Friday, July 31. 2009
Dan Eggen: Industry is generous to influential bloc. Uh, what was it I was saying about the Blue Dog Democrats and health industry money?
Andrew Leonard: The worst healcare reform option: Doing nothing: Links to Ezra Klein on Bill Kristol, Jonathon Chait on Martin Feldstein, and a Bloomberg article by Matthew Benjamin and Brian Faler, which among other things cites an estimate that unreformed and unchecked health care expenses will hit 20% of GDP by 2018. (Again, think of the whole national economy being strangled and swallowed by a giant boa constrictor.) Conclusion:
Paul Krugman: Why markets can't cure healthcare. A brief primer starting with Kenneth Arrow's classic paper, "Uncertainty and the welfare economics of health care. This has been discussed many times before -- Robert Kuttner wrote a whole book on it, Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets. The bottom line is that there is no theoretical and no historical/empirical basis for thinking that the present problems of the US health care system can be remedied by any sort of free market approach. You'd have to be stupid and/or blindsided by money to think otherwise.
Krugman has had a lot of good health care blog entries lately, as well as several columns, especially this one:
Paul Krugman: Health care realities. Krugman has been a steady voice on this issue, and this column hits many of the basics: at least as regards insurance and the government, as good a place to start as any. Read it. If I started quoting, I'd quote it all.
Nate Silver: Yes, the GOP's still out of touch. Quotes GOP Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) on how "nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government's intrusion into medicine through Medicare." Then does some polling, showing: 60 percent of people participating in Medicare rate it 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale (84 percent 7 or better) vs. 36-40 percent approval of private insurance plans; that 77 percent would like to see Medicare expanded to people aged 55 and older; that 58 percent would support Medicare-for-all (i.e., single-payer). That you can't find similar percentages in Congress is solely attributable to the influence of money there.
Matt Yglesias: Health insurance industry's strategic bribery. Good chart here, showing how the health insurance industry has spread its money around. Sure, the rich have a general Republican bias, but every year most of the money went to the majority party in Congress. The majority party is, after all, the one able to make or break the legislation that all that money rides on. Second point is that the totals have been going up and up, expanding even faster than the industry's take of the GDP. No breakdown here between liberals and Blue Dogs.
David Barstow: An Abortion Battle, Fought to the Death. Long New York Times piece on Dr. George Tiller and his struggles to keep his women's clinic open. Well on its way to book length. Barstow likes to characterize Tiller as a battler, one who fought back as much as he got. That's not really true. Tiller never killed anyone. Tiller didn't go around harrassing other people and their businesses. Moreover, Tiller didn't just provide abortions. He was a doctor who cared for his patients, even when carring called for performing an abortion. For the rest of us, he stood up for rights that in theory we have but that in practice are under constant assault. We make a big deal when soldiers die for our rights in some far away country. Tiller died for us, defending us against a much more real threat.
Thursday, July 30. 2009
It occurs to me that the problem with the Blue Dog Democrats is, in principle at least, pretty simple. All politicians need voters to get elected, but they also need financial contributors, and in some circumstances the money is much more important. The Blue Dogs almost always run in districts that could more than conceivably be won not just by a Republican but by a really nasty one. That saves the Blue Dog from any real chance of a challenge from the left, no matter how lukewarm or wishy-washy the candidate is. That also means the Blue Dogs have a big Democratic loyalist vote locked in -- maybe less than 50% but close enough to build on. So base voters aren't much of an issue for Blue Dogs. What really matters to them is that the Republicans don't run real strong candidates against them, and what deters opposition candidates more than anything is a big war chest of money. One thing I think you'll find that Blue Dogs are real good at sniffing out is a lot of money. There are two basic political things about health care reform: one is that it's an issue that voters, especially in the Democratic base, really care a lot about; the other is that there is an incredible amount of money riding on the outcome (16% of GDP is one dollar out of every six in the whole economy). The Blue Dogs are taking positions that make no logical sense except for their determination to pay back their sponsors -- e.g., they worry about the costs of things they don't want, while rejecting taxes on the rich to pay for those costs, and promoting higher payments and profits to the industry. They don't worry about pissing off their voter base because they know that if they raise enough money they'll be unbeatable.
Equations like this are one of the dominant features of US politics. It's always safe to be a Republican because the rich take care to support their partisans. The Democrats have had a tougher time with this, especially where labor unions have lost their grip. One result is that Democrats habitually look for candidates who can support their own campaigns. Another is that most rank and file Democrats and lots of non-partisans would put campaign finance reform at the head of any list of things to do when and if we ever get the chance. You'd think that with Obama in the White House and big Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress now would be that time, but I've yet to see them make any effort made in that direction. The top dogs in the Democratic party are there because they're top money raisers, and they get that money because they're good for business. In some cases that's not such a bad thing, but in health care it's deadly. There are lots of problems in health care, but the big one is that the industry has a boa constrictor grip on the economy, slowly, steadily devouring it -- 10% of GDP, 12%, 14%, 16%, any crystal ball into the future only shows larger numbers until the whole thing keels over and dies. If ever we needed to contain the interests of a select few to do something that practically everybody desperately needs it is in health care today.
Thursday, July 23. 2009
Matt Yglesias: Poverty Will Always Be With Us Until We Do Something About It: Check out the chart, "Poverty Rate, 1959-2007": not only the big drop from 1959-69 coinciding with Michael Harrington's The Other America and a spate of Democratic programs trying to do something about poverty, but the roller coaster afterwards.
Aside from Nixon, who's a somewhat anomalous Republican in this regard, note poverty rises with the coming of the Ford, Reagan, Bush, and Bush administrations, and drops with Carter and Clinton. There is a secondary effect having to do with overall performance, which is why the latter half of Reagan's reign sees a slight drop. It's also likely that Bush II's bump has more to do with the economy than with administration policy. The chart is baselined at 11% because no one has gone lower. The drop from 11% to 0% would be more difficult than going from 22% to 11%, but the assumption that it's not doable says more about the mental blinders conservatives work under than anything else.
I imagine there's a similar chart somewhere for the 1930s, a time when government -- at least after FDR took over -- was exceptionally proactive at fighting poverty. The conservative predeliction for inaction leads to all sorts of rationalizations, but the only proof they have to offer is their conviction, which looks pretty pathetic compared to what people who care and try manage to accomplish.
Andrew Leonard: How to Upgrade Human Values. Comments on a paper by John E. Roemer, Changing Social Ethos Is the Key. I was especially struck by this, which is a line of thought I've been moving toward:
Conservatives will blow a gasket at this notion, but people change all the time. On the other hand, greed (for instance) causes so many problems it's easy to see how casting it into disfavor (as had long been done) is a simpler solution than trying to rejigger the incentives to make greed less destructive.
