Sunday, June 29, 2014

A remarkable outburst of civility

Louis Michael Seidman
Via the usual roundabout way (one click leading to another), I came across this 2013 item on the Library of Economics & Liberty website in which libertarian economist Russell Roberts interviews Constitutional scholar Louis Michael Seidman. Seidman had recently published a book, On Constitutional Disobedience, arguing, as Roberts puts it, "that we should ignore the Constitution in designing public policy, relying instead on the merits of policy regardless of their constitutionality." Roberts has little sympathy with this thesis, to put it mildly.

The two delve deeply into what it is that the Supreme Court is really doing when it declares a law constitutional or unconstitutional, and what would happen if the justices and the rest of us admitted how little the Constitution constrains interpretations, whether liberal or conservative; that is, how badly the "calling balls and strikes" model fits the facts. It's an intense back-and-forth between two well-informed debaters on a topic about which they deeply, fundamentally disagree. But there's this delightful aside (my bolding):
Roberts: I'm going to push back on that in a second, but before I do that, I want you to talk about Constitutional Disobedience generally, which you've written about; and you invoke it in your article, arguing that it has a long history. You mention Jefferson. Talk about some other examples that you might want to refer to.
Seidman: Before I do that, I hope you won't mind if I just say it is a real pleasure to have an intelligent conversation with somebody who is skeptical about my argument. Over the last several weeks, I've gotten something over 1000 abusive emails, many of them anti-semitic, some of them threatening violence. So this is a pleasure.
Roberts: Ditto. I get to do it every week, so I'm lucky.
(Note: Roberts and Seidman are referred to as "Russ" and "Guest" in the original.) 
Indeed, the discussion is thoughtful and respectful throughout, and (to me, at least) extremely interesting and productive as a result. At the end, both men say they learned something; I did, too.

If only more of our political discourse looked like this.

Addendum: It's a more of a traditional Q&A than the above, but Tyler Cowen's interview with Ralph Nader strikes me as another good example of two well-informed people actually talking substantively with each other, not just scoring points. The full, unedited version is here. (PDF)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Teatopia, my eye

Reihan Salam has a dream.

When I read Reihan Salam's "Teatopia" essay last week, I assumed the blogosphere would be drawn to it like wolves to a lame caribou, eager to rip it apart and spray its blood across the tundra. For some reason, though, with the exception of Salon, the wolves have stayed away. (Perhaps they're World Cup fans.) It's a shame, because the piece deserves merciless drubbing. It also raises the question: Has Salam ever met a real Tea Partier?

For starters, Salam asserts that the Tea Party's principal tenet - the thing that gets Tea Partiers out of bed in the morning, the hill they're prepared to die on - isn't the notion that we are Taxed Enough Already, even though that's what "Tea" stands for. Rather, it's something called "subsidiarity":
Deep divisions notwithstanding, there are a number of principles that unite the movement. The most important of them is a devotion to subsidiarity, which holds that power should rest as close to ordinary people as possible. In practice, this leads Tea Party conservatives to favor voluntary cooperation among free individuals over local government, local government over state government, and state government over the federal government. 
Is that so? Then why is this alleged devotion to a finely nuanced view of federalism indistinguishable from a rabid and indiscriminate hatred of government at all levels? Seriously, have you ever met a true believer who said, "Why, yes, that's a fine government program. It just needs to be handled at a more grass-roots level"?! One who was any happier paying his property taxes than his payroll taxes? These are people who seriously doubt whether education and roads should be core government services. Or for that matter, public safety: I heard a guy ask our mayor awhile back why he didn't privatize the police.

Salam goes on:
Teatopia would in some respects look much like our own America, only the contrasts would be heightened. California and New York, with their dense populations and liberal electorates, would have even bigger state governments that provide universal pre-K, a public option for health insurance, and generous funding for mass transit. They might even have their own immigration policies, which would be more welcoming toward immigrants than the policies the country as a whole would accept. 
Again, Salam asserts a level of moderation and reasonableness that is nowhere evident among the movement faithful. Once you're committed to the Tea Party view of government, it doesn't matter where that government is, or whether your fellow citizens endorse it and would like more of it. Tea Partiers in Texas and Arizona aren't about to go all laissez faire when it comes to the socialist cesspools of California and New York. A subsidized expansion of health insurance anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere.

According to Salam, schools and roads would be defunded only in Teatopia's "more conservative states." Nonsense: They'd be defunded anywhere the movement could manage it. To repeat: Nowhere outside Reihan Salam's head does the Tea Party's proclaim, "Let's strike the right balance locally." Always and everywhere, it's "Stop taking my damn money, you lazy bums."

Let's continue:
To get to Teatopia, we’d have to revisit the fact that almost all states are subject to balanced budget requirements, which are a big part of why state governments have lost ground to the federal government over the years, particularly during recessions.
We'd also have to revisit the Civil War, the outcome of which is a suspiciously sore point for many in the movement. 

And that bit about "revisiting" balanced budget requirements? That's Salam's euphemistic way of admitting that countercyclical fiscal policy, also known as deficit spending, can really come in handy in fighting recessions. You remember how supportive Tea Party types were of the stimulus, right? Having your own fiat currency helps, too. I thought Tea Partiers were mostly hard-money, goldbug types, but for Salam, those folks who chanted "End the Fed" actually meant, "Let Rhode Island set its own exchange rate."

