grounded in the understanding that there we all benefit when our (or our neighbor's) children are learning in schools, our streets are not overflowing with garbage and we're not continually being accosted by beggars who have no safety net recourse.

Moreover, not only does it make poor philosophic sense for the state to profit from the services it provides the public, or outsource its services to profit-maximizing actors; it is becoming clear that state budget surpluses, and perhaps even perfect fiscal balance, can be a drag on our economic growth.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Myth of Ownership

Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff of the New York Times have written a very good piece that was published a few days ago, and I just got a chance to sit down with it. While the article is quite long, I highly recommend you read it.

If you're strapped for time, I can tell you that the basic gist of Appelbaum and Gebeloff's work is a profile a series of self-identified fiscal conservatives (in the sense that they prioritize the budget deficit over other issues) who also draw benefits from the state in some way or another. I think it would be too facetious to characterize the whole thing as cognitive dissonance on the interviewees part; they are real people with real struggles, that, as Appelbaum and Gebeloff explain,
"describe themselves as self-sufficient members of the American middle class and as opponents of government largess are drawing more deeply on that government with each passing year." (emphasis mine - JMG)
Ta-Nehisi Coates has touched on the power of the myth of self-sufficiency (which he terms the "Cowboy"), and he has done a very good job of it. I would like to expand on it a bit, specifically the way the myth of self-sufficiency plays into a myth of ownership; that we are the sole owners of our life's outcomes, without regard to environmental influences like government.

The subjects of Appelbaum and Gebeloff's profile allude to an ideal of self-sufficiency, and they experience frustration, guilt, and resentment over their need for public benefits. Part of the problem with their thinking is the assumption that, absent direct in-kind transfers, they would then be "free" of onerous government interference.

The fact is that government "interferes" with our daily lives in some of the broadest and most minute ways. I would argue on the balance that is a good thing, too. When you buy ground beef, the FDA has (hopefully) made sure the meatpacking facility that made it meets basic health standards. When you buy gas for your car, a local weights and measures inspector has (hopefully) checked to make sure the pump hasn't been rigged to rip you off.

To be "free of government" one would need to be free of society, or more plainly, free of other people. Unless we truly live on an island or in a cave, the notion that all of our life's successes and failures are attributable to oneself and oneself alone is, well, mythical. An understanding of oneself as "independent" in the context of the market is a denial of the myriad connections that exist between market participants.

It's no accident, then, that calls for "limited government" are commonly framed in the conceptual rather than concrete ways. Government spending in abstract is politically unpopular because people enjoy mythological beliefs about their independence. In the same turn, government spending specifics are popular because they tend to cultivate a political constituency of real people, with real needs on a scale that calls for public action.

I'd like to close by relating this to some of my prior comments on the trap of making normative moral judgments based market outcomes. When people are unsuccessful the the market (i.e. not rich) there's a tendency to attribute personal failure. I think a lot of the respondents found in the NYT piece have internalized this. They judge themselves based on their lack of material wealth, and their inability to enjoy their neighbor's standard of living without public assistance.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Portugal's Decriminalization Success

Over at Forbes, E.D. Kain checks in on Portugal's now decade-old drug legalization experiment. The numbers are pretty impressive:
The number of addicts considered "problematic" -- those who repeatedly use "hard" drugs and intravenous users -- had fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the figure was estimated at around 100,000 people, [Joao] Goulao [President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction] said.
I think it is clear that the United States still has quite a ways to go in catching up to Portugal in understanding that drug addiction is a public health problem, not a law enforcement problem. As the AP article explains:
A law that became active on July 1, 2001 did not legalise drug use, but forced users caught with banned substances to appear in front of special addiction panels rather than in a criminal court.

The panels composed of psychologists, judges and social workers recommended action based on the specifics of each case.

Since then, government panels have recommended a response based largely on whether the individual is an occasional drug user or an addict.