Of course, with conservatives it all depends on who's getting helped. It's hard to find conservatives who objected to deficits used to fund tax cuts, imperial wars, and plain old patronage when Bush was in the White House. They may be convinced that government can't help the poor, but they work themselves into a frenzy every time the rich need government action to boost their bottom line.
Andrew Leonard: Joe Stiglitz's Last Minute White House Party Invite. A different set of issues, but wanted to keep this link. Leonard quotes Michael Hirsh reporting on Stiglitz:
Friday, July 17. 2009
Haven't felt up to blogging since I got back from my "vacation" -- wouldn't have had much time anyway. One thing I have been doing is reading about the Great Depression and Roosevelt's 100 Days -- Adam Cohen's Nothing to Fear on the latter, following Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time -- and thinking a bit on what's similar and what isn't. Started to write a note on Paul Krugman's Boiling the Frog column and his somewhat wonkier blog post on how Deficits Saved the World. One thing the latter shows is that the speculative bubble that caused our recession was as large and its collapse was as powerful as the one that caused the Great Depression. That we don't seem to be as bad off this time is because absorbed much of the shock, partly because the Reagan-Bush Republicans never managed to destroy all of the New Deal-Great Society safety net -- e.g., they never even contemplated getting rid of deposit insurance -- but also because the sheer size of the public sector dampened the disaster. As Krugman put it:
One downside of all this is that we're not as desperate for reform as we were in 1933 when Roosevelt became president. Exactly why is rather complicated -- Krugman's sense of our insensitivity to slowly mounting catastrophes is one part of the reason -- but one difference is that the reform president's hecklers this time are not just moaning. They're circling for the kill. Josh Marshall, at TPM, reports:
That may be true, but it seems perverse to entertain that thought, much less gloat over it. Health care is one of those frog boilers: in 1992 it was already scandalous that it consumed 14% of US GDP, but since then it has continued to gobble up the economy, now up to 16% of GDP. (What was it when Truman's first attempt was thwarted? 5-6%, I guess.) Absent significant reform, it only stands to keep growing, devouring more and more of the economy. At what level this becomes intolerable is hard to say. Evidently, the opponents of reform don't think the feel the water's heat yet, or are so preoccupied with the politics they don't care about the issues. Those who stand to profit from the status quo are one thing. For DeMint all that matters is making Obama look bad. The irony here is that the reason Obama would look so bad if he fails is precisely because the issue is so crucial. Reasonable people will blame opponents like DeMint if that happens, and give Obama another chance -- especially if he comes back with a stronger program (like single-payer) and takes it to the people.
Saturday, June 27. 2009
Matthew Yglesias: The Next Tax Revolt: Had this stuck in a window for a week now, and didn't want to lose it, even though I don't have time to dig into it. Interesting point:
One thing that seems to be a general rule of US tax policy is to make taxation as visible, and therefore as painful, as possible. This actually runs counter to one of the basic (and oft-repeated) considerations in taxation: the belief that taxes disincentivize behavior. This is even considered a selling point for sin taxes. But if taxes are such a drag on the economy, it would make much more sense to make them less visible, as well as to focus them on cases where disincentives are trivial or non-existent -- e.g., taxing dead people. For the living, the least painful time to tax is whenever a transaction occurs: when you buy and sell something, or when you pay someone a wage or other remuneration. With few (if any) exceptions, the robust tax base countries Yglesias favors raise most of their taxes through a VAT, which (unlike American sales taxes) is generally buried within the cost of the purchase. VATs raise prices, which has some negative effect on demand, but they don't hit you out of the blue like property taxes do. It also helps if the burden of tax collection is placed primarily on business, which used to be the case in the US but is less so now: it is both less visible to most people and it fits in with accounting procedures that businesses need to do anyway.
I can't vouch for Yglesias's assertion that the US tax code is relatively progressive compared to other countries. One thing that is certain is that it is much less progressive than it used to be. There are a lot of ways that progressivism could be used that aren't now. In particular, I would make both corporate income and VAT taxes mildly progressive based on company size: a break for small and especially new competitors and a brake against WalMart-sized monopolies. I also think that unearned income -- interest, dividends, capital gains, gifts, estates -- should be taxed progressively according to total lifetime gains: a break for anyone starting to build a nest egg, and a brake on excessive accumulation.
Of course, there's no point raising taxes unless you plan on spending the revenues on something useful. I can come up with a long list there, too -- subjects for many future posts.
Getting ready to take a vacation of sorts. A long road trip, anyhow. Some interesting articles that I had kept open with some vague notion of writing something about them, but now will have to pack up:
By the way, Iraq is getting bloody again, with over 200 civilian deaths this past week. I've just slogged through Thomas Ricks's Surge-celebratory The Gamble, and it's worth noting that the intelligent people behind the strategem -- a group excluding politicians like McCain and Lieberman, pundits like Kristol, and self-appointed experts like Fred Kagan -- never saw as anything more than a beachhead that would depend on significant political reconciliation to secure. The latter didn't happen for a lot of reasons, and now it's closing. Of course some people, including Ricks in his prognosticating epilogue, will attribute this to the imminent US withdrawals, implying that we can fix the problem by launching Surge II. But the fact is that there will always be a day of reckoning when US forces leave, and putting that off tries the patience of everyone in Iraq who wants to get this war settled. The idea that Iraq is a "forever war" is stuck in the heads of a few American hawks who invested heavily in it, but it's plainly absurd to most Americans, who sooner or later will manage to pull the plug. When that happens, Iraq will sink or swim. I've always felt that Iraq's odds would be better if the country is not tied to the dead weight of American imperialism. Nothing that has happened, including the adjustments Petraeus and Odierno made, has changed that.
Wednesday, June 17. 2009
Matthew Yglesias: Sens. Kyl, McConnell, and Roberts Want to Preserve the Waste in Public Sector Health Care. Their method for doing this is to sponsor a bill to prohibit Medicare and Medicaid from using research on what works and doesn't work as a means of spending their tax dollars more efficiently. The big point is not only that government spending is wasteful but that the Republicans are determined to keep it that way. Otherwise they'd just have to make up shit to sandbag any efforts to provide better and more democratic health care. (Of course, they do that too.) This is reminiscent of the plank in Big Pharma's Medicare drug bill that prohibits the government from using volume purchases to reduce costs -- something which every private sector insurance company does.
Paul Krugman noticed this story too. He called his post Taking the Hypocritical Oath. He refers to a longer piece on this from The Wonk Room, which among other things points out that Kyl has raised $1,971,968 from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to sponsor his Senate career. They evidently haven't toted up the numbers for McConnell and Roberts yet, but they're likely substantial. In any case, they have been bought so many times before -- Roberts is pretty much Mr. Agribusiness on the Hill -- that they wouldn't have any qualms about getting in this line.
