Political issues

2011 04 03
L’Etat, C’est Moi


Posted by in: Canada, Canadian politics

With an election in Canada fast approaching, my cousin is doing his part and fighting Stephen Harper with the awesome power of disco.


Nada (0)

2010 11 03
Postmortem


Posted by in: U.S. politics

Isn’t the real story that 30% of Oklahoman voters are fine if judges rely on Sharia law in their decisions, or that 6% of Oklahoman voters want English to be the official language but don’t want to ban reliance on Sharia law in judicial decisions?

What, dear readers, are some of your postmortem thoughts on last night’s myriad midterm election results?


Howls of outrage (3)

2010 10 25
What goes around


Posted by in: Economics, U.S. politics

I had occasion recently to reread bits and pieces of the book that turned me into a lefty. There is really no good reason why this should have been the book, but it was on the right used bookstore shelf at the right time.

The book is Frances Fox Piven & Richard Cloward’s The New Class War: Reagan’s Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences. I did not really know the name then, but glancing now at the Acknowledgments I see the authors thank, in 1982, a one Paul Wellstone for his comments on a previous version of the manuscript.

In the opening pages of their book, Piven and Cloward address the claim that it was concerns over inflation in 1980 that induced voters to toss out Carter and replace him with Reagan. They cite a Walter Dean Burnham (who?) to explain why that explanation won’t fly:

In both relative and absolute terms, the defections from Carter “were concentrated among those for whom unemployment was the most important problem. Among those selecting inflation, Reagan won by 67 percent, up only two points from Ford’s 65 percent showing in 1976.” By contrast, “among those worried about unemployment, the decline in Carter’s support was fully nineteen percentage points, from 75 percent in 1976 to 56 percent in 1980.”

We are seeing a similar defection away from Democrats now, and for the same primary reason. There is no need to cite the evidence in favor of huge Democratic losses next week. But here is recent polling data showing that concern over the economy and, more specifically, jobs decisively dwarfs concern about the budget deficit and/or national debt. And yet talk of the deficit and “ballooning debt” is all I seem to hear from the MSM and from the GOP candidates here in Wisconsin. Absolutely no one–not even Russ Feingold–is making the point that if we had a smaller deficit, unemployment would be much, much higher.

Of course, the GOP today will be just as eager to address these concerns once they regain (partial) power as Reagan was once he took office. And there is still little reason to rule out a double-dip recession, which would mirror the early Reagan years. Perhaps the only ray of hope is that despite those early trials for Reagan, he was reelected in 1984. Then again, at least Reagan could in 1984 ask the electorate with a straight face if they were better off than they were in 1979.


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2010 09 17
Mark Pauly on (Intra)class warfare


The other day I noted a seemingly bizarre inconsistency in Mark Pauly’s 1995 analysis of why the Clinton health reforms failed politically. I didn’t say, and don’t believe, that Pauly’s endorsement of the inconsistent political explanations was designed to promote a given ideological viewpoint. True, he seemed eager to discount the extent to which monied interests influenced the debate over health care. But at least he was willing to draw attention to those interests in the first place. That said, the following passage from the same text seems much less benign:

I hasten to add that this is not my own personal preference; I would prefer more redistribution. But I realize that I am being out-voted by other middle-class people who do not want to play more taxes. Indeed, I strongly suspect that a major blow to bipartisan health reform was the success of the president’s budget plan, which sopped up (and then some) any surplus willingness of the upper middle class to pay more taxes. We could have had universal insurance coverage or a lower budget deficit, but not both.” (Mark Pauly, “The Fall and Rise of Health Care Reform: A Dialogue,” 1995, p. 12.)

Here Pauly is claiming that it was the “upper middle class” who felt the brunt of the 1993 Clinton tax increases. This made them less willing to pay for health reform. Is this explanation plausible?

No, it is not.

According to economist Robert Pollin, the 1993 Clinton tax increases “increased the levy on [family] incomes over $140,000 from 30 to 36 percent, with an addition 10 percent surcharge for incomes over $250,000″ (p. 26). And according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, these families had incomes in the top 5% of the national income distribution.

Here is a graphic from a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland that shows the increase in taxes for families at different income levels:


Given that the the median family income was 54,369 in 1990, and given that only families in the top 3-4% (those above $200,000) really saw an appreciable increase in taxes, it seems to me quite inaccurate to say that the “upper middle class” paid for these increases. One might therefore think that the (upper) middle class should have been willing to pay higher taxes in order to finance universal health insurance for their fellow class-mates. That’s one way to look at it. Another way is to note that ostensibly non-ideological analyses misrepresented the nature of the tax increases, and thereby led the middle class to think their taxes had gone up. The point of such analyses, of course, would be to kill the increases politically. And the main reason one would want to do that is so that the rich would not have to pay higher taxes.