Of the nearly 40,000 people currently being treated, "the vast majority of problematic users are today supported by a system that does not treat them as delinquents but as sick people," Goulao said.
A legal regime where some recreational drugs are culturally encouraged, and others are classified as serious felonies, strikes me as a really nonsensical arrangement. News like Protugal's continues the case against supporting our expensive, wasteful and socially ruinous regime of interdiction and incarceration.

Policy Incompetency is Generally Bad Politics

I understand the Bush years as a failure of competence. The executive himself was a fairly incompetent individual, which seemed to have a spillover effect onto the executive branch, and government regime, as a whole. Warning signs of the 9/11 attacks were missed, major pieces of spending legislation were push though without fiscally necessary pay-fors, the housing market bubble was allowed inflate unabated and the market was left to "solve" over-the-counter derivatives without oversight. In the last approval rating poll Gallup conducted, 34% of respondents approved of former Pres. Bush's job performance. The biggest drivers of our projected federal budget deficits continues to be Bush era policies and crises.

Today, Daniel Larison probes Mitt Romney's potential attack lines against now-surging Rick Santourm:
On role of government and fiscal issues, Romney could criticize Santorum for his votes for NCLB and Medicare Part D. Santorum is in many respects the embodiment of so-called big-government and “compassionate” conservatism, and this was especially true during his second term in the Senate. In other words, he represented everything that conservatives now think went wrong during the Bush years. Hammering Santorum on Bush-era fiscal irresponsibility hits Santorum where he is weakest with conservative Republicans, and it does so without forcing Romney to risk the backlash of any party faction.(emphasis mine - JMG)
Now, we can certainly sit around and debate how "conservative" or "unconservative" the George W. Bush presidency really was. Partisans on both sides do not need much time to find ways in which policy failures are not the "true" interpretation of their party's governing philosophy. But that's not the real issue here. As I see it, Pres. Bush's policy solutions failed to adequately address the problems they were approaching, or left budgetary time-bombs for later administrations to solve. Rick Santroum, who faithfully carried the administration's agenda while a Senator, could now pay the price for the general failure of the administration's policies.

This is why competency is so important when you're an elected leader, and especially the President. The specifics of No Child Left Behind or Medicare Part D are not as important as the perception of them, and more specifically the association they have with the (now politically toxic) Bush Presidency.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Morality and Markets

Suzy Khimm reports on a new study from the Journal of Psychological Science that studies the relationship between income inequality and personal beliefs of individual ability. In short:
In societies with more income equality, people may not only have more equal incomes, but they may also feel a pressure to seem more similar to others.
I have always been curious about the ways non-economic factors influence market activity, and maddened by the way neo-classical theory strives to eliminate such considerations from its models. Specifically, as exemplified in the above study, there is often a conflation between observations about an individual's market performance, and normative judgement about that individual. On that point, I wanted to draw your attention to something Larry Summers said in an Ezra Klein interview some time ago that just is not said enough:
[...] people see economic issues through moral frames and people think there’s an extent to which recessions are punishment for sins — mainly sins of excess — and you don’t expiate sins by binges. So there’s a kind of moral counterintuitiveness that has made it difficult for the public and for political figures to accept stimulus. (emphasis mine - JMG)
From a policy perspective, it is very frustrating that political opinions on fiscal and monetary stimulus is held up in conceptions of desert. There are very real concerns about the long-term inflationary risks of stimulative fiscal policy, without some type of monetary easing. But we are not having debates about this type of question. We are having Senators harp on about how the stimulus "failed" with critiques completely divorced from the actual theory of fiscal stimulus, and largely being accepted by people who are not particularly curious about the theory in the first place.

Economist can certainly do a better job of outlining how theory models and policy solutions are unrelated to normative values about society and individual choice. Critics need to do a better job of relating their objections to polices either in the broader theory itself, or its narrow malpractice in specific legislation.

Friday, February 3, 2012

It's All Politics

In the wake of this Planned Parenthood fiasco, I've been doing some reading on the Susan G. Komen foundation. I've found their aggressive marketing to be somewhat obnoxious, and their legal policing of their trademark to be abhorrent. They also spend quite a bit of their donor money on lobbyists. Lastly, this whole ordeal has restored a bit a faith in the progress our politics has made on the issue of women's health (although there's still quite a ways to go).