Tuesday, June 16. 2009
Matthew Yglesias: Coming to Terms With the Welfare State: The argument here is that Republican conservatives should admit what the UK Conservative Party freely concedes: that they support at least some parts of the modern welfare state and won't do anything to dismantle them. Yglesias mentions FDIC as one example, which is about as non-controversial as he can get. Doing that much would take the Grover Norquist shrink-and-drown-the-government principle off the table.
Yglesias cites a book review by David Frum, who established his conservative bona fides in his "axis of evil" speech where he tried to will World War III into being, but he's been back-pedalling since then, trying to find some terra firma to launch his fantasies from. Problem is, most conservatives are happier living in an imaginary world where simple principles rule and inconvenient facts can be ignored. Conservative politicians may privately concede that there are government programs -- even welfare programs -- that they can't kill outright, but the party ideological apparatus isn't constrained by such practicalities. Moreover, the politicians don't insist that they do. Even when they recognize that a pet cause is politically hopeless, they're happy to to disguise it as something else, like casting accelerated logging as the Healthy Forests initiative. They may understand that politically they can't kill Social Security, yet they still try to palm off destructive programs by claiming that they are needed to "save" Social Security.
Sticking to their hardcore anti-government principles makes even more sense when they're out of power. When Bush was in the White House, Republicans had to be schizophrenic over government power and spending, even to the point of supporting deficits to pay for political plunder. Now they're free to be as anti-deficit as possible, at least without breaking their no-tax-increase pledges. But attitude runs deeper than that. Virtually every success the Republicans have enjoyed going back at least as far as Nixon was based on fear and loathing, which they refined to the point where it consumed them. Their ability to focus all that rage on the Democrats is what built them the base they have, and it's all the base they're going to have for a long time now. So why should they be reasonable and make Obama look good? Their only hope is to get Obama to fail, then to get a majority of Americans to blame Obama for that failure. They've pulled tougher con jobs in the past, so why not this one? It's not like they have any other options, or any other ideas. In appealing to the dumbest and meanest America has to offer, that's what they've settled into.
Matthew Yglesias: Blaming the Victim for Health Reform Difficulties: For example, what are the Republicans doing with health care reform?
Another example, from another Yglesias post:
Actually, McCain's assertion can be disproved by what the US has already done in the areas where the government actually runs health care: compare Medicare vs. private insurance, or the VA vs. private for-profit providers.
Of course, McCain doesn't have to do that, because he's sticking to the anti-government, anti-Obama, anti-everything script. It's a bluff, but who's calling him on it? It's the sort of bluff that Bush ran for eight increasingly disastrous years. Even after the results came in and his popularity went down the toilet, who called him on it? That is why the Republicans think they can get away with what they're doing.
The single most important thing that Obama has to do as president is to push significant health care reform through. It's much more important than saving the banks from mass hara-kiri by fraud, saving the planet from global warming, or dialing back the ridiculous global American empire. It's more immediately necessary than turning back the tide of jingoistic stupidity that dominates the political media these days -- although doing something on health care will start to do double duty there. I recall -- not sure when but early 1990s are a good guess -- when it was scandalous that health care chewed up 12% of US GDP. That figure is up to 17% now. It's a cancer whereby a few greedy private interests are devouring the economy, filling our lives with uncertainty and fear. That this is an issue in doubt testifies to the overwhelming power of money in politics: that 17% is a huge vested interest (double the size of the military-industrial complex, roughly the size of the banks, just to give you two points for political influence comparison).
One thing I expected the Democrats to move more proactively on is to start taking the big money out of politics. They may figure that as the top dogs now this is no time to get out of the game, but the game itself is what corrupts American politics so utterly.
Tuesday, June 9. 2009
Roxana Hegeman: Slain Kansas abortion provider's clinic to close; Dion Lefler: Access to abortion now farther away. It looks like the assassin who struck down Dr. George Tiller has managed to deprive Wichita, KS of its last abortion provider, as well as eliminating one of the nation's very few providers of late-term abortions. Women in Wichita (metro area population almost 600,000; 84th largest MSA in the US) will now have to drive three hours to the Kansas City area. Other Kansans who formerly had to drive hours to Wichita will have to drive even further. In 1992, Kansas had 15 abortion providers -- Wichita had four. The extended campaign of harrassment, both by ad hoc groups like Operation Rescue and lately by the state government, especially under former attorney general Phill Kline, along with a number of acts of criminal violence culminating in the shooting of Tiller, have finally taken their toll.
It will be interesting to see whether any of our political leaders will stand up this time and declare that we won't let terrorists strip us of our rights or undermine our way of life. That's really what this amounts to, but they've taken it so placidly for so long it's unlikely that anyone in power is going to develop a new spine. It seems to me that this is one case where the military could actually strike a blow against terrorism: imagine what would happen if the government were to offer free or low-cost abortion services through its network of VA hospitals, at least in areas where no private providers exist. Wichita has a VA facility, on a lot so large that it would be impossible for anti-choice mobs to form anything like the gauntlets they were able to set up at Tiller's clinic. More importantly, this would send a message that abortion is a legal right, the law of the land, backed by the full power of the military government. That might give the terrorists some pause.
PS: Of course, I realize that the VA is not part of the military, meaning the Dept. of Defense. If it were, it wouldn't be able to run the most efficient health care system in the country. It would, rather, have been subcontracted to Halliburton and run straight into the ground.
A featured comment from Paul Krugman's blog:
That is precisely the key to what is wrong with health care in the US. Moreover, it is why the system, if not radically reformed, will only get worse -- indeed, why it will get much worse. We have yet to reach the point where most doctors, nurses, therapists, etc., who actually deal with patients have been fully trained to put their "fiduciary responsibility" above normative standards of care, but that is an inefficiency that management is working on. We've seen the same ethos applied everywhere in business, a subtle but profound shift from companies providing useful goods and services and thereby profiting from their success to companies that only see their goods and services as instruments for returns on investment. In industry after industry, this has resulted in a hollowing out of value -- the catchphrase "lean and mean" hints ominously at the result, a purely predatory capitalism. This works everywhere, but prospects are particularly lucrative in health care, where the bottom line is, after all, your money or your life.