So I am beginning to question the sincerely of such Pauly pronouncements as, “I hasten to add that…I would prefer more redistribution.” That said, I’m still learning a ton from reading and re-reading Pauly’s latest book.


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2010 09 15
Intro, Meet Conclusion (Another in the “right-of-center health care analysis” series)


I recently mentioned Mark Pauly’s recent book on reforming the individual insurance market, which I plan to write more on shortly. But tonight I’m reading an exchange between Pauly and Princeton health economist Uwe Reinhardt from 1995 or 1996, and I’m simply flabbergasted by two claims Pauly makes. One the one hand, we get this statement from the introduction:

It is..probably true in large part, that the health care reform proposed by the president [Clinton] failed because Harry and Louise were more effective at scaring the middle class than were Ira [Magaziner] and Hillary [Clinton].

Then there’s this from the conclusion:

It might be helpful to point out a logical contradiction: if the middle class are so concerned about the welfare of the nonpoor uninsured that they will not force them to pay for the insurance coverage, why are the middle class unwilling to pay for that insurance for them? It appears that a little altruism is a dangerous thing…If we cannot convince the decisive voters of the value of what we value, then I think we need to accept the verdict of democracy.

So let me get this straight. Health reform failed because of a year-long insurance industry-funded campaign to scare the middle class. And it failed because the middle class decided in its infinite and dispositive wisdom that there is no social obligation to aid those without insurance. Huh?

To be fair, there is also this from the introduction:

[It is] a little surprising that two economists are talking about what is essentially a political issue, but I suppose that is the way it has to be.

God I hope that’s not true.

More on Pauly’s more recent book and John Goodman’s way of thinking about health care anon.


Nada (0)

2010 08 19
Kevin Drum Explains Social Security Trust Fund


Posted by in: Economics, U.S. politics

An admirable explanation that hits on the distributional ins and outs I referred to earlier this week.


Nada (0)

2010 08 19
Howard Dean on Park51


Howard Dean says of the community center proposed at Park51:

I think another site would be a better idea.

(Actually, he said it would be a “better i-deer,” but being from New England, I find this endearing.)

In response to criticism from Glenn Greenwald, Dean writes (in part):

My argument is simple. This Center may be intended as a bridge or a healing gesture but it will not be perceived that way unless a dialogue with a real attempt to understand each other happens. That means the builders have to be willing to go beyond what is their right and be willing to talk about feelings whether the feelings are “justified” or not. No doubt the Republic will survive if this center is built on its current site or not. But I think this is a missed opportunity to try to have an open discussion about why this is a big deal because it is a big deal to a lot of Americans who are not just right wing politicians pushing the hate button again. I think those people need to be heard respectfully whether they are right or whether they are wrong.

What I’d like to ask Dean, proud defender of civil unions for homosexual couples, is this: couldn’t this same argument be made in favor of asking those pesky lesbians to refrain exercising their right to attend their high school prom?


Nada (0)

2010 08 17
Right Wing Health Reform Alternatives (I)


Posted by in: Economics, Health Care

I have moved on today to taking a look at John Goodman’s “Characteristics of an Ideal Health Care System.” Goodman has an informative and always pointed Health Policy Blog. He is President of the National Center for Policy Analysis, and the last page of his paper notes that the Wall Street Journal once called him “the father of Medical Savings Accounts.”

I expect I’ll be writing more about Goodman’s Ideal Plan, but one thing leaped out at me straightaway as somewhat curious. Like most proponents of Medical Savings Accounts, Goodman appears to want insurance to come in the form of low-premium/high-deductible plans.

Not being utterly callous, Goodman is willing to subsidize the purchase of insurance, to some extent (although he’s willing to offer subsidies of identical amounts to rich and poor alike). In order to determine the level these subsidies should be set at, Goodman argues that we already a socially set number: it is “the amount we expect to spend (from public and private sources) on free care for that person when he or she is uninsured.” Goodman then cites Texas, which he says spends an average of about $1,000 per year per uninsured person on free care. He then notes, “Interestingly, $4,000 is a sum adequate to purchase private health insurance for a family in most Texas cities.”