On military policy, Salam enthusiastically endorses two Cato Institute scholars' proposal to have the government prefund veterans' benefits through outside contracts:
Military personnel would be given enough additional pay to purchase benefits at actuarially fair rates from private insurers. If war is looming, it is a safe bet that private insurers would jack up their rates to account for the fact that service members would face an elevated risk of death and dismemberment. Suddenly the federal government would have to pay for its war-waging ways even before the first shot is fired. 
And this program would work exactly as planned, according to the guy proclaiming his deep distrust of government. C'mon, Salam, we just fought two wars largely off the books, funded through supplemental appropriations; you really think Washington couldn't fudge a few insurance policies? 

The insurance industry would help with the fudging. In the real world, unless you're very careful, you don't get market prices when the private sector bids on a military contract; you get $400 toilet seats and $400 billion airplanes that catch on fire when they try to take off. The government didn't get fair rates when it ran its student loan program through private lenders; it got a bunch of unnecessary middlemen skimming themselves a generous cut of the take.

 It's also worth noting that Salam is making a very cynical and morally icky argument: He's basically saying voters will notice (and and get angry about) deficits and/or higher taxes faster than they'll notice (and get angry about) dead soldiers, aka the blood of their children and fellow citizens. 

Salam passes over in silence the Tea Party's cultural sensibilities, its white Christian chauvinism; indeed, he conspicuously cherry-picks his examples to appeal to liberals. ("See, with the Tea Party you'd have less war, and more pre-K, at least in certain limited jurisdictions. You guys like that stuff!") Overall, "Teatopia" is remarkably disingenuous. Or, in plain English, it's a bait-and-switch.

At the end, Salam makes some sense, when he says the Tea Party is a real political movement, not a passing fad. That it is, to be sure. Which makes this off-hand comment worth of notice: 
We’re talking about the Tea Party’s long-term vision, whether or not it’s particularly realistic.
Well, what if it isn't particularly realistic? What if at root the Tea Party is, say, a fundamentally reactionary crusade fueled by an aggressively revisionist reading of America's political heritage, transmuting legitimate anger at the cronyism of big business and big government into seething rage at anything more communitarian than a bill of sale? If so, then it's exceedingly important to the country's civic health that it be portrayed realistically, understood realistically, and therefore, that apologias like "Teatopia" be recognized for the humbug they are.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Every year, we waste Spain

The other day I posted a link to this Atlantic article on Facebook. I can't offer a pithier summary than the headline: "U.S. Healthcare: Most Expensive and Worst Performing." 

In my post, I said a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows we waste more than $1 trillion a year on health care spending. A blog isn't quite an envelope, I suppose, but here are the numbers:

U.S. GDP was $16.7 trillion in 2013, according to the CIA World Factbook (via Wikipedia). According to the article, 17.7 percent of that is spent on health care, far above the portion spent by other countries. Judging from the chart in the article, 9.7 percent would count as middle-of-the-pack, more or less. Well, 17.7 - 9.7 = 8.0, and 8 percent of $16.7 trillion is $1.336 trillion. QED. 

How much money is $1.336 trillion? A lot. If our wasted spending were an economy, it would be the 14th largest in the world, just behind Spain. (Wikipedia again.) Spain, in other words, manages to feed, clothe and house 47 million people, maintaining most of them in reasonable First World comfort, and manages to build all the roads, power plants, airports and so on that they need, not to mention hospitals, with what we spend on excess administration and paperwork, redundant and/or pointless procedures and drugs and services that cost way more than they should. 

Every year, in our health care industry, we waste Spain. 

You've got to admit, it's kind of an impressive achievement. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

My father vs. the stapler

"I broke my stapler," my father said the other day.

"That's too bad," I said.

"So I was taking it to get it repaired ..." 

"Why wouldn't you just buy a new one?" I said. "Staplers cost, like, five bucks."

"Oh, they do?" my father said.

"Give or take," I said. 

 "I didn't know that," he said. "But anyway ..." 

"So you took it to get it repaired," I said. "Where did you go?"

"Staples," he said. 

"Of course," I said. "How did it go?"

"I showed it to the young man at the counter. He took a look at it, and he tried this and that and the other thing. Lo and behold, in about 15 minutes he got it working. So I asked him how much, and he said no charge."

"That was nice of him," I said. 

"Well, I wanted to tip him. I took $10 out of my wallet, but he said, 'Sir, I can't accept that.' I said, 'Why not?' He said, 'We aren't allowed.' I said, 'Call your manager over here.'

"So the manager came over," he went on, "and I said to her, 'Ma'am, this young man has just won a bet with me. I bet him $10, and I believe when you lose a bet you should honor it. Is that OK with you?' The young man didn't know what to think."

"I bet he didn't."

"She said, 'I don't see any problem with him taking that $10.' So he did, and I got the stapler in a bag and drove home."

"Well, that's a story," I said. 

"And then I dropped the fucking thing getting out of the car," he said. 

"You're kidding me," I said.

"Busted it worse than before. I've just spent two hours trying to fix it."

"Two hours?!" 

"Two solid hours and no luck at all. I just threw it in the trash can. Tomorrow I'm going to Staples to buy a new one." 

"Jeez, Dad," I said.