The solution is straightforward, in concept anyway: at every stage in the system, we need to replace profit-maximizing incentives with incentives that are tied to professional standards of quality care. In some cases this is obvious: a government-run non-profit single payer insurance system could easily replace the patchwork of private insurance rackets, saving costs and providing universal coverage with higher quality standards. As the VA shows, state-run nonprofit health care providers also work out better. (For that matter, the few private non-profit providers left have much better cost-benefit records than the profit-maximizing providers.) The technology sector, including pharmaceuticals, could be reformed by limiting or dropping patent laws -- which currently promise monopoly profits, the profit-maximizer's all-time wet dream -- and publicly subsidizing research and development. (Manufacturing of the products could still be done by private firms under non-exclusive licenses, where competition will limit profits and incentivize efficiencies.)
This should be a no-brainer, but the non-brains are pretty well ensconced. Any change produces disruptions, and potential losers are always first in line to complain. Our political system favors organized interests over public interests, which tend to be diffuse and poorly represented. For example, the Wichita Eagle ran this item on our senior Senator today:
Only a few pesky details wrong here. Actually, it has worked elsewhere -- like, everywhere it's been tried. And the fact that private insurers can't compete with a public non-profit system pretty much proves that the private insurers don't have anything to offer customers -- indeed, that they're only out to rip them off, which becomes impossible once people have a choice. Roberts never has been much of an intellect, but the thing that I have to wonder most about is why he doesn't see that there's a problem that people "can't get private insurance at an affordable cost." Not that he's ever cared about anyone who wasn't rich. But is he really smart enough to grasp that the fear of losing insurance is one of the most powerful levers the private insurance industry has in pursuing its "fiduciary responsibility"?
Wednesday, June 3. 2009
Some more links relating to Dr. George Tiller's assassination. Most reiterate themes also in my long post yesterday, missing two key points I made: the first is that the fact that there even is a divide over abortion shows how illogical and immature our politics really is; the second is that this heinous act of violence is only thinkable because we live in a society where violence is sanctioned both by popular culture and by our most exalted politicians. (I do not exempt Obama from that statement, although he comes along after others set the example.)
Let me reiterate the first point more schematically: politics is about conflicting interests; where there are no conflicting interests, there should be no political differences. The right to decide when and whether to have children is a private right, which is to say that it's no one else's business. The option of abortion is necessary to realize this right; take it away and you undermine the right. We live in a political system where (for the most part) we recognize that the only reason to limit a private right is when it conflicts with the rights of other individuals (theft and assault are classic examples) or when there is some public interest that circumscribes private rights (the integrity of the commercial system would be a good example here, although there are others, and some are contentious). The only public effect that abortions have is that they reduce the birth rate somewhat. We live in a world where public interests generally favor lower and more selective birth rates with major commitment by responsible parents to raise their children. In other words both public interest and private rights favor the right to abortion, so there should be no political debate.
The political division over abortion is outside and contrary to our basic political system. It is the case of one group of people demanding that the state take rights and freedom away from others. The arguments for doing so are not rational, backed by selective and demagogic reference to a religion that, too, the anti-abortionists wish to impose on others. Do you really want to indulge a thuggish mob who wants to do that?
Oleeb: Who Killed Dr. Tiller? Well, the hate speech exuded by the anti-abortion movement, for starters.
Michelle Goldberg: The Pro-Life Insurrection: Suggests that the Tiller murder isn't an isolated incident; rather, it is part of a growing trend of fringe activity in the anti-abortion movement.
Ann Friedman: Why Clinic Violence is Obama's Problem. One reason is that law enforcement to protect clinics has been lax lately. It's worth adding that the recent vandalism of Dr. Tiller's clinic wasn't referred to the FBI until after Tiller was killed.
Christina Page: The Murder of Dr. Tiller, a Foreshadowing: Contrasts the amount of "pro-life" violence under Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. E.g.: "In the last year of the Bush administration there were 396 harassing calls to abortion clinics. In just the first four months of the Obama administration that number has jumped to 1401." By the way, it's worth noting that under Bush's restrictive policies, the number of abortions went up. The same numbers had dramatically declined under pro-choice President Clinton.
Jeffrey Feldman: The Politics of "Murder": My point again: "so long as the right-wing anti-abortion movement continues to fold dissent into an ever-expanding definition of "murder," then the right-wing will continue to give rise to activists who kill doctors."
M. LeBlanc: Abortion Is Murder: Why the Right Is Responsible for Domestic Terrorism. Same basic point, developed a bit more. Posted on the Bitch PhD. blog, which is worth trolling through, not least for attitude.
Matt Yglesias: A Kind of Terrorism that Works: In general, the downside of terrorism is the backlash it produces. But if you can control the backlash, as the anti-abortion movement has thus far been able to do, and focus your impact exactly where it most matters: "Every time you murder a doctor, you create a disincentive for other medical professionals to provide these services. What's more, you create a need for additional security at facilities around the country. In addition, the anti-abortion protestors who frequently gather near clinics are made to seem much more intimidating by the fact that the occurrence of these sorts of acts of violence."
Kate Harding: Where will women go now? Good question. Last I heard the number of women's health care clinics performing late-term abortions across the entire country was three. Patients come to Wichita from all over the country, for lack of any real alternatives. This goes over some of the stories. By the way, the main reason for second- and third-trimester abortions isn't procrastination or indifference. It's a serious health problem that has developed in the course of a desired pregnancy.
Michelle Goldberg: The Compassion of Dr. Tiller. Another good review of Tiller's caseload.
The Progress Report: Right-Wing Hate Rears Its Ugly Head: This is really on Sotomayor, written and bookmarked before right-wing hate got really ugly with the Tiller murder. But it's all of a piece, as unhinged and deadly as possible.
Tuesday, June 2. 2009
Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in his church in Wichita, KS today. He was a doctor who ran a clinic, Women's Health Care Services, that has repeatedly been targeted by Randall Terry's Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion rights activists ever since 1991. Many of those activists attempted to harrass and intimidate patients and personnel of the clinic. Some of those activists resorted to more extreme acts of violence, as in 1993 when one shot Tiller, or when someone bombed Tiller's clinic, or more recently when the clinic's room was chopped open and flooded. One activist, a demagogue named Phill Kline, was elected Attorney General of Kansas, and spent his term using his office to harrass and prosecute Tiller. This eventually resulted in a ridiculous case where Tiller was charged with multiple misdemeanors in violation of a recent Kansas law meant to complicate the lives of abortion providers. (Tiller was quickly acquitted on all charges.)
Laura was asked to write a brief statement for the director of the Wichita Peace Center to deliver at a vigil for Tiller tonight. She wrote:
I didn't really disagree with any of this, but felt that the Peace Center -- which has steadfastly refused to take any position on the abortion rights issue -- would be better served by taking a different tack. I wrote:
This covers about one-quarter of what I actually have to say on the subject. The first thing is that I don't consider abortion rights to be an issue on which there can be any fundamental debate. One side favors reason, personal rights and freedom, the public interest, mutual respect, and civility. The other is stuck in a mire of unreason, emotion, phobia, ignorance, intemperance, and fanaticism. Most political issues represent different interests, which can therefore be compromised. This one does not. Those who oppose abortion rights aren't asserting their own rights; they are claiming rights for a hypothetical group, the unborn, which they have taken such an emotional bond to that they consider abortion to be murder. Once they've made that conceptual leap, compromise becomes unthinkable. They may offer modest-sounding legal proposals, but they will never stop until they have put an end to the murder.