Although writing in 2001, Goodman’s $4,000 Texas insurance policy must have been a high-deductible policy. According to this Health Affairs article, average job-based family coverage was $588 per month in 2001, or $7,056 per year.  Surely a $4,000 policy, in the non-group market no less, would involve a significant deductible. If so, then the following is what I find curious:

A common misconception is that health insurance reform costs money. For example, if health insurance for 40 million people costs $1,000 a person, some conclude that the government would need to spend an additional $40 billion a year to get the job done. What this conclusion overlooks is that we are already spending $40 billion or more on free care for the uninsured, and if all 40 million uninsured suddenly became insured they would – in that act – free up the $40 billion from the social safety net.

If those $4,000 policies (in 2001) were high-deductible policies, then at least some, and perhaps many, trips to the ER by those with such policies will incur expenses that would not be reimbursed by their insurance. But if so, then the $40 billion that would go toward subsidies to insure the currently uninsured would not necessarily offset the entire $40 billion in free care that we provided to them now.

I really feel scummy pointing out that this health reform proposal with which I wholly disagree is not the free lunch Goodman presents it as. Ick.


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2010 08 17
Health Reform and Marginal Tax Rates


Posted by in: Economics, Health Care

I’ll hopefully have more thoughts on this soon. This post is just to get the two money quotes down.

In designing my upcoming course on ethical issues in health reform, I’ve been reading a lot of health economics, despite not knowing very much at all about the subject. And not knowing much at all leaves me helpless to evaluate disputes between health economists. A rule of thumb in these cases is to find out which experts are considered level-headed and always worth listening to by most of their peers. Again, how else could I proceed.

Two such experts in health economics are Victor Fuchs and Joseph Newhouse. Fuchs is well-known in many circles for his book, Who Shall Live? Newhouse is well-known for leading the RAND Health Insurance Experiment in the 1970s-80s. This week I have been reading article from Fuchs’ book entitled “Economics, Values, and Health Care Reform,” and a recent article by Newhouse on the recent health care reform law and the residual issues we are left with. Each is worth reading, but the latter is really, really informative, especially because Newhouse both praises the law for (what I see as) its virtues and expresses deep skepticism and concern over other elements. (If you want the paper, let me know in the comments.)

Here are two quotations from the aforementioned papers that I hope to return to in the coming weeks. First, Fuchs:

There are only two ways to achieve systematic universal coverage: a broad-based general tax with implicit subsidies for the poor and the sick, or a system of mandates with explicit subsides based on income. I prefer the former because the latter are extremely expensive to administer and seriously distort incentives; they result in the near-poor facing marginal tax rates that would be regarded as confiscatory if levied on the affluent.

And here’s Newhouse:

Although necessary to achieve compliance, the subsidies will have the negative effect of increasing marginal tax rates. Consider a family of four whose income is $55,250, or 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Their current marginal tax rate is 22.65 percent plus any state or local income taxes. Assuming that, as of 2014, the family buys the most generous health insurance plan covered by the subsidy, the premium will be limited to 8.05 percent of the family’s income. This feature of the law will effectively add 8.05 percentage points to the family’s marginal tax rate, since any additional dollar of income will reduce the subsidy by eight cents. Thus, the family’s marginal tax rate will rise by roughly a third. Economic research suggests that this would be likely to reduce the labor supply of those who are not the principal income support of the household.

Being a liberal and being largely ignorant in the way of health economics, I’m often too tempted to dismiss the sorts of concerns expressed here by Newhouse. Sometimes I have good evidence for this, as when I dismiss claims that raising the minimum wage will eliminate jobs. Sometimes I have to admit that I’m just not sure what to think about claims that it would be easier to ignore.


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2010 08 14
Krugman, Laniel, and Baker on those Gov’t Trust Funds


Posted by in: Economics, U.S. politics

Paul Krugman explains how we should think about all those claims that this or that trust fund is going broke. But one of my favorite explanations comes from Explananda’s friend Steve Laniel from an October 2009 post:

In any case, Medicare is “headed for insolvency” because it works off a fixed budget. Well, Part A (hospital insurance) does. Parts B (reimbursing doctors), C (Medicare Advantage), and D (the drug benefit) are funded out of general revenues, so they can only go insolvent when the U.S. government goes insolvent. Medicare Part A is forced to be responsible in a way that the rest of the U.S. government is not. Why does no one ever talk about the Department of Defense being “headed for insolvency”? If Landrieu is so concerned about the public fisc, why doesn’t she push for the DoD to be funded out of a dedicated payroll tax? Then every few years, we could go through a public rending-of-garments ritual over the DoD’s impending bankruptcy. I would enjoy this very much. At least then we’d have parity: conservative Republicans shedding crocodile tears over how Medicare will have to be cut to keep it afloat, and my party doing the same for the military.

