Saturday, October 31, 2009

Elephantine Encephalitis?

One David Catron, whose articles in The American Spectator include, among others, "The AMA's Quisling Strategy" and "Obamacare Could Kill You," has a blog called Health Care BS: Cleaning the Augean Stables of the Heath Care Debate. A recent post introduced readers to the Prisoner's Dilemma, the much-loved game theory construct in which individuals following their own self-interest end up creating a situation in which everyone is worse off.

So what is Catron's policy application of the Prisoner's Dilemma? Greenhouse gas emissions? Overfishing? Highway congestion? Gun ownership? Support for the poor? Standing up at baseball games?

No, his application is to... the public option. Yes, his claim (based on an irony-free reading of Andrew Sullivan) is that the public option is politically insidious, because it encourages voters to follow their individual interests in cheaper health care at the expense of the general good.

The first problem for Republicans, of course, is that he is in effect conceding that individuals could get cheaper health care through the public option. And he's not too specific about what the collective downside is. Hospital closures? Socialism?

But the bigger problem is that Republicanism in the twenty-first century is fundamentally hostile to the idea that there could be a conflict between individual self-interest and the greater good. Telling Republicans about the Prisoner's Dilemma starts you down a slippery slope. Pretty soon you're conceding that there might be a role for government in a free-enterprise economy. That the market can't do it all. That sometimes we need government regulation and government spending.

If too many people read his blog, Catron may find that he has introduced a virus into the central nervous system of the Republican Party.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Great Day for Existentialists

According to the AP, when Obama signed the bill extending the definition of hate crimes to include violence based on sexual orientation, he said that now people will be protected from violence based on "what they look like, who they love, how they pray or why they are." Um...I think l know where you're going on the first three...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Public Option: Building A Better Trigger

OK, Democrats, put your money where your mouths are. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have both made the public option the main focus of the debate on health insurance, even though both sides know it would affect only a small minority of people. Republicans say it's another step on the road to serfdom (I'm paraphrasing); Democrats say that it's needed to assure competition.

Interestingly, a number of the states with the least competition have Congressmen who are adamantly opposed to a public option (i.e., Republicans). A 2002 study by the GAO  reports that the single largest insurer in North Dakota has a stunning 89% of the market. The figure is 87% for Alabama,  55% for Tennessee, and 52% for Alaska. Blue states are not immune, though; the largest insurer in Michigan has 63% of the market.

But if we need a public option to assure competition, the obvious alternative is to have a public option only in those markets that are not already competitive. I'll defer to the Industrial Organization specialists on exactly how that would be defined, but we might say, for example, that there would be a public plan in any market where one firm had a market share over 40%, or three firms over 75%.

Now, to the extent that either Republicans or Democrats in Congress see the public option primarily as a sort of camel's nose that will eventually lead to a single-payer system, this approach won't change any views. But in the battle for public opinion, it has advantages for both sides. Democrats can say, "You say you believe in market competition. How much competition is the market providing in Alabama?" Republicans can say, "You claim we need a public option to provide competition, but here's a list of states that already have plenty of competition." Of course, to make that credible, they would have to support a repeal of the antitrust exemption for health insurance.

A Republican Party that had ideas would have come up with a plan to create private-sector competition in the health insurance industry.  Alas, that's not the Republican Party we have. (See my posting of September 17.)  So they've left it to Democrats to be the advocates of competition. Perhaps the two Republican moderates left in Congress can salvage something by supporting a market trigger instead of a cost trigger.

A public option that does what it's supposed to do. Why should that be a novel idea?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Oh, great. Not only did the State Department's Inspector General find shoddy construction and incompetent oversight in the new $700 million U.S. Embassy in Iraq, but the Iraqi Ministry of Planning says that the same is true of hospitals and medical centers that we paid for. It's pretty embarrassing when we can't build a hospital as well as Saddam Hussein. At least so far no one's been electrocuted.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Those Other Deficits

In almost any discussion of the Federal budget deficit, there is bound to be someone who talks about the burden we are placing on our children. Annoyingly pious as these pronouncements are, they are basically right. What budget deficits do is impose costs on future taxpayers so that we can consume more now. Politicians like this because they can deliver benefits to constituents now without doing unpleasant things like raising taxes.

But conventional wisdom treats this as the only important way that we shift costs into the future. In  fact, though, there are many ways to consume more now at the expense of the future, and most of them attract less attention than the budget deficit. Among them:

  • The infrastructure deficit: The existing stock of physical capital deteriorates slowly, often imperceptibly. We can shift costs into the future by not spending money on maintaining, replacing, and updating infrastructure. This saves money now at the expense of greater costs in the future.
  • The education deficit: Education raises people's productivity, and indeed the economic dominance of the U.S. is attributed by some to education levels that until recently were higher than the rest of the world, brought about by free or low-cost public education. We can make ourselves better off, and future generations worse off, by underfunding education.
  • The environmental deficit: We can have lower costs now, and higher costs in the future, by not controlling environmental damage. This is particularly attractive politically when costs of damage, though perhaps large, will not appear for some time, as with global warming.
Of course, people more commonly refer to these shortfalls as underinvestments, rather than deficits. Obama has been a big fan of that language, and it's perfectly correct.  The problem with it  is that somehow, underinvestment doesn't sound as urgent as a deficit. Yet they are the same thing, in the sense that they are ways to have more now at the expense of the future. The lower salience of  underinvestment gives politicians a lot of room to bloviate about how we need to safeguard future generations by, say, cutting education spending. (Have I mentioned Susan Collins in this blog? Oh, yes, that was October 14.)