Those who argue that abortion should be prohibited both oppress the most fundamental of personal rights and undermine the broader interests of society. Civilization is based on our ability to understand our environment and manage our lives. The decision whether or not to have a child is one of the most essential and far reaching a woman can make. Decisions depend on choice, and that choice depends on the option to abort an undesired pregnancy. Take that choice away and you deny women the most basic control over their lives. That's as plain and simple an attack on freedom as there is. It's especially an attack on privacy, both because the decision is a personal one and because it has little or no effect on anyone else.
Prohibiting abortion also hurts society because the decisions it spoils keep women from making responsible choices. We depend on parents to guide and provide for their children. That's a tall order, and not one that anyone should enter into lightly. Before someone has a child, we want that person to consciously agree to all that parenthood requires. That act of responsibility is only possible if it's based on a free choice, and that in turn means that there must be an alternative -- which is what the option to abort provides. In this regard, we should not only permit abortion; we should make clear that it is an option, and that deciding not to take it commits one to responsible parenthood.
The fact that there is any debate on abortion rights at all depends on not understanding or caring about these basic points. The social aspect is mostly a matter of ignorance, although it is logically odd that the same conservativism that harps most on the need for individual responsibility should seek to deny women such a basic choice. (One could make the same point about freedom, but conservatives are so hypocritical about freedom it hardly seems worth the trouble.) The personal aspect is more a matter of malice: it says women don't deserve the right to control their own lives.
But then nobody argues rationally against abortion rights. The opponents appeal to emotion, ranging from maternal instinct to fear and disgust with sex and the sense that religious faith and order are decaying, but what gives them traction is their insistence that abortion is baby killing. Once you get people to believe that all reason goes out the window. In that light Tiller is transformed from a doctor who helps his patients get control of their lives to a mass murderer. Once people believe that compromise becomes inconceivable: anything short of jail lets doctors continue the killing, and when the government is unable or unwilling to put a halt to it, some self-righteous martyr is bound to emerge from the crowd and settle things.
The inexorability of this logic is why I think the leaders of the anti-abortion juggernaut should be held responsible for the crime of murdering Tiller. It's hard to write off the repeated threats and acts of violence against Tiller as the work of random miscreants: too many people have gone down that road. This adds up not just because the movement identifies abortion as murder, but because the goal of the movement is to strip people (mostly women) of their rights, and to use force (preferably the force of the state) to do it. Moreover, anti-abortion politics usually is tightly clustered with other agendas which glorify violence, such as support for wars abroad and for capital punishment here. It may seem odd that a movement that calls itself "pro-life" is so rife with violent instincts -- and there are no doubt honest exceptions to this rule -- but the fact is true.
It's worth noting that the Republicans weren't always bound to the anti-abortion movement. Into the 1970s, abortion was often seen as a way to limit the numbers of poor people who would be welfare burdens and in many cases resort to crime. At the time, it was more likely the left who opposed, seeing abortion as a threat to their political base (especially in the third world). The rich could very easily have kept that position, recognizing that finite resources would be unable to support or appease an ever-growing multitude of poor and desperate people. Instead, they figured out a political angle: if Republicans could pick up a sizable chunk of white catholics and baptists they could climb to a majority party, and if all that cost was a plank against abortion and a few sops to racism, patriotism, and religiosity, there was a lot of money to be gained. Besides, as Thomas Frank emphasized in What's the Matter With Kansas?, it's not like they actually had to give up abortion rights, at least not for well-heeled Republicans. So the Republicans put this cluster of political beliefs together and bankrolled it, and the anti-abortion leaders went crazy with it. Now they are stuck with a base of fanatics who seek to destroy much of what we know as civilization.
Various anti-abortion groups issued the usual denunciations and denials in response to the killing of Tiller, although Randall Terry's response included, "George Tiller was a mass murderer. . . . Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name; murder. Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the Law of God." Terry was the leader of Operation Rescue, which originally targeted Tiller's clinic. If any anti-abortion groups are sincere about their regrets, they should make amends by backing away from describing abortion as murder. That simple claim is pure hate speech. I don't favor passing laws to prohibit hate speech, but I do believe we should be vigilant when it occurs. The claim that abortion is murder implies that doctors who perform abortions are murderers, and that women to seek abortions are responsible for murder, and that politicians and citizens who support abortion rights aid and abet murder; it attempts to conflate multiple abortions into genocide. Such rhetoric inevitably encourages believers to commit violence.
The history of the anti-abortion movement is rife with violent acts. As Gloria Feldt writes: "The murders were only the tip of the iceberg, among over 6000 cases of violence, vandalism, stalking, bombings, arson, invasions and other serious harassment." I would go on to include everyday harrassment and cultural innuendo that is meant to make women feel guilty about considering abortion and to make doctors and clinicians shy away from the subject. It is, for instance, virtually impossible to find a TV show or movie that doesn't sheepishly skit around the issue. There are various laws to make abortion more difficult and more shameful -- the latest one being pushed in Kansas would require that women look at ultrasound images of the fetus before an abortion can be performed. There are billboards and advertisements hectoring the subject, often pushing adoption as an alternative -- evidently there's a sizable market for babies that would otherwise have been aborted. (Combined with the anti-abortion movement's opposition to contraception, this whole aspect reeks of human trafficking.)
Of course, the everyday harrassment just sets people's nerves on end for the real acts of terrorism that have murdered doctors and clinic workers, damaged and destroyed clinics, and served as threats to scare women's health care providers away from even offering an option that is the legal right of all women everywhere in America. The effect of this terrorism isn't just to kill and maim people and destroy property. The real effect is to deny women their rights by intimidating anyone who might normally offer abortion services. The everyday harrassment of health care businesses has driven abortion services from hospitals and general purpose clinics to specialty clinics, much more convenient for the groups and the occsaional fanatic to target. The whole state of Mississippi, for instance, has no abortion services available, despite the fact that abortion is legal. Late term abortions have been so harrassed that there is no more than a handful of clinics in the entire nation willing to consider them -- Tiller's clinic is one of them, a major reason why anti-abortionist groups have attacked Tiller so vehemently (and repeatedly so violently). The assassination of George Tiller isn't personal, limited in scope to him and his clinic. It serves notice to everyone providing even remotely similar services.