Finally, a point from Dean Baker that I’ve not seen made before:

[W]orkers, and only workers, pay Social Security tax. It is a payroll tax that is capped at just $106,000, so the chairman of Goldman Sachs pays no more in Social Security tax than a senior teacher or firefighter who may also hit the wage cap. By contrast, most of the general budget is financed through personal and corporate income taxes, which disproportionately come from higher income taxpayers. So it matters hugely that the bonds held by the trust fund are repaid from general revenue, as opposed to coming from additional Social Security taxes.

I need to think more about the full distributional implications of this point. But I think the takeaway is that while a regressive payroll tax raised general funds for years under the guise of a medicare or social security “trust fund,” the accounting vehicle of the Trust Fund ensures that the inevitable “fix” when outlays outstrip revenues will not add insult to injury by also being regressive. Instead of increasing the regressive payroll tax, the revenues used to fix program deficits are those supplied by more progressive taxation on upper income individuals and corporations.


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2010 08 12
MLK on Drugs?


Posted by in: U.S. politics

So everyone knows about Robert Gibbs’ remarks quoted in The Hill:

“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.

The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

Today Think Progress has a post documenting many occasions on which Obama himself has insisted that the American people hold him accountable. But they forgot one:

It is also worth noting that in this clip Obama praises the grassroots “agitating” that ultimately “forced elected politicians to be accountable.” This marks an interesting contrast with his Nation magazine interview with David Sirota, in which Obama

gently but dismissively labeled Wellstone as merely a “gadfly,” in a tone laced with contempt for the senator who, for instance, almost single-handedly prevented passage of the bankruptcy bill for years over the objections of both parties.

I’ll admit that I have always wondered whether Obama took the tone and stance that Sirota ascribes to him.


Nada (0)

2010 08 10
Food and Inflation


Matt Yglesias recently had a post on the proposed cuts in the SNAP program (a.k.a. foodstamps program) intended to offset proposed increases in child nutrition programs (e.g. school lunch programs). Yglesias cites this Monica Potts post that gives some background:

It’s worth noting that the increases in the food-stamp program were designed in the stimulus bill to be phased out once food-price inflation caught up to the expanded benefits, but because inflation was lower than expected, the benefits were going to last longer than anyone originally expected. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which politicians wouldn’t view those bigger-than-expected increases as free money. And it’s a small comfort to know the pot was raided for good rather than for ill.

This got me thinking of Mollie Orshansky, the brains behind the U.S. official poverty measure. That measure took the cheapest of four “economy food plans” and multiplied it by three, since at the time, in 1963, food constituted roughly one-third of the average family budget. Longtime critics of this measure have pointed out that the cost of food has increased much more slowly than the price of nonfood staples in the average family’s budget. Since the amount allocated for nonfood items is determined by the amount “needed” for foodstuffs, the official poverty measure fails to take differential rates of price growth into account.

This historical lag in food prices doesn’t necessarily entail a similar expected lag after the passage of the stimulus bill; but it is somewhat ironic that the issue of slow food price inflation has come up again in the context of policies ostensibly designed to aid the poor and near-poor but which end up adding insult to injury. After all, perhaps one way to make amends for screwing over the poor with an inadequate measure of non-food related resource deprivation might be to allow them a bit more in the way of food-related resources.

For more on recent and salutary developments in how the U.S. measures poverty, see this Yglesias post from March.


Howls of outrage (2)

2010 02 12
Recently read: Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters


Louis Begley. Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was accused in 1894 of selling secrets to a German military attaché. A note had been discovered indicating that someone was selling secrets to the attaché. The note was real; just about everything else that became associated with the case was not. The only actual evidence brought against Dreyfus was the claim that the handwriting on the note was his own. It was not. Dreyfus’s first trial, resulting in a conviction, was a travesty involving significant judicial misconduct, in which antisemitism played a crucial role.

And then things got really bad. As evidence identifying the real culprit started to surface and Dreyfus’s few supporters rallied against an obviously bad decision, Dreyfus’s superiors dug themselves into a deeper and deeper hole. As the 1890s wore on, the Dreyfus Affair became bewilderingly complex, with forgeries, suicides, conspiracies, missteps on the part of Dreyfus’s supporters, and stunning reversals on both sides.

The conservative, militarist, antisemitic response to the scandal was essentially to point out that for Dreyfus’s supporters to be correct, a deep rot would have to have infected the military, a pillar of French society, and parts of the political establishment. Since this was unthinkable, so too was Dreyfus’s innocence. They were wrong, of course, and it is a mistake that continues to be instructive.