Just something that's been irking me with the Daily Kos reaction piece, and in passing opinions I've read, is the call to "rise above" politics and embrace the cause of advocacy for breast cancer survivors, patients, etc. For example, "Dr. Susan Love, MD, weighs in on the controversy":
Rather than putting politics into the breast cancer movement, lets rise above the political divisions and work together. Let’s redirect all the money that will be spent on investigating Planned Parenthood into funding studies looking to find the cause and prevent the disease once and for all. Let’s redirect our anger to making mammograms unnecessary because we know how to prevent the disease. (emphasis mine - JMG)
Now I think this is an excellent idea. I'd love it if we did not waste our time with frivolous investigations based more on political point scoring than actual concern for women's health. But I'm sure Rep. Stearns (R-Fl) believes his investigation is an important component of his job as a representative of his constituents. Moreover, the very act of deciding whether to fund Planned Parenthood investigations or breast cancer studies is a political one. The choice to divert taxpayer dollars to subsidize breast cancer research over testicular cancer research, or pancreatic cancer research, is a political one too. The choice to give cancer charities, and all charities tax-free status benefits is also a political choice.

I understand politics is awful is awful and that we hate it. But we have to understand that these types of questions are by definition of a political nature. We can't just avoid that, or "rise above" it; it's all politics. Until we embrace that (and maybe even if we do), we are just going to keep repeating these patterns.

(Bonus: Barbra Ehrenreich's excellent Harper's Bazzar piece on the SGK Foundation, Welcome to Cancerland)


There are many things wrong with Rick Santorum's latest foray into healthcare economics analysis:
“People have no problem paying $900 for an iPad,” Santorum said, “but paying $900 for a drug they have a problem with — it keeps you alive. Why? Because you’ve been conditioned to think health care is something you can get without having to pay for it.”
Well, iPad's are luxury consumer electronics with a very high elasticity of demand and numerous substitute options, whereas "health care" as a whole is a product of which we are all consumers at some point in our lives, most notably at birth and death. To whit:
The mother said the boy was on the drug Abilify, used to treat schizophrenia, and that, on paper, its costs would exceed $1 million each year.
Because when your child has an incapacitating mental illness like schizophrenia (my condolences for the poor woman), your elasticity of demand for treatment is very very low. This allows companies to change very high prices, and enjoy healthy profit margins on their product. Part of this is used re-coup R&D costs, but it is not a particularly big secret that a large part of the healthcare industry's business model is based on their consumers inability to alter their demand based on price.

Apple's business model is also profitable, but for very different reasons. Mostly, they've created brand that breeds consumer loyalty, which in turn has a similar inelasticity-of-demand effect. Also, the company has aggressively worked at maintainting a self-contained development and manufacturing/retail ecosystems, which prevents competitors from cutting into their margins with low-price/high-volume gambits.

I would like to also state that market specifics aside, the fact that Mr. Santorum seems more concerned with the balance sheets of Bristol-Myers Squibb rather than a mother and her sick child, is uniquely abhorrent coming from a man with a sick child of his own.

The Cost of War

Economists like myself are often in the business of talking about the cost of things. Sometimes this is straight forward, but the more we try to accurately describe our ledger's balance, the more we are confronted with quandaries. This is what is on my mind while reading the New York Times' latest report on the experiences of returning veterans.
Every severe injury is disfiguring in its own way, but there is something uniquely devastating about having one’s face burned beyond recognition. Many burn victims do not just gain lifelong scars, they also lose noses and ears, fingers and hands.
Calculating the cost of wars in enormous. Brown Universtiy's Watson Institute has been attempting to give a final price tag for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The researchers on the project are doing some heroic work, to the extent that cost calculating can be heroic. However, I'm unsure how one can put a dollar value on this:
“The burns on a soldier’s face are huge: It’s your military uniform and you can’t take it off,” [Specialist Joey Paulk] said. “The surgery changed so much on my face that it completely changed my whole outlook on life.”
With this in mind, I'd like to bring the reader back to 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq War. I was, and continue to be, extremely angry at the glib disregard the war's advocates seemed to have not only the human cost of war itself, but the fact that there would be thousands of Americans and Iraqis, soldiers and civilians, who would end up wearing a uniform of permanent physical and emotional disfigurement.