There are so many important issues in politics these days that the last thing in the world I want to get into is abortion rights. On the one hand, it is, as I said above, a clearcut issue, not something where there is any fundamental grounds for disagreement. On the other hand, it isn't something that anyone feels any real attachment to. It is something that only rarely comes into play, as a last resort when contraception didn't suffice. One consequence is that you have to be able to think ahead to recognize that there is a need to make sure abortion is an available option. Opponents, however, can obsess freely on the matter. The result is that they are much louder and much more fervent and strident than those who support abortion rights can ever be. They make up in volume what they lack in numbers, making them appear more formidable than they should be in a democracy.
The problem is that democracy in America is lazy. Most people have little or no understanding of more than a tiny handful of issues that most directly affect them. Many figure nothing they can do will have any effect anyway, so they just drop out. In this framework, a well supported fringe position can fool the majority -- the decision to start the 2003 war in Iraq remains a good example, as do the various anti-missile systems which going back to Nixon have never made a lick of sense. Lots of political scams get worked out in closed meeting rooms in DC and never get a public airing at all. Abortion opponents have had some success in prying the levers of power but they haven't gotten very far, mostly because they've remained a small but vocal minority. Typical in this regard is South Dakota, where opponents have gotten measures to outlaw abortion through the state legislature only to be voted down in referendums.
Still, the abortion issue has had a chilling and debilitating effect on public discourse. It's hard to count all the ways that this has happened. You can start with the ultimate reductio ad Madison Avenue: pro-life vs. free choice. The latter at least has something to do with the issue, even if it trivializes it, while the former doesn't even make sense. (I mean, slime mold is life; is that what you're advocating? Reverse those categories and the same holds: "no choice" remains accurate albeit schematic, while "anti-life" is just as nonsensical.) But the larger problem is how the opponents approach political issues. They depend on emotion. They eschew reason. They pump up the volume. They invoke religion, and deprecate the religion of others, vilifying those they oppose. They show no respect for individual rights and they have no concept of how what they want affects public interests. They broker no compromises. They harbor absolutist and totalitarian ideals, even when they cloak them in modest proposals. Their goal is to destroy their enemies, and why not, since they are convinced that their enemies are evil. They fight this issue on all levels, using all sorts of methods -- including civil disobedience and acts of terrorism.
Every aspect of this undermines fair and rational political discourse -- not surprising given that there is no rational basis for prohibiting abortion. So they run with religion, and a major impact of the abortion issue has been the extent to which small sects of politically conservative Christians have tried to impose their religious beliefs on others. They get away with this partly because the religious are able to intimidate the indifferent in American politics -- you see this every election when presidential candidates are scrambling to establish their religious bona fides, even though a great many voters could care less. But also because Americans seem to have a reflex that is willing to criminalize anything that they find disagreeable. This seems odd in a nation that prides itself on freedom and diversity, but through much of that history freedom and diversity were rarely tested by people who seemed to yearn for a middle-of-the-road conformism. The 1960s are often best remembered for repeated shocks to accepted American norms -- the civil rights movement, sexual liberation, widespread dissent against the American empire. The right's response to those shocks has been hysterical and often vicious, a retreat from reality that invokes an imagined past to support a fantastical future. The right has been far more successful politically than it has socially, mostly because politics is seen by so many as irrelevant to their lives. Meanwhile, the social forces that produced those shocks in the 1960s have continued unabated, in many cases becoming so firmly embedded in our society and culture we never give them a second thought.
While conservatives still rant about the 1960s, the feature of the decade that remains most terrifying was the resort to violence. The assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King are still remembered almost canonically, but there were more, especially directed against the civil rights movement. Long before a tiny fraction of the antiwar movement splitt off to "go underground" the state had harrassed and abused dissenters, both through the courts and more haphazardly. But the key point here is that settling political scores with violence is almost exclusively the province of the right. Nor was this just the occasional crazies who responded to the hate messengers of the day. The 1960s was in fact the heyday of the CIA's assassination policy, with Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republi), and Ngo Dinh Diem (Vietnam) among its victims, Fidel Castro (Cuba) notoriously the one who got away, and Salvador Allende (Chile) one more in the early 1970s as Nixon struggled to keep the worst of the 1960s going.
In response to Watergate, Congress took the CIA out of the assassination business, which more or less held until Bush "took the shackles off" after 9/11. Since then politicians of both parties have been beside themselves with enthusiasm for going out and killing whoever crosses us. While assassination was off the table as national policy domestic terrorism also decreased: the main blip was in the early 1990s, when right-wing hate radio was taking off with its savage attacks on Clinton. It was then that half a dozen abortion providers were gunned down, a spree capped by the Oklahoma City bombing. That the violence lulled may be simply because the right-wing came to power in Congress in 1995 and took over the White House in 2001. Terrorism is usually a policy of weak and desperate fanatics, and from 1995 to 2009 the right was anything but weak. With the Democrats congressional victory in 2006 and Obama's election in 2008, that power equation is changing.
One thing that is clear is that the right hasn't taken defeat in stride. The hate radio jocks are as vicious as ever. Rank and file Republicans have turned into hardcore obstructionists, and their pundits are as disingenuous as ever. It isn't clear yet how many of the people who, in Jim Geraghty's memorable phrase, were "voting to kill" under Bush will decide to, now that their votes are no longer effective, take matters into their own hands, but the assassination of Tiller puts the first mark on the scorecard. It seems likely that there will be more, if only because the right's romance with violence and loathing of other people is so intense.
If so, the assassination of Dr. Tiller will be one of those historical events that punctuate our lives, like the assassinations of King and the Kennedys, and the attacks on 9/11. The chances of this killing turning into a spree would go down significantly if conservatives were sincere in stopping it. To do so they'd have to go beyond the usual denials, and beyond the disciplining of their firebrands. They'd have to admit that their goals, demands, and beliefs are negotiable. They'd have to start respecting those who disagree with them. They'd have to stop characterizing abortion as murder. And they'd have to back down from their conviction that force is a good way to settle disputes. This seems unlikely because it would mean backing down from their deepest beliefs. But as we've seen repeatedly, bad ideas beget bad policies, something that has been proven time and again as right-wing regimes from the aristocracies of the 18th century to George W. Bush have fell in ruins.
Obama could help as well by backing away from his current policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan where he seeks to slay the big Al Qaeda fish that got away from Bush while producing all sorts of collateral damage. Doing so endorses the right's conviction that we can solve our problems by going out and killing out enemies. That is a message that will, as it did in the 1960s, eat away at the very foundation of our democracy and our society, which is our ability to live in peace with people we disagree with. Take that away and the whole nation collapses into chaos.