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters is a tightly written account of this affair, which so thoroughly rocked French society in the 1890s. I’ve just called the plot bewilderingly complex. Begley is to be commended for having written such a clear and engaging account of it. One highlight of the book is a brief but penetrating discussion of the Dreyfus Affair in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which should be accessible to people who haven’t slogged through it, but especially interesting for those who have.

I’m not sure Begley did as good a job explaining why the Dreyfus Affair matters. Begley finished his book just as Obama was elected. Begley, who is clearly no fan of the Bush administration, takes a few stabs at connecting the Affair to current events. The lack of due process and forms of incarceration found at Guantanamo are compared to the travesties of Dreyfus’ trial and exile on a remote island. A brief section on official reactions to whistle blowers connects a defender of Dreyfus’s to Joseph Wilson. This, I take it, constitutes the main part of Begley’s answer to the question raised by the title of his book.

This is weak stuff.* There are of course similarities between any two miscarriages of justice. But even if the similarities were more striking than they are, they wouldn’t tell us why the Dreyfus Affair matters today. You can be entirely ignorant of the Dreyfus Affair and still be offended by the scandal of Guantanamo Bay. All you need for that is a functioning conscience. If you’re not offended, you’ll hardly be convinced by a series of strained analogies with the Dreyfus Affair.

I’m not sure I’ve been able to get very deeply into the question of why any historical incident matters, but here are two fairly obvious (non-competing) answers as they bear on the Dreyfus Affair.

First, from history we (sometimes) find out why we are a certain way now. My understanding is that French society and politics is the way it is today in part because of the reverberations and aftershocks of the affair. Begley has nothing (that I can recall) to say about contemporary French politics or culture, focusing mainly on the United States. That’s fine, but I don’t believe the United States was shaped in significant ways by the Dreyfus Affair, and it’s an American audience that he seems mainly interested in addressing.

Second, studying history can broaden our sense of what’s possible. There are all kinds of contingent features of society and human nature that look fixed and permanent, and all kinds of things that seem certain at any moment that turn out to be thoroughly mistaken. I think the Dreyfus Affair matters, and not just in France, in this way. Many of those involved in persecuting Dreyfus, even after it was, or should have been, clear that he was innocent, acted in ways that were utterly irrational, stupid, and blindly defensive. It was unthinkable to many that such trusted figures of the establishment could behave this way. But it is an incontrovertible fact that they did. It was unthinkable in particular to people who thought a certain way: people with a streak of authoritarianism, who were reflexively inclined to give people in power the benefit of the doubt.

As I said above, this is instructive. It gives us a nice morality tale about the dangers of trusting officials in authority. It’s a story that ought to leave us a little more paranoid, a little less trusting of authority. But as instructive as it is in this sense, it would be a mistake to think that we can simply take the case and apply its lessons to contemporary political issues. As controversial as Guantanamo is, I don’t see how parallels between Guantanamo and some now unambiguous miscarriage of justice at the end of the 19th Century are going to be less controversial. The Dreyfus Affair, like most history, matters, but in a less direct and much more subtle way than that.

* Though Begley’s criticisms of certain French judicial procedures that worked against Dreyfus, such as an acceptance of hearsay, is certainly relevant to the issue of whether the American military tribunals contain stringent enough protections against abuse.


Howls of outrage (2)

2010 02 12
Great moments in Canadian politics


Posted by in: Canada, Canadian politics

A politician got tossed yesterday from the New Brunswick legislature after giving another politician the finger. This write up of the story doesn’t come close to conveying how hilarious the audio recording of the incident is. As a friend of mine remarked, they sound like a bunch of kindergarten kids.

Via Kegri.


Howls of outrage (3)

2009 12 27
Sixty one wins for Abdulmutallab


Posted by in: The "War on Terror"

That asshole who tried to blow up a plane with his exploding pants may have failed to actually blow up the plane, but he certainly succeeded in adding an incredible amount of inconvenience to the already absurd process of getting on a plane. Yoon and I flew from Toronto to NYC today. After clearing security, we were all required to go through a second, and much more intensive, layer of screening before boarding the plane. Every single passenger was thoroughly frisked. Every single pocket was gone through. No one could use the washroom or stand up on the flight or put a jacket or a sweater on his or her lap.

There were about sixty passengers on the plane. That’s sixty wins for Abdulmutallab that I personally witnessed, out of tens of thousands past, present and future. Actually, it’s sixty one, if you count the moron in front of us in line who started grumbling about “Goddamn Muslims.”


A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)