And for what? A poll bounce and a flight suit photo op?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Hold Tight

One of the beauties of the digital age is how much more decentralized political organizing, and more importantly fundraising, has become. With that in mind, I am elated with the news that Planned Parenthood has raised almost all the funds it lost from the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

As Colin Meloy once sang, "hold tight, it's just beginning"

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cynical yet?

Mitch McConnell is testing out some new spin today, claiming that:

[President Obama] owned the Congress for the first two years. They did everything he wanted. Everything. The only thing they forgot to do — I don’t know why they overlooked this — they forgot to raise taxes.
This is rich coming from McConnell, who was the probably the largest singular force in the Republican party's legislative obstructionism.

The point I wanted to make here is the same one I made awhile back; the actual facts of an issue are rarely important, since partisans on both sides have a tenancy to simply filter out evidence that either doesn't confirm, or outright refutes their preconceived assumptions.

Partisan filters aside, I think the facts on the issue are quite clear.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Politics of Grievance

A week ago, I rhetorically asked about what the point of supporting the Newt Gingrich candidacy was. Well, ask and ye shall receive, as Talking Points Memo has just published a piece profiling the "Gingrich Base".

I want to be honest in that I try to be reasonably equanimous on people's political partisanship. Different people believe different things for different reasons. I think a lot of conservative policy choices are wrongheaded, but I understand the extent that reasonable people can disagree. That being said, some truly abominable opinions have been coming out of the woodwork since the Tea Party began dominating mainstream political discourse. Gingrich's appeal, it seems, is his nakedly appeal to this kind of constituency. Specifically, Gingrich is "[...] more willing to name-check many of the anti-Obama arguments favored by the Tea Party that are too politically incorrect for the frontrunner to touch." For example
Gingrich frequently warns of creeping Sharia law, calls Obama a “food stamp president,” and credits the president’s decision-making to his “Kenyan anti-colonial” ideology. Even for a Republican candidate, Gingrich’s voters skew elderly, the wing of the party most susceptible this kind of language.
Examples of this include Tina Skipper, a retired school teacher from Jacksonville, FL who said that
“When Obama knelt with the Muslims of New York City, I knew we had something bad going on — he really scares me”
Not to be outdone, an accountant named Eileen Loney claimed that
The threat from Muslims — I think the others shy around it
If all TPM could find was voters attuned to the anti-Muslim dog-whistling that has been going off for the past decade, that would be one thing. But then there is an unnamed retired manufacturing entrepreneur in Cocoa, FL who complains that
Everybody’s becoming dependent. Are the blacks going to vote for Newt or Romney? The Hispanics? The unions? The teachers? The only way to win is to get someone articulate who can turn out conservatives while the others stay home. But if everyone ends up being subsidized voters, we’re dead.” (emphasis mine - JMG)
There's a certain point where I'm at a loss for words as to how people can hold these types of views, let alone be proud of them enough to articulate them to a reporter with their name attached. Specifically, the contention that traditionally Democratic-supporting constituencies are nothing more than "subsidized voters" is doubly galling in the sense that it a) denies the validity of claims the poor might have for social assistance with the actual challenges of poverty, but b) it casts those that receive assistance for said poverty as nothing more than naked rent seekers who vote Democratic.

I understand it is easy to have glib views about "the Blacks" or "the Unions." It's something else entirely, I think, to openly appeal to such a segment of America's voters. In some ways, the success of the politics of grievance in recent years is an indictment against the political opportunists that court such sentiments; in other ways, it's commentary on the state of our electorate.