One last thing. For years of living here in Wichita, I've been bombarded by news about Tiller, invariably repeating his role as a late-term abortionist, along with a steady set of innuendo meant to undermine the man -- one common thing is to try to shame any politician unfortunate enough to receive a contribution from him. Something new has happened since his death: people who worked with him, his friends and colleagues, and his patients have come out to give us a fuller picture of the man, especially his dedication to his patients. It's worth reflecting that this never was just a political issue. It was also a matter of personal service and professional dedication. It's clear now that Tiller warmly touched the lives of many people close to him, even as strangers who never knew or understood him stewed in their rage.
Friday, September 9. 2005
Sidney Blumenthal, in a piece called "What didn't go right?" in Salon, reviews the history of FEMA. He points out that FEMA had been widely criticized for its response to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but that Clinton appointed James Lee Witt as director and turned the agency around, "setting high professional standards and efficiently dealing with disasters." All that changed, of course, when Bush took over.
Bush appointed his former campaign manager, Joseph Allbaugh, as FEMA director. Allbaugh then "immediately began to dismantle the professional staff, privatize many functions and degrade its operations." Blumenthal quotes Allbaugh as testifying before the Senate: "Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance many have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management. Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters." The key word here is "entitlement": the idea that anyone might think that the government owes them, even that the government might lift a finger to help them, is the dividing line between the right and the sane in America today.
The sane position is that government belongs to the people, who charge it with the responsibility to support the common, collective interests of the people. There can be debates about what should or should not be supported, but when it comes to disaster relief, there are few who doubt that the government has to step in, and in all but the most marginal disasters that means the federal government. The plain fact is that state and local governments don't have anywhere near the resource level to handle anything like Katrina. Thanks to Allbaugh, his hand-picked successor Michael Brown, and the oversight of the Bush administration, the federal government didn't have the resources to respond either. Guess that'll teach Louisiana to do a better job of preparing next time? At least when a disaster strikes a state like California or New York there are competent people who care working for the state and local governments. In Louisiana and Mississippi, this sort of moral hazard argument is so ingrained that Governor Blanco's pre-storm preparations didn't extend much beyond urging residents to pray.
Due to the sudden, episodic nature of disasters, the rotting (or the looting) of FEMA didn't become unavoidably obvious until it was tested by a major disaster. Not that it couldn't have been measured. It certainly could, but no one in the Bush administration, and few in Congress, cared. And those who did care didn't have the clout or the visibility to make their case -- and in many cases didn't have the time, because they were too busy fighting other dumb and vicious acts of the administration. But it should have been clear what the plan was from Allbaugh's quote: make FEMA useless so people won't get used to the idea that the federal government might help them in times of crisis.
As Blumenthal points out, Allbaugh left FEMA in 2003 to cash in on his lobbying connections and, especially, to get in on the Iraq War graft. Leaving his crony Brown in place ensured that his work would be continued, and that he'd be well connected to help his clients siphon off any money that Congress foolishly allocates to FEMA. If Allbaugh was the only one doing this, he'd merely be a masterful crook. But he's not -- this is the way everything works in the Bush administration. The view there is that government spending is the new patronage system, especially where they can privatize: spend money, often wastefully (since they want agencies like FEMA to fail), get kickbacks (political contributions, jobs) in return. This system has built a powerful political machine, but at costs we're only beginning to be able to imagine -- because we've never seen such self-inflicted ruination before. Some still think this is incompetence, but there's too much malicious forethought for that to be the only problem.
Thursday, September 8. 2005
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a very good piece on the health care system in the U.S. It is called "The Moral-Hazard Myth," and appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The New Yorker. Moral hazard is an economics concept, mostly used in regard to insurance. The argument is that if one is insured against costs or adverse consequences of some act, one has no interest in preventing the act from happening. For instance, if you're insured against your house burning down, why bother to work to keep a fire from starting? Moral hazard argues that insurance causes fires. With regard to health, moral hazard argues that if one has insurance, one will use health care resources without any regard to cost. Hence, with more/better insurance, costs will rise as resources are overused. Hence, a way to limit health care costs is to transfer costs back to the "insured" through deductibles, co-payments, etc. Of course, the only way to eliminate moral hazard from health care is to eliminate insurance.
Economic dogma says that if everyone paid for their own health care, they'd spend their money optimally, buying only what services they need, and skipping any services they don't need. That this is a myth isn't a big surprise. One need only fill in a few blanks -- little things that the theory assumes but doesn't spell out. For starters, patients would have to understand medicine better than their doctors do. Otherwise, how can you know when you need a procedure and when you don't? Second, how do you know when one doctor is competent enough and another isn't? Another important factor is that different people value money differently, mostly because some have more than others. What one pays for health care comes out of some other budget (assuming the money exists at all). It's much harder to rationally spend food or rent money than it is to spend money that otherwise might go to a second Porsche. So even as a theory moral hazard doesn't provide much insight into health care economics.
The data is as clear as the theory is dubious. People without health insurance don't get adequate health care. They put it off until it becomes unavoidable, and often too late. Gladwell's first example is dental care, and the stories are harrowing. I mentioned this story to a periodontist I was seeing, and he told me: "Tell me about it. I've seen people wait so long I can't help them. I tell them they have to go to the hospital, and if they don't they could be dead in two weeks."
I want to quote two paragraphs from Gladwell's piece. The first summarizes what happens to uninsured people in America. The second is the single best description of America's "system" I've read.
In the last week most of us have discovered that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. Even those of us who knew that much now know it in ways that were inconceivable before the fact. While the topography was critical in New Orleans, the region's poverty and its unrepresentative, uncaring government has also been exposed. The area is quickly becoming a public health disaster as well as a physical and economic wreck. The immediate response will be to suspend the rules: to provide emergency health care support to victims of the storm regardless of ability to pay. But the real problem goes a lot deeper and is much broader. The real moral hazard would be if the only way to get quality health care to poor people is in the wake of a hurricane.
Friday, March 4. 2005
There are a lot of things about economics that I don't understand. For instance, economists are obsessively concerned with savings, and they promote any government policy that promises to promote savings. This was just pointed out by Alan Greenspan in advocating a national sales tax, but you also run into it from economists as far away from Greenspan as Paul Krugman. (For instance, in his New York Review piece on "The Social Security Scam" Krugman defends the wisdom of building up a Trust Fund as a hedge against the impending retirement of the Baby Boomers, and goes on to recommend more of the same as a prudent hedge against expected increases in Medicare costs.)
But the first confusing thing here is the word "savings" -- what does that really mean? If I put my pennies in a piggy bank I'm saving them for future use -- at least as long as I don't get robbed, and I don't forget where I put them -- but that isn't what they're talking about. Simply taking money out of circulation doesn't do anything for the economy; if anything, delaying or foregoing consumption reduces demand, which slows growth, puts a damper on prices and profits, and ultimately puts people out of work. That may be good for the ecosystem, but that's hardly something that excites economists.