A more conventional approach would be the long-debated idea of a Federal capital budget to separate current spending from investment. Having worked in a local government that did not have a separate capital budget, I can tell you that when we had to make drastic budget cuts, the logical thing to do was to cut spending on infrastructure replacement; it was a lot of money and after all, another year wouldn't make much difference. The same thing happens with the Federal government.

Unfortunately, actually implementing a Federal capital budget is fraught with problems. Does all education spending count, or only part? How should we treat maintenance of infrastructure? How do we keep Congress from going, as it were, hog-wild on pork?

All these objections, of course, also apply to my "deficit" terminology. Perhaps the best we can do is choose a rhetorical strategy for showing the absurdity of claiming to help future generations by cutting the things that will make them better off. For that, "deficit" is much better than "investment."

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    None Dare Call It Egomania

    "Pioneers take the arrows. We are pioneers. It's a sad thing that our country, over 200 years old now, needs pioneers all over again, but we do."

    Rush Limbaugh, discussing opposition to his participation in a partnership to buy the St. Louis Rams

    "This is about the ongoing effort by the left in this country, wherever you find them, in the media, the Democrat Party, or wherever, to destroy conservatism, to prevent the mainstreaming of anyone who is prominent as a conservative. Therefore, this is about the future of the United States of America and what kind of country we're going to have."

    Rush Limbaugh, discussing being dropped from a partnership to buy the St. Louis Rams

    Source: AP

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Bring Back the Filibuster

    You remember "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," right? Actually, I couldn't tell you what it was about, but I do have a vivid memory of Jimmy Stewart, unshaven and half-dead from fatigue, talking and talking to prevent some bill from being enacted.

    Those were the days.

    I don't want to romanticize the filibuster, whose most notable use in the last half-century was by Southern Democrats to prevent passage of civil rights legislation. But just as George Washington Plunkitt talked about "honest graft," so we can say that there used to be such a thing as an honest filibuster. In an honest filibuster, people would actually stay on the Senate floor, making speeches. The Senate's business would grind to a halt.

    Today, it appears, we have the virtual filibuster. Rather than go to all the bother of stopping Senate business, senators count whether one side has enough votes to invoke cloture. If it doesn't, the measure is dead. What the Constitution said required 51 votes (or whatever number constituted a majority) now requires 60. And this in a body whose claims to representativeness are shaky to begin with.

    But why is the virtual filibuster worse than the honest filibuster? At least the Senate avoids paralysis.

    Here's why: Under the old system, there was some cost to filibustering. The entire country would see that you felt strongly enough about something to bring other business to a halt. And if the voters (at least in your state) didn't feel as strongly as you did, you would pay a price at the polls for being obstructionist. Now you can be as obstructionist as you want, and do it behind the scenes.

    It is unfortunate that Senate Democrats have acquiesced to the virtual filibuster. Yes, when it comes to the health  care bill, the Democrats probably do need 60 votes, because one can easily imagine Republicans being willing to undertake an honest filibuster against it. The same is not true for the economic stimulus package. For Republicans to have held that up, when Obama had only recently taken office and the economy was teetering on the brink, strikes me as politically impossible.

    Allowing the virtual filibuster meant that Democrats had to compromise with Maine Senator Susan Collins, who imposed one of the worst imaginable changes from an economic standpoint: reducing the total size of the package by cutting aid to the states. This almost instantly led to layoffs in state and local governments. Not a good time to be a young teacher. Not a good time to have lots more people out of work.

    The result of the rise of the virtual filibuster is a weakening of democratic accountability. I can see the argument that a majority in the Senate should not mean that you automatically get your way on every issue and can simply ignore the minority. But shouldn't it mean something? Don't voters need to know whom to blame?

    Friday, October 9, 2009

    Intolerance (Not the Movie)

    The more I think about it, the more I think I was onto something in my September 11 post (Mystery Solved). Perhaps this is something that all real political scientists learned in graduate school, but it seems to me that the fundamental cleavage in modern politics (say the last 200 years) is between a party that emphasizes tolerance/equality and one that emphasizes nationalism.

    That started me thinking about tolerance and equality, and about intolerance. There are really two kinds of intolerance, I realized, for which we don't have separate words.

    The first kind is when you find some group intolerable. As I understand it, the Baha'i in Iran are in this situation: they are considered apostates, and apostasy is punishable by death. Obviously, this was also the situation of Jews (Gypsies, gays) in Nazi Europe.

    The second kind of intolerance is benign by comparison: you tolerate the other group, but don't consider them to have equal rights. As I understand it, that is the situation of, say, Jews and Christians in Saudi Arabia.

    When I say (and I do) that the religious right in America is intolerant, I don't mean it in the first sense. I am not worried that if it came to power, it would be starting pogroms or putting people in concentration camps. It would merely be denying some people equality.

    The recent response from the right to charges of intolerance has often been, roughly, "I know you are, but what am I?" What about, for example, those Jews who want to keep people from putting creches on public property? Aren't they intolerant?

    Well, no. I'm not sure that even some of my Christian friends get this. To put a creche in front of City Hall is to practice the second kind of intolerance. It is to say, "We are the mainstream, but if you don't want to be part of that, we will tolerate you." As I said before, this is a lot better than the first kind of intolerance. But it's not equality. It announces that I'm an outsider in my own country.

    Court cases about religious symbols on public property tend to bog down in minutiae about what exactly the government is endorsing. I don't know whether it's a coherent legal strategy to argue these cases on equal-protection grounds rather than the usual First Amendment grounds. But make no mistake. The primary issue is not freedom of conscience. It's equality.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009


    The When Reality Gets Too Real Award goes to "Survivor: Samoa." Gee, America, I guess there's more to survival than not getting voted off the island.