The Biology of Partisanship

An interesting study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on different biological responses to political image stimuli. First, the study design:
To gauge participants' physiological responses, they were shown a series of images on a screen. Electrodes measured subtle skin conductance changes, which indicated an emotional response. The cognitive data, meanwhile, was gathered by outfitting participants with eyetracking equipment that captured even the most subtle of eye movements while combinations of unpleasant and pleasant photos appeared on the screen.
Next, the results:
Consistent with the idea that conservatives seem to respond more to negative stimuli while liberals respond more to positive stimuli, conservatives also exhibited a stronger physiological response to images of Democratic politicians – presumed to be a negative to them – than they did on pictures of well-known Republicans. Liberals, on the other hand, had a stronger physiological response to the Democrats – presumed to be a positive stimulus to them – than they did to images of the Republicans.
The researchers were careful to not make a value judgment on either political orientation. But they did note that their discovery provided an opportunity to recognize the relevance of deeper biological variables in politics and turn down political polarization.
As far as I can tell, this type of research is still fairly new. I'm interested to see how political scientists integrate findings like this to their understanding of partisanship as more studies on topic are published.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Patterns versus Outcomes

Matthew Yglesias was his usually astute self the other day, explaining how concepts of “meritocracy” as the only pattern of social mobility does not really carry its utopian implications in its final analysis. Specifically, Yglesias explains that
[...] the more important thing to keep in mind is that a meritocracy is not necessarily a very admirable place, unless it's also a human society in which people are enjoying a high quality of life (emphasis his)
Yglesias' reminder is important because, at the end, concerns for real welfare outcomes cannot be ameliorated by keeping with a patterned system of social organization, no matter how well or just that pattern may seem designed.

Now, awhile back Ron Paul claimed that
You can't save free markets by socialism I don't know where this idea ever came from. You save free markets by promoting free markets and sound money and balanced budgets.
This understanding that United States' social problems would be rectified if the only the invisible hand of the market was unleashed is, as student of markets, a frustrating oversimplification on a few levels; but more importantly it glibly ignores the long term issues of free market patterns.

Markets produce both winners and losers. This is ideal because we find markets to be the most just way to sort between people who are “worthy” of wealth and power and those who are not. What I mean by this, is that people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg produced highly profitable and demanded products that in many ways increase overall social welfare. They have been rewarded for their innovations with large salaries, public profiles and attention among public policy makers. Steve Jobs “deserves” all of the wealth he amassed because he oversaw the profitable production of productivity and welfare increasing consumer electronics.

As an aside, I want to be clear here that am not attempting to equate individual wealth with moral rectitude or human value; nor should the reader take the implication that any of the gentlemen and gentlewomen who profit substantially from their business ventures are pure Horatio Algers'. The profitability of Apple, Facebook, Google, GE, et. al., must be viewed in the context of the public goods that American society provides.

I simply wish to claim that, compared to other possible social ordering options, the one that directly links increasing social welfare in a decentralized way (through products consumers demand) with cash incentives (the profitability of efficiently offering the best product) is in my view the superior choice.

Now, the mechanism that drives these positive outcomes is market competition. As with any competition that produces winners, there are losers as well. The main issue that free-marketers like Ron Paul elide by, is that a system the produces loser who struggle to feed or house themselves, or care for their children's basic medical needs, is particularly savage. If the choice to alleviate such savagery is "socialism," then I should apply for a party card.

My basic point is that we have real concerns for welfare outcomes based in our most innate ability to have a capacity for humanity. The outcomes of markets help use realize the goal of increasing human welfare, but we need to recognize that there are very real aspects of market outcomes that does violence to that goal. To ignore that, is a cowardly attempt to take the good without acknowledging the bad.

This is not an indictment against the free market system; it is simply a plea for greater understanding of it. Furthermore, the argument that markets are an end unto themselves, is one that evidences a basic ignorance how markets work, let alone the logic of the market system itself.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Forbearance, Forgiveness, Immunity and Complexity cont.

While it's only tangentially related to the bank settlement deal I previously discussed, I think former White House economics adviser Jared Bernstein unpacks some interesting details on the complexity of the housing market mess that bear highlighting. Bernstein is mostly talking about the pros and cons of mortgage forbearance versus forgiveness, with a specific point that the Federal Housing Finance Agency conservator of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, who in turn are 80% owned by the Fed gov't) could quickly reduce the principal on millions of home loans they own or insure, without going through Congress." The FHFA can do this either through a forbearance plan with underwater homeowners (which would restructure the terms of their loans) or forgiveness (which would actually reduce the principle of the loan itself.

"The path ahead," Bernstein explains "toward forgiveness, not forbearance—should be clear." The reasons why is the main thrust of what he's writing about here. Even if you just skim it (I certainly glazed over a few paragraphs myself) you defiantly start to see the complexities of the housing market problem.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Deep Thought

If you made 1% of Mitt Romney's income, you'd still be in the top income tax bracket (if filing as an individual)

Forbearance, Forgiveness, Immunity and Complexity

I wanted to share a few housing policy related thoughts, and a few pieces that have been kicking around my head and the blogosphere. First, the AP and New York Times have published similar reports a few days apart indicating some movement toward a final bank settlement deal. The negotiations are between the Housing and Urban Development Department, State Attorney Generals and five major banks: Bank of America, JP Morgan, Chase Wells Fargo, and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC). According to both articles, the topline figures include $25 Billion from these banks for underwater homeowners, "with up to $17 billion of that used to reduce principal for homeowners facing foreclosure," according to the Times; which also reports that:

Another portion would be set aside for homeowners who have been the victim of improper foreclosure practices, with about 750,000 families receiving about $1,800 each. But bank officials said Monday that the total amount of principal reduction and reimbursement would depend on how many states eventually sign on.
A few reactions to the settlement leak, and these reports, have been making rounds (which I suspect is partly why these types of leaks occur in the first place). First there is George Zornick of The Nation. The meat of the piece is a handful quotes from representatives of progressive constituencies, like House Rep Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who laments that "When laws are broken there need to be full investigations. Wall Street should not get another bailout.” Zornick himself claims that the deal is "terrible" and the $25B figure "inadequate". Felix Salmon of Reuters has a more measured take, explaining that the $25 Billion figure is "reasonably large," but adds that "most of that is principal reductions which would make a lot of sense for the banks even if there were no settlement at all."

I think it's important to keep sight of the fact that the opinions on the settlement size vary with a person's political inclinations, as well as a person's understanding what's both good policy and legitimately feasible. (Although I would like to be clear that I am not going to personally comment on the the adequacy of $25B over $50B or $5B. I just don't have a good understanding of the scale.)

Another wrinkle here is the issue of the amount of legal jeopardy banks will be vulnerable to at the end of the deal. I think it is clear that banks would prefer total immunity from civil/criminal suits, and legislators like Rep. Brown would prefer the fullest amount of investigation legally feasible. But as Salmon points out:

"If you’re a bank in settlement talks and you want to do across-the-board principal reductions while removing yourself from legal jeopardy, of course you try to connect the former to the latter. After all, principal reductions plus immunity from prosecution looks much more attractive than principal reductions on their own. And the government can’t announce a big settlement figure if the banks have already reduced the principal on a lot of mortgages anyway." (emphasis mine - JMG)
Moreover, the negotiation of the immunity issue seems to extend beyond just banks and public representatives. According to the Times, there is a bit of internal politics within the State Attorney Generals who are (rightly) attempting to shape a final deal that most benefits their constituents. Specifically,
In a bid to win support from California officials, [Housing Secretary Shaun] Donovan proposed earmarking $8 billion in aid for beleaguered California homeowners, but that left other state attorneys general incensed, according to an official familiar with the negotiations.
The big takeaway I would like everyone to have from all of this, is that even seemingly clear-cut issues like prosecuting larger banks for the fraud associated with their mortgage/foreclosure practices, can be much more complex than they initally appear. Different stakeholders have different incentives and that the process of maximizing various interest group demands is rarely a black-and-white, let alone glamorous process.