What economists really mean by savings is more like what the word "investment" means: giving your money to a business, in exchange for a promised rate of return or a future claim on profits, so that the business can spend the money on things businesses spend money for. If nothing goes wrong, you can expect your savings/investment to appreciate in value, so that you can consume more (or better yet, save/invest more) in the future. Meanwhile, all that really happens is that you transfer your spending to a business who, economists believe, will spend it more wisely. This leads us to a couple of big questions:
The first, at least, should be an empirical question: something that we can go out and measure and answer more/less definitively. (Admittedly, the word "wisely" calls for some subjective judgment; "productively" is a word that economists might prefer, or better than that, "profitably" -- turn the problem into one of counting money, but the story of Midas is just one cautionary tale about such a reduction. Moreover, "profitably" raises more questions: profitable to whom?) I can't answer this, but I can point out that many instances of household expense are not mere consumption: some save other expenses, some may appreciate in value, some make life easier or more productive or more rewarding. Greenspan talked about savings leading to "capital formation," but household spending on durable items like appliances, computers, vehicles, tools, etc., is also capital formation. On the other hand, there are many cases where business spending does not lead to capital formation, or (more basically) to the employment of productive labor. When a company builds a factory and employees workers to produce useful things, that adds meaningfully to our gross product. But when a company merely buys another company it doesn't produce anything, and may actually reduce gross product by laying people off and closing plants, while reducing value by eliminating competition.
Clearly, there are useful things that companies can do that households don't do, such as building factories. The question that I'm raising is how much savings/investment actually goes into making such useful things possible and how much doesn't? I don't know the answer there, but I'd be real surprised if it worked out to be more than 20%. (My first guess was more like 10%, but I hedged because a lot of business expenses are hard to classify. But note that it is very rare when buying stock actually increases the working capital of a company -- in most cases you are just buying from other speculators.) A big part of the reason private investment is so inefficient is that each investor and business only seek to maximize their own gains, and many opportunities to do so are at the expense of other investors and businesses -- or, an even bigger problem, at the expense of labor. From a big picture point of view this doesn't seem to be very efficient -- especially compared to public sector investment. The public sector manages to spend virtually 100% of its funds. The only question there is how wise/productive/profitable its spending is.
In the U.S. at least, government spending has a reputation for being grossly unwise/unproductive/etc. Whether that reputation is deserved is something we can argue about. Certainly there are plenty of instances where the charge is true, but there are also exceptions -- the management of health insurance is one such case. Governments also spend heavily in areas where there is no viable private sector business strategy, such as building roads, maintaining waterways, providing disaster relief. But there is reason to think that regardless of how efficient or not public investment has been historically, it could be made much more effective if guided by better principles. In particular, one of the major problems with public spending at present is the extraordinary level of corruption throughout the U.S. political system.
I'm not advocating a wholesale shift from private sector to public sector business finance, but it seems obvious that there are areas where such a shift would be beneficial. (I also think that we should look into reforming policies that tend to make private sector investment ineffective -- a big topic I can't go into here.) But the current political drift is moving the other direction, toward more and more privatization. This sounds like another pet theory of economists I don't understand, but in one critical respect it fits in perfectly: just as savings is a scheme to transfer money to business, so is privatization. It shouldn't be hard to figure out what all these businesses, sucking up private savings and public expenses, have in common: they are the province of the rich.
One begins to suspect that economists are just apologists for the rich. The political program of the rich is get all the money, and they pursue this program with methodical desperation because they compete not with the poor but with their fellow rich. Most economists, especially the ones you're likely to run into on TV or in the press, happily rationalize this program, often spouting utter nonsense as scientific truth. (An astounding example of this is the assertion that it didn't matter who took control of Russia's businesses, just as long as they were privately owned. Most soon fell into the hands of Russian mafiosi, who proceeded to destroy over a third of Russia's GDP.) At least that's my best theory to account for most of what I don't undersatnd about economics.
When I started this piece, I meant to comment on Paul Krugman's piece on Social Security. By the time I wrote it Alan Greenspan had taken over the news, arguing for slashing Social Security benefits and proposing a national sales tax while decrying the budget deficits that he help create in supporting Bush's tax cuts.
Three more points I want to make about Krugman's piece (which otherwise is level-headed and reasonable):
Greenspan's proposal for a national sales tax is nothing more than an attempt to shift the tax burden away from profits (aka the rich) and onto everyone else. He justified this, of course, by claiming that it would encourage savings and capital formation. It isn't clear to me why he thinks we don't have enough capital, but the more fundamental issue there is whether the rich have enough money, which of course they don't -- they never do. The rationale behind this scheme is that if consumption becomes more expensive (as it does when taxed) people will have more incentive to save instead of consume. That assumes that their consumption is optional, that it can be refactored as savings, and that the difference is significant enough to lead people to change their behavior. But it should be obvious, even to a sheltered banker like Greenspan, that much of what most people spend their money on isn't really optional -- it goes for things like food, shelter, utilities, transportation, communication, basic necessities, most of which instantly become more expensive, if anything leaving less money for savings. Secondly, even among the middle classes, who could afford to save more if they lived more spartanly, there is little eagerness to do so. On the contrary, most of them are deep in debt, and a higher tax burden isn't likely to get them to rethink their lifestyles. That leaves the only beneficiary of this bit of wishful thinking to be, duh, the rich.
Actually, I think that there is a case that could be made for a national sales tax (probably in the form of a VAT, although I would do it differently than in Europe). But that would be as one part of a tax strategy that would be more progressive elsewhere, especially in taxing estates. But that's another story, and it's safe to say that that's not what Greenspan has in mind.
Saturday, February 5. 2005
Someone named Jim Clark (associate director of the Center for Economic Education and is the associate dean of the Barton School of Business at Wichita State University) wrote a "My View" piece in the Wichita Eagle today [Feb. 4], called "Get Facts Straight on Social Security Reform." I fired off a letter:
Clark also argued that Bush's privatization scheme wouldn't lead to telemarketing scams trying to fleece the new private accounts. He asserted that all of the proposed schemes involve a small number of options of conservatively managed funds. This gets into one of the intrinsic contradictions of the anti-Social Security movement. On the one hand they promise higher returns than the current fund gets from federal government securities. On the other hand they need to minimize the appearance of risk, since most people realize that the stock market can go down as well as up. But increased management fees will take a cut out of the returns, so where does that leave us? More importantly, why should we care? If the point behind greater returns is to justify benefit cuts, the bottom line is at best a wash, at worst a